Good Tidings {second week of advent}

starry night

Get you up to a high mountain,
     O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
     O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
     lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
     “Here is your God!”

The prophet’s words on the opening days of Advent gave the body an alarming jolt. Anger and indignation. Disillusionment and fatigue. These are not revelations I expect to find printed on any of the holiday cards or included in any of the annual Christmas letters that will soon cover our kitchen blackboard. Advent leads us to joy, but first it reckons with the grief. And we’ve had more than a small share of grief in recent weeks, haven’t we? There are moments when I do wonder whether we will make it, whether this old world might not just release a final, death-rattle gasp and release us into the dark.

But the prophet who weeps is also the prophet who refuses to surrender hope. Isaiah, after the tears and the sorrows have their proper say, kneels beside the haggard woman, the broke-down man. Isaiah drapes his arm around weary shoulders and whispers into tired ears, Get up, now. Get up. This is not where it ends. We have work to do. And the work is to announce good tidings.

When the time has come (and only then – but absolutely then), we dry our tears. We shake the soot and the ashes from our head and our heart. We grab the weathered hands of those around us, and we sing. Our shaky voices unite in a happy song of protest and faith. We drench the cold night with a melody that heralds our stubborn insistence: We are not forgotten. Here is our God!

As God’s people, we weep and mourn over the world’s travails, over our own regrets and sadness. We do not peddle false fantasies. However, far more, we are belligerent in hope. We sing the glad song with tenacious, raspy voices. We cry into the dark. It is not only angels who bring good tidings of great joy. This work is ours as well. So, we lift up our hearts. And we sing.


Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 40:1-11.

Groan {first week of advent}


O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… {Isaiah}

Whenever Advent becomes the parlance of The Economy or The Industry (especially the Christian industry), we can be certain the Advent known by frightened shepherds and half-crazed prophets, the Advent familiar to a gutsy virgin and a threadbare people, has grown (to some degree) estranged to us. Advent’s force does not arrive via strategically orchestrated initiatives, certainly not from a writer’s well-timed Advent series. The very best we can do is hold tight and try not to mangle the whole affair while we wait for the mystery to happen.

Advent’s force does not answer cue, bidden by the craft of preacher, activist or entrepreneur. Advent first pierces the cold air as a desperate groan from those living at the jagged edges, from those who taste sorrow’s bitterness, those accustomed to the crush of disappointment, of fear. Advent comes first for those who have made a wreck of things, those who carry a legitimate complaint, for those whose existence teeters on the brink. If you do not know any pain, if you have no yearning for what is not yet true, if you have no pang of grief for your sorrow or the sorrow of another…if there is no raw, raspy voice somewhere in the hollows of your soul that every now and again whispers into the ravaging night, God, please…Please tear the heavens and come down… then some of what Advent offers will always stand remote for you.

And this is okay; it simply means you’re not yet ready. But tuck this in your pocket because someday… someday you will be.

Israel cried out for Yahweh to rend the skies, to move, to act — precisely because God was not acting. For generations, God had gone silent, and Israel, fearful that their history and their future might finally be extinguished, begged God to do what God had done for the ancients. On Sinai, the mountain trembled under the weight of the Voice, and on Sinai, Israel (besieged by the thunder and the darkness and the deluge) trembled as well. On Sinai, the people’s terror was so great that they wanted nothing to do with this God who cracks the sky, and they pleaded for Moses to deal with God and leave them be. But now the fear of ruin loomed larger than the fear of thunder. Now Israel stood desperate for God to act, to speak, to do anything that might assure them they were not abandoned.

And God would act. The Heavens would rip asunder so Love could descend. But now is not the time for that story, not yet. This is the moment for the groan, for the question of whether we will survive, the moment to wonder if there will be anything left of us at all.


Each Monday during Advent, John Blase, Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk and I will reflect on the same Advent text from the week’s lectionary. This week, it’s Isaiah 64:1-9.

Fourth Week of Advent: Courage

{This week, John Blase and I conclude our Advent reflections with the Gospel reading for the fourth week of Advent, Matthew 1:18-25}

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid

Each time I’ve read this text this year, my imagination falls on the description of Joseph’s response after he receives the gut-wrenching news that Mary’s expecting a baby. Joseph knew good and well he had nothing to do with this unseemly development, and Mary’s story about Spirit and angels and the like must have struck him as a particularly elaborate attempt to redefine the obvious.

