Dec 25 – You are the Gift!

Red Doors

December 24, 2014

The season of Christmas is above all a season for giving and receiving gifts. In Christmas, we celebrate the most important gift of all; the gift of God’s coming into the world in human form to point the world toward wholeness, justice, healing, salvation and peace. We call it the mystery of the Incarnation, or God taking on human flesh. It is a mystery, because the truth of the incarnation cannot be explained as much as it needs to be experienced.

And what we experience is the abundance of gifts! Not just on Christmas morning when many of us are inundated by toasters, socks, neckties and jewelry that we really don’t need. But rather, Christians have the abiding sense that we are surrounded – literally engulfed – by a gift, manifested by the overwhelming gifts of love, of family and friends, of food and shelter, and of life itself.

Sadly, though, we are painfully aware that for far too many of us there is little evidence of the gift of Christmas. For many people throughout Maryland this season, there are no chestnuts roasting on the open fire; there are no colorful presents displayed under beautifully decorated trees; there is no warmth of a cozy home with a fireplace, no gathering of family and friends bringing boxes of satin-wrapped presents. Not this Christmas, nor any other for the foreseeable future.

For unto us this day:

A young woman in Baltimore is crying as she dreads the coming of the New Year when her job at the store will be eliminated. Where will she work, and how can she house and feed her kids on a minimum wage job that pays below the poverty level? What is the Christmas gift for her?

A migrant worker in western Maryland is experiencing chest pains but he cannot afford to go to a doctor because he does not have health insurance. He must keep on working, because his family at home needs his income, and there is no “safety net” for them save his hands and his strong back. Is he engulfed by gifts?

An elderly woman in Bel Air sits in a chair in her nursing home room, staring out the window beside the telephone that will not ring. She hasn’t been visited since the last Christmas when a church youth group came; her children are too busy to call, and her grandchildren hardly know who she is.  She cannot understand why she’s still here, and what her purpose in life is anymore. What is Christmas for her, except another day that reminds her that she is alone here?

A battle weary Marine from Annapolis who serves in Afghanistan is ordered to bust down another door in a ramshackle dwelling, searching for weapons that have been reported to be inside. What he finds instead are three children huddled in a corner, crying and shivering in fear that they will be yet another uncounted casualty of war. He looks at them for a moment and wants badly to tell them that he’s a casualty too, but he doesn’t have time to explain. He doesn’t even think he could explain it if he had the time. He, too, is overcome by grief and fear; he too is weary of the violence. He nobly does his duty, but he can’t wait to go home. Is he surrounded by Christmas gifts today?

How can you allow yourself to think of the gift of Christmas when the circumstances of your life do not fit the Hallmark greeting card image of Christmas cheer? What if you have no gifts this Christmas to give or receive, is there still a Christmas for you? Perhaps there is.

If you find either yourself or those you love on the downside of life this season, please know that you are not alone, because God himself stands with you. The mystery of the Incarnation is that God chooses to become poor in human form for our sakes. And for those of you who lack no material comfort this year, but are spiritually poor – that is, you are empty of the divine love and generosity that incarnated Jesus, then help is on the way. Jesus has come to be incarnate in you also. For Christmas is not for those who have everything, and want everything; rather, the power of Christmas is its power to lift up those who have nothing.

In fact, the greatest gift that you can possibly receive this day is the gift of you — the real you, the one whom God has come to save and to make whole again. You are the gift! For your life is invaluable, and in Christ you can do anything — even change the world.

Helen Keller, that famous woman whose ashes are interred in the Washington National Cathedral, was incapacitated by the physical blindness that threatened to rob her of all of life’s possibilities. Yet she once said, “I am only one; but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

What a gift she was! What a gift you are, if you allow the Spirit of Christ to be reborn in you. Unwrap the gift, embrace the gift, become the gift!

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland

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Dec 24 – Take a Time Out

snowy-bench

December 24, 2014

Take a ‘Time Out’

Most of us believe that the world around us is changing at a dizzying pace. The barrage of technology shouts to attract our attention. Babies are born, grow up and change into adults. People get older and die. The seasons around us continually shift from warm to cold as the earth spins in space.

But scientists tell us that time itself is a relative term. Time is rather arbitrary. It does not ask to be measured. Before the invention of time pieces, folks watched the sun, and time went hand-in-hand with the rhythms of our physical world. There were no deadlines. Time was the vehicle for life, not a slave driver.

In reality, the world around us never changes. It wants what it wants when it wants it. The values of survival attract the lower nature of our common humanity, selfishness is universal. The true changes in our world happen inside the human heart when, rather than running to keep ahead of time we pause, change direction, and begin to choose quality over quantity, nurture over nature, peace over possessions.

Two thousand years ago, God put a pause in time, breaking into the history of the universe to insert a new Word. That Word, Jesus, the full meaning of God transformed into human life, was born, grew up and became an adult. He moved in time and through time, bound by the same march of seasons and days and years as we are. He was born into a time of civil strife, grinding poverty, war, and violence.

