Monday, December 26, 2016


        It is the day after Christmas.  For many, I'm sure, it is a day of rest, of relaxing.  Not for me.  We had half the family over for Christmas yesterday and the other half is coming today.  I also have a memorial service in the early afternoon.  And since the house was full of folk yesterday, it requires cleaning again today, as well as cooking, before our guests arrive.  Another very full day, after an incredibly full week (a total of 6 worship services in the span of a week plus the preschool program, and regular scheduled activities.  I know other large churches may have this many services on a regular basis, but then they also have multiple pastors on staff...) which was just the last in an incredibly busy month.  And at the end of it all, I'll admit I'm tired.
       But right now, in this moment, before the kids are awake and before David comes over to help me with all that needs to be done; right now it is quiet.  I sit in my house, looking out my back window on a gorgeous sunny winter's morning.  And it is silent.  The beauty of the morning calls me to be outside, walking, and when I am done writing this I will probably accept that invitation.
        But as I sit in the quiet, I am aware of how many times and ways we are pulled out of the quiet. I'm aware that even my writing and even my desire to be out walking are ways to avoid being in the stillness by myself.  We flood ourselves and our lives with noise, with disturbances, with distractions on so many different levels.  There are those we are willing to name as a culture: TV, radio, videos, time with people, busyness.  But there are the ones we are less willing to own that are also distractions and ways to avoid the quiet: social media is a big one, but I would also add books, activity of any kind (including writing), music in any form, and yes, even walking, exercising, and being with our most intimate companions.  I heard a story this last week about a man who was struggling and told by his therapist that for a week he needed to go home after work each day and be just with himself.  At the end of the week he returned to his therapist and informed her that it had done no good.  She asked what it looked like for him to be with himself at the end of each day.  He said he went home and read and listened to music.  The therapist told him, "I told you to go home and be with yourself each day, not with the authors and composers of the books and music that filled your time."  I think there is so much wisdom in that story.  It reminds me frankly of something Martin Luther supposedly said, "I have so much to do today that I shall spend the first three hours praying." I don't know what he meant by praying, but for me, the listening, the silence, the being is the most important part of praying.
            It is so hard to be with ourselves.  We escape constantly.  Even as I write this my mind is going a hundred different places into what I need to do today, what must be accomplished.  It escapes into thinking about relationships and situations and things needing to be done or fixed or righted or tried.  My mind goes to encounters I've had and analyzes them, picks them apart.  It is hard to just BE.  But I believe the more that we practice BEing, the more we find there is nothing to fear, there is nothing to escape, and that some of the moments that are most truly lived and experienced are those we find in solitude and in silence.  If nothing else, these moments of silence can ground us and help us remember that at the end of the day, little that we focus on in our constant busyness really matters. We are given the gift of living, of life, of being.  And in the end accepting the invitation into life is what it is all about.  I'm going to stop writing now and try to do what I'm urging the rest of you to do. Have a blessed day, whatever your faith tradition.  Take time to BE.  Peace to you all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Times of Darkness

