Mercy Begets Mercy

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It seems so odd and unbelievable that we are quick to dismiss what happens when Jesus calls Matthew to follow him. When we read this story from the New Testament, we regard it with the same suspicion and skepticism that we reserve for the other outrageous and supernatural miracle stories in the Bible:  

“A big fish swallowed Jonah?” 

“Moses split the Red Sea?” 

“Jesus turned water into wine?” 

“Matthew left everything to follow Jesus?”  

“Whatever,” we mutter. None of those things are even remotely believable.  

Jesus adds to our incredulity here. Just before the story where he calls Matthew to follow him, Jesus gives us several examples of individuals who do not wish to drop what they’re doing to follow Jesus. Each person is willing to follow Jesus, but just not at that specific moment.  

One particular individual will gladly follow Jesus but wishes first to bury his father. Sounds reasonable to me, but Jesus thinks not. In fact, he’s curt: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”  

So yes, it seems unrealistic that Matthew would leave his place of employment that moment to follow Jesus. But that’s precisely what he did. Many of us who read this passage are grateful that this moment happened in ‘Bible Times’ so that we don’t have to face it today. Think about it: If we were approached by Jesus in the middle of our work day, or while on the way to tackle an important matter, would we drop everything to follow Jesus?  

Some of us will remember that Matthew was a tax collector and that he was manning a booth on the road outside of Galilee. Local merchants and fishermen would saunter by him, trying to avoid eye contact with the Roman official. But in the end, with the force of the empire behind them, the tax collector would wind up with a portion of the sojourners’ money or goods. Tax collectors were universally despised. They were stooges to Rome and took people’s money. It worked this way: the tax collector would first pay a year’s worth of tribute up front and at the beginning of the year out of their own wealth, and would then work to collect it back by taxing the locals in their district the following year. If they wanted to break even on their ‘investment,’ they would work hard by securing money from the people who trafficked by their booth. If they wanted to pull a profit, they would simply ask more from these same people. Clearly, many tax collectors wanted to make quite the profit.   

And just like that you can see why tax collectors were despised.  

When Jesus asks Matthew to follow him, the tax collector freely surrenders his investment and chooses to lose money rather than extort it from his fellow Jews. Jesus doesn’t demand that Matthew do this in order for him to become a follower. Jesus simply extends Matthew grace and mercy by inviting him to be a part of his team. In turn, Matthew chooses to extend grace and mercy to those he had been cheating.  

Zacchaeus, another tax collector from Luke’s Gospel, responds much the same way. Jesus announces to the diminutive tax official that he will be staying at his house that same day. This great honor causes the local onlookers to grumble. How could Jesus extend such an honor to one such as Zacchaeus?  

Right then and there, the tax collector pipes up and says: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”   

This, Jesus announces, is how salvation comes to Zacchaeus’s house!  

Jesus is merciful to individuals who are not deserving of it. And in response, the person who benefits from his mercy chooses to extend mercy to others. Zacchaeus even quadruples the amount of reparations due his ‘customers.’ Mercy begets mercy. 

This is why Matthew, and Jesus’s other followers and disciples, could just up and leave everything to follow Jesus. Their truest, most authentic response to Jesus’s invitation to follow him was to stop defrauding others and to become his disciples. Almost immediately, both Matthew and Zacchaeus began to make things right. Mercy is contagious that way. When we experience it firsthand, we are far more likely to share it with others. Because when we experience mercy, it feels like a breakthrough. It feels like a second chance. It feels like salvation.  

Who would have thunk it? Mercy feels downright miraculous. 

Bumping Into One Another Along the Way

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One of the things that I love about church is that you find and encounter people at any number of points along the path. 

I find this to be very encouraging.  

For example, I have found great comfort during my season of grief to feel my brothers and sisters in Christ come up alongside me and share about a similar time of sorrow. These conversations along the way don’t take the pain away, of course. But the times of mutual sharing help me to feel less alone during this difficult time. 