Yet his life is beyond time, beyond the sameness of the world; and through his life, we are offered a way to change, to be born again and become new.

This Christmas, take a step outside of time, away from a world that never changes, into a way of life that will change you, and through you, change the world.

The Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt is the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Lappans

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Dec 23 – Of God and God’s Creation

creation-of-adam

December 23, 2014

During Lent, I led a class entitled: Scripture in a Scientific Age. Each week we examined a certain aspect of scripture that conflicted with our scientific understanding of the world we live in.

One week, the topic was the cosmology of heaven and earth in scripture and science. We wrestled with the metaphors in scripture locating Heaven, up, and Hades, down. We talked about the scientific perspective of the universe through the lens of the Hubble space telescope. And we wondered how to imagine the relationship between God and God’s creation when science left no corner unexplored.

I began drawing Venn diagrams on the flip chart to describe our options. Circles separate and apart, circles tangent, circles intersecting. Finally, I drew two circles with one inside the other. A big circle “pregnant=God,” with a littler circle “=creation” inside.

“Maybe God and creation are like this,” I said, pointing to the drawing. When I looked up, I discovered that everyone in the room was looking at my enormous seven-month-pregnant belly and smiling at the similarity to my drawing. I laughed at the coincidence, but the revelation that God might be pregnant with creation knocked me over.

All of the sudden, my imagination lit up with all the ways that God is carrying us in her womb, loving us intensely, never able to abandon us, and yet unable to reach into the womb and fix it when we are suffering or in danger with the umbilical cord around our neck. I was overwhelmed by my new perspective of the intense love that God must have for us, waiting for us to be born and yearning to see us face to face, because of the intense love I felt for my baby, whom I had yet to meet but loved with all my being.

Though I risk panentheism (a heresy according to some), I continue to imagine creation resting in God’s womb. We gaze at our loving Mother in Heaven through a mirror dimly, surrounded by her nurture and care and yet we are on our own to grow and develop into her children by following the first-born of all creation, Jesus our brother and our Lord.

The Rev. Adrien Dawson is the rector of St. Mark’s on-the-Hill Episcopal Church, Pikesville.

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Dec 22 – Stop and Seek Silence

FB-Winter-Cover

December 22, 2014

For God alone my soul in silence waits. — Psalm 62.

This is such an arresting concept – the soul in silence; the soul waiting for God alone. The idea is counter-cultural, maybe even counter-intuitive.

This is a noisy season. Commercials seem louder and more feverish. Dire predictions accompany the daily news. The fate of the economy and countless jobs depend upon our willingness to pull out the cash or the plastic.

All around us the spiritual and the secular face-off like ancient adversaries in a timeless contest. Heaven and earth collide.

And in the middle of all this stands the patient Psalmist, calling us to step off the treadmill; to get out of the mall race and wait in silence. Doing this would be hard enough without the pressure of Christmas being a few days away. How can we wait when there is so much to do?

Still, a whispered voice, insistent with its demands intrudes. Stop and seek silence, or drop from exhaustion. You choose. But where and how to find this elusive peace? We are not monks. Our minds have not been trained for this. Those who have children know they do not surrender to such needs.

We have but one hope. Pray for snow. Not a dusting. Not an inch or two. But enough to put the world to sleep, if only for a day. A good snow brings everything to a standstill. The air goes quiet. Squirrels and birds hunker down. A blessed intermission comes upon us. There is silence. Time to withdraw. We remember what we may have forgotten during the season’s hustle and bustle: What is in the heart outweighs what is in the box.

Then, of course, the snow melts. We’re back driving the slushy streets, or carefully navigating the treacherous sidewalks. And all that was pristine is now covered in gray-black soot. Alas. The silence steals away.

But not really. It is always near, waiting for our restless, seeking souls.

The Rev. M. Dion Thompson is the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Covenant.

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Dec 21 – Capturing Inner Peace

advent-header

December 21, 2014

Many of us seek a place of calm for finding peace and solitude. It may be a physical place, such as a garden, a chapel, the ocean or even a parked car. Or it may be an inner place of calm created in the midst of chaos — even the chaos of the week immediately before Christmas. But to find that place of peace and solitude, one creates a sacred space, even if, much like the walls surrounding a mime, it remains invisible to all others.

Within that sacred space, you sit or stand or walk, immersed in the solitude and peace. There the sounds of chaos are silenced. The fiery flames of distraction are quenched. And you lose all track of time and space. All sense of hurry and chaos is purged from your inner core.

And you arrive. You arrive at that inner sense of peace indescribable to others. Yet everyone knows, for when you emerge from your place of solitude, your sanctuary, you glow. You have been purified of all that ails you. You have arrived at that inner sense of peace and love. A sense of peace as pure as the fallen snow, chilled and waiting for discovery.