         I love the psalms.  I love them because they give words to all the feelings we have: all, including that which we often think we should not share with God.  There is anger, there is despair, there is sadness; as well as praise and thanksgiving and joy and delight.  There is envy and frustration, feelings of abandonment; as well as celebration of life and all of its gifts, triumph, trust, and victory.
         I am part of a spiritual journeys group that meets once a month for 4 1/2 hours or so and that is practicing different spiritual disciplines each month.  This month we looked in particular at psalms of lament.  Every week we were to pick a different psalm of lament and each day we read through it, listening for where God is and what speaks to us in that particular reading.  I love Psalm 22 for many reasons, not least of which is that I think many of us can resonate so strongly in times of despair with much of what the psalmist wrote, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,     by night, but I find no rest."  If we are honest with ourselves, all of us have felt this at one time or another.  I also love it because Jesus quoted that first line from the cross.  Christ, too, knows what it is like to feel that despair, that pain.  I find great comfort in that, in the idea that we are understood for all of who we are and all of what we feel.
       But this last week I focused on a different psalm.  I chose Psalm 88, which doesn't resolve as most of the other psalms of lament do.  There is no "it's okay" at the end, or even praise of God to set us back on our feet.  It ends in the dark.  It ends still in the despair.  It ends in anguish and sorrow.
      I know there is a theological position that states that we should never leave our people in that darkness, that we must always shine a light to lead them out of that place.  But I do not and cannot agree with that. For one thing it does not acknowledge that there simply ARE times of despair for all of us, that there are times when we cannot find the light.  To acknowledge that and to honor those feelings is to really see people and to be with them even in that darkness.  When we try to rush people too quickly out of their pain and anguish, we do not give them the space to fully grieve and therefore to truly heal.
         To be fully human means to experience the darkness as well as the light, to be willing to learn the lessons and accept the gifts that sorrow can bring to each of us.  These aren't easy lessons to learn and I understand not wanting to be in the pain which alone can lead us to these deeper understandings.  But without that willingness to be in the dark for a while, the light's brightness can never be fully understood, experienced, or appreciated for the gift it brings. Without that commitment to walking through the despair, we cheapen life in all its wondrous variety.  Without sinking into the desolation and suffering for a time, the pain cannot be completely released, and we will not be set free to experience joy with fullness.
        We were encouraged to write our own psalms of lament during this time as well.  I am aware that, to quote Hildegard de Bingen, "My greatest disobedience is my self-doubt".  I also want to remind you that a psalm of lament is a glimpse, a moment.  It is not the totality of our beliefs or even an accurate reflection of our faith.  It is a snapshot on the pain we are feeling at the moment (so please don't send me a message "correcting" my theology on this.  Again, this is a reflection of the feelings I had in a moment).  With all those caveats, I am choosing to share with you my psalm of lament in the hopes that it might resonate with some of you as well:

I hear you calling, God
I hear it constantly,
This call
To do more
To be more
Than I am.

You call me through the Prophets’ words
Of preaching good news to the poor
Lifting up the downtrodden
And healing the broken hearted.

You call me through the words
Of Jesus as he begs and demands and insists
That our call is to feed the hungry
And clothe the naked
And visit those in prison
And who are sick.

You call me through our modern prophets
Who speak of the need
To advocate for the voiceless,
To fight the powers that would hold down
Any of our sisters and brothers,
To stand up with those who are threatened.

And you call me through the pain I feel
At the suffering of others,
And at the destruction of the environment.
At the cutting down of the trees
And at the anger, bigotry, misogyny, homophobia,
That cuts me like it was my own skin being torn to shreds.

You call me through all these things.

But I’m all too aware that I fall short
I don’t do enough
I’m not enough.

And in my failing, God, I feel your absence.
I feel your tangible disappointment in me:
Not only what I have done
And what I have failed to do,
But also in who I am.

I call to you
Day and night
To release me from this torment
Of self-doubt and judgment

I ask every day for you to help me
Let go of my own ego
That keeps me more focused
On my failings
Than on doing what is there to be done
In each day
In each moment.

I beg and plead of you
To help me see where to put my next step
And to let me be a vessel
Of your will
And your way:
Your grace, love and compassion
To a hurting world.

But what I hear is silence.
What I get is absence.
What I experience is a turning of your back
With sad eyes.
A walking away.
A giving up
On me.

Don’t turn away from me!
Be there to give me the words
And the actions
And the vision
That I need.

Do not leave me
To fight my own inner demons
Of judgment and anxiety
By myself.

God, I beg you to return
And guide me on this dark
And difficult journey,
To help me get the “me”
Out of my laments
And to focus instead
Always and all the time
On the You
That is the person in front of me at any moment
As well as the God beyond us all.

