Saturday, December 31, 2016

On the seventh day of Christmas...

Last year I went to an ornament exchange with an owl made of twigs and other natural things
I came home with this one. Kay says this must mean something....
I’m on vacation this week, taking some cottage days as Cylia* tells me they call it around here. As I understand, this means I’m vacating the job and not generally available to invitations, but I’m not removing myself geographically. Kay and I are staying put.

I taught in New Mexico for 5 years after I got out of college. 
Chili peppers remind me of a place I love.
(These are ceramic. I found a few pair of them in a thrift store last year. 
I also have three 30-year old stuffed, cloth,ones.)
Still, it’s vacation and I’m taking a computer fast this week. So while you’re thinking “New Year” as you read this, I’m thinking about Christmas just ahead as I write this.

As a lighter – and hopefully easier – posting, I thought I’d share some pictures – just ornaments, nothing fancy – and why they matter to me.

* per my practice, Cylia is not her real name. Nor is Kay.

I bought this at a co-op in La Palma, El Salvador.
Women worked in the room behind the "showroom" painting while
their children played around them, or slept in hammocks.
I feel good that I could help support this family-friendly place with all the gifts I bought there.
This is a relic from a honeymoon visit to Frankenmuth.
The marriage is no more, and I really ought to trash this -
it's only an imprinted plastic coat over a styrofoam ball.
The picture is all crackled now, but I smile each year
when I see the music on it.

Knowing my fondness of all things Central American since my trip to El Salvador,
Kay found this and gave it to me last year.
We have to be sure we don't hang it wear it can spin as her dress is rather like a hospital gown.
We hang bells at the bottom of our tree so we can hear when
our cat Dagger tries to climb the tree or pull of decorations.
He was the terror of the tree when he was young.
I raise a glass hoping that you have seen or read something that made you smile. I'll be back in the new year. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Is It Christmas Yet?"

I’ve known people to sniff in disdain over Christmas trees, “Silver Bells”, reindeer, wreathes and ornamentations in general. “Christmas is about Jesus!” they scoff. “Anything else is idolatry.” (Or, distraction, superfluous, missing the point … you get the idea.) I don’t argue with them – it wouldn’t help if I did – but I don’t agree either. While I agree that for Christians, Christmas needs to include Christ, I also see beyond that.

First off, Christmas is an excuse for non-Christians to celebrate. While part of me doesn’t really like their jumping on our holy day as a way to buy and sell and party excessively, I think it’s potentially healthy and good anytime people pause in the daily things and get together with the ones they care about. You may have heard me talk before about this, but I strongly believe that – in general – people are designed to be in relationship. We may not be very good at it, but we’re better together. These days we’ve isolated ourselves in so many ways that almost anytime we create a moment to connect is a good thing.

Secondly, we are embodied creatures. True, the apostle Paul wrote at length about body and soul as if they could and should be separated. But! to put this in context, we need to remember that Paul was a product of his Greco-Roman upbringing. This type of duality was a popular Greek idea but it wasn’t a Jewish one (and so, not one that Jesus promoted.)

Ancient Jewish people seemed to get that, as humans, we’re a complete package. They understood about sin and failing for follow God’s lead as much as anyone. But they didn’t blame it on “the body”. They accepted that they’d grieved God and sought to return to God’s favor, but without that attempt at artificial separation of their “humanity”. This holistic approach seems like a healthy way to do things.

All of that said, this weekend is a time to celebrate God with our entire being. In what ways are you doing this?

I offer the following as snapshots of small things that give me joy during the Christmas season. I’ll be at church most of today and then tomorrow morning as we celebrate again the birth of Jesus. At home in the week following, I’ll listen to an eclectic assortment of Christmas music, eat pumpkin bread and smoked salmon (not at the same sitting), play games, watch George Bailey and Elizabeth Lane, and simply be.

