Lenten LR /The Power of God That Changes Everything Robert W Guffey jr April 5, 2019
Our walk through the Season of Lent this year has drawn me back to the central truth of our faith that God is love and through God’s love our lives and our world can be changed forever. It is as simple and grand as that. God is love – extravagant, reconciling, cross-shaped love.
God is not political force, though God’s love may motivate political change. God is not the power of an empire or of a religion, though God’s love can redeem the damage of either. God is never coercion.
No. God is love. Read the gospel of John – we will this Sunday. Read John’s letters to the early church. God is love. Know God. Know love. Sacrificial, self-giving love. Sometimes a love that says, “Yes!” and sometimes a tough love that says “no” but always love.
This is what the first disciples knew, and it changed their lives. Because it changed their lives, it, eventually, changed our lives, too. Know God. Know love. God’s extravagant, reconciling, cross-shaped love. It is as simple and grand as that.
LR / Losing Your Soul Bit by Bit Robert W Guffey jr March 27, 2019 Lent this year has settled on me with strong reminders that it is not about giving up something, like chocolate or television or Facebook. Lent is about getting back our souls, our-selves, our who-we-are-ness. It is about receiving back, or starting anew, the kind of life most of us said we wanted in the first place. Yet, how easily it is to lose the possibility of a meaningful life. How easy it is to lose ourselves.
It happens a piece at a time given away to the demands and expectations of others, to uncertainty and doubt, to lost ideals and dreams, or even to causes. It happens through that dawning awareness of growing discomfort and disappointment that you have spent too much of your life chasing someone else’s dream, or have held on to the wrong person, wrong idea or wrong career, or that you have embraced some destructive attitude for too long. It happens through grief you can’t shake or fear or through some word that was said to you or that you said in anger that gnaws at you like some ethereal hound gnawing at your fragmented life and your troubled soul. It happens – and is just as exhausting to think about as that long list was to read.
Through an honest Lent, you can own up to what has overtaken over your life, find the courage to give that stuff to God and open your life to God’s love, mercy and grace. You can get back your soul and you get back your life, which is the wonder of a life shared with God and shaped by God’s joy and redemption, of course, too.
LR / Advent Points Us toward Hope Robert W Guffey jr December 12, 2018
This weekend I began my annual reading of Ann Weem’s collection of reflections for Advent, Kneeling in Bethlehem. In this book and in her others, I often hear gentle reminders from the heart of God to keep trusting and believing no matter the current circumstance. I’m living with these words this week, from a piece called “Hope Growing in Winter.”
I was surprised in January by a crocus growing
right outside my kitchen door: a splotch of spring
that burst through winter’s veil.
Surprised again—in just two weeks
I couldn’t find the crocus for the snow,
fresh fallen, the last laughter in winter’s fling.
It is buried now, my crocus;
hidden, but not forgotten, for I know it’s there …
hope growing in winter, shalom beneath the snow.
I know the feeling. I, too, seek shalom: “the well-being, the blessedness and the peace that we all want for ourselves and for the world.” It is a peace not guaranteed by programs, organizations or leaders in the world of church, society or politics.
It is a peace that comes from leaving the security of what we know and trusting God to guide us into God’s hopeful future, a future made secure not by how beneficial or threatening our outward circumstance appears but in the steadfast promise of “the Promised One ... sent to live among us.” To live within the warmth of the presence of Christ is to know peace to last forevermore.
On the way to the manger, bg
LR / The Wonder of Advent Is God-With-Us Robert W Guffey jr December 5, 2018
Some things in life are better experienced than described. Our times together in worship on Sundays are in that category. Last Sunday’s time together reflected a readiness for what Advent can bring us – the healing and unity of Christ’s presence, the reminders of what it means to be fit for the coming of our King, and the Love of Heaven that makes us so. It was a wonder.
Last Saturday night our Choir and the Norfolk Street Choir joined voices with other churches in bringing the traditional Service of Lessons and Carols to a missional setting in Norfolk’s Neon District. Rain forced the gathering outdoors from The Plot to inside a perfectly set room for worship – a cinder block sanctuary that serves multiple duty as worship, outreach, and recreation centers. What a stirring gift of voices and attitudes were bestowed among the congregation that night! From a trio singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to a young dad reading from the Gospel of Matthew while holding his sleepy preschool son on his shoulder, to the awesome sounds of the Freemason Street Baptist Church choirs, and other music that ranged from “And the Glory of the Lord” (Handel, 1741) to “Someday at Christmas” (Stevie Wonder, 1967). To say it was a wonder would be exactly right.
Advent is full of the wonders of God, and we are naming them in worship on these Advent Sundays. The greatest wonder is the reason for the season, which is the Incarnation – God with us, Emmanuel, of course. We seek to be fit vessels, indeed, carriers of wonder overcome by the majesty of our God – the swaddling infant who created all and is creating still, the One who holds time and timelessness, God/Emmanuel who comes seeking you and me with such wonderful gifts, like unending mercy and amazing grace. Wherever you may be on God's earth, join the faithful, the seeking, the wondering and the wandering this Advent. The God who knows you better than you know yourself is ready and waiting just for you.
Eastertide LR / “The Day after the Resurrection” Robert W. Guffey, Jr. April 3, 2018
It had been one of those nights when it felt as if, with enough of a shove, the entire world might split at the seams, coming apart, with no one nearby who was big enough to pick up the pieces.
The day before had been Good Friday, the day the events of an unholy week, full of fury, anger, pathos, competing agendas – and, dare we say, love? – had culminated in the murder of God. It was the day ambiguity about Jesus had melted away to reveal with startling clarity who this God is, this God who we say we worship-obey-serve-honor-and-love. It was the day we came to understand what was meant when the scripture proclaimed, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
This is the God who will die to save creation. This is the God who declares victory, not only over death, but through it. This is the God who clearly rejects human conceptions and preoccupations with power maintained by threat, violence, and manipulation, and who declares compassion and forgiveness through the force of grace.
This is the God who, though transcendent and beyond human understanding, chose to take on a human face and walk among us that we might see the meaning of God’s glory, and that we might comprehend the depth of God’s love and intentions for our lives. This is the God who does not hold against us our complicity in seeking to destroy God’s purposes or the One whom God loves but opens the way for redemption and “sustains all things by his powerful word,” words like “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Hunkered down on Silent Saturday, stunned and disbelieving, we endured his absence and grappled with fear over a present and future without him. God was silent and beyond our reach until yesterday came – and the Resurrection. Yesterday came and became the astonishing day we will spend the rest of our lives pondering and living into, the unpredictable day we find being born within ourselves. It is the day of Love revealed anew into God’s world, the day that led to this day, this day after the Resurrection.
It is on this meaningful Monday, as it will be on every other day of our lives as his disciples, when the truth about this God who comes-loves-heals-saves-redeems-dies-and-yet-lives sends us into the world, down paths and streets, byways and highways, sustained by his word, and proclaiming God’s love and grace to all who will hear, living the Resurrection with all that we are that God might become known and resident in our being and in our time – to God’s everlasting glory. Amen.
LR / The Second Chapter of Acts Robert W Guffey Jr June 1, 2017
When the time nears for God to wrap up matters in this worn-out world and usher in the "all things made new" in Christ, your sons and your daughters shall be empowered to witness to God's story -- preaching God's justice and mercy.
Dreams and visions of God's wholeness and peace will become the province of young and old, both men and women, serving the Lord.
And the way to everlasting communion with God will be open to anyone -- anyone! -- who wants to know God and be known by God, without exception.
-from Acts 2, paraphrased (bg)
(c) 2017 email@example.com
Lenten LR / Skylights Robert W. Guffey, Jr. April 8, 2017
One of my favorite architectural features of the Freemason Street Baptist Church is the inclusion of large arched windows, stained glass, and skylights in the design of the buildings. Many late afternoons or early evenings, walking the hallways as the last person in the building, making sure lights are off before I leave, I'll enter an area thinking someone had left lights on to be surprised by one of those windows or a skylight. The discovery elicits an: "Oh, yes. That's right," and, for some reason, that free lighting of the space makes me smile.
