Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Christmas’

Light Overcoming

John 18:33-37, John 1

Thanksgiving is over. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have ceased. Giving Tuesday came to an end.

Now what?

Advent.

Whaaaaat?

Yes, the season of Advent began on November 29th for Western Christians. I have to say Western Christians, because the season of Advent is indeed a Western creation, and it would not be a stretch to say that our observance of Advent in the U.S. is its own thing, too.

We actually shouldn’t assume that Christians around the world observe Advent at all. In fact, Eastern Christians [the first ones, mind you], don’t observe Advent at all. Instead, they observe what’s called the Nativity Fast. Depending on which Eastern culture we’re talking about, Christians abstain from eating any meats or animal-related products. In essence, the Nativity Fast puts one on a vegan diet. Some Eastern Christians fast for 40 days [an important number, of course, and the same number of days in the season of Lent]. They usually start the fast in mid November. A strict fast occurs on December 24th—no food is consumed, if physically possible for people.

The emphasis on fasting is not about depriving the body of nutrients or some kind of punishment. Fasting is a spiritual act, one that humbles the person doing the fasting. It allows someone to make deep connections between her body, mind, and spirit. Fasting is supposed to help us appreciate the food provided to us. Also during the Nativity Fast, Christians are encouraged to give of themselves to others—in the form of financial resources, time, or talents. In essence, Eastern Christians’ Nativity Fast is similar to Muslims’ observance of Ramadan.

I bring this up, because each November and December I feel that our U.S. version of Advent has become more and more of a race and less and less of a spiritual observance. I’m not going to spend a lot of time focusing on why that is—I think you can make your own conclusions just based on observation. But I do hope to provide you with some opportunities to claim Advent as a time to reflect spiritually and to focus on treating people and all living things with respect, love, and compassion. After all, that’s the ONLY reason to even observe any religious or spiritual season.

It’s supposed to make us better people.

So whether you choose to fast in some way, or to give of your time, energy and gifts to others this season—do so because it encourages you and brings peace into your life—not out of any obligation.

During Advent, there are a variety of symbols. One symbol is of course candles, which obviously represent light. Advent is indeed a season of light. And this should not be a surprise, because this time of year, other religious traditions also focus on light.

For example, recently, ten of us from the United Church of Christ in Warminster went to Bharatiya Hindu/Jain Temple to observe and participate in a special festival that takes place right after Diwali.

diwali

Diwali or Deepavali, is the “festival of lights.” It is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn (where we live, i.e. the northern hemisphere) or in the spring (southern hemisphere). Do you like candles? Well, Diwali might be for you! Actually, Diwali is for everyone, not only Hindus. People who celebrate Diwali? Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and yes–Christians.

But our group got to participate in a unique festival native to the South Indian state of Tamil: the Skanda Shashti festival.

lord_muruganSkanda Shashti, typically a six-day festival, commemorates the destruction of evil by the Kartikeya also called Lord Murugan, Subramanya, son of Shiva, and is celebrated with the enactment of Sura Samharam, a story of struggle, triumph, and enlightenment.

The pujas [Sanskrit for reverence or worship] end with a victory celebration of spiritual light over darkness. Many fast, pray, and reflect during the festival. One prayer is a six-part prayer for protection, called the Skanda Sashti Kavacham, which is chanted. Six is a number associated with the divine presence.

Keep in mind that Hindus are often misunderstood. Many think Hindus are polytheistic [meaning that they worship many gods]; others assume that they are idol worshipers because of the various statues and representations of deities. This is not the case. In fact, Hindus do not worship a stone or metal idol as god. They worship god through the image. A good illustration from a helpful Hindu publication puts it this way:

Worship may be likened to using a telephone to talk across long distances with another person. When you do that, you’re not talking to the phone, right? You’re just using the phone to talk to the person.

The focus of what we saw on Tuesday at the temple was on Skanda, the god of many attributes, often shown as having six faces and twelve arms. Skanda is the commader of the army of light, defender of righteousness. Skanda is a healer and guide towards light, and is known to have a childlike love and compassion for all people.

skanda.jpegWe saw various ceremonial acts, including a small statue of Muruga being bathed in an array of sacred substances including milk, yoghurt, honey, sandlepaste and vibhuti.

skanda1

Then, a teenager from our congregation and I were asked by one of the priests to join others who were carrying one of the representations of Skanda. Here are some pictures of the dramatic presentation in India.

 

It was a fun and meaningful experience.

I am always of the mind that storytelling via interactive drama, puppets, colorful costumes, and songs is the kind of storytelling that impacts us the most. I also think that in any form of worship, symbols, smells, sounds, visuals, and hands-on participation enhance the experience and our connection to the Divine.

But religious observances aren’t about just going through the motions—lighting some candles around a wreath each week, singing some familiar carols, and going Christmas shopping.