          If this resonates with you, I hope you will try writing your own psalm of lament.  Finally, I want to end by encouraging you to listen to Amy Grant's song, "Better than a Hallelujah".  Beautiful.  Her own psalm (which means "song") of Lament.  Click here to hear it: Lament 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Honor of our Work

I deeply believe that my call is not better or greater or more important than anyone else's. But I think it is good to take seriously whatever our calling is and to look at what we are really entrusted to do. (Teachers, for example, have the incredible job of setting examples for their kids, engaging their minds and interests in learning, helping students to grow, to think, to see the world through new eyes. That is not a job that can or should ever be taken without a deep sense of the formidable and extraordinary job they have to care for those in their class rooms.)  We could examine the gifts of our callings with every vocation there is.  But today I would like to focus for a minute on the astonishing gift that has been given to those of us who serve as pastors.

As pastors we have been given an awesome task.  We speak to God on behalf of the people. And we attempt to speak words both of challenge and comfort to the people on behalf of God.  In the Protestant church we don't believe these calls or gifts are limited to the clergy by any means.  All people are to pray to God and all people are ministers to one another.  None the less, standing in front of people on a weekly basis to pray and to interpret God's word...  It is an unbelievable gift of trust from our congregants and from those who read our blogs or FB posts, or watch our YouTube videos, that they do take the time to listen to us, that they ask us to pray for them, that they come with the hopes of hearing something that will be meaningful to them, give them comfort or challenge them to a new way to understand and live their lives more fully, that they trust our prayers will be heard.

I found myself thinking today about Matthew 18:6 - “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." As pastors, perhaps, we have more opportunities than many to cause others to stumble.  None of us are perfect.  Therefore all of us have undoubtedly gotten things wrong and been, at times, less than loving or compassionate. I believe it is only with grace and humility that we can stand before our God and pray that we mostly do good for those in our communities. This isn't, though, because I believe God will punish us when we end up hurting someone, but simply because I am aware that with this privilege comes an authority and therefore a responsibility to tread with care and love and a humbleness in all that we do.  We all have heard of times when pastoral authority has been misused, and it can be devastating.  Therefore the first prayer we who serve should pray every day is that God will use us in the service of good with those whose lives we touch.

But our job as pastors goes even beyond the praying and preaching.  I am aware every time I sit with someone going through a transition in their lives, every time I walk with someone in their last days, or pray with someone who has lost a loved one, each time I work with a couple as they make the decision to commit their lives to one another, or plan with a family the baptism of their child, of what an awe-inspiring privilege it is to be with people in these times, to hear their stories, to share in their experiences of deepest pain and greatest joy, to walk their journeys with them.  There is no greater honor than to be allowed to see someone's heart, to be trusted with another person's tears, to hold someone's hand as they transition out of this life-time, to bless a baby as it begins its journey, to hear the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the grief and the wonder others carry.  It is in those times that I see the face of God most clearly in those around me.  It is in those experiences that my own heart finds healing.  It is through those moments that I glimpse eternity. And it is in walking the journey with another that I find myself held most deeply in Grace.

We also have the amazing privilege of interacting with people that most folk avoid, condemn, judge or simply don't see.  We often have people who are in need come into our ministries or churches.  I believe Jesus when he said he is to be found "in the least of these" and that when you do things for those others do not acknowledge that you experience Christ.  I know it is possible to become jaded by experiences of being lied to by someone asking for help.  But my own wish, my own striving is always to see the person behind whatever story they tell me whether it is true or not; to go deeper and really see the person who has been so hurt by life that they stand before me with a story, again true or not.  And in those interactions with other broken people, I see reflected my own brokenness, my own need for truths that go beyond the stories I share, my own need for other people and for their help.  It would be less than honest to say I never feel threatened or overwhelmed in these interactions.  But every time I have an interaction with someone I would rather avoid, I feel the call to look at myself and what I am uneasy with, what makes me uncomfortable.  I am forced to face my own prejudices and biases and to learn from them.  The opportunity to weekly and sometimes daily grow and learn is another of the great gifts of our work. We are called to love and serve those in need.  And as pastors we are able to answer that call as part of our daily service.  That is a gift as we experience grace in the giving, in the loving, in the serving.

