Christmas Eve Prayer

Oh God, it’s you who is the magic, the splendor, and the wonder of Christmas. You have set forth the brilliance of the stars, the magnificence of the angels, the perplexity of the Christ child. You created the whole, wide world and everything in it. You have shown us your covenantal love and faithfulness from everlasting to everlasting. May we never cease to be amazed by the work of your hand. As we celebrate the birth of your Son, help us to have the faith of children who marvel at your divine mystery that enchants us to celebrate you year after year. Help us to delight in you and your people, as you delight in us.

Oh Jesus, it is you who became God-with-us, the word made flesh. You came in the grit of childbirth and the filth of a stable to show us that your love does not shy away from the pain and grime of the world. You are the Messiah who is humble, who gets his hands dirty, who doesn’t avoid suffering; you are the visible evidence of the invisible, unfathomable love of God. Help us to always lean in and embrace people with the same courageous love that you modeled for us. Help us to fully commit to being your disciples, continuing the mission that you began by entering into a broken world.

Oh Holy Spirit, when our own souls are worn within us, when we lose our faith, our hope, our peace, and our joy, it’s your still small voice that reminds us of who we are and whose we are. It is you who sparks our hearts with light and life each year at Christmas, reminding us that the first coming of Christ was not a one-time event. You sustain our spirits as we wait for when Jesus comes again. When it seems like the celebration of the season is out of our reach, and when hope in a peaceful kingdom of reconciled people seems like a dream withered and deferred, it is your breath of life that comes blowing by reviving us in your fire.

Holy Trinity, three in one, we give praise to you on this glorious Christmas Eve. We have practiced hope, peace, joy, and love all of Advent doing our best to honor the kingdom that is already here. We hold dear to our hearts the birth of Christ as a promise of your kingdom come, when your goodness will prevail and all the virtues we have practiced will be the abiding law in all the world. When the celebration dies down, help us not to abandon this work and help us not to grow weary in our waiting. You have come, and you will come; and that is the fierce hope of Christmas. Alleluia, amen.

Advent 4: Love

Micah 5:2-5a
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

If you love, you get battered. It’s just true. You fray at the edges, then unravel. You get all used up.

Loving anyone or anything in any way empties you and dumps all your goodness out. Compassion fatigue and empathy erosion are real things that can take the kindest, tenderest heart and harden it up.

Love can break you down.

Love is always two-sided: you cannot love others if you do not love yourself; you cannot love yourself without loving others. Whether we like it or not, our hope, peace, joy, happiness, success, and prosperity depend upon each other. We need each other. You need everyone else. You are needed in this world. You need us. We need you, too.

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

― Frederick Buechner

Love can break you down. If you seek out the love and care you deserve, it can break away the hardness of your heart and make it soft and caring again. You will be emptied of your love at the end of your life, but that can be good news. It can be a sign of a life lived well, filled with the care and love poured into you. Your goodness may be emptied out, but you can be full of the goodness of others. Love gives, and love receives.

You may be battered, but you may also be healed. Hold the tension of the battle scars, sutures, and balms that entail a life well loved.

Luke 1:46b-55
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

Advent 3: Joy

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.

Joy is almost as hard to write about as hope. I think we’ve nearly over-sentimentalized it:

“I choose joy!”

“I won’t let anything steal my joy!”

“Joy is what I feel deep down inside. It’s not like happiness, it can’t be taken from me.”

While I appreciate the attempts to differentiate joy as a state of being from the fleeting emotion of happiness, these have become the catchphrases associated with joy. I think when we’ve adopted catchphrases for something then it’s probably safe to say we’ve lost the essence of it.

I think having a deep abiding peace is quite different than joy. Peace is centering. Joy is jubilant. I think joy involves the whole self: our voices, our ears, our eyes, our bodies, our hearts, our souls. It’s a rejoicing that involves every part of us, fully engaged, entirely attentive, completely immersed.

Therefore, joy can only be sustained for so long. It can be fleeting too. Happiness doesn’t require so much of us; joy reaches down to our core. I’m not so sure that we “choose” joy so much as it chooses us and demands our attention, appreciation, and wonder. When it comes by, let’s just surrender to the gift that it is and lean into the moment with our whole selves, unabashed and free.

 

Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy”

Sometimes I really have to force myself to break away from theology, ministry, and spirituality types of books. So I finally got around to reading “Hillbilly Elegy” by JD Vance. It was relatable to my own experience of being an Appalachian “hillbilly”, but different enough that I didn’t feel as if I was reading my own story back to me.

