Hometown Reject

A first-person retelling of Luke 4:16-30.

Imagine, you were there that day, in Nazareth, in the synagogue. You’re a farmer, have been working the fields all week, and finally, it’s your day off. You don’t work on the Sabbath, of course, this a holy day.

You go to be among God’s people.
You go to hear scripture being read.
You go to hear scripture interpreted.
You go frequently, religiously.

And you go, most of all, for a glimmer of hope. You seek a hope that will brighten your days in the here and now. Your crops this year have been decent, but boy it’d be nice to have better yields. You decide to take those prayers of bounty with you to the Synagogue that day.

Even better, this particular Saturday is pretty special. A friend mentioned that Jesus is coming to the synagogue to read and interpret scripture. You remember Jesus! He’s from Nazareth too. You watched the kid grow up, Mary and Joseph and Jesus and all his siblings lived right down the road. You’re aware of his humble beginnings, of being born in a stable. You’ve heard about how he got left behind at the temple as a pre-teen. Jesus struck you as a rebellious teen-to-be back then. He was definitely a non-conformist. You know those stories, and so many others about Jesus, because you and he hail from the same town.

And really, how could you not know them? Nazareth is pretty small, only 400 or so people live here. For reference that’s about the size of the Story County cities of Collins, Kelley, or Sheldahl. It’s downright impossible not to know a ton about everyone in town. Especially when we’re talking someone as unique as Jesus.

Sitting Room
As you enter the synagogue you find your favorite spot on the floor and get comfortable. With a town this size the space isn’t overly large.

But you know this space, the synagogue, and you know it well. You went to school on this floor, all the kids did. You went to court here when that bad deal with a neighbor went down. And when it came time to give back some of your harvest to those without, you brought it right here.

This space is the center of action for Nazareth. It holds so very many memories.

Your mind snaps back to the present as you see heads turn. Jesus walks in, He’s here! My how tall he’s gotten! He always was a good looking lad, it’s nice to see he’s grown up so well.

Initially Jesus sits down next to an old friend and the two begin to catch up. He fits right in, you realize, he is one of us.

The buzz in the air is downright electrifying.

When it comes time for the reading of scripture Jesus stands, requests a scroll, and is handed one. Which scroll will he read? You find yourself filled with wonder, filled with excitement. Jesus slowly unrolls the scroll to his selected passage.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he begins,
”because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.”

Hey, you recognize that passage! It’s from Isaiah. And it happens to be a personal favorite.

Jesus continues, saying,

“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
to deliver sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s

Jesus then rolls up the scroll, hands it to the attendant, and goes back to where he’d been sitting.

You find yourself smiling; what a great selection. He picked a really good one. It’s a message of hope, for the marginalized, that things, very soon will get better. And he delivered it like a pro.

And you’re not alone in your awe, all eyes are on Jesus. He has everyone’s rapt attention. You could have heard a needle drop in that room.

What a way to make a mark in your hometown.

You then lean in, excitedly, to hear how he’ll interpret this fine passage.

Interpretation and Prophesy
Today, by hearing this, Jesus continues, scripture has been fulfilled.

What bold words! This must be where things get interesting!

You’re feeling better and better about that bumper crop you’ve been praying for.

The room fills with chatter, people talking over themselves, excited about all he had said.

Someone in the back of the room wondered aloud is this not Joseph’s son?

You find yourself mildly wondering the same thing. For all the excitement we’re still talking about the kid who grew up down the street, right? That he’s done some exciting stuff in other towns doesn’t make him that special you find yourself thinking.

Jesus responds by saying he knows we’re going to ask about that miracle he performed in Capernaum. Jesus cast a demon out there, how awesome that must have been. There aren’t even that many Jews there; mostly it’s people that worship other gods. Or no god at all. And if he can do His thing among those people certainly he can do the same back home among his own.

Show us a sign, Jesus! The hometown crowd awaits.

But Jesus does none of that. Instead he tells the congregation no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. Your sense of joy, about this local boy made good, begins to shift. Now he thinks he’s a prophet? Perhaps Jesus has gotten a bit too big for his britches. You begin to wonder if the trust you’ve placed in this guy has been misdirected.

Jesus then retells two stories. This is where things get really dicey.

First he recounts a drought in Israel that lasted over three years. But God didn’t have the prophet Elijah end the drought for the Israelites, at least not then. Instead Elijah was called to help but one, a widow, and a non-believer. The widow’s son was healed. And her family was fed. It was then the widow proclaimed she believed in the one true God.

