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Tina and I were sitting having breakfast at Original Steve’s Diner in the strip mall on Panorama Trail one morning last week. The waitress had showed us to a booth next to one of the front windows and sitting in a booth directly behind us were four women dressed in bright red and green Christmas sweaters, laughing and exchanging presents wrapped in silver paper with oversized gold and red bows tied to the same color ribbon running lengthwise on the box, obviously the bows and the wrapping were done by someone with great skill and patience.

“I am telling you,” one woman said, “we were all laughing and singing. It was like waking up from a dream about winning the lottery, but the dream was real.”

“It was like after being immersed in darkness for a long time,” another woman spoke. “Dark like in the very beginning of life until God said, “let there be light, then there was light. All of the uncertainty, the troubled dreams, the confusion and chaos were gone because the light chased it all away.”

“Oh, it was just like that,” a third women said. They all laughed and I was starting to very slowly cut my one big blueberry pancake that covered the entire plate, drizzling maple syrup on it while I was listening to the women’s conversation. Of course, Tina was giving me a look that said I shouldn’t be eavesdropping, except they were talking so loud I had a hard time not listening to them.

“Yes,” the second women said, “it was just like that and we were so thankful that we had gone. Sort of the way you are when the lights come back on after a thunderstorm.”

“But, so much more breathtaking.” The third woman said.

“So, when did you get to Bethlehem?” The fourth woman asked.

“Well, this was a regular pilgrimage people make during Advent,” the first woman said. “Thousands of people were there. It was amazing and frightening because it is Israel and the political situation was in upheaval, but at the same time it was exciting, especially finding out where everyone was from.”

“Yes, there were people from England, the US of course, but from Poland..”

“Oh, and the people from Africa, who were taking lots of photos to take back with them, “the third woman said. “One young woman had her whole trip paid for by her village because it was very expensive, so she was taking photos on her cell phone and sending them back home, so they could feel like they were on the trip with her. She said, “I am on a journey from being only about myself to discovering other people, traveling from a familiar place to a promised place.”

“Remember that woman from Poland,” the second woman said,  “who said she wasn’t very religious, but said she had to come because as she said, “You sing about these places and you make nativity scenes and you talk so much about the stories, but you never think that you will actually go here. I cannot say that I am the most religious, but just to be here on this day is significant.”

“Oh yes, it was significant.”

“Tell me, “the fourth woman said, “how did you get to Bethlehem? What was the journey like?”

“Well, it was hard because so many people were going the same way we were.”

“Oh yes, everyone was on the long obedience in the same direction road trip like Pastor Eugene Peterson wrote about in one of his books. And, someone was singing, “it seemed like a dream, too good to be true, when God returned Zion’s exiles. We laughed, we sang, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We were the talk of the nations: ‘God was wonderful to them!” God was wonderful to us; we are one happy people.”

“That’s right. They were singing Psalm 126. At first I didn’t realize what they were singing because they were using the Message translation. When I realized it I..”

“Yes, anyway,” said the first woman, “we started out going to the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for prayers, then we attended a mass with hundreds of people at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem led by a wonderful priest, Father Kelly, I think.”

“Then, “said the second woman, “we traveled to Bethlehem, which took quite a long time and when we arrived there were just long lines after long lines. Kinda like at Disney World because this is the place where Jesus and David were born and people said it was the perfect place to be on Christmas Eve and everyone wanted to be there.”

“Did you see the manger?” the fourth woman asked.

“Well, yes, it took over an hour and half, but we saw the place where the manger had been and I was amazed to think, this is where God came to us. A pretty plain, ordinary looking place, but filled with such joy and wonder.”

“Oh yes. It was like what someone wrote about pilgrims, but I just can’t remember exactly what.