It is that sense of purity and peace that we seek as we continue through this final week of Advent, approaching Christmas Day. We do not rush to arrive at December 25, for we already have captured the sense of love and peace of the season that in our rush-about world is so difficult to capture and hold.

May this year be different. May you find that sanctuary of space and time, whether real or imaginary. And may you grasp and enjoy the inner peace and love of the season this year if never before.

The Rev. Theresa Brion is the bishops’ deputy for Western Maryland for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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Dec 20 – What Holds Everything Together?

Creation sculpture at Washington National Cathedral

December 20, 2014

Sometimes I wonder, what holds everything together?

What makes a wall a wall, or why does the water in the ocean stay at a certain level? Scientists claim that there is “something” in the “empty space” between atoms, particles, or elements or forces that bind them together in certain ways to form the edges of things.

We are, in a sense, swimming through space with every move we make, pushing aside space, making our way toward and apart everything else. Yet between each one of us is space. And between our present choices and the future yet to come, there is space. Between this breath and my next there is that tiny pause—space—as I take in air to the space of my lungs, and then push it out into space. So what holds everything together?

Could it be that the breath of God fills the space? Could it be that the purpose of the universe, the very meaning of my existence is in the space, the pause, in God’s breath? Could it be that when I stand on tiptoe, straining to look into the future, God is ready to take the next breath?

The Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt is the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Lappans

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Dec 19 – Be Joyful, Be You

Joy!

December 19, 2014

We now are well into December, and Christmas is swiftly approaching. Christmas is so close that we can already smell, taste and hear its pending arrival. Stores that we enter, even to do daily errands, play carols as we shop. We allow ourselves to sample the special treats that tempt us through our schools, workplaces and kitchens.

We experience an inner joy as we watch the excitement in children’s faces as they look forward to December 25, allowing us to recapture pleasant memories of our youth. We remember the carefree days of this season from years ago — a season of youthful anticipation without the corresponding worries of adulthood. When there was little pressure to do, but instead the battle against our pent up emotions of wishing and waiting.

And waiting some more.

But we need not look to children to find that inner sense of joy this season. Joy is different from and much greater than “happiness” or “gladness.” Joy. This is the joy that fills our beings as we grab hold of who we are and claim who we are meant to be.

Being as in being authentic to self and then to others. Being as in not falling prey to pressures to do or to be anything but whom we claim to be, even if it is just declining the latest invitation, perhaps simply to reclaim some time for self, family and friends. It’s about being authentic to self, as in spending Advent as you wish, without apology or explanation, regardless of the countless pressures to do otherwise.

And, arriving at that inner peace, that inner joy, when you successfully claim (or even re-claim) your inner being, your inner self. And, liking and accepting yourself just as you are. For you can be no other. And that is just fine!

The Rev. Theresa Brion is the bishops’ deputy for Western Maryland for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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Dec 18 – Maranatha!

Marana tha!

December 18, 2014

Marana tha!

It is an ancient cry, a prayer of expectation. The language is Aramaic, what Jesus spoke. The earliest Christians awaited Jesus’ return with something approaching the hysterical. In Thessalonica people dropped everything. They stopped working. They waited. They prayed.

Marana tha!

In these December days when sun’s warmth fades by the hour to the point where we can easily say that the sun gives no heat; these days when the low sun’s gorgeous light is in short supply and the solstice draws near, I can imagine our worried ancestors praying to the Lord for sunlight and heat to return.

Nowadays we do not worry about such things. Science has put our minds at ease. And faith undergirds our hope. Still, these are days of expectation. Ask any child who eyes the gift-wrapped boxes piling up under the Christmas tree. Ask anyone who has gone about the house or apartment peeking under beds, or slyly pushing aside the overcoats hanging in the closet. You never know what you might find. And if you happen upon some hidden treasure, how do you keep your mouth shut and your spirit still? Feigned nonchalance is a hard act to keep up.

Expectation is the heart of Advent. “Lo, He comes,” we sing. The calendar points to an accepted E.T.A. But His movements are not governed by our calendars. His comings and goings surprise us. Sent for you yesterday and here you come today, the saying goes. Or, maybe it’ll be tomorrow. And that is how it should be.

Expectant and waiting, our prayer today is the same as two millennia ago.

Marana tha! Our Lord, come!

The Rev. M. Dion Thompson is the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Covenant, Baltimore.

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Dec 17 – Risk Being Authentic

Soap Box

December 17, 2014

It is hard not to be exasperated with much of what passes today as truth. From politicians to churches to corporations, it seems like every entity that interacts with the public is dedicated to using “spin” to shape our perceptions. Life has become a PR campaign, and those with the most power have the ability to shape the world into their preferred images. But amidst all this phoniness, people are hungrier than ever for authentic talk. The problem is that there are precious few places where people strive to tell things as they are.

Sharing an authentic opinion is a risky thing. It risks being misinterpreted or revealing our shortcomings, even our errors. Our heartfelt opinions are likely to be different than those of at least some others, and our society is not very good at promoting relationship among people who have different opinions. More likely is a PR “war.”