You find yourself really bugged by this story Jesus shares. Why didn’t God’s prophet help God’s people? Instead he chose to heal an outsider! That ain’t right, you find yourself thinking. That ain’t right!

Jesus then shares one more story with the congregation. Quietly you hope he says something lighter. Something more positive. Something that will benefit his hometown. Something more about that bumper crop you’ve been praying for.

But that didn’t end up happening. Jesus goes on to recall the story of Naaman. A leper, Naaman was healed by washing seven times in the Jordan to be clean. There were a bunch of other lepers in Israel, and none of them were healed. In fact, Jesus said, Naaman was a Syrian, and an army commander for another country. The Jewish prophet Elisha healed a non-Jew, and an army man no less!

What is up with the stories Jesus is telling?

At this point you’re downright ticked.

Others in the congregation are too. In fact they’re angry; most gathered there are enraged. You watched as a mob of people surrounded Jesus, and take him to the top of the hill in town.

It sounded like they wanted to throw him off the cliff.

Somehow Jesus escaped. Perhaps that was the miracle.

All you know is the people of Nazareth are still really upset with Jesus. Deep down you hope God is big enough to help with your crops and take care of all of those other people Jesus talks about too.

And that’s went down, that fateful day.

What began as a happy homecoming for Jesus ended as an angry outcasting.

This is the first example in Luke of Christ showing just how expansive this new kingdom of God is to be.

It isn’t for one people. Or one nation. It doesn’t even benefit people from just one religion. The kingdom Jesus ushers in is for all.

It’s an expansion from the…

Specific to the general,
Partial to the whole,
Local to the worldwide.

It’s for the atheist widow and her sick son.

It’s for the soldier from another country with a humiliating disease.

It’s for the Palestinian losing both land and livelihood because of religious oppression.

It’s for the migrant caravan families in Mexico escaping violence in search of safety. In search of hope.

And it’s for the groups of society we so often marginalize. Groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation and mental health status, just to name a few.

The Nazarenes of old challenge us on how best to respond to God’s new, broader, expansive narrative. A narrative that is for all people of all kinds in all places. A narrative that is for those that often look, feel, act and believe differently from us. There are three basic responses we can take to today’s text.

We can be like the people of Nazareth, filled with wrath at the notion God blesses and is for other people so unlike ourselves.

We can choose to be indifferent, looking away from what God is up to around us.

Or we can follow God’s newly unfolding narrative, and find out, firsthand, where that new narrative leads. It’s a narrative that calls us to contribute to the renewing, redeeming work of God the world round.

Today’s Luke passage contains the first public word Jesus spoke as an adult. Today, he begins, this scripture will be fulfilled.

Today Christ brings good new to the poor.
Today He proclaims release to the captives.
Today the Son of God gives sight to the blind.
Today the Almighty lets the oppressed go free.

May you be not angry with Christ’s new, expansive narrative. May you be not indifferent to it either. Instead, may you dive right in, feet first, partnering with God to make this new narrative a reality.

And may God’s work in you, begin anew, today. Amen.

The Good Stuff

Weddings are accidents waiting to happen. Despite our best efforts at planning the big day, something, it seems, almost always goes wrong. On what many consider the most important moment of their lives.

To delve into this wedding calamities hypothesis further I asked Facebook friends – including many of you – to share their most memorable snafu stories from their own special days.

Responses from this calamities query came pouring in, 26 people openly told their tales of what wasn’t quite right at their wedding. Some have a certain wow factor, others are downright funny. Here’s a short selection.

Sometimes wedding day accidents happen before the service even begins.

Friend Heather remembers waking up the morning of her wedding with one bridesmaid covered in hives. And another bridesmaid unexpectedly needed to take her boyfriend to the ER. With the help of some Benadryl the hives went away, but she still needed to find a new bridesmaid. Amazingly one of her good friends was attending the wedding stag, fit in the dress just fine. She made for a great last-minute replacement.

At Rich’s wedding the two limos left the bride-to-be’s house at the same time. And each thought the other car had the bride and her dad. When the limos arrived at church they realized their mistake. A classic case of being left behind.

Priscilla, an occasional church organist, recalls a wedding she once played for. Right before the wedding she found the bride, in the Pastor’s office, drink orange soda, smoking. When Priscilla asked if it’d be ok to start the prelude with a some Handel and a bit of Bach, the bride waved her hand over the exhaled smoke and said yeah, go for it, that’s cool.

