According to Luke, the shepherds were the first to know. While minding their own business, that is sheep, some shepherds had a frightening vision of an angel. The heavenly messenger declared that the Messiah had been born in a nearby town. They would find the child wrapped and lying in a manger.
Unclean peasant shepherds would have had no reason to hope to see the Messiah. Surely, they longed for his arrival as did other Jews of their day, but as unclean, low-ranking citizens, they probably never imagined they would have the opportunity to actually see the Messiah, let alone be the first to do so. They had no reason to think they could witness such an event. The long-awaited One was expected to arrive in some sort of grand style to other people. And yet the angel declares that the shepherds would find the Messiah in circumstances similar to their own, in a peasant home, wrapped the way children were wrapped, looking very much like many babies they had seen. The child came not to unknown people in distant splendor; instead, the child came in a setting familiar to shepherds. Perhaps because it was familiar to them, they felt they could go take a look.
Do we sometimes wonder if Jesus comes for someone else? Maybe Jesus comes for those who are in some way better than us – maybe more pious or devout, maybe kinder or more loving, maybe more worthy or deserving? Or maybe Jesus comes for those who are in some way more in need than us – maybe those with more economic, health, or spiritual challenges than we. And maybe it is simply for reasons we cannot articulate, but we expect Jesus’ arrival is for anyone other than for us.
If the shepherds were invited to go and see Jesus, though they never could have imagined such an invitation, then perhaps that invitation is for us too. Perhaps we, too, should go and see what has taken place. The report is, "all who heard it were amazed." (Luke 2:18)
Jesus is born for us all, each one of us. Let us go, see, and celebrate.
May God bless you with deep joy this Christmas season.
This coming Sunday marks the third week of Advent. The candle lit on the Advent Wreath will be pink instead of purple, representing the much needed joy as we wait and prepare for Christ’s arrival.
In Out of Solitude, Henry Nouwen says, "Joy and sadness are born at the same time, both arising from such deep places in your heart that you can't find words to capture your complex emotions."
I have come to understand joy as actually containing an element of sadness. Unlike simple happiness, joy goes deeper—a kind of depth that is only reached through comparison with unhappiness, anxiety, uncertainty, and perhaps even despair. For me, these "complex emotions" as described by Nouwen blend together with happiness to form joy.
In both of our sons' birth announcements, Mel and I chose the word "joyfully" to describe their arrival. I didn’t understand the depth of this word at the time, but knew it just seemed appropriate.
As this time of waiting and preparation continues, let us embrace the joy of this third week of Advent and look forward to Christmas Day when we all can joyfully announce the birth of Jesus… Emmanuel …God with us.
On Sunday, I caught myself telling a lie.
In reminding our Youth Group that Advent is a week shorter this year because Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, I said it was a gift that Advent is only 3 weeks instead of 4.
What’s the lie you ask? My liturgical time-keeping was correct; the notion that having a shorter Advent is somehow a blessing or an escape from another week before Christmas is what I got wrong.
The season of Advent is a gift from God, and it is the gift of a season to slow down, to wait, and to watch. It is the gift of being able to stop. The impatience of wishing this season of patience would be over one week sooner—that says more about me, and perhaps about you, than it says about Advent.
It is hard for us to stop. It can be a terrifying thing to give up our doing in favor of our being, to consciously choose stillness over activity, to let ourselves be healed of the dis-ease of being busy long enough to see what God is doing.
To stop like this is rarely easy, and yet as Isaiah reminds us , we will miss the chance to meet the author of justice, to hear the voice of peace calling out to us if we do not do the hard work of stopping our work.
Like so much of our life in God, this radical season of stopping is something we cannot do alone. So take some time during this Advent season, and read this article from Duke’s Omid Safi, which Young Adults will be discussing at our Pub Theology gathering on December 14. Or take a few moments in the evening to pause and reflect on God’s presence in your day, using this prayer our Youth Group is using for the season of Advent. Or maybe make the prayer below yours this Advent season, offering yourself to what God will give during this season of stop.
However you decide to mark this Advent season, however you summon the strength to stop, know that you are not alone. We are in this together. And when you see me next, why not invite me to pause and talk a while. We can catch ourselves telling each other the truth: that Advent is a season for stopping.
Journeying with you,
An Advent prayer :
God, grant me the grace and space to slow myself, to wait and notice, that my heart and my hands would be ready to receive what you are offering. Amen.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra claims there are five things we may not know about George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.