Being church means making a commitment to sharing our lives together. Some of these moments of communion occur by design. That is, we are given permission to self-disclose in our Sunday School classes, or around the table on Wednesday nights, or later during prayer times and Bible Study. To a lesser degree, our passing of the peace allows for us to bump into one another so that we can learn who we need to circle back around to and follow up with later in the week.  

True, many of our encounters with one another at church are unscripted. They occur during a crisis, or while serving together on a project, or out in the parking lot after choir practice.  

Whether serendipitous or providential in nature, these encounters remind us that the church is most powerful when it becomes a network of friends and neighbors, colleagues and elders, brothers and sisters who understand how life can be.  

They know what it’s like to be in recovery. 

They know what it’s like to be a caregiver to their children and to their parents; and all at the same time. 

They know what it’s like to feel the heartbreak of miscarriage, the disappointment in failed marriages, the aching sense of loss that estrangement can bring.  

They know joy, too. They know birth, reunion, and laughter. 

But they also know fatigue and economic difficulty. They know about addiction and they know about failure. They have firsthand experience with tragedy and they know what horrors this life can wrought.  

Through Christ, God gives us the gift of one another. Life is hard enough as it is. God certainly doesn’t want us to go through it alone. So God sends us travelers for the journey. Some are ahead of us, and some are behind us. Some, like us, are stuck in one place. Others are finishing up their journeys, while others are just getting started. We are all in this together and we can sense God’s strength when we allow our lives to intersect. 

Now, finding places of intersection with one another doesn’t just happen. Being church together demands something of us. First off, it demands that we show up and that we are present with one another. Additionally, it requires that we look around to see other people, and to see where they are on the path. When we look beyond our own exhaustion, our own discontentment, and our own anxiety, we may just be surprised by what we see in others. We may just discover that those around us are not as different or unique as we have once thought. Sure, we’ll see things differently and we’ll naturally respond to life in any number of different ways. But, when we take the time to see one another, and to listen to one another, we’ll be more willing to extend and to receive grace.  

These moments of epiphany, awareness, and revelation, are the salve that can soothe our wounds. For when we learn that we are not alone, we learn love. We learn persistence. We learn hope.  

God is the genesis of our community and our relationships with one another. Because God came to dwell among us, He sought to demonstrate that love is best demonstrated in proximity and most fully revealed in understanding.  

This past month, I’ve known and experienced grief differently than I ever have before. But our church—and our brothers and sisters in Christ—have taught me that I am not alone in this season because so many others have been through it themselves and know how it feels. My circumstances, while particular, are not unique. This realization helps me to know that this road has been walked once before and that it can be redemptive. The way forward looks hard, but it is not impossible. What’s most personal does tend to be what’s most universal. 

And I know all this because I have learned it by traveling with you, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve learned it because you’ve been willing to share your life, and your heart, with me. God has comforted me through you, and your stories. I’m grateful for this new awareness and I am convicted to be as faithful, vulnerable, and as trusting as you. 

Everyday Mercy

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We know what God requires of us. We do. We know that God requires us to do justice, to love kindness, to have mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

But knowing these things and doing these things is another matter.  

What exactly does it look like to have mercy?  

The dictionary defines mercy as such: “Compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.” It sounds grandiose, doesn’t it? And that’s precisely what I think stops us in our tracks. Having mercy seems like something that we reserve for weighty, monumental moments. But since those encounters seem rare, we rarely exercise mercy.  

Extending mercy to others, however, can be an everyday experience.  

I’m reminded of the story of a father who took his three-year old daughter to a baseball game during a pennant race some years ago. They were seated in the upper deck when a foul ball popped up to where the two were located. The father leaned over the rail, stretched to make the improbable catch, and nabbed the fly ball right out of the air. Delighted by his accomplishment and cheered on by the crowd, the proud father presented his prize to his daughter. Upon receiving it, the little girl held the ball for just a moment and then unceremoniously pitched the ball over the railing to the seats below. The gasp from the crowd was audible. How could she throw the foul ball away moments after being presented with it? What was she thinking? Didn’t she know how precious a gift like that was? No matter. Instead of fuming at his little girl, the smiling father picked his daughter up and enveloped her in a sweet embrace. The father’s gentle response to his daughter was an example of what everyday mercy can look like.    

