Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Anxiety and Trust at Christmas

Here’s what I don’t understand about Christmas.

Why would a long journey by foot and mule in order to report to the Internal Revenue Service…
Why would a night of childbirth in a barnyard, no midwife, no epidural, no one to shoo away the dogs, the goats, where no carpenter’s sandpaper smoothed the splintery boards of the cradle…

Why would a setting like this, where everyone feels so threatened, vulnerable, and unsafe that the story requires counselors from heaven to fly about urging people not to be afraid (as if that could have helped any)…

Why would all this inspire a festival of perfection, a celebration of abundance, an enshrining of beauty, in which we knock ourselves out to get everything as just-right as we can?

Why are we arriving breathless and spent (emotionally and financially), at the end of a shopping season, rather than stepping across to the start of a season of renewal?

Why have we been worshiping at the mall and poring over our catalogues more than we’ve kept still in our sanctuaries or searched our scriptures?

Why have we ended an old year volunteering for sacrifice in the temples of perfection?

Could it be that we are anxious?

Ancient peoples like the Mayans dreaded the final days of the ending year. As astute as they were about astronomy and chronology, each year’s ending terrified them with worry that there wouldn’t be enough time given to cross over into a new year. It was as if they feared the universe might run out of breath and, just as they needed a little more to enter the future, life might inhale and take them all into oblivion.

And what did they do? They got very, very busy. They sacrificed overtime in their temples, the blood of slaves and captured enemies poured out to the gods to ensure successful passage into a new year.

So is that it? As we near the winter solstice, are we human beings programmed to hyperactive performance in order to get it right and make it across?

If so, wow, do we ever need saving. I do. I recognize enough Mayan mania in me that I think it could be an answer to why our cultural Christmas is what it is.

If you don’t buy that, if you find that theory too primitive, let me offer another possible answer. It is that we don’t know when to stop. If a little bling and material comfort are good, surely more is better? When it comes to Christmas, don’t we all have a sweet tooth, aren’t we all ready to party? Like the sofa-full of cherubs in the L. L. Bean ad, don’t we all have our head-mounted searchlights beaming-in on the fireplace tonight?

If so, we still need to be saved. One beautiful thing Christmas Eve does is to convince us that it’s time to stop. Stop the frenetic makeover and be still before the mystery of deep change that God is about tonight. Stop our orchestrating of life, admit that we’re powerless to lay down the remote, the impulse to control, for more than an hour or so: but in this hour or so, be awestruck that God invites us into a harmony not of our own making—and will we go there?

For there is where Mary and Joseph go, and though the birth belongs to Jesus, the story’s entry point for us is the experience of these two young parents. We who need saving can watch in them how a person is converted from anxiety to trust. Mary first, facing the disintegration of her world by a pregnancy too soon, and from the angel Gabriel an invitation to trust God in her present condition, as is. Joseph next, fearing that his community, his family, his village could not contain the unexplainability of life’s getting out of order—then finding, in a dream, that same counsel from heaven: live with this, find God in this, serve God by this.

There is a gift for each of us tonight in their story. Their story of how useful to God imperfections can be. Their story of how real perfection is God’s work, ours is just being useful, and always for that our first step is to trust. By their trusting, they are the heroes in this nativity story.

What is being born in you? How do you need community, family, friends, fellow-travelers, to support you and celebrate your growing, your birthing? What heroism does this call for, and what humble but breathtaking next step may be yours to take, to stop worshiping in the temples of perfection, and to enter harmony with God?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Please Be Seated

On a snowy weekend, hear the prophet Isaiah announce God’s promise that the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus, and rejoice with joy and singing. Let’s picture our crocuses beneath their snow shrouds: I’ll guess they’d rather be here than tucked into the sands of a desert. Some of us, on the other hand, might volunteer for that assignment?

And in this season of precipitation without end, hear the apostle James exhort, “Be patient, therefore, beloved… The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” Or snows, as the case may be. Snow also plays its role in preparing the ground for eventual harvest.

I can’t hear either of these great texts without accompaniment by Brahms. He set them both to absolutely gorgeous haunting music in his German Requiem. If you have a recording of that, or can borrow one, you might find it a good counter-cultural Advent experience to listen to it. I believe I can promise you a solid hour of relief from jolly muzak about Santa, White Christmasses, and mistletoe, if you will treat yourself to what Brahms heard in these texts. Not many people will be doing that, this Advent. You will be in a select minority.

A requiem deals with death, and isn’t that an odd place to go in Advent?