But no spiritual wisdom has ever been transmitted through propaganda. In fact, no one is quite as hated as religious hypocrites, those people whose well-chosen words do not match their actions. To share inspiration, faith and hope, we must take the risk of sharing our most heartfelt beliefs in an authentic way. And this is a daunting thing.

The good news is that we can preach both with and without words. Some of the most compelling spiritual figures of our times convey their traditions through their demeanor and actions—think of Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa. This is the basis of authenticity. And we can preach that way too. All we need to do is live our lives as if we love God. Everything else will follow. But we have to be willing to leave the comfort of a well-managed public image if we are going to inspire anyone.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Stewart-Sicking is an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University, Maryland.

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Dec 16 – What Surprises Await

Jack in the Box

December 16, 2014

While shopping for a birthday gift for my two-year-old niece I was surprised to find a jack-in-the-box. I thought “Wow! They still make these!” It reminded me of how old this toy is, timeless it seems. My parents, with great joy passed on their own jack-in-the-box to me and my siblings and I bought one for my daughter. Perhaps you can hear the tune running through your head “…round and round the mulberry bush…”

The toy is effective because of its element of surprise. If the crank handle is turned enough an odd looking character will leap from the closed lid. Of course we don’t have to engage this toy, it’s an option. However, the goal is to get to the surprise that is somehow mysteriously new each time.

Navigating life this time of year can feel like cranking a handle over and over with the daily grind sprinkled with nuances of surprise. The reminder to send cookies to school at 10 p.m. the night before, or the Christmas party scheduled for the 10th that somehow shows up on your calendar as the 17th.  Surprise, surprise round and round we go.

In the midst of an often chaotic time of year keep alert for the sights and sounds of God that call us to bear in mind the holiness of the season. Jesus pops up in unexpected places to bring us comfort and joy not just now, but throughout the year…if we only pay attention.

The jack-in-the-box may seem timeless but consider this “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) May the word of God surprise you over and over again.

The Rev. Angela F. Shepherd is the canon for mission for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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Dec 15 – A New Perspective on an Old Story

Nativity scene

December 15, 2014

The whole church smelled of pine and poinsettias as the Altar Guild scrubbed, polished, and decorated for Christmas. I was glad to be part of the effort of decorating the church and frustrated that no one would allow me to carry anything or get on a ladder.

“I’m just pregnant, not disabled,” I snapped at well meaning parishioners.

I finally resigned myself to setting up the ceramic figures for the nativity crèche and arranging votive candles around the table.

That year, Advent took on a whole new meaning for me as I heard the story of Mary and Elizabeth with new understanding. I kept telling myself that pregnancy was normal and mundane – plenty of women have been through it. But with each passing week, I experienced a revolutionary new connection to God’s plan for bringing Jesus into the world. The incarnation became a visceral knowledge and no longer a theological abstraction.

As I sat at the nativity table placing sheep and shepherds, Mary and Joseph and a donkey with a broken ear… I felt a little movement in my tummy. At first, I considered what I had eaten for breakfast that morning. But then, the more I paid attention, the more I realized that the movement I felt was not breakfast, but rather a squirmy fetus making her presence known. I was simultaneously stunned and full of such gratitude that I sat silent and still at the crèche hoping to feel some more signs of life from within. Soon, a member of the Altar Guild sailed past me in efficient haste but was stopped in her tracks by the look on my face.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“Nothing. I think I can feel the baby moving.” I grinned at her, tears welling up in my eyes.

In a matter of seconds, every Elizabeth-aged Altar Guild woman had left her poinsettias and gathered around to hug me and bear witness to the joy of carrying new life.

The Rev. Adrien Dawson is the rector of St. Mark’s on-the-Hill Episcopal Church, Pikesville.

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Dec 14 – Treasures New and Old

A trunk

December 14, 2014

“…the master of the household…brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old….” Matthew 13:52

This is just the way I feel when I brave the cold of the attic and begin to haul down the Christmas decorations. There are the ceramics that came from my mother-in-law, the little houses that light up that my boys always thought were magical. Maybe that is where Santa’s elves came to stay?  In another box are the serving platters with holly that came from my mother’s house. Over here are several boxes that hold my collection of St. Nicholas statues — each looking like a bishop.

They tell the stories of the past 30 years of collecting, and being found in small gift shops in Ocean City, at craft fairs, or having come as gifts from friends. Then there are the “mystery” boxes that I never quite get around to labeling, holding a host of ornaments, dishes and decorations that I have used over the years.

Even with this treasure trove, I still want to find some new treasures each year. I am more selective these days, concentrating on those that I hope will eventually be enjoyed by my children and grandchildren yet unborn.

This annual ritual of unpacking unwraps more than the objects. Through the layers of tissue and newspaper, under the flaps of boxes, behind the window of plastic bins are the pleasure of memory and the path of recollection. Christmas is a time of re-collecting the deepest and most important ideas of human existence – sharing, giving, recognizing, cherishing – all elements that bind us together in a common life.

