Sunday, December 4, 2022

Second Sunday of Advent 2022 - Behold, A Branch is Growing

Today marks the second Sunday of Advent.  A time that used to reflect on the preparations made for the arrival of the Messiah.  Of the birth of John the Baptist, he who would prepare a way for the Lord.

A voice of one calling:
"In the wilderness prepare 
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert 
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up, 
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

Isaiah 40:3-5

Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel who alone does marvelous deeds.
Psalm 72:18

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Luke 1:26-38

As I’ve explored this week, I've always loved the comparison in the miracles of the birth of John and of Jesus.  Though they are not of the same level, through them we see the breadth of the work of God - to bring forth life from the dead and to bring forth life from nothingness. To restore and rejuvenate, as well as to completely create from new.  A beautiful reminder that no matter where we may be in our lives, God can prepare a way.

May we prepare that way today. 

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Yuletide - Elizabeth - Life from Death

"The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.  For no word from God will ever fail.'"

Luke 1:35-36

I've recently been fascinated by the pairing of the stories of the pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary.  Mary's story rightly gets told and proclaimed throughout this time of year.  But Elizabeth's is often forgotten.  And it's the pairing of these two stories that show the full power of God.

Elizabeth's story is very brief; her only mentions throughout scripture are wholly contained in the first chapter of Luke.  We know that she was a descendant of Aaron.  That she is married to Zechariah.  That she was "well along in years."  That she was childless.

And we know she had prayed for a child.

In the very beginning of this Christmas story, before the angel speaks to Mary, we see God speak to his people for the very first time in over four hundred years.  His angel appears to Zechariah and lets him know that Elizabeth will conceive and give birth to John.

A promise fulfilled.

We focus on Mary's story because we find it the more miraculous.  The child is conceived immaculately.  Life is created from nothing.

But the story is even more astounding when paired with Elizabeth's pregnancy.  With Elizabeth, life comes from the dead.  From the barren.  Resurrection.

In Elizabeth and Mary, we see God creating.  From death and from nothing.  The Redeemer and the Creator.  Alpha and Omega.  Beginning and End.

In other mythologies, a common theme are the three sisters.  The weird sisters, the kindly ones, the norns, the fates, the furies.  Mother, maiden, and crone.

In this Christmas story, we see maiden and crone both becoming mother.  Life coming forth from beginning and end.

For no word from God will ever fail.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Yuletide - Zechariah - I Heard You

"And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.  But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.'"

Luke 1:11-13

As I'm reading through Luke for our men's group Huddle, I'm hitting the Christmas story at just the right time.  It reminds me of how powerful this story remains to this day.

Of all the players in the greater Christmas story, Zechariah is one that I've never given much thought to.  He's there, just a bit player in John's story, but perhaps unfairly, I've sidelined him.

He is the first person to hear from God in over 400 years.  He's blessed with the first angel visitation in the broader story.  All through a very orchestrated plan to make sure he was serving in the temple that day.

In thinking through his story, I suppose I've always had the picture of he and Elizabeth getting what they've been continually praying for.  That after all these long years of prayer and petition, of continually bringing the request for child to God, their prayer was finally answered.

But what if the scenario were a little different?  With Zechariah and Elizabeth both well advanced in years, what if the prayer for a child was one that had fallen off the prayer request list?  What if Zechariah had given up hope long ago that he and Elizabeth would have a child?  Had stopped praying that particular prayer ages ago?  After all, he could see it was an impossibility, or at least a great improbability.

At this point God had been silent for so long.  There was no prophet to bring the word of the Lord.  There was no judge looking over the people.  No king to do right or evil in the sight of the Lord.

And likely, God had been silent in Zechariah's life for a long time.  The prayer for a child had seemingly gone unanswered.  No word, no promise.

It's into this that the angel of the Lord steps in.  His first words "your prayer has been heard."  God revealing himself to Zechariah, to His people and saying "I hear you."  "I heard you."

You can imagine Zechariah thinking what prayer?  The prayer for a king?  The Messiah?  Someone to come and overthrow Rome and establish an earthly rule again?  The prayer for an uprising? The prayer for provision?

To which the angel replies, no, your first prayer.  That deep petition of your heart.  Your longing.  The prayer for a child.

The one you thought forgotten.
The one you gave up on.
The one you thought impossible.

Here is God saying I heard it, I hear it, I have always heard you.  But answering in His time.  Bringing forth His provision when it will be right.  When it aligns with His purpose.  In a manner that brings Him the glory.

He steps in and says that I am answering many prayers and promises.  The prayer for a child.  The promise for an Elijah.  The turning of the hearts of Israel.

It becomes easy to see Zechariah's confusion.  To have such an old prayer answered would be startling.

How easily we could be guilty of the same thing?

Maybe it's just me, but how often do we think we need to continually remind God of our request?  That we have to keep praying for the exact same thing over and over and over again, as if we think this time he'll finally hear us?

