2018 Advent Devotions

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In Christmas, we find something profound and world-changing—something worth singing about!

Christmas Day, Tuesday, December 25, 2018

O Magnum Mysterium

John 1:1-14

No event has inspired more music to be written or performed than the birth of Christ. It is truly one of the joys of the season to hear and sing the carols, cantatas, hymns, anthems, and songs of Christmas. So great is the mystery of God’s incarnation in human form, it seems impossible to capture it in a single text or a single piece of music. The 5th century Gregorian chant Corde natus ex parentis (or “Of the Father’s love begotten”), J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the first half of Handel’s Messiah, African diaspora spirituals such as those found on the Calypso Christmas album by the Leonard de Paur Chorus, and the anthems and carols of John Rutter are among my favorites. They serve as signifiers of something profound and world changing, something worth singing about.

The opening to John’s Gospel is such a hymn, trying to capture the ineffable and sublime, the timeless and transcendent meaning of the Incarnation: The Word—which is God, which has never not been, which created all things—this Word—eternal and infinite—became flesh and dwelt among us for a moment in time. Can you wrap your mind around that? Because if you can, you probably are not grasping the improbability of that humble and glorious birth. God with us? Really? Fully human, fully divine? How can that happen?

Perhaps the most comprehensive and comprehensible statement that John makes about the significance of Jesus’ birth is this: “What has come into being in Jesus was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” No, darkness did not disappear. But the light yet shines. Then and now. Still. Even today. And tomorrow. And next year. Forever.

Light shining in darkness is life for all people. All. Especially those who dwell in the depths of despair, of loneliness, of pain and sadness, of hurt and fear, of injustice and cruelty. Especially those who dwell in prisons and camps, in suffocating circumstances, in forced labor, in sexual slavery, in human bondage. For them, for us, the light still shines, still beckons, offering life, liberation, love.

John’s Gospel says that Jesus is the Light of the World. But Jesus himself says to us, “You are the light of the world.” (Matt. 5:14) That’s because Jesus came to repair, re-establish, and reinforce the divine-human relationship. It is a relationship formed in love and for love. It is both a re-creation, as John intimates in his echo of Genesis 1, and a new creation that breaks down and discards all the barriers we humans have constructed to deny and undermine our common humanity and destiny.

The mystery of the Incarnation is that we too have been (re)born of God, we too can live in the light, can be light, can arise and shine and magnify the glory of God in human life as we embrace and live the love of God.

In Jesus Christ, God has given us and all humankind a second chance. Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere! Joy to the World! No exceptions. This is God’s saving love and tender mercy. Merry Christmas!

Rev. Dr. James L. McDonald
SFTS
 President and Professor of Faith and Public Life

 
 
The treasure of a newborn life urges us to live in and for the world with more love, more peace, and more mercy.

Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24, 2018

"Treasure"

Luke 2:1-20

The shepherds ran to find the One described by the heralding angels. This brand new child was an answer to old prayers, a future salvation, and an everlasting peace. There was a mound of expectation placed on this little one—expectation and excitement. Glory be to God. They literally couldn’t be still. They had to run and find and see for themselves.

I can imagine the awed look on their faces when they got there. People tend to have that look when they see newborns. In newborns we find hope for better things to come and a promise that life will go on.

“All who heard the shepherd’s story were astonished, but Mary quietly treasured these things in her heart and thought about them often.” Luke 2:18-19 (NLT)

My only child just became an adult. I remember our first meeting very well. Despite what everyone around me was doing or saying about her, I was focused on her little face—I treasured what seemed to me a miracle. I wasn’t concerned in those first moments of her new life, about where she would go to school, what she would accomplish in her adolescence, or who she would be for the world. I recollected the many conversations I had with God while she was being knit together. And upon finally seeing her, I savored the reality of this little person having entered the world and felt overwhelming love for her and the overwhelming love of God. I continue to treasure the days of her life and the ways that God has blessed me through her.

There are a multitude of stories from other people about moments enveloped in God’s blessing—moments of tenderness and mercy that are irreplaceable and without equal. These treasures are worth keeping, worth fighting for, worth making the difficult decisions to protect them.

What if the ways we acted in the public sphere and for the common good were a reflection of the appreciation we have for the treasured blessings we have received? Surely then there would be more peace in the world, more love in our thoughts, and more mercy in our actions.

Rev. Ruth T. West
SFTS Program Manager, Advanced Pastoral Studies
SFTS MDiv 2012; DASD 2013 

 
 
The hymn “Silent Night” turns 200 years old tomorrow and invites us to reach across divides to offer light, compassion, saving grace, and tender mercy.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

"All is Calm, All is Bright"

Isaiah 9:2-7

Tomorrow night people will be gathering in churches around the world, and it is likely that a majority of them will be singing “Silent Night” in their mother tongue. This beloved hymn has been translated into countless languages and will be turning a grand 200 years old. “Silent Night” first made its debut on Christmas Eve, 1818, at the St. Nicholas chapel in Salzburg, Austria. Over time it has become one of the best-loved moments of worship—even for those who only come once a year. Something mystical occurs as we light our candles and sing the hope of "all is calm, all is bright"—peace and light for the world.

One of the most famous stories about this beloved hymn took place in World War One just over 100 years ago. British and German soldiers on the front lines called a truce on Christmas Day. So close were the encampments from which they were fighting one another, they could hear each other in the peaceful quiet of the truce singing “Silent Night,” each in their own language.

One surviving German soldier wrote, We came from our mouseholes and saw the English advancing towards us and waving cigarette boxes, handkerchiefs and towels. They had no rifles with them and so we knew it could only be a greeting and that it was all right.” A letter from a British soldier told the other side of the story, “They gave us cigars and cigarettes and toffee and they told us they didn’t want to fight, but had to… The Germans seem very nice chaps who were awfully sick of the war.” What a mystic moment of “saving grace and tender mercy” in the midst of the unspeakable horrors of war.

Isaiah’s prophetic word in chapter 9 is a vision of a ruler who would bring the people out of oppression—a “Prince of Peace.” While Isaiah would have been referring to a king of Judah in this reference, what this sets up is the people’s understanding that peace depended on just and compassionate rulers. In the so-called Pax Romana, Ceasar had created “peace” by suppressing human rights. How poignant for the Jews at the time of Jesus’ birth was this vision from Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

As you sing “all is calm, all is bright” tomorrow night, I hope this will be a prayer that “shines a light” on the power of reaching out across divides and getting silent enough to listen to those we tend to cast as the enemy (or simply “different”) for one reason or another. I hope this story will offer a powerful reminder to you that, like that one person who issued the initial invitation to come out of the “mouseholes” and connect face to face, we each have the agency to reach out across divides and connect. The Prince of Peace is inviting us to offer saving grace and tender mercy to one another, especially in those times when tyrants seek to separate us.

Dr. Marcia McFee
SFTS
 Ford Fellow and Visiting Professor of Worship 

 
 
“We look forward and outward and inward and through to a time when we shall be satisfied with justice!”

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Canticle from the Margins

Luke 1:46-55

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For God has seen the humiliation of hir servant.”

O, our Creator who art in the heavens, we turn to you as Mary did, crying out in exultation, to you who has seen us. In our pain and our loneliness, from beneath the yoke and the wheel and the whip, from the outermost parts of societal darkness, from exile, from street and cell and closet, from invisibility, we rejoice in the One Who sees us.

“Behold! From henceforth will all generations account me as blessed.
For the Powerful One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

God in your mercy you have heard our prayers. God in your love you have done great things for us. We have cried to you Kyrie eleison, eleison imas! and you have answered, are answering, will answer, coming to our aid as lion and lamb and Love. Hallowed be thy name, the name of Love!