May God also help me unpack and recognize the treasures in my deepest self, so that I might treasure all the gifts of this holy season.

The Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt is the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Lappans.

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Dec 13 – Unwrap a True Christmas Present

Peter Billingsley In 'A Christmas Story'

December 13, 2014

I remember the third time we took my son to see Santa Claus. Not so much the first and second times — he basically didn’t know what was going on and Santa was just another stranger. But by the third time, he was beginning to piece together who Santa was. For my three-and-a-half-year-old, Santa was not the great wishing machine he is now. No, at that age, Santa was a huge man in weird clothes that we had told him was always watching whether he was good or bad. If you can see Santa in this light, you can empathize with why he cried and desperately ran away. At that age Santa is scary.

As we approach Christmas this year, my son is no longer afraid of Santa; he is very excited. He has a list of wishes that he is sure will be coming down the chimney for him. He is less interested in seeing Santa as understanding the elaborate physics behind how he travels so fast and squeezes so small, and keeps reindeer in a land that can’t grow much food. In a few years, Santa will have gone from being terrifying to passé.

For all practical effects, we can often approach God in just the same way: less worried about encountering God than how God manages the elaborate metaphysics of allowing for free will, why there is evil, and how God squeezes into a little baby’s body. And if you can describe your god as Santa, then you can be pretty sure that you have made this god according to your image.

I wonder what would happen if we worked on recovering the ability to experience God as terrifying. Again and again in scripture we read, “fear of the LORD.” Perhaps we need to recover that appreciation and reverence. Then perhaps Christmas won’t be like a wrapped present that we already know what is inside (because we put it on our list). And maybe we could be surprised with a truly astonishing gift.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Stewart-Sicking is an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University, Maryland. 

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Dec 12 – Hang up the boots!

Boots

December 12, 2014

In the beginning of my pregnancy with my first child I was still riding my motorcycle to work, taking afternoon trips to Western Maryland, and driving it to my obstetrician appointments. I kept going to the gym and trying to run on the treadmill, even though I seemed to be losing ground in my mile time. And I couldn’t understand why every day at 5 p.m. my body shut down and wherever I happened to be, I fell asleep. One morning in the obstetrician’s office with my helmet on her desk, my doctor informed me that she would drop me as a patient if I didn’t stop riding my motorcycle.

“But, I’m not off balance. I’m not even showing, yet,” I resisted.

“Look,” she told me, “You are carrying another life in you and I don’t care what you want to do, for the sake of that baby – hang up the boots!”

“Oh, okay,” I responded rather lamely. It began to dawn on me how stubbornly I was holding on to my old way of life and resenting every sign of the new reality that was overtaking me. Even though I was so excited to have a baby and become a mother, I wanted to deny the ways that I would have to change my life to make room for motherhood. I was threatening the way for incarnation.

Any time God plants a seed of change in our lives, we are given a new vocation that is not focused on ourselves, but rather on the seed that has been planted. We must take on a new way of life in order to watch over that seed, so that it might stretch up towards the sun and down towards the earth, break through the soil and bury deep roots; so that it might become a plant.  For the sake of new life we must give up our own life, grieve its passing, and discover a new identity in the service of the life we are bringing into being. This is the pathway for incarnation.

The Rev. Adrien Dawson is the rector of St. Mark’s on-the-Hill Episcopal Church, Pikesville.

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Dec 11 – Have I got a candle for you!

Frozen

December 11, 2014

An unexpected snowstorm caught our country church off guard. Although the snowplow guy had arrived late on Saturday and we could get into the property, I arrived at church early in the morning to find that the walks were a sheet of ice. I went out to our shed to get the ice melt only to find the lock on shed was frozen.

Things clearly were out of control, I thought, feeling a bit sorry for myself and wondering who was going to come to the rescue so we could open on time! I had visions of people falling, children in tears with skinned knees, a lawsuit from someone breaking a hip or worse! After a panicked call to a member who lived nearby, I considered taking a church candle out to the shed and trying to heat the lock. When he arrived, I proudly showed him my idea. He said, “Have I got a candle for you!” and producing a small acetylene torch! In no time the lock was thawed and we were spreading the ice melt.

All went well the rest of the morning as I began to regret my earlier meltdown. When I shared my story with the teacher of our youth class she said, “There must be a sermon in there somewhere!” and gave me a much needed hug. She was right, as I pondered and wondered the rest of the morning.

I suppose the “churchy” angle is I learned to be a little more trusting, to have “faith” in others.  But for me, the biggest blessing was the comparison between my little candle that that most effective torch. When it came to thawing my frozen and locked attitude, God’s great torch of the loving spirit shown by others set me free, melted my self-turned sense of reality, and warmed me up. Thanks be to God!

The Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt is the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Lappans.

