Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas Sabbath

December 29, 2013

Dear friends,

Today is Christmas Sabbath for me.   

You won’t find “Christmas Sabbath” on any calendar other than the one on my desk, however. Christmas Sabbath is my own invention of an annual time (usually the first Sunday following Christmas Day) in which I review my observation of Advent just past in preparation for the season of Epiphany that is approaching. This year I am doing my review in this semi-public forum, thinking that perhaps you will join me in a quiet backward look before we enter into the new year.

First candle [Hope]:

For me, Advent this year marked a deep awareness of the essential function of hope. Without hope the loss and disappointment that inevitably emerges through the process of living distorts our awareness that life itself remains an incredible gift. Each day is a gift, whatever its contents may be, but we can recognize the gift only in proportion to the hope through which we grasp it. Hopelessness (and its popular substitute, wishful thinking) extinguishes our capacity both for gratitude and generosity.

I am grateful for the renewed awareness of the importance of hope that I have experienced this Advent. This next year I intend to reject wishful thinking for the tricky impostor it is and—as God empowers me—pay careful attention instead to the nurture and growth of hope, recognizing hope to be an essential skill-set of the soul.

Second candle [Peace]:

In my personal life, this year has also been a time of renewed emphasis on the Shalom of God, that peace that we are given, again, as a gift of God. The gift of God’s peace is not, as Jesus Himself pointed out, anything like the peace that the world gives. I have long known that, or at least have understood something about that essential difference. This year, however, I have been struck both with a renewed sense of the essential human need to live daily out of the Shalom of God along with a deepened understanding of my responsibility to guard and keep the gift of Shalom.

Said simply, I had a “light bulb moment” in which I began to see that God is faithful in giving me the gift of peace, but I am regrettably careless in my practice of absentmindedly living in a way that causes me to lose the peace of God, some days, to my embarrassment, shortly after my quiet morning coffee. God gives, but I must assume careful stewardship of the peace I have been given.

I confess that I do not experience a continuing sense of God’s presence, nor clearly hear the Spirit’s voice when the Shalom of God has been displaced by distraction, anxiety, and the threat of invading chaos. This year I mean to pay conscious, focused attention to maintaining and living out the peace of heart that God so graciously gives.

Third candle [Joy]:

This year has been filled with many moments of great joy. 

In thinking about joy, I am challenged again by the difficulty in writing clearly about the essentials for a sustainable faith. We simply cannot live in productive relationship with God and ourselves without hope, peace, and joy. While this truth can be stated straightforwardly in simple language, the practical discipline of maintaining a life foundation of hope, peace and joy remains difficult to describe.

This year, however, I have become more aware of one aspect of joy that lies more directly under my control. In a way somewhat parallel to my insight about “keeping” the gift of peace, I have been impressed this Advent with the necessity for “making space” for joy. Busyness and over-scheduling fill life spaces on a regular basis (holiday times are not in fact any exception). We are left with the disastrous result of “no room” in the inner inn of ourselves to house the fragile, gossamer presence of joy.

As we live into holiday activities we often sense that we are happy, but we are less aware that happiness and joy are not exactly the same thing. We can (and do) invest significant time and resources to make ourselves happy, but our effort to achieve happiness does not automatically insure joy. In one sense, we cannot command joy’s presence. What we can do, however, is make a space where joy can find safe shelter. Perhaps an example will make this clearer. 

God (no surprise here) has been in the consequences of my decrease in physical energy this Advent. Lack of energy has necessitated less activity; less activity has led to greater quiet and (inadvertently) to creation of waiting space into which joy could come. My nephew and wife together with their sons and their families (and two dogs) came to share holidays with me. There was excitement, shopping trips, too little time, too much wonderful food and treats, and great happiness in our time together. Yet on the evening after they returned to their homes something significant occurred.

I sat for a quiet time, aware of the silence and the newly empty house. The space was marked by the candlelight and the glow of the tree, now filled by friendly disorder, scattered ribbons and crumpled paper. Annie was curled up asleep, her new toys abandoned on the couch and under the table, with one ball under a chair. The work of clearing up will just have to wait until tomorrow, I thought. Then, sitting there, I unexpectedly experienced a powerful awareness of joy—a sense of the beauty of the lights, the safety of the warm room, the strength of family and the overwhelming presence of  the God Who had run the risk of vulnerability in order to come into this world to be family with me, to share my journey home. 

“Joy in this world now,” my heart sang, “Joy is come to this small unimportant space, this fleeting moment of time. What I sense filling this room and my heart is joy—the gift of God’s presence in this space, in this place in my heart and in this space of my life.” 
I intend this next year to cultivate the discipline of making space for joy.

Fourth candle [Love]:

“What did you get for Christmas?” a young friend asked.  “Love,” I replied. 