"Sometimes a light surprises" is the way an old, old hymn begins. In the setting of the hymn, the light is the Lord "who rises with healing in His wings." My prayer for Holy Week this year, during these times that are dark with division, pain, and conflict for many, is for the healing, redemptive light of the compassionate, suffering Christ to surprise and draw us near. May our pathways through our Jerusalems hold at least one turning where you and I are caught short by discovery (or re-discovery) of the Light. Oh, yes. That's right. The Lord lives. So can we.
Gathering palm branches, bg
(c) Robert W. Guffey, Jr. 2017
Lenten LR / “THE DISCIPLE WHOM JESUS LOVED” (You, too)
-Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
March 24, 2017
There it was again: “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
I was reading the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus from the cross, and had come to the Third Word – “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother” – and there it was again.
“The disciple whom Jesus loved.” (John 19:26)
The common assumption is those words have come from the writing voice of John the Apostle, the author of the gospel in which we find these words repeated several times.
“The disciple whom Jesus loved.”
Usually when I read those words in the setting of a bible study group, someone will remark, “Well, that John sure thought a lot of him himself, didn’t he?”
The longer I have read that passage though, I do not think so.
This is John – John, as in the brothers, James and John, who Jesus named “Sons of Thunder.” (Mark 3:17)
This is John who, with his brother, came boldly to Jesus demanding to sit in authority with Jesus in his kingdom. (Mark 20:37)
This is John who wants to call fire down to consume a Samaritan village that has rejected Jesus. (Luke 9:54) This is John who gets it wrong again and again.
“The disciple whom Jesus loved.”
I’ve come to read these words differently, especially if this is, indeed, the apostle John.
What I hear now is this.
I hear John writing: “The disciple whom Jesus loved? Can it be? After all I have gotten wrong? The disciple whom Jesus loved! Can it be? Jesus loves even me!”
That’s me, too. I see my life and all that I have done and left undone.
I see hopes fulfilled, and dreams left empty. I see successes and failures.
I see where I have not lived up to the standard set by Christ resident in me, Christ, “the hope of glory.”
I look in amazement at his face at the cross and say, “The disciple whom Jesus loved?”
Yes, even me.
Even you, too.
Grace and peace,
(c)2017Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
Lenten LR / Lenten Blessings Robert W. Guffey, Jr. March 15, 2017 may you see goodness in this day.
may all the forces that push against the light of Christ be vanquished by love.
may those who follow Jesus trust and live more fully in his Way of mercy, peace, inclusive love, unmerited grace, kindness, holiness, discernment and steadfastness.
may you resist the base instincts of human nature that make idols of aggression, violence and power.
make you be engaged in bringing reconciliation and unity in a time of division and conflict, through mutual respect shaped by embrace of the equality we share before the cross in our need for forgiveness.
may you be refreshed by fierce hope as your code word and gratitude as your theme for living.
may this be a day for courage and remembrance of the God who came to walk among us, who chose to suffer, as well as share joy and laughter, as a human being, and who lingers near in Spirit.
may this be a day for repentance and transformation that we may be fit for the kingdom of God and witnesses whose lives embody the truth of the Savior who died for all "while we were yet sinners."
Light Reading /“Advent’s Work and Blessing” Robert W. Guffey, Jr. December 18, 2016
Amid endings and beginnings, the practical has taken over. On Monday, I walked the house with the moving company estimator and saw all the projects I need to finish and belongings that need discarding. The thought that struck during the walk came as a sort of Advent repentance: I have been way too busy and that is no one’s responsibility but mine. I have almost been too busy for Advent.
In his book, The Threat of Life, Walter Brueggemann writes:
“Advent is not a time of casual waiting. It is a demanding piece of work that requires pondering and noticing, embracing, renouncing and receiving. We watch … [for] gospel living, of sharing, of growing in compassion, of generosity, of … truth-telling, in healing and in forgiveness – of new heaven and new earth, new Jerusalem and new [you, me, us, them, too].”
“Advent is not a time of casual waiting.” It is a time full of intent and invitation to ways that can awaken the soul and make us want to change. It invites us to take seriously inner dialog and inner stillness, required if we are to hear the call toward depths of reflection about who we are, what we think and believe, and to consider again that for which we are willing to give our very lives.
Advent can be a difficult and, sometimes, painful season for to experience it deep down means being honest about who we are and how God would have us be. It can be a wonderful, joyful, creative season, too, for when we come face-to-face honestly with God, deep down, it’s very possible we will discover (again) that God loves this old world, including you and me, so very much God chose to become real among us, Love Incarnate, Emmanuel, the truest gift, blessing and end of all our waiting.
Light Reading / What Does Lent Do? Robert W. Guffey, Jr. February 10, 2016
Growing up Baptist, I grew up unfamiliar with the ancient Christian practice of Lent. For me, living in predominately Roman Catholic Baton Rouge, LA, Lent meant Mardi Gras was coming and hearing my Roman Catholic schoolmates talk about what they would give up. It all seemed mysterious and mechanical to my young ears.
But then I served a Baptist church who had a tradition of practicing the discipline of Lent, and I realized what I had been missing.
Lent is a spiritual discipline. Like all disciplines, whether you observe or practice Lent is a choice, and it is not an easy choice.
To practice Lent is to admit you are a failure, you are broken, and you have sinned in the most important relationship you can have and that is your relationship with God.
Lent means reading Psalm 51 and being honest that David’s song describes you, too.
Lent means you are ready to be honest with God and others about how human beings really are: we are sinners in need of grace.
Lent means embracing humility and repentance. In the cultural soup of celebrity, professional sports, and political power, we are offered for emulation people who model arrogance and pride, who detest losers, and who have deluded themselves into thinking they are successful by their own hands. Lent challenges us to admit our brokenness and, through the grace of God, moves us toward being made over into the likeness of Jesus, who allowed himself to be broken out of love for the world who broke him.
Lent does something else, too. It brings us face-to-face with our mortality and need for God. Alone.
A few Wednesdays ago, in preparation for our midweek prayer gathering, I knelt to open my blue Martin guitar case and reach for my guitar, when I was overwhelmed by the thought that the day will come when I will not be able to do that for I will no longer be on earth to do it. That is a sobering and vertigo-inducing truth. Lent tells you you are ashes and dust and only God is God.
If you are ready to come face to face with God, if you are ready to be transformed to be more like Jesus, or even just hoping or wanting to hope to get ready, then you are ready for the practice that is Lent.
LR for a Silent Saturday /Visions That Haunt and Inspire Robert W. Guffey Jr April 4, 2015
Seeing something real and true and how it should be can change a person forever. I take it that is what happened to the disciples who went with Jesus up the mountain that day, that day of the Transfiguration. “Follow me” on that day meant an appointment with the brilliance of transcendence and immanence powerfully met in Jesus and standing real in their midst. Jesus was revealed as he was and is. It was an unimagined-by-human-minds metamorphosis, and for all of them. It was an experience that demolished whatever images of Jesus they had carried in their minds to that point in their relationship, and left them dazed, amazed, and never the same. Once you’ve been to the mountaintop and met the Maker of the mountain, nothing else but the journey through the world toward the vision of transcendence and immanence powerfully met in His footsteps will do.
Imagine if you had been there. Imagine what it would have been like to be visited by this inside view of the luminous mystery of heaven come near. Imagine living the rest of your life with this vision that inspires you, haunts you, and, sometimes, yes, in those times when the darkness is so strong and the memory of that interlude on the mountain so dim, even depresses you. Once you have touched and tasted the glory of God, nothing else compares. You’ve had your high, your brilliant moment, and now all you have is faith— which, as we learn as we grow up in Jesus, is enough. Yes, even the darkness can be our friend when it pushes us to yield finally to the life of faith.