We are frequently like the little girl at the baseball game, are we not? We receive a gift, an opportunity, a grace, and we discard it. We disrespect it. We are careless with it. We fling it over the railing. But regardless of our bad behavior or our bad attitude, God shows us mercy by loving us without irritation or resentment. 

Everyday mercy is gentle and non-possessive. It puts others first. It holds on loosely.  

Everyday mercy is expressed in forgiveness and in the acknowledgement that there are a multitude of things that we do not know and cannot fully understand. 

Everyday mercy looks like grace when we don’t want to give it. It’s embodied when we choose to shrug off a bad encounter even though we want to tell someone off. Mercy is exhibited when we give others the benefit of the doubt.   

Everyday mercy is demonstrated when we choose to share. When we loosen our grip on things that are rightly ours and give them to those who need them, we are having mercy.  

Everyday mercy begins with our attitude. When we choose to respond rather than react, we are choosing mercy over retribution. When we are internally non-anxious, we have the space and bandwidth to extend kindness instead of judgment. When we are able to be circumspect and see beyond ourselves, we are in a position to extend our arms to embrace those who are hurting.  

Everyday mercy is frequently expressed by generosity and good cheer. And if we want a firsthand experience with mercy, consider your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Our church is comprised of individuals who are agents of mercy in our community. Our church members see their vocations as opportunities to extend God’s love to others in dynamic and extraordinary ways. Our retirees invest sweat equity in numerous projects to help those in need. We share together. We give together. We listen together. We love together. We worship together. We learn together. We serve together. This is what everyday mercy looks like. It looks like you and me when we choose to be the Body of Christ because Christ is God’s mercy to us.  

So, yes. Mercy is the work of the church, and every day is an opportunity to clock in.  

On the Occasion of My Father’s Death 

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When my father died—God help me for confessing this—I felt relief.  

For over a week in December my family and I didn’t know whether my father was recovering or dying. He had been admitted to the hospital for one set of circumstances but suffered a massive stroke as he began to improve. The days that unfolded soon thereafter were a painstaking journey filled with conflicting information from the doctors, uneven reports from my family, and my own sense of how things were progressing.  

The only word that seems to capture how those days felt is torture.  

Dad didn’t seem to be at peace while we waited for him to recover, or to die. He seemed, to me, to be fitfully sleeping. The somnambulant state that he was in seemed to be a prison; it looked as though he wanted to wake up and emerge from his slumber but could not. It’s true that his eyes would occasionally open, and that the edges of his mouth would curl up as though he was smiling. He would clearly raise his chin when my mother would lean down to him, and his lips would close to return her kiss. But he would never fully awaken. And he would never utter another word.  

The feeling of watching my father die was so loathsome that it makes me gasp to recall it.  

And I know that you know what this feels like. For I know that you have watched your loved ones die. I know this because I have been privileged to walk beside you during these most-difficult times. My experience with the loss of a loved one is hardly unique. But that doesn’t mitigate my pain.  

As many of you have confessed to me in softened tones over the years, there are worse things than death. And extending my father’s dying would have been one of those ‘worse’ things. So, I know many of you will understand when I report that I was relieved when my father did, in fact, die.  

I was not, however, glad. The loss of my father, coupled with the steep, mental decline of my mother, dampens my cheeks and hollows my heart. I grieve for my own personal loss. I grieve for my children and for my spouse. I grieve for my mother who feels confused and alone. No, I do not like death. And dying I detest even more.   

I am, however, more passionate today about a notable story from the Bible. It’s one you’ve heard me reference countless times, and I have no doubt that you will hear me revisit it again…and soon. It’s the story of Jesus and his experience with a most-personal loss--that is, the death of a dear friend. I find great solidarity with God in this story because I see Him despising death’s grip on the world. In seeing Christ’s tears on the road in Bethany, I have the assurance that God is not content with death’s power. When Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb, I see a God who is fed up with death’s eternal darkness. And I love this God. I love His strong voice. I love how He calls His friend out of the grave. I love that He is moved to the point of action. I love that He will not let death win the day.  

