A friend of mine selects a word at the beginning of each year to help guide her through the coming twelve months. She gives her selection much more thought than I’m guessing most of us do to any resolutions we might make.
Her word for 2021 was renewal. It captured her hope to renew friendships, activities, mind, body, and spirit.
As I was reflecting on what word I might select for the coming year, I learned of the death of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. My mind jumped to thinking about what word I would connect with this great hero of faith.
I’ve heard several commentators suggest the word ubuntu.
It represents an African concept in which one’s sense of self is shaped by one’s relationships with other people. It’s a way of living that begins with the premise that “I am” only because “we are.”
We’ve made it. We’ve reached the end of our Advent journey.
But where do we find ourselves this Christmas Eve?
Are we with the shepherds out in the fields, minding our own business, waiting for the night to end? When the glory of the Lord bursts in around us here tonight, will we see it? Or will we be too terrified?
Or has our journey led us—along with the shepherds—to Bethlehem? And once there, will we dare to take the final step that will bring us face to face with the Christ whose coming we have awaited?
Our Advent journey nears its end. We long to reach our destination. Detours and delays at this point seem like more than mere annoyances. Nothing must stop us from reaching our journey’s end on schedule and according to plan.
Joseph had a plan in mind also, didn’t he?
Being a righteous man who was unwilling to expose his pregnant fiancée to public disgrace, Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly. This was not a harsh or malicious plan. In fact, considering the circumstances, Joseph’s plan was quite noble.
But just as Joseph mapped out the final steps of his plan, God introduced a change of direction.
As we travel our Advent journey, it’s difficult for us to imagine how John the Baptist could have missed the truth that Jesus was indeed the messiah—the one who was to come.
Consider the evidence: the blind could see, the lame could walk, the lepers were healed, the deaf could hear, the dead were alive, and the poor received good news.
And yet John—who was on his own Advent journey—seemed uncertain about which step to take next. Jesus was not following the road map that John had expected. Jesus replaced John’s message of judgment and repentance with one of forgiveness and redemption.
But despite his uncertain footing, John did not give up his journey. John’s questioning about Jesus’ identity reveals a desire to travel onward.
John’s question reminds us that faith involves taking risks.
Our Advent journey continues. And as we travel, we hear the words, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
But which of the many roads that lie in front of us is the “way of the Lord”? Which path are we to choose if we are to reach the coming Christ?
The ministry of John the Baptist is a good reminder that God rarely calls us to follow the well-beaten paths of the world. John the Baptist offers no indication that the road we are to travel will be easy or predictable.
John presented an appearance that was hard on the eyes and preached a message that was even harder on the ears. He was not exactly the ideal advance man for a coming king. And yet it fell to John to prepare the way of the Lord.
A call to that same task beckons us as we travel our Advent journey.
Today we begin the journey of Advent. It’s a journey that—if traveled faithfully—will lead us to a place where we truly can welcome the coming Christ.
If we take seriously the warning that the Christ will come at an unexpected hour, perhaps the best way we can travel our Advent journey is on tiptoe.
Walking on tiptoe. Stretching and straining in anticipation of what wonder might lie ahead.
How often do we travel our daily journeys with heads down, eyes riveted straight ahead? If there’s something out of the ordinary waiting along our path, we’d rather not see it. We live in a world that prefers the predictable to the surprising.
Earlier this summer I had the privilege of working with a group of elementary-school-age students for a week. My assignment was to help the students focus on the story of a person of faith from the Bible.
That week we began each day by exploring a different aspect of the story of Noah. We talked about whom we might pick to help when the world gets into a big mess. (Trust me, an old guy wasn’t anyone’s first choice.) We talked about what it might mean to take on a big job from God and how it might have felt to wait through a big flood. (Waiting was not on the top of anyone’s list of favorite things.) We wrapped up the week by talking about the big promise Noah received from God and the big lesson we might take from his story.
The students delighted me each day with their ability to imagine new ways to understand the story of Noah and to connect that story to their own lives. They shared ways in which the world today is in a big mess; the jobs that God might invite them to do; the trust and patience it takes to wait; and how they can believe in God’s promises.
I’ve learned over the years that I always receive more than I give when I work with children. This summer was no different, but the specific gift came as a surprise.
I love hearing stories. Stories about people’s lives. Stories about congregations. Stories about towns or other communities.
This morning I got to listen in as older members of a congregation told stories. Most of them began: “Remember when. . . .”
One of those members also told me about recent conversations she and her siblings have shared. Those conversations also focused on remembering as a way of processing their experiences during the pandemic and identifying the things that really matter to them.
As we all seek ways to move forward following a time of upheaval and uncertainty, perhaps remembering is what we need to do.
Remembering can help us identify what’s important to us. It can ground us—reminding of us of where we’ve been and providing perspective on where we want to go. It also can provide us with reasons for gratitude and hope—both of which help us treasure what’s really important in our lives as we move forward.
Perhaps even more powerfully, remembering can join us to others. It can link us to others in transformative ways.
My birthday was earlier this month, and I heard from a number of friends from across the country. Each call, text, card, and post reminded me how fortunate I am to have people in my life who see the best in me and believe the best will unfold for me.
But how many of us have had the opposite experience? A time in our life when someone assumed the worst about us. Perhaps even reached that assumption without really knowing us.
It’s funny how such an assumption can lead to so many dead ends. Having someone assume the worst about us can stop us from exploring new possibilities, from trying new paths, from being our authentic selves. Someone else’s negative assumption can cast a shadow over how we see ourselves, shrink what we believe about our potential, and limit what we’re willing to risk.
After divinity school I moved to central Kentucky to serve on my first church staff. It didn’t take long to discover that my new neighbors were less than thrilled to have a “preacher” living next door. Despite their politeness, the message was pretty clear: We’re not interested in getting to know you.
I found myself feeling self-conscious when we would run into each other. In fact, sometimes if I saw one of my neighbors getting into his or her car in front of our houses, I would wait a few minutes before heading out to my car to avoid the awkwardness.
Fortunately, things changed over the months that followed. My neighbors and I got to know each other and became great friends.
At some point one of those neighbors told me she’d had all kinds of negative assumptions about me. Because of bad experiences she’s had with the church, she assumed that she knew what I believed, how I viewed the world, and how I would treat her. Even to this day, she admits that she can be surprised by how I view a given issue or make sense of a certain situation.
Several years ago as I was standing in line for a rental car, I heard the agent tell the person in front of me, “You’ll be able to find every kind of restaurant here that you can imagine.”
The rental car desk was in the airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
There are many things to appreciate about my hometown, but I can’t agree with the rental-car agent. Unless you’re looking for really good chicken-fried steak, BBQ, or Tex-Mex, there are limits in Tulsa’s restaurant options.
That experience reminds me how often a lack of imagination can limit us. I’m also reminded of that each time I hear someone say, “I could never imagine. . . .”
So what limits our imaginations? I think expectations may be one of those things.
Expectations can be positive. They can spur us to strive for excellence or inspire us to continue to grow and discover who we are.
But expectations also can have negative effects. They can diminish our sense of self-worth or belonging. They can make us feel less worthy, less capable, less adequate because who we are or what we do seems to fall short of what’s expected.