“Xe has done mighty things with xir arm,
xe has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
She has pulled down the powerful from their places,
            brought down the bankers,
CEOs from offices,
            she has routed the distant and uncaring from their thrones,
            and exalted the oppressed.

Powerful Mother, Devoted Parent, you will not condone the suffering of your children. Love cannot abide hatred or oppression. Mercy cannot turn away from a soul’s destruction. O God whose power is love made manifest, tear down the structures that bind us, dissolve the webs of kyriarchy and hate, set your shoulder to the systems which would shatter our souls—set your shoulder beneath our own and lift us from oppression to life abundant.

“The famished God has filled with good things, 
            justice for those starving for it
            and clean water for those dying of thirst
            food for the hungry
            shelter for the frostbitten
            kindness for the turned-away,
and the rich he has cast forth empty.

Come, thy Kin-dom! May it be on earth as it is in the heavens. We look forward and outward and inward and through to a time when we shall be satisfied with justice, when waters will run clear and free, when none will hunger, when cold and heat and contempt will trouble us no more, when our bodies will be deemed enough, when our loves will be called divine, when we will be embraced instead of excluded. Come quickly, God, cast forth our oppressors; come quickly, Father, and heal our wounds!

“Ze has succored hir servant Israel, remembering compassion,
as he spoke to our fathers, as she spoke to our mothers, as they spoke to Abraham and his descendants through the age.”
Then Mary dwelt with her about three months and returned to her home.

We hear you. We await you. God, come swiftly!

Writer's Note: They/them, ze/hir, and xe/xir are examples of gender-expansive pronouns which aim to reflect the broad diversity of gender in the Divine creation.

Bran Stigile-Wright
SFTS MDiv Student

 
 
If we are to serve in the world, we must first listen with open hearts.

Friday, December 21, 2018

"Thank You for Waking Me Up This Morning"

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

As I read this text, I could not help but think of a congregation that I was blessed to spend some time with in St. Louis, MO, during my service-corps year in 2015-16. The tender care of that community in the midst of a city that was and still is marred by racism and inequality has inspired me not only to pass that kind of care unto others, but to listen to those who are oppressed, brokenhearted, and prisoners.

This community, which had been an aging, all white congregation on the edge of shutting its doors for good, decided to open its doors to the community instead. Because of decades of redlining, the community around their building had suffered in many ways. The decision this dying church made was different than many like it. When they opened their doors to the community, they didn’t say “let me tell you what you need,” with white savior complex lips. Instead, they asked “What can this space be for you?” with humility and care. That shift is the reason they continue to have vibrant life in their church.

During my time with them, I got to hear many prayers. Almost every one of them began “Father God, thank you for waking me/us up this morning.” This thankfulness of God’s care, knowing that whatever situation they are in God wakes them up to take on a new day, made me realize that I could never do ministry without truly listening to those on the margins. It is clear from this text from Isaiah, that only God and those in the broken places of marginalization are the ones that can truly tell us what liberation and relief looks like. During this season of Advent, let us remember that if we are truly to care for those who need it, we must first listen with open hearts.

Evan Stanfill
SFTS MDiv Senior  

 
 
Jesus’ birth turned the tables for Mary, not outcast but Mother of God.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"Oh, Mary..."

Luke 1:26-38

Mary, the mother of Jesus was no one special; she was a young unknown woman, who wouldn’t normally stand out in history. And yet she allowed herself to be a vessel of God’s grace and mercy, delivering God’s son, despite the reality of her immediate marginalization due to the fact of her premarital pregnancy.

I remember when my doctor told me that I was pregnant with both my kids. I didn’t need to question how, as Mary did, because I knew how. I was anxious, excited, scared, and a bit ashamed. I remember looking into all my options, but in the end, I chose to raise both my children. I have never regretted those decisions!

And yet the bigger my belly got, the more I stood out as an unwed mother in Utah. People who didn’t know me made their opinions known regarding my “bad life choices.”

Luckily, my respite from the world’s judgments and my safe haven was my church congregation. They held my hand; they laughed with me and cried with me. They brought me food, and went with me to my doctor appointments. They were even with me at my deliveries.

Ironically, Jesus’ birth did the same for his mother Mary. Jesus’ birth reversed Mary’s marginalized status from unwed and pregnant to the Mother of God. Because of Jesus, the tables were turned and Mary along with every other oppressed person, became a part of God’s chosen people. My church and each of its members did this for me, because Jesus did this for Mary and for us all!

April Hewes
SFTS MDiv Student  

 
 
Out of the experience of those enslaved and called “Comfort Women,” comes a lamentation and a new song of tender mercy and salvation.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A New Song for Salvation

Psalm 96:1-13

Two memories touch my heart, as I sit with Psalm 96 in silence. One is an older memory from when I crossed the Pacific Ocean by myself from South Korea years ago with lots of confusion and anguish, thinking about who I am as a woman doing theology. The other is from my recent experience this summer when I crossed the Pacific Ocean heading to Korea with 13 amazing women and with lots of hope and aspiration for women’s rights and peace and for the International Forum for “Comfort Women”* Justice in South Korea. Even with the 7-year gap between these two memories, I confess that these two significant experiences in my life have become a new song before God—alongside the Psalm’s song—since God has responded to my questions of “who I am” with Her tender mercy and love.

When I realized that my salvation does not come from any Patriarchal reign within Christianity, God showed me a way to live my own salvation—apart from my questions and fears driven by all other gods, including a god imaged only as male, oppressing other genders, nations, and races. God has invited me to ask—in awareness of my own Korean womanhood—how I can participate in God’s salvation for those who could not previously claim their own salvation. As a Korean woman, I have found my own courage and strength in the life of “Comfort Women,” as I seek for my own salvation. When a man whose name was “a heavenly god”—the Japanese emperor—took numerous women’s bodies and souls for his army during the World War II, very few survivors had their unspeakable suffering addressed by history. For “Comfort Women” survivors, they voice a lamentation for their sisters who died without any dignity under the name of this little male god in the past. It is a song of their own salvation to restore their dignity. It is a new song for the next generation, strongly urging people to keep every human being’s life in dignity. Women’s rights are human’s rights.

This past summer, shouting “Never again!” with these amazing women with whom I traveled for two weeks in the hottest summer in Korea, I experienced a little heaven in diversity—consisting of Korean Americans, Filipino Americans, Ghanaian Americans, and Mexican Americans—featuring one vegetarian, along with Christian and Muslim and NRBS (not religious but spiritual) sisters. Since then, I have been dreaming a bigger hope and aspiration for women’s rights and peace, singing a new song!

*The term “Comfort Women” refers to girls and women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.

Min-Hee, Kim
SFTS MDiv 2015  

 
 
May we pray with our feet, and may our feet be beautiful like that.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Beautiful Are the Feet??!!

Isaiah 52:7-10

Feet are funny. They are this often neglected, sometimes sweaty, oddly shaped part of us. There is a reason why most people cover them for most of the time. So, it is peculiar in Isaiah 52:7 when the author says, “beautiful are the feet.” Feet are not beautiful! Except that our feet literally carry us through life. Our feet physically propel us forward.

In recent months I’ve given much consideration to the adage, “We must pray with our feet.” Maybe our feet can be an outward manifestation of an inward spiritual awakening.