It’s another thing entirely to view different seasons of the year as opportunities to be enlightened and to serve—to grow as people.

When Christians observe the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it is an opportunity to observe the light in all of us, and in others. It is a chance to be stubborn about light, saying and showing that light can overcome evil, despair, and apathy in us and in the world.

The stories that Christians tell are colorful, interactive, and meaningful, too—if we decide to embrace them as we are, with what we have.

Jesus, Jeshua, was known to many as a lord, a teacher, a friend, a healer, a prophet, a spiritual leader, and even some considered him a king.

Yes, it can be tempting for us in the Western world to behave just like Pilate in John’s Gospel story, to only think and talk about Jesus in the ways that others tell us to, or to limit our perspectives to small religious and doctrinal views, convincing ourselves that we are somehow entitled or more deserving.

But why?

A question I want you to consider is this:
Will you believe something just because someone told you to?

Or, will you ask questions on your own, look for light on your own journey, and come up with our own conclusions as to how you will be light for others?

In the end, Pilate’s best question was:
What is truth?

And one of the answers we get in John’s Gospel is that truth is logos, or, in other words, truth is light.

So give yourself a fresh start this season, wherever you are. Start seeking this truth, this light, right now, in your own life. Start looking for this light in others. Look for this light in the world.

Find more info about Skanda Shashti and Hinduism here: https://vegeyum.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/skanda-shashti/

Info gathered from Hindu Festival Outreach

http://www.hinduismtoday.com/festivals

Photos courtesy of Soumya Sitaraman and Usha Kris, respectively author and photographer of Follow the Hindu Moon, hindumoon.com.

 

Inner Peace and a Path

Isaiah 40:4-8, Psalm 85: 8, 10, 11, 13  

This time of year, a second candle is lit and people speak an elusive word:

 Peace.

 PeaceUnfortunately, I’m not sure we are all that honest about this word.

Do we really believe in peace?

I mean, it certainly doesn’t seem like we believe in it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be fighting wars and starting new ones. We wouldn’t have tons of weapons; we wouldn’t separate communities of people from each other–if we really believed in peace. We wouldn’t be shouting or posting racial slurs; we wouldn’t be apathetic about building bridges across lines of difference.

So I would like to go in a different direction, taking another path, this Advent season. What if the prophetic passages of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the NT Gospels didn’t really talk about peace the way we think they did?

What if real and honest peace is not about lighting candles and singing songs and observing a holiday season and religious traditions, just like we do every year? What if peace isn’t even about most of the things associated with Christmas?

Now before you start throwing things at me, allow me to explain.

The typical “Advent” scripture passages [and also the typical Christmas Eve passages] talk about peace, but not as an absence of conflict, a nice, warm feeling, or comfort.

Take Isaiah 40, for example. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a path of preparation. Something new is about to happen, something that will change everything, and the way for God needs to be prepared. The highways and byways are metaphors of the spiritual pathways in people that need to be ready to receive such a change.

path

Isaiah the prophet tries to convince people that beyond all the destruction and loss in the world there is comfort and recovery. The earth itself will proclaim God’s reign of healing and transformation.

And then there are Psalms like Psalm 85 that echoes the Isaiah proclamation of healing and change. People [and whole nations] are forgiven and justice becomes healing. People are transformed and become free and joyful, and they commune with God.

And finally, in the Gospels, what does John the Baptizer do? He quotes Isaiah [and so does Jesus], and tells people to “turn around” to change, and he tells them to prepare the way for God.

But…none of this change, justice, and peace happens without real, honest human change on an individual basis.

People are exhorted to look deeply and honestly at themselves.

They are challenged to deal with the fears, the anxieties, the prejudices, and the apathy within themselves.
And they are encouraged that if they commit to that path, they will find something within themselves.

A highway.
A vessel.
A space where the divine can live and act.

And the encountering of peace…inside ourselves.
Inner peace.

Of course, it’s impossible to define what inner peace is, because it is and will be different for every person.
But, the path to inner peace is less relative.

Not just in Christian or other religious traditions and scriptures is this true, but in real life it’s true.

Inner peace is about accepting yourself.

But how do people discover acceptance?

Usually the first, and the hardest step, is in recognizing that the past is just…the past. Letting go of the past is critical, because the past is something that we cannot change.

And then it is in recognizing that the future is not here yet. We cannot turn the hands on a clock to make a day skip forward. We cannot turn the pages of a calendar to move ahead to future months.

Peace/Wholeness within yourself comes when you realize that the past and the future are not yours to hold in your hands.

Instead, the one thing you do hold in your hands is the here and now.

If you live firmly in the moment and then move fluidly from moment to moment, life seems to have a rhythm.
You will spend more time actually living, and you will see and experience the here and now in an honest and healthy way. You’ll spend less time regretting or dwelling on the past and less time worrying about the future.

And in the embracing of the here and now you actually embrace yourself.
You realize that you are alive. You are present.
Right now.