Faith when it is faith in Jesus is enough. Faith in the person and presence of God-in-Christ is enough. Faith in Jesus, in whose presence the disciples had stood amazed, was enough to keep them going and doing what Jesus had taught them, practicing His “In-remembrance-of-Me” faith, telling the good news of God-come-among-us. Faith kept them going through long journeys, difficult trials, and kept some of them enduring through persecution and crucifixions. It was faith in Jesus, fueled by memory of his presence, his luminous presence, his everyday dusty-sweaty from long walks down ancient roads and intensely compassionate presence, that blazed in them like fire from heaven at times, then flickered only to be rekindled by obedient attention to His “Follow me.”
It kept them going when all was going well and when they stayed awake wondering what in the world had happened to their lives. They had simply been living their lives, been doing their own thing, simply been minding their own businesses when He showed up. He showed up and said, “Follow me.” That “Follow me” led them up the mountain where they’d seen beyond their imagining, near the glory of God in the person of Jesus. It led them to confront the reality of another mountain, one called Golgotha, too. It was enough to launch them toward incredible journeys embodying His calling as carriers of God’s grace and love to the world, proclaiming with every cell of their beings that Jesus was more than we thought he was, and so are we, children of the Spirit of God being made fit for life beyond life in the kingdom of heaven, a household of love beyond imagining.
It was vision enough to carry you sorrowing through a Good Friday and a Silent Saturday to a Resurrection Sunday morning full of joy.
ANOTHER PRAYER FOR LENT Robert W Guffey jr March 11, 2014
Today I am awake to your Presence, O Lord.
I am awake to the dissonance in our relationship. I am awake to my critique of your management of the world. I am awake to the possibility of the cross I am to bear. I am awake to the paradox of your love found in discipline, in silence, in compassionate action. I am awake.
Help me stay in this waking moment and not be concerned about the waking moments of others, at least, for a while. Help me move through what was and is until I awaken fully to what You will to be.
Time nearly here For ritual untying of bows Tearing of paper Packages carefully wrapped Unwrapped revealing treasures Time nearly here for unwrapping The truth about God Seeing the power of creation And being and Spirit Love’s deepest sacred intention In vulnerable God-with-us Emmanuel Countdown to revelation Amen
“Just as the death of Jesus happened at a significant moment, so did His natural birthday signal a world-changing event.” -Joan Chittister
In her book, The Liturgical Year: the Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, Joan Chittister reflects on the importance of the cycle of Christian worship and its meaning for Christians. Worship is the most important activity or duty of Christians. In worship, we honor God who made us, loves us and saves us. We profess our faith in God as we have found God to be in Jesus. We confess our sinfulness and, through God’s grace and forgiveness, we are invited to reclaim our true identity as sons and daughters of God. To be Christian is to be involved in worship.
In the cycle of the worship year, from Advent through Easter to the Pentecost birthing of the church, the highest day of worship is Easter, or Resurrection Sunday. Without the resurrection of Jesus, as Paul wrote, we are most to be pitied. (“If Christ has not been raised... your faith is in vain.” I Cor. , 17) Next to Easter, no time of worship is more important to God’s people than Christmas.
While no one really knows what date Jesus was born on, and no one is entirely certain when the observance of the feast of Christmas began, we do know that early on the Christian church came to appreciate the depth and meaning of the birthday of Jesus. Chittister writes, “They all came together around the celebration of life, of God’s greatness, and of the manifestation of divinity in our midst. It is this consciousness of the gift of life, of God’s greatness and the sense of the divine in our midst, that brings depth to our own life. It is those things that make the celebration of Christmas more than a mere commemoration of a historical birth date... Christmas is not about a baby, not about sentimental piety, not about Christian fantasy... It stretches us far beyond a manger in Bethlehem. It brings us to recognize who it is that we, like the people of Jesus’ own time, will, in everything we do in life this year, either accept or reject... Emmanuel—God with us.”
But why do Christians honor Christmas on December 25—unless you are an Orthodox Christian, of course, when you celebrate in January (that will take another column)? It’s a long story, but it has to do with the way ancient cultures found significance in the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, December 21, the way they thought of the symmetry of death dates and birth dates of great persons, and the way the calendars of ancient days calculated time.
December 25th became the date when, in 313 A.D., with the issuance of the Edict of Milan, the Roman Empire decided to treat Christians with benevolence and tolerance. Christians could now worship freely the Son of God rather than worship the Roman god, Sol Invictus, the “invincible sun,” on that day.
It was clear to Christians then, and should be to Christians now, of course, that it is better to worship “the true Light who had come to inaugurate the reign of God, to save the world, to change the very notions of life as it had been known until that time.”
LR/The Table, the Cross, the Crown Robert W Guffey Jr March 27, 2013
And now we get down to what this life of faith is all about.
Now we see if God is God, or not.
Now we see if we can see the Mystery (with a capital “M”) revealed.
Now we witness the critique of every sword unsheathed in anger and every heart, soul and mind undone by greed or lust or petty indignation or elitist affront.
Now we find God and very God in humility, taking the form of servant, slave, peasant, victim and sacrifice.
Now we see what it means to be the Child of God.
Now we find if in our heart of hearts and mind of minds and soul of souls we have anything of the Savior alive in us.
Now we sit at His table to eat his supper; we nail Him to his cross with our sin; we pierce Him with a crown he wears for all who know the pain of injustice and lack of love.
For it is always Now that Christ seeks to do God’s eternal work of salvation.
It is Now that He suffers still for all of us lost and found by faith in faith for faith.
It is Now that He calls all of those who claim his name to follow him to offer a table to those who hunger for food and love, a cross to those who want to know him most nearly and a crown with honor to those least-of-these whom he loves so much he set heaven by to save the world.
Now we will see the true power of God that births stars and redeems willing human beings, even those like you and like me.
A Light Reading for Advent /What the Old Man Said Robert W. Guffey, Jr. December 1, 2012 I think the old man’s words are some of the fiercest to be found in the scripture, if you are a parent, that is, and, especially, if you are a mother. That he says them to Mary, Jesus’ mother, at what you think should have been a celebrative time, the day of the baby’s presentation in the temple, surely must have confused the day for both parents, and anyone near and listening. He had words of his own to say to God and words to the family to say, but it was what he said to the mother we remember. It was what he said to the mother, like words that will be said to many mothers in all times, words that confirm a mother’s hopes and fears for her children. Words mothers hear when children become adolescents and adolescents become young adults, words proclaiming independence and separation. And words that mother’s hear after accidents and trauma, at hospital bedsides, and in the midst of wars, too. Words like these are not welcome by us fathers, either, and some of us are nearly as close to our children as are their mothers, but I have seen an existential difference in the bond between mothers and their children. We are the fathers, but we have not borne these children. We have not carried them of ourselves, flesh to flesh, bone to bone, sharing the same heartbeat, the same nourishment, the same life. We love them but, for mothers, for a while at least, the entwining of mothers and their children is mysterious and resists separation without pain or, in the extreme, death. It was an old man’s words, a devout and righteous old man named Simeon, says the gospel according to Luke, who blessed the family—not just the child, but the family—and said to his mother—to his mother? This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed— and a sword will pierce your own soul, too. (Luke 2:34-35) And a sword will pierce your own soul, too. Had you been there you might have seen her wince when she heard the old man say these words. Had you been there you might have heard her whisper, “So it was an angel I saw, after all.” Had you been there you might have seen the fall in her face when she realized it was her child—her child—but not just her child she was holding. She had told herself for a long time that what we call Annunciation had come upon her and yet, you know, she had been so young. She had been so unused to the way of the world and, especially, the way of holy things, of holy mysteries and angels and God-who-comes-with-justice-and-mercy to take away the sins of the world. For a while, especially on the sleepless nights near the end of the pregnancy, you might have heard her praying, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, thank you for this child. May he grow to be a blessing. Let him grow to be the child we will love for the length of our lives. May he grow up and grow old and prosper.” But now she knew—she knew—it would not be.
