Thursday, December 11, 2014

An irreverent reverent look at lights

This week, I want to offer an irreverent, reverent look at lights: you know, the Christmas lights that people put up on their houses this time of year. 

I love looking at neighborhood lights. Doesn't make much difference if it is over-sized and gaudy reindeer scenes or a subtle and classy one-candle-per-window display.

The irreverent thought about neighborhood lights is this: I like to think of them as little "up yours" to darkness. 

It's no coincidence people put lights on their houses this time of year: December 21 is the shortest day (i.e., the longest night) of the year. Each day since what, June, there's been a little more darkness and a little less light. These lights seem to say "enough is enough, I miss the light, and if mother nature won't bring it earlier, we will!"  

It's as though we're fighting back, saying, "give it your best shot, Daylight Saving Time! Bring it on, darkness, sadness, despair, hopelessness. I'm putting LIGHTS on out there!" 

One evening late last week, I was out walking the dog and I noticed a house that had all these luminaries set along their front sidewalk.  I thought maybe they were having a party that night -- that the family had put them out there for a special occasion. But a week later, they're still there, and all lit up, and presumably have been each night. I got to thinking: the root of the word "luminary" is "lumen" from which we get "illuminate." And that family wants to illuminate things. They want to bring light into the darkness. 

Which brings me to the reverent thought: did you know the Gospel of John doesn't give us the Christmas birth story we're accustomed to -- you know the one where we get Mary and Joseph in the manger and the shepherds and angels and all? The Gospel of John doesn't give us a baby Jesus at all. 

Rather, it starts out "in the beginning," and we're told that in the beginning, there was The Word. This Word was with God and was, in fact, God. And the Word -- Jesus -- is described as coming into the world this way: 

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." 

These are SO much more than lights in a front yard. 

They are a "primal yalp" from those of us created in the image of God saying, "up yours, darkness! Let there be light." 

They're a reminder that when the days are shortest and the darkness lasts the longest, God, and God's people say, "let light shine."  

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Third Way at Christmastime

 About ten years ago, I used to write a weekly column called "Faithfully Yours" that ran in two newspapers. People would write in with whatever spiritual or religious questions were on their minds, and I'd offer my thoughts and sometimes advice.

For this week's message, I'm re-running, with modifications, one that ran around Christmastime. I hope you find it helpful.

Q:  I really want to feel "the Christmas spirit" but have had an increasingly harder time seeing through the malls and the parties and the pressures of the season.  And Christmas morning seems like it is all focused on presents. I don't want to sound like Scrooge, but am I the only one who is glad when Christmas is finally over?

A: No, you're not the only one who feels that way. For years, I've conducted a workshop called Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season, based on the book by that title, and I've heard hundreds of people express similar frustrations -  "Christmas has become too commercial....too materialistic...too pressured."

In the words of Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock-Staeheli, co-authors of the book,  "Christmas has become a long and elaborate preparation for an intense gift-opening ritual."

It's helpful to remember that Christmas wasn't always this way.

In fact, the way we observe Christmas here in the United States is rare. And it's a very recent phenomenon.

As little as sixty years ago, Christmas in this country was celebrated much like we now celebrate Thanksgiving: an unhurried, non-materialistic holiday centered around food and family. For hundreds of years, right up until the mid 1900's, people did not begin preparing for Christmas until about December 15th. And in the past (and still in other parts of the world), there was/is a recognition that December 25 is the first day of Christmas, Christmas being understood as a season lasting until January 6th, which is the "twelfth day of Christmas," or Epiphany Day.

Ah, how things have changed in only one lifetime! Today - as it's common to lament - we get our first sales catalogs in the mail before Halloween. Bu mid-December we're told HURRY IN for LAST-MINUTE savings. And twelve days of Christmas? No -- on December 26th, there's an asteroid-size stack of newspaper ads in our driveway already pushing "post-Christmas" sales!

Part of me is frustrated over and even offended about the way commerce and materialism has hijacked Christmas, and wants to join in the lament.

But another part of me recognizes the danger you name, that of becoming Scrooges. And as a minister, nor do I want to become a "Pastor Lindley."

Pastor Lindley is the fictional character in Phillip Gully's book, Christmas in Harmony:

"Though he was nice, Pastor Lindley had a few alarming tendencies, chief among them his sermons encouraging us to remember the reason for Christmas - that it wasn't about presents and cookies, but about God sending his son to be with us. I feared my parents might take his message to heart. I had nightmares about running down the stairs on Christmas morning to a tree with nothing under it, and my father sitting in his chair, a Bible balanced on his lap, smiling and saying, "your mother and I have decided that this year we're just going to thank God for the gift of his son, because that's the only gift we really need."

Truth be told, as a child, I loved counting down the days to Christmas, and I could hardly wait to see what Santa had brought. I loved, and still love, the somewhat-controlled frenzy of unwrapping presents -- "whose turn is it? who is this from? who hasn't opened a present in a while?" and I loved, and still love, the way new toys and new clothes seem to represent fresh starts and new beginnings. Pastor Lindley may be right that Jesus is the only gift we really need...but still, it's nice to get and give gifts to each other as well.  