Yet – and this is what gets me – Matthew says that Mary’s “husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. In a world that sputters on the fumes of controversy and defense of the tribe, I wonder what it would be like (and I’m imagining precisely those places where we believe our identity most threatened – or those places of public discourse where we are certain so much is at stake) to be bullheaded in our unwillingness to expose another to disgrace.

We often equate courage with those who thump their chests and “tell it like it is,” but I believe that often the bravest thing is to relinquish the compulsion to be right, to possess a trigger finger for mercy, to live gently. It’s a good thing to honor others’ dignity with such vigilance that there are lines we simply will not cross. Winning the issue or defending our “rights” provides a sorry excuse for crushing another human.

Though Joseph exhibited heroic valor, this entire story leads to the angel’s charge for Joseph to not be afraid. This is the word angels speak whenever they hit the scene. Apparently it’s the word we all need to hear. The angel prodded Joseph to push his courage further, to not merely refuse to disgrace Mary but to rouse his truest instincts and embrace Mary along with all the uncertainty sure to accompany.

It requires courage to love. It takes courage to live with our guard down and our arms open. But this is what happens when God appears. This is what happens when Emmanuel arrives, God with us.

Third Week of Advent: Patience

{This week, John Blase and I reflect on the Epistle reading for the third week of Advent, James 5:7-10}

Be patient therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord…

Advent commences the Christian year, providing an important corrective to the fables by which we live. We are accustomed to starts that bolt from the gate. Gusto. Exertion. Master plans. To such hubris, Advent arrives, pats us on the head and says, Hold your horses there, antsy. You’re not ready for all that.

To begin with Advent means we start with waiting. We rest and pause. We hope and watch. We Sabbath. James tells us it’s like the long-suffering farmer who “waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it…”

With it – I believe this to be the crucial turn. To be patient does not mean to merely hold back or to camouflage how annoyed we are with delay. Rather, true patience means we are learning how to be with our life, to be present and curious and perhaps above all, tenaciously hopeful.

Walter Wangerin, a writer to whom I owe much, reflects the patience Advent invites. His dance (Walter’s word) with lung cancer has brought Walter ever more present to his life:

The nearness of death has relieved me of the need to strive toward goals and triumphs. No need to prove myself. I walk a level plain. Today is today. Tomorrow will come. And though I continue to plan activities well in advance, living doesn’t depend on their accomplishment, nor would any of them define me. I am already defined. Today is today. Tomorrow is enough…We are. It is enough.

It is a gift to have our grandiose visions brushed aside, to be patiently available to this moment. It is a gift to sink into the restful hope that God writes the story’s end.

Second Week of Advent: Wild Man

{John Blase and I continue our Advent conversation. This week, we reflect on the Gospel reading for the second week of Advent, Matthew 3:1-12}

John the Baptizer was preaching in the desert of Judea…and people poured out of Jerusalem, Judea and the Jordanian countryside to hear him.

Burning Man aflame in the Black Rock Desert has nothing on the Advent story. When a wild man settles in the badlands, then the rest of us close up shop, gather our provisions and set out toward the fire and the thunder. Numbed by our conveyer belt existence, our heart has forgotten so much. But it only takes a mere glimpse of a spark, a glimmer of real life, and our desire, longing and hope shakes off the slumber. Whoever said it was a bad thing to be the moth drawn to flame?

What actually made John the wild man, though? His camel-hair habit surely furthered his holy-man austerity, while the locusts and wild honey only encouraged his reputation as a man disinterested in modern convention. But these biographical details could not be the center of it. Jerusalem was no different than Charlottesville or Denver or Trenton – you only have to stroll downtown, or partake in the neighborhood BBQ for that matter, to catch more than a few odd ducks.

John was a man too-wild for our aloof, cold ways because he knew something, he had heard something. “Repent, God’s Kingdom has come near,” John announced. The crowds flocked to the wild man in the wild place because John told them what their soul most longed to hear: God is near.

I believe the great fear of the human heart is that God is, in the end, far, far. What sickness or sorrow, what loneliness or ruin, could we not endure so long as we believed in our bones that God was near? Yet when we’ve lost this hope, when God seems too remote to matter or too capricious to trust or too fanciful to believe, then our most precious flame dies. Our hearts and our hopes sink into ourselves. They sink so far we forget them and assume they will never rise again.