So when my father died, I was grateful that he would never have to die again. Because in Jesus Christ, the God of resurrection would put an end to death’s finality. No. Easter put an end to death’s reign. God has triumphed over the dark, long shadow of death’s domain.  

But that doesn’t change the deep sense of loss I feel today. I ache for the reality that I will not receive an email from my father in response to this reflection, for he would faithfully engage me each Wednesday afternoon once he had read my article. No, God’s activity in Jesus Christ doesn’t take that pain away, though I certainly wish that it did.  

However, the hurt that I feel does not stand alone. It is accompanied by a sense of gratitude that dad has been born into life eternal and that his smile is as wide as it ever once was. In truth, on the occasion of my father’s death, I felt the same sense of relief and giddiness in that moment that I did when our children were born.  

I wasn’t happy that dad had died, of course. I was happy because the moment was filled with promise and hope.  

Just like birth.  

Ornament Placement and the Gift of Family

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The Christmas Tree at the Mathis household is especially pretty this year. Of course, we say this most every Christmas so our judgment may be a bit suspect. While not on the scale of, say, the tree in the dining room of the Biltmore House, our family does take pride in the tree that graces our living room.  

It has taken us some time, but I think we’ve finally figured out how to decorate a tree. Rebecca freely accepts the task of putting the lights on the tree. I’m especially grateful for her willingness on this score because the work is tedious and tiresome. Actually, I loathe the task. I get tired just watching Rebecca work. Besides, she’s got an eye for light placement (though we’ve had a row or two over the years about whether we should use either white or colored lights. Relax, people. I’ve come around to her wisdom of using only white lights).  

My job—besides the outside prep and tree-stand-placement fun—is to put the ornaments on the tree. Admit it, y’all. Ornament placement is an art. One would certainly not allow children to be unsupervised at this stage of Christmas decorating. With the exception of the heinous snowman which was made from a toilet paper tube in 1984 that must always find a home on our tree (sigh), our Christmas Tree is decked with a fun mix of charming, local and yet sublime ornamentation. 

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One of my favorite tree ornaments is a 6-inch porcelain figurine of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Each individual has been woven into one singular unit. The ornament is without detail or particular feature. Yet, it feels simple and elegant. It shimmers and reflects the lights Rebecca put on the tree. It finds its home in the front, near the top, of the tree.  

And it reminds me of this fact: Christmas is about family.  

Whether depicted in a nativity scene, on a Christmas card, or meme on social media, you almost never see the Christ-child appearing by himself. And for good reason. The Bible teaches us that Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, and that they were visited by shepherds and later magi from the East. God’s arrival in the world is accompanied by community. Sure, it’s a mishmash of people—a virgin teenager, the lowly vagrant-like shepherds, the wise men—but the scene works! Even our own nativity scene at church highlights the communal aspect of numerous individuals, and their perspectives, motives, hopes, and fears.  

In the Christmas story, Jesus never appears in isolation. When God becomes Emmanuel—which means ‘God with Us’—He chooses to dwell in the world. The glory and miracle of Christmas isn’t simply about a baby. It’s about the Holy Family. It’s about the love, support, and encouragement that we find in community. We cannot tell the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ without first talking about his mother, Mary, and his surrogate father, Joseph.  

So, yes. I like that my favorite Christmas ornament has the Christ Child connected to his parents. I am fond of how their intimacy is on display. I love how God’s story is central to the family’s identity. 

It’s not all unicorns and daffodils, though, is it? Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to the imagery of the Holy Family at Christmas. Here’s the truth: Family is hard work. Although our family photos on the wall—like the image of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—look idyllic, they are not. Our smiles in our family photos belie the fact that we are exhausted, crestfallen, distracted or even angry. Our perfect placement by the photographer masks the fact that our family dynamics are complicated by numerous variables and circumstances that are far beyond our control. Family is hard work. And even though we grow apart, move away, and begin our own families, we snap back to the dynamics that were present in those family photos of old during times of hardship or tragedy.  