The old man’s words brought blessing for her family but reminder that the blessings of the Lord are not free. They are not like some yard sale good or leftover holiday bargain. They are not like some cheap trinket or hand-me-down. The blessings of God are strong, mighty and deep, upending human plans, overturning worlds, bringing eternal salvation and bought with a price that will pierce all our souls, thank you God. The blessing of God is God come among us: God who is beyond understanding who chooses to become understandable through the birth of a baby—and through the searing-never-get-over-it-as-long-as-she-lives life of this compassionate, faithful, tough-as-nails woman, who would be seen as barely more than a girl to our culture. Can we explain it? Just try. Better to look full into her face and the face of her Baby, to accept this is how God chose to say this is what God is like. Better to fall on your knees and say Thank you God. Better to weep whatever tears you need to weep for the sword that pierces your soul and sing Alleluia
The Lord’s “Ima” Was a Singer (Magnificat) Robert W. Guffey, Jr. Sunday, December 11, 2011
Sing a song written by the Holy Spirit Sing lyrics of scripture set to the tune of eternal life Sing in the darkness Sing through the night for nothing else will do
Sing us out of our darkness and into trust and faithfulness Perk up our ears to the sound of hope Carry us on the melody of your love till we are healed and able to sing ourselves Full of voice and full of heart into the world whose ethos of noise and violence seeks to drown the proclamation of God’s coming
Light Reading/Welcome, the Dangerous Season
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
November 26, 2011
Welcome to the most dangerous season of the year.
The most dangerous season? Why?
Not because of marauding bands of “Black Friday” shoppers oblivious to the dangers of consumerism or the crush of crowds. Not because of the risk to your credit rating should you charge your future away to purchase gifts to be played with for a short while yet paid for over months or years. Not because of the possibility of the expansion of your “bottom line” through overindulgence in the gastronomical delights of the season.
No, this is the dangerous season the church of the Lord Jesus Christ calls Advent. It is the season when the world will do all it can to plug your ears to its message. It is the dangerous season for, should we hear the call of God in this time, we will awaken to our true identities as children of God. We do not belong to the financial adventurers on Wall Street. We do not belong to the retailers on Main Street. We do not belong to the politics of the moment and those who push them. We do not belong to any other competing loyalty, even nation or family. We belong first to God. We are God’s children and it is time to prepare to welcome anew our Brother Jesus into the world.
Advent is the dangerous season for we are desperate to discover lives worth living and deaths worth dying. We are desperate and we need our Brother Jesus to come to our aid.
Advent is the dangerous season for our Brother Jesus, who is Lord and King, too, is coming, whether we are awake to his coming or not.
Advent is the dangerous season for the coming of our Brother-Lord-King will awaken many of us which, in itself, may provoke crises within us we had not anticipated.
Advent is the dangerous season for He is coming and we whose hearts, minds and souls stir know who we have been and who we are supposed to be.
We are those who have received the gifts of grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption in the Name of our Brother-Lord-King Jesus. We are now those who have been called to live the reality of His kingdom, His household, His family in the midst of this world’s competing realities which burden us so. We have been inscribed with his Name, which reveals his character and this we bear in witness to the world and its false proclamations.
When the world says hate, we who bear the Name say love.
When the world says revenge, we who bear the Name say forgive.
When the world says anger, we who bear the Name say mercy.
When the world says war, we who bear the Name say peace.
When the world says get all you can, we who bear the Name say give with a generous heart.
When the world says divide and conquer, we who bear the Name say be reconciled.
When the world says be bitter, we who bear the Name say be gentle.
When the world says anxiety, we who bear the Name say patience.
When the world says fear, we who bear the Name say faith.
When the world says power, we who bear the Name say the cross.
Welcome to the dangerous season, my friends, for it is the season of our conversion that empowers us to live up to the Name that is now our name, too.
Light Reading / PALM SUNDAY PRAYER Robert W. Guffey, Jr. April 17, 2011
O Holy God Riding into Jerusalem though you know the danger lurking in the streets of this City O Loving God Come to walk among us though we do our damndest to resist your approach O Healing God Taking on our sin and pain though we persist in wasting our lives and the gift of yours freely given O Redeeming God Provoke us in ways that will not let us walk this week immune to its meaning for worlds seen and yet-to-be-seen O Crucified God Let us know both your hurt over the hurt of the world and your passion that can make us bravely finally come into our own as Christ to the worlds in which you have called us to live as your children.
Light Reading for Christmas/This Day Is About the Mercy and Grace of God
“First there is the fall,
then there is the recovery from the fall.
But both are the mercy of God.”
–Julian of Norwich
verything about this day is about the mercy and grace of God. That God created you and me is a sign of God’s mercy and grace. We might never have been but we are because God chose for us to be.
That God knows we needed the miracle of the Incarnation is a sign of God’s mercy and grace. God is beyond being captured and defined by human thoughts and designs but, out of mercy and grace, God sent Jesus to “flesh out” in real time and space what God is truly like. In Jesus, we get to see the glory of God as compassion par excellence that goes to the cross in our stead.
That God sent the angels to sing of God’s glory among shepherds shows God’s mercy and grace. Shepherds were of no account to the well-to-do and powerful of their time. On the very day the Son of God was born, God overturned worldly expectations to proclaim mercy and grace on the side of those who were on the outside of power and acceptance. God comes to save us from our sin and from lives on earth that need to be redefined by God’s love. That God — the very same God who spoke universes into existence and breathed life into you and me and the billions of other men, women, and children of history chose — chose — to arrive as a naked, crying, hungry and vulnerable baby? Well, that is nothing but the mercy and grace of God.
For, you see, ever since the beginning — as in “In the beginning” in Genesis — and all the way through the Revelation, God has been about mercy and grace.
God promised steadfast love and mercy to Abraham and his descendents. That meant there was nothing Abraham or his descendents could do to be worthy of God or to make God leave them be. God’s promise was and is a sign of the character of God. What is at the heart of the character of God? Mercy and grace.
As Abraham’s spiritual descendents, we hear it in every “Be not afraid” and “Fear not” spoken by God and God’s messengers. We see it in the cross of Christ. We can feel it in our souls as we understand awestruck that for two thousand years much of the world has paused — if only for a day — before the power of God born and laid in a manger.
We know it is true. Everything that is real and worthy and eternal about us is only possible because of the mercy and grace of God. Today we can join the angels in praising and glorifying God.
Thank God for God’s mercy and grace.
Thank God for sending Jesus.
Thank God that our sin is not the last word about us.
The last word about us will be spoken by God in Christ who loves us and it will be the Word of mercy and grace.
rue of my kind—preachers and teachers, that is—I love words and where the study of them can lead. How often in a sermon have you heard the preacher focus on a particular word in the biblical text, then say something like, “this word, which in Hebrew or Greek means…”? I’m convinced preachers say this not because you particularly need to know what the word in Hebrew or Greek means, or that the preacher needs to show competency in study of the biblical languages, but simply because the preacher is eager to share the door of insight to God and God’s ways the word has opened for him or her. Following the word has led to the Word that changes everything.
For example, some time ago, while studying words and images used by Christians in ancient times who were trying to describe just what kind of God this is we worship and serve, I ran across a study of the word “pontiff.” I thought of the pontiff as the pope, the religious leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Turns out the word “pontiff” has a history that leads back to earlier meanings, including “the bridge-builder.” The pontiff, rightly defined, is to live and work in the manner of the Lord Jesus who bridged heaven and earth. The pontiff is to be a “bridge-builder” between the people and God. As a post-Reformation Christian, I believe those are words that should describe all who claim to be Jesus’ disciples. We are to live as bridge builders connecting others with the love and mercy of God.
