Last week in worship, I shared with you my Advent practices for this year. The fact that I would be (and have) entered a “monastery” of sorts, in Galway, Ireland, for 4 weeks. I love the blend of being present, both face-to-face and digitally, in my Advent practices. The abbey is online, and I find a deep centering in my daily retreats there, which are led by Christine Valters Paintner. This “Abbey of the Arts is a virtual monastery offering classes… integrating contemplative practice and creative expression.” Each day this week I have stepped into this quiet, sacred, virtual reality. I have listened. I have prayed. I have watched. I have written poetry. I have drawn nature. In the silence, I have been aware of others gathered there with me—from around the world. It is… Holy.
In the quiet… in the stillness… prophets suddenly shout out! Catch our attention. Make us focus. Instill an abrupt unsettling into our lives. And Luke’s gospel is packed with prophetic messages. Today we heard Zechariah’s son John shouting out bible passages in the desert in the desert, “mak(ing) his prophetic debut” (Luke 1:80, The Message), echoing the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah. Hear again these words from Isaiah 40:4b-6 in The Message:
Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road straight and smooth… fill in the valleys, level off the hills, smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks. Then God’s bright glory will shine and everyone will see it…”
But that is not all. In ages of oppression, in ages of empires, from the book of Luke, other prophetic messages swirl up… coming at us from unlikely sources: the angel, Gabriel (Luke 1:16, 30-31), John’s father, Zechariah (who prophesied in his old age; Luke 1:67, CEV). And a teenage girl, Mary, who affirms she has heard God’s voice in her life. Prophetic messages swirl forth unlikely places as well— Holy messages in dreams. Distant fields. Homes. Glories stream forth in a whole range of settings: The shepherds, as they work third shift. Mary and Elizabeth, during a face-to-face conversation between family members. With John, amidst large groups gathered along the river.
Church is not just in the building, and prophecies don’t just pour forth from ancient texts and men crying out in the desert. This Twitter post popped up on my feed this week which reads, “I believe churches are meant for praising God. But so are 2 am car rides, showers, coffee shops, the gym, conversations with friends, strangers, etc. Don’t let a building confine your faith because we will never change the world by just going to church, we need to be the church.”
Where do we Be Church? Be prophets? Where is the Holy happening now? Be alert. Prepare the way.
As we continued our celebration of the 200th anniversary of Silent Night, we sang the second verse this morning. We remembered the experience of those shepherds out in their fields. That life rattling experience that made them quake. Again from The Message, chapter 2 (verses 8-11) of the book of Luke:
“There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: …This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.” At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises.”
Silent night. Holy night. This hymn, reminds us that light and dark co-exist. Newness can emerge from either source. Each element can beckon us. Each can be welcoming. Each can pose challenges.
Throughout Advent, in our waiting and watching for God in our midst, I have been posting a word on which to reflect in Memorial UCC’s Ever-Widening Circles FaceBook page. This week’s words were journey, watch, focus, night, light, sprout, and alert. These words are being shared around the world through AdventWord 2018, “… a global, online Advent calendar. Each day from the first Sunday of Advent through Christmas Day, #AdventWord offers meditations and images to inspire and connect individuals and a worldwide community of believers to the themes of Advent.” Anyone can participate, and I have been sharing and posting my responses to the words as well. Here is an example:
Silent night. Holy night. In my own faith journey, I am struck not how bad the night is, or how dangerous the dark is, but how Holy can break forth during not only during the day… or only through light… but that both the night and the dark can reveal the Holy. While I was out for a walk early Wednesday morning, I held the AdventWord for the day, #night, and took this picture. I wrote these words: Light and dark co-exist. Newness can emerge from either source. Each reflect on the water. Each element can beckon us. Each can be welcoming. Each can pose challenges. “… do not turn away from the truth encountered as night…” (#AdventWord, Dec. 5, 2018).
It was… Holy.