So I think energy is best spent finding a third way, a way that helps us avoid the empty  commercialism and hurry of consumerism, and yet does not turn us into sappy Pastor Lindley's or Uncle Scrooges.

Finding that third way begins by remembering what the "first Christmas" - the day of Jesus' birth - was like.

First of all, it was full of hustle and bustle. We tend to romanticize the manger scene, making it seem fairy-tale like: Mary and Joseph sit adoring a glowing little baby Jesus, who is surrounded by adoring shepherds and cattle. But the Bible tells a very different story: A young, confused girl gives birth to her first child far away from home.

Second, the story is one of surprise. The child born to Mary is understood to be The Lord of the Universe entering the world - but not as we might expect God to come (in might or power or full-grown majesty), but as a fetus and then a naked, newborn, vulnerable infant. God's power is shown in vulnerability.

Third, the story is relevant to our daily lives.We tend to think the Christmas story doesn't have anything to do with the realpolitik of our actual lives. But the Bible tells us that shortly after Jesus' birth, Joseph and Mary must hurry from Bethlehem and flee to Egypt and live there as refugees because a paranoid king is plotting their baby's death - and he does in fact send soldiers to murder all newborn males in and around Bethlehem.

And yet!

And yet that same story of hustle, surprise, and realpolitik is announced by the angels as "good news of a great joy."

And so there's a "third way of Christmas" I'd suggest. It's one that rejects, on the one hand, the over-commercialism and also rejects, on the other hand, the over-sentimentalizing of Christmas.

This third way at Christmastime is to remember that we rejoice this time of year not because we've had a good or successful year, not because of the gifts we give or receive, and not even because we're surrounded by loved ones.

We rejoice at Christmas because God is near. Because God has entered in. Because God chooses to be part of -- not apart from - our daily, messy, ordinary, confused lives.

The third way of Christmas is to remember that God enters into life not in some ideal form, but as we actually know it and are actually living it. The third way of Christmas is to remember that God can be found, not away from the hustle and bustle and schlock, but in the very midst of it. The third way of Christmas -- available to anyone, anywhere, at any time -- is to remember that God enters in, and is near.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

This Thanksgiving Day...

Thanksgiving Day is a favorite holiday for many people.

I suspect a big reason is the simplicity of Thanksgiving.

Yes, the consumer orgy called "Black Friday" is spreading into Tuesday and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, and even into Thanksgiving Day itself. (Which really is obscene, if you think about it for a minute: the one day set aside to give thanks for what we already have, we go out and buy more of what we don't have?! Ugh.)

But for most of us, Thanksgiving Day remains, for the most part, a day for the simple joy of getting together with family or friends for a meal.

Even if your way of observing the day involves stress - travel, complicated recipes, or customs you've added or inherited - chances are the day itself is one of simple pleasures: cooking, eating, relaxing, watching the Thanksgiving Day parade and/or football, catching up.

This Thanksgiving Day, I hope you'll stop at some point and do what the day calls us to do: give thanks. (It might help to recall that "thanksgiving" is a compound word. We "give" "thanks.")

When we "give" something, it implies a giver, and a receiver. There is a transaction going on: someone is giving something, and someone is receiving something.

The transaction might between you and another person (such as your spouse, or your child, or your parent, or your friend) or it might be between you and a whole group of people (such as your church, or the men and women of the armed forces who are observing Thanksgiving far away from home, or teachers), or it may be between you and God.

Thinking about thanks-giving as a transaction helps us to make an important distinction I've written about many times before: the difference between "feeling grateful" and "giving thanks."

The classic biblical teaching on this distinction is in the gospel of Luke, in which ten men are healed of leprosy. In this story, Jesus tells the ten lepers to present themselves to the religious authorities, and as they went on their way, they were made clean. All ten were probably grateful. But only one of them gave thanks.

Giving thanks means moving from an ethereal, vague feeling or emotion within us to a tangible, visible, concrete action.

The leper who gave thanks stopped doing what he was doing, went out of his way, made an effort.   So the elements of giving thanks that make thanksgiving different than mere gratitude are:

1)      Stopping what you are doing 
2)      Going out of your way/inconveniencing yourself temporarily 
3)      Taking some concrete, tangible, visible (or at least audible) action.   

Stopping what you are doing means pausing amid the activity of Thanksgiving Day. It means deliberately stopping what you are doing for the purpose of giving thanks.

Going out of your way or inconveniencing yourself means getting everyone's attention by tapping on a glass, or pulling someone aside so you can have a moment alone. It means sitting down with pen and paper, or finding a quiet moment for a phone call.

Taking some concrete, tangible, visible (or at least audible) action means offering a few words - they do not need to be eloquent, only heart-felt - prior to eating your feast. It means putting both your hands on someone's shoulders, waiting for eye contact, and saying, "I appreciate you so much and I hardly ever say so, but thank you."

It means supporting our veterans who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress or Traumatic Brain Injury by supporting organizations such as Operation VetsHaven, and in so doing go beyond "thank you for your service" to getting veterans Individual Counseling, Legal advice, Financial Advice, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Career Development services.

It means writing a note to a teacher who had a big impact on you, or who is having one on your child. 

So: have a happy Thanksgiving. AND make someone else's happy, by giving thanks.