Now that’s what I call a smoking bride.

Other times the wedding drama happens in the service itself.

Seminary friend Kari Lee remembers kneeling at the altar, alongside her husband, as a friend sang the Lord’s Prayer. As he sings “thy will be done” a huge clap of thunder hits, rattling the church windows. Kari says it was pretty intense. And that everyone there laughed. If that were me that night I’d be locking the doors extra tight.

Linda, our church Database Coordinator, recalls that half the people at her sister’s wedding had the stomach flu – including the groom. Things got so bad the groom had to run out in the middle of the ceremony to take care of business. That was an accident waiting to happen the groom was happy that didn’t 😊

Then there’s Dan and Diane Hinderaker who gave communion to everyone there, but themselves. No worries, you two, I forget that part all the time too.

Chew on this one – both of your pastors here, Bryan and I, had difficulty getting our unity candles to light during our weddings. That’s where both bride and groom light separate candles, and then lean into light one, larger unity candle, symbolizing how the two become one. Mine and Kathi’s lit after a few minutes, Bryan and Trish’s never did. Make of that what you will. Tho by all accounts both our marriages seem to be going just fine 😊

Some wedding accidents happen after the service while driving to the reception.

Friends Jeff and Jen pulled off the road to take the balloons and streamers off of their car. Which makes it a lot easier to see while driving. But while doing that Jen’s grandmother’s wedding ring fell off, and she didn’t realize it until arriving at the reception. Jen was hysterical at the thought of losing a family heirloom. So Jeff hurriedly drove back to look for it, some friends drove by and they too offered to help search. The ring was found, to their great relief, in the parking lot, hours later at 10:30pm.

Lisa Ailshie, our Communications Manager, got married at St. Cecelia, which is right down the road. She recalls leaving the church only to be greeted by the sight of a car on fire in the parking lot. Imagine. After things settled down some they drove to their reception, leaving behind firetrucks and flames. What an exit!

Kirsten tells a similar story. She and husband Peter had rented an early 1900s Model T to take them from the ceremony to the reception, a really cool touch. It was cool until the almost century-old vehicle caught on fire. She thought everyone was waving because they were so happy for the newlyweds. Nope – they were trying to alert them about the smoke.

All of which makes me wonder if, for weddings, perhaps we should just revert back to a good old horse and carriage 😊

And of course many of the most memorable accidents and oopsies occur at the reception.

Angela arrived at her reception venue only to find the DJ wasn’t there. Quickly a new plan was hatched. The pastor officiating the wedding stepped in to MC. The hotel loaned their sound system. Guests loaned their laptops and iPods and scrambled to put some tunes together. No one had the wedding song on their devices so a hotel employee went to buy the CD. What began as a big problem ended up pretty well.

Even when your DJ does show, sometimes they screw up and introduce the couple using the wrong names. “Let’s make some noise for the new Mr. and Mrs. Smith: Riku and Valerie” is pretty funny then the bride’s name is Veronica. Especially when her sister, who was there, is named Valerie. Oops!

Or maybe you can relate to Lori Woodcock. She got up to go to the bathroom and her sister ate her piece of cake. On top of that the cake was cut wrong so there wasn’t any left. She didn’t get any of the cake at her own wedding! Ask her about it some time, from what I gather it still makes her blood boil.

I’ve got one more wedding story accident; it’s from John 2:1-11.

Here we find Jesus, his mother, and the disciples at a wedding reception. Wedding celebrations in those days were a huge community event. So big they were measured not in hours but in days. Seven days to be precise. Imagine all the planning and coordination it would take to pull *that* event off well.

Yet despite all the planning, go figure, something here too went wrong.

Three days in, to a seven-day party, the wine suddenly runs out.

Unlike our modern times, you couldn’t just send someone down to the local Cyclone Liquors to get more.

How short were they? There were six empty jars there, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. That adds up to somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine, or up to 1,000 bottles. Good luck sourcing that much in a pinch.

Perhaps this oversight was a sign someone dropped the ball. Perhaps it was a sign the party was over. Perhaps it was time to head home.

And perhaps there would be some shame, for the family that planned this wedding. The guests there just might talk about the reception that got cut short for years and years to come. Perhaps.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, saw these impending possibilities, and asked her son to take action. Jesus, whose ministry hadn’t yet begun, initially defers. But mom presses on, asking the servants there to do whatever he tells them. It’s mother Mary, pushing her son out of the nest, knowing that it’s time for her son’s ministry to take flight.