When God is trying to tell us, "I heard you, I hear you, I always hear you."

What would it look like if we believed that?  How would our prayer change?  What would it look like to trust His timing instead of our own?

That's not to say every prayer will be answered in the exact way we want it to be.  But we have to believe that He hears us and His plan is the best.

In this season of miracles, perhaps that is the one you need to be reminded of the most -
He heard you, He hears you, He hears the requests of His people -

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Yuletide, A Preface

"From Coney Island to the sunset strip
Somebody's gonna make a happy trip
While the moon is bright

He's gonna have a bag of crazy toys
To give the groanies of the girls and boys
So dig
Santa comes on big

He'll come a callin' when the snow's the most
And all you cats are sleepin' warm as toast
And you gonna flip when Old Saint Nick
Takes a lick on the peppermint stick

He'll come flyin' from a higher place
And fill the stocking by the fire place
So you'll
Have a yule that's cool"

We are now officially in one of my favorite times of year.  The Christmas season is finally here.  

There is just something magical about Christmas.  I know it is not always happy, it is not always bright, but there is an undeniably different energy in the month of December.  Perhaps it is simply that everyone is just done with the year.  Everyone is checked out of work and school, etc., I know, but there is still something beyond even that.

It's also an easy time to write about, and this December will be packed with content.  Most may look familiar, but I've touched up and added where I can.  I'll include my Advent material and Twelve Days of Christmas breakdown, as well as just touching on my favorite points in the season.

It will all be labeled under the Yuletide banner, referencing the pre-Christian celebration held at this time of year, many practices of which have been folded into our modern celebrations.  A reminder that our experiences predate us and will long outlast us.

I hope this season will bring you warm and bright, and above all else, may it bring you peace.

As always, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Yuletide - Happy Holidays, Merry X-mas, and The Mythical "War on Christmas", A Reminder

Or, why there is no war on Christmas and has never been one...

One of the biggest myths perpetrated over the past decade or so is the idea of a "War on Christmas."  A histrionic yuletide debate over whether the United States is a country that represents Christmas.  The push to view changes to the annual celebration as a "liberal" attack on Christmas and the religious celebration.

It's being perpetuated more now with the arson of the Christmas tree at Fox News.  No, that's not a war on Christmas, just Fox News.  Perhaps with their coverage over the past few years it was Antreefa?

This myth gained popularity in 2005 when radio host John Gibson published a book ("The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought") alleging liberal antagonism toward the holiday.  Even Mr. Gibson is surprised by the response his book got and feels the modern claims of the "War on Christmas" go farther than his book ever imagined.  His book focused on things that rarely happen any more - educators and local officials banning nonreligious symbols like Santa Claus or a Christmas tree out of a mistaken belief that displaying them violates the First Amendment.

One of the most oft cited campaigns waged against Christmas is the switch to "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."  The use of the Holidays phrase is claimed to be part of the removal of Christ from the holiday.  A downplaying of the religious aspect.

"When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression."

Clay Shirky

It's important not to get these mixed up.  "Happy Holidays" has gained favor because it is a recognition that there are many different holidays celebrated from Thanksgiving to New Year and that there are many different variations of the Christmas celebration that may not be observed by all.  "Merry Christmas" is a phrase that truly refers to two days specifically - Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  While we often call the month of December the "Christmas season" it is more appropriately the holiday season.  Los Posadas processions and celebrations begin on December 16.  The first night of Hanukkah began on the evening of December 18.  Winter Solstice is December 21.  Kwanza arrives on December 26.  Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, will not arrive until January 6.  Even Festivus is growing in popularity for December 23.  These holidays represent a wide variety of celebrations over the season that involve members of nearly every major religion, variations on Christmas from every denomination, and non-religious alike.  "Happy Holidays" is the most inclusive term for this period of time, encapsulating a greeting that wishes everyone well.  It's not meant to exclude Christmas, it's simply meant to include everything else, and such a phrase makes sense in the retail world, where it is most often applied, as you want to cover the widest possible customer base.

It should be noted that Jews, Muslims, and other non-celebrants say they are not offended by a "Merry Christmas" greeting.  Perhaps, it's our turn not to be offended by a "Happy Holidays" greeting, and to share the sentiment with a hearty "To you as well" instead of a biting "Merry Christmas" correction.

Another variation on the same thing is the outcry over the use of X-mas instead of Christmas, again trying to say that people are quite literally trying to remove "Christ" from the celebration.  This could not be further from the truth and ignores the history surrounding the X.  For starters, the letter is not an X at all, but the Greek letter chi (C/c), which is the first letter of the Greek work  Χριστός which in English is "Christ." The abbreviation has been used from at earliest possibly 1551.  The X has been used in abbreviation of Christ's name (specifically as part of the Chi Rho -  ⳩) possibly as early as 312.  "Xian" and "Xtian" have even been used to abbreviate Christian.  Far from a removal of Christ, the usage is part of a long tradition of remembrance.