1. A lot of people thought it was blasphemous.
2. It is not a Christmas piece.
3. It was written incredibly fast.
4. There is no definitive version.
5. King George II stood during the “Hallelujah” chorus… or maybe not.
One of the things we do know about Handel’s Messiah is that it will be performed at Duke Chapel three times this weekend. Many members and friends of the Congregation will be singing, while many other members and friends will be listening. The Messiah is a beloved annual tradition for both performers and audiences around the world. This year, here in Durham, the concerts will be particularly precious, as Director of Chapel Music Rodney Wynkoop has announced his retirement at the end of this academic year. This is the last season he will direct this masterpiece in his current role.
The text of Messiah is scripture. Early in the piece, we hear “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3) The season of Advent, which begins on Sunday, calls us to a time of expectation and preparation as we wait for the coming of Christ. The Messiah can help us with this preparation. You may choose to meditate on the scripture, attend a concert, or listen online (in some locations). You may also choose to thank one of the many people who bring the concert to us.
May we each seek to prepare the way of the Lord.
Many years ago I was present with a group of children who were asked to name the things they were thankful for. Several of the children mentioned they were thankful for toys. Trying to get them to think more deeply, the leader responded something like this: “Yes, we are thankful for our toys and other belongings, but those are just things.” The leader then asked, “Is there something besides a ‘thing’ you are thankful for? Perhaps a special person?” One child responded, “I’m thankful for the people who make toys!”
One Thanksgiving Day, about 30 years ago, I thought I didn’t have anything to be thankful for because my beloved Dad was comatose in a nursing home. I forgot to be thankful for his life and the unconditional love he showered on me. I forgot to be thankful for the care he was receiving as he neared the end of his life. And frankly, I forgot to notice the beautifully colored fall leaves as they fluttered down from the trees on the breezy fall days. There was so much I forgot about being thankful.
As we give thanks this Thanksgiving Day, and all days of the year, can we set aside our “things” and current life circumstances? Think deeply about what you are thankful for at this point in time. It may not all be full of laughter and happiness, but I guarantee it will be full of joy.
Members of the two book groups agreed; no one could recall hearing a sermon on the topic of simplicity. We could all remember sermons decrying materialism or warning against consumerism, but we had not hear of the positive value of simplicity.
In this month’s book group, members and friends of the Congregation are discussing Living the Quaker Way by Philip Gulley; the chapter on simplicity caught our attention. The author is clear to distinguish between “grim austerity and liberating simplicity”, as he pointed to the freedom from constant distractions. Practical notes about the difference between a “want” and a “need” along with the need for patience in working toward simplicity made the chapter accessible. A quote from a Quaker woman drew the chapter to conclusion; she said, “I am so grateful for all the things I no longer want.”
Decades ago, Richard Foster identified simplicity as a spiritual discipline in his book, Celebration of Discipline. In this article , Foster describes his understanding of this spiritual discipline. Like Gulley, he see simplicity as freeing.
As we approach the holiday season, a time many people find stressful and overwhelming, I invite you to reflect on the ways it “Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free”. In order to better focus on Christ, we may need to step away from some of the clutter of our culture’s celebration of the holidays. In doing so, we may find even greater reasons to celebrate. Perhaps we may find the “valley of love and delight.”
May the peace of Christ be with you.
“We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the reverence of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One.”
~ St. Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho)
It is hard to find the words to describe the events of this past Sunday.
One moment, we were celebrating All Saints Sunday, the day we remember those blessed ones who have walked before us in the way of Christ and inspire us to receive God’s blessing and share it with others. It was easy to think of the saints and remember Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
And yet just as our service was ending, we were already mourning the death of 26 sisters and brothers in Christ at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. Overcome with sadness and terror and anger, it was with broken hearts that we tried to make sense of Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
In the middle of this emotional and spiritual earthquake, I was reminded of these words from St. Justin, one of the early martyrs of the Church. He describes the way following Jesus requires those of us who wish to be his disciples to lay down our weapons, take up our cross, and follow him, even unto suffering and death.
Especially in moments like these, this is perhaps the most unnatural thing we could do. When even churches are not safe from violence and bloodshed, it is easy to begin to tell ourselves that we need just a little more protection, just a little more security to keep us from being too close to the stranger, the other, and the neighbor it would be easier to ignore. This is not an apology for recklessness or an invitation to go looking for suffering; it is a steadfast refusal to answer violence with violence or live in fear of the other.
Justin’s most powerful word to his fellow Christians threatened by the violence of the Roman Empire, and to us who look to his example today, is that we are able to put down our weapons and cultivate a different way of life because of the future given to us through the Crucified One. The cross of Christ is God’s declaration that violence and death do not have the final word, and that God will not abandon us, even in the darkest night of our own making. God is the author of life, and there is always more to God’s story.
Our part to play in God’s story is this: to remember and to receive the difficult gift of Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Let this be so.