Isaiah 52 pronounces the end of Babylon’s reign. In verses one through six, the author gives God words that suggest that Israel’s suffering at the hands of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon was not because of their indiscretion. These empires that Israel experienced as forces of destruction, desolation, and deportation were now no more. It did not mean that Israel’s problems were over; it did not mean that life would be perfect; it did not mean that things would go back to the way that they had been. However, in this moment Zion is rejoicing that exile is coming to an end. God has looked upon their situation and deliverance is upon them. For people mired in the hopelessness of exile, beautiful were the feet of those who brought the message that God was with them.

Some feet are beautiful. Beautiful are the feet of asylum seekers who have experienced trauma in their home countries and are determined to find a better life. Beautiful are the feet of peace and justice seekers who find their way from various parts of the United States to the borders to demand that our country treat migrants and immigrants with dignity. Beautiful are the feet of protestors who march and gather and demand that this nation takes seriously the reality that Black Lives Matter. Beautiful are the feet of those who are unrelenting in their pursuit to ensure peace and justice.

In this season of Advent, this moment when we live in the perpetual hope of the light that overtakes the darkness, may God propel us forward so that our actions shine God’s light into the world.

Rev. Yolanda M. Norton
SFTS Assistant Professor of Old Testament, and
H. Eugene Farlough Chair of Black Church Studies 

 
 
John the Baptizer brings a message different from the meme “God will not give us more than we can handle”

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Surprising Love of God

Luke 3:7-18

"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Luke 3:16 (NRSV)

In the passage for today, John the Baptizer takes center stage once again. He first rebukes the crowd surrounding him for trying to escape judgment, and then proceeds to question one of their most cherished identity markers by saying, “Do not begin to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (3:8)  Many of the listeners probably recalled the great suffering the Jewish people had endured up to this point—the Babylonian exile, the rise and fall of the Hasmonean dynasty, and the 1stcentury Roman occupation—and may have been offended by John’s words.

This exchange may catch us off guard with its aggressiveness and seeming lack of compassion. How could John have thought this message was what the crowd needed to hear?

I shared a meme on Facebook this past week that featured the old adage, “God will not give you more than you can handle” in bold, gray letters across the top. It was crossed out. Below was a quote from I Corinthians 1:8,9 that read, “We do not want you to be uninformed…about the troubles we experienced… We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself…But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” The Apostle Paul, having endured his own string of tragedies much like the crowd listing to John had, affirmed the reality of suffering and the need for reliance on God in the midst of it.

Similarly, John is warning his listeners that while they will experience pain, there is transformation as they walk through the fire—increased reliance upon God resulting in an embodiment of God’s love which is visible to all. (vv. 10-14)

This is the reality we are invited to lean into this Advent season. In Word and Sacrament we receive the “Saving Love and Tender Mercy” of God so that we may proclaim and live out the Gospel of Christ in the dark places of this World. This is the good news John thought his listeners needed to hear, one that through the ages endures with the transformative power to change our world today.

In Christ,

Isai Garcia
SFTS Associate Director of Admissions Operations

 
 
In Zechariah’s silence, what did he see and hear that led him to sing God’s tender mercy?

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Silence of Zechariah

Luke 1:67-79

He stumbles home
without a word
his world stripped bare
by hope.

And in the morn,
she cooks their meal,
and totes a jug,
and feeds a friend,

and then at night,
he listens close
as she recounts
her day.

All this,
each day,
while he, his silence keeps.

By day he starts
to venture out
to places known,
not known.

And there he sees
the pretty priests
pray prayers
both loud and long.

The soldiers stalk,
the sellers cheat,
all in
the temple courts.

Then, looking close,
he starts to see,
the widow and her mite,
the demon-wracked,
the lepers at the gate.

And back at home:
Elizabeth,
her glow and joy and strength.

At night, they sit,
his hand in hers,
at dimming of the day.

And so, when John is born,
there’s only this to say:

“By tender mercy
of our God,
the dawn on high
will break on these
dear, humble lives,
a saving light
to drive away
the shadow of despair,
a lamp,
a way to peace.”

Rev. Scott Clark
SFTS Chaplain and Dean of Students 

 
 
What do we name the one who will bring good news?

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Naming

Luke 1:57-66

They were hill country people. Good-at-heart, we imagine, or mostly so. They gathered to do right by the baby, to make sure the rules were followed.

“It is okay to name a baby for someone who is still living” – that was evidently one of their rules, though other communities have differed with that. Perhaps they also entertained the possibility of using another family name or even – as is the practice of some – a Biblical name starting with the same letter as the father’s. No one would have suggested Zedekiah, of course, the last king of Judah “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” But there might have been someone at the naming ceremony that day with a fondness for Zadok, David and Solomon’s faithful priest, or even Zaphnath-panneah, “the man to whom secrets are revealed.” Given the way the world was shifting under their feet, Elizabeth’s neighbors would likely have welcomed a new member of the community in either role. In the end, though, they agreed on his father’s name. “Zechariah” not only upheld the most important of the naming traditions but provided a note of reassurance. “The Lord has remembered,” the name means.

Elizabeth and Zechariah’s good neighbors had reason to be anxious. Breaking the naming rules for Ancient Israel risked opening the door to assimilation. Keeping names “all in the family” was part of one big and very important wall. One way of setting a hedge around the little nation. Elizabeth’s neighbors could hardly think of anything worse than assimilation. As it turns out, their anxieties only served to lead them astray, and in just the same ways as ours do when we resist the Spirit’s moving.

“John” was a popular name in the Judaism of Elizabeth’s time – but it hardly provided the comfort of “The Lord has remembered.” “Zechariah” contains a whiff of promise. “The Lord will rescue us when the time is right,” it suggests, encouraging waiting, rule following. But “John” kicks the door wide open to what is to come. To a savior who looks forward more than back. To what is new and next. “John” invites people into the big world God so loves and for whom God is sending the Savior. It is the perfect name for someone who is going to plow the road to a new age because “John” means “God is gracious.”

And God’s graciousness is an energy that moves inexorably forward. The graciousness that began flowing into the world with the birth of John is the same graciousness God offers us. A graciousness that levels the rough places, hedges, and walls – and draws us into the new.

Rev. Dr. Jana Childers
SFTS Dean, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Professor of Homiletics and Speech Communication 

 
 
Advent offers us the opportunity to greet Holy surprises with Holy silence, sacred solitude, and spiritual companionship.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Holy Surprises Held in Silence, Solitude, and Love

Luke 1:5-25

“Hey Zechariah and Elizabeth, I know you’re pretty old, but you are going to have a child!  I know you’ve been asking for a while and it’s finally happening.  Oh, and p.s., your child will be kind of special, he’ll be paving the way for the Lord’s arrival on earth.”

“Hey Mary! I know you’re a virgin and all, but I just wanted to let you know that you’re pregnant with God’s Son. I know, weird, but it’s true!”

Gabriel is doing some serious holy bomb dropping in the first Chapter of Luke. I imagine that many of us can recall times when we’ve received news, for better or worse, that has stopped us in our tracks – Holy, life changing, disbelief-inducing news.   Whether this be news of diagnosis, of miraculous healing, of profound loss, or unexpected new life – world-altering surprises can stop us in our tracks.

What catches my eye in this passage is the way that our stunned parents-to-be respond to their respective, life-altering news.  Zechariah enters into 9-10 months of silence. Elizabeth enters seclusion for five months, and Mary seeks spiritual companionship with Elizabeth. Silence, solitude, and spiritual companionship, and to what end? When Zechariah breaks his prolonged silence he proclaims words of praise and prophecy – what a shift from his previous doubt and disbelief.  After Elizabeth spends her months in solitude, she is so grounded in her being that she senses the Holy One that is taking shape in Mary’s womb when she first sees Mary. And Mary, in seeking companionship, experiences encouragement that supports her in engaging with the profound Mystery that has entered her life, that she is carrying and nurturing for the world.