When I think about trying to understand God, I know I will never have enough words to read, write or speak to tell all that is true about God. God is mystery and so full of meaning that to unpack the meaning of God would take more than many human lifetimes. At the same time, this God is the kind of God who wants to be known by the people God has created and so, instead of human reflection about God, it is God who speaks the word. When God speaks, worlds are created. When God speaks, history happens. When God speaks, hearts and minds are comforted. When God speaks, lives end then begin anew.
In Luke 1:26-38, it is Mary who is visited by God’s messenger, the angel Gabriel. Gabriel brings word that God has chosen her as God’s way of sending God’s Son into the world. She hears and though “she was much perplexed” she responds, as had many of her ancestors in the faith, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And, to mix gospel-writer metaphors and themes, the Word became flesh and lived among us.
During that same study, I found an anonymous work, a sung litany of the Eastern Church, from the sixth century, used to teach some of the Eastern Church’s teachings about Mary. It does so by using images from the Old Testament and the Gospels:
Hail, thou, the restoration of the fallen Adam;
hail, thou, the redemption of the tears of Eve.
Hail, heavenly ladder by which God came down;
hail, bridge leading from earth to heaven.…
Hail, land of promise;
hail, thou from whom flows milk and honey.
Hail, space for the uncontained God;
hail, door of solemn mystery. (Imaging the Word, Volume 3, p. 93)
Did you get that?
Hail, bridge leading from earth to heaven
Hail, space for the uncontained God
We are back to the bridge and the wild, mysterious ways of the God who chooses to make God’s self present in the world through a young, poor, peasant girl from a nowhere, backwoods, nobody-really-cares place. God spoke a word of invitation. Mary said, “Yes”—amazing that this God we serve does not force or coerce, but announces and invites, isn’t it? The Word comes and changes everything.
What kind of God is this? Compassionate. Loving. Merciful. Demanding. Surprising. The-God-who-comes, who crosses the bridge, who knows the creation cannot survive without knowing the Creator, who calls human beings to surrender open hands, caring hearts and seeking minds to God’s power, peace and purposes. These are not all the words about this God but these are a good start.
So, how is it with you?
Heard a word from the Lord today?
And what did you say in response?
Towards a holier Advent,
Light Reading/Why Advent?
Robert W Guffey Jr
November 30, 2010
very year I look forward to the Season of Advent. I love the colors, sounds and scents of the season. I find meaning in special times of worship. I am inspired by reading the personal reflections written by members of our church family in the annual devotional booklet. If I am experiencing a time of grief during the season, I find comfort in knowing I worship as a member of a community of faith that takes seriously companionship and the value of worship together. I find challenge in the Advent scriptures of repentance and preparation and renewed perspective in the scriptures that connect the birth of Jesus to the creative intent and certainty of God in this world’s founding and its to-arrive-in-God’s-timing future redemption, transformation, and resolution. I thank God for Advent.
Growing up in the Baptist churches of my childhood and youth, I had never heard of Advent, or Epiphany or Lent for that matter. We celebrated Christmas and Easter with vigor. Truth be told, we also celebrated, with corresponding vigor, the non-liturgical holidays of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Independence Day, and special days like Promotion Sunday in the Sunday School, but we did not know much of Advent.
As a young adult, I served churches that had chosen to recover the worship practices of the ancient Christian Church because they wanted to experience a renewal of meaning in their worship of God. They had felt the incongruity of having no discernable plan for worship beyond the calendar year and yearned for something more complete, disciplined and intentional. For example, they had grown weary of worship that was like the Baptist Sunday School curriculum of the day that might have a class study books of the Bible like 1 and 2 Kings, or Haggai, for weeks then, on the Sunday before Christmas, drop in a trip to the Nativity before returning promptly the next Sunday to the Kings or Prophets. Where was the sense of grandeur and glory of God in that?
Instead, as I learned this new way of worship, which in reality is the old, old way of worship, I learned that I was being changed to be more like Jesus through worship. Worship was no longer what I wanted it to be. Worship was the gift of my self offered to God and the sometimes inspiring, sometimes terrifying gift of God through the Spirit in return. Patterned after the timeline and movements of the life of Jesus, I learned that this way of worship “grew out of the Church’s desire to participate, as fully as possible, in every aspect” of what theologians call the “Paschal mystery.” What that means is this: Easter is at the center of the Christian faith. Without Easter, there could be no Christian faith. From the “Happy New Year” of the Christian year—that is, the season of Advent—through the coming of the Spirit of Jesus into the Church at Pentecost, the worship of the Church centers on God and God’s work of salvation and sanctification through the cross and the power of the resurrection. Along the way, every season of the Church’s worship has something to teach us and the power to shape us as disciples of the Lord who was crucified that we might truly live.
During Advent, we hear the call to repentance and preparation for the coming of God, who created us and seeks to save us from our sinful and dysfunctional yesterdays and wounded todays for a glorious future. At Christmas, we kneel with peasant parents, shepherds, magi, and all creation before God born into the world, Emmanuel, God-with-us born to die. During Epiphany, we see revealed through the scriptures the true identity of the Son of God and the authority of God’s Spirit within that makes salvation possible.
During Lent, we are confronted with our sin and called to repent so we, through the grace of the Lord Jesus, might know the transforming power of the gospel and be made into fit and living sanctuaries for God. During Easter, we pay honor and sing gratitude before the awesome majesty and splendor of God who has conquered not only sin and evil but death, the final enemy, and who reigns over all that is, worlds both seen and unseen.At Pentecost, we come face-to-face with the fact that God has chosen to continue the incarnation of God into the world through the church, through us, as God’s servants filled with God’s Spirit of sacrificial love, mercy, peace, hope, kindness, humility, joy and faithfulness.
In the weeks and months after Pentecost, we reflect on and pray to embody the ways God moves in and through us so that we might become like the presence of Christ in service and ministry in and for the world.
And then, in worship, we begin the cycle again, not because we have faulty memories, though our behavior says we do, but because this way of worship is a glimpse into the life of God and we have said we would be God’s people. Worship of this God who came into the world as Jesus Christ who, to quote William Willimon, “lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly,” demands discipline, persistence, practice and sacrifice. It demands these because we live in a world that is remarkably unconcerned that Jesus lived or died at all. It demands these because the world is too much in us and the church. It demands these because we have been called to follow Christ who did not follow the world’s calendar but the urgency and leading of the Spirit. It demands these because we will find God not through the easy ways of worship corrupted by commercialism and what’s-in-it-for-me. We will find God and be moved and changed by God when we surrender ourselves to the life reorienting, turned-upside-down reality that we are God’s and God’s alone.
Light Reading for Advent Reflection/The Marketing of Choice Robert W. Guffey, Jr. December 10, 2009
The marketing of choice has become not unlike a pervasive mantra of business, education, government, news media and religious institutions. Having options and choices should be a good thing, and sometimes it is, but who really needs a thousand channels on the television, the infinity of purchasing opportunities and blogging voices on the Internet, the opinions of a million uninformed “i-Reporters” presented as journalism, a dozen “styles” of worship services at the same house of worship on a Sunday morning (or Saturday night) or having to choose between several different candy bars all called “Three Musketeers”? Rather than offering useful options, it seems to me the marketing of “choice” in contemporary USA is a ploy that caters to human vanity. It pushes the notion that every person is the center of the world and can experience life without compromise or cooperation. It projects the false illusion that we, human beings, are in control and in charge of our lives, and that whatever we want, we get.
The biblical witness says otherwise. The good news of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ says it is when we realize we are not in charge that we are near ready to hear and respond to the Spirit of God. It is when we stop demanding our own way that we can begin to hear the call to follow the Way of God. It is when we realize that God loves us and our neighbor with the same, grand, amazing, convicting, compelling and life-transforming love that we can begin to say, like John the Baptizer, “He [the Lord] must increase, but I must decrease.” It is when we find the “purity of heart…to will one thing” (Kierkegaard) and that one thing is the will of God made real in and through our lives that we find the joy that comes because the Lord chose us.