Well, no. Advent is a time for hearing who the Messiah is, how he comes, and what he has come to do. Prophets like Isaiah tell us the purpose of the Messiah: “’He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

I celebrated eucharist in a circle of sixteen nursing home residents last Wednesday. Right after reading to them Matthew’s story of the correspondence between John the Baptist and Jesus, I sat down in the one empty chair in their circle (as I do here, I usually stand to speak briefly after the Gospel). I had just read our Lord’s immodest but straightforward claim of having fulfilled Isaiah’s vision of the Messiah: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them…” Something in me said, “Elvin, sit down.”

Matthew’s words helped me feel the Incarnation. God’s anointed one, Jesus, enters our estate, not in soft robes and royal palaces, but against the splintery boards of a cattle trough. Powerless he comes, and though he exercises divine power by his sacramental touch, it is to give away that power to the poor and the injured and the reviled. When the powerful take offense, his powerlessness marks the mystery of his passion. I was suddenly aware that standing in a room filled entirely by people in wheelchairs was the wrong posture to keep, to consider his claim.

So, eye to eye, I reminded them what our Gospel means. That our Lord Jesus Christ has come to dwell with the blind, the lame, the deaf, the poor, and all who are facing death. This is by his own choice, and in response to the mission entrusted to him by Father-Mother God, and because of our need. I said, “He is in the wheelchair next to you; even more, he is in the wheelchair you’re sitting in, because he is in you.”

I could not stand to say that. Perhaps I should not be standing now. Sitting is the ancient posture for preaching, and Advent suggests why.

He comes powerless. Hotels.com has not worked for him. No family influence prevents his family from reporting all to the Internal Revenue Service. State-sponsored terrorism soon hastens this family across the border, political refugees. This is no season for standing—not on ceremony, not on principle, not in strength. It is time to sit very close to the earth that yearns to be made new, redeemed from soaking up the blood of the innocent, the off-scourings of civilization, the pollutions of the proud and the upright. It is time to sit with the patience commended by James, realizing that we cannot stand without the strength of God, and we cannot have that strength except by God’s gift, and we cannot receive the gift if we cannot sit still enough to want it, and we will not want it unless God’s Spirit stirs us up like dough in a bowl which cannot rise unless first it sits.

This is what Mary and Joseph both learn. That Mary must sit with Elizabeth her cousin, as they share their months of pregnancy. Mary must sit beneath the scornful gaze of those who judge her young and foolish. Mary must sit on a donkey on a journey that out-airports any airport story you or I can tell. Mary must bear a son.

Joseph sits with his fears, resolving to break up with his fiancée, who is unexplainably pregnant. Then Joseph must sit at the feet of an angel, who in a dream instructs him in the unexplainable.

It takes a lot of sitting, for the Messiah to be revealed. Let’s not resist the sitting we have to do. Let’s expect, from those places, even those places of powerlessness, to see and hear God.

Monday, December 3, 2007

What Advent Is For

The texts for this Sunday are Isaiah 2:1-5 (“swords into plowshares”), Romans 13:11-14 (“put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh”), and
Matthew 24:36-44 (the coming of the Son of Man).

By Friday morning, I understood that if I wanted to clear away the leaves from my yard, that was the day to do it. In light—or dark—of the forecast for the weekend, that day might be the last one in the near future without wind, and with it still in the balmy 30’s I resolved “Now is the time.”

My actual Friday was conspiring not with me, but against me. Still, by 3:00 I’d pulled away from here and landed there, in my front yard, my new Toro blower and mulcher in hand, 75 feet of extension cord tethering me to the garage outlet, like a space man on a moonwalk.

Isn’t it impressive how quickly and convincingly it gets dark, at this time of year? With half my front yard done, I’d lost the day. But not the battle. On came the outdoor lights and up went my adrenalin, nudged on by the fact that we had a dinner date to keep.

On one side of us, leaf-raking neighbors had hung up their tools and gone indoors. On the other side, neighbors had pulled into the driveway, gotten out of the car, and, peering across the yard, called out, “Peter, is that you?” It didn’t take much to imagine the unspoken question, “Isn’t it time to stop?”

That was occurring to me, as well. Working with an electric mulcher, you’ve got to keep a healthy distance between the cord and the vacuum, and I will say it’s fortunate that extension cords are brightly colored. When you mulch with this gizmo, your shoulder bag needs emptying, and in the wayback of our yard, beyond where the spotlight hits, a row of spruces stood in the way. Each time, I pretty much recalled how to avoid getting slapped by a branch… But when the last drop got made, I felt relieved. It had been dawning on me (or was it dusking on me?) that works of darkness can be dangerous.

I’ve sketched this somewhat pathetic little vignette because I’m counting on it to feel rather like the physical challenge of our short season between now and Christmas Day: piles of tasks to clear out of the way, too little time to do that in. A risk of danger if we push too hard. But also this strong sense that it’s time to do what’s expected, and we like the feeling when we succeed—when we deck the halls, play Santa, cook the goose, survive the festivities, shake the cold, and not fall apart. Oh, and be joyful. And help all around us discover the true inner meaning of Christmas, as we spend high quality time with everyone.

