Music and the Gospel: “So Much More Than This,” Grace VanderWaal, 3rd Sunday of Advent

Grace VanderWaal challenges us to see more in ourselves and our lives than we recognize in our day to day actions. When we recognize and cultivate our talents, we can find ways to lead and work for good. In doing this, we follow John the Baptist, who “gave witness to the light.” When we share our true selves, we share our gifts with the world.

Key lines: Tap your foot and listen in / Ignore the world, let the music cave in / Close your phone and breathe in the air / You’ll soon realize that there’s something that is / So much more than this

Questions: How do you share your gifts with the world? How do you cultivate these gifts? When has being your true self challenged your friendships? Who do you consider to be a leader in your community or and school?


Listen To The Prophets Among Us

via Flickr user Dennis Skley

via Flickr user Dennis Skley

December can be a crazy time of year. The semester is winding down and school is starting to get old. Winter sports are gearing up. The days are short and the nights long.

In the North, the breathtaking cold creates a feeling of vulnerability. There always seems to be too much to do and not enough time to get it done. Pre-Christmas advertising hits fever pitch, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed — or just tune out Christmas until we have time to think about it.

Advent is the Church’s antidote to the craziness of the season. Advent reminds us to slow down, take a deep breath, and find a quiet space in our lives. Advent invites us to join the shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem — BEFORE the angels arrived.

There they were, camped out under the stars — no televisions, no radios, no cell phones, no teachers, no coaches, no deadlines. Just a handful of people and flocks of woolly animals, dozing in utter darkness.

John the Baptist’s words remind us to reflect on who we are and how we are prophets to one another.

In the Old Testament a prophet speaks for God to the king and people. A prophet speaks and acts publicly, putting his or her life on the line to deliver a message people and their leaders don’t always want to hear. Usually the message includes a call to be faithful to God and care for the poor.

In Jesus’ time and today a prophet sees, judges, and acts and urges hearers to do the same.

Put your faith in action by brainstorming a list  of modern-day prophets: musicians, teachers, scientists, politicians. Write your own rap or poem expressing your feelings and dreams about being who you are. Perform them for your group. Encourage your family or friends to simplify Christmas gift giving this year. Make a donation to an organization that helps those with fewer resources.

Echo of The Voice

The Spirit of the Holy One is upon me; therefore, God has proclaimed good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty for captives, sight to the blind, release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from God.

This past Sunday my spouse and I walked to Riverside Church, a gorgeous cathedral-like church next to Union Seminary in New York City. We attended a celebration of word and song in remembrance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The gospel music filled the church. Excerpts from Letters from a Birmingham Jail were read. The highlight, for me, was when Rev. Dr. Alvin Jackson stood up to preach.

Rev. Dr. Alvin Jackson started by telling the story of being a seventeen year old boy in Mississippi when he found out that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. A car of white men drove by and yelled to him out the window, “We finally got your Martin Luther Coon!” He was devastated. He thought that by killing King, they had taken away Jackson’s voice and power as well. When King spoke, Jackson heard his own dream, vision and hope being spoken. And now that voice was gone.

ProphetsAs an older man, Jackson has finally come to realize that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not the voice. He was an echo of the voice. “There was Malcolm, Martin and Medgar. Before Malcolm, Martin and Medgar there was DuBois and Washington.” Jackson started to raise his voice as the list continued, the list of echoes, of voices crying out for freedom. Lincoln, Jefferson. He rocked back and forth as the list stretched further and further into our history, “Before that there was Paul and before Paul there was John the Baptist.” People started standing up and clapping. I was overcome with emotion at the growing list of our heritage made up of echoes, voices, prophets. “There was Ester, Isaiah, Samuel.” They were all echoes of the voice, the voice that proclaimed, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The same voice that looked at the women and men God created and said they were very good. “This is the voice,” Jackson reminded us, “and that voice will continue to echo throughout history until true freedom and justice arrives. They did not kill the voice. His echo will continue on. History will always bend toward justice. You can kill the dreamer, but you cannot kill the dream.”

We are the echo, too, and we are not alone. We come from a long line of prophetic echoes, speaking truth to power about real freedom, proclaiming God’s good news and vision until God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

“I hope you are a different person walking out today then when you walked in,” said Pastor Phelps in the closing remarks. “That is the sign of true worship.” Invigorated to carry on the voice, we were changed indeed. Thanks be to God.

