Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Journey of Advent

Dear Friends,

When I was a teenager, my grandmother took me on a vacation across America. We were going to Chicago to visit family and then to New York to see the 1965 World’s Fair. I wanted to fly. Get in. Take off. Land. Get to where you want to go, to see the things you came to see! But my grandmother, the school teacher, had other ideas – we’d take the train. 

Crawling across the country for three days, I was bored. I was fascinated. It seemed to take forever and it was over too quickly. I still remember the images from the observation car. Towns in New Mexico that looked like western movie sets, the never-ending plains of Texas, then traveling through Websters Grove, Missouri – the birthplace of my grandfather, and the thrill of crossing the Mississippi River while thinking about the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim. I had wanted to get to New York as fast as we could. My grandmother wanted to teach me how to slow down and enjoy the journey. What a wonderful gift of memories she gave me that summer.

It seems that as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are dried and put away, a bell sounds and the Christmas race is on. Recent surveys show that Christmas is the sixth most stressful life event up there with divorce, death, moving and changing jobs. December is the most stressful month for families. High expectations for the perfect gifts, baking, cooking, decorations, parties and will Aunt Eunice drink too much of the “enhanced” eggnog again? Jingle Bells and jangled nerves. Dashing toward Christmas day in a one horse open sleigh. Then finally, it’s Christmas! It’s show-time!! We did it! And we never notice that in our perfectly hand-crafted, decorated Christmas, the manger is still empty. We’ve left someOne behind.
When we’re flying through December and hurtling toward the destination we call “Christmas,” life around us becomes a blur. Maybe grandma was right and we just need to slow down so that we can enjoy the journey. That’s why we need Advent. Advent means “coming” and these are the days that we anticipate the coming of Christ. Advent is the spiritual speed-bump that slows us down in our race toward December 25th and allows us to savor the Christmas season. When we are tempted to speed up into the Holly Jolly Christmas pace, Advent takes us into a contemplative place. During this happy holiday season, we can meet Santa at Wal-Mart, but Advent reminds us that we will meet the Son of God in the quiet sacred places.

On the Advent journey, we find our peace and joy not in what we buy, plan, decorate or cook, but in the expectancy of His coming. You may want to spend even more time in quiet prayer and contemplation. You may want to turn down the noise of your fast-paced life and spend time in silence with Him – just you and God – alone together. 

During this journey of Advent, read  Luke 1:5-2:20 and Matthew 1:18-24. The ancient practice of lectio divina (sacred reading) is reading a passage of scripture until a word or phrase stands out and repeating it in a slow and reflective manner. Meditate on the word or words by thinking about what they mean to you. What is God saying to you? Pray about this and then just rest in His presence. Sit quietly with Him in a time of contemplation. You may hear Him speak to your heart, you may be filled with His peace or you may find yourself just sitting there with God and enjoying His Presence. Set aside some daily time with Him. Rest with Him.

Resting in His peace will bring a joyful attitude. Then when others are stressed, anxious and angry in the weeks ahead, you be the one who brings the joy of God into their lives. Practice graciousness, patience, and kindness with family members and frazzled store clerks alike. Be especially aware of friends and neighbors who struggle this time of year. Be compassionate. Be considerate. Be Christ-like. Show them the love of Jesus this Christmas and do what you can to relieve their distress, suffering and loneliness. 

Let Advent slow us down from the craziness of Christmas and take us into that contemplative “Maranatha” place as our souls are nourished with the anticipation of His coming. The Aramaic phrase Maranatha is used just once in the New Testament 1 Cor 16:22 and is translated, “O Lord, come!” Let that be our prayer this Advent...

