Encanto

This week’s devotion is written by Grace Heimerdinger-Baake, Director of Youth and Family Ministry

The movie Encanto has been on replay since Christmas Eve when it became available on Disney+. Encanto is a story of a magical family, the Madrigals, whose magical powers came through the sacrificial gift of their father’s love. That power and light provides a home for them, protects them and their village, and gifts each of the family members with unique and miraculous powers.

Except for one.

Mirabel doesn’t have a superpower, but she loves her family, and she loves her home, and she would do anything to protect it. When the walls start to crack, the candle starts to flicker,  it’s up to Mirabel to find a way to keep her home and her family together. Mirabel might just be her miraculous family’s only hope. 

Every time I watch Encanto, I see something new. The theme I have appreciated the most is the uniqueness of worth of each and every being. The Madrigals, other than Mirabel, use their magic to help their community to keep growing and turning as that is what they believe keeps the magic burning. Contrary to appearances, the Madrigals were far from the perfect family. 

Spoiler Alert! Sometimes the most powerful power or gift is the power of love and support. Mirabel’s love and support for her family is what saves their family. As the Casita cracks and crumbles to the ground, the family begins to realize the magic they received wasn’t actually the miracle. The miracle was their family and their community. Encanto concludes with the town coming together and helping the Madrigals build their new home. The town people, the common person, is who helped rebuild the Casita. Every person is important. Every person makes this world turn. 

As the movie concluded for the hundredth time, I was reminded of Paul’s letters to the people of Corinth. In Paul’s letter to Corinthians, he hoped the words he would share would heal the division that was created as the people thought some of the spiritual gifts were superior to other gifts. Paul writes, “The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26 MSG)

God has created each and everyone of us so fearfully and wonderfully (Psalm 139:14) and has given us our own unique gifts and talents (1 Peter 4:10-11) for us to share God’s love. Depending what your gifts are, your way of sharing God’s love will look different than your neighbor. 

Gracious God, you have so fearfully and wonderfully created me. Help me to use the gifts you have given me to share your light and love in this world. Amen.  


 



Christmas Traditions

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
-Micah 5:2
 
In the not very little town of Bethlehem, in the middle of crowded streets filled with souvenir shops and falafel restaurants, is a grand white stone building, the Church of the Nativity. It’s big enough to hold three monasteries AND four cathedral-like worship spaces. It holds the distinction of being the longest continuously used worship site in Christianity. Most importantly of all, it sits atop a small network of caves.
 
Bethlehem is in the hill country, where the landscape is dotted with caves created when the soft rock was eroded away by water. Because the soil is rocky and dry, the vegetation is not what we’d consider impressive: mostly shrubs and grasses, with small olive trees scattered here and there. With very little in the way of wood and an abundance of small natural caves, the historic residents of Bethlehem used the caves to house their livestock. The caves provided a ready-made shelter. Most were just big enough for a single family’s sheep or goats, with only one way in or out. As a bonus, because the caves were insulated by the surrounding hillside, they stayed fairly temperate all year round.
 
It was in one of these caves that Mary and Joseph found themselves when Jesus was born. I know, I know, all the traditional pictures we have show a stable– but, like I said, there wasn’t enough wood to waste any of it on a building for animals. Instead, in a rock-hewn manger in a cave, Mary laid her baby.
 
It is atop that cave and several others that the Church of the Nativity is built. The network of caves is accessible by several narrow staircases from within the church. Each cave is distinct, with artwork, engravings, and altars throughout.
The cave that most impressed me when I visited was very simple. There is a white stone altar covered with a white cloth. On either side, the altar is flanked by square blocks forming two columns. Each block has a Latin inscription. These words correspond to each of the verses of the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The carvings are very old, made at least a thousand years ago. The words of that hymn have been prayed for more than 1400 years. It’s a common tradition to pray or sing the verses one by one on the days leading up to Christmas.
 
It is easy for me to forget how old our faith is. Around here, even the longest-established churches are no more than two hundred years old. Of course, it doesn’t take a thousand years to establish a tradition. Just a few years can be enough.
 