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Dec 10 – Give a Thoughtful Gift

ribbons-and-bows

December 10, 2014

By now, if you’re like me, you’ve waited too long. You’ve ignored the advertising mailers that have been arriving daily for the last six weeks. You’ve blocked out the commercials that started before Thanksgiving and have become more intense and frequent. But there is no escape. Frosty the Snowman and the Grinch chase you in your anxious dreams.

Every year I vow to do better. And every year finds me in a last-minute shopping frenzy.

If only I could walk up to the counter of the nearest high-end department store and say: “I’ll take a box of thanksgiving and a box of remembrance. Matter of fact, make it two of each. And could you wrap them up real nice?” That would be easy — too easy.

In gift giving, the thought can redeem the most horrid tie or, in my case, an out of date Ravens-Jets program.

One of my church’s neighbors gave it to me. For more than a year I’d seen her cutting across our parking lot. Every now and then I’d give her a pamphlet of daily scripture readings, as if I were a street corner evangelist peddling Good News. I’d tell her about our services: Easter, Pentecost, Christmas Eve. “You should come,” I’d say. Two months ago she came to an afternoon service, then a morning service the following Sunday. She told me she was going into the hospital.

After she came home, I made a pastoral call. And that’s when I got the program. She wouldn’t let me leave without it. We had Communion, that sacred time of prayer and thanksgiving. And before I could leave, she put the old program in my hand.

Was it to say: “Thank you.” Perhaps. Thank you for the gift of time, of Christ, of relationship by which we can be reconciled to each other and to God.

Before you make that last dash to the mall, consider what you are trying to say.

The Rev. M. Dion Thompson is the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Covenant, Baltimore.

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Dec 9 – The Rhythm of Prayer

Running at Dawn

December 9, 2014

It’s dark. The sky to the east is just beginning to glow. I’ve been running for an hour. I’m tired. I’m sweaty. And I have many miles to go before my journey is complete. I am running not because I have to, but because I want to. I am training for a marathon. To be ready, I must prepare. Slowly, methodically, sometimes painfully.

For a long training run, I must begin in the dark. The sun will be well above me before I am done. But now at the advent of a new day, I am in the tentative moment of the dawn. The overlap of beginning and ending. Neither fully dark nor light. Somewhere in the middle. Amid the sweat, the hunger, the aches, it is a beautiful and tranquil time of quiet.

Running in the dark quiet of the morning offers so many venues for spiritual encounter. The rhythmic pace of foot fall after foot fall provides the baseline for a harmony of sights, sounds, thoughts, prayers along the way. Stanza after stanza, breathing becomes praying. Praying becomes breathing. Unpaid bills, to-do lists, family responsibilities, deadlines are sidelined by the cadence of simply moving one more step forward.

Sometimes the best way to finish the run is to slow down. On a long run, I must slow my pace to fortify my endurance, so that on the next long run I can go even further and be even stronger.

Advent is a seasonal overlap of beginning and ending. Jesus said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” Christ came, Christ is here, Christ will come again. And so we journey forward, again as we did the year before, in an annual cycle of training, preparing, slowing, readying, aching. Always somewhere in the middle, always in the tentative moment of the dawn. And we undergo this spiritual journey not because we have to, but because we want to. And God always travels with us.

The Rev. Scott Slater is the canon to the ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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Dec 8 – Let God be your Candle

cross-candle-chapel

December 8, 2014

Candles evoke a variety of emotions and memories, depending on the season, how they are used, and what shape and size they might be. A couple might use them to create a special mood for a special dinner. A person might light a small votive in a church or chapel while praying or meditating. A family might light a large sturdy candle to light a room when power is lost during a storm. Regardless of the reason or the candle’s shape or size, we use candles to light our way to a particular place in spirit or place.

Everything seems to look softer and perhaps better in candlelight. We no longer can see the wrinkles in a loved one’s face, but the flames catch a twinkle in the eye. Children’s games by candlelight during a storm catch the youthful, sometimes lost spirit of parents and extended families huddled for warmth in a winter storm. The glimmer of a prayer votive draws us into the flames as we talk with God and remember those in need or offer thanksgivings back to God.

But candles also draw us into a time of introspection. The subtle flicker of the flames draws us inward as we ponder who we are, what areas we wish to improve in ourselves, and our many blessings. Whether we light candles on an Advent wreath or put candles in our windows to welcome holiday guests, we create light in a dim part of our lives to illuminate places for change, for rejoicing and for anticipation. Perhaps the candles along your Advent journey will not only light the way for greater outward vision but also provide an inner light and spirit for your own inner journey as well.

The Rev. Theresa Brion is the bishops’ deputy for Western Maryland.

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Dec 7 – Behold!

Behold!