Holy silence, sacred solitude, and spiritual companionship – what invitations these seem to be to me as we face the mystery and profound surprises of our lives.  They are so different from, and a great counter to, other natural responses to life-altering news which for me have included: efforts to control it all, a desire to clean things up, to move to the next stage before it is time, or to deny what is going on all together. While I don’t doubt God’s presence with us in the midst of these responses, I hear clear invitation to different ways of being. In this text I hear an invitation to sacred practices that will ground us in God’s Love, that will root us in deep trust of the Divine, and that will support us in being more fully present to the Holy work that God is doing with, in, and through us, for the sake of ours and the world’s healing.

As we continue in this Advent season, may we open to God’s loving invitation to slow down, to open to silence, and to seek Holy companionship so that we might more fully bear and birth God’s Light in the world.  Amen.

Julie Barnes
SFTS MDiv; SFTS/GTU MA 2013

 
 
What kind of patience does it require to be a shepherd, ruler of sheep?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Shepherd's Merciful Love

Micah 5:2-5a

What kind of patience would it require to be a Shepherd, The Ruler of Sheep?

One wouldn’t be able to stand in front of them and explain the parameters. “Don’t go outside of that line of grass.” And have them remember.

Certainly there is no encouragement towards logic. “Nelly, that’s where the wolves might be. Stop what you’re doing and think about it…”

No, the work of a shepherd sounds tedious. Constantly repeating oneself, the same flick of the staff to guide the sheep back in. Like an airplane Marshaller, without the audience or the thrill of take-off. Just the tinkling of bells. The occasional mew that one could choose to interpret as appreciation. The ruffle of wind in the grass. Crickets.

It sounds like a low-level job.

And yet, this lowly role describes our Holy Messiah. Again and again, Scripture attempts to inspire by portraying the coming Ruler as just this shepherd.

For it is this form of saving love that we so desperately need. The Ruler who guides each of us as precious and unique, as one of the flock. The Ruler willing to walk with us through the tedium of our day to day… The Ruler who is with us through the boring moments of crickets. The Ruler who calls us back when we walk again into the places that threaten to destroy us.

It is this form of tender mercy that we need. The Ruler who leads us beside still waters, to cool our parched throats. The Ruler who provides nourishment needed to go on. The Ruler who sheers us with such care that we are not cut. The Ruler who lures us to peace.

May we prepare ourselves for such a Ruler to come: a Shepherd Ruler with the patience that we need to be led.

Rev. Marissa Danney
ACPE (Chaplaincy) Clinical Educator

SFTS MDiv, DASD 2014

 
 
Rejoice!  And rejoice again!  Rejoice! 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Special Gift from God

Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice! And rejoice again! Rejoice is something we say and do to express ourselves when something wonderfully wonderful has happened. This single word enables us to acknowledge when we have received something special.  Very special. Wonderful. Something so unique that, in this world, there is only one. We rejoice and we celebrate! Something exceptional and extraordinary has happened and with it comes unspeakable joy. And with this joy comes a new life into existence. Someone new to love.  I rejoice! My family rejoices! My children and husband rejoice! All of our loved ones rejoice and thank God because we have received a very special gift from God.

Our prayers have been answered. And as we rejoice and celebrate for this very special gift from God, for our family and for the world, we say “Thank you Lord! You answered our prayers.” We made our requests known and believed that God would bless us. And God did!

God presented us with someone very, very special to love.

God gave us a reason to Rejoice! We rejoice because we can say that we truly know love and experience gratitude for life. New life. Less than 24 hours and 35 years ago, my beautiful, loving, brilliant, gentle, kind, thoughtful and compassionate daughter, Riana Richelle Shaw Robinson was born.  Her presence and her life has filled our hearts and lives with so much joy that it has surpassed all our understanding. How did we get so blessed to receive this special gift?

I am a very proud and grateful mother, and our family is a very proud and grateful family. God really knows how to answer prayers and give us gifts that fill our hearts, minds, and lives with so much joy, unthinkable joy, that all we can do is say, “Hallelujah, thank you Lord.”  We rejoice as we celebrate our special, unique gift from God to our family. And we gladly and humbly share our gift. The world has received a special gift as well.

So I say Rejoice! And rejoice in the Lord again!

Rochelle R. Shaw
Stated Clerk - Presbytery of San Francisco

SFTS MDiv 2014 

 
 
Our Advent hope: Someday, we will know fully that water is life; we will know fully the water of life.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

With Joy You Will Draw Water from the Well of Salvation

Isaiah 12:2-6

“With joy you will draw water from the well of salvation.” Isaiah 12:3 (NRSV)

“Water is life.” (Lakota saying)

Just two Advents and a few months ago, the world’s brief attention span was drawn to the importance of water and the sources from which it springs, as the Lakota people of the Standing Rock reservation, along with allies from across the country, protested the immanent construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through their land. A brief reprieve from the construction in Advent 2016 was quickly undone the following January, and the pipeline was completed that April. As of Advent 2018, oil has been flowing through Standing Rock lands—with unknown effects on their water supply—for more than a year and a half.

Advent is the time of not-yet, of promise-still-to-come. The fullest expression of God’s saving love and tender mercy is still over the horizon. Someday, we are promised, we willdraw water from the well of salvation—and do so with joy! In that day, the prophet promises us, we will exult gleefully in God as all around us God topples the systems of injustice and oppression and greed that have so long ruled our world. In that day, the well will not be poisoned, as the water of life will issue from God’s own store.

Yet as Standing Rock—and every injustice before and after—reminds us, that day is not yet here. We are still in Advent. And the danger for us now is that, impatient for the well of salvation, we will drink water that does not give life, drawing from wells of bitterness and anger, cynicism and resentment. We may even be tempted to drink the poisoned waters from the cistern of despair, as one cause quickly fades into another and ever new battles are engaged, even as the unjust systems of oppression never seem to change.

In these times, Advent reminds us to hope. Our prayers and liturgy, our service to the poor and the marginalized, our calls for justice, all these we do in hope to prepare for and advance that coming day of which the prophets foretold us. These are sips of God’s living water, often mingled with our tears and suffering in this broken and unjust world. Someday, though, someday, we will know fully that water is life; we will know fully the water of life. In that day, finally free of the poisoned waters of injustice, greed, bitterness, and despair, with joy we will draw water from the well of salvation.

Andrew K. Lee
SFTS/GTU Master of Arts 2015; GTU PhD Student

 
 
What do we name the one who will bring good news?

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Naming

Luke 1:57-66

They were hill country people. Good-at-heart, we imagine, or mostly so. They gathered to do right by the baby, to make sure the rules were followed.

“It is okay to name a baby for someone who is still living” – that was evidently one of their rules, though other communities have differed with that. Perhaps they also entertained the possibility of using another family name or even – as is the practice of some – a Biblical name starting with the same letter as the father’s. No one would have suggested Zedekiah, of course, the last king of Judah “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” But there might have been someone at the naming ceremony that day with a fondness for Zadok, David and Solomon’s faithful priest, or even Zaphnath-panneah, “the man to whom secrets are revealed.” Given the way the world was shifting under their feet, Elizabeth’s neighbors would likely have welcomed a new member of the community in either role. In the end, though, they agreed on his father’s name. “Zechariah” not only upheld the most important of the naming traditions but provided a note of reassurance. “The Lord has remembered,” the name means.

