JOY MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN OUR ENCOUNTERS
(Wednesday, December 14th)
Dazzle: to shine brilliantly; to arouse admiration by an impressive display; to impress deeply, overpower, or confound with brilliance
Delight: to take great pleasure; to give keen enjoyment; to give joy or satisfaction to
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
(Matthew 18:20 NRSVUE)
Over the years, I have heard dynamic speakers at a variety of spiritual retreats and conferences. I was impressed by their expertise, their charisma, their ability to speak with eloquence and insight, and their visibly enthusiastic passion for God. I have attended Christian concerts and been amazed by the talent and energy of the bands. These popular leaders have dazzled me while influencing and inspiring my faith and discipleship. I am thankful for these speakers and entertainers who share their joy by serving God with their passion and gifts.
But there is nothing like the joy I feel when I encounter folks who are genuinely delighted to see me! They radiate joy as if I am someone special – and I sense the presence of Christ in them. Their warm smiles and embraces, their eagerness to hear my stories, and their sincere care for me are huge gifts of love. They bring joy through their selfless way of setting themselves aside and letting Christ’s light and love shine through.
We experience a dynamic joy when we sense God’s power moving through the talents and energies of great speakers and musicians. But we experience an abiding joy when we feel Christ’s presence moving through our friendships and love, in our genuine concern for one another, in the joy of our mutual, shared community.
We may not have dazzling gifts and talents to extend the ripple effect of Advent Joy, but we can radiate Joy in our delight for one another! As we shine with the warmth and light of God’s love, beaming with genuine happiness and concern for others, we will become humble agents of sweet and sincere Advent Joy.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:9-10 NRSVUE)
JOY MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN OUR TIME WITH GOD
(Tuesday, December 13th)
Discipline: training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character
Devotion: piety; an act of prayer or private worship; the fact or state of being ardently dedicated and loyal
Which came first, the discipline or the devotion?
This question came to mind as I was reflecting on these two words. I was thinking about spiritual disciplines, the practices that help us draw closer, quiet ourselves, and listen for God. They serve to increase our devotion for God, and then our devotion for God inspires us to want more time in those disciplines!
Our Advent Joy is the Joy of the discipline that comes from the Joy of the devotion.
My faith was first built on discipline. Our family went to worship and Sunday school each week, whether I wanted to or not. As a young teen, I regarded God as a disciplinarian who was often disappointed in me. My junior high catechism classes bored me, and Old Testament history, well, I could not see the point of those stories. Even as an adult, I struggle with meditative silence, and I definitely do not grow spiritually through fasting. And yet, all of these experiences set the foundation for a deeper relationship and longing for God.
Isn’t this true with every loving relationship? At times a parent feels joy and delight in their devotion for their child – enjoying sweet snuggles, answering innocent questions, savoring adorable moments. At other times love requires discipline – getting up in the middle of the night for feedings, changing yet another diaper, doing endless loads of laundry. Our devotion includes discipline, and our discipline includes devotion.
Over time, I have discovered the spiritual disciplines that align with my soul. I find deep joy in God’s presence each time I walk in nature, journal my prayers, share devotions with Jim, and write my reflections. I eagerly approach these disciplines with heartfelt joy – and devotion! Yet, I know there is joy in stretching and challenging myself with other disciplines that may feel more like… discipline.
These two gifts belong together. Advent Joy enriches both of these, as God’s presence in Christ invites our discipline and increases our devotion.
It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High,
to declare your steadfast love in the morning
and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
(Psalm 92:1-4 NRSVUE)
JOY MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN EXPERIENCING GOD
Monday, December 12th
Believe: to accept something as true, genuine, or real; to have a firm or wholehearted religious conviction or persuasion; to regard the existence of God as a fact
Behold: to perceive through sight or apprehension; see; to gaze upon; observe
Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:8-11 NRSVUE)
Our Advent Joy today comes from this story of the shepherds, with the joy of the angel’s proclamation and the glory shining all around! Can you imagine being one of those shepherds? What a surprising, awakening experience of sheer joy in the darkness of night!
Our Advent Joy is our awakening to God all around us. This awakening first began with God becoming incarnate with us in the birth of Jesus. Advent Joy transforms our experience of God from believing to beholding – we move from believing in the existence of God to witnessing God’s presence in our existence!
