God Comes At Us Fast

by Ed Horstmann

“Life comes at you fast.” The Nationwide Insurance company used that line as the theme for a series of commercials that emphasized the importance of good planning for the future. The message is well worn but never worn out: since the circumstances of life can change quickly, with the future somehow always rushing to greet us, the best time to build a buffer against the unexpected is right now.

“Life comes at you fast.” Each character in the drama of the first Christmas could have used those words as a title to their memoirs. Mary received the news that she was about to become pregnant with a child whose life’s purpose was to be nothing less than divine.  While she ultimately said Yes to this unsolicited plan for her life, I’ll bet her first instinct was to look for the exits.

When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant (by another father, aka the Holy Spirit), he wanted out of the relationship. But an angel invaded his dream and told him to stay with the story because he had a crucial role to play in it. He chose not to bolt, but the surge of events must have made his head swim.

Because modern celebrations of Christmas are so much about keeping cherished traditions, and preparing for parties and gatherings that spice up the season, and developing just the right message and music for Christmas Eve services, we can overlook the spirit of surprise that was the heart of the first Christmas. At the heart of that story is the message that God comes at us fast. In the lives of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the Magi, God was not an insurance policy. God was the instigator of plans that threw their lives into disarray. 

The brilliance of Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol, is that he managed to show Christmas as both a cherished holiday and the experience of God bursting into the lives of unsuspecting people. As we follow the story of Scrooge we glimpse people caroling in the streets of London, collecting for those in need, and preparing for Christmas dinner. Yet alongside that vision he showed us Christmas as an experience of new life, taking shape in a stingy man with too much worldly care. A Dickens Christmas may have included a turkey on the table, but it also showed us a sweaty and haunting night for Scrooge. And with all due respect for the angel who put Joseph on the right path as the adoptive father of Jesus, Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future would have given me a lifetime of the heebie jeebies. 

A cherished Christmas tradition can be a way for God to open our eyes, touch our hearts, and breathe into us the energy of love. But Christmas is also the good news that God will sneak or break into the drama of history, with or without our consent, to bring possibilities of compassion and fresh faith precisely where they seem least likely to sprout. As God found a way to sneak love into the world through a peasant baby born on the fringes of the Roman Empire, God will find a way to bring mercy and peace and tenderness even and especially where we have established bulwarks of exclusion and hostility and brutality. In that sense, Christmas is always underway, a dream of a world at peace with itself, where abundance for all means scarcity for none. And in God’s eyes, if that dream has to enter the world again and again and again through the life of a baby born to a family that no one notices or cares about, except maybe by a few shepherds and stargazers, so be it.

For Mary and Joseph, the life of God came at them fast: but they chose to lean into that breathtaking wave of grace, rolled with it, and eventually anchored themselves sufficiently to become a sanctuary for a baby born to fill the world with hope. That peculiar grace of God is still alive and at large in the world, looking for room to work its creative power, enlisting accomplices wherever they can be found. Our beloved Christmas traditions are at their best when they point to the restless ache of God to have a home in our lives, and to infuse our lives with a peace so heart achingly sweet that we can not help but share it.

So thank God that God is always finding a way to comfort us and unsettle us, mobilizing a movement to heal the whole creation. To do so, God may come at us fast. Thanks be to God.

Preparing for Christmas on Round Hill

by Ed Horstmann

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In the weeks before Christmas the campus of Round Hill Community Church undergoes a quiet but profound transformation. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the pulpit in the sanctuary is removed, and week by week, a beautifully designed manger scene is installed—complete with crib for the Christ Child, hay for the animals, camels for the Magi, and a little lantern to chase away the darkness.

An Angel Tree is placed in the Parlor and on its branches are cards that include the names of children from Norwalk, with their simple wishes for Christmas. In the first two weeks of December members and friends of Round Hill Community Church purchase the requested gifts and place them beneath the tree where they remind us that the reason for the season is to reach out to the world with love.

In late November, the great tree in front of the Community House is strung with lights, and on the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving, the necessary electrical connections are completed, and those lights spring to life, announcing that Advent is near.