A favorite Christmas Eve read-aloud when my kids were younger was Is It Christmas Yet? I may have even mentioned it before. On Christmas Eve day, Pinky finds family members busily working on pre-Christmas activities, learning along the way more about this special day, and each times asking, “Is it Christmas yet?” until finally hearing, “Yes, now it is Christmas!”

I encourage you to pay attention to what makes up your Christmas as well. If (hopefully) this includes worship, then make time for it. Yet my prayer for you is that whether it’s Christmas worship, gazing at the tree or out the window, singing, or being silly with loved ones that you celebrate by doing and being those things. And giving glory to God.

Blessed Christmas, everyone!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent 4a – We're Almost There ... And Where Is That Exactly?

Christmas Eve is still seven days away, yet this is part of our lectionary reading this weekend. Since Advent is about preparing – as in “Get ready! He’s almost here!” – I suppose it makes sense. Still what are we to make of this, today?

My thought is that since it takes a bit of effort to wrap our minds around the  Christmas story, let’s start early. I mean, with an angel saying, “You’re going to have God’s son”, the whole virgin getting pregnant thing, and an engagement almost called off but for heavenly intervention... Then, there are foreign visitors following a star, an evil king, genocide, more dreams and angels, and this is only one gospel-writer’s input!

I love Christmas and I love Advent. But I’ve wondered how much of the stories we treasure are products of the gospel-writers’ minds and hearts, as they put their all into  conveying to their readers that Jesus’ life – birth through death, and beyond – was of God. Entirely. 100%.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m Christian – except perhaps by fundamentalists’ standards – and I fully accept that Jesus’ life was dedicated to showing God’s Way to everyone who’d pay attention. And whether or not Jesus was King David’s 28th generation grandson (which seems suspect when Luke claims 42 generations between them and with different names, to boot) …or Mary was a virgin or Jesus looked a lot like Joseph … or magi actually gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh are, while interesting, just not the point.

What matters, what Matthew was trying to communicate, is that Jesus was faithful – in the manner of David and some others in that royal lineage. He came from God, the whole of his life was dedicated to living for God, and he was worthy of being hailed as king. Indeed he is our Lord.

If all the miraculous language works for you, if your Christmas or your faith would be shaken without it, then by all means accept it. Treasure it even. But please practice grace with those others for whom it doesn’t work. Because if we take away the miraculous that for some people is actually a deterrent to faith, we still have One who is worthy of dedicating our lives to follow. We still have our Lord.

That’s part of the awesomeness of God’s action through Jesus. Even if we strip away the miracles, we’re still left with One who followed God all his days, even to the point of execution, all so that we’d come to realize how very much God cares for us, and how important it is for us to live in God’s hope of wholeness for the earth God loves so much.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Advent 3a – Hang on, God's Comin'

Christmas happened (and happens) because God loves – loves all of us so much that God will do simply anything to reach us. The desired response is that we pass that same love onto the rest of “the world”. Some people don’t get this. They believe that only those who accept Christ (or Muhammad, or whoever) are “in”. But, speaking to Christians, I challenge you to find anything in John 3:16, that much-referenced-by-conservatives verse, which even hints at exclusivity.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.
Look at the second half of the verse, you say? Yes, it does say those who believe are graced. What it doesn’t say, doesn’t even suggest, is that the ones who don’t believe won’t receive similar grace. Not at all! They’re not being mentioned shouldn’t be read as something that’s not there. This is about God loving, people believing, and it working out for all of them. Period.