Glories stream from heaven afar. Shepherds quake. Heavenly hosts sing, “Alleluia”! In the dark, in the cold, do the glories that are sung about at this very moment seem near – or far? Do the heavenly hosts still sing “Alleluia” in our midst? What around us, who around us, is shouting out? Being prophetic? How does God, the Holy, along with the heavenly hosts, still make us shiver and quake?
Memorial United Church of Christ is a member of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, a state-wide coalition that “encompasses 19 denominations with approximately 2,000 congregations and over one million church members.” This past Tuesday, I attended their annual meeting. One of the keynote speakers was Tatiana Washington, a student leader from Janesville who participated in the 50 Miles More walk from Madison to Janesville in March of this year. The students who participated noted that, “People say that the youth are our future. 50 Miles more aims to show that they are the present. They say ‘We will not wait until society decides we are old enough to take on the issues that affect our lives. Now is our time, and we are prepared to take on the nation’s top leaders to make our voices heard. Our generation has grown up watching school shootings destroy lives and then get swept out of the spotlight. We refuse to let this happen again.’”
At the meeting, Rev. Kerri Parker, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches emphasized that we need to recognize the “prophetic leadership of youth.” Tatiana then went on to describe her involvement with the movement and her personal connections to the public health issues around gun violence. Her parents are both police officers, and she has lost a beloved aunt to gun violence. Tatiana said that, “the reason youth champion this cause (is that) what has happened in the past hasn’t been working.” Her words are… Holy.
Sing Alleluia! In November, three youth and two adults from Memorial participated in a retreat for teens in grades 6 through 8 at Pilgrim Center on the shores of Green Lake: Indy Eliganti, Evan Fritz, Gene Simon, Mark Simon, and Ben Wealti. I have invited Indy and Evan to share a bit of their experiences with us today.
Indy’s take away from the retreat was that he was surprised that he enjoyed praying in color. He said that this prayerful experience was very calming.
Evan said that he was affected by playing “Tough Stuff Jenga,” during which questions like “Are your parents divorced?” and “Do you get bullied?” were asked. He noted that this resulted in him feeling more compassionate and empathetic toward others and more grateful for his own life. Jacob Nault, whom Evan called, “Jacob the music dude,” also inspired Evan. Jacob has cerebral palsy and therefore is limited in his physical abilities. Evan stated that Jacob is “working toward becoming a pastor, and he writes and performs Christian music on the piano and vocally. He has a disability and has a lot to focus on with himself, but he strives to help and inspire others.”
The Holy. The silent of the night. The glories streaming from heaven afar… and the glories streaming right here in our midst. The heavenly hosts singing, “Alleluia”! In the night. During the day. Face-to-face. Online. Over the phone. Via email. Cards. There are so many songs being sung. The very nature around us shouts out. The youth… shout out. So many, many people… are shouting out. Hear them sing “Alleluia!” Watch for the joy that breaks out in unexpected places, from unexpected voices. Be alert for the prophecies. New revelations. Do not be afraid. But feel the Holy deep in your soul. Shiver. Quake. And sing… Alleluia!
Reflection on Luke 3:1-6 offered December 9, 2018
 Paintner, Christine Valters. “A New Lesson in Your Course “Signs in the Sun, Moon, and Stars: A Retreat for Advent (2018)” Is Available Today.” E-mail. November 30, 2018.
 “Deepen Your Advent Observance With #AdventWord.” Building Faith. November 27, 2018. Accessed December 08, 2018. https://www.buildfaith.org/adventword-2018/.
 “Wisconsin Council of Churches | We Pray and Work Together for the Unity and Renewal of the Church and the Healing and Reconciliation of the World.” Wisconsin Council of Churches. Accessed December 08, 2018. https://www.wichurches.org/.
 “2018 Annual Meeting.” Wisconsin Council of Churches. Accessed December 08, 2018. https://www.wichurches.org/calendar/2018-annual-meeting/.