This time of year is full of traditions, in church and in family. Some are rich with meaning. Some feel like burdensome obligations. Some can be traced back to the beginning. Some appeared without anybody being quite sure where they came from. Some are simple. Some are complex. All traditions were once new, and all traditions eventually come to an end. The best traditions are the ones that deepen our faith, connecting us with God and one another.
 
As we draw near to Christmas Eve, consider the traditions you follow. Which are most meaningful? Are there any that have served their purpose and can be ended? If there are traditions that need to end, let them go gracefully. Is there something new that needs to begin?
 
Whatever your traditions may be, may they deepen your faith this Christmas. Whether they are new or old, may your traditions connect you more firmly with the ancient one who came as our newborn king.
 
Merry Christmas.


We Need a Little Christmas

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. -Isaiah 9:2

One of my favorite secular Christmas songs is “We Need A Little Christmas,” originally from the 1966 musical Mame. I prefer the Angela Lansbury recording, but Idina Menzel’s version will do in a pinch. In the musical, the character Mame has lost her fortune and decides that the best way to cope is to throw herself into Christmas, even though it’s weeks too early by any reasonable standard. The song has been popular for half a century since its debut, perhaps in part because we’ve all had the experience of longing for a bit of Christmas joy when life seems joyless. We know what it’s like to need a little Christmas.

The days and nights of December can be truly difficult for so many people. For those impacted by seasonal affective disorder, the long nights and lack of sunlight can lead to depression. For those who are far from home, seeing others go home for the holidays can leave them feeling more alone than ever. For those who have experienced loss, the special days can feel like painful reminders of what and who they’re missing.

And even if there’s no reason you can put your finger on, you might still find yourself having a bit of a blue Christmas. Especially this year, with so many expectations of deferred joy from last Christmas, it may be that you’re feeling a little let down by a holiday season that’s just okay. Or it may be that you’ve once again canceled or modified your plans in response to the local plateau in covid-19 cases, and who wouldn’t feel blue about that? Maybe you’re just frustrated that instead of a winter wonderland, the landscape is brown and bare.

Whatever your reason for needing a little Christmas joy, you are not alone. The holly, jolly Christmas mood doesn’t just arrive with a turn of the calendar or the first snowfall. In the bleak midwinter, in the midst of what’s going on in our real lives, we may find ourselves longing for that Christmas feeling without any idea how to get it. Like the people Isaiah prophesied to, we might be stumbling along in the darkness, longing for light.

But the thing about God’s light? That light shines on the people without their having done anything to make it shine. The light of God shines bright when our world is draped in shadows. If you are in darkest night, be comforted: God’s light still shines on you. The light of Christ is not so easily put out.

This Christmas, look for God’s light where it can always be found: in the child in the manger. In Jesus Christ, the light shines so bright that no darkness can overcome it. It is a light so small it could be contained in an infant, and yet a light so grand it fills all the world.

When you find yourself walking in darkness, look to Jesus, the light of the world. He will bring you light.

Jesus Christ, light of life, shine in my life when deep darkness looms. Turn my eyes to see your light, turning the long night to brightest day. Amen.



Advent Calendars

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. – Hebrews 13:8

We have a tradition in my family of getting Lego Advent calendars every year. Technically, they’re Christmas countdown calendars, since they have a door to open for each day from December 1 to 24. Behind each door is a mini Lego set and instructions to build it. This year, the calendar is Harry Potter-themed. Of course, since it’s Lego, it’s not enough to have a broad theme—this year’s calendar seems to be showing off aspects of the first book and the very first time Harry traveled to Hogwarts, the magical school. Every day, we discover something new that fills in more of the story.

It’s been a week since we started the calendar, and still every single day my kids ask, “Can we open the next door early? What do you think will be in it? Can we find out soon?” Every single day I respond, “We’ll have to wait and see what happens tomorrow when we open the next one.”

Even though it’s been only a week and there are seventeen doors left to go, we’ve figured out the theme very clearly. Though the details are missing, the story is clear: this set of Legos is telling the story of the first few chapters of the first Harry Potter book. We don’t know exactly what will happen over the next two weeks, but we’ve got a pretty good idea from the way it started.