There are lots of places in scripture where we could totally get off track and go in a wrong direction. Case in point? centuries of people having an image of a punitive God meting out punishment.
Say to those who are panicking:
    “Be strong! Don’t fear!
    Here’s your God,
        coming with vengeance;
         with divine retribution
God will come to save you.” Isaiah 35:4
It’d easy to do, especially when we take verses like this one and pull them apart from what surrounds them. Keeping two things in mind helps:
  1. Much of the Bible, especially the Older Testament, was written by individuals trying to make sense of who or what God was, who they were as a people, and what God wanted from them.
    This wasn’t about God steering pencils as people took heavenly dictation, but about faithful people trying to discern God’s way. And, second,
  2. Context is everything. 
Take the example above. It sounds like God’s taking my side against all comers. But let’s remember that the writers are products of their times. (I say writers because Isaiah was written over a period of 200 years.) By the time they were writing, people'd had some time to grow into the idea of having one God – a crazy-modern concept – but like their contemporaries, they still believed their god was vengeful. All gods were vengeful. And of course, theirs was on their side  when they’re taken into exile. That’s just how gods worked!

Picture God banging their head against a wall. Okay, maybe that’s too weird, but God knows, even if ancient biblical writers didn’t, that this isn’t God's way. So in good time, God has us meet Jesus who works to teach people about God's justice. It was there all along; just look at the verses that follow.
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.
Then the lame will leap like the deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless will sing...
The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
    with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
    grief and groaning will flee away. 35:5-6a, 10 
This chapter of Isaiah is part of the rotation of texts read during Advent. The writer talks about being exiled and taken far from home. He doesn't mince words. "We've messed up and there are consequence. It'll be hard, but be strong. Hold tight. It will happen. God will take care of us. In the end, it'll all work out.” Only he says it in very old poetic Hebrew. When we read it this way, it makes sense that it's an Advent text.

Where in your life do you need to be strong and hold tight?
Are you questioning how it can possibly work out?

Maybe this week we could each practice resting in confidence that God's seen it all. Maybe we can't imagine being on the other side of our bad situations, but God's on it, and in the end, we will be able to look back and say, "Hallelujah! We made it."

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Advent 2a – Why Not All Year?

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. Isaiah 11:3b-4a

A couple of times this past week, someone mentioned that people are kinder as we approach Christmas. One of those times, another person added that it’s like we’re allowed, and expected, to be more caring. I think she’s right. Each December, we get messages from within and from the world around us to share goodwill.

I’m speculating that “celebrating” Christmas grew concurrently with colonization. Europeans took over much of the rest of the world, purportedly to save native peoples from themselves. As they/we imposed our religion on these nations, colonizers’ customs were, at least in some instances, incorporated into the European practices. Making a long story very short, “the holiday season” roots were planted. And, my, how they’ve flourished. Now besides making a big holiday deal out of Christmas – as opposed to Holy Day – we’ve added Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and likely other December celebrations I’m unaware of.

Celebration is a good thing. We need moments/days/months when we cease our business-as-usual, lift our heads, and glorify our maker. Doing this, we become part of something bigger than ourselves. And by stopping, we face the truths that 1) we can stop and 2) a lot of what we do in our lives is not as important as we believe it is.

Celebrating is good for us, and those around us. We’re more generous in times of celebration. (Think of the prodigal dad roasting a fatted calf when his wayward son came home.) Anticipation and social expectation lead us to share our resources more freely than at any other time of year. Not only that but nonprofits know that many of us still have planning giving to do before year’s end, so our mailboxes overflow with pleas for support.

My question is, why only now? Why not all year?

At our church conference on Monday, we were preparing to vote on whether or not to begin a needed capital campaign. Part of the proposal stated that a certain amount of the money raised would be given to a particular local nonprofit. People asked questions and offered their viewpoints, but Bob’s* question struck me. “If this [giving] is so important, why don’t we have a line in our budget for regular support?” Why, indeed?

Advent, these four weeks before Christmas, are historically a time of repentance (we’ve largely gotten away from that) and preparation. For most people these days, preparation includes decorating, shopping, and music. Only for some is it about self-examination, but that’s the original hope. And that’s what we need more of.

It’s not too late to join a group for some conversation about what you should be noticing this Advent or to do some quiet introspection. Notice, make a plan, then act on it.

Advent blessing.
*Not his real name