Calling

“Prayer beads?! Really, that’s what God is saying? Are you sure God wasn’t saying, ‘Get a job with benefits’?” That’s what I was thinking. Oh, I didn’t say it. I mean, I may not be the best husband ever, but I’m not crazy (well the jury may be out on that, but it does not change the fact that I did not actually say this.)

I guess you can say I was a little taken aback when Kristen told me God was calling her to make prayer beads. I have several good excuses in my defense.

1) I did not hear the phone ring when God called, I think God should have the decency to include the spouse in these little notifications. After all, God has been up to this stuff for a long time. (See the stories about Noah, Abraham, Moses, Hannah and Mary in the Bible for reference). It would just be nice, if God occasionally gave the spouse a head’s up when God is about to do something really out of the ordinary or unexpected or, you know, God-like.

2) God should have realized we are Protestant. I don’t know how much you know about Protestants, but we don’t generally do this stuff. We like our religion pretty much unadorned. I mean we are not all demanding plain religion with no embellishments, but let’s face it, if something is new and unfamiliar for us, generally our motto is, “Don’t do anything that looks too Roman Catholic.” (It’s not an official rule, that might sound to Roman for us. It’s more like a Protestant principle.)

3) Really? God speaks to people in Sports Bars? (That’s where we were when this call experience happened. We had dinner together and Kristen drank unsweetened ice tea. So, I couldn’t even blame drinking for this strange God experience she was talking about.) I thought God generally did this kind of thing when you were sitting on top of a mountain, walking the beach or spending a week long silent retreat at a monastery. Turns out I had to reread all those stories I mentioned in #1; all those people encounter God right in the midst of everyday events.

Truth be told, I was just scared. What if this call was real? What if this really is what God has called my wife to do? I knew enough about God’s call to know that it often carries us into unknown places and along unfamiliar pathways.

It’s been over five years since that initial conversation, and I can say it has been every bit as scary as I thought it might be. People call our house to tell about how prayer has taken on new meaning. People email to say that their children have suddenly discovered prayer as a part of their lives. Older adults have written to tell about how they have found new meaning in their practice of prayer. People, myself included, have told how using beads in prayer helps keep them focused, connected to God and more devoted to prayer than they have been in years. People have opened up their own faith journeys with us to share how they have become more connected to God. Each new encounter is a journey into new territory and often opens up new understandings for us of how God works with people.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about call stories in the Bible: Jesus and the first disciples in Mark 1, Abram in Genesis 12, Moses in Exodus 3. Often I have read these stories and simply focused on what these people gave up to respond to God’s call, what a difference it made in their own personal lives. But now I have started thinking more about how their simple acts of faithful response impacted the lives of so many others.

It’s true, responding to God’s call often moves us along new pathways in unfamiliar territory. But it’s also true that God works through our faithful response to touch lives in ways that we could not think or imagine on our own. Thanks be to God.

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Beautiful Star of Bethlehem Shine On

On Monday, I presided over a funeral for a member of the congregation where I serve as pastor. I found myself standing between two lights:  the light of the Paschal candle and a depiction of the star of Bethlehem. I used these images in the sermon I shared, some of which follows:

We are a people living between two lights.

To my right stands the Paschal Candle. This candle is traditionally lit on Easter and throughout the Easter season, but brought back into the sanctuary at times of funerals and baptisms to remind us of how we already participate in Christ’s power over sin and death. We bring it back often, because we do not often feel this victory and we need to be reminded of it.
It is a light that shines out of the deepest darkness. Being first lit at Easter, it reminds us of the light of Christ breaking forth from the tomb, where we thought all was darkness and finished. The Paschal candle reminds us that we are an Easter people, ours is a resurrection faith.

Behind me, depicted in a banner, is the star of Bethlehem. Tomorrow, January 6th, is the feast of Epiphany. In western Christendom, this date has long been used to mark the end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, Epiphany is the day we remember the visitation of the wise men. Epiphany not only affirms the visitation of these foreigners to the child Jesus. Epiphany not only reminds us of the giving of gifts, strange gifts for a child: gold, frankincense and myrrh; gifts which already betoken a coming death. Epiphany also reminds us that these men were guided by a light, the star of Bethlehem.

We remember that the star, even then, was shinning in a world where death and destruction often seemed to hide its light. We remember that Herod, would later call for the destruction of all the children in Bethlehem, trying to rid the world of the light to which this star points. Though sin continued, though death and destruction still ran rampant; the star of Bethlehem continued to shine, proclaiming God’s gift.

Today, we may feel closest to this last light, the star of Bethlehem. Not just that we are closer chronologically to Epiphany than Easter. Rather we may be feeling closer emotionally and psychologically to this star shining in the darkness.

Amidst the pain of separation that comes with death, we are guided by a light, a ray of hope that breaks forth in the night, a star which brings us to a place of hope and peace and comfort, even amidst decay and death.

We are an Easter people, but we realize that often we are guided through the night by the light of a star.
John says in the beginning of his gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is the hope of our faith which propels us onward.
Jesus, in our gospel text today says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You believe in God, believe also in me.” Here we catch the glimpse of light amidst our sadness and pain, a star shining through the grief to bring us to the hope of resurrection.

We are a people living between two lights. A star in the sky guides us to the light of Easter, but our journey takes us through a death. As the words of one of our Affirmations of Faith puts it, “In life, in death, in life beyond death; we are not alone. God is with us.” Thanks be to God.

That is some of what I shared with the congregation. As I wrote it, and even now as I read back over it, I was also thinking of the tragic death of a friend this weekend. We worked together several years ago and discovered some common interests. One of the things we shared in common was family roots in the Appalachian mountains. As I thought of his death, and standing between these two lights I remembered a song that came out of the Appalachian region in the early 20th century: Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. Several recording artists have performed this song in recent years, but to really enjoy it find a good Bluegrass version like Ralph Stanley’s. (search on Youtube)  There are lots of lines from the song that speak to me in this moment but I keep returning to this verse:

Oh beautiful star, the hope of light
Guiding the pilgrims through the night
Over the mountains till the break of dawn
Into the land of perfect day
It will give out a lovely ray
Oh beautiful star of Bethlehem, shine on

We forget sometimes the pain and suffering that many experience around the holidays. We sometimes jump quickly from manger scenes and lose sight of Matthew’s quote from Jeremiah regarding Herod’s destruction in Bethlehem:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more. (Matthew 2:18)

Epiphany reminds us that God sends us a light even in the darkness, oh beautiful light shine on!