Counting the days…counting the stars…counting the cars at a train crossing. There are so many ways we spend our time counting things. Since my experience with physical therapy this past year, counting has taken on a whole new meaning for me.
My therapist name is Grace (of course). She has worked me and walked me through two separate stints (1,2) on the PT circuit. The first one surely has informed the second. But what has been interesting to me is how I find myself counting differently now. After my knee replacement this past summer, and my current recovery following my meniscus surgery, Grace is moving me from here to there and back again ~ through the number system.
"Quad lifts – `30' with 4 lb weights." Numbers. "Balance on the left leg for 30 seconds." Counting. "Bridges - `30' with a smile, please." Numbers and counting. Starting with “1” and building from there. It matters. Each one. But only when they’re all bunched up together can I feel that burn and know that something is working; know that something is shifting. All this counting means that my leg is getting stronger. These numbers, each one…is helping healing happen.
Recently I attended a funeral of a 102 year old woman (imagine counting her days). Her son-in-law, obviously not a public speaker, stood to speak words about this lady he had known half his life. He began by telling us that his son had advised him to count (“1,2,3,4,5”) when he got nervous about speaking to us. [My hunch is that his son intended that he count silently, but…). He spoke about their trips together, “1,2,3,4,5”; the ways he had seen how she’d `mothered’ his wife by the way she `grandmothered’ his children, “1,2,3,4,5”; the ways she taught him about compassion and kindness “1,2,3,4,5.” As we listened we realized that these numbers were woven into his words about her. And I wondered if sometimes she was whispering them in his ear as he was speaking. It was such a beautiful tribute of love living on (“1,2,3,4,5”).
There is a sense of counting our way through these Advent days. Like those Advent calendars we had when we were kids (or maybe still have now) that seemed to slow everything down ~ too much so most days. But these calendars taught us about marking each day. With this calendar we counted our way through the month of December until the last door could be opened and we could see what had been waiting all along.
We count because it helps us focus. We count because it brings us balance and can calm our anxiety. We count so that we can measure how far or how long. We count so that we can get from here to there. We count so that we can measure how far today, so we’re not as afraid and so we can do a little bit more again tomorrow.
Breath prayer: “waiting” “a little more”
Holy One you number our days. We are leaning into you this day, and counting on your lovingkindness and compassion. As our prayer draws us closer to you, we sometimes add words just to stay a little bit longer in this time of waiting in your presence. Holy One teach us to count our blessings this day, and to count the ways we might better love and serve you. Amen.
Thanks, Susie Gentry for many of these pictures
Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.
~ Albert Einstein
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” ’, as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Witnessing to the light is our call to being in the world. The reading from this morning reminds us of that.
I’ve got to confess that so much of my time is spent worrying. Hour-by-hour-by-day-by-day questions fly around my brain: “What am I supposed to be doing with my life?” “Is this the right place to work?” “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” “Am I just spinning my wheels?”
This morning’s message shines a light on all of that for me: being witness to the light.
And what does that look like? What does it mean?
When I’m paying attention there are moments throughout the day, most everyday where situations would shift if there were just a little light. My co-workers would testify about the stress lately in the office (and my hunch is that this is true in most every office, most every environment where folks are spending a lot of time together).
We’ve been without an E.D. for three months and it’s been a long and stressful year where I work. [Maybe the folks in Bethany centuries ago could match me story-for-story…] I’ve found myself playing verbal tapes everyday of garbled garbage. Complaining. Being critical. Taking the verbal low-road and inviting folks to get on my bus and travel with me into this emotional wasteland.
In this season? With this work? For this one precious day?
The gospel writer’s text today paints a picture of John, the Baptist’s work as witness. He was one voice crying out in the wilderness, speaking truth to it. Living his life, shouting into the void of pain and despair ~ prepare, pay attention, don’t miss it. One is coming who will teach us to love one another. One is coming who will turn darkness into light, who will bring healing to this broken place.
I’ve never felt that I’m much of an evangelical Christian. I don’t know if I’ve knowingly ever shared my testimony...or have I? We’ve been given our speaking points for witnessing: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…” “blessed are the peacemakers…” “love one another.”
John’s message for us this day is about witnessing to the light. No more, no less. Is it possible for old habits to be set aside, for this day (…and maybe the next) so that we might better prepare the way? Is it possible for us to speak this new, life-giving truth in the wilderness?