I first heard of this difference – believing to beholding – from Barbara Brown Taylor at a writers’ conference. In her memoir, Leaving Church, she wrote of her struggle:
The parts of the Christian story that had drawn me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts…
Whether the narratives starred hayseed shepherds confronted by hosts of glittering angels or desert pilgrims watching something like a dove descend upon a man in a river as a voice from heaven called him “Beloved,” Christian faith seemed to depend on beholding things that were clearly beyond belief…
I wanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business. I wanted to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything.1
We may not witness the glory of angels shining all around, but we can witness the glory of the vast multitude of planets and stars in a universe beyond our comprehension. We may not have seen the birth of Jesus, but we can witness God’s presence in the sacred sound of any newborn cry. We may not see a burning bush, but we can witness God’s creative power in a radiant autumn tree. We may not hear an angel’s proclamation, but we can hear God’s voice in our quiet meditation. God continues to be with us, moving among us, revealing Godself to us. We only need to awaken our hearts and minds to be alert.
God came to us in Christ to deepen our faith from believe to behold, from knowing the existence of God to delighting in the experience of God. This is our Advent Joy!
1Taylor, Barbara Brown. Leaving Church. HarperCollins, 2006.
WHAT IS JOY?
Sunday, December 11th
(Each day this week, we will be focusing on the difference Joy makes in our lives.)
If you have an Advent wreath, you may light the Hope, Peace, and Joy candles.
Our next gift, Advent Joy, also makes a beautiful difference in our lives. Let’s again look at three definitions of Joy as we begin our week. The definition of Joy includes:
~ the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires
We think of this joy as the exuberant reaction to good news, such as the arrival of a new grandchild, a call from an old friend, the achievement of a longtime goal, the sharing of a special celebration. One Christmas, our children gave us a digital photo frame, and each time we receive a new photo of our family or fun times, we have joy from the delightful memory that has been sent our way.
~ delight; a state of happiness or felicity; bliss
We also experience joy as a countenance or general way of being, the joie de vivre, the exuberant enjoyment of life. I have noticed more of this joy in the years since my cancer, as I hold more gratitude and appreciation for the delights of each day.
~ a source or cause of delight
Here again, the word joy can also be the origin or source of our joy. Our Advent Joy comes from God in Christ – Jesus is our source of Joy!
Through the joyful surprise of Jesus’s birth, the joyful countenance of life with Christ, and the gift of joy given to us through his Spirit, we have many reasons for Advent Joy. As we continue Mary’s story, we see the Joy she also received…
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:39-45 NRSVUE)
We cling to Hope, let go for Peace, and this time we jump for Joy!
By the joyful leap of her baby within, Elizabeth recognized that Mary was carrying God’s son. We can imagine the ripple effect of this joy – the baby leaps with joyful delight, Elizabeth is joyfully surprised, and Mary becomes joyfully relieved because someone else recognizes and affirms her holy pregnancy.
This story is ours, too.
Like Mary, we have our Advent Joy through the surprising love of God in the birth of Jesus. Like Elizabeth’s baby (who is the baptizer John), we receive Joy through the movement of the Spirit. In times of uncertainty, we find Joy in the companionship of other faithful friends, as did Mary and Elizabeth. Advent Joy can come to us at all times of the year. Our legs may no longer be able to jump for joy, but our spirits surely can!
We see in Mary’s story that Joy is also meant to be shared. How might we extend Joy to others today? We can share the assurance of God’s love for someone. We can recognize and affirm another as sacred and special. We can delight someone with a small kindness. We can talk about our reasons for Joy. We can invite the Spirit to reveal the sweet and holy joys that are meant for us – and intended for others, too.
We can contribute to Joy’s ripple effect this Advent season.
Advent Joy makes the better difference in our lives.
PEACE MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN OUR DIFFERENCES
Friday, December 9th
Divide: to separate into two or more parts, areas, or groups; to separate into classes, categories, or divisions; to separate into opposing sides or parties
Diverge: to move or extend in different directions from a common point; to become or be different in character or form
We all were born as helpless, tiny infants.
We all will return to dust one day.
We all begin and end the same way.