December 7, 2014

The Christian season of Advent is a time of preparation and watchfulness, in which Christians look for the signs of God coming to be with us long ago in Bethlehem, right now in our own lives, and in our future. Therefore, many of the readings and devotions of this season have the theme of paying attention, looking for God’s appearance. But there are two ways of paying attention, and they have opposite effects on our spiritual lives

One way of paying attention can be summed up in the phrase “look out!” Our culture is good at “look out.” A lot of our attention is focused on the dangers of the world, things like terrorists, salmonella outbreaks, and stock market crashes. We worry about the food we feed our children, the strangers in our midst, and anything that could be an early warning sign of impending disease or catastrophe. We are not merely attentive; we are hyper-vigilant, and each new day, our media, politics, and consumer culture identify new risks for which we must watch out. But this is not a welcoming alertness. It is the incessant rumination of anxiety. And rather than open us to see what new and wonderful things might be appearing, this anxiety closes up our awareness and crowds out our vision. We become alert to the wrong things and cannot see what really matters.

The other way of paying attention might be summed up in the word “behold!” To behold is to look without possessing something. It is to continue to keep our attention open so that we can see things as they really are: an ongoing gift that constantly develops and changes before our eyes, each second of which is pregnant with the purposes of God. The challenge of Advent is cultivating the ability to behold, and this takes practice. We have to learn not to be overly attached or concerned about any one thing so that we can open up the possibilities of all things. But when we do this, we make room in our lives for something new and incomprehensible—for God to be born in our midst.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Stewart-Sicking is an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University, Maryland. 

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Dec 6 – A Christmas in Bethlehem

Nativity scene from Gaza

December 6, 2014

It is three weeks before Christmas. It is a time of anticipation and wondering: will my family appreciate the gifts I have chosen? How will the meal turn out? Will this be a Christmas that our family will remember?

We have been hearing about all of the sales since way before Halloween and yet there never seems to be enough time to do everything we want to do to make this the most perfect Christmas ever.

As we finish this first week of Advent I think back to a Christmas spent in the Holy city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

Christmas today in Bethlehem is so different than it is here. We couldn’t help but think that those direct descendants of Jesus, Mary and Joseph have got it right and it is us who are so sadly off track. I feel we have lost the true meaning of Christmas.

Our host family invited us to spend Christmas with them. It was such a special experience. Everything is centered on family. Saint Nicholas delivers presents to children on Christmas Eve. Every toy store has a Santa who delivers the one present that each child receives. I have never seen so many Santa’s in my life as they hustled around Bethlehem with their sacks of toys for their deliveries.

My wife helped to make the traditional Christmas cookies that are taken to family members on Christmas Day. At midnight we went to church at the Church of the Holy Nativity, built on the sacred site of Jesus’ birth, not in a manger but in a humble cave. Very early Christmas morning the visiting begins. There is a strict order to the visits, beginning with the oldest members of the family. More than 30 family members were there in a procession. We shared liqueur, coffee, cookies, chocolates and nuts. We spent 25 or 30 minutes at each home. We made about 15 visits.

When the visits were finished we went back to our host family’s home to gather for a festive Christmas dinner. We were thankful not for material gifts, but the gift of love of family.

What will Christmas be like for you?

The Rev. Charles Cloughen Jr. is the director of development, stewardship and planned giving for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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Dec 5 – Are we there yet?

This is your signal

December 5, 2014

As we travel through this Advent season, looking ahead to Christmas Day, it is easy to find ourselves looking so much toward the destination that we fail to allow ourselves to be immersed in the joys of the journey. Thanksgiving Day memories remain sharp, yet the pressure to purchase gifts, attend holiday parties, and perform kitchen wizardry excite us into new acts of frenzy.

“Oh my goodness, Christmas is only x number days away. I must get ready.” There is no enjoyment of the special smells of winter, the sounds of Salvation Army bells, or even the taste of snow on our faces and tongues.

Perhaps this can be a different year, when we make time to enjoy the actual journey towards that special day. We experience a special peace and tranquility when we allow ourselves to enjoy the journey — perhaps better called a pilgrimage. We rest into the actual experiences along the way, instead of focusing so centrally on the actual destination.

Many of us can remember times when we have felt stretched to the very limit, wondering when and how we would get all of the things done on our “to do” lists, when an unexpected interruption occurs. Somehow, some way, time expands to allow all that must get done to be done. And we know that we will experience this wonder again.

Perhaps this is a good year to recapture that wonder. Allow yourself to enjoy a local pageant or parade or even sit over a cup of tea with a friend or loved one. What needs to be done, will get done, and the experiences along the journey — our journey to Christmas — will be a more enjoyable and less harried one. A more enjoyable and less harried one for you and all the lives you touch.

The Rev. Theresa Brion is the bishops’ missioner for Western Maryland.

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Dec 4 – The Wonder of New Growth

Flowers

December 4, 2014

When my family first moved into our current house, I couldn’t understand why no one had taken care of landscaping the fence by the garage. All around the house were well-trimmed boxwood hedges and planters filled with impatiens, but over by the garage, there was just this mess of dead sticks sticking out of the ground.

I assumed it was some weed that the owners had sprayed with herbicide before we arrived. Through autumn, the stems fell over and were covered by leaves and then snow. I didn’t give it any thought other than to what I might plant there the next spring.

