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The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”–Matthew 3:3

 

My oldest son had the opportunity to go to Spain this fall with a friend. I enjoyed listening to the months of planning he put into his trip: airline flights, where he would stay, what he would do while he was there. He researched every detail: money, maps, customs–even viewing the actual street where his hostel was located on the Internet. I’m sure there were still a few surprises along the way, but all his preparation made room for more joy in the journey than fear.

Advent is supposed to be a time of preparation and expectation of the coming of Christ, both as we remember Jesus’s birth, and we anticipate the joy in the final coming of our Lord. We live in a society, though, that seems to spend much more time preparing for Christmas than for Christ.

But for many people, the bright lights and festivities of Christmas only mock their pain. There are many people who are alone, people who grieve, people who are without jobs, people who deal with chronic illnesses, people who have lost hope.

All of us would benefit to find more of Christ in our lives this season, than finding all of the perfect Christmas presents and decorations and foods. That is what this season of preparation is about: to consider what the love of a Savior means for us personally, and what that love can mean to someone else.

None of our journeys through life are without unexpected and difficult detours. But with the proper preparation–making our lives more about Christ and less about ourselves–we will make room for more joy in our journey than fear.

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“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”–Matthew 16:18

“But (Jesus) turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me . . .”–Matthew 16:23

“There’s no crying in baseball!”–Tom Hanks, A League of Their Own

Having little, if any, interest in organized sports growing up, now living with a house full of competitive, athletic men (plus extended family) has sometimes been a challenge. I am particularly bemused when after-game critiques focus on a bobbled play.

“Get your glove on the ground.”  “Use both hands”.  (Baseball season).  “Get your body in front of them.” “Don’t dribble the ball so much” (Basketball).  And my favorite football refrain–“Hit harder”. (Is that very nice?) The player on the hot seat begins to argue and make excuses. “That was the second baseman’s ball.”  “I couldn’t see.”  “He’s bigger than me.” (One time, the bigger football player was a girl.)

Sometimes these conversations sound harsh to me.  I want to pat all the boys on the head and say “Great job”, even when they’re terrible.  I want to focus on the good plays, not the dropped ball that cost the game. I’m quick to make excuses for the players. But I’ve come to realize that advice offered by brothers, fathers, cousins, uncles, and coaches ultimately helps the players become stronger and better at their game.  

At first glance, Jesus’s words to Peter also sound harsh–“Get behind me, Satan”.  As Jesus described the difficult days ahead for himself and the disciples, Peter tried to argue with him and make excuses.  By calling Peter the rock on which the church would be built, Jesus showed he expected the best from him.  Jesus’s reproach of Peter a few verses later were a wake-up call: “Quit making excuses.  Get focused on heaven, not on earth.”

We would prefer God pat us on the head for our good intentions, and ignore our mistakes and bad actions and attitudes. But we also need to be brought up short at times, understanding His correction makes us better, stronger players in the game of life.

Happy 47th Birthday To Me Today!  Although I am always a bit surprised to be as old as I am (what exactly happened to my 30s, anyway?) I still like my birthday.  I am now more than twice as old as my brother ever got the chance to be, and consider each year I get to enjoy family and friends a gift from God.  So despite wrinkles and gray hair (I’ve earned each and every one of them) this is a great day, indeed.

I was sitting on top of a rickety ladder, on uneven ground, on a windy day this week, picking cherries from the top of the tree, and thinking about the week’s Scripture lesson from Matthew 11:29:

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (NRSV)

All of this for some reason made me think of my great-aunt, Sister Agnes Claire.  I didn’t know Sister Agnes Claire well–and quite frankly, as a child, she terrified me.  A large woman in a full, floor-length habit, wrinkled face peering out from a huge head dress, large crucifix swinging from her waist.

At a family reunion in the 1970s, not long before she died, my dad asked Sister Agnes Claire what she thought of nuns wearing street clothes.  “Oh, I think it’s just fine for the younger nuns,” she said.  “But I’ll probably keep wearing my habit.”

Sister Agnes Claire went on to say that she had nearly reconsidered her habit after falling off the top of a ladder while picking apples in the orchard in the Motherhouse.  After the other sisters made sure she wasn’t hurt, they all burst out laughing.  “They said I looked like a big old black crow, floating to the ground,” she laughed.

I’m glad this story is my last and best memory of Sister Agnes Claire.  It gives me a glimpse of a woman who absolutely took her faith seriously enough to dedicate her life to serving God–but also a woman who didn’t take herself very seriously.

In Jesus’s day, the most educated rabbis devoted their lives to studying the Torah and developing their interpretation of what message God had for people of the era.  These interpretations, which they would then share with their students, were called their yokes.  People were called to follow harsh rules and restrictions, under the threat of exclusion from God’s people.  It’s hard to criticize people who dedicate their lives to studying God’s word.  But like some religious people today, the rabbis of Jesus’s era took themselves so seriously, they couldn’t recognize God’s word living before them in the person of Jesus Christ.  And Christ’s yoke, or teaching, was easy: learn the kindness, gentleness and humbleness towards others that he practices. 

Have you ever listened to someone going on, and on and on–and on–and thought “Oh, just give it a rest already?” I can imagine Jesus listening to the great religious theologians waxing eloquent about God’s character and thinking, “Oh, just give it a rest.” He says in Matt. 11:27, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

I read a study a while back that said 50% of Americans feel they are under  more stress than five years ago, and a full third says they are regularly under extreme stress.  We live in a country that values freedom and pursuit of happiness, yet another study ranks Americans 16th among the happiest nations in the world. In my own unofficial poll of listening to friends and acquaintances talk about how tired they are and how busy they are  (and not just a little bit cranky about it, either), I’m convinced we’re becoming a people unable to give anything a rest.

To seek His purpose for our lives, we are called to measure our decisions and attitudes against how Christ lived his life.  The best place for doing this, I’ve found, is in a cemetery.  It’s bittersweet to walk around pioneer cemeteries and see the number of grand headstones engraved with the words, “Gone, but not forgotten”, marking graves of people whose names are unfamiliar and lives are unknown.  

One of my favorite markers reads, “Remember friend, as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I.  As I am now, you soon shall be, So repent, for God and eternity.”  That saying marks the grave of a young man named Roy House, who died at the age of 17 in 1919.  

So if the burdens you are carrying feel heavy, here’s what I recommend:  Go and take a nap.  Everything seems worse and hopeless when you’re tired.  Then go sit somewhere quietly, and listen for any lessons or blessings God might be trying to teach you about the particular situation you’re in.  Cast whatever frustrations or worries you’re bearing at Jesus’s feet–and then give it a rest.