Jesus then directs the servants to fill those empty jars with water. He then does his thing with that water, miraculously turning it to wine.

Accident averted. Celebrations continue.

But there’s more to this story. The wine steward, or sommelier comes over to taste the wine. That’s their job, they’re the experts. They taste to ensure it is good enough for the particular occasion at hand.

After tasting this newly made wine the sommelier makes a discovery. Not only is the wine acceptable, but it’s the good stuff. Normally the good wine is served first, with the meh wine to follow. But that’s not how Jesus operates. With Jesus you always get the best.

This scripture passage is just one more example of that.

Scripture is pretty clear about the ills of drunkenness, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. In our modern era, over time, this can evolve into the disease of alcoholism. This disease is common, impacting more than three million people a year in the US alone. It’s safe to conclude most everyone here has a close friend, family member or loved one that is affected.

Yet scripture is filled with stories of wine being used in healthy, joy-filled, sacred celebrations. Wine was a central part of many community gatherings in scriptural times. And it continues to be a part of many of our gatherings today. Before Jesus made the lame walk, or the blind see, or raised the dead, his first recorded miracle, in the book of John, is this one. Of turning water into wine.

And each week here we commemorate the Lord’s supper, eating of bread, drinking of the wine. In that we celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

We live in this tension, of sorts, holding the ills of alcohol in one hand, and the communal benefits, and the celebrations it is connected to, in the other.

All this leads me to conclude that the John text really isn’t about the wine. It’s about Jesus’s role in turning individual accidents, shame, judgment, and conflict, into communal joy.

• It’s about making sure Angela’s wedding had a DJ after all, so that sacred party could continue.
• It’s about Lori getting that piece of wedding cake on her big day, making sure everyone gathered there has enough to eat.
• It’s about lost wedding rings being found.
• It’s about car fires being extinguished.
• And it’s about encouraging the unity, of two people, being joined together in holy matrimony, whether those big unity candles get lit or not.

Just like a wedding celebration, life, too, is an accident waiting to happen. Despite our best efforts at planning for our careers, our finances, our families, something, it seems, almost always goes wrong.

In those moments let us remember that our Lord once attended a wedding feast. And, in performing a great miracle there, He said yes, to gladness. Yes, to joy.

God does not want our religion to be too holy to be happy in.

So let us take a cue from Christ, allowing ourselves to be filled with joy.

Let us sing, and dance, and be merry, right alongside God’s children.

Then let us raise a glass of the good stuff.

And let us toast. Let us toast a Savior who provides, and wants nothing less than the very best, for us all. Cheers, my friends.  Amen.

Dove Tales

A talking animal prequel to Donkey Tales, to commemorate the baptism of Jesus.  Based on Luke 3:15-17,21-22, as told by a winged reporter at the scene.

Expectations and Eccentricities
The day started out normally enough. I woke up, kissed my wife and kids goodbye, and flew out of our family nest in search of some food. We doves like seeds and an occasional bit of fruit. A diet like this, with no meat, is how I keep this remarkable birdy physique.

Just as I left for the morning commute, lo and beyond, what did I see, but a multitude of people gathered by the river! Humans fascinate me, they always seem to be up to something, always organizing, always doing. Besides, humans are expert gatherers, with access to the best seeds and fruits this particular dove has ever tasted. With a little luck perhaps I could pilfer some without much effort. Then I could get back to the family nest early and play with the kids.

As I flew in for a better view it became clear that this was no normal gathering. The people there that day were talking excitedly, filled with expectation of what could be. They surrounded one man, in particular, who looked like no other I’ve seen.

He wore a robe made of camel hair, how scratchy! Camel coats just aren’t in style for humans these days, and for good reason. This feathery coat I wear is much more comfortable. My wife just preened it up for me this morning.

And his beard, my goodness. It didn’t look like anyone had ever given it a trim. It was totally unkempt. Maybe he’d been living in the wilderness. My wife would never let me leave the nest looking like that.

Even weirder was what was in John’s lunch sack. There was no bread, no wine, no fish. Worst of all there were no seeds, no fruit. Instead he munched on locusts. In a pinch we birds might try that, tho it isn’t exactly enticing. Next to that was some honeycomb. From the looks of it he’d plucked right off a tree. I’m not pilfering my lunch from this guy, that’s for sure. Yuck!