Finally, I want to mention one other way in which our work is an amazing call, honor and privilege. I do not believe there is one pastor out there who has not been hurt by the people they serve.  This can take many forms.  Parishioners hold pastors to higher standards most of the time and expect from us, therefore, a level of performance that none of us can meet all the time. They also don't seem to realize that we have as many feelings, insecurities and doubts as everyone else.  Parishioners hurt us, therefore, in many ways.  They can become angry when they perceive we have made a mistake, or when they feel we have slighted them in some way. Sometimes they choose to attack rather than talk to us about their needs and their feelings. They can be nasty and cruel in evaluations.  And sometimes they gather others to them and attack as a group. Parishioners hurt us by dismissing our ministry with them and asking other pastors to serve in important life transitions instead.  I could go on and share stories of pastors who've been chewed up, spit out and broken by congregants who have no regrets at all about the way they have treated them.  The truth is they hurt us in a myriad of ways and in a myriad of situations. And again, there is not one pastor I know who has never been hurt by those they are called to serve.  But it is in the midst of that we hear God asking us to love even those who would hurt us and would hate us.  When we are called to sit with,  pray for, and hold the hand of someone who has made our life difficult, painful, or stressful, it moves us to be better than we are.  It challenges us to live what we preach by forgiving even when forgiveness is not sought, by loving even when the other does not want our love, and by rising above our own egos to truly show the face of grace, love and compassion.  For me personally, this is one of the hardest things I am called to do. Even as I write this faces float before my eyes of people who have been unkind whom I have still been called to love and care for.  My profession forces me to do what I might otherwise avoid. It calls me on my stuff, and forces me to own what is my own baggage, my own brokenness, and my own ego.  That too is a gift that deepens in me every time I am able to it.  When I am able to forgive and let go, I feel God's presence moving in my being.  When I am able to look at an angry face and love the person behind it, sometimes I have been gifted to experience tears of healing for both of us.  When I am able to move myself out of the way and just be a presence for the other, I have felt an awareness of that which is bigger than all of us in the room guiding, affirming, and loving us both.

As pastors we have the joy of being able to focus all of our time on God and on loving others.  We get to study, read, teach, be creative, plan, vision and dream.  We get to walk with people through it all. We get to be blessed by the ministries of those around us.  It is an honor and privilege to be able to serve people as a pastor because we are the ones who are blessed by each person we encounter.  May all of us who serve in these positions walk with the gentle reminder that our work is a blessing to us. And that we are therefore called to walk with grace, joy and humility in every step we take.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Disagreeing in these terrifying times

              I wrote much of this in a newsletter article for my congregation before the election, but I still think it applies so I'm posting it here as well:

               As we approach the new year, tensions within our country are on the rise.  I don’t remember them ever being this high before, but they certainly are now.  People read different news articles, believe very different "truths" and believe absolutely that the other side is reading lies.  We don't see or hear the same things, we don't believe the same things, we don't trust the same sources, and as a result, we cannot possible see eye to eye.  This is becoming more and more true, instead of less.  
For both sides it feels like central issues are at risk right now, core beliefs, core values, and in some ways I feel that we have entered into a truly terrifying time where we no longer listen, no longer hear, but are more and more divided from one another.  How can we be family together if we cannot stand in the same room?  How can we learn to “love our enemies” when we will not listen to them?  How can we work together to help bring the kindom of God to earth “as it is in heaven” when we refuse to work together towards solutions?  And what can we do when we are afraid?
               There is a YouTube personality called “kid president” whom I feel did a really nice summary of the ways we might choose to respond to people with whom we disagree.  For those who are computer savvy and enjoy these videos, I would encourage you to check this out.  He is funny, sweet and right on target:  For those who’d rather not watch a video, I will share a few of his awesome points about how to disagree, mixed with thoughts of my own. 
              We have to start by remembering that the other person with whom we are talking is another person.  They are not a punching bag.  They are not an ant (though, frankly, it wouldn't hurt us to try to be respectful of all God's creation, including the ants).  They are a person.  Or to put it in Christian terms, we are called to remember that the other is also a child of God.  They are our brother or sister.  Therefore we are called in all times and in all ways to treat the other as that child of God, a reflection of God, a living, breathing soul who has been given life by none other than our good Creator.  Even when the other is horrible to us, we are called to love them.  You know the scriptures.  From Matthew 5: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” And “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
               We have to treat each other with love and kindness.  This is not optional here, especially for those who claim to follow Jesus.  Fighting hate with hate is not an option, being violent is not an option, fighting the darkness with darkness (to use MLK's phrase) is not an option for those who follow Christ.  That means, though, that we have to spend time getting to know the brother or sister that we see as an enemy.  It isn't an "out there" idea.  It certainly isn't a theoretical philosophy.  It is our call.  We are to love the other. That has to start by getting to know the other.  And getting to know the other begins with listening.
         That means refraining from yelling or attacking or shutting someone else up.  It starts with simply listening.  Closing our mouths, opening our ears, and working with every breath in you to HEAR.
           Kid President says the next step is to “pause, breathe, love”.  Another way to say this is take a moment, remember again that the other is a person, love them as God has called us to love one another, breathe in the Spirit, the Ruach, which is the Spirit of God, the spirit of peace.  Do all of this before you respond.  And when you respond, don’t be MEAN.  That means no name calling, no insulting.  Just state your difference of opinion and why.  Saying things like “well, that’s just stupid” does not further communication, understanding or peace.  Saying things like, “what a ridiculous thought!” again does not further love.  That is what we are about, furthering love.  To quote Kid President, “nobody wins when all you want to do is win.” 
               I would encourage all of us to listen more and to strive more for kindness.  Those random acts of kindness make a huge difference in the world. When someone yells at you from their car, it can ruin your day. When someone takes the time to help you, it can make your whole day brighter.  When we are doing better, we treat others better. We pass that along. Meanness, hatred, anger, fear – these things cannot be allowed to rule us in the big things or in the small things.  And that means we have to start by showing that kindness, love and caring to each other in the small matters as well as in the big.  Especially now during this season of such high tension, fear, anger and hatred, we are called to show a better way.  “They will know we are Christians by our love”.  Well, let’s be part of proving that.  Let us love one another.  That's it. Not easy.  But simple and clear.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sunday's Sermon -Advent II - Repentance