I remain overwhelmed this year with the unmerited, incredible unexpected evidences of love with which God and friends have packed every chink and cranny of my life and heart. Such love lies beyond language to say.

My understanding of the principles that govern sustainable faith, however, includes the rule of investment: it is reasonable to expect that the person receiving much will, in turn, give with a generosity that reflects both grace and gratitude for the gift received.

I am asking God this year to increase my capacity and willingness to give to others exponentially the love I have been given. Join me, anyone?

Thinking that I want to be an Epiphany this year, to be a “place” in which people who watch my journey may experience love passed on and multiplied.

See you next week.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Peanut butter sandwiches on the way to Bethlehem

December 22, 2013

Dear Friends,

Each year in Advent I re-read John Shea’s poem in which he recounts his daughter Sharon’s story of the birth of Jesus.   

Sharon's Christmas prayer

She was five,
sure of the facts,
and recited them
with slow solemnity
convinced every word
was revelation.
She said
they were so poor
they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
to eat
and they went a long way from home
without getting lost. The lady rode
a donkey, the man walked, and the baby
was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable
with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)
but the Three Rich Men found them
because a star lited the roof.
Shepherds came and you could
pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was borned.
And do you know who he was?
Her quarter eyes inflated
to silver dollars.
The baby was God.
And she jumped in the air
whirled around, dove into the sofa
and buried her head under the cushion
which is the only proper response
to the Good News of the Incarnation.
– John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected

Trusting that even if you have not followed Sharon’s whole-body response to the Good News of the Incarnation that you have experienced a week rich in hope, peace, and joy.

Have a Christmas filled with awe-struck awareness of God’s love.

See you next week.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peace by choice not circumstance

December 15, 2013

Dear friends,

In this past week, the second week of Advent waiting, we have traditionally watched for the coming One by the light of the Peace candle. Events here, however, have underscored the tragic absence of the peace for which we wait.

An intelligent high-achieving senior in a local high school entered the school carrying a shotgun, declaring his intention to kill the teacher who coached his debate team. In the chaos that followed, the targeted teacher was not injured, but several students were injured and one student was critically wounded by a shot to the head. The young man then apparently took his own life. 

Editorials and news broadcasters have noted the irony that the shooting occurred shortly after the recent recall of three legislators who had supported increased gun control legislation.

The debate regarding action we should/should-not take as a community to limit easy availability of guns will continue, I am sure, and will likely be carried out at an even higher decibel level. I am not interested in initiating that debate with you readers here, however. I want to raise what I believe to be an even more difficult issue.

As people share their lives with me, the problem of peace appears to be an internal one. To me, there is a powerful straight-forward correlation between lack of peace within and (logically) a resulting absence of peaceful behaviors expressed externally. If I am not at peace with myself it seems logical to expect that I will not act peaceably in relationships with others.

By-passing the heated public debate, I want to approach the issue of violence from a smaller, more personal point of view. In my opinion, collective peace is something that we can all work toward by commonsense work on ourselves. 

In my faith, I do this in the hopeful context that He, the Prince of Peace, will sometime come and set things right in our wounded world. But in a more general sense, I believe that communal peace results from peace-keeping practices that we undertake individually within ourselves regardless of the circumstances. Peace keeping is an individual internal discipline, a process in which we undertake to keep peace within ourselves despite the injustice, the hate and violence that at times erupts in the world around us. 

So to speak, we all need first to pass internal legislation that governs ourselves. We need to hold ourselves accountable to an internal code that requires us to live at peace within ourselves so that we may act peaceably and so become peace-makers in a world of violence and despair.

As you know, I approach this difficult business of living at peace with myself and, consequently, with others out of a faith perspective. 

Jesus said, interestingly enough, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you . . . . Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” [John 14:27] 

When we look at the text carefully something challenging emerges. Jesus gives us peace, but commands us then to live out of a peaceful, untroubled, unfearful inner world.  It is, in a general sense of the text, a faithful paraphrase if I say to myself (and to you), “I have been given the gift of peace, but I have to keep the peace I’ve been given. Absent-minded misplacing of the peace, losing my peace through careless choices, choosing to act in ways that disrupt this gift of peace—none of these things are acceptable. Rather, I must use this peace as the foundation of intentional daily living so that, one day, Jesus can say of me, 'Blessed are you, Gay, for you have lived-out peacemaking as a child of God.' ” [Cf. Matt. 5:9]

How do you keep the peace, the Shalom of God that you have been given? If you lose it, how do you get it back?

Thinking with you this week, that as we light the third candle of Advent, the candle of Joy, that there is a profound connection here. Just as hope leads us to peace, peace, in turn leads to Joy.

Waiting with you, in hope, peace and joy.

See you next week.