But the people there seemed drawn to this character, they called him John. Perhaps they were attracted to his eccentric ways. Some in the crowd murmured to themselves that John could be the Messiah. He could be there to usher in God’s kingdom on earth. But John was shaking his head, and waving his hands no, he wanted nothing to do with that title.

A New Baptism
John explained to the crowd that he baptized with water, but someone much more powerful was coming. Someone that could baptize with fire. And that someone that could baptize with the Holy Spirit. Now I don’t know much about fire – we birds try to avoid it.

But I can tell you plenty about the Holy Spirit.

Some humans already know this, you might – the Holy Spirit can be experienced by another primal element: wind. Sometimes it’s a gentle breeze, cooling you down when you need it most. Other times it’s a gust of wind, getting your attention when danger is near.

Often, at least for we birds, the Holy Spirit is in the wind currents. She helps us get from one place to the next. She lightens our load. That’s provided we choose to travel with that holy flighted path. Flying against those airy currents is always harder, always so tiring.

Heck, I rode the wind waves this morning, it’s how I found this gathering of people. Perhaps that was just the Holy Spirit doing her thing, once again, guiding me to this very spot.

Anyhow, back to John.

John then said that he wouldn’t even be worthy to untie the sandals of this new Messiah that was coming. Imagine, John has people lining up to be baptized, they practically worship him. And John isn’t worthy to touch what this new guy wears on his feet?

That’s setting up some really, really high expectations.

Baptism for All
John then baptized, by water, all gathered that day. And I mean all, every single person there hopped into the river. There was no sense of who is and isn’t worthy to be baptized. All were invited to be immersed in God’s cleansing waters. Tears of joy were shed, faces lit up with smiles, conversations warmed.

Forgiveness, among the people, was in the air.

It was a holy scene. And it was beautiful.

The Call
Something magical then happened, a moment I’ll never forget.

The heavens opened up, and I felt a rush of air from above, guiding me downward to earth. I noticed the other birds in the air didn’t seem to be affected, that’s kind of odd. And then it hit me: this air current I found myself drawn to follow was divine! The Holy Spirit was guiding me, to God knows where.

I have to admit, when the Spirit whispered she needed me, for a very big job, I began to doubt. I mean really, we doves aren’t that impressive, we’re only 15 inches or so long. That’s about the size of a bowling pin. Look how easily they get knocked around.

Why didn’t God choose a larger, grander bird? Like a bald eagle? Eagles are a
symbol of strength. They’re great predators. They’re so much bigger, so much more magnificent than we doves. Heck, they can pluck fish right out of the ocean, with their sharp talons. And they even feast on smaller birds. Sometimes even birds my size. Yikes!

We doves are known for our short legs, short bills and small heads, all packed onto an outsized, compact body. In the bird world these aren’t exactly leading actor qualities.

But the Holy Spirit shared with me that I’ve got some really desirable features for this particular mission.

God isn’t looking for hunting skills like those eagles have, the Spirit suggested. God likes to use those that can gather, together, and do so peacefully. As I scanned the skyline I saw other doves everywhere, finding seeds, and fruit, for themselves, for their families. They gathered these gifts, peacefully, pilfering from humans. Sorry about that, humans. You may not always approve, especially when it’s your lunch. But no one ever gets hurt. It’s not our way.

And doves are among the strongest fliers in all the world, she mentioned. That’s right! I was beginning to feel a bit better about the whole thing.

Even more the Spirit reminded me that doves can be found most everywhere on earth. We thrive in the highest of mountains, and the lowest of valleys. We excel in climates fiery hot, and icy cold. And we can get to tiny, isolated islands across the vastness of seas and oceans. We doves are all over the place. Those strong flying skills do come in handy. My confidence continued to grow.

We need your kind, the Spirit assured me, to help spread God’s love to the farthest reaches of this planet. Besides, she exclaimed, you doves are already there!

I now realized what I needed to do. This mission, from God, was to be my call. I wasn’t going to fight *that* divine flight path.

So I followed the air currents downward, curious as to where they might lead.

It was then, while on this sacred path, I saw a man in the distance.

The Man, The Voice
The man was set off from the others, away from all the excitement surrounding John. While everyone else stood, he kneeled. While everyone else talked amongst themselves, he prayed, quietly, head raised to the heavens. Most in the crowd gathered that day then lifted their heads, watching my descent to earth.

But this man, the people called him Jesus, he looked beyond me. He was focused not on me, but where I had come from.

I realized I was being drawn this man Jesus. I was there to mark a specific person, and a specific moment, clearly, for all to see. As I landed on his shoulder he seemed unsurprised. But me? I suddenly felt awash in peace. And blanketed in pure love.