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

John was baptizing.  And when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him to be baptized, the implication is that he did baptize them as well.  But what he had to say to them was pretty harsh.  He offered baptism for repentance, but then declared that this was just a beginning…  just a prelude to what Jesus would bring.  He himself declared that the baptism he was offering was, in a sense, “easy”.  It was gentle.  He said, come to me and let me baptize you and your sins will be cleaned.  But John also warned that Jesus’ coming would not be so simple.  Making amends, repenting, is not just the easy task of saying to God, “I messed up.”  Not that saying this is easy, either.  Even admitting to God our mistakes can be hard.   We like our general prayers of confession – our general prayers that don’t get into the “specifics” but just state in very general terms the errors of our ways.  Sitting down with God and really taking a moral inventory is much harder.  Saying to God, admitting to ourselves that we have passed up those in need, that we have hurt people around us, that we judge too quickly and live out that judgment in unhealthy ways….the specifics of our errors are harder to admit.  But John takes this a step further.  He says, yes, he baptizes with water for repentance.  But when Jesus comes, he will be baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  What does that mean?  We understand that it has to do with repentance, but what exactly is John saying to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and to us as well?
               At some level, I think the Pharisees and Sadducees did get that they had things they needed to repent of.  They would not have come to John otherwise.  But they did come to John for baptism.    So I think it is helpful to take a step back and look at who the Pharisees and Sadducees really were.  Apparently, the more research that is done on who the Pharisees and Sadducees are, the less that is actually known about them.  Everyone has a different guess - but more and more scholars admit that’s all they have: guesses.  Our greatest information about them, then, must come from the gospel stories themselves.  When reading Biblical passages that talk about Pharisees and Sadducees, it becomes apparent that the one characteristic that is constantly being confronted in their strict dedication to the law to the point that they would sometimes hurt others just so they would be following that law.  They follow the Biblical law to a tee.  They would never touch someone who was “unclean,” ie bleeding, or somehow broken, they would never work on the Sabbath, and that included healing or allowing for others to be healed.  They are trying to follow God’s law in all that they do: and apparently, they are very good at it. 
But they do it so rigidly that people end up hurt. They fail to live the deeper law of LOVE because they are so focused on the specifics of the laws that they feel make them “clean” or right.   The problem has to do with their fruit, as John the Baptist tells it in this passage.  In their efforts to uphold and live out the law, the Pharisees and Sadducees passed up many opportunities to really care for and serve people, God’s children, others, those around them.  John the Baptist tells them that it is by their fruits that they are known, not by their legal goodness, not by their righteousness, not by the laws they so strictly follow and obey.  What God cares about is that we live lives of love - loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, loving all you encounter, in the same way that you would love yourself.  It is by the care that a person provides, the lives each person touches and changes, it is by how much good we do in the world, not by righteously following the laws, but by how we live lives of love, that we will find ourselves judged. 
The Pharisees and Sadducees come to John for repentance.  But they are repenting breaking laws.  They are repenting wearing clothing of mixed cloth or eating something unclean, or feeding an animal on the Sabbath, or whatever law they happened to feel they may have broken.  What they are failing to repent of is their failure to live lives of love. 
It is easy for us to stand with John the Baptist in condemnation.  It is easy for me to say, “in today’s world, these Pharisees and Sadducees are the equivalent of people who are so set on following some laws that they are willing to kill people by blowing up Planned Parenthood clinics, supporting hate crimes, telling the homeless that they will be helped only if they convert first, telling those who are sick that if they only had enough faith they would be healed.”   We don’t do that.  We aren’t like that.  This passage doesn’t seem to really apply to us.  We strive hard to live lives of service and love and I believe we do a good job of that here at Clayton Valley. 
But during this Advent time, and at a time when we are looking at repentance, we are called to go even deeper.   It means taking things the next step, the much harder step, of actually repenting, of turning around, taking a different path, a different road, fixing what we have done wrong or failed to do that was good.   We don’t fix these things by simply asking God for forgiveness, or being baptized for forgiveness.  We fix these things by looking at how we have hurt others and making the choice, the decision, to turn another direction, go a different way, make amends to those we have injured, and choose different behavior that will not injure again in the same way.
