November 27, 2007

Advent Cometh

Sweep the walk.
Vacuum the living room.
Clean up the bathroom.
Finish preparing another casserole.
Put fresh sheets on the bed in the guest bedroom.

Most of us—But we might note, not all of us!—have worked our way down this sort of mental list before. Preparing for guests in your home is no small task. There is always much to do. That is, of course, if you plan to treat your expected visitors as special guests, to go beyond what you would normally do for yourself. Then again, 'special guests' is surely a tautology. Is there another kind of guest other than special? (Okay … other than your in-laws.)

I suppose one could choose not to prepare for guests at all: "Come on in, friends. Sit on our couch all hairy with cat hair. Rest your feet on our crummy rug. Enjoy some tasty leftovers. Come, get some rest on the same sheets you used during your last visit."

Of course not! None of us would think twice about welcoming a friend or family member into that kind of house if we could help it. We would go out of our way to make sure that all is ready. Special guests deserve at least that much.

Perhaps it is not so different for the season of Advent. In his book Worship Is a Verb, Robert Webber likens Advent to a time when we anticipate a special guest coming to visit our home. Much hard work and preparation spans several weeks. But the real burden of that work is offset by the hopeful expectancy of spending time with someone special.

I am sure that you, like me, have spent weeks preparing for a visit by loved ones, knowing full well that when they come you will be ready to relax and enjoy their presence. This change in mood from preparing to enjoying is not unlike the shift in spiritual mood from Advent to Christmas. Simply put, Christmas is a season of joy, festivity, and fun. It's a twelve-day festival from December twenty-fifth to January sixth, the day of Epiphany. And our spiritual experience during this time should be similar to that of enjoying a visit from someone special. It is a time of celebration, of singing Christmas carols, of giving and receiving gifts, of enjoying fellowship with friends and loved ones...during this time we are truly alive and free in the presence of our Guest. And the good news of Jesus Christ deserves a shout, a party, a frolic!

If we are not careful, our Advent and Christmas traditions can easily slip into the realm of the purely sentimental: something good to celebrate if one so chooses, but not altogether necessary for the soul. Yet preparing to receive the Savior is hardly a sentimental trip. By remembering Christ's advent (coming) in the past, we learn to "remember the future"— to ready ourselves for the good and great day of the Lord. Webber's analogy of preparing for a guest reminds us that there is indeed work to be done – soul work, you might call it. We are learning, year by year, to live in the expectancy of God's promised future.

Preparing the heart and mind for the advent of Christ is as important a task as preparing for Christmas guests in your home. Are our hearts ready for the coming of one who resides among us by his Holy Spirit? Perhaps the five candles of our traditional Advent wreath – the wreath that always adorns our sanctuary in this season – will serve as a kind of spiritual to do list for preparing for Christ. With each new candle lighting there is new reason to have good hope. Let us then prepare, expect, worship, and wait with all that we have to give. Advent cometh. May God grant us an Advent season full of hope and peace.

November 14, 2007

Unless the Lord

It is quite an experience to walk up on Saturday morning to a grassless lot with only a bare foundation standing on it, only to return Sunday afternoon to discover a finished home—fully landscaped and ready for carpet, paint, and trim. Amazing!

Yet this sort of weekend-transformation goes on all the time around the country, wherever local Habitat for Humanity affiliates undertake what is affectionately known in the ministry as "Blitz Builds." Altavista's Habitat affiliate undertook its first Blitz Build this past weekend, partnering with a family in need of sustainable housing to construct a new home with them in only 48 hours. We did it! (Take a moment to check out our pictures here.)

As a Habitat board member representing our church (together with Doug Hecht and Bob Steele), needless to say I had home-building on my mind all weekend. I kept thinking about Psalm 127, which begins:

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.

For me, there has always been an indelible mystery tied up in how it is God promises to work through our efforts to bless the world. The psalmist does not explain how it is God does this, only that is so. I wonder if we often assume too great a dichotomy between our works and God's, as if one either struggles anxiously (trusting in oneself) or relaxes nonchalantly (turning over everything to the Lord). "Let go and let God" was a popular Christian bumper sticker a generation ago, but I'm not certain the Psalmist would agree.