Our lives as Christians are often similar, aren’t they? After even a short time as a Christian, we can see the theme of God’s work in our lives: repentance and forgiveness, the guidance and gifts of the Holy Spirit, the new life we receive in Jesus Christ, the responsibility we have to love and care for each other. The longer we follow Jesus, the more clearly we see how God has acted in our lives and remains faithful into the future. Our lives change, as each new door opens— but whatever is behind the door, God is with us.

It’s more than that God is with us, though. When I look at the last week’s Lego Advent surprises, I see the beginning of Harry Potter’s journey to Hogwarts. When I look back at the decades of my life, I see ways that God was working. Seemingly disconnected events and people are part of a bigger story of God’s transforming grace. And even though I sometimes wish I could look ahead into what’s coming behind the next door, all I can do is take it one day at a time.

In this season of Advent, it is good to be reminded that although our futures may not be clear, our faith is. Jesus Christ is the same in our yesterdays, and today, and in all the days to come.

 

Dear Jesus, even when the doors in my life hold uncertainty, remind me that you are always faithful and present, and that you are working for good in my life. Amen.



Waiting is Not Easy

Psalm 130:5 With all my heart, I am waiting, Lord, for you! I trust your promises. 

Waiting is not easy…

In Mo Willems’ book, Waiting is Not Easy, Piggie has a surprise for Gerald. As Gerald’s patience diminishes throughout the day, Piggie encourages him to wait it out as the surprise will be worth it. As the day turns into night, Gerald gets grumpy and says, “We have wasted the whole day!… And for what!?” Piggie then gestures up to the Milky Way, which Gerald then acknowledges “was worth the wait.” 

This past Sunday, we began a new liturgical year by acknowledging the First Sunday of Advent. Although the retail world makes it appear like the Christmas season begins in October, those of us following the liturgical year of the Church know that we still have a while to go before we can celebrate the birth of Jesus. Traditionally, Advent is a time of waiting and preparing for the birth of Jesus, but often we find ourselves tempted to ignore this season of Advent and focus on Christmas. 

Advent comes and gently invites us into a period of waiting. It teaches us the art of waiting and the joy of preparation and anticipation. In this season, we learn to take time; and in taking time, we anticipate the reward of waiting. Waiting helps us to enjoy what has arrived of which we would otherwise might have taken for granted. 

Let’s use the example of a cake. There is much preparation that goes into preparing the best cake. Once you have the cake in the oven, it needs time to fully bake for it to be delicious. It may be difficult to wait for the cake to finish, but who wants to eat an undercooked cake? The same is true for grapes, as it can take years for grapes to be transformed into fine wine. Although it is difficult to wait, the observation of Advent doesn’t have to happen alone. We can wait together by attending bible studies, worship, and music programs. 

As we take time to practice waiting in this crazy and busy season, we place our trust in God’s continued promise, because as Piggie says, “It will absolutely be worth it.” 

 



Raspberries

“Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind.” -Psalm 107:21

My grandpa and grandma had wild raspberry plants that grew along an old shed. It was always an adventure to pick them, because you needed to be extra careful to avoid the nettles that grew alongside the plants. It was not an easy task. In addition to the nettles, there were bees that swarmed around the plants too.

It is often difficult to find joy and gratitude in a situation where you are being poked by nettles and swarmed by bees. But once these wild raspberries were brought inside and washed there was joy and happiness as they made the perfect addition to a cold bowl of ice cream on a hot summer day.

In our lives we may find ourselves navigating the nettles and swarms of bees and it can be difficult in those occurrences to have a grateful heart. Practicing gratitude is not easy, especially when we are focused on the nettles and the bees. It is not until we are enjoying the raspberries and ice cream that we remember to give thanks for all the blessings we have been given.

As we make our way through the month of November (the National Gratitude Month) let us thank God for everything. Today, I am grateful for the laughter of small children, the raspberries I enjoyed for breakfast, and the washing machine.



Pillow Forts

God is our refuge and strength,

    an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

    the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;

    God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

    he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;

    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

    he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!