Who in Jackson’s list of prophets have you heard of? Are there any new names?

Who would you add to the list of echoes?

Who do you see in our modern society picking up the message and continuing it after King’s death?

How are we called to be the voice in our society today?  

Baptism of the Lord

I still cringe when I see pictures of myself (or even imagine them!) from my first year in high school. Not yet ready for contact lenses, every day I donned a pair of oversized pink plastic glasses that were always sliding awkwardly down my nose. As the daughter of a dentist, of course I had to wear braces, since good teeth were the family business. And while other girls somehow managed to make the black uniform jumpers of our Catholic school look normal or even fashionable, mine was too long and made me feel about as cute as if I was wearing a potato sack. (At least I had finally decided that the frizzy perm of my middle school days was no longer a good idea!)

As I think more about it, it is not so much the glasses, the braces, and the jumper that make me cringe. What makes me cringe is the discomfort with myself that is palpable in every photograph of me at that age. I look as if I want to flee my body or at least put up a large barrier between me and any camera.

Have there been times in your life when you have not been comfortable with who you are? Have there been times when you wished you could have changed some physical, emotional, cognitive, or other part of yourself?

My guess is that Jesus did not really fit in with his contemporaries either. In the one story we have from his teenage years, Jesus scares his parents to death by staying behind in the temple to discuss religion and religious laws with the Jewish teachers rather than travel home with his family. Caring about religion this much, in addition to his sense that he was somehow different from other people, might have led Jesus to feel a bit isolated or maybe even uncomfortable in his own skin.

But then we get the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist in this week’s Gospel from Luke. After Jesus is baptized, we are told that “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven.” This voice said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Can you imagine how Jesus would have felt hearing this? I have to believe that hearing of God’s pleasure toward him helped Jesus to accept who he was created by God to be and even to rejoice in this self.

In baptism, we all become brothers and sisters with Christ. As Christ’s sisters and brothers, we also take on the status as God’s children. So what God says to Jesus at his baptism, God also says to us, all day, every day (even when we wear big pink glasses, clunky braces, and unfashionable uniforms). God says to us, “You are my beloved child; with you I am pleased.” God is pleased with us not because of how we look, the grades we get, the touchdowns we score, or even the people we help through service projects. God is pleased with us simply because we are who we are: God’s children.

While many of us were baptized years ago, there are some things we can do to remind us of the joy God takes in us and our identity as God’s children.

  • Every morning or every evening when you look in the mirror or brush your teeth, take a minute to really look at yourself and repeat, “I am a beloved child of God. With me God is well pleased.”
  • When you wash your face, repeat the words of baptism with each splash of water: “In the name of the Father,” splash, “In the name of the Son,” splash, “In the name of the Holy Spirit,” splash. (This idea comes from the Practicing Our Faith project.)

What other ideas can you think of for how you can continue to celebrate your baptism and your identity as a child of God every day?

Do you know the story of your baptism? Even if you think you know it fairly well, take some time this week to ask your parents or godparents about your baptism.

What Should We Do?

This week’s gospel from Luke opens with John the Baptist preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Perhaps confused by what this idea of a baptism of repentance actually means, or perhaps so convicted by what they were hearing from John that they wanted advice on how to live his teaching, the crowds ask him, “What should we do?” In this season of Advent, John’s response to the crowd is instructive.

Here is John’s first response to the question, “What should we do?” He says, “Let anyone with two coats give to someone who has none. Anyone who has food should do the same.” Notice that John does not tell the crowd to give away everything they have. Instead, he asks them to do some basic discerning about the goods that are in their possession. If a person has two of something they only need one of, that person can give the extra item to someone in need. If a person has an excess of something else, then that excess, too, can be passed on to someone who lacks.

This part of the Gospel struck me in a particular way this week. I live in Minnesota, where two days ago we had somewhere around ten inches of snow drop on us and where last night, when I walked to my car after work, the temperatures were in the single digits. I thought about people who do not have adequate shelter in this weather and those (like the young children visiting the soup kitchen wrapped in blankets who are described in this week’s Spirit story) who must try to stay warm with whatever makeshift coats they can find. I know that I have an extra coat in my closet, and I also know that I can only wear one at a time. It may seem like a small thing, and it certainly will not solve all of the world’s problems, but donating my coat this winter can make a difference in one person’s life. And that is what John is asking us to do.