If I’m sounding a bit cranky, I’m not. I’m glad to have a reasonable amount of choice and option in my life but, if we are not careful, we will end up alone, each following our own ways, playing solitaire, worshipping to our own tunes and missing out on the wonder and messiness of community.
Oh, and note to candy bar marketers: a mint green, dark chocolate “Three Musketeers” bar is just a York Peppermint Patty in disguise.
Getting Ready for the Advent of the Savior (the One and Only), bg
A Prayer on the Way to the Manger Robert W. Guffey, Jr. December 8, 2009
Empty us of vanity and pride though it take an economic cataclysm or catastrophe inflicting unrest in the system and our souls.
Strip away our greed hidden in soothing tones of aid and comfort, the divisiveness brought on by religion You would not own, the petulance of those who live their lives in the accusative case, and people of faith who put family-job-sports-ego-or- country before the soft values of the kingdom of God.
Give us bankers who do not love money, lawyers who are repelled by power, doctors who shy away from ego, politicians immune from the winds of opinion, and preachers who fear fame.
Shake us till we pay attention to the Christmas Child of Bethlehem and the Palestinian child who lives there today, too.
Let us live the unreal and dangerous reality You reveal in scripture that so offends the powerful and the practical critic of faith and to which we give lip-service.
Purified by your love, help us walk humbly toward the manger, arm-in-arm with one another, surrounded by the Spirit, reaching out to others You so love, with hope, peace, joy and love.
Light Reading/Prayer for a Silent Saturday Robert W. Guffey, Jr. April 12, 2009
Today, help me hang with the disciples a while longer, letting rise within feelings and realities I would rather keep at a distance: the terror of Good Friday, the sorrow of Silent Saturday.
This is the day for hiding. This is the day for pretending the pain is not real, the dream has not been deferred (again) and love is not dead.
Help me hang with the disciples in their reality a while longer, until I am ready to accept the grand and hope-full truth:
there is no light without darkness there is no fullness without emptiness there is no reunion without parting there is no joy without grief there is no life without death
“only where graves are is there resurrection.”
Today, help me hang on.
A Quote for Easter Reflection
"For myself, as I approach my end, I find Jesus’ outrageous claim ever more captivating and meaningful. Quite often, waking up in the night as the old do, I feel myself to be half out of my body, hovering between life and death, with eternity rising in the distance. "I see my ancient carcass, prone between the sheets, stained and worn like a scrap of paper dropped in the gutter and, hovering over it, myself, like a butterfly released from its chrysalis stage and ready to fly away. "Are caterpillars told of their impending resurrection? How in dying they will be transformed from poor earth-crawlers into creatures of the air, with exquisitely painted wings? If told, do they believe it? I imagine the wise old caterpillars shaking their heads—no, it can’t be; it’s a fantasy. "Yet in the limbo between living and dying, as the night clocks tick remorselessly on, and the black sky implacably shows not one single streak or scratch of gray, I hear those words: I am the resurrection, and the life, and feel myself to be carried along on a great tide of joy and peace."
–Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), British journalist, author, satirist, Christian
May your Easter be blessed with Christ's presence in new and surprising ways. Grace and peace, bg
And so the Season of Lent, with its call to repentance, its intention to break open calloused hearts, its power to move us past our sin and into the light of Christ's forgiveness, nears its close. This discipline is relatively new to my Baptist brain but it has carried weight for me this year. The readings, the prayers, the preaching of colleagues, the opportunities to serve God through worship and through others is doing its work. I find I am more focused on the depth of the sacrifice of Christ that is coming again during Holy Week. I am praying God will keep me near the cross and hinder my wandering away from what it meant for Jesus and will mean for you and me if we do as he said we should and pick up and carry it, too. This season of Lent has been one of connecting with the passion of Jesus for human beings and a deepening desire to live in God's grace-full ways.
It has been a season of re-connecting with friends separated by distance and time, too. Over the last couple of weeks, as a tribute to Angie's dad, and as another place to connect for the many who were impacted by his energy for the gospel as a Baptist campus minister for over 35 years, we opened a "Friends of Frank Horton" page on Facebook. Score one more positive point for the Internet. The interactions and networking are just beginning with old friends, some of whom are finding each other from posts around the country and world for the first time in decades. Just as satisfying as hearing from old friends, for me, is reading the reactions of many to photos of Frank and his students being posted online. Frank's first students during his LSU days are in their 60s now--and my generation is not far behind! It's encouraging to see what difference former students are making as disciples of Christ in the world. It is instructive to see ourselves in these old photos, too.
More than a simple nostalgia, one friend, Kenny, wrote to me this week to say, "My personal joy is to view the wonder of the moments we shared in our college days. The expressions on our faces. The hair on our heads and faces. The memories that made us what we are today." He went on to remind me of Frank's favorite song, one that closed all his meetings with students on retreats and in worship. "No Man Is an Island" has been sung in folk, choral, R&B and reggae arrangements, but I have never heard it sung better than when a bright, not-very-tall, red-headed campus minister led his students in singing it. It shaped our memories of Frank and how many of us find ourselves living our lives now, at least on our better days. The words to the song were inspired by the writing of English poet and preacher, John Donne, who lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While recovering from illness in 1624, he wrote a series of meditations, one of which included this reflection:
"No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind; and therefore
never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee."
The meaning of Donne's words were captured in the song, "No Man Is an Island." Though today the pronouns might be changed to more overtly include women and sisters, too, the idealism behind the song comes straight from Donne's experience with the gospel of the Lord Jesus:
"No man is an island, no man stands alone Each man's joy is joy to me Each man's grief is my own We need one another, so I will defend Each man as my brother Each man as my friend
"I saw the people gather I heard the music start The song that they were singing Is ringing in my heart
"No man is an island, no man stands alone Each man's joy is joy to me Each man's grief is my own We need one another, so I will defend Each man as my brother Each man as my friend"
Those words came to mind this week as I was working on Sunday's sermon from Jeremiah 31:31-34, about the new covenant God would write on the hearts of God's people for "I will be their God and they will be my people." In reflecting on what it might mean to have God's covenant written on your heart so that faithfulness and compassion might now be not second nature but primary in our lives, I started looking at how people I have known through the years are living, and where they are living, too. I kept thinking of friends who consider themselves everyday folk, some who went to college and some graduates of the "school of hard knocks," some in ministry vocationally, and all who are ministers in the New Testament sense that all Christians are. I thought of the many who have found themselves making sacrifices--though they might not call what they have done that--so that family-children-mission-church-education-culture-community-society-health-peace-in-heart-and-world might stand a chance.
I thought in particular of the impressively young and strong black woman I met during my visits as a pastor to the "Correctional Center" (jail) in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She was working as a prison guard. I was taken by her straight-forward and confident manner and the respect others had for her, including those incarcerated. For me to see a particular prisoner, I would present my business card to her, sign in and then be escorted behind the bars to listen, counsel and pray. One day as I was leaving, I remarked on the patience and strength it must take to be present there, as she was all of every day of the week. She simply smiled and replied, "Oh, the Lord sends his servants to the most unlikely places." Ah. The covenant of God was written on her heart. Her work was her ministry, too.
I got to thinking about that young woman, my friend, Kenny, you and this Season of Lent with the work it can do to make us ready for the Resurrection. It seems more likely to me now than I had realized before that if you find yourself serving--or seriously thinking about serving--some unlikely folk in unlikely places and unlikely ways, Lent may have done it's work already on you.