That should work. 24 days. On your mark, get set…

And that would not be what Advent is about.

By the way, did you hear that ABC Television has cancelled Advent this year? I saw it last night on that little banner down in the lower right of the screen, where a jovial Santa announced “25 Days of Christmas”!

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “Aren’t there 12 days of Christmas? And isn’t this Advent?”

I’m guessing that Marketing had informed Programming that if 12 days were good, 25 would be better; and why wait until later? Why not have them now?”

We’d best have an answer. We’re being asked.

To help us hear what the short season of Advent is for, we have a lesson today from St. Paul. I realize that he may not be the first person you’d imagine inviting to your holiday table, but his message is timely for a season when the hours of daylight are outnumbered by those of darkness. Paul is no stranger to the dangers of darkness, which, he says, include patterns and habits of which we are ashamed. He names a few destructive behaviors—we could list our own, very possibly including, at this time of year, two from his list, quarreling and jealousy. Whatever might be in our lists, it’s possible that our shadier behaviors might all have in common the basic darkness we share: some degree of addiction, some degree of greed, some degree of fear.

Yes, Advent is about the real dangers of our darkness. Even when the addictive personality, or the greed, or the fearing isn’t our own but belongs to someone we love, someone we live with, it’s still ours to deal with. And even when that darkness isn’t under our own roof, it is a driving force behind so much that influences us: a lot of advertising, a lot of television, a lot of what happens over the World Wide Web, and a lot that happens in our checkbooks. A lot, St. Paul would say, calls us to make provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Instead, Paul preaches, recognize how far gone our darkness is and how intimately near at hand the daylight of Jesus Christ is: Choose to live by his light. Each way you do that, each time you do that, you prepare yourself and all around you to take your part in the new creation that God is making out of the stuff and energy and created beings of this tired old world.

Whatever you and I do during Advent to prepare for Christmas Day, let’s make it also fit that new creation that God is stirring out of the stuff and spirit of ordinary life. In the gifts we buy, the parties we design, the decorating we do, the money we spend, the communicating we do with friends and family, and the reaching-out we do to provide for others, let’s imagine at least one or two ways to do it so as to help those we love better serve the new order, the new day, that conserves energy, preserves species, builds peace, loves justice, honors the poor, and respects children.

Advent, tiny among the Church’s seasons but with a powerful pull if we will feel it, is for sharpening our awareness of what God is doing, and letting that awareness shape our own doing. So let me show you some tools you might take home today, to sharpen your attention to God.

“Waiting” is the title of an Advent meditation guide for students, written, I believe, by students and published by the Higher Education Ministries Arena. Perhaps you have a college student in your family who would enjoy this. Perhaps it will speak to you and you’re not a student but you’ll take one anyway!

“Living in Hope” is the title of another booklet, Advent meditations from the writing of Henri Nouwen, a gifted spiritual guide.

“A Circle of Love: Family Devotions for Advent” by Caroline Pignat, has been given by our Youth Minister, Jacki Petrino, to each family at the Advent wreath workshop this morning. There are more copies at the foot of the aisle.

“Living Light was Born One Night” by Arden Mead is a collection of Advent devotions for children. “What Shall We Name Him?” is a family Advent book of Jesus’s names, also by Arden Mead.

And calendars are in our tool kit. There’s an array of Advent calendars, the kind you hold up to the light and open a tiny window each day, and read its verse. There’s also a cartoon calendar designed to quietly evangelize from whatever bulletin board or strategic spot you might find for it in your personal orbit in your space, this week.

I’m going to close by reading to you a sample from those first of those collections of Advent meditations, from tomorrow’s entry:

“Ah, waiting. I once read that the average American will spend some astronomical number of hours of his or her life waiting: waiting in line, waiting at stop lights, waiting in the so cleverly dubbed ‘waiting room’…

“As I look back on my Advents passed, it’s no wonder that they have skated right by me. The time between lighting the candle of hope on the first Sunday of Advent and singing ‘Silent Night’ on Christmas Eve has been spent waiting, but not for God.

“In this busy season, it is so difficult to think of waiting as anything more than a waste of time and preparing as anything more than energy spent, yet it is in this season that the calendar of our faith calls us to rethink the meaning of the word ‘waiting.’

“Our journey through Advent does not allow us to stand idly, arms crossed, toes tapping impatiently. Rather, it calls us into meditation and preparation to receive Christ into our lives and into this world once again. For me, this Advent presents an opportunity to tear the pages out of my ‘same old story,’ and begin anew…”

That was written by Kelly Rand, who ends the mediation with this prayer: “Teach us to wait in new ways this Advent season. Prepare us to receive your grace and respond with love and grace.”