3115022630_2030d89514_nTake some time this Christmas season to do some basic discerning about your possessions. Do you have two of something you only need one of? Do you have an excess of something that someone else could use?

The middle part of the Gospel is also enlightening. After the crowd as a whole asks about what they should do, then specific groups of people start asking the same thing, including tax collectors and soldiers. To the tax collectors, John replies, “Don’t take more taxes than people owe.” In other words, do your job and do not extort extra money from people to pad your own pockets. To the soldiers, John answers, “Do not bully anyone. Denounce no one falsely. Be content with your pay.” In other words, do your job with honor. Again, notice that John does not tell the tax collectors to give up their jobs, even though tax collectors were largely despised by the Jews for collecting money to support the Roman Empire. Nor does he tell the soldiers to give up their possibly violent profession. Rather, his answers indicate that the best thing that these people, or any people, can do is to do what they already do with honor and integrity.

This reminded me of something I was reading recently about the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ), who publish Spirit and this blog. The sisters invite consociate membership in the CSJs, that is, they invite women and men living diverse life-styles and from diverse spiritual traditions who are committed to living the mission of the CSJs to become part of the CSJ community. Similarly to John, the CSJs do not ask consociates to give up their “regular” lives in order to become part of the community. What they do ask is that people commit to living the mission of the CSJs within the context of their lives and responsibilities. They ask people to “always move toward profound love of God and neighbor without distinction,” wherever they find themselves in the world and in their relationships.

5787383698_29b938dd7a_nSo if you are a high school student, it is likely that John would not ask you to drop out of school to better live the message of Jesus. (Sorry!) Rather, John would ask you to think about what you can do to live with honor and integrity, to love God and neighbor without distinction, in your own corner of the world–in your family, with your friends, at your school, at your church, at your job, in your extracurricular activities, and wherever else you find yourself interacting with other people and other parts of God’s creation.

Take some time this Advent season to think about the roles you have and the relationships with which you are involved. If you were to ask John, “What should I do?” how do you think John would answer?


Photos courtesy of  Daquella manera and  SodexoUSA via Creative Commons License.

Current Music and the Gospel: “Ready Or Not,” Britt Nicole

“Ready Or Not,” Britt Nicole, Gold, EMI CMG/Sparrow

Gospel Reflection for December 16, 3rd Sunday of Advent: John the Baptist lives a demanding life of fasting and preaching the good news in order to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. He doesn’t shy away from what God calls him to do; he chooses to be who he is meant to be. “Ready or Not,” an upbeat anthem by Britt Nicole that features Lecrae, charges us up to be who we are and answer God’s call to share who we are with the world.

Key Lines: Ready or not/Here, here, here, here I come/I’m about to show you where the light comes from Oh, oh/Ready or not here, here I come/This is who I am/I won’t hide it/I’m a take it all over the world/To the young to the old every boy and girl/Ready or not here I come/I’m a show the world where the love is

Questions: How does being yourself help show others who Jesus is? What makes you feel shy about talking about faith or religion? How does John the Baptist help prepare people for the ministry of Jesus? Who do you know that is a ‘prophet,’ announcing good news, like John the Baptist? Who in your community needs to be shown love? How can you help?

“Light Up the World,” SPIRIT Xtra for December 11

“Light Up the World,” Glee Cast, Glee: The Music, Volume 6, Twentieth Century Fox

Gospel Reflection: John the Baptist comes in this Sunday’s gospel to point the way to Jesus, the Messiah. John knows who he is and uses his life to “give witness to the light.” We are called as well to use our lives to point the way to Jesus. “Light up the World” is a song that celebrates how being our authentic selves can be a gift to the world.

Key Lines: Let’s light up the world tonight/You gotta give up the bark and bite/I know that we got the love alright/Come on and light it up, light it up tonight

Questions: How do you light up the world? How does your life point others to Jesus? Who do you consider a prophet in your community? How do you show others you are a follower of Jesus? How do you share your faith with others?