LENTEN LIGHTREADING/Lenten or Lenient? Robert W. Guffey, Jr. March 14, 2009
Last Thursday, I had the privilege of speaking to members and friends from Conway’s five historic-district congregations as we gathered at FirstUnitedMethodistChurch, our host this week's edition of the community Lenten Luncheons series. I always enjoy these gatherings, not only for the good food and rich fellowship, but as a reminder that we worship the same Lord who deserves our sincere obedience, honor, worship and love.
When I received my assignment of March 12 as the day I would speak, I quickly typed the appointment into my electronic calendar. When I looked later to confirm the date, I saw I had typed all-too-quickly and mistyped. I had not, as our school teachers always reminded us, checked my work. Instead of typing that I would speak at the “Lenten Luncheon,” I typed that I would speak at the “Lenient Luncheon.” Then the thought quickly came to me that maybe I had not mistyped but that my subconscious mind had instructed my fingers to type what we all hope is true when it comes to God and our sin.
Rather than the hard work of repentance, confession and obedience, most (all?) of us are hoping God will be more lenient than strict, that God’s mercy will overcome God’s judgment and that grace truly will abound. I know it will and that even the person living the farthest from God’s love is never too far away for God’s Spirit stays near nudging and urging, poking and prodding the person away from prodigal pathways and nearer awareness and acceptance of her or his true identity as daughter or son of God.
Still, I will not give up on the work of seasons like Lent for we human beings are a stubborn and willful bunch who have learned how to inflict great pain of many kinds on one another, ourselves, and, if scripture is to be believed, God, too. (I believe.) We have spent our lives on the one-letter difference between “Lenten” and “lenient”—the letter “I.” “I” still need the practice and demands of repentance, confession and obedience to Christ. As long as you live in this world, so do you, too.
Your friend in Christ, bg
LENTEN LIGHTREADING/Our Hurried Lives Robert W. Guffey, Jr. March 10, 2009
We hurry through our days as if we could actually do everything
we and others expect of us. We rush to meetings, practices, sessions,
lessons, services and appointments. We rush past the people You
place along our way who may need a word of encouragement and love
or might have a word to share with us from
Beyond our hurried lives, slow us down through this season called Lent.
As the days lengthen and the sunlight lingers and grows warmer,
call us to walk with deliberate pace with Jesus toward Jerusalem.
Along that practiced way, we will find temptation
and faithfulness, alienation and reconciliation,
hatred and steadfast love.
If we move with the Spirit, we will find Christ at work
Lenten Light Reading/This Is the Only Life You Have Robert W. Guffey, Jr. March 7, 2009
“[Some say that] only by denying the world can you live in it… can you live a spiritual life. A real spiritual life does exactly the opposite: it makes us so alert and aware of the world around us, that all that is and happens becomes part of our contemplations and meditation and invites us to a free and fearless response.” —Henry Nouwen
I came to the conclusion early in my life as a Christian that if being a Christian simply meant attending church, trying to be nice to other people and staying out of trouble, it wasn’t much worth giving my life for. In my reading of the gospels, Jesus was far too radical for that. Some of his harshest critics were people who in their day were considered spiritual leaders of their religion. It is an anachronism to say they were “good church people,” since there was no church yet, but you get the idea. Attending worship for Jesus meant seeking his Father’s will, speaking the truth of God’s word and overturning the tables and interpretations of the economic, political and personal interests of those who had inherited and corrupted stewardship of the temple and its life of worship and sacrifice. It meant proclaiming the gospel that sets the captives of this world free. It meant embodying the sacrifices of a system that had become meaningless ritual into his body given to be killed as the final sacrifice of ultimate meaning. It meant living the injustice of the cruel death of God which is still not enough to shock many of us into humble wakefulness of how much God loves us and how immune human beings have become to experiencing God and God’s love.
For the Lord Jesus, worship led to action on behalf of the lost sheep, the prodigal children, the distant parents, the lonely widows and widowers, the aliens, the strangers, the foreigners, the poor, the dispossessed, the poor and the poor in spirit. For the Lord Jesus, there was only one life. There was no “church life” and “my life the other six days of the week.” There was only this life to be given back to the God who created it and gave it to us that he—and we, by extension—might live on God’s behalf in the grand work of bringing joy, hope, reconciliation and redemption into the world.
One of the tasks of Lent is to bring us back to our senses that we might remember who and Whose we are, embrace the gospel and re-engage with the world. The gospel is not intended for Christians who would build empires of churches that are alternative universes separate from the world. The gospel is intended to take Christians into God’s heart, which includes regular practices of public and private worship, prayer, fellowship and study for a while, and then be sent into the world with probing minds, compassionate hearts, and willing spirits.
If you are having trouble finding the world you are living in and the one to which God is calling you, you probably need Lent more than you know.
The book arrived the first of December from the online bookseller in the usual packaging—small book on the meaning of Christmas packed in much, too large cardboard box with room enough for ten books. Cut through the shrink-wrap to free my purchase and found what I thought was the usual assortment of advertising inserts and leaflets underneath. Instead, there lay a sermon.
Only two advertising inserts came with this pre-Christmas shipment. The first proclaimed in bright colors, “The Perfect Gift for Everyone on Your List!” The “perfect” gift? Steak. “Not just sirloin but Top Sirloin, as only [our company] can bring them to you, bursting with flavor and naturally lean.”
The second insert, in striking contrast, carried a different message. The headline? “One in 8 Americans is struggling with hunger.” Made me wonder about the conscience of the person who approved the mixed messages of these enclosures.
Made me hear the message of Advent: “Awaken slumberous souls to the astonishingly near presence of the Lord who proclaims liberty to the captive, hope to the poor, not-necessarily-good-news to the full and self-absorbed, and the day of salvation near at hand.”
The joy of Advent
is expectation met with surprise
by God’s glory in the shape of justice, mercy, love and grace, in the helpless form of a baby.
Almost Ready for Christmas Robert W. Guffey, Jr. December 2007
It’s almost Christmas and I am ready—almost. The house is decorated—mostly. The gifts are bought—except for one or two. The weather is cooperating—of course, it could feel like Spring again without notice, but that’s okay. It’s almost Christmas and I am ready—almost. I won’t truly be ready until—beyond house and tree and weather and externals—my heart and spirit are ready, too. Beyond the loveliness of the season, and the many opportunities to share by giving to loved ones and giving back by sharing with those in need, comes the requirement to be prepared spiritually for Christ’s birth. That’s one road I still must travel this Christmas. Through worship, reading, prayer, serving, loving family, hearing from friends, and sitting in silent prayer, I am asking God to make me ready for Christmas so that I may grasp its meaning once again.
For me, the meaning of Christmas is found in the astounding good news that God the Father/Creator, who is always and eternally present, yet beyond our knowing, came/sent God the Son/Our Savior that we might know God and come to know God intimately, lovingly and eternally. How? We don’t know—yet we do know. The Nativity yields huge clues to what kind of God God is. How did Mary have God’s Child? Through the miracle of the Holy Spirit and God’s mercy. What does this tell us about God, this Nativity and human birth?
The God we come to know in Jesus is a God who is not bound by our rules or expectations.
The God we come to know in Jesus is a God who takes risks by trusting a teenager with a scandalous birth.
The God we come to know in Jesus is a God who will not leave well enough—or bad enough, in the case of our sin and estrangement—alone. The God we come to know in Jesus is a God who never gives up on loving the creation or the created (that’s you and me).
The God we come to know in Jesus is a God who brings a Child into the world knowing the difficult task that Child will face in adulthood.
The God we come to know in Jesus is a God who would speak to the broken hearts of those who grieve and those who feel outside the circle of warmth at Christmas.
The God we come to know in Jesus is a God who is worthy of worship yet condescends to be with us whatever our position in life—God is not an elitist.
The God we come to know in Jesus is a God who will inaugurate astounding awe in us the longer we linger in God’s presence.
The God we come to know in Jesus is a God who speaks softly, so softly we must train our hearts to hear—could it be that, should God speak in what are loud or normal tones for God, the world could not stand the glory or majestic cadence of God’s voice?
