Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who would have expected that?

December 18, 2011

Shalom, good friends,

Life-long I have loved candles, lit and unlit. However, there was a potentially dangerous moment last year when long after guests had departed and I was asleep a forgotten candle guttered out and fell into the greens on the mantle. This year as I began to prepare the house for Advent, the memory of my morning wake-up call when I discovered what had happened returned with unpleasant clarity.

After some thought, I reluctantly acknowledged my growing forgetfulness. I eventually acknowledged as well that potentially at least I could give my guardian angel a more restful Christmas if I decorated in a way that did not require Divine around-the-clock oversight to prevent the house from burning down. With half-hearted enthusiasm I embraced what I considered to be virtual candlelight, and ordered some pillar “candles” for the mantle, “candles” that were fueled not by a burning wick but by batteries. I admit I was grumpily expecting a poor second-best.

I confess. I was wrong. Virtual is beautiful, more beautiful than I could imagine. And these candles have their own reality as well as their own beauty and light. A guest when preparing to leave one evening attempted to blow one out.

Miss Annie and I sat last night for a quiet while and watched the candles "burn." Their soft flickering glow filtered through the tall ivory pillars nestled safely among the greens. Half-asleep, I thought how like God to use on-line shopping and “virtual” battery-powered candles to help me consider again the mystery of the incarnation.

Who could have thought that God’s plan to come and be with us had any potential for beauty in it at all? After all, coming into the human existence through a peasant girl’s socially-suspicious pregnancy does not meet our ideas of nice or appropriate. And think of the risk: a first birth with a young inexperienced mother attended only by animals and what was surely a somewhat shaken new husband—nothing very nice, or, from the human view-point, nothing very safe either. Better, we think, for God to have chosen the “real” thing—the birth of the King in a palace with all the comfort and care that royalty could command.

Still there was an unexpected beauty in that scene—there was music, and the brilliance of angel-voices to bring heaven’s welcome to that child and to tell earth God's good news. There were the astonished shepherds, unshaven, unbathed ordinary humans who came in faithful witness to that special birth and found with excited joy the child the angels had told them was cradled there.

The event that divided time for all eternity occurred in a humanly unimaginable, un-nice, inappropriate place. There was danger and labor. But when morning came to that most unlikely place, and rest came at last to that exhausted father and mother, there was a new-born baby—Immanuel, God with us in our human form.

Grateful with you for God’s willingness and ability to bring light and life to us in ways beyond our ability to anticipate or foresee.

Have a blessed Christmas season in which you become aware in new ways of God’s presence and love.


I will not see you next week (Christmas Day); I will, however, see you January 1. Blessings. G

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What if Bethlehem wasn't nice?

December 11, 2011

Dear Friends,

Thank you, Anne Amili, for your insightful comment. I think that our painful reluctance to sacrifice niceness for goodness says something about our human conflict between appearance and reality. In our lifelong struggle to develop true goodness, we often toy with the idea that maybe if we can make ourselves look “good” we have made ourselves “good.” Wish it were that easy—and, frankly, I think God wishes that too.

The conflict between appearance and reality in the cultural observation of “winter holidays” troubles me deeply. I find it difficult to explain clearly the core of my discomfort, however.

It is an obvious fact that the culture at large does not embrace an orthodox understanding of Advent. While I wish that were not so, nevertheless I think that those who for whom the holidays are not faith-based must in our diverse society be free to celebrate in the fashion that seems desirable to them. It seems wise for us to remember that it is for Christians that Jesus is the reason for the season—not for everybody.

But it is not my friends who celebrate for non-orthodox reasons that raise my Scrooge-like responses. It is the saccharine niceness that creeps into quasi-orthodox expressions of the Advent story that tempts me to an unladylike UNnice response.

Last week on a brief outing I overheard two women talking. They were examining a crèche on display carefully out of hand’s reach in a closed glass case. The expensive porcelain replica of the Holy Family was exquisite—the blond hair and fair skin of the young mother, the quiet dignity in the father’s brooding face, and the baby, wrapped in a blue blanket, sleeping quietly, a small chubby fist tucked under his chin. The little cherub angel watching by the baby’s cradle had red hair. His wings were somewhat tousled (likely the wind he faced while flying in from heaven to attend the birth had disturbed his feathers). In his hands he held a miniature harp whose tiny strings were gold.