"There is building to be done by you," I hear Psalm 127 saying. That much is true. "Get busy with your life. But know this: Unless the Lord builds with you, through you, in you, don't expect much in the way of serious return."

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Rather than the endless "grace vs. works" debates of the Protestant Reformation, it may be time for us to reconsider how it is that graced people work—not to earn our salvation, but in glad response to it. After all, God's grace is not a free pass from life's labors. Salvation does not change the quantity of our labors so much as it transforms their quality. Rather than laboring in "anxious toil," we labor in love. Perhaps our bumper stickers could read: "Let God work through you."

My beloved … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. - Philippians 2:12-13

And right there is where a ministry like Habitat for Humanity serves as a beautiful metaphor for the Christian life. Building a house requires diligent labor. Christian goodwill and good intentions are not enough. There is real work to be done. Yet all weekend long at the Blitz Build I noticed a certain joy in the air, an unspoken sense that this project was somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone seemed to intuit that there was a generous grace at work all around; without the Lord's blessing, this house would not turn into a home. Without Jesus' second commandment ringing in our ears, this would have been just another vacant lot under development. Grace makes all the difference.

And so it is for us, I think, whatever our "building" may be—home, marriage, family, vocation, church, or community. God will not normally do for us what we can do for ourselves, yet what we do in this life will mean little if God's grace is not somehow woven deep into the effort. This is an indelible mystery that is difficult to explain, but so easy to experience.

Sisters and brothers, I invite you to dedicate all your labors—great and small, public and private—to the glory of Father, in the manner of the Son, and for the blessing of others.

After all , those who build for the Lord never build in vain.

November 7, 2007

Bless You

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever.
Psalm 145

Maybe you've heard the one about the American couple touring through Germany. They enter a shop full of collectibles and, overcome by the dust, the wife sneezes. "Gesundheit," says the shopkeeper, politely. "Oh thank goodness," replies the husband. "Finally, someone who speaks English!"

Stocky words like gesundheit ("good health") often turn feeble from over usage, but a dull word is about as useful as a dull blade. Both hack and saw and chop, but hardly expose much worth tasting. Words too easily pass over our lips that have not passed through our awareness.

I fear "bless you" may suffer from a similar fate. One is liable to hear plenty of "bless you's" this time of year, what with cold season now right on its way. And for those of us who have grown up in the South, it seems we've been trained from birth to lead our latest gossip with "bless his/her heart." Folks from other parts soon discover this is often little nothing more than code language for "I'm giving myself permission to say what I otherwise would never say about him/her." Turns out, it may just be the speaker's heart that needs the blessing. (But that's a meditation for another day.)

What is in the Biblical tradition a rich and compelling verb—to bless—tends to be shopworn in our everyday usage. Like the gesundheit in the joke, we have lost sight of its grand origins. Behind its usage in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, is a deep conviction that words have power (Psalm 34:13). Words matter, because God has endowed us with the impressive ability to bespeak what we think, feel, and perceive (James 3:5). Words are like dynamite: They can either blast away obstructions so that living water can flow, or they can tear down precious structures that are difficult to rebuild. Either we bless or we curse, but in both cases there is great power in play. Words matter. No wonder that the gospel of John imagines the Father speaking the world into existence through the Son (John 1:1-4, the "Word").

So "to bless the name of the Lord" is to point the power of our praise and awe in the direction of God, who is worthy of both. In our singing and our praying, on Sunday or on any day, we offer potent words to celebrate what we have come to know of God's grace. Worship is not merely a cerebral nod in the general direction of a benevolent cosmic force. Christian worship is the bold act of passing powerful, specific words of thanks and wonder across our lips, directing them always to the ears of the great Triune God—that One who is Speaker, Word, and Breath. "Bless you, O Lord," is not a response to a Divine Sneeze, were such a thing even to exist; it is our most basic form of celebration for who God is, has been, and will always be (Psalm 103).


Take a little time each evening, just before your living gives way to resting, to bless the Lord for the graces and gifts of the day now gone (Psalm 96:2). Be specific. Be bold. Bespeak a true blessing. Gather up a few words of thanks for the one who has so generously given you another day. Even better, bless the only Lord of Life who will surely see you through another night. After all, it is not for great sneezes that we bless the Lord, but for so great a salvation.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.
Psalm 103:2