As I listened to the women, I thought about what Rev. Phil Antilla wrote about pilgrims on Passover, Pentecost and Sukkot journeys to Jerusalem. Their “road trip,” he said, “was both literal and metaphorical. Jerusalem was the highest city geographically in Palestine at the time, so nearly anyone who made this trek experienced a quite literal “ascent”. The trip however, also acted as a metaphor, representing a pilgrimage into life with God. Advent is our metaphorical pilgrimage, since every step and every song and every physical motion represents a deeper story of the Christian life.” Indeed, a long obedience in the same direction-the path of living for Christ, as Peterson wrote.

“Yes, I felt, “ the third woman said, “as though I needed to really be aware of how I can be faithful to God because of everything God has done, is doing and will be doing for me and really everybody.”

“It is like William Faulkner wrote,” the first woman said, “the psalms and our pilgrimages are not monuments, but footprints because monuments say, ‘at least I got this far’ but, footprints say, ‘this is where I was when I moved again.”

“The air was still that night in Bethlehem,” the first woman said, “even with all those people, it was quiet. Thousands of people hushed to silence by prayers of their own, recognizing God’s gift of being present with us whether we planted seeds with tears like my grandmother talked about doing in Nebraska, just hoping the seeds would germinate and wheat crops would come up, hoping the rains came at the right time and the hail stones wouldn’t come at all or whether we harvested the wheat and could pay the mortgage and bills for seed and gas for the tractors and such with maybe a little something left over. My grandmother would say the harvest was the joy God brought to them as they celebrated the harvest with songs and dancing and food and laughter from the oldest to the youngest because they came in from the fields carrying armfuls of God’s blessings that only looked like wheat sheaves.”

“Oh yes, I felt it just that way. God’s presence strengthening us and renewing us in the midst of Bethlehem, then somewhere on the journey back from Bethlehem we started singing, laughing and dancing and feeling unbinding, unbounded joy!

Drinking the rest of my coffee to wash down the last bite of blueberry pancake, I recalled Silvia Purdie’s version of psalm 126 written as a harvest song,

“Remember feeling amazing!
Remember a time of celebration –
that was the Lord God at work!
Laughter rang out,
everyone was happy,
everyone laughed till they shook with joy!
The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!

Remember feeling sad?
Remember tears running down your face –
God was with you then.
Your pain planted seeds
and your tears watered them.
The seeds grew in the tender mercy of God growing fruit of wisdom
fruit of kindness.
Gather the fruit, and celebrate
that all things work for good in God’s ways.
Those who go out weeping
shall come home rejoicing.

The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!”

I was just supposed to be having the weekly breakfast out that Tina and I enjoyed together, but the joy, laughter and story of these Advent pilgrims sitting behind me was a gift reminding me to be amazed, to be happy and to be joyful in this Advent because God comes to be with us as a baby born in a plain, ordinary stable to lead us on the path of long obedience in the same direction, so we too might carry God’s blessings from the fields of our lives with shouts of joy at the great things the Lord has done for us.

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O God-chosen waif down the lane serving families and God with gentle obedience, a smile across your brown face, your brown hair tied back to keep it out of the way of wash cloth, dust mop, dish water and bath water; were you waiting, were you listening for angelic footfalls or the wing startling breeze shaking the world like a snow globe-in an upside down, sideways, topsy-turvy cosmic revolution of grace

Were you, grace filled young woman, singing the ancient song of joy, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then, our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy!” after Gabriel surprised you with the unfathomable good news?  Did you think mouths full of laughter were as joyful and wondrous as mouths full of Godiva raspberry truffles or Leo Bakery cakes layered with butter cream frosting? Did you know the joy of those who sowed their fields with the tears of exile, but who brought the harvest  home, the home God created for them, with shouts of joy?