When I was in high school I went through a period of time when I began to feel this nagging at my heart every time I passed up a homeless person begging.  I began to feel that God was calling me through Jesus’ example and Jesus’ call to feed the poor that my abundance in the face of their poverty was in itself sin.  This feeling grew in me when I went to Berkeley for college and found I had to pass these poor and broken people every day on my way to and from classes.  But shortly after I arrived, one of my new Christian friends told me, “Oh, well, I don’t give them money because I’d just be supporting their addictions and paying for their alcohol.”  I cannot tell you the relief for me in those words.  Here was an excuse that I could stand on.  Of course God didn’t want me to support their addictions, so God must not have meant for me to give money to these people.  And I found this belief to be supported, quoted, worn almost like a badge by the Christians around me.  Here was our excuse for not caring for these people.  Interestingly, most of the time an alternative, such as giving them food instead of money when they asked, was never offered.  Instead, we all clung to our Christian righteousness and excused our neglect of Jesus’ command to feed the “least of these” in this simple, straightforward way.
But then I began to volunteer with the local soup kitchen and the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless.  There I met two pastors who had different things to say on the subject.  Pastor Alexia asked me, “Do you know for sure they will spend the money on alcohol?  Maybe the one who asks you is Jesus in disguise.  How will you know?”   Lucy was even more confrontational in her thinking, “Do most of the people you know refuse alcohol to their friends at a party, even when they know their friends to be alcoholics?  They don’t see it as their place to decide for someone they see as an equal whether or not they can drink.  They might suggest AA, they might intervene, but not without knowing them well, not without caring deeply and making sure their alcoholic friend has the resources to stand against their addictions with help and love.  You do not withhold from your friend, even though he may be an alcoholic.  Yet, you feel it is your place to determine how a person struggling with incredible poverty survives in that situation?  Have you ever been the poor person without family, a shower, a home, any resources for their own comfort except maybe an occasional drink?  Who are you to judge that?  Who are you to take away even the false comfort they turn to in their hours of despair and desolation?  If you take the time to know them and then from a place of loving support offer alternatives to alcohol, good for you. But until you are willing to stand in that place of knowing them, loving them, caring for them materially and emotionally, you cannot judge them or make yourself judge and jury over whether they are worthy of the time, the money, God’s money that has been entrusted to you.  You cannot decide for them how they will spend God’s money that they beg off of you.  You are not God.  But if giving money makes you that uneasy, then what is stopping you from loading up on peanut butter sandwiches to pass out?  The excuses are numerous, but the solutions are also numerous if you are willing to take the risk of caring.” 
In her words, I heard truth.  A truth that was hard because it threw me back into guilt.  Actually, while I think guilt is a God-given emotion at times, I don’t think guilt usually motivates us to change.  The real change has to come from a place of gratitude and thanksgiving for what God has given us.  The real change has to come from a place of understanding the other person - their needs, their motivations, their situations.  To love our neighbor we must spend time with them, come to know them. But most of us don’t find it easy to take the time to get to know our poor, our destitute neighbors.  And even in our abundance, we can also find gratitude hard to grasp for very long. 
The reasons we give ourselves for not caring, whatever they are, can stop us from loving others.  But there are other things that prevent us from caring for others in concrete tangible ways.  
I think about Nelson Mandela, the amazing man that he was and how he was foundational in changing a nation.  But as I reflect on his great life, I also find myself wondering about all the people who were part of what he did whose names just aren’t recognized.  Rarely will any of us be a Nelson Mandela.  But we can be those people who act with love, compassion, grace and peace in the world.
John tell us to prepare by changing our lives.  By repentance.  Repentance does not mean saying you are sorry.  It means turning around, walking the other direction, it means a complete change in your life.  It involves change.  It also involves making amends, which is hard.  Making up for those things we have done and have failed to do.  So I ask you, if you knew that God was coming here in three weeks - and that God’s coming would involve judging between those who produce good fruit and those who don’t; if you knew that you would meet God in three weeks - face to face - and that God would see everything you are, everything you’ve done, everything you have left undone, how would you prepare?  What would you do differently?  How would that change your life?  Well, in the season of Advent, this is what we are being told.  In three weeks comes Christmas: God’s appearance in this world as one of us. 
Advent is not a time of remembering those who waited for the birth of the Christ.  It is an invitation to us to wait for the coming of God with us.  It is a time of preparation to meet God, face to face.  It is a time of reviewing our own lives, changing what needs to be changed to meet God with hope and peace, it is a time of repentance in the truest sense of that word.

I invite you during this Advent time to do more than be in the business of the season.  I invite you to take some time to be with the reality that God is coming into this world as one of us.  What will that mean for you?  What will God’s message bring to you?  How will you prepare?  How will you repent?  Amen.