The God we come to know in Jesus desires to come again and again, birthed once into the world Emmanuel, born again in the spirits and lives of those who claim to be his disciples and followers.
It’s almost Christmas and I am ready for the Hope of the hopeless, for the Prince of peace, the Joy of the ages, the Advent of divine love to make the difference between living and dying in this old world.
The Messiah We Need Robert W. Guffey, Jr. January 2007
In the Talmud, the story is told of the day Rabbi Joshua called upon the Prophet Elijah and asked, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city?”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds, binding the wounds of others”
Obediently, Rabbi Joshua goes to the gates of the city looking for the Messiah, but the Messiah he finds disappoints.
“Peace unto you, my master and teacher.”
“Peace unto you, son of Levi,” answered the Messiah.
“When is the Messiah coming?”
Rabbi Joshua returns to Elijah to speak of his disappoint in the Messiah. Elijah asks, “What did he tell you?”
“He indeed has deceived me, for he said ‘Today I am coming’ and he has not come.”
To which Elijah responds, quoting from Psalm 95:7, “This is what he told you: ‘Today if you would listen to His voice.’”
Joshua went looking for a messiah to meet his expectations and his needs. He went looking for one in charge of destiny, one who would vanquish his enemies, one who looked like a king. Instead, he found a messiah whose place was among the poor and wounded, whose kingdom was defined by sacrifice and whose call to believers is to listen to His voice calling them to make real His presence through sacrifice and service to others. He found a Messiah whose call would transform him into the image of the Messiah serving the Messiah-in-others, in the presence of the poor, and poor in spirit, with the compassion of the Messiah who brings merciful healing and wholeness that is just.
That sounds a lot like the Lord Jesus to me, the same Lord Jesus who calls his followers, borrowing from Paul to the Ephesians, to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
That sounds like the same Lord Jesus who calls you and me to listen to His voice:
I AM sitting among the poor I AM sitting among the hurting I AM sitting among the hungry I AM sitting among the lonely I AM sitting among those addicted to that which does not satisfy I AM sitting among the young waiting to be taught I AM sitting among the old waiting to be loved I AM sitting among adults caught in the middle of life stretched to the limits I AM calling you to serve Me as you serve the Me in others.
This is the Messiah the world needs today, and has always needed. This is the Messiah who promises to come “Today if you would listen to His voice.”
Four Readings for Advent Robert W. Guffey, Jr. December 2006
Advent 1/Advent Is for Exiles
I found him alone and abandoned (I thought) in the darkness of his time of trial, living in a run-down house on a dangerous inner-city street, on an extremely hot, humid Louisiana summer day. His illness was incurable, at least on this side of life. His pain was palpable to anyone who came near him. His pain was palpable ... and so was his joy. In his suffering--sharing his suffering--he had discovered God’s Presence. What I defined as his “time of trial” and abandonment had become, for him, a time of growing towards peace.
How true that has always been for God’s people. The books of the Kings and biblical prophets tell of Israel’s worst nightmare of aloneness and abandonment come true. The “people who were no people” who had become "the people of God" had been uprooted from the land of promise and carried into exile in Babylon. They were, once more, a people without country or inheritance.
It was the great tragedy of the Old Testament. Far from Jerusalem and their sense of rootedness in land and Torah, God’s people found themselves trying to sing the songs of Yahweh in a strange land. Their pain—for those who dared let it surface—was palpable ... and, eventually, so was their joy. For through the prophet Isaiah came words of comfort and hope: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and call his name Emmanuel.”
If you want to find the joy of Christmas this Advent season, locate your place of exile—your place of pain, of aloneness, of abandonment, of disappointment. My hunch is it’s there, somewhere deep within you. You’ll find it—if you dare to look for it and let it make itself known.
I hope you will for there you will also come upon Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” ready to carry you through your exile that you might say, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great Light:” a light of healing and peace ... and joy.
The photograph is printed on genuine Kodak paper. Four children stand in stair-step ages next to four gleaming brilliant metallic blue brand new Christmas bicycles. And not just any bicycles, these are Schwinn Stingrays with banana seats and high-rise handlebars. These are bikes made for cruising. These are bikes that set a parent’s budget back several pay periods.
It’s one of my favorite memories of Christmas. There the four of us are, brothers and sisters all smiles and ready to hit the road thinking we were really something. We were!
What a magical place the world can be for children. Unaware of the challenges, difficulties, joys and pain of an adult future—gracefully so, it would have overwhelmed us—yet silently being prepared for it. Growing up one day at a time, one season at a time, into the journey. Until one day you find yourself breaking the bank to put bicycles under your own Christmas trees.
Had we known how tough and wonderful growing up and growing older would be perhaps we would have lingered a bit in Christmases past rather than rushing so intently and intensively into grownup things.
The journey into age surprises us. I remember my father-in-law telling me one day that inside he felt a lot like he did at 19 until he would look in the mirror and wonder, “Just who is that old man?” looking back. The journey writes itself on our faces and in our souls. Some of those lines are well earned. Some we would rather have done without.
All of them prepare us for Advent. All of them, in God’s hands, prepare us for the coming of the Lord that prepares us for the ultimate journey: the journey into splendor and grace when we are finally grown up in Jesus Christ and become children again, the children of God.
Getting into the “Christmas spirit” the final Saturday of one November a few years past, I turned on the CD player and inserted Disk 1 of Handel’s Messiah. As inspired sounds filled the room, I powered up the TV to watch the end of a much-hyped Florida State–Florida football game. Florida was losing.
The camera went to a close-up of then Florida head coach Steve Spurrier just as a tenor’s voice began to sing, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” Talk about timing.
(Pun for fans of the Purple and Gold: If it had been an LSU game at LSU, “Every valley shall be exalted” would have been appropriate, don’t you think?)
That juxtaposition reminded me of one of my professors at Emory who told of a Christmas shopping trip with his wife. They were looking for a robe in the lingerie department of an Atlanta department store in the midst of gold, green and red decorations. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” was playing overhead as background for consumer frenzy. “Jesu... ” in the lingerie department?
Images of the Holy Season clash with a culture that seeks to co-opt them for its own ends. Rather than focus and energize the people of God, the Season (retail) wears us out and many a Christian comes frazzled and frayed to the manger.
The music of Christmas that plays toward our souls calls us to “re-member” our world, to listen deeply for the lyrical voice of the Spirit calling us to the strength and wholeness that “being bound again” (the original meaning of “religion”) to God brings.
Away from crowd and marketplace, in the midst of sacred space, listen well. You may yet hear One Voice, a Voice that sings re-creation for weary souls...
"O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion... lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid ... behold your God.”
Going home. It sounds so simple. For some it is. Some people’s lives leave them close to home geographically and emotionally. Some are at least close emotionally. They are blessed. The high expectations of this Holy Season are well placed for the highest and holiest expectation is that we prepare for the coming of God. The reality some face betrays the expectation, especially within families, especially for some who want to go home.
Do you know what I mean? You may be the child who will have two “Christmases” this year because mom and dad no longer live together. You may be the spouse or parent who will instinctively set a place at the table for a spouse or child who will not be coming home after all because of death or emotional estrangement. You may be the person who carries the silent burden of a family secret or the need to forgive a parent or child for tracing your life with darkness.
You do not have to sit outside in the dark, writes Annie Dillard, author and poet. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is required. The stars neither require it nor demand it.
In the midst of our current realities, God promises to come to redeem even the most intimate hurts of our lives. In God’s appearing, the Light of Christ can glow with holy brilliance causing darkness in and around our lives to flee.
When you find yourself in times of personal darkness, look again. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness and look again. A Star shines. It shines for you. It takes courage to open your eyes in the darkness. It takes courage to take first steps toward the Light. If you will follow it, it will lead you Home. And in the Home that is God your grandest expectations of Joy will most assuredly come true.