Was that what made you race to your cousin Elizabeth? Because you just had to share the joy and wonder with someone? Did you know your aged cousin would share your joy because what mother has not waited for the first stirrings of her child or felt the goodness of God’s blessing in the fullness of her womb? Was your and Elizabeth’s twin joy expressing the joy of all mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers who look forward with wonder and thankfulness to the birth of a child, making every child’s birth a sign of salvation, of being blessed, of living with promise and realizing its fulfillment? Did you sense God’s saving work in your life to be the invitation to consider how the experience of patient expectancy teaches human beings God’s way of gracious work? Was your and Elizabeth’s joy peaked by waiting?  Did you realize your aged cousin’s son was the one who will bring one age to the close while you, the young mother, would birth a son who will usher into being God’s new age? Did you already feel blessed by God? Did you grasp the full meaning of the leaping joy of the baby in Elizabeth’s womb at your arrival? Did you realize your blessing for trusting God had already happened?  Did you hear all of that in Elizabeth’s song to you? Did you think the joining of this wonder with God’s saving work was God’s brilliant idea, so you might experience God’s gracious acts of new life in the same way the prophet Isaiah spoke of the servant in his song, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; the Lord has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners and to declare the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Was this servant’s song, your song, Mary? Did you feel the way the prophet Isaiah did at his call, you who are the unlikely one living in a remote, country village, yet blessed by God to birth a child who will be a blessing to countless generations throughout the world?

Is that why you sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior?” Was joy filling every nano particle of your being until it overflowed in glad abandonment? Was that why you, Mary, so joyously proclaimed that all of your actions, your thoughts, your daily activities- every aspect of your being—the entirety of all that makes you this distinctive person named Mary-will point all people to see the greatness of God in all that God does? Pointing to the promises of comfort and strength for those who mourn that they might have garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning? Pointing to the promises of new life springing forth like crocus shooting up out of the earth. Pointing to the healing of all who suffer, Pointing to all who have been pushed to margins of society are being drawn toward the communities center.

Is that why Mary sings aloud with the excitement and wonder of a joy that pours out of her like a thunderous spring swollen waterfall cascading down a mountainside, “for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the Lord’s servant, Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed?”

Indeed, God’s blessing of life within Mary, transforms her and her life so decisively she will never be the person she dreamed she might become. Instead, she and her life will be celebrated for the wonder and amazement of God creating a new life  the way a caterpillar is transformed by the cocoon into the stunningly beautiful Monarch butterfly that will fly from flower to flower in spring delighting our eyes and imaginations with such amazement and awe that we are compelled to share with others this wonder. Future generations will remember God-transformed Mary and will say, “Yes, God has blessed you Mary with such extraordinary joy that rejoicing and praise is the only possible response to this pure gift of grace.”

“There are those who have in themselves the gift of joy, “a theologian writes. “It has no relation to merit or demerit. It is not a quality they have wrested from the vicissitudes of life. To them joy is given as a precious ingredient in life. And, wherever they go, they give birth to joy in others. To be touched by them is to be blessed of God.”

Mary is one such person. Through her we experience a tantalizing taste of joy in this our season of anticipation and expectation. After all, she is one of us. She was not powerful like a queen or a president. She was not even one of the wise women of the village.

Yet, out of all the women in the world God could choose to take part in this wondrous blessing, God chooses Mary to receive this life-transforming blessing of joy. She didn’t get a detailed explanation about why she was being chosen. God simply sends the angel Gabriel to tell Mary this good news with the familiar, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Which is, but one of the ways grace comes bounding into our lives like a puppy romping through new fallen snow. Mary’s experience of grace was mysterious because it did not fit with the rhyme of common sense or laws of logic, but worked based on some kind of out of left field, principle of divine math where two plus two equals 27.

However, at other times, grace makes a serendipitous appearance, showing up just when we need it most like a non-essential embellishing note in a musical score, whose beauty is unmistakable and carries with it splendor and an over-the-top quality of unanticipated loveliness.

Then, again we may experience grace moving unobtrusively, calmly gliding under our lives, so we might land on our feet when we’ve lost our way. Of course, there is the grace that dresses up in everyday clothes, experienced in the common rough and tumble moments of life, working through our myriad fragilities and adjusting to where we happen to be at any given moment to take us to the place where well-being and joy overflow. But, sometimes grace is weightless, effortlessly entering our lives with levity and humor like a precious buoy of hope reminding us that strident morality lends heaviness to much of life and legalism simply drowns the human spirit.