The same was true for the Holy Family. Lest we forget, Jesus was born into a family that was emerging from scandal. The question surrounding the identity of Jesus’s father would follow him deep into adulthood (“Isn’t this Mary’s son?”). The new family would become refugees of their native land when it became clear that their new son represented a political threat to the power holders at the time. We see in scripture a portrait of a family that is wrestling with the reality that one of their own is becoming a Messiah. There is maternal cajoling (turn this water into wine), sibling rivalry, an intervention, and even the rejection of family values and loyalties.  

And you think your family is difficult? 

But this is how God chooses to come into the world—through a family. In fact, without a family, one could argue, the Messiah would never have made it. For you see, we need nurturing. We need the safety and security of sanctuary. We need bold, faithful fathers and we need mothers who trust God’s greater work in the world. We need extended families and all their challenges because they teach us about the good, but hard, work of community.  

So, at Christmas it’s vital that we give thanks for the gift of one another, as well; particularly our families of origin. To do this properly, of course, we need to practice the Kingdom values of mercy, forgiveness, unconditional love, and service to our family members.  

Whether we like it or not, we are all like my favorite Christmas ornament. That is, we are connected and woven together. The Good News of Jesus’s birth is that this doesn’t have to be bad news. Indeed, being connected to one another might just be the closest we ever get to feeling God’s presence in this world.  

And that, brothers and sisters, is worth displaying on the front of our Christmas trees. 

Sanctuary Space at Christmas

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I’ve found myself in our church sanctuary more often as of late.  

I’ll freely admit the odd nature of that opening statement. One would think that the pastor of the church would spend the vast majority of his professional time on the church’s ‘home court.’ Our sanctuary is across the hall from our office and I walk by it numerous times each day. But in full transparency, my time in our sanctuary over these years has been limited to Sunday mornings. 

So, what is it about the last few weeks that has changed?  

Perhaps it’s a combination of a few things. First, our sanctuary is beautiful and transcendent at any time of the year, but it is particularly lovely during the Christmas season. Second, we’ve had the addition of a service or two this month that has demanded more of my time and attention in the sanctuary during the week. The third consideration, however, has the most bite. It’s this: I’ve been in greater need of sanctuary. 

Which, of course, should surprise no one. Every one of us needs times of sanctuary.  

I’m not talking about worship (yes, as children of God we are commanded to worship God). I’m referring to our Christ-like need to withdraw from the crowds, the madness, the discouragements, and the flurry of activity that we are immersed in to simply spend time in the presence of our Heavenly Father.  

We seek out sanctuary because it is the place where God attends to our souls. Sanctuary is a place or an instance in which we can breathe deeply and become more aware of God’s presence. The experience of sanctuary is both comforting and liberating. When hidden away in the embrace of my Creator, I feel free to pray from the deepest parts of my being. I settle in to myself more quickly when I’m in a place of sanctuary and my pulse slows. My inner critic and most vocal demons fade to black and I can sense the strangest of sensations—peace. 

The Advent and Christmas Seasons, for all their proclamations of peace and good cheer, are best understood as times of frenzied activity and panicked merry-making. In some circles, any suggestion of the challenges of the season are met with cold stares and disparaging labeling of someone’s Grinch-like or Scrooge-inspired inclinations.  

Ah, but the practice of sanctuary (also known as Sabbath-taking, oh ye people of faith) is a balm to the Advent-wearied soul. By strategically practicing the spiritual discipline of sanctuary during the Christmas season, we are able to better appreciate the classic Christmas song, “Still, Still, Still.”  

“Still, still, still, 
One can hear the falling snow. 
For all is hushed, 
The world is sleeping, 
Holy Star its vigil keeping. 
Still, still, still, 
One can hear the falling snow.” 