The people then shifted their gaze from this particular dove to the holy man I shared space with.

I suppose that had been the plan all along.

It was then I heard a deep rumbling, a voice echoing out from the heavens. “You are my Son, the Beloved”, the voice said. This speech could have only come from the One who had created it all.

“With you,” the voice continued, “I am well pleased.”

I knew, in that moment, that this man, Jesus, was the Son of God. The looks on the human faces there suggests others were beginning to understand too.

It turned out there was plenty of food for my family that day. When Jesus and the disciples show up no one ever goes hungry. As I headed back to the family nest to share the bounty I couldn’t wait to tell this exciting story with anyone willing to listen. So many years later this tale still gives me goosebumps. Tho, in our language at least, we birds just call them, well, bumps 😊

Looking back I realize the importance of what took place that day. It was the launch of Jesus’ ministry here on earth. And that’s a pretty big deal. You know many of the Jesus stories that follow this one, they’re filled with all sorts of amazing surprises.

My dovey kind can be seen, either IRL (that’s in real life) or via image all over. You’ll notice doves at baptisms, and confirmations, at weddings, in prayers and blessings, and during funerals too.

What we bring with us is really something.  We symbolize the peace available, through Christ, during all the stages of this life, and beyond. So when you see us doves –

Be reminded of God’s claim on your life, through the waters of your baptism. You too, are a beloved child of God.

Remember that the love and peace of God was made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Recognize this. Celebrate this.

And please know, my grounded, biped friends, that, just like we doves, you too have a call. You’ve been called to share Christ’s peace, and love, the whole world round.

So catch the Spirit’s winds, as I did that day. Those winds point away from the broken violence of the world. Share the love of Christ, guided by a path of peace. And then share the love our Creator has, for each of you, with all you encounter, today, tomorrow, and forever. Amen.

Listening Well

God is still speaking.

The United Church of Christ, or UCC, used God is still speaking as a marketing slogan in the early 2000s.  Their campaign logo prominently features a big comma, implying God’s story is an unfinished one.  As a former marketer in my previous vocation, I’ve always loved this slogan.  It connects ancient scripture with an active presence of the divine in our modern world, by way of celestial speech.

Sometimes the UCC includes this additional tagline: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”  What a neat quote, courtesy of comedian Gracie Allen.

Other times the UCC logo is shortened simply to Still Speaking, with a large thought bubble around the text. The implications of that are clear: dialogue between the created and our Creator is still taking place.

Hearing Voices
Scripture is filled with examples of God’s speaking, in so many ways. Samuel 3:1-10 in particular contains multiple insights into the nature of this communication.  And it does so in bite-sized pieces that are downright ripe for consumption.  Here are the top six things we can learn from Samuel’s sleepless night.

#1 Sometimes God is quiet. The passage begins by telling us that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread. But this quiet isn’t a negative. Here the sacred silence serves to highlight that something big, something unusual, something worth noting was on the way.

#2 God speaks to people of all ages. While scripture doesn’t specify Samuel’s age, he is referred to as a boy. These days we like to define the role of children in church; first communion at this age, confirmation at that age, acolytes must be so old. But when it comes to having an active conversation with God? No such limit exists.

#3 Recognizing the voice of God is no simple thing. When Samuel first heard the Lord calling his name he didn’t recognize the source. Instead, he went to Eli, the elderly priest he was serving, saying, “Here I am!” But Eli hadn’t called for Samuel. And Eli sent him back to bed. It’s safe to say this likely left them both scratching their heads.

#4 God sometimes has to say things more than once. This pattern, of Samuel hearing the Lord calling, then going instead to Eli, then being sent back to bed repeats itself, three times. All in the same night! Repetition equals importance. Sometimes it can take a little while for we humans to recognize the divine.  This is certainly been true in my life, stories for another time 😊

#5 God uses others to help us connect the dots. After the third case of mistaken identity Samuel still hadn’t recognized the voice’s source. Scripture says that Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord. Perhaps there was no way Samuel could have properly ID’d the mysterious voice he kept hearing.

But by the third time Eli’s sleep was interrupted that night the priest had figured it out. God was calling the boy, Eli now understood. Eli, both literally and figuratively, was now WOKE.

Eli then told Samuel to go back to bed. He also suggested, that if Samuel heard the voice again to reply back, “Speak Lord.”