Whichever way grace chooses to come to us, it brings a fullness of life into being, which move us to songs of gratitude and joy. The same joy recurring throughout the Gospel of Luke from the joy of the annunciation and the visitation and births of John and Jesus to the joy of forgiveness, healings, raising the dead to new life, outcasts of the community being drawn to the center of Jesus’ ministry to the ascension joy of the disciples returning to Jerusalem with joy and entering the Temple praising God for resurrection and the Holy Spirit pouring over them setting ablaze their passion for humanity transforming justice leading to peace.

This is the joyous praise for a new life as intimately connected to God as Mary is connected to the life within her, compelling all who experience it to sing with Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” because we too are those whose mouths are filled with laughter, those whose whole being is filled with the overflowing joy of God’s love.

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When I was about seven, I was busily writing the “Further Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” stories, which my sister illustrated with crayon drawings. We’d sell our books on the sidewalk to whomever passed by us. Most children had a lemonade stand; I had a small publishing enterprise. Grown-ups would stop to look at the books and they would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  I said, “I want to write stories and I want to tell stories.” They would say, “That’s nice.”

When I was twelve they began saying to me, “That’s a nice dream, but it’s too hard making a living writing stories” then off they’d go with a barrage of facts, making writing stories sound like an utterly ridiculous goal.

Invariably, they finished up by saying, “It’s nice to have big dreams, but you need to face the facts of life. You need to get a real job with a real income like everybody else. This is, after all, the 20th Century.”

The way they said it made it sound as if the mere fact of living in that century settled the issue for all time.  It was as though they agreed with Clifton Fadiman’s statement, “All of life is an earnest search for the right manila folder in which we get filed away.”  As if they lived in the grip of fatalism that believes everything is as it has always been and forever will be. As though life proceeds like clockwork. As if something need to have happened only a couple of times in the past three years for our minds to declare it “inevitable” and “irrevocable.” As if a leaf is green because it could be nothing else. The poor are poor because they are poor. Everything is as it is due to routine, predictability, and given enough time and government research grants, everything shall be explained and demystified.

“The world is as it is. It can’t be changed,” they seemed to be saying.

Yet, when I hear God speaking through the prophet Isaiah, “And a child shall lead them” I wonder why will it be that a child shall lead humanity into the incredible beauty of God’s vision for our lives that is poetically described by Isaiah? After all, children in the ancient near east and even today are among the most vulnerable and least powerful persons in a community. On their own, children do not create legislation, pass laws, or even have their voice taken seriously by those who do make laws. They depend upon others to keep them safe and provide for them. They depend upon adult leaders to lead them into lives of creativity and vitality.

On their own, children are often unable or at the very least find it difficult to protect themselves or their interests.  Just look at the news reports and magazine articles about child labor in India, Pakistan and throughout South Asia, not to mention the plight of children in refugee camps in Turkey, or the young girls sold as brides to men old enough to be their grandfathers.

So, why does God tell us through the prophet Isaiah, in God’s peaceable kingdom a child will be the leader?  What is it about a child that will make them the best choice for leadership?

Well, take a look at the painting of the peaceable kingdom. What is it that adults see? Do you see all the animals just hanging out together, predators and prey standing next to each other? Do you see their faces and do you detect the smiles on their faces as if the painter Edward Hicks said, “Now, everyone say cheese?”  Do you wonder why it is that they are smiling? Is it because the prey is no longer fearful? Or maybe they are calm because they are in a forest with such an abundance of water and plants to eat, that hunger isn’t an issue for any of the animals, so the predators have decided it’s good to be a vegan. Do you see the children in the painting? Why are they the age the painter has depicted? And, did you notice that one is a male and one is a female? Do you see the angel? Can you see far into the background and see William Penn, the Quaker, affirming a peace treaty with Delaware tribe? Yet, what does this have to do with the peaceable kingdom and Isaiah 11?