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Sharing The Gift Of Food

Dear Friends,

As a bachelor living only with my two cats, I’m used to eating dinner alone. And that night as I looked across the table at my dinner partner, I was becoming convinced that perhaps a meal really is best when eaten alone. Looking at the unattractive old man eating with me, I realized this was not the time of enjoyable companionship that I had anticipated. The old guy was an appetite depressant. He was obviously not married. A wife would have improved his personal hygiene by demanding that he occasionally hack off the unsightly growth of nose and ear hairs. He had a beard like me but red strands of cheesy tomato sauce were now coagulating in the straggly growth and threatening to drip on the food-splattered tablecloth. His eating habits were thoroughly disgusting. His mother had apparently never taught him to chew with his mouth closed and my enjoyment of the pasta  was rapidly diminishing. What was really freaking me out though, was that every time I glanced up at him, I caught him staring at me with those two beady eyes and a weird expression on his face. The old guy never looked away and I was always the one to break off eye contact and look back down at my plate. This was just too creepy for me and I vowed to never do this again. I reached across the table to the mirror propped up against the stack of books and turned it face down so that I could finish my dinner in peace.

I had just finished reading a study published last month in the journal Physiology & Behavior which concluded that eating around others makes your meals more satisfying. The study focused on adults of all ages and found that their quality of life was greatly improved when eating with others and also found that eating alone was associated with depression and loss of appetite. What was interesting was that the study found that eating in front of a mirror or a photographic image of yourself had the same effect as when another person was actually present. Participants rated the food as tasting better when they ate it in front of a mirror! Okay..that’s more than a little weird, but the valuable takeaway from this study was that our quality of life significantly improves when we eat our meals with others.

My fondest and most vivid memory from my time at the Foursquare Bible College was when in “Foundations for Ministry,” professor and pastor Chuck Shoemake set up tables and converted our class room into a dining room. He wanted us to see that the table is a place of connection and blessing. In an academic setting, you only see the back of another student’s head. But this evening, instead of another lecture on how to do ministry, we set the textbooks and laptops aside and did ministry. Sitting at the table face to face and eating together connected us and created relationships. Grape juice was poured, loaves of bread were broken and we had Communion together. The potluck feast spread on the table in front of us required interaction with one another as food and serving utensils were passed. Faceless classmates now became friends as we talked, laughed, told stories and ministered to one another. In the book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, the author writes that “A shared meal is the activity most closely related to the reality of God’s kingdom, just as it is the most basic expression of hospitality.” That’s what Pastor Chuck was showing us.

At the Last Supper, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples, and in church, the communion table is the sacred place where this pattern is repeated every Sunday. Blessing, Breaking, Giving. The model taught by Jesus extends to our homes, where we sit down at our own dinner table, bless the food, break the bread and give it to each other. Now our own table becomes our sacred place as we gather with others to share a meal and journey together in God’s kingdom.

God created us to be in relationship. He created the Earth and then He created food. Seeds that grew into green plants and trees bearing fruit. Genesis 1:29-30 He then created the Garden of food and put Adam in the Garden. Genesis 2:8 And we note that God did not give Adam a mirror or a self-portrait for social interaction while eating. The Creator gave Adam a human dining companion called Eve. Not at all surprising, the recent secular study found that one’s quality of life increases when eating with others and scientifically demonstrates that God’s plan for his children is a good one! 

Sharing food at a table reminds us that eating is more than a necessary function of the body – it’s incarnational as we emulate Jesus who shared meals with both His followers and with those who did not yet believe. We don’t read that Jesus ever approached an unbeliever, gave him a parchment Gospel tract and invited them to the Temple for the 9:30 service. Jesus sat down with those far from God and struggling with their faith and He ate with them. Maybe we should be doing that too...

Who is it that should be sharing your meals at your sacred table during this Christmas season? Who would you invite for the Blessing..Breaking..Giving? An ancient prayer from the Book of Common Prayer reads: Blessed are You, O Lord God, King of the Universe, for You give us food to sustain our lives and make our hearts glad; through Jesus Christ our Lord. As God’s gift of food physically sustains us, we are emotionally and spiritually nourished by His gift of family and friends. Thanks be to God!  Amen?