    I am exalted among the nations,

    I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

-Psalm 46

 

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved to build pillow forts. My family had a couch with extremely firm, square cushions perfectly suited to constructing a kid-sized refuge. With an assortment of blankets, clothespins, pillows, chairs, and cushions, my brother and I would construct elaborate fortresses. We would then retreat deep into the pillow fort with snacks and books, safe and secure. 

Secure, that is, until an over-extended blanket pulled loose of its clothespin, sending the entire fort collapsing down on us. Undeterred, we would reassemble the precarious fort over and over until our parents finally insisted that they needed the living room back. You see, we could build forts with all the enthusiasm and expertise of, well, children. We did our best, but pillow forts are no match for gravity.

Like children building pillow forts, adults often build up refuges that feel good but don’t actually hold up against the storms of life. We look for security from other people, hoping they can keep us safe. We look for security from money, hoping that our savings accounts will protect us from trouble. We look for security from the groups we are part of, hoping that our loyalty to the crowd will keep us from harm. We look for security from our own strength, hoping that we can handle any threat that comes our way. We look for security from knowledge, hoping we can outsmart our problems.

These are all pillow forts. They might be fun for a while. They look cool. We can even prop them up when they start to falter. They might withstand a few gusts of wind. In the end, they always topple. 

God is no pillow fort. God is your refuge, safe and secure. God is your refuge when tornadoes or derechos blow. God is your refuge when sickness or sadness loom. God is your refuge when strength fails, when people abandon you, when money runs out, when wisdom turns out foolish. God is your refuge when all other refuges collapse.

God is your refuge.



Rain

Jesus said, “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” -Matthew 5:45

It’s raining. Or, if it isn’t raining right when you read this, it was recently and probably will be again soon. That’s what we’re getting for weather today and tomorrow in central Iowa. Like it or not, there is nothing we can do about it.

We humans really are powerless when it comes to the weather. For all of history, human life has depended on forces beyond ourselves for the sun to shine, the rain to pour, the wind to blow, the snow to fall. Sure, we try to predict the weather. We have meteorologists who tell us the forecast, often for weeks or months in advance! I’m not aware of any other job where a person can so often and so publicly be wrong, though. 

Since we clearly can’t control the weather and can only sort of predict it, we humans often decide the next best thing is to try and control the one who sends the weather. From prayer to ritual to sacrifice, societies around the world have tried different ways to get the weather they want. It doesn’t work. Why?

Because God isn’t fair. At least, not in the way we think about fairness. When we think about what’s fair, we usually mean that people get what they deserve. We think good people get good things and bad people get bad things. We think that people who make sacrifices deserve rewards, while people who are selfish deserve to suffer. We think people who diligently pray should get what they ask for, while people who don’t should be left wanting. That would be fair, according to our standards.

But God isn’t fair—God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, and we are both. One of the breakthroughs for Martin Luther as he led the Reformation was the realization that Christians are always both sinners and saints. He used a Latin phrase, simul iustus et peccator, to describe the way that we are justified by grace through faith even at the same moment as we are sinners whose thoughts, words, and deeds don’t measure up.

We don’t have to measure up or earn God’s grace any more than we have to earn the rain. We are as powerless to control God’s love as to make the sun shine. Frankly, that may come as a relief: you don’t have to earn forgiveness or sunshine. God just gives it because you need it. Good people, bad people, in-between people: we all need grace. Good news! You receive it freely, abundantly, like rain that streams down from the heavens and pools up all around. May the weather you cannot control be a reminder of the God you cannot control: who is gracious and merciful, sending forgiveness and rain and grace and sunshine to sinners and saints alike.

God, you are not fair; you are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. You give what we do not earn out of your pure love for us. Thank you. Amen.



Do you see?

The legal experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. Placing her in the center of the group, they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him. Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger.

They continued to question him, so he stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” Bending down again, he wrote on the ground. Those who heard him went away, one by one, beginning with the elders. Finally, only Jesus and the woman were left in the middle of the crowd.

Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

She said, “No one, sir.”

Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” -John 8:3-11

 

Picture the scene: a group of respectable community leaders (pastors and lawyers and the like) show up in front of Jesus with one sinner in tow. They know she’s a sinner because, well, they caught her in the act. Never mind that if they caught her in the act, they should have shown up with two sinners in tow. But then, we read right there in the story that they were only doing this to test Jesus. It was never about the woman, only ever about how they could use her to get Jesus into trouble.