Elizabeth and Zechariah’s good neighbors had reason to be anxious. Breaking the naming rules for Ancient Israel risked opening the door to assimilation. Keeping names “all in the family” was part of one big and very important wall. One way of setting a hedge around the little nation. Elizabeth’s neighbors could hardly think of anything worse than assimilation. As it turns out, their anxieties only served to lead them astray, and in just the same ways as ours do when we resist the Spirit’s moving.

“John” was a popular name in the Judaism of Elizabeth’s time – but it hardly provided the comfort of “The Lord has remembered.” “Zechariah” contains a whiff of promise. “The Lord will rescue us when the time is right,” it suggests, encouraging waiting, rule following. But “John” kicks the door wide open to what is to come. To a savior who looks forward more than back. To what is new and next. “John” invites people into the big world God so loves and for whom God is sending the Savior. It is the perfect name for someone who is going to plow the road to a new age because “John” means “God is gracious.”

And God’s graciousness is an energy that moves inexorably forward. The graciousness that began flowing into the world with the birth of John is the same graciousness God offers us. A graciousness that levels the rough places, hedges, and walls – and draws us into the new.
Rev. Dr. Jana Childers
SFTS Dean, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Professor of Homiletics and Speech Communication 

 
 
Advent offers us the opportunity to greet Holy surprises with Holy silence, sacred solitude, and spiritual companionship.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Holy Surprises Held in Silence, Solitude, and Love

Luke 1:5-25

“Hey Zechariah and Elizabeth, I know you’re pretty old, but you are going to have a child!  I know you’ve been asking for a while and it’s finally happening.  Oh, and p.s., your child will be kind of special, he’ll be paving the way for the Lord’s arrival on earth.”

“Hey Mary! I know you’re a virgin and all, but I just wanted to let you know that you’re pregnant with God’s Son. I know, weird, but it’s true!”

Gabriel is doing some serious holy bomb dropping in the first Chapter of Luke. I imagine that many of us can recall times when we’ve received news, for better or worse, that has stopped us in our tracks – Holy, life changing, disbelief-inducing news.   Whether this be news of diagnosis, of miraculous healing, of profound loss, or unexpected new life – world-altering surprises can stop us in our tracks.

What catches my eye in this passage is the way that our stunned parents-to-be respond to their respective, life-altering news.  Zechariah enters into 9-10 months of silence. Elizabeth enters seclusion for five months, and Mary seeks spiritual companionship with Elizabeth. Silence, solitude, and spiritual companionship, and to what end? When Zechariah breaks his prolonged silence he proclaims words of praise and prophecy – what a shift from his previous doubt and disbelief.  After Elizabeth spends her months in solitude, she is so grounded in her being that she senses the Holy One that is taking shape in Mary’s womb when she first sees Mary. And Mary, in seeking companionship, experiences encouragement that supports her in engaging with the profound Mystery that has entered her life, that she is carrying and nurturing for the world.

Holy silence, sacred solitude, and spiritual companionship – what invitations these seem to be to me as we face the mystery and profound surprises of our lives.  They are so different from, and a great counter to, other natural responses to life-altering news which for me have included: efforts to control it all, a desire to clean things up, to move to the next stage before it is time, or to deny what is going on all together. While I don’t doubt God’s presence with us in the midst of these responses, I hear clear invitation to different ways of being. In this text I hear an invitation to sacred practices that will ground us in God’s Love, that will root us in deep trust of the Divine, and that will support us in being more fully present to the Holy work that God is doing with, in, and through us, for the sake of ours and the world’s healing.

As we continue in this Advent season, may we open to God’s loving invitation to slow down, to open to silence, and to seek Holy companionship so that we might more fully bear and birth God’s Light in the world.  Amen.

Julie Barnes
SFTS MDiv; SFTS/GTU MA 2013

 
 
What kind of patience does it require to be a shepherd, ruler of sheep?

Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Shepherd's Merciful Love

Micah 5:2-5a

What kind of patience would it require to be a Shepherd, The Ruler of Sheep?

One wouldn’t be able to stand in front of them and explain the parameters. “Don’t go outside of that line of grass.” And have them remember.

Certainly there is no encouragement towards logic. “Nelly, that’s where the wolves might be. Stop what you’re doing and think about it…”

No, the work of a shepherd sounds tedious. Constantly repeating oneself, the same flick of the staff to guide the sheep back in. Like an airplane Marshaller, without the audience or the thrill of take-off. Just the tinkling of bells. The occasional mew that one could choose to interpret as appreciation. The ruffle of wind in the grass. Crickets.

It sounds like a low-level job.

And yet, this lowly role describes our Holy Messiah. Again and again, Scripture attempts to inspire by portraying the coming Ruler as just this shepherd.

For it is this form of saving love that we so desperately need. The Ruler who guides each of us as precious and unique, as one of the flock. The Ruler willing to walk with us through the tedium of our day to day… The Ruler who is with us through the boring moments of crickets. The Ruler who calls us back when we walk again into the places that threaten to destroy us.

It is this form of tender mercy that we need. The Ruler who leads us beside still waters, to cool our parched throats. The Ruler who provides nourishment needed to go on. The Ruler who sheers us with such care that we are not cut. The Ruler who lures us to peace.

May we prepare ourselves for such a Ruler to come: a Shepherd Ruler with the patience that we need to be led.

Rev. Marissa Danney
ACPE (Chaplaincy) Clinical Educator

SFTS MDiv, DASD 2014

 
 
Rejoice!  And rejoice again!  Rejoice! 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Special Gift from God

Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice! And rejoice again! Rejoice is something we say and do to express ourselves when something wonderfully wonderful has happened. This single word enables us to acknowledge when we have received something special.  Very special. Wonderful. Something so unique that, in this world, there is only one. We rejoice and we celebrate! Something exceptional and extraordinary has happened and with it comes unspeakable joy. And with this joy comes a new life into existence. Someone new to love.  I rejoice! My family rejoices! My children and husband rejoice! All of our loved ones rejoice and thank God because we have received a very special gift from God.

Our prayers have been answered. And as we rejoice and celebrate for this very special gift from God, for our family and for the world, we say “Thank you Lord! You answered our prayers.” We made our requests known and believed that God would bless us. And God did!

God presented us with someone very, very special to love.

God gave us a reason to Rejoice! We rejoice because we can say that we truly know love and experience gratitude for life. New life. Less than 24 hours and 35 years ago, my beautiful, loving, brilliant, gentle, kind, thoughtful and compassionate daughter, Riana Richelle Shaw Robinson was born.  Her presence and her life has filled our hearts and lives with so much joy that it has surpassed all our understanding. How did we get so blessed to receive this special gift?

I am a very proud and grateful mother, and our family is a very proud and grateful family. God really knows how to answer prayers and give us gifts that fill our hearts, minds, and lives with so much joy, unthinkable joy, that all we can do is say, “Hallelujah, thank you Lord.”  We rejoice as we celebrate our special, unique gift from God to our family. And we gladly and humbly share our gift. The world has received a special gift as well.

So I say Rejoice! And rejoice in the Lord again!

Rochelle R. Shaw
Stated Clerk - Presbytery of San Francisco

SFTS MDiv 2014 

 
 
Our Advent hope: Someday, we will know fully that water is life; we will know fully the water of life.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

With Joy You Will Draw Water from the Well of Salvation

Isaiah 12:2-6

“With joy you will draw water from the well of salvation.” Isaiah 12:3 (NRSV)

“Water is life.” (Lakota saying)

Just two Advents and a few months ago, the world’s brief attention span was drawn to the importance of water and the sources from which it springs, as the Lakota people of the Standing Rock reservation, along with allies from across the country, protested the immanent construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through their land. A brief reprieve from the construction in Advent 2016 was quickly undone the following January, and the pipeline was completed that April. As of Advent 2018, oil has been flowing through Standing Rock lands—with unknown effects on their water supply—for more than a year and a half.