Breath Prayer: “One” “is coming”
Holy One, prepare my heart to greet you. Guide me so that I might better follow. Bring light into the dark places of my spirit and transform me so that my words speak to faith and hope and love. Create in me a brighter spirit so that what doesn’t bring life falls away, and instead my days are spent witnessing to what is the best in life. Amen.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130: 1, 5-6
“How long does this take? I mean to get over it, how long does it take?”
In my work with hospice, this is a question that I’ve heard more times than I can count, “How long?” Greif comes to us in great and small ways. We experience the death of those we have loved. We live in and through loss of relationships, loss of our life-dreams, loss of independence. And with this grief so often comes deep, disorienting, debilitating pain. And we cry out aloud and silently…”How long?”
This psalm’s beginning words lead us in today’s reflection, “Out of the depths have I called to you.” With desperation and with hope ~ both ~ the words find us. The cry of pain meets us where we find ourselves to be. For the writer of these words, we have no way of knowing whether it physical or spiritual pain. And yet, centuries later we know, we feel the words come alive within us this day.
Psalm 130 reminds us of the ageless, spiritual practice of watching for the morning. We acknowledge morning coming on our time-pieces, as well as it entering into our hearts. Literally and symbolically morning means that light is returning. With its arrival is our heart-felt anticipation of something brand new; we lean into a reassuring promise of a fresh start. What has been is gone. Time after time morning holds trusted-hope for our weary souls.
As we close this second week of Advent, we are coming now to better understand the intention of waiting and watching. And as our days and nights move in and through these long nights ~ moving into the coming of the dawn, we now are coming to sense the shifting from darkness to light. Waiting and watching for morning invites to notice that we are living in and through getting from there to here. We know well the darkness that enfolds us. We know because we have lived it, step-by-step and breath-by-breath.
As we turn again, and fix our eyes on the horizon and watch for light’s returning ~ we wait. We watch. We pray with hope.
Breath Prayer: “My soul” “is waiting”
Gather in our spirits this day, Loving God. Calm our anxious places, and return us to your lovingkindness. As we await the Promised One, may we be open to the gifts and lessons along the way. For today may we live into the trusted-hope that companions us, drawing us ever closer to your grace-filled presence. Amen.
To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
Lord, you were favourable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. Selah Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13
Speaking peace. We continue to be a restless people, a battling people, a vengeful people. It feels as though the legacy we pass from one generation to the next is speaking of ways to wage more effective, more efficient, more destructive wars. And yet…there is more to the legacies we inherit and later pass down. There is a still, small voice crying out for peace. This plea is as close as our next breath.
I don’t know if it’s me and where I am, or my life experience and my age, but I am more and more aware of the anger and unrest I see in the world. Here in Atlanta many of us drive regularly on the perimeter. It is literally a road that takes us in a circle. Many of us use it to get from work and back, to get from here to there and back again. And the symbolism of spending my life driving in circles isn’t lost on me as I drive round and round again. We scurry on ~ looking ahead, white knuckling it through to get where we are going.
In this finishing autumn and soon to be wintertime, just where are we going?
The psalmist encourages us to choose to exit from our practice of moving endlessly in circles and stop. Just for this moment, just for this time ~ stop. We are encouraged to listen (as if for the first time) for the One who speaks peace.
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet,” and “righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Oh, if it could be so. What would shift in our hearts if those images came alive in us? What would change if those connective guides would serve as our compass now in these waiting, Advent days? Would we see change in our lifetime for the better? Would we witness changes in and around us for the good?
Frederick Buechner reminds us that peace isn’t the absence of war, but the presence of balance. Peace is experienced when we find again our lives to be centered in love. Peace is inviting us to live in balance from the inside-out.
Here in this time of waiting for the Promise One, we are called to look with intention in our hearts. “Making a path for the steps” of the One who is coming, means we are called to live so that light can shine in the darkness. Here and now we are invited to quit with the white-knuckle-circle driving and wake up to this one precious life that has been given to us.
What does it mean to have steadfast love? To have faithfulness? How would our spirits awaken within us if we took part in joining righteousness and peace together ~ if we were to witness them actually kissing one another?
Breath prayer: “speaking” “peace”
Almighty and Gracious God you are the giver of life. Your compassion for your people has been sung throughout history. And we are ever thankful. Create in us we pray, a passion for righteousness and for peace. May we live this day with thankful hearts, loving and serving you. Amen.
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
2 Peter 3: 8-14
Perhaps today’s lesson is to pay attention to time. Perhaps we are being reminded to pay attention to today ~ to this day. How can a thousand years be like a day and a day like a thousand years?