Jesus defies their expectations by, well, writing in the dirt with his finger. It kind of makes you wish we knew what he was writing. Was it some kind of message to the legal experts and Pharisees? Was it something for the woman to read? Was it a one-person game of tic-tac-toe? Apparently what Jesus writes in the dirt is not all that important. What he says is important: whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone. Then he bends down again. 

I imagine the religious leaders start to make panicked eye contact at this point, thinking to themselves: is he going to throw a stone? Should I throw a stone so they don’t think I’m a sinner, too? What if no one throws a stone? What if we all throw stones at once? Then, the panicked eye contact turns to embarrassment as, one by one, the leaders begin to disperse. 

This doesn’t happen in a moment. Crowds don’t disappear in the blink of an eye. Awkward, uncomfortable minutes pass as the group of men realize that they are in the wrong. They can’t use this woman to trap Jesus. Eventually, no one is left to condemn the woman, and Jesus won’t do it for them.

Too often, our conversations about sin treat people like objects, instead of like people. For that matter, the way we talk about all kinds of issues in our lives or the lives of people around us often sound like we’ve forgotten that real people are on the line, not just ideas. Jesus sees people. 

Jesus sees the woman who has had fingers pointed at her. Jesus sees the teen who’s starting to believe what the bullies say about them. Jesus sees the addict who’s digging to see just how deep rock bottom is. Jesus sees anybody who’s ever been pushed around or overlooked or objectified for someone else’s convenience or satisfaction. Jesus sees them.

Jesus doesn’t stop there, though. Once Jesus sees them, he gets out of the way until everybody else sees them, too. Picture the scene again: when Jesus bends down, the men who brought the woman have no one else to look at but the woman in the center of the crowd and one another. Once they see her, they realize they cannot go through with stoning her. Once they see her, they cannot condemn her.

May God give us all eyes to see one another; and in seeing one another, may we never again seek to condemn one another. Amen.



Letting Go

When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

John 20:22‭-‬23 NRSV

This is part of a conversation Jesus had with his disciples on the day of his resurrection. After meeting with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, he reunited with ten of his other disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit with the instruction to forgive sin. Jesus also says that along with the power to forgive, the Holy Spirit gives the power to not forgive. It sounds like a lot of power, and it is! To forgive, or not forgive: that’s the question.

In Greek, the word that means forgive also means release. In other words, forgiveness is connected to letting go. 

This time of year we can see an excellent example of the necessity and beauty of letting things go just by looking to the trees. Take a look at the nearest maple or oak tree: see how its leaves are turning red, yellow, and orange? They may already be falling from the branches to carpet the ground beneath them. It is beautiful and even necessary for trees to release their leaves when the season changes. 

If trees don’t let go of their leaves? Well, that’s not good. Several years ago, I had an eight-year-old maple tree in my front yard. One fall, for some reason, it just didn’t drop its leaves as the other trees did. Some of the leaves fell, but most stuck onto the branches. I was curious what would happen if it didn’t let go of the leaves. 

One day, I found out. There was a terrible storm in October that year, and the wind was so severe that the tree could not stand under the weight of its leaves. Instead, it split in half straight down the trunk, and the half of the tree most covered by leaves crashed down to the ground. If it’s beautiful to let go, it’s dangerous to hold on too long.

Nobody wins when we hold onto sin instead of forgiving it. When we forgive, we release that other person from their guilt and, equally important, we release ourselves from holding grudges, from seeing ourselves as victims, and from taking it upon ourselves to judge someone else’s worthiness. We’ve got to let it go, as Elsa says. We’ve got to forgive. We’ve got to release each other from our sin so we can move ahead without the weight of that guilt dragging us down.

The trees are showing us how beautiful it is to let things go. The Holy Spirit is showing us how beautiful it is when we let sinners go free with the simple words: “I forgive you.”

Holy Spirit, you give me the power to release or retain sin. Give me also the grace to forgive sin as I have been forgiven in Jesus Christ. Stop me from holding onto things that I need to let go. Amen.