But then there’s a John, speaking the wild words. God is near. You are not alone. Hope is coming. If merely a single word, the tiniest flicker, finds its way to us, then there really is no telling what might erupt. Good words are dangerous.

From what I see, too many of us think that God’s message necessitates shrill noise. We denounce and correct. We draw our tribal lines. We build synergy toward our clan or our corrective version of faith. What we do not say, with our words or our actions, is the wildest thing: God is near. Have your cause if it’s worthwhile. Promote your distinctions if you must. But please, in God’s good name, do not forget to tell us that God is near. If we don’t hear these essential words, the flame will stay cold and the heart will stay hungry.


This is the second week of the Advent conversation John Blase and I are sharing. So what I’m offering is only half of the picture. For his reflection on this same text, you’ll need to move over to The Beautiful Due.

First Week of Advent: Surprised

{a meditation from the Gospel reading for the first week of Advent, Matthew 24:36-44}

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Advent’s opening gospel reading gives our drowsy ears a jolt. Rather than visions of a rosy-cheeked Christ child, we hear of Noah’s flood that arrived with a shock, sweeping the world clear and an odd parable about workers sweating side by side – only, when the tale’s done, one has disappeared while the other stands alone, bewildered. There’s a final odd twist where Jesus likens God’s appearing to a midnight cat burglar who slips in through a window to pick a house clean while the family snoozes, a sentence that flies out of left field and should make every flatfooted preacher and every dry storyteller take very careful notes.

In each of these unlikely stories, the common theme is how God’s action interrupts and catches us off guard. The point is not to wag fingers so we’ll shape up and curtail the surprise, a kind of white-knuckle vigil. Rather, the narratives deliver a plain fact: God will surprise us. Whatever we figure God must do or whatever time table we insist God must follow, God seems to always manage something different. Like the lover who springs a proposal or the friend who shows up for the party when they’re supposed to be two continents away, God has panache.

Whether or not we receive God as a welcome surprise depends, I suppose, on whether or not we’re willing to be undone by love, whether or not we’ve got the moxie to say what the heck and exist at the mercy of God’s evocative – but always unruly – imagination. Our invitation is to live wide-eyed, aware that every single moment bears the possibility of God’s agile movement.

Advent, of course, is merely an occasion to remember what has always been true. God is never far. God is always near. And the only truly surprising thing would be if God were never to show up at all.


This Advent, my friend John Blase and I are reflecting on the same text each week, on Mondays, from Sunday’s Lectionary readings. We aren’t talking about the texts ahead of time, simply reading and seeing where they take us. To enjoy the full conversation, hop over to John’s ruminations.

Sunday Rebellion


The calendar hanging on your refrigerator, the one tucked behind your kid’s crayola project and the magnet reminding you to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” may be the most rebellious and spiritually formative thing you own. You’ll notice how each week, right as rain, commences with Sunday. This is the day older Christians referred to as the Sabbath. A day for leisure, for church, for the Sunday paper, for the comics, for a visit on the porch with friends drinking sweet tea and swapping stories about the neighbors.

My dad told me how his mom spent chunks of Saturday cooking fried chicken, peas, rolls and chocolate cake so no cooking would be necessary on Sunday. Saturday night meant a bath out in the garage, the old wash tub filled with hot water his mom carried via multiple trips from the kitchen stove. Anything considered a chore would be done on Saturday because Sunday was a day of rest.

In the Christian tradition, Sabbath is the day our week starts. We begin with a lull. We commence, not with sweat or labor, but with loafing, with three-hour naps, with conversations immune to the pressure to get somewhere but more than comfortable with long pauses and long thoughts. These Sabbath spaces possess enough quiet to pay attention to the wind and the smell of rain – and to the one sitting with you. In our Sabbath interludes, prayer happens as God intended, laced through our ordinary laughter and joy.

The Christian week begins with rest. I can’t imagine a more counter-cultural affirmation. The rhythms of our world have gotten cattywonkus. For many of us, Sunday is the day we’re cramming last bits from our to do list, capping off a week of fury and frenzy. Then, the way we see things, the week kicks off on Monday, the day we get to work, the day we recommit to serving the man and paying the bills. In this twisted narrative, the week begins with us working, not with us resting.

This is not so much about how we count our days but about how we count our lives. In a world where we yield to heavy shackles, defined by our production or our corporate rank or our Google Analytics report, it is a subversive act to shut it down and take a nap.