#6 Listening is just the beginning. The next time Samuel heard the voice he took Eli’s advice, replying, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” While those words end this scripture passage, it’s the start of a much longer conversation. And it begins an extremely important narrative.

God then tells Samuel he is to take over the priestly duties from Eli. This leads to Samuel later anointing Saul as the king of Israel, which leads to David later becoming king. Which leads all the way to the birth of Christ through a royal, sacred family tree from David to Jesus.

But before any of that could happen Samuel had to first hear, then question, then respond to the voice of God.

You may have never heard the audible voice of God, I haven’t. But that still, small voice calls out to us, encouraging us to listen, nudging us to action, in so many ways. And it does so all the time.

The voice calls us to do unto others as we do unto ourselves, despite what our culture, or our politics, may suggest.

The voice urges us to love the Lord our God over and above all else. Yes, even over the almighty dollar we are prone to worship. Yes, even over my personal video game collection that I adore.

God is still speaking.  But do God’s people recognize God’s voice?  And if so, how do we answer? May our response mirror Samuel.

Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

For when our conversation begins, like that, it has only just begun. Amen.

Pregnancy Stories

A little over a decade ago Kathi and I decided, after six years of dating, and five years of marriage, that we’d like to start a family. We’d earned our college degrees, had decent paying jobs, owned our home, and had paid down our debts. Practically speaking we were ready to get pregnant.

Besides, we’d already tested our parenting skills on two unsuspecting canine kids, Salsa and Chips. Our 10-pound terriers seemed fairly well adjusted, they ran and played and ate and drank and cuddled on the couch just fine. Heck, after growing up a bit they even stopped peeing on our floors. We were really happy about that. We took this success as a good sign house-training human kids just might be in our wheelhouse too.

So we decided to start trying. As with many couples getting pregnant wasn’t as easy as we’d assumed. It took a couple of years, a couple of miscarriages, and the help of a fertility clinic before our pregnancy planets aligned.

To help stack the deck we meticulously followed the doctor-ordered prenatal schedule, making sure we adhered to their medical wisdom as best we could.

We read and studied the book it seems everyone gets these days, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. We researched what baby items to buy, combed through product reviews, figured out what to purchase new, and what to buy gently used.

We nicknamed our in utero firstborn “Bean”, a reference to her size at six weeks. We excitedly designed the nursery. My home office transformed: out with the desk, computer and video game calendars, in with the crib, stuffed animals and changing table. Not wanting to know gender we painted Bean’s room the color of Cantaloupe, and settled on a Winnie the Pooh motif.

The go-bag, the hospital, the doctor, the birthing plan – natural, no meds – we precisely defined it all. Kathi is crazy tough, her pain tolerance infinitely more than mine. Which probably explains her ability to put up with yours truly. A story for another time 😊
But for all our planning Bean’s birth didn’t go as expected.

Fear and Joy
At 40 weeks the doctor encouraged us to check into the hospital that night. Even more, our doctor was heading out on vacation, we learned, leaving her todos to someone we barely knew. After an overnight of intense pain, and no sleep, Kathi opted for pain meds. We soon found out why – a medical complication forced us to forgo natural childbirth. I watched as Kathi was carted off for an emergency C-section, and found myself worrying about what would happen to my wife and our unborn child.

Birthing plans now dashed, our hopes, dreams, and fears – especially our fears at this point – were all now in the hands of another. I’ve never been as excited, or as terrified, as in those minutes spent waiting to hear the fate of the two people on this planet I loved the most.

This story has a happy ending, really more of a happy beginning. Hannah joined our family the morning of March 10, 2010, full of life and health. As I first held her, looking down at that tiny, peaceful face, and over at my exhausted yet joy-filled wife, I realized something.

None of the planning for how we imagined that day would unfold really mattered. The fears, anxieties and worry that had consumed us were suddenly gone.

What mattered most was sleeping in my arms.

I share this story, of our first child, not because it’s anything special, but because it’s downright normal. The planning, the fears, the joys, it’s all part and parcel of how parents go about welcoming a child into the world.

This next pregnancy story is decidedly abnormal, for so many reasons, and in so many ways.

Mary was between 12 and 14 years old when the angel Gabriel came to visit. This is young by today’s standards; 2,000 years ago it was fairly typical. There simply isn’t much time for planning when your entire lifespan is a dozen years. I’ve got a sweatshirt that’s older than that.