Advent is the time of not-yet, of promise-still-to-come. The fullest expression of God’s saving love and tender mercy is still over the horizon. Someday, we are promised, we willdraw water from the well of salvation—and do so with joy! In that day, the prophet promises us, we will exult gleefully in God as all around us God topples the systems of injustice and oppression and greed that have so long ruled our world. In that day, the well will not be poisoned, as the water of life will issue from God’s own store.

Yet as Standing Rock—and every injustice before and after—reminds us, that day is not yet here. We are still in Advent. And the danger for us now is that, impatient for the well of salvation, we will drink water that does not give life, drawing from wells of bitterness and anger, cynicism and resentment. We may even be tempted to drink the poisoned waters from the cistern of despair, as one cause quickly fades into another and ever new battles are engaged, even as the unjust systems of oppression never seem to change.

In these times, Advent reminds us to hope. Our prayers and liturgy, our service to the poor and the marginalized, our calls for justice, all these we do in hope to prepare for and advance that coming day of which the prophets foretold us. These are sips of God’s living water, often mingled with our tears and suffering in this broken and unjust world. Someday, though, someday, we will know fully that water is life; we will know fully the water of life. In that day, finally free of the poisoned waters of injustice, greed, bitterness, and despair, with joy we will draw water from the well of salvation.

Andrew K. Lee
SFTS/GTU Master of Arts 2015; GTU PhD Student

 
 
In the midst of conflagration and evening wolves, there’s so much to do when the morning comes

Monday, December 10, 2018

Evening Wolves

Zephaniah 3:14-20

The order of service for tomorrow’s victory is an almighty book
Celebrations and justice on that day        on that day
when God comes to
come correct
Seems enough to make you sing in the dark.

I’d like to be in morning on that day
but my hands        my hands are slack now.

Now is the burning damage we’ve wrought on our own town
Now are the evening wolves
dragging shadows into every sacred thing
court, gas-ridden border and memorial

My hands are slack now.
I have let the wrong kind of reigning twilight catch me up in a pillared atrium
wondering from where
the next appointed wolf comes. Shelter in place
we are in the middle of lions and slow moving conflagration
Thousands much closer to the flame       and yes, plenty of us safe in our beds.

Therefore wait for Me, says
the One who comes to
come correct. I tell you what’s coming, coming
to invigorate your nerveless crouching hips

There’s no getting to the good part without a dose
of grim determination. Pick up some tool in your slack hands.

Teach lions and wolves to fear your faithful prophecy; hold someone’s dear weak hand.
picture
gutting crimes from our social contract.
Light sweetgrass on every altar and force hissing lies out of the chapel.

On that day, there will be beautiful trees under which to shelter.
while we wait,
Build your own tools and work in the dark ‘til God says well done.

There’s so much to do when the morning comes--
go ahead and start now.

Lucas Walker
SFTS Pastoral Care Associate 
SFTS MDiv 2012; MATS 2015

 
 
How do we come to change our mind—is it fear of the wrath to come, or hope for a smoothed-out road?

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Changing Minds

Luke 3:1-6

The writer of Luke begins chapter 3 with the socioreligious pecking order, juxtaposing a laundry list of the Powers That Be against one Voice heard in the wilderness, and another beginning to cry out. Change is in the air. Things that seem solid and unmovable, those mountains and valleys, those principalities and powers, are about to lose their footing.

“Come, be washed with water and change your mind,” John says — or maybe it’s “have your mind changed.” Either way, metanoia, the repentance that is the reason for the dip in the river, is the first kind of change to come, before the earth-shattering ones. It is the turnaround, the shift in mindset, the “on second thought” that gets things started toward salvation.

The science of changing minds is complicated. We humans change our minds constantly — about what we want for dinner, whether to walk or drive, how much to spend. But we are also creatures of habit, and laziness can hold more sway than novelty. A deluge of facts will rarely shift our thinking, but a well-told story can transform our vision. Fear can motivate us not to do things, like leap from the high dive, but hope is a better motivator to inspire action. We’re most resistant to changing our minds if it means going against what’s socially valuable to us, like the people and communities we love.*

In an era where many of us are wondering how to change the minds of those on the other side of the aisle or the other half of the country, I want to know how John brought people to metanoia, to change their minds. Was it fear of the wrath to come, or hope for a smoothed-out road?

Or maybe more important than how is the notion that the first step toward salvation is an open mind, one still pliable enough to be changed. Though mountains and valleys and emperors and rulers seem set in stone, change is afoot. May it begin with us, turning around again to see the one with no coat, and allowing saving love and tender mercy to open us anew.

* For more of the science of how we change our minds:

http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/09/21/how-people-change-their-mind

https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=572162132

Rev. Aimee Moiso
SFTS Trustee
SFTS MDiv 2006

 
 
In the mountains of Honduras, two congregations embody and proclaim the transformative power of God’s love.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Harvest of God's Love

Phillippians 1:3-11

Pastor Juan Rodas, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Honduras, loves to tell the story of how two remote churches, El Horno and El Sute, joined the denomination. The communities of these churches are at the top of a mountain in the department of Comayagua, Honduras (see photo below). They are so remote, so small, and so economically poor that the utilities that built electric transmission lines overhead, crossing the mountaintop, didn’t bother to connect the communities to the lines. Most people in the communities are of indigenous Lenca descent and are farmers, of coffee, mostly, and of corn, beans, and other staples. There are roads, but not good ones, so most people walk, or if they’re well-off, ride mules or horses. It’s a five-hour walk to the nearest paved road.

When Pastor Juan began visiting, another denomination’s missionaries had evangelized in the area a few years earlier and established one small church in El Sute and then another in El Horno. The young, small churches were going strong, but they were hoping for more connection and were seeking to join a larger denomination. Pastor Juan and his colleagues had visited several times to assess the viability of the tiny communities joining the Presbyterian denomination. At a meeting of the denomination’s board, they had decided that the communities were, sadly, too remote and would stretch the small denomination too thinly. At the time there were only about 20 congregations nationwide. The denomination’s leaders couldn’t imagine committing to the pastoral presence needed in such a remote place.

Pastor Juan and his father-in-law, Pastor Edin Samayoa, arrived in El Horno after walking five or six hours, with the intention of informing the congregations’ leadership of the decision. Some church elders sat and had coffee with the pastors and related the story of how their churches came to be. The missionaries who came to evangelize years prior had been from a larger denomination. They had spent the time they needed to preach the gospel in the towns, but when it came time for the churches to become independent, the missionaries left, saying they couldn’t join the larger denomination because the communities “no son rentables.” In English: The communities weren’t profitable. They wouldn’t be worth the investment of time and effort of a larger denomination. El Horno and El Sute were drains on the resources of the missionaries.

When Pastor Juan tells this story, he nearly always has tears in his eyes. He says that he changed his mind on the spot and couldn’t see his way to telling the dedicated Christians of El Sute and El Horno that they weren’t worth his time. Pastors Edin and Juan returned to the leadership of the denomination with the news that they had two new congregations. “What? I thought we decided the opposite!” they protested.

God’s call to us is not one of economy or feasibility, Pastor Juan says. God’s call to us is one of abundant and merciful love. We are called not to the places in the world that are profitable, but to the places in the world where there is need of love.

I love the affection that Paul shows for the church in Philippi; it reminds me of Pastor Juan’s affection for El Horno and El Sute. “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight…having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” How telling that the harvest he speaks of is not of financial or demographic increase but of righteousness, glory, and praise.