We’ve all experience a moment when times stood still, haven’t we? This moment in our lives when everything else dropped away and we were wholly and totally present. It was as if nothing else mattered in the world, nothing except this one moment.
I remember one such moment, it was the morning of my parent’s 50th anniversary. It was one the hardest times of my life. Dad was staying at an Assisted Living facility, as a result of the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Mom had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and had just begun radiation treatment. Sam was 2 ½, and he and I went over to Dad’s to get him ready for the big day. I remember my heart was aching as Sam and I walked into Dad’s room to give him a shower and get him dressed. All I could do was the next thing.
After I’d gotten Dad showered and dressed, I remember feeling as though I was robotically going through what needed to be done. Sam was sitting on the counter by the sink, and I was trying to give Dad a shave. Somehow Dad and Sam got to giggling. I honestly don't know who made "the face" for whom ~ Sam for Dad or Dad for Sam. But one did for the other and that was all it took. Time stood still in that moment. In the midst of such deep angst….was life...and giggling. For Dad and Sam….and for me.
I don’t know what the writer of 2 Peter means by “the heavens set ablaze and dissolve,” but in that one moment I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For me in that deep, deep grief light entered in and there was a healing and holy presence that held all the world. I knew it to be true, because it had come into that little tiny bathroom and brought Joy to the World ~ one giggle at a time.
Breath Prayer: “bring us, Loving God” “your peace”
Holy One, you enter into our darkest moments and bring light so that we might begin again to see. In this Advent season, may our hearts be open to receive your hope that comes when we least expect it and need it the most. As we receive your gifts, may we in turn share it with others as they have needs. Use us, we pray to being hope to others around us. And we are ever thankful. Amen.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
our spirits by they justice here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
If I could choose a musical companion for this day, I’d spend the whole day humming this tune. And while I’m at it, I’d be mindful of the words of this verse as well.
158 years ago (give or take a few) I studied Music Therapy at Illinois State University. Like seminary years later, this was a time of life-learning for me. My days were spent with generous and kind-hearted souls who wanted to be a part of changing the world for the better. I was so very young then as I look back now. And it’s so obvious to me that many of my most significant life-lessons were learned in those years. The gifts given all those years ago and lessons learned companion me still.
We were taught about getting inside music. Almost as though we were living our music lessons from the inside-out. In so many ways music makes its best sense to our hearts ~ music enters in and can shift our most fearful places. Music is able to un-lock what feels stuck inside. Freeing what was once trapped, music transforms us and can set us free.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer brings a hope for what can be next. What would happen if each of us sang / prayed / hummed this verse throughout the day today? Would we listen out and hear one another amid the hurrying and the scurrying? Would we hear the One who first taught us the tune? And the One who continues to teach us the song?
I know about the gloomy clouds this verse speaks about. I have watched them gather round me and have felt them for a while now. I know about the shadows of death that feel so close; I’ve felt encircled by those shadows wiping out hope and joy.
Songs like this one call out to us ~ they call to our gloomy places and shadow-places. They invite us to breathe just a bit deeper so that we can sing a little louder ~ and be heard above the noise. They call to us and invite us to whistle in the dark. This whistling can be our intention, our daily, spiritual practice.
O Come, O Come invites us into a song that is hundreds of years old and yet still speaking to us this day. It returns us to a melody that matches God’s heart-beat and invites us to listen with our hearts. This ancient tune reminds us (lest we forget) the steps to life’s dance.
Breath Prayer: “Come” “thou Dayspring”
Loving Healer, your compassion for your children knows no bounds. When we see only gloom and darkness, you sing again the melody that calls us back into life’s dance. We give thanks for your song of life. We give thanks for the words that inspire us and the melody that holds us close to you. You are our Dayspring, our Source of light and life. We lean into your lovingkindness and we are ever thankful. Amen.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. 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!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Isaiah 40: 1-11
From the first words of today’s reading to the last I am drawn in. Isaiah’s words spoken of the Comforter centuries ago draw me closer today. I feel drawn to a presence of a deep, abiding hope. I’m drawn to the One who comes with both might and tenderheartedness. Deep in my spirit I understand how I long for this presence in my life and the reassurance that these verses bring.
This has been an unexpected year of highs and lows for me, of recovery and restoration. It has been a time of holding on and letting go. These words meet me where I am. These words come at just the right time for my heart to hear. This past year I’ve had three surgeries and have needed time to recover. As I intentionally took that time, it was almost as if I could sit back and watch healing happen (especially with my knee surgeries: healing came literally with each step).