Maybe you have leftover Halloween candy or are still savoring the All Hallows’ Eve service at the Chapel. Halloween was on Tuesday, All Saints’ Day was Wednesday, and this weekend we will celebrate All Saints’ Sunday. Fortunately, as people of faith, we are not spooked by death nor frightened by the grave, and instead we celebrate the lives of the faithful whose life on earth is complete.
This time of year, I think of my father, because his birthday was on October 31. It’s years ago now that I led a simple funeral service for him in northern New Hampshire. The attendance was small as he had moved from the Detroit area where he lived and worked for the majority of his career. Dad was not a church goer, yet with confidence I read Matthew 25. The passage speaks of the time when the Son of Man comes in glory, separating the sheep from the goats, declaring “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) Because of his dedication to caring for sick children and because of the promises of our Lord, I count my father as one of the saints I remember on All Saints’ Sunday.
We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). These witnesses include our ancestors chronicled in scripture, the heroes and heroines of the faith, and those who have been near and dear to us. We continue to love our family members and friends who have preceded us in death, even though that love takes a new form when they are no longer present. And one day, we will join that great cloud of witnesses, adding our voices to the celestial choir.
As you remember the saints in your own life, may we together sing our praise to God.
May the peace of Christ be with you.
You may know that for many years the Congregation has supported ZOE , a non-profit organization with a unique approach for empowering orphans in various locations across the globe. ZOE originally stood for the Zimbabwe Orphan Endeavor. In 2006, ZOE expanded and was transformed into the model being utilized today. The name ZOE now stands for the Greek word for life.
The ZOE model works with a group of children to move beyond poverty and charity in a three-year period. Their website states, “Indigenous leaders and vulnerable children are empowered to develop sustainable solutions rather than being the recipients of handouts. Young people are developed into leaders and entire communities are transformed in the process.”
Visits from sponsoring churches and organizations are part of the three-year plan. This trip is not to provide hands-on work with the children or to simply be a time of observation. It is described as a family reunion. The children and sponsors get to know each other through conversations, presentations, and worshipping together. Pastor Carol and Jane Fellows took part in such a visit in Zimbabwe last spring.
Traditionally, the Congregation has supported one ZOE group at a time, for a three-year commitment. Upon hearing the report of Pastor Carol and Jane’s trip last spring, one congregant said, “Let’s sponsor two groups!” We now have an opportunity to do just that. Through donations to the newly established Empowerment Initiative, a second ZOE group can be funded – but only with your support. Please consider giving beyond your usual contribution to this special initiative. You will not only be supporting children around the world, but enabling them to thrive and sustain themselves throughout their lives.
350 plus 50
This month, the Stewardship and Finance Committee is asking all of us to consider ways that we will sustain this congregation with our financial gifts as well as with our gifts of prayer and service. The budgeted goal is $350,000 in contributions from members and friends of the Congregation. We receive no financial support from Duke University or any endowments, so we are entirely dependent on the gifts of current participants. The Stewardship and Finance Committee, along with the Council and staff, strives to be faithful and prudent with the gifts given to the Congregation. (Note: Contributions must be directed specifically to “The Congregation at Duke Chapel”) Details of our annual budget are available on our website , as are details about how to contribute . Further, you are welcome to review our audit report which is kept on file in the Congregation Office. If you have any questions related to the finances of our congregation, you are welcome to speak to the treasurer, Billy Chow, our financial administrator, Nelson Strother, or me. I invite you to join me, the staff, and the Council in making a commitment to sustain this congregation. Together, we can reach the $350K goal.
That’s the 350. Now the 50.
At its September meeting, the Council decided to challenge us to move beyond ourselves, and to look toward sustaining not only ourselves, but others. This is an opportunity to increase our generosity and go above and beyond our usual giving, so that we empower and strengthen others. To this end, the Council created a new, unbudgeted “Empowerment Ministry” fund with a goal of $50,000. This is a wonderful opportunity to reflect God’s generosity toward us with additional generosity to our neighbors.
The Empowerment Ministry fund will support endeavors which enable individuals to become economically self-sufficient. One of the two initiatives the Council has identified is a new and deeper partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Durham to fund a “Repairs Intern.” This partnership, the result of a year-long conversation between Habitat and the Council, will result in the employment of an individual who is currently un/underemployed. Through training and supervision by Habitat, the individual will gain skills enabling him/her first to provide fee-based home repairs to Habitat homeowners, and second, to find self-sustaining employment upon the conclusion of the internship. Further, we intend the intern to also provide mentoring to enable others to work towards economic self-sufficiency. This program will allow us to contribute to the long-term good of our neighbors. Further, it is one way to answer Christ’s call to love our neighbor. Please join me in offering an additional gift to the Empowerment Ministries.
Because God so generously and faithfully sustains us, let us join together in sustaining others.
May the peace of Christ be with you.