Sanctuary can be experienced in a variety of ways. It can be felt after you’ve put your children down (and your devices, I suspect) while you sit by your Christmas tree. It can be savored on an evening stroll as snowflakes drift silently to the ground. It can be found while listening to great holiday music as you consider the proclamations of Christ’s birth in the evocative lyrics of old. It can be found in journal writing, and in the prayers at dawn that rise while you sip coffee on your front porch and listen to the frost form.  

And Sabbath can happen in our church’s sanctuary, where we recall the power of God’s presence in a place of quiet power, remembrance, hope, and joy.  

It’s open for you to drop in.  

And I promise. The pastor won’t bother you if you do. You might just find him there as well.

Loving Kindness During Advent

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You don’t have to overthink it. God calls us to love others by being kind to them. Put others before yourself. Allow empathy for others to nudge you into action. 

Loving kindness during the Advent and Christmas season is more powerful than at other times of the year because the stress and difficulties of these few weeks magnify our need for a kind and gracious spirit.  

Here is a practical, straightforward way that you and your family can practice the spiritual discipline of ‘loving kindness’ this Advent Season. Each day make it your goal to take on an act of kindness in the name of the Christ Child. And who knows? These simple acts of kindness may just bring you joy. 

December 5: Go out of your way to open the door for a someone you don’t know.  

December 6: Tell a server, check-out clerk, or retail salesperson that you appreciate their hard work.  

December 7: Text someone you haven’t had contact with in some time and tell them that you’re thinking of them.  

December 8: Give up a parking spot for someone else.  

December 9: Feed the birds or other woodland creatures.  

December 10: Buy a co-worker a cup of coffee, tea, or cocoa.  

December 11: Give something that you have to someone who might need it.  

December 12: Ask for the manager of a store or a restaurant, and then thank them. Then, take a moment to tell them what you enjoyed or valued about your experience.  

December 13: Give someone a hug or a compliment.  

December 14: Give a treat or encouraging word to your postal worker.  

December 15: Pick out a person in a crowd and smile at them. Tell them you hope they have a good day.  

December 16: Put money in a vending machine with a sticky note that instructs someone to simply make a selection.  

December 17: Give a treat or an encouraging note to a neighbor you don’t know well. 

December 18: Send an encouraging text to a friend or family member.  

December 19: Buy a drink or treat for the person behind you in line at a restaurant.   

December 20: Invite someone to our church’s Candlelight Christmas Eve Service.  

December 21: Sweep a neighbor’s front walk or porch.  

December 22: Call someone that you know who has lost a loved one this past year.  

December 23: Get someone a cart at the grocery store and wish them a Merry Christmas. 

December 24: Take a few Christmas cards to a nursing home or hospital and tell the staff to give them to patients or residents that need them.  

December 25: Call or text someone that you’ve fallen out of touch with and wish them well on Christmas Day.  

And finally, share with us what these encounters and acts of loving kindness were like for you and yours. Give testimony to the way that God blessed others through your efforts. We’re eager to know and to celebrate your good deeds and to give glory to God in heaven!

“Hard as Iron, Water like Stone” 

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We know what to expect this time of year from the church: Celebrations! Cheery gatherings! Joyful musical performances! Christmas Eve Services with faces all aglow! It’s as though we have been programmed to have smiles permanently plastered on our faces during the Advent Season. And while it is certainly true that this is a season of joy, for many of us it is a very difficult few weeks filled with amplified grief, mourning, and sadness. 

There is an inclination in our culture to bury these less-than-welcome feelings and emotions. This, of course, only heightens our sense of depression as we feel guilty for the way we truly feel. 

The winter solstice is the longest night of the year. Many churches carve out space in their busy December calendars to have a worship service for those who are experiencing darkness rather than light. These ‘Longest Night’ Services acknowledge that our world can feel very dark at times. And so, instead of denying one’s feelings of pain, the Reverend Nancy C. Townley suggests that this unique worship service can be a time where we “remember those for whom the holidays are not joyful.” “Many of us,” she reminds us, “are lonely, in mourning, feeling alienated and cast apart from family celebrations.” 

