Category: Advent Reflections

CHRISTMAS GREETINGS

Advent-Reflections-CDecember, 2015

For the last several weeks we have been hearing and singing the “songs of the season,” which in our time has come to be a strange mixture of both traditional and contemporary, sacred and secular. All of them together contribute to creating a different spirit than exists during the other months of the year.  This year I have been drawn to two more recent such songs, both of which I have viewed and listened to often in the last few weeks.

“Mary, Did You Know” (lyrics by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene) has been around for more than twenty years and recorded by many. The questions posed in that song remind us that while we may get caught up in the Bethlehem-manger-shepherds story, the baby does grow up to walk on water, heal the sick, and is “the great I am” and “has come to make you new.” If you have not seen it, check out the YouTube video of Pentatonix singing this one.

“A Baby Changes Everything” (written by Faith Hill) invites us not only to remember the story of Mary and Joseph, but also to experience the life-changing gift of God’s love and mercy. The baby born in a manger in Bethlehem indeed changes everything. Check out the YouTube video of Faith Hill singing her song with scenes from The Nativity Story connecting the lyrics.

But for all the songs ever written for this holy season, none compare to the first one sung by angels in the vicinity of Bethlehem. First the angel brought the message: “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you – wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11, CEB) The great “I Am” has come in the flesh that transforms our lives and changes all of history. With that news announced, the night was filled with the sound of an angel chorus: “Glory to God I heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:14, CEB) “Peace on earth” is our prayer, our hope, our longing – this year as much as any year.

I pray that the song of the angels will touch your hearts and stir your spirits this Christmas.  I wish for all a “wonderful and joyous” Christmas and a blessed new year.

-Bishop Larry Goodpaster

BishopGoodpasterBishop Larry Goodpaster is the Resident Bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church

Advent Reflections- Holy Silence

Advent-Reflections-Hby Bishop Goodpaster

Three candles have now been lit around the Advent wreaths in our churches and homes. However, as the countdown to Christmas enters its final week and the anticipation builds so also all of our last minute preparations. We get caught in the hectic, sometimes chaotic, rush toward Christmas, with to-do lists that are too long and days that are too short.

In the midst of our haste comes the brief story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth soon after the angel announces to her that she will bear a son. (Luke 1:39-56) Here there are no choirs of angels breaking forth into song disturbing the night; no large assembly of people traveling to be counted in a census; no shepherds or wise men or animals. Just two soon-to-be mothers thinking about their lives and their babies, and contemplating what God is doing in and through them, and for all humanity.

On the last several trips I have made to the Holy Land, we have visited Ein Karem, a small village southwest of Jerusalem. According to tradition, it is the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah and the birthplace of John the Baptist. While some tour groups make their way to this place, it is never as packed with pilgrims as are most of the other sites in Jerusalem. In order to get there you travel narrow streets and the bus parks some distance away which means a hike through a neighborhood. And then there are the steps up – many, many steps up. The climb is worth it, because when you get to the top and to the chapels that have been built over the centuries, you discover a quiet calm. Looking back toward Jerusalem I can almost feel the crush of the crowds trying to get into places. But here there is time for reading the Scripture and moving in silence around the grounds, connecting with the story and perhaps singing Mary’s song. I look out over the countryside and feel a holy calm in my spirit.

It is that Advent rest that too often eludes us. It is Mary’s song reminding us of God breaking into our busy, chaotic lives. “For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Will I be able to stop long enough to consider those blessings? “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” To stand in awe and wonder at the patient and kind mercy of God extended to me is to find Advent rest. God has “lifted up the lowly” and “filled the hungry with good things.” This is not about the stuff that will be on our tables or under our trees, but the grace-gifts of God to enrich all of life.

In his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament John Wesley writes that Mary is “under a prophetic impulse” as she sings. I like that perspective: Mary’s song is not about her but about what God has done, is doing, and will do. She sings about God’s actions. It has nothing to do with her busy-ness, her possessions, or her anxiety. It’s all about God’s love breaking into our dark world and shedding the light of divine hope and joy into our lives.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” (United Methodist Hymnal, #230)

BishopGoodpasterBishop Larry Goodpaster is the Resident Bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church

 

Advent Reflections- Anguished Seriousness

Advent-Reflections300by Bishop Goodpaster

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom … Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Here is your God.” (Isaiah 35:1, 4)

During this month of December many of us fall back into days of childhood, of wonder, of laughter, and of familiar stories and traditions. We lose ourselves in the beauty of decorations and lights, and in pictures of calm, quiet winter scenes. I will be the first to admit that I am one of those who is moved by memories of such things that are part of the Christmases of my childhood, and of our daughters. It is easy, I suppose, to get caught up in all of the trappings of this season and lose sight of Advent as a season of preparation – not the decorating, present-wrapping, card-sending, food-cooking kind of preparations, but rather of “let every heart prepare him room.”