But oh, our lives between the beginning and ending are individually unique and diverse! And our differences may cause us to overlook the essential ways we are the same. We can see how this begins to affect us – as we organize and divide ourselves according to our similar identities, defining them with creeds and pledges, bordering them with fences and walls. These divisions help us to separate and belong to the groups that are most like us, the groups in which we feel most comfortable, but these divisions also serve to exclude any of those who may be different from us.
Jesus comes along and says to us, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life… Follow me.” (John 8:12,12:26 NRSVUE) Jesus is our Advent Peace who invites us to walk together in the light of his love.
As we consider these two definitions, Jesus’s words seem to beckon us to diverge instead of divide. Could Jesus be asking us, “Will you return to the common point of your shared humanity, the point in which God has created all of you? From there, will you choose to follow me together in peace and harmony, to diverge onto a new path of light and love and unity? Will your only pledge be a promise to walk peacefully with one another, your only creed an affirmation of worth? Will you look upon God’s beautiful diversity without superiority or judgment, and regard one another as equally beloved?
I believe in my heart that most of us would want to walk this way.
The Advent Peace of Jesus’s way of love compels us to let go of our inclination to divide and encourages us to diverge instead – onto a path of acceptance and appreciation of our diversity. Diversity adds beauty and depth to our journey when we move together in the unity of Love. The way of love that Jesus calls us to follow may even enrich our faith as we begin to understand other faith practices, embrace diverse cultures, and seek the essential ways we are lovingly connected.
May the Advent Peace of Jesus’s words, “Follow me, …the light of life,” lead us into greater love and unity for all humankind.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:14-15 NRSVUE)
PEACE MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN OUR SECURITY
Thursday, December 8th
Protection: the act of covering or shielding from exposure, injury, damage, or destruction; guarding
Provision: the act of supplying or making available (something wanted or needed)
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32-34 NRSVUE)
Our Advent Peace today comes from the instruction Jesus gives us, “Do not be afraid, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
I would like to believe that I am not anxious about my possessions, but my actions reveal that I am. I lock the doors, turn on a few lights, and sometimes hide a few items each time we are away from home. When I return to my car after shopping, I always recheck my purse for my phone and wallet. I worry when I leave my luggage with a baggage handler before a flight. A few cheap earrings were once taken from our hotel room, so I now decline the cleaning service. Certainly, it is wise to be mindful of our possessions… but I can be overly protective.
When Jesus instructs us to let go of our possessions, he is doing more than inviting us to be generous or minimalist; he is also showing us how to be free from this anxiety. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you more possessions or replacement possessions,” but to give us “the kingdom.” That kingdom brings our Advent Peace, the Peace that no thief can take.
Our Advent Peace relieves us from the anxiety of protection with the assurance of provision. As we stop huddling protectively over our possessions, we find ourselves dancing freely in the rich goodness of God. We learn to live more vulnerably and yet more confidently. We release the transient protection of our earthly security and discover the peaceful provision of God’s sure and eternal security.
May Advent Peace guide us to hold our possessions lightly, let go of our anxiety, share what we can, and gladly receive the best gifts of God, those unfailing kingdom treasures that await us.
PEACE MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN OUR STANCE
Wednesday, December 7th
Stubborn: performed or carried on in an unyielding, obstinate, or persistent manner; difficult to handle, manage, or treat
Steadfast: firmly fixed in place; not subject to change; firm in belief, determination, or adherence; loyal
Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
(1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NRSVUE)
Our youth group used this Bible verse as our guiding theme during a mission trip years ago. We hoped to deepen in faith and trust, to stand firm and strong – in Christ and for Christ – as we served in love. I believe we all learned new ways to stand firm during that week of challenging work. I hope the people we served were able to see the strength of our faith, the strength of our Christ, that enabled the love of our hearts.
How do we best “stand firm in the faith”? How do we courageously live so that others may witness the strength of Christ in us? Today’s adjectives, stubborn and steadfast, both describe a firm stance, but their differences serve as a reminder for us in this week of Advent Peace.
When I become stubborn in my stance, I notice that I am inwardly focused, more concerned about my pride, my need to be right, my need to be justified. This is when my stance can become obstinate and difficult. When I remain steadfast, my stance is outwardly focused, concerned about serving God and others. This is when my stance can remain determined and loyal.