We even get into debates over what decorations are displayed, spreading lies about particular administrations and their "removal" of the Nativity scene.  In case you doubted, the White House Creche has been displayed in the East Room every year since 1967, including during the Obama administration.

"Those are good reason.  Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it's getting too dangerous."
Linus van Pelt

In truth, biggest reason why there is no "War on Christmas" is the very thing that most endangers our religious observance and most attempts to remove Christ from the holiday - Christmas is too big of a money maker to be ignored, downplayed, or warred against. Too many business and people depend on the spending on the secular and religious observances of Christmas to make ends meet.  It's one of the reasons given for the name Black Friday; Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving would bring companies into the black (myth it may be).

And it's this focus on the commercial aspect of Christmas, on what we can get and what we can buy to give, that really takes our focus on the true meaning of the season for followers of Christ.  On the greatest gift we know ever to have been given.  And to that, it's less of a war and more of a surrender.  It's Christians freely and willingly getting wrapped up in everything else that Christmas brings and letting it crowd out all memory of what it is supposed to represent.

So, instead of worrying about how others celebrate this season, or worrying over a misunderstanding of an abbreviation, how about we focus on keeping the memory of the true meaning of the season.  Of carrying that inward guidance of the greatest gift freely given.  To have that spirit guide us to rejoice with exceeding great joy.  To be generous and merciful and to extend that spirit to those around us.

And in that spirit, I wish each of you a very Happy Holidays, whatever you may be celebrating, and a very Merry X-mas!

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Giving Tuesday 2022

"No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another."

Charles Dickens

Today is Giving Tuesday.  A day set aside in 2012 to focus on the specific goal of bringing people together for a day of giving back.  In this season of giving this should be our spirit throughout, but it is so easily lost in all the consumerism.  Even this day can get lost among its neighbors - Black Friday, Shop Small Saturday, and Cyber Monday.  But Giving Tuesday is the most important of all.  

Christmas is about giving.  It's when we share the maxim that it is truly better to give than to receive.  It's about giving gifts, about giving of ourselves to each other to share the greatest gift that we have all received.  It's about that great gift that started with a child in a manger.

Giving Tuesday can be celebrated either by the giving of money or the giving of time.  That's an important distinction.  When we can get so caught up in stuff, we can forget that the greatest gift we can often give is our time.  To those we love, to those in need, to those in our lives.  Don't overlook time.

Also, please remember that Covid-19 and this recession has affected charities as much or more than many other organizations.  For those that are able to give monetarily, please consider doing so out of an abundance.  The need is great this year, and we can help meet it.

Paul's second letter to the Corinthian church reminds us that "God loves a cheerful giver."  I cannot think of a greater way to spread Christmas cheer than to celebrate Giving Tuesday well and carrying that over into this entire season and beyond.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Cyber-Monday 2022

Today marks Cyber Monday, a marketing term coined to push people to e-commerce sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving.  It has become the Black Friday of the e-commerce world, often representing the biggest online shopping day of the year.  In fact, Cyber Monday 2020 was the largest online shopping day in U.S. history, with a total of $10.7 billion in online spending.

While online shopping has become normalized and while it is relatively secure, there are still a few tips you should remember to be safe this holiday season.
  • Only shop on sites you trust - Now is not the time to make purchases from unknown or unrecognized vendors.  As in the physical world, if a deal looks too good to be true, it likely is and can be posted by an untrusted vendor as part of a phishing exercise.  Or if you are buying a hard to find item at a markup, it could be from an untrusted vendor using an automated program to capture all of the sale items and sell them at a large markup.  Buying new items from resellers opens you to an increased risk of fraud and counterfeit goods.  Plus, don't use Wish.
  • Do not click links within an advertising email - These can be easily spoofed and it can be extremely difficult to verify.  Can you tell the difference between a Latin "a" and Cyrillic "a" for example if used once in a bankofamerica link?  Instead, go directly to the merchant's main website.  This can help save you from potential phishing attacks and the issues that could follow.
  • Avoid public Wi-Fi while shopping - It can be very tempting to connect to a store's free Wi-Fi while you are shopping to save on your data usage.  But please know, public Wi-Fi is not secure, meaning if you do connect to it, you should not use it for any browsing that would transfer sensitive information. Don't access important accounts like banking and do not shop online while connected.  Save those for when you are back on your private network.
  • Keep an eye on your bank statements - Watch for duplicate or unrecognized charges on receipts and billing statements.  This is your first line of defense against identity theft and fraud.  Flag any suspicious activity and raise it with your bank or credit card company immediately.
Cyber-shopping can be a great time saver and a great resource.  I love its utility and breadth of access.  I just hope we can all stay safe this holiday season, including cyber-safe.