Vance tells about being part of the “working class” in the Appalachian hills of Ohio. His family was poor, hard working, profane, fist fighters. Marriages were often unhappy, full of yelling and sometimes hitting. Working class people often battled poverty, drug addiction, and alcohol. Tempers were high and people struggled to make ends meet. Vance faced numerous divorces, abandonment, physical abuse, school yard fights, and being moved from house to house. While my own family wasn’t violent or drug addicted, I can understand tempers and financial struggle.

Vance was a smart kid who broke out of the culture he was used to. He went to the marines, then college, then law school. He had to learn how to be in relationship with friends and his girlfriend without exploding or shutting down. He had to learn etiquette to survive in the white collar world. I can relate with breaking away from the culture I was raised in and feeling as if it is still part of me, but no longer my own culture.

Questions arise around how much of who we are is from our own choices and how much dysfunction is passed down through family lines. Questions also arise at how much government policies can help poverty and how much culture is on our shoulders to change ourselves. It’s an honest look at how much cultural dysfunction (not limited to Appalachia, but in this case defined by it) can damage people and be passed on through families, but also how those negative patterns can be broken and changed. It’s also an honest look at working class Appalachian families and the prevailing culture that has defined families based on survival tactics.

I appreciate this honest, but no elite and belittling look at Appalachia. I have often struggled to articulate my experience of being raised in the working class to my more comfortable middle class friends, and this memoir provides valuable insight. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about Appalachian culture, white working poor, domestic violence, and drug addiction. It sounds dark, but in a divided nation we perceive there to be a constant divide between uneducated and educated people, blue collar and white collar, city and country, when really varying cultural understandings based on isolation and family heritage are what separate us. Perhaps with some insight into these cultural differences we can bridge the gap between us all.

Advent 2: Peace

Baruch 5:1-9
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.” Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

We have a group called “Caring Friends” which is for widows and widowers to gather a couple times a month for fellowship and support. We held a “Blue Christmas” service for them and anyone else in our community who wanted to come and lament their lost loved ones they were missing this holiday season. Afterwards we met to talk over coffee and pie about grieving during the holidays.

I can’t share specifics for the sake of confidentiality, but it was a time of kindness, support, and understanding. While the grief and pain are very real for many people in the holiday season, there is peace among the support of friends. There is peace in the community of the church. There is peace when a small tealight is lit for the loved one they remember. There is peace in the decisions made after the death of a loved one for self-care purposes.

Instead of abiding, overwhelming peace for those who are grieving, there a moments of peace. These moments give life and breath to continue on to the next moment and the next day.  These moments provide clarity and make a pathway for joy and healing. When grief strikes, one can only go minute to minute, day by day since grief is unpredictable in nature. And that’s how peace sneaks in, between the moments and the breaths taken to provide some grace in the chaos.

Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

Advent 1: Hope

Psalm 25:1-10

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD! Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

Even when horrible things are happening in the world, I can typically tap into the mindset of Advent. This year I’m struggling.

I read a story about the California wildfires where burned remains were found. They were thought to be from a single person. Results showed the the DNA came from two people. It’s believed that they were holding each other when they died. I spent the morning sick to my stomach and in tears.

And I’m supposed to summon hope for Advent?

How?

I’ve been working on sermons and Advent readings, but I just couldn’t write anymore. We are supposed to be talking about our hope in Christ who came to earth to overcome evil, sin, and death. And we’re waiting for Christ’s return. But where’s Jesus now? Can he see what’s happening here? Is he watching? Burnt remains sure don’t feel like death has been overcome. Tear gas thrown at the border feels evil. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen where people are starving to death feel like the result of sinful leaders.

How am I supposed to write hopeful readings for my congregation to read aloud as they light candles? How am I supposed to pray when the people who are fleeing from fires, seeking asylum, and hungering for food are praying and their suffering is not being relieved? What can I preach from scripture that hasn’t been said? Is anyone going to change their hearts towards compassion, or are they going to sit in church and leave the same person they came in as?

Jesus, we clearly can’t do this on our own. We’re freely admitting it.  We’re confessing our dependency on you, so why aren’t you showing up?

I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. Pastors don’t have the theological answers to these problems. I’ll show up. Light the candles. Say the prayers. Read the scriptures. Maybe it’s not up to me to instill hope. I’ll do my part in church and in my own personal life, and maybe hope will find a way. I’ll keep being faithful and maybe Jesus will show up. There aren’t any guarantees here. Is that the point? I’m not sure. I guess we’ll have to keep trying as we wait and see.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.