After 10 or 15 years, the churches of El Sute and El Horno are shining examples of community cooperation and unity. They are represented in the denomination’s leadership. They have collaborated with U.S. Presbyterians to install solar panels and water purification systems in their communities. The students they send to the denomination’s theological education programs are the most dedicated and studious. The presence of the churches has helped encourage investment in coffee and food production rather than in illegal drugs. Family unity and cohesion has increased.

El Horno and El Sute are examples of the transformative power of God’s love.

Rev. Dori Kay Hjalmarson
Presbyterian Church (USA) Mission Co-Worker, Honduras

SFTS MDiv 2015 

 
 
What if you awoke tomorrow with only what you had thanked God for today?

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Meditation on a Roadside Church Sign

Psalm 145

I love roadside church signs. One of my favorites, spotted in Savannah, GA, read: “Don’t give up hope. Even Moses was a basket case.” One in Natchez, MS, gave me a good chuckle: “God loves you and you’re His favorite.”

Yep, folks in the South know their church signs. Living here in Marin County, we don’t get much opportunity to spot the clever ones, but Mt. Tamalpais United Methodist Church in Mill Valley, CA, does a great job with something new every week. Recently, I had to stop and really ponder (and that’s the point, right?) when I saw “What if you awoke tomorrow with only what you thanked God for today?” on their sign.

It’s a message that’s been haunting me since I saw it in mid-November. They had put it up just after the Paradise and Woolsey fires broke out, when we in Marin County were inhaling the remains of people’s homes and neighborhoods from behind our N95 respiratory masks—when we were looking around our houses, mentally making lists of what we’d grab in case of emergency and putting ourselves in the shoes of those who had lost everything: What if we awoke tomorrow with nothing but what we had thanked God for today?

As someone who is mildly superstitious and slightly anxious, I started making that list. What had I recently thanked God for? What bargains had I made? Was I treating God like some heavenly Santa Claus who would deliver my wishes as long as I was a very good girl?

I ran back the mental audio of my recent prayers. I had thanked God for my mom, who is endlessly supportive and truly my best friend. I recently thanked God for the improving health of my dad, and I had thanked God for my wonderful pets and loving partner – for my warm home, the breathtaking beauty of Marin County, and the work that I am doing here at SFTS, for the students and alumni that I have the opportunity to work with and watch do great things in our world.

It’s hard, when so many are suffering and it seems every day there is more news of horror and sadness, to continue being grateful for what we have and to praise God for God’s glory and grace.

But I find that when I do, I find peace. I find hope. And I feel God’s presence when I visualize all that I am grateful for: my dog’s sweet face, my cats’ purrs, my partner’s loving embrace, my mother’s kindness, our beautiful Mount Tamalpais overlooking this incredible campus full of people who are going to change the world.

What if you awoke tomorrow with only what you had thanked God for today?

Marissa Miller
SFTS Director of Alumni Relations 

 
 
How can we find a word of saving love and tender mercy in a Scripture that is about judgment?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Struggling with the Text

Malachi 3:1-4

I struggled with this text. On the surface it seems fairly innocuous, but under the surface lies a violent text.

“God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…” Silver has a melting point of over 1700° F. The word translated as “fuller” is related to the Assyrian word for “trample.” So, my challenge has been, “How do I write a devotion about God’s saving love and tender mercy when this text is about judgment?”

Short answer: I don’t really know.

Immediately preceding this text, the prophet says, “You have wearied the Lord with your words…saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he delights in them’ or by asking, ‘Where is the God of justice?’” The prophet is pointing out hypocrisy, people who claim they want justice, but participate in evil and oppressive systems.

Such an observation hits close to home for me. I am tired of seeing more and more of my trans sisters of color murdered, misgendered, and ignored. I am sick of seeing police gun down unarmed Black men. I am broken from watching so many families and friends work through the overdose of a loved one.

Yet, despite all of my lament, I am still part of the problem. I participate in a society that oppresses and kills. I benefit from systems of racism. I am a citizen of an imperialist nation. My educational privilege gives me the tendency to make moral judgments on those I disagree with. I sit with my desire for good obscured by my participation in evil. Silver riddled with impurities.

Malachi depicts an enduring God who stays with us, even in our hypocrisy. The text tells us that despite God’s weariness, God is faithful. God will keep the covenant even when we don’t. Instead of regarding us as blemished and discarding us, God regards us as whole and pure, and does the work to save us.

Andy Deeb
SFTS MDiv Senior 

 
 
Advent and apocalypse remind us that our healing draws near.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

"The World in a Grain of Sand"

Luke 21:25-26

We can think of Biblical time as linear: beginning, middle, end. But time is also the eternal present of divine creativity in which birth and death, morning and apocalypse constantly cycle around each other.

          To see a World in a Grain of Sand
          And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
          Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
          And Eternity in an hour.  - William Blake

Blake’s poem depicts the world from this perspective, that is, from the perspective of the kingdom of God. In this eternal present, every being is precious and beloved. Harm to the least creature results in misery and destruction: “a robin red-breast in a cage, puts all of heaven in a rage…” This is the prophetic point of view, which Abraham Heschel associates with the “divine pathos.” The prophet is the one who is naked to the Beloved’s devotion to humanity and to Their grief and anger when lives count as nothing.  A caged bird seems a trivial thing, and yet from the divine perspective, any cruelty or untruth is an outrage, a disaster.

The Beloved, embodied in Jesus, describes this eternal present as it unfolds in history: confused nations, people fainting from fear, the shaking of the heavens. The outrages of the 1stand 21stcenturies are like world-endings. Scripture speaks to us in our despair, frustration, and terror. But the Beloved reminds us that this is the moment when They draw near, our healing draws near: eucatastrophe surprises us when catastrophe was all we could imagine. As doom approaches, be alert, pray. We might add: dance, be kind to one another, light candles when darkness encroaches. Catastrophe is always at hand, but the Beloved is nearer yet. The gospel is joy. Apocalypse reminds us it is already in the palm of our hand.

Dr. Wendy Farley
SFTS Professor of Christian Spirituality 
and Rice Family Chair in 
Spirituality 

 
 
A meditation on God’s saving love, through twilight, night, and the dawning of the day.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Advent Meditation

Jeremiah 33:14-16

I. Twilight

Behold!  The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. – Jeremiah 33:14

The darkness comes.  Suddenly, but not unexpectedly.  I watch as the sun disappears beyond the far horizon and the last remnants of daylight are purged from the big sky.  It is, of course, Winter, and this is that time of year when the days are short and the nights are long.  And while I have been long accustomed to this time of Winter and darkness, it is a place where I always struggle.

I struggle, for the morning seems remote and distant and impossibly far away.  And the promise of Spring, in the midst of Winter’s barrenness, seems but a dream.  An impossible dream.  Winter is a season of darkness and cold, of struggle and challenge.  And in ways both literal and figurative, I grope through the dying twilight trying to find my way – maybe even trying to find the Way, the Way that leads beyond the shadows into the light.

I think about the Promise.  And I believe in it with all my heart.  But in these shadowy days of now, it is hard to trust in the days that are to come.  I wait and hope.  I hope and wait.  But faith at this place is not easy.  And I wonder if I can hold on through this shadowy darkness until I find that place where the Promise is made good and the days I so long for shall ultimately come.

I wait in faith.  But still, I wait.

II. Night

In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  – Jeremiah 33:15

The wind blows.  But that particular verb does not adequately describe what is happening.  It is Winter.  And the Winter wind does not blow; it howls downslope from the mountains and over the plains and prairies to the east.  The wind rages like an angry demigod.  During this season, it exerts a sovereignty impenetrable to human challenge.