These physical changes to the campus are important to us who visit the space on a regular basis for worship, work, or to attend a program. They might catch the eye of those whose daily travels take them along Round Hill Road. Yet these subtle transformations will not merit much attention beyond the local community. And so it was with the first Christmas. In the backcountry of a vast empire, a profound transformation occurred; a child was born to a family with barely the means to sustain themselves, let alone a vulnerable baby.

And yet this seems to be the way that God loves to draw alongside our lives: off center rather than main stage, in the natural events and rhythms of life, in actions that add a little light here and there, and that make way for hope and generosity. God is with us and for us where we have prepared space to receive more love and faith and hope (even if those actions don’t make the news).

God is with us and for us as we dedicate ourselves and our resources to the well-being of the world. “Let it be to me according to your word,” said Mary to the Angel Gabriel when he delivered the news of her role in the unfolding dreams of God. “Let it be. . .” she said, as if to say, “Yes, I will make room for your life in mine, for your hopes in my hopes.”

As we transform our physical spaces to make way for the light and music and beauty of the Christmas season, may we be just as dedicated to the preparation of our interior lives, so that we can receive all that God intends for us, and bring light and life to others in whatever way possible. For as the old carol says, “Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

A Gift from God

by Ed Horstmann

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Madeline L’Engle was a gifted writer whose imagination has inspired millions of readers across the world. She was also a dedicated person of faith who brought her skill with words to participation in the church. When she was asked about the initial inspiration that led to her life-long commitment to the Christian way, she said that it had a lot to do with how she encountered the stories of faith as a child. Her grandmother introduced her to the Bible by encouraging her to read it as a storybook. She was given space to marvel at the characters and imagine her life in theirs. In this way she came to be a creative reader of sacred stories and found ways to bring the drama of their lives in subtle and explicit ways into the many books that she wrote as an adult.

During these days leading up to Christmas, maybe the best gift we can give to ourselves is some time with a story of the first Christmas: to read it as if for the first time. Try reading it aloud, with or to others, in different accents or in an unfamiliar translation. Read it slowly, savoring every word, as if you had never heard it before, and let it find its way into your imagination . . . and into your faith.

Here is a link to the story of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel according to Luke . . . a gift from God for peace on earth and good will among all.

Some New Words for Advent

by Ed Horstmann

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Hope, peace, love and joy: beautiful words! During the weeks before Christmas, churches often explore these four voices of Advent, and light candles to turn us toward the brightness of what they can mean for a full and meaningful life.

But this year I wondered what it would mean to let go of the familiar traditions and focus attention on some different words for Advent. Why not light candles for these words: interruption, intrusion, confusion, and anger?  I know this does not sound like an activity that syncs well with the run-up to Christmas but here’s my logic.

Prior to the birth of Jesus, the key characters in the unfolding drama of his life experienced precious little hope, peace, love, or joy. Mary was startled by the presence of an angel who announced not just the coming of a savior, but the unsettling news that she was to be his mother: not much peace there! When Joseph was told the disturbing news that he was to be the father of this child, he sought to distance himself from Mary as quickly as possible: not much love there! When King Herod was told by visiting astrologers that they had seen the sign of a star that signaled the rising of a different kind of king, he was full of jealous rage: not much joy there!

For these characters in the first Christmas pageant, the birth of Jesus came as an unwanted interruption that inspired fear, brought confusion, and stimulated envy. What makes this story meaningful and foundational to our spiritual wellness is that Mary and Joseph and the Magi allowed their lives to align with the intrusive power. Mary loved the child even while questions of his origins remained unanswered. Joseph cared for the holy family and risked his life to keep them safe. Those Magi-astrologers did not agree to be Herod’s spies but honored the child, kept his whereabouts safe, and then sneaked home by a secret way.

Thank God that those who were first entrusted with the infant baby came to welcome him, make a home for him, and nurture a life with him. Though over two thousand years separate us from the event of that child’s birth, he can certainly enter our lives and dwell in our hearts as he did then. “Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”