This year, we will be having a ‘Longest Night Service’ at the beginning of the Advent Season. We will gather in the sanctuary at 6:00 PM on Wednesday, December 5th for an informal service of reflection and contemplation about the realities of light and darkness that we face at Christmas.

Winter begins at 5:23 PM on Friday, December 21. But for many of us, the darkness began to swell around us much earlier in the year. As individuals, we have been touched by grief that was unexpected and sudden. We have suffered disappointments and discouragements that continue to haunt us. Anxiety and depression have gnawed at many of us for any number of reasons and it has felt as though our daylight was getting shorter and shorter.  

For those who are grieving this Christmas season, we acknowledge that life can feel like a bleak midwinter:  

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,  
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;  
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,  
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.” 
(“In the Bleak Midwinter” by Rossetti) 

Just as a ‘Longest Night’ experience can give us permission to grieve, it can also offer a hope and peace that only Christ can give. Our grief, while unique to us, is also universal. Christ was born into a dark world at a time of great oppression to a people long but forgotten. Seemingly separated by centuries of darkness and exile from the God of their salvation, God’s chosen people felt like victims. And yet we know a light shone in the darkness. And in that moment, a new era began where hope was present but not quite realized. We live in that tension. Although we know that the light shines bright and that it cannot be dwarfed by the sea of inky darkness that surrounds it, it doesn’t always feel that way.  

So, in response to God’s eternal presence with us—made new again at Christmas—we choose to offer the gift of our presence to those who are grieving. We remember and share their loss with a timely note, a phone call, an invitation to join our gatherings, a simple, but extended embrace. We choose to hold one another when our arms are lonely for the warmth of another. 

This is precisely when we can be church to one another. The loving presence of Christ, shared in a silent embrace, can help us know that we are not alone. 

And we mustn’t forget this truth as well: ’The Longest Night’ is indeed the darkest shadow that will envelop us. But the day also marks the beginning of a new season of ever-expanding light and life.

A (Realistic) Thanksgiving Prayer

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This is my prayer for you and your family this Thanksgiving: 

I pray good tidings on your week of feasting and fellowship! 

May your turkeys thaw properly, and may your congealed salads set correctly. 

May traffic be light and your GPS apps effective.  

I pray that you are blessed by the presence of family and friends this week. May disagreements be few, and may common ground be vast.  

I pray that the temptations of Black Friday will not cut short the valuable commodity of your time with family and loved ones.  

I ask God to protect you and yours from envy, strife, communicable diseases, cranky in-laws and the antics of sleep-deprived children.  

May last minute runs to the store be unnecessary and may the dishwasher be fully operational. 

I pray that God grants you Sabbath in the midst of chaos, and peace in the presence of rowdy grandchildren.  

I pray that you are mindful of your loved ones and that you tell them of your affection in person, and by text, phone, social media, Skype and Facetime.  

May you pace yourself as you eat so as to avoid bloating, reflux and other gastric unpleasantness.  

May the weather be good so that your gatherings can spill out onto the porch, the meadow, the driveway and yard.  

May God bless you with special skills to beat your brother-in-law in Gin Rummy. May you be able to prove your worth in touch football games, and with your three-point jump shot.  

(With that in mind, may your muscles, back, tendons, wrists, ankles, knees and necks be guarded from injury. And your nose. And hips.)  

May your conversations be deeper and more meaningful than the idle banter that you’ve become accustomed to at previous holiday gatherings.  

I pray that God is able to give you patience, compassion, awareness and wisdom. 

I pray that you will allow yourself a moment to remember those you miss most dearly, and that you will permit yourself to laugh and to cry as you recall holidays of old.  

I pray for a meaningful Thanksgiving, and that you will be quick to say thank you, and reluctant to rush away from your family too quickly.  

May your Thanksgiving be rich and your joy complete, for our God is the giver of all good gifts. 