One can see this difference in the stances of faithful people today…
For some, standing firm in faith is having the courage to defend biblical law.
For others, standing firm in faith is having the courage to promote merciful grace.
Both of these are firm stances.
One is the stubborn stance of unyielding belief.
The other is the steadfast stance of unwavering love.
Our Advent Peace – the life of Jesus – shows us how to remain firmly steadfast in unwavering love. Jesus demonstrated his steadfast faith in God through his defiant silence, gentle corrections, confident rebuttals, buffering presence, gracious words, and righteous anger – through his actions birthed in love more than law. There were times when Jesus even broke sabbath law in order to love and care for others.
Advent Peace helps us let go of our need to be right, so that God can reveal what needs to be done.
We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.1
May the Advent Peace we have in Christ help us to stand firm and steadfast in our faith.
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Colossians 2:6-7 NRSVUE)
1Madeleine L’Engle, Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life
PEACE MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN RESOLVING TROUBLE
Tuesday, December 6th
Blame: to find fault with; censure; to hold responsible; to place responsibility for
Bless: to hallow or consecrate by religious rite or word; to invoke divine care for; to speak well of; approve; to confer prosperity or happiness upon
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV)
Yes, we will have trouble. Oh my, in his own life Jesus knew this very well.
And when problems arise, our Advent Peace comes through these words of Jesus, “Take heart! I have overcome the world.” We can trust the guidance of his words and life as we attempt to resolve the troubles of our world today…
Throughout the gospel stories, we read how Jesus was always working to make the better difference as often as possible. In his short life, he taught, led, corrected, healed, fed, or comforted most everyone he encountered. In his ultimate blessing, as he was suffering on the cross, Jesus didn’t yell, “I blame all of you for this!” but instead, quietly prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know…” (Luke 23:34). In doing so, Jesus brought about the best and greatest good for all of humanity.
As we confront problems, this Advent Peace guides us to ask the question,
“What will bring about the greater good – fault finding or difference making?”
With each challenging issue we encounter, we may be tempted to find a culprit to blame. Certainly, we need to discern the source of the problem, but if we stop there, the problem will never be fixed. And many troubles have more than one source, along with an abundance of complex solutions. Placing blame becomes our easiest response; we then assign the burden of responsibility to someone else.
The Advent Peace from Jesus turns our intention toward blessing more than blaming. When we follow the example of Jesus, we stop pointing and begin taking responsibility for one another. We stop blaming and begin serving in the ways we can. We stop naming the problem and begin resolving it.
John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, has succinctly instructed: “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” His words are wise. When life goes wrong, we may wish to blame others, ourselves, or even God. When we do, we are being harmful – and we certainly are doing no good. To stay in love with God, we also stay in love with others, as well as ourselves.
God created this world for us all. We share this global community; we are responsible for one another. When we encounter trouble, Advent Peace gives us the answer when we ask,
“What will bring about the greater good – fault finding or difference making?”
God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. (Hebrews 6:10 NIV)
PEACE MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN OUR UNDERSTANDING
Monday, December 5th
Mastery: skill or knowledge that makes one master of a subject
Mystery: something not understood or beyond understanding; profound, inexplicable, or secretive quality or character; a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand
“When I get to heaven, I am going to ask God about this…”
“I wish I could make sense of this…”
“I find it difficult to believe God loves us when God allows this to happen…”
This earthly life raises so many questions about God, doesn’t it? Do you ever wish you could resolve what seems senseless or confusing in life, understand God’s ways (and whys), or find definitive answers for your questions and doubts? I know I do…
One of my resolutions this year was to learn more about the Bible. Through podcasts and books, I have learned more about the historical and cultural settings, the purposes of biblical writers, the symbolisms in stories. The insights of experts have increased my understanding and deepened my appreciation of the Bible and its purpose. I am grateful for all I have learned.
But any increased mastery of the Bible will never fully uncover the mystery of God.
Oh, there are some essential truths we can know about God. Through Jesus, we know that God is infinite love, that God is always leading us to wholeness and goodness, and that God brings resurrection and new life in every loss. Through the Spirit, we can receive God’s guidance and insight.
Jesus and the Spirit reveal the essence of God, while respecting and retaining the mystery of God.