The conversation Gabriel had with Mary that day ended up being the start of the greatest pregnancy story ever told. Their conversation went something like this –

“Guess what Mary,” Gabriel began, “I’ve got some news. Big news, from the big Guy upstairs: you’re with child.”

“No worries,” Gabriel continued, “it’s a boy, and you don’t even have to come up with a name. Call him Jesus.”

“Even better, the Almighty has hand-picked your first-born’s job. Your child is the Son of God. Your child is destined to be King.”

“Yes, Mary, I know you and Joseph haven’t been screwing around before tying the knot.” The Holy Spirit will take care of those particulars, Gabriel told her. Trust me.

“I realize all this sounds absurd Mary, but check this out, your cousin Elizabeth is preggers too! I know, she’s 88 years old, so crazy! With God anything is possible.”

And with that the angel Gabriel departed, leaving Mary alone.

Mary, being the sensible type, decided to check this story out, and went with haste to visit cousin Elizabeth. Their conversation went something like this –

“Elizabeth, whoa are you showing! Six months along now is it? You’re not going to believe this, but an angel came and told me you were!”

“Wait what? An angel came to your hubby too? And the angel said that you’d get pregnant too? And they said your kid would become a great prophet of God?”

“I’m pregnant! And the Holy Spirit is the father!”

“I can’t believe we’re both pregnant!”

“And angels! Your child a prophet, mine the Son of God!”

Scripture says at this point Elizabeth’s child leaped in her womb with excitement.

This was the first meeting of John the Baptist and Jesus, with the two sharing an in utero virtual high five.

Elated with all this news Elizabeth blessed Mary, then blessed the Christ-child she carried, and finally blessed the faith Mary had in believing this heavenly news.

I like to think the women, both unexpectedly pregnant, both full of joy, sat down and talked and laughed and wondered at the magnitude of it all.

The Song
Mary then did something that could have come right out of a Hollywood script. Did she lament that life wasn’t going according to her plan? Did she worry about what could go wrong with the pregnancy? Did she obsess on what color to paint the nursery? Nope. None of the above. Overwhelmed by joy she proceeded to burst into song.

• She sang, magnifying the Mighty One, who had looked on her with great favor.
• She sang, to worship a God who brings down the powerful, and brings up the lowly.
• She sang, praising a God that fills the stomachs of the hungry, and sends the rich away empty handed.
• Mary sang, recognizing that she, a young, poor, unwed, pregnant woman was as much a part of this blessing as anyone else.
• And she sang, most of all, to glorify a God who keeps the promises made to God’s people. She sang, knowing the child in her womb would be the fulfillment of that promise; a King who would right wrongs, a Ruler that walks alongside humanity, a Deity offering nothing less than salvation.

For Mary knew, that when this child of hers was born, the world would never be the same.

Pregnancy. It’s a beautiful thing; I look back on the time of waiting and anticipation for both our children fondly. All the potential that is to be, all the hopes not yet realized, it’s downright magical.

At the same time, the doing part of pregnancy can be downright draining. All the birth-planning, nursery making, doctor visiting, baby showering stuff can make for a busy, stressful nine months. And let’s be honest, being the guy in this equation tells but a small part of the story. Hearing from mothers about their pregnancy stories is really where it’s at.

As we look to the birth of the Christ child in a few short days, I ask you to spend this season of anticipation like Mary. Consider this your WWMD: What Would Mary Do?

Listen to the angels. They speak blessings to us in ways great and small.

Then spend time with loved ones. Share stories of how you have been so richly blessed by our maker. The gift of presence will always surpass the gift of presents. The sharing of your time is the best gift of all.

And don’t forget to celebrate the upcoming birth with joy, with laughter, and with song. Let this miraculous birth warm your hearts for not just a day or a season, but for a lifetime.

Are you ready for Christmas? The query is typically tied to the doing of preparations – aka have the gifts been purchased? The Christmas cards sent? The holiday meal prepared? How you answer signals your ability to navigate the gauntlet of cultural Christmas challenges. But these challenges often leave us stressed-out, exhausted, and flat out broke.

Today’s text begs us to consider the question in a new light.

Are you ready for Christmas? Are you ready to celebrate the goodness of God? Are you ready to spend time with loved ones, sharing with them how you have been so incredibly blessed? Are you ready to talk and laugh and sing, all in praise to our Creator? Are you ready to make room for the Christ child that will soon be here?

As the saying goes we make plans and God laughs. Instead, try this on for size.

God makes plans – good plans, Christ-child plans – and we rejoice.

Are you ready for Christmas? May it be so. Amen.