Well, let’s think about it through the eyes of a child. What does a child sees in this painting? Does the child see the peaceable kingdom as perhaps really the Garden of Eden? I wonder if children would see the picture divided between the animals’ peaceable kingdom and the humans’ peaceable kingdom? I wonder if children might see more than we see?

Several years ago, Tina and I and two of our children went to see the movie August Rush. It is a marvelous movie not only for the music that runs like a thread throughout the story connecting each of the people together and drawing them together, but also for the story of a young not quite twelve year old boy who hears music in all the sounds of the world around him whether he is standing in the middle of a corn field as the wind blows the stalks in amazing swirling and flowing patterns or he is standing in the middle of New York City listening to music being created by the interplay of car engines, horns, shoes scrapping across pavement, water bubbling in a fountain, and people’s voices echoing in the air of the city. Each of these is its own symphony playing notes of music that is his life, which is seeking the music of his long lost mother and father’s lives, so they might be reunited and made whole.

While no one believes him or understands him, the boy refuses to give up on this vision and he finds imaginative ways to make the music of his life spread far out into New York City knowing that his mother and father will hear it and be drawn to him.

Perhaps, that is the reason God chooses a child to lead humanity to the peaceable kingdom. Maybe, it is because children see life as amazing. A child makes no rigid distinction between the tales of wizards and fairies and the tales of historians. As G. K. Chesterton notes, there was a reason why Cinderella was younger than her ugly sisters. “A child“ ,he writes, ”of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened the door and saw a dragon.”

I think this is the reason children picked up Harry Potter books and couldn’t put them down.  I think they became enmeshed and awed to wonder by a world that is beyond our predictable, everyday routine. Where there are brooms to ride in games played high above our heads, invisibility cloaks and maps that show people moving about a castle school where the pictures talk to you. At least, I know this is why I couldn’t put them down and will be re-reading them for years to come. The Harry Potter books and books about knights of the round tables, princes and princesses and others like them invite us to open our minds and imagine there is more to life than what we see.

In imaginative literature, music, plays and art, we are invited to look beyond the surface of life and see that a leaf is green for a reason that has nothing to do with rational science.

In many ways, Isaiah is, also, reminding us to look beyond the surface of this life to see that a leaf is green because God meant it to be. Every leaf that is green or red or yellow and not beige is so because of God’s choice. The world is something, which has been meant, designed, brought into being by God’s choice. And, it is here for our wonder, our surprise and our enjoyment. Even the repetition of cycles and routines is meant more for us to wonder about than to see them as dull and pointless. Maybe, we are supposed to be looking at the grass as a signal to us. Maybe the stars are trying to get us to understand some message they have for us, maybe the rising of the sun each day is making a point we will discover only if we pay close attention to it.

Perhaps, the point it is making is that God has chosen the order of the world and the repetition within creation as a way to speak to us about its vitality and health. Like the child who laughs at a joke and says, “daddy tell it again and again and again. Or, like the child who falls in love with swinging on a swing and says, “Mommy, do it again. Do it again!” I wonder if God says to the irises each spring and apples and oranges “do it again. Do it again.” So, we might wonder at the continual renewal of life and be surprised at the first blooms of flowers popping up from the ground, reminding us how God creates life anew each day.

Maybe, the shoot that springs forth from the tree stump is God’s way of reminding us that God is the God of green life. That God is the one who brings forth greenness when we have felt as if we were dry as summer dust. Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the 12th Century about the veriditas or the greening, healing power of God. “God through Christ is bringing the healing and lush greenness of God’s kingdom to a shriveled and wilted humanity.” Even, Paul’s word to the Roman church in chapter 15:13 of his epistle might be translated as Eugene Peterson has, “Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!”

Maybe we need a child to lead us in becoming children, so we might see the new heaven and new earth, which is not fully our present heaven and earth, coming into being as God intends it to come into being with a shoot coming out from the stump of Jesse and a wolf living with a lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a child leading us to hear God’s music of life creating the symphony which draws all people and creation together into God’s peaceable kingdom.

I pray this may be your vision and your hope for this Advent and Christmas, as surely as it is mine.

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