According to the Biblical story, however, our lives commence with respite. The Jewish day went from sundown to sundown. This meant that the Hebrews started their day by going to sleep. When they woke, fresh from a long slumber, they discovered that God had never slept. The world still turned on its axis, and the sun still shone bright. As they entered their day’s work, rested and invigorated, they were merely joining God in God’s creative activity. But only for a while, until it was again time to call it quits, crawl under the covers and let God be God. We really can cease our labors, because God’s labor holds this whole shebang together.

Of course, Advent signals the start of the Christian year. Advent, a time of waiting, a month-long Sabbath. We’re all revved and geared up for the start of things, to get the ball rolling, to turn over a new leaf. And then we wait. And wait. And wait. We’ll get to our cue, our time to punch ‘go.’ But first, we watch and slumber and drink hot chocolate with our kids. Sabbath is stitched into every rhythm of our life.

Next time you pass your fridge, linger a moment at that line of Sundays. Then linger a little longer.

Upon the Eve {advent week four}

virgin-mary-and-jesusGod has filled the hungry with good things. {Mary}

Over Advent, our church has attempted to memorize Mary’s Magnificat. Each time I utter Mary’s prophetic word directed toward herself, I chuckle: ‘From now on, all generations will call me blessed.’ I love Mary’s undaunted boldness – you have no idea how big a deal this is; you’re going to be singing about me. Forever. This is a sassy, confident young woman.

I also chuckle because this is precisely a point where low-church Protestants often get nervous, developing a twitch when the Virgin is constantly referred to as Blessed Mary.

But Mary was blessed, not only because she carried the Savior of the Cosmos in her womb but also because she had eyes to see what this Savior would bring to the world – and a keen heart to know how desperate we all are for these gifts.

We’re all hungry. We’re all scratching our way through this world. Some of us are familiar with the hunger pangs, while some of us are masters at avoiding the longings of our soul. No matter, hunger catches up to all of us eventually. And Jesus, God’s shocking and paradoxical revelation, has already arrived with the remedy. God is ready to fill us, whenever we are ready to be filled.

Advent’s been hard for many. I pray Christmas fills you to the brim. I hope Christmas arrives with bells and songs and lots of gifts and revelry – and maybe even a train ride or new pair of slippers or some childish joy.

The Soul’s Worth


To all who’ve been dismissed or tossed aside ~

To all who, bittered by the cracks in your story, now tremble or seethe at the mention of ‘love’ ~

To every weary-boned parent saddled with regret or loss or despair ~

To every child, grown yet still yearning for tenderness and acceptance ~

To every one of us who compulsively judge our reflection in the mirror or replay conversations over and over or carry every criticism to a dark, dark place ~

To each of us who are ashamed of our fears and our machinations and who hide the fact that in our own sophisticated ways we still have to leave the light on at night ~

I pray that you will know, these beautiful days, the profound worth of your soul, the sturdy weight of your being. There is an astounding splendor in you – and I know this because the God of all beauty and power has called you into existence. And God delights in the sheer presence that is you. In these days, I pray you sing this song loud – and I pray you’ll sing it to another.

Advent Week Three {tears for newtown}

Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The Lord, your God, is with you,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you… {Zephaniah 3:16-18}

What a word to be reading on Sunday, when Friday brought us to our knees. We hear a promise of disaster expunged, but for now, we’re buried by calamity. A quieting love — one day perhaps. But for so many, grief’s cacophony splits the soul.

Last night, while looking through some old files on a hard drive, I found a ten minute montage I’d saved, a string of old voicemail messages from Wyatt and Seth when they were three and four. The boys would call me while I was at work or away on a trip. “Daddy, I love you,” a tinny young voice crackled. “When you get home, can we go for a bike ride?” Tears came as I remembered these beautiful days, and more tears came as I remembered that for too many Sandy Hook families, these mementos are all they have left.

I could only think of my two boys, of the sorrow these fathers and mothers know. And I could only think of another child, a mere babe, who was born into a world where a madman murdered innocent children by the thousands. I could only think of a poor, blessed mother who would see her son’s life snuffed out before her very eyes. This son, this mother, know grief. They know the savagery of injustice. They weep.

They, better than most I must believe, know the promise that disaster will be relieved. They also know how much pain and suffering we will endure between here and there.

This suffering God. This is the God who is with us.