“Isn’t that beautiful?” the one woman said.

“It’s so sweet,” the second woman responded. “It’s just so sweet—I just love it.”

At that moment I had a nearly ungovernable impulse to say, “The lectionary reading includes that unnice John the Baptist person who had terrible manners and wore terrible clothes and ate unbelievably terrible food. Wonder why God included that distinctly un-nice character in the story, and why we often leave him out?”

Fortunately, before I opened my mouth, the Holy Spirit reminded me (rather forcefully) that I had no way of knowing whether the women knew the story, or, if they knew it, if they regarded it as binding truth for their lives. It was no time for me to say anything.

It was, however, time for me to think. What is it that makes us want to make the Advent story “nice”? What if God’s goodness in gifting us with The Messiah required Him to risk being "unnice"?

Remembering with you that understanding the goodness of God made real in the Advent story requires seeing past the cultural coat of niceness with which it is covered.

See you next week.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Nice or good?

December 4, 2011

Dear friends,

The old hotel has a fabled history. It shared the early days of the city’s tumultuous beginning as a mining town. Now it sits sedately on its oddly angled corner, neighboring companionably with its old friend the Methodist Church. The two of them remain elegant brownstone anomalies among the steel and glass towers that have grown up around them.

Among the traditions observed at the hotel is Holiday High Tea.

Arrival for High Tea itself retains a bit of old ceremony. The doorman [in splendid uniform, of course] solemnly commits the care of one’s automobile to a valet. Then with an official welcome, he carefully shepherds his charges through the heavy revolving door into the formal old foyer. Even when suffering from what must have seemed to that old building to be frivolous holiday finery, the beautiful space of that old entry managed somehow to retain its discreet gravitas: we had arrived at an important place for an important event.

Directly off the foyer (walking with sedate dignity, of course), we entered an equally dignified dining room now glowing with small lights and ribboned wreaths, pots of poinsettias a thread of red and gold at the edge of the greenery on the stairs. There an elegant hostess carefully seated elegantly dressed people at elegantly set tables where they were served with elegantly prepared tea—cucumber sandwiches, scones, tiny tea cakes with elegant frosting, and carefully brewed tea in thin china cups.

One does not hurry at High Tea.

Grandmothers carefully monitored small girls in velvet dresses. Mothers and adult daughters observed High Tea while they talked about shopping and holiday events. At the same time, without words, they celebrated family through the High Tea liturgy that played out the traditions and values of a vanished time. A small number of men were present too, of course--grandfathers, fathers escorting daughters to a special holiday treat, employers with assistants and secretaries being gifted with time and tea in an old and courtly environment. And business colleagues came—men and women treating themselves to brief holiday refuge from the coffee and corporate efficiency of their business world.

High Tea was a holiday adventure for me, the generous gift of a friend.

I shall enjoy the gift often in years to come, revisiting the beauty of that old building and the elegant memory of High Tea.

The gift left me with more than a memory, however. It left me with a question.

How does the environment in which we interact shape our relationships?

In the beauty and elegance of that time at High Tea, was I watching good people, or nice people with good manners? Can one distinguish between the two?

Do two nice people with elegant manners automatically produce a good relationship?

When Paul wrote the Galatian Christians that the presence of the Spirit of God within them would produce goodness, somehow I don’t think Paul meant that the fruit of the Spirit was simply an increase in nice manners.

While I firmly believe that good manners are one of the by-products of faith-based living, I do not think that good manners are necessarily evidence of goodness as a trait of character.

I understand and accept that good manners are a prerequisite for attendance at High Tea. I also fervently wish for an increased abundance of good manners at many other functions in life that I am required to attend. Nevertheless, I make a distinction between obedience to directions from Emily Post and conformity with goals of the Spirit in terms of the person God means for me to become.

Thinking with you about goodness as something essentially different from those hallmark social behaviors that make us acceptable participants at High Tea.

See you next week.