The image of a big oak tree comes to mind as I’ve experienced this time of healing. I imagine my physical wounds and recovery time as the outward and visible images ~ the trunk and the branches. The spiritual and emotional healing were the roots, deeply tucked-in and out of sight. It is to my deepest roots that these words from Isaiah come: Comfort, o comfort my people…every valley lifted up….glory of God shall be revealed.
For generations Isaiah’s words have been spoken to daughters and sons just as they speak today to me. These words enter into our hearts and bring deep and holy peace. I’m continually in awe of the scriptures ~ timeless stories and yet so timely meeting me where I am this day. Ageless ~ yet still speaking from generations past to those coming after us.
I give thanks this day, as I feel held and comforted by these holy words. Strong and reassuring words. Hopeful words. Words rooted deep in our faith.
Breath Prayer: “Comfort” “O comfort your people”
Loving Shepherd, enter in and draw us closer to you this day. May your words live on in us. May these words spoken from generation to generation take root in all who are hurting in body or soul. Lead us and protect, we pray in your mercy. Amen.
Thanks to Susie Gentry for this picture
of me trying to hold Sam in place, "no taller!"
You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.
~ Thomas Merton
Thanks Susie Gentry for this picture
Thanks to Beth Locker for these pictures
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’, John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
From the first words of Mark’s gospel, we know that something is coming. Even if we’ve grown up with these words, they come to us in a new way this day. With Mark’s announcement of the beginning of the good news we know that we are encountering God’s messenger. The gospel writer grounds what is with what has been with us along: As written in the prophet Isaiah…and through ancient writings the gospel writer introduces us to John the baptizer. John is described as a man whose ministry takes out and away; we are told that people traveled through the countryside to find him. And now as we turn to the baptizer, we realize that our Advent’s journey goes through the wilderness.
The baptizer attracted quite a following. As those who lived centuries ago, we, too are yearning for a deeper connection. We are drawn closer and closer to the One who created and is creating still. John proclaimed: “One is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
There’s a Buddhist saying that fits this image of John’s role in this Advent story: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger…”
The baptizer knows that the Promised One is coming. His focus is on watching for the One who will bring justice and healing. His message is for all to repent and turn again to God. John is the finger pointing to the moon.
Messengers companion us through Advent. Signs are given reminding us to pay attention. Lessons are to be learned, mercy and grace are to be shown. And as we journey on, we remember that God’s lovingkindness is with us all along the way.
Breath Prayer: “seeing” “beyond”
Living and Loving God, as we continue through these Advent days may we be awake to the messengers companioning us. Remind us that we are not alone. Especially when crossing through the wilderness, messengers come and show us what is next. Holy One, with each step our grateful hearts draw closer to your loving presence. Amen.
Wow and thanks, Beth Locker for today's pictures
There’s a song in every silence seeking word and melody
there’s a light in every darkness bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future, what it holds a mystery
unrevealed until it’s season, something God alone can see.
Thanks to Susie Gentry for this most amazing moment held here
“Hymn of Promise” is a beautiful piece found in many church hymnals. It's about life’s changes ~ those holding on and letting go places of our lives. Here in this middle verse, I most often feel that lump form in the base of my throat and tears begin to flow. It’s as if these words hold my heart and in that moment in these words I feel held by God.
Hope is one of those words that hold far more weight than just her four letters. Hope means possibility and stands tall in the face of ever giving in or giving up. Hope shines in the darkest night and remains through until the morning. Hope is rooted in history and present and possibility~ all three.
On this full moon night, we can almost see in the dark. In this season of waiting, we are given night-vision. On this night we are reminded that what seems impossible is sometimes given eyes to see and hearts to see it through. This hymn encourages us to listen for the songs that are present even in the silence, to seek light even in the darkness.
We are waiting through these cold December nights. And we hope. And we pray. Unrevealed until its season can feel like a very long time while waiting. It can feel impossibly endless. In your waiting on this Full Moon night, may you find comfort and strength enough as you are held in the mystery and promise of hope.
Breath Prayer: “Unrevealed” “until its season”
On this full moon night we watch for you, Holy God. Shine light into the darkness; sing songs into our silence, we pray. Giver of Hope, may we not lose heart, and instead keep our eyes and hearts open to your loving presence in our lives. We lean into your lovingkindness in this season of hope. Amen.
believes in beginnings and beginning again, in holding on and letting go, in God's presence as close as our next breath. Lesley works as a hospice Bereavement Coordinator in Atlanta. She is an ordained minister in the UCC and has just completed her second book, "Grief and the Psalms: Companioning the Moon in 29 Days" (to be released early in 2015).