Recent events in Paris and San Bernardino and on too many city streets have turned our Advent preparations into concerns and fears, and forced us to wonder about the message of hope that is at the heart of the season. The prophets anticipate the day when God would intervene and restore barren land and empty lives. It is that word to which I return again and again in the darkness that seems to grip so much of this world. The birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, the Word become flesh, is a sign that the darkness will not overcome God’s light. The season of Advent moves us from uncertainty and fear to the hope that is ours in Christ. Even in the midst of dark, tragic events look for that light, that hope.

In my many week-long spiritual retreats to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky I have come to find rich deep insights in the writings of Thomas Merton. In 1963 he wrote an Advent reflection entitled “Advent: Hope or Delusion?” I commend it to you, but here I want to quote a few lines that seem quite relevant to and for our own time. Merton invites us to remember the “anguished seriousness of Advent,” a reminder that the season moves us toward “more than a charming infant smiling … in the straw.”

Merton: “…the Church in preparing us for the birth of a ‘great prophet,’ a Savior and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer … In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies … The fact remains that our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be. The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed; indeed all will be done according to His will. Our Advent is a celebration of this hope.”

While moving through all of our traditions and Christmas-keeping, let us be renewed in our hope through the “anguished seriousness of Advent.” There is coming a time when the wilderness, the dry land, the desert spaces, and the rough places will all be renewed and refreshed. We maintain that hope which does not disappoint and which calms fearful hearts.

“O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.”

BishopGoodpasterBishop Larry Goodpaster is the Resident Bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church

Advent Reflections- Bring Your “A” Game

Advent-Reflections300by Bishop Goodpaster

“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise … I will cause a righteous branch to spring up … he shall execute justice and righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-15)

When coaches or leaders suggest that team members bring their “A” game the challenge is that everyone will have to be and do their absolute best to achieve the goal. Each person must come to the day, to the moment, to the game with their top attitude and ability. The prophet Jeremiah alerts the people to turn their lives toward God and to what God is up to in and for the world. It will require them to pay attention at all times and to anticipate God’s intervention. In other words, when it comes to faith, they are going to have to be at their best.

Advent invites us into this journey of hope, as we await those coming days, the fulfillment of the promises, and the arrival of justice and righteousness. “Come, Lord Jesus” is the mantra for this season, and indeed for all the days of our lives. It is not, as Richard Rohr suggests, a “cry of desperation but an assured shout of cosmic hope.” (Preparing for Christmas, page 3) On the first Sunday of Advent, many of our churches sang the words of Charles Wesley in order to set the appropriate tone for the season: “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.”

In the coming weeks many of us will be caught up in all of the trappings of the Christmas season as we decorate and wrap presents, as we check our lists two and three times, and as we try to maintain some level of sanity and balance in our lives. I believe we will have to be at the top of our spiritual “A” game in order to experience a holy Advent and a joyous celebration of the “righteous branch” springing up.

Of course we will sing and tell the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem but we will also look forward in anticipation and hope of the second coming as a fulfillment of those prophetic promises. Such a perspective will require us to be alert, awake, aware, attentive, and alive to God. These “A” qualities shift our focus from the endless rounds of parties, outings, and shopping excursions that our culture proclaims as the way to observe and have a happy holiday season. The “A” words of Advent have the power to shape our attitudes and transform our spirits, and move us from the darkness of this world into the glorious light of the dawning of God’s light and love.

Dr. Ellen Davis, Interim Dean and Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School writes: “The alertness to which Jesus calls us is the opposite of ‘dissipation’ – wasting energy, time, attention, and the yearnings of our hearts on things that society holds to be important, although they often dull our hearts, desensitizing us to the signs, small and great, that God’s sovereignty is indeed breaking into our world. Advent is the church’s necessary response to the dissipation of the phony pre-Christmas ‘season,’ which threatens to deprive us of spiritual freedom. Be alert!”

And bring your “A” game.

BishopGoodpasterBishop Larry Goodpaster is the Resident Bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church