I can deal with the cold.  I am able to cope with the snow.  But the wind is something different.  The night wind of Winter is more than I can handle.  I feel it push me towards this ragged edge of being.  It is a place where I wonder.  Where I doubt.  Where I struggle to believe in the days and the time that is promised to come.

The hope borne of the promised righteous Branch exists in this time and place as only a mirage or illusion –  a phantasm that is scattered by the wind.  I believe.  I still believe.  But in the midst of this windswept night, I need help with my unbelief.  I search in this deepest darkness for reassurance and for hope; for some righteous sign of the Promise and the days which surely, certainly come.  But in this place, there is only darkness.  And the wind, the omnipresent wind.

I struggle.  But in faith, I struggle as I wait for those days and that time to come.

III. Dawn

In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”–  Jeremiah 33:16

The sun rises.  The phenomenon, perhaps, is illusory.  Yet I feel as if its light is hurrying towards me, specifically towards me from the place of its rising.  The birth of a new day is so quotidian that it happens with little fanfare or celebration.  But on this particular morning, the dawn feels extraordinary – maybe even miraculous.

The advent of the morning’s light unfolds in a powerful and compelling way.  I watch as the darkness flees from the presence of the gathering dawn.  The wind also concedes defeat.  Its tyranny is denuded by the bright and compelling light of this new day.  And like the night, the wind slinks silently away.

In wonder, I watch as the lingering shadows recede.  Light champions over the darkness.  And out of what was a windswept and shadowy chaos, order emerges.  This day has come.  And with the dawn, I am reminded that those days too will come –  those days which were promised so long ago, where Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety, where their new name will be “The Lord is our righteousness.”

The Promise which had seemingly almost died in the shadows and the wind and the dark of night now lives again within me.  I hold that Promise close to my heart.  And in the bright morning’s light, my soul praises the One whose Word makes that promise good: the One who was and is and is to come.  And in this moment, there is grace.

Rev. Tim Lanham
SFTS Trustee
SFTS MDiv 1988

 
 
Through life lived with God over time, we “come to know” God’s saving protection, love, and mercy.

Monday, December 3, 2018

I Have Come to Know

Psalms 25:1-10

When I tell people I am taking Greek this semester, I frequently have to clarify that I’m taking “Biblical” Greek so I can read the New Testament in its original language. In case you’re wondering, no, I won’t be able to speak Greek with the locals on my next trip to Greece.

I am still trying to master Greek grammar (imagine, there are twenty-four ways to say “the”). However, every time I see or think about the Greek word that translates as I have come to knowI feel a sense of excitement and joy because it reminds me of whatI have come to know of God’s faithfulness—of God’s protection, love, and mercy. Remembering God’s words in Jeremiah, “You will…find me when you seek me with all your heart”; it reminds me that getting to know God requires action on my part. Lastly, this Greek word that means I have come to knowreminds me that no matter what happens, I can trust God.

I think the writer of Psalms 25 knew what it was like to experience God over time. In the first ten verses the writer offers us insights into his relationship with God and how he knows that his trust in God is not misplaced.

Based on the Psalmist’s pleas for God to spare him from shame, defeat by his enemies, and the consequences of his own foolish mistakes, we can surmise that the Psalmist was facing many challenges in his life. Yet, if we look closer, we can also detect how the writer relies on God and is the beneficiary of God’s love and mercy. The Psalmist  (1) recognizes that God is the sole source of deliverance; (2) proclaims trust in God in word and action; (3) asks God for guidance (i.e., help from the right source); (4) is patient; and (5) follows God’s guidance.

Reading Psalms 25 reminded me of my experience of preparing to walk El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage walk that stretches from France to Spain. Eight months before I was scheduled to depart for Spain, I learned that a woman had been killed on the Camino.  The news really frightened me because everything I had read or heard about the Camino assured me that women traveling alone were safe.  Although I would meet new people each day, I would be traveling alone. As I wrestled with the disturbing news, I knew that I had trusted God’s guidance regarding previous plans about the Camino, so I continued to place my trust in God about this issue too. I prayed for guidance, knowing how disappointed I would be if I had to cancel my trip, yet I was willing to follow God’s guidance.  Three days later I met a woman in REI (we both were shopping for boots) who had just returned from the Camino.  She assured me that I would be safe. As we talked in the store, and in many conversations during the ensuing months, I knew that she was the answer to my prayer.

My prayers don’t always get answered as quickly or dramatically as they did with my Camino experience. However, another thing I have come to knowis that God’s timing is always perfect.

During this Advent season may we come to knowanew that “all the ways of God are loving and faithful.”

Denise Diaab
SFTS MDiv Senior

 
 
Advent’s surprising good news: God’s tender mercy will save us from everything that does us harm.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Saving Love and Tender Mercy

Luke 1:68

In Luke 1:68, Zechariah speaks.  And it’s not surprising that he has a lot to say, because he has been silent for some 9 months.  Maybe you remember the story:

Zechariah is a temple priest in the time just before Jesus. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are “well along in years.”  Then, one day, as Zechariah is performing his priestly duties in the temple, an angel appears and tells him that Elizabeth will bear a son;  this son – in the spirit and power of Elijah – will bring many back to God; this son will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  Zechariah replies, “How can this be, for we are old?” – to which the angel responds, “Oh, it shall be – but because you have not believed my words, you will be silent until the day this happens.”  And so Zechariah goes silent – not a word – for nine months – until the baby is born – and named: John, whom we know as the Baptizer.  And then, Zechariah speaks.

It’s not surprising that what pours forth is a song proclaiming salvation, particularly in the midst of this story that is, again and again, about the saving power of God.  In Zechariah’s silence, Elizabeth already has exclaimed that God has saved her from disgrace, and Mary has proclaimed God’s saving power to bring down the powerful and to scatter the proud.  Indeed, throughout the Advent readings this year – in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – the people cry out for God to save them from every kind of hurt and harm – from violence, from oppression, from enemies, from fear, from ourselves.  In Luke 1:68-79, Zechariah – after a long silence – joins that cry with his own song, “God is raising up for us a savior!” It’s not surprising the Zechariah sings of salvation.

But then Zechariah says something that startles.  God is doing this (Zechariah sings), God is saving us – through God’s tender mercy:  “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Salvation is coming, not in the power of mighty armies, but in the power of God’s tender mercy.  The salvation that we hear in Zechariah’s song is the salvation that we hear in Mary’s Magnificat, and it is the salvation that we find in Jesus – God’s Saving Love and Tender Mercy.  It is a tender mercy that will bring down every despot and lift up the downtrodden – it is tender mercy that will save us from everything that does us harm.

We are embracing this Saving Love and Tender Mercy as our theme for this year’s Advent devotions. This Advent we’ll enter together into these songs and this conversation, as we name the saving love and tender mercy that we see in these Advent scriptures and in our own world and lives. Each day, as a different writer from the SFTS community engages us with a Scripture, I invite you to pray with these questions:

  • What yearning for God’s saving love am I hearing in this text?  In the world? In my own life? In the vital issues of our day?
  • Where do I see God’s tender mercy at work in the world?
  • How can I/we embody God’s saving love and tender mercy?

I wonder, in Zechariah’s silence, what he saw and heard and thought and prayed.  In the quiet moments of this Advent season, by the tender mercy of our God, may we glimpse, and then embrace, and then embody the saving love of God that comes to us and to all people in Jesus Christ.

Rev. Scott Clark
Chaplain and Dean of Students