Amen.  

Five Seasons, Not Four

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“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” 
-Ecclesiastes 3:1 

November is a month of Birthday Bonanza! for the Mathises. All told, three of us will celebrate our birthdays within the span of a couple of weeks.  

It’s a sweet, though hectic, few weeks as we scurry for party dates, gifts, and family visits. Oh, and then there’s this gathering at the end of the month that demands travel, cooking and feasting—perhaps you’ve heard about it? Although November unfolds at a frantic pace, it also proves to be a time to reflect and to consider the changing landscape of our lives. The timing of our Birthday Bonanza! is fitting as one season fades into another.  

This year’s transition from summer to fall, and from fall to winter has felt schizophrenic. It’s as though summer overstayed its welcome, and autumn could hardly get in the front door. And once autumn did arrive, it had just hung up its jacket when winter arrived on the scene shoving it out the door.  

The fall foliage has been the victim of our seasonal tug of war.  Many leaves fast-forwarded their explosive yellows and reds and simply turned brown. Other trees dropped their green leaves as though they were surrendering to a summer tripped up on steroids. Yes, there was color in our mountains. But it was spotty and short-lived.  

So, by my count, autumn lasted about three weeks. Hope you like winter!  

But few of us do.  

While winter brings beauty of its own, it is also marked by long stretches of grey, drizzly, oatmeal colored skies. Oh, and then there’s the cold.  

The author of Ecclesiastes knows that the seasons can be a helpful a way to understand and to think about our lives. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” In addition to the multitude of seasons that we face in our lives, we can also see how our lives fall into the broader seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter.  

In which season do you find yourself?  

Those of us in springtime are enthralled with the newness of life—of growth and of promise. It’s important to note that springtime is not all sunshine and daffodils. Spring, like this season in our lives, can be marked by violent change and tumultuous events. In addition to the lovely warmth, springtime is the season of dramatic and ferocious thunderstorms. 

Summer is a time of putting down roots, of settling, and of tending to the fruits of our labors. It can be a delightfully rich season in our lives. But it can also be demanding and hard. The days are longer, the sun is higher and hotter; our work can exhaust us.  

Autumn can be a golden stretch in our lives. The change of wind brings any number of changes; most of which are bountiful and good. We have a renewed energy. The absence of summertime haze means that visibility improves. And the world is transformed by color each autumn—even if for a few weeks.  

But we know that autumn inevitably fades, and that the wind will scurry the leaves from the trees. The ground will alternate between soggy and frosty. Illnesses, aches and pains reveal new fault lines in our frames and in our bones. Yes, snow will deck the trees and branches and we will gasp in astonishment at what God is able to accomplish even when everything seems dormant. But we know that’s fleeting. Winter means loss. Winter means hardship. Winter means death.  

Not all of us will experience each season in succession. Some of our lives will tragically be cut short. But many of us will be blessed to travel through each stretch of the path.  

Each season has its beauty, its trials and its terrors. We cannot change that. Frequently we stand in two seasons, if not three or even four. Like the summers of England, you can sometimes experience all four seasons in one single day. We get to rub elbows with other seasons because the ones we love often occupy different places on the journey. We are parents to those in springtime and summer. We are children to those experiencing autumn and winter. This is what life looks like. And it can be beautiful and terrible at the same time.  

The challenge for us is to be gracious with ourselves and with those who accompany us along the way. The more we fight and tussle and resist the inevitable markers of each season, the more difficult the journey will be; for us and for our loved ones. We know this to be true.  

But the good news is that we do not get four seasons—we get five! We begin our lives in springtime and it blossoms into a summer of adulthood. Autumn emerges as we are blessed to age and winter signals the end of our journeys. Each season can be short. Each season can be long. But winter is not the end. Four seasons are not enough. 

In Christ Jesus, and because we have been baptized into a death like his, we will experience a resurrection like his!  

And that springtime, that moment and season of rebirth, will be like no other. We get five seasons, friends, not four. This is our everlasting hope, and the source of our joy.