When spring came, daffodils started to pop up by the fence, and I decided to leave things alone — out of busyness more than anything else. As spring progressed, shoots started coming up through the bundle of dead stems left over from the last fall, and before I knew it, they had grown into a row of formidable shrubs. Out of a combination of laziness and curiosity, I let these be and waited to see what would happen. Maybe they were ornamental hedges, I thought; it certainly seemed like they were there on purpose. After a couple weeks, tightly packed buds started to form, and one day, I walked out to my car greeted by a hedgerow of huge pink and white pompom flowers, some of the most striking I had ever seen. They were peonies. I had never seen them grow before, and as everything clicked together, I had to stop for a minute to take it all in: the beauty, the gratitude, the irony.

Had I been efficient, I would have dug the peonies up before they ever grew, and that fact bothered me. How often had I dug up as dead those places in my life where in fact new shoots were forming underground? God’s wisdom has seen fit to let flowers push up from the ground slowly and bloom silently. But if we are patient and curious, and perhaps even a little ignorant, new life will rise in front of our eyes, life that we didn’t even plant. And we should stop from time to time to appreciate this miracle.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Stewart-Sicking is an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University, Maryland. 

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Dec 3 – Light and Darkness

light-in-darkness

December 3, 2014

During Advent we look for the light in the darkness. In the soaring opening words of John’s Gospel, we hear this great truth: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Marcus Borg has written that light shining in the darkness is the central image in the stories of Christ’s birth. Think of the star shining in the night sky leading the wise men to the infant Jesus. Think of the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night when the glory of the Lord shone all around them. Think of the heavenly multitude filling the night sky singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Light and darkness. The interplay between these forces seems to define so much of human life. The symbol of darkness is associated with things like blindness, gloom, despair, lostness, danger, and death. As Edgar Allan Poe writes, “deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” On the other hand, the symbol of light is associated with things like sight, hope, finding one’s way, safety, warmth, and life. As Martin Luther King, Jr. writes, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Isn’t much of human life found in the interplay of light and darkness?

Theodore Parker Ferris spoke of this interplay of light and darkness in human life. He said, “There are times when the visibility is high. . . There are times when you can see clearly everything that lies ahead of you. There are times when your way is plain. You know exactly what you want to be and where you want to live. You know exactly what you think and what you don’t think, what you believe and don’t believe. Those times of visibility are wonderful. Then the fog comes. It may come down upon you largely from the world around you as it is coming down upon many people today, the fog of prejudice and hate, of despair and disenchantment, of violence and doubt. This fog is so thick that it is often difficult to see anything clearly. Or, it may rise up from you, yourself. It may come out of your own condition or mood. You can brew your own fog out of the breath of something that has gone wrong in your own life. Whatever it is, it rises up and blinds you to everything around you. Then you need some fixed point to steer by.”

Sometimes we need a fixed point to steer by. Sometimes in the midst of the shadows and fog of human existence we need a pole star. Sometimes in the midst of the rising chaos and the crashing turmoil of our world, we need the beacon of a lighthouse.

During Advent we prepare for the birth of the One who is our fixed point to steer by. In a world that is still plagued by violence, there is one who came to give us peace, the heaven-born Prince of Peace. In a world that is marked by death and the fear of death, Christ came to give us life and to give it abundantly. In a world where incivility and hatred seem to be the rule, Jesus taught us to love God and to love our neighbor. In a world still living in shadows and fog, there is One who is perfect light. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it!

The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish, Annapolis

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Dec 2 – Hope for the Future

12-03-empty-stable

December 2, 2014

In the Christian church, this is the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus. Even though there seem to be reminders of Christmas all around us, the church stubbornly  holds back and says, “No, first there has to come a time of preparation, a time for expectation, a time for quiet waiting for the coming of the Christ, God’s Messiah.”

In this season before Christmas, we are filled with hope. This isn’t “hope” for the coming of Jesus as the Son of God, because we know that happened some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem of Judea.

No, our hope today is about looking to his future coming. When Jesus first came to this earth, he made a promise that he would come again. We know we can trust his promises because not even death could prevent him from fulfilling his promises. The crucified and risen One will come to put an end to all injustice, sin, evil and suffering. He will finish the story of salvation that was definitively begun with his first coming as a Babe in Bethlehem.

We spend this season in expectant hope:

  • Looking with hope to the day when Jesus will return to fulfill his promises and fill our lives with unimaginable joy.
  • Looking with hope for a time when there will be no more sorrow or death.
  • Looking with hope to a time when all our sad divisions come to an end.

The Episcopal Churches of Maryland invite you to join us in celebrating the season of Advent. You will find our congregations will welcome you in looking with hope to the coming of the Baby Jesus at Christmas and as King of Kings at the close of the age. Blessings to you in this season of hope.

The Rev. Stuart Wright is the canon for human resources and clergy deployment for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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