As I reflect today, I wonder if my wish to understand everything about God and life stems from an inner desire to manage my days with reason and logic, as if I could then somehow direct and protect my life. But given the choice – my human mastery or God’s divine mystery – to be in charge of my earthly and eternal life, I would certainly and always choose God. If I could persuade or suggest or reason with or question God with my limited human understanding, well, I would have my doubts about God!
And this holy mystery brings us the gift of Advent Peace.
Our Advent Peace is found in the mystery of God and our own unknowing, giving us rich depths of faith, trust, and reverence. This Peace fills us with awe and wonder and brings a deeper meaning to all of life. We can sense that life is much more than what meets the eye, that there is some unfathomable sacred mystery beyond this everyday experience. This Peace comes in the awareness that we cannot fully know God, but God fully knows us (even better than we can know ourselves).
This Advent Peace comes when we stop wishing to understand God and begin knowing to trust God – the One who created us, who cares for us with goodness and mercy, who knows our every need. Advent Peace is ours because Infinite Love is holding and helping us along our life’s journey, all the way into eternity.
Praise the Lord!
How good it is to sing praises to our God,
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
The Lord lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground.
Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
He gives to the animals their food
and to the young ravens when they cry.
His delight is not in the strength of the horse
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner,
but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
(Psalm 147:1-11 NRSVUE)
WHAT IS PEACE?
Sunday, December 4th
(Each day this week, we will be focusing on the difference Peace makes in our lives.)
If you have an Advent wreath, you may wish to light the first candle as the candle of HOPE, and the second candle as the candle of PEACE.
We begin this week of Peace with a few definitions from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.
The definition of PEACE includes:
~ freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions
This aspect of peace relates to our peace of mind. I can generally find this peace each night before bedtime, when I simply thank God for the day and all that it held. I gratefully release the day’s blessings and challenges, placing my worries and thoughts into God’s care. My prayerful practice serves as a closing benediction, and I sense God’s peace covering me for the night.
~ a state of tranquility or quiet
In this description I think of the peace for our bodies and souls. This peace envelops me when I relax in the recliner and lift my feet after a busy afternoon. Peace brings rest and restoration to my body and soul when I sit quietly on our porch and take in the beauty of God’s creation. Peace comes as respite from the day when I sip hot tea and read a good book. I feel a harboring peace when Jim and I pray in the early morning hours before going on with our day.
~ harmony in personal relations
This definition of peace refers to our peace with and among others. I notice this peace in my relationships when I am able to listen well, open myself to deeper understanding, forgive any hurts, honestly confess my shortcomings, or vulnerably share my love. Peace comes when I set aside such tendencies as vying for attention, pointing out grievances, or controlling a conversation. Relationships can bring great peace when they are based on mutual friendship, encouragement, and respect.
Advent Peace is a gift for our minds, our bodies, our souls, our relationships – for every aspect of our being! As we continue Mary’s story, we see how God in Christ has come to give us that Advent Peace.
The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:35-38 NRSVUE)
As we move from our week of Advent Hope into Advent Peace, I first notice this difference: we cling to Hope, but we let go for Peace! We observe Mary letting go as she receives more details about her pregnancy and the holy child she will carry. Mary responds, “Here am I… a servant… let it be…” She gives herself to God, surrenders her plans, recognizes her servanthood, and fully accepts God’s word for her life.
We can sense how Mary’s Advent Peace would be found in the angel’s promise that “nothing will be impossible with God.” Advent Peace enters Mary’s mind, soul, and body through the Holy Spirit coming upon her, the power of God overshadowing her. Advent Peace also comes to Mary in relationship – as she learns of Elizabeth’s companionship in their shared pregnancies.
Mary can let go – because she is being held! In this, she finds her peace.
And so can we.
Mary’s story is yet another story for all of us.
Our Advent Peace will also come to us each time we can let go of our worries and fears and entrust them to God… when we can surrender ourselves and our plans into God’s better plans and purposes… when we can release our need for control and trust that God in Christ is always with us, God’s power is overshadowing us, and through our caring relationships, God will help us.
With every surrender, every release, we give God the opportunity to fill us with all the grace and goodness of God’s Peace.
Advent Peace makes the better difference in the living of our days.