One particular theologian and philosopher who doesn’t exactly get mainstream love, and who certainly wouldn’t be on most people’s Christmas list, is one Paul Tillich.

tillichTillich looked at the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament Gospels with an alternative lens. He saw in the scripture stories a particular dynamic in what many Biblical scholars call Kairos time—in other words, when the divine breaks into the moment-by-moment existences of human beings.

In Tillich’s work, The Courage to be, he states:

…the reality of God’s moment by moment coming – the Kairos of this very moment – calls us to be self-aware and mindful and to be people who already live “on earth as it is in heaven.”[1]

But in order to live on this earth as we expect things are in heaven, we will need to have the courage to look at ourselves. We will need to honestly accept who we are—in spite of all that happens around us that might seek to distract us from such a pursuit.

It’s common for us to look out at the world and to become apathetic, depressed, and overwhelmed by all the suffering, injustices, violence, and pain.

It would be easy to just do things as we’ve always done them and to neglect looking intently inside ourselves.
But this is the path of Advent, the path of waiting, the path of real change.

For when we look deeply at ourselves and learn to accept ourselves as we are, we start to see others differently.

We even participate in that Kairos time—that intersection of the divine and us.

But don’t think that finding inner peace is just some isolated act for each individual. It’s more than that. Because when you commit to the path of accepting yourself, you participate in the divine act of God affirming all the good creation, all the beauty of the animals, and the plants, and the humans.

And you become aware of justice and the need to participate in it.
And peace is more than a dove or a word or an idea.
Peace is real because it lives in you.

[1] The Courage to Be. By Paul Tillich. Second Edition. New Haven, Yale University, 2000 (1st ed. 1952).

Remembering

Matthew 5:1-12   NRSV

Halloween is a time of year that brings back many memories for people.

And if you are one of those who gives out candy to kids who come to your door, then probably every year you remember when you dressed up and carried a bag that would eventually fill up with a sugar-laced mass.

candyComaCandy Coma.

Even so, for some, hearing the word Halloween makes them cringe a little. Perhaps it’s because they saw the movie by the same name and that creepy piano theme music makes them remember a scary character. Still others cringe at Halloween because they think that it might be some evil celebration that certainly Christians should not participate in. Others go to the other extreme and set up their homes like haunted houses or witch’s cauldrons, equipped with fake, impaled heads, plastic witches, mummies; scary sounds [that can also be quite annoying, I might add] playing on a continuous loop.

And yes, some fanatics even have a Spirit of Halloween charge card.

Okay, so extremism aside, let’s look at reality.

The name Halloween is old English. It refers to the night before All Hallow’s Day, better known as All Saints Day, which is Nov. 1. All Saints is actually a Christian celebration of Protestants and Catholics, remembering the faithful people of all ages who have passed away, yet who lived lives of love, generosity, faith, and humility. This celebration of people’s lives and service goes back to the 8th century.[1]

Hallowe’en is more like Christmas Eve than you could ever imagine.

Hallowe’en was the preparation night for people to get ready for the feast and party on All Saint’s Day, which was called Hallowmas, just like Christmas. So on Halloween night, people lit candles and prayed; maybe sang songs; hmmm…sound familiar?

But these traditions were and are not Christian by nature or origin.

The ancient Druids, from what we know, were a priestly class of Celtic people living all over Western Europe during the Iron Age, which may have begun around 1200 BCE. Druid culture included a celebration for the beginning of the New Year on Nov. 1st. When the Romans started conquering Western Europe, the Druid Celts combined traditions with the Romans.

And they changed their name; or at least the history books did.
The “Roman Celts” as they were called, started a new tradition on the eve of Samhain [end of summer]. They believed that evil spirits were unleashed to create havoc on the earth on this particular night.

Or maybe they knew what Costco and Wegmans are like on a Sunday afternoon in the fall?

CostcoLOR wegmansSWAnyway, to keep these evil spirits from causing too much havoc, the Roman Celts had a great idea: let’s put on scary costumes made of animal skin to scare those spirits away!

And so they did.
You can connect the dots.

The religion of Roman Christianity spread throughout Europe, mixing in old traditions as it went. People lit fires on Halloween night to honor and remember the dead, all the while wearing costumes to scare evil spirits.
But the Middle Ages led to the craziness we know today—the witches, fairies, ghosts, and spirits. And then the legend of this poor guy named Jack who was kicked out of heaven for being bad and even kicked out of hell for joking around too much with the devil. Who knew that the devil didn’t have a sense of humor? In cartoons and such he always seems to be laughing with a sinister chuckle. Oh well.

Anyway, this Jack got his punishment: he had to walk the earth with a lantern until Judgment Day.
Connect the dots again: Jack O’Lantern?

And it wasn’t until the 17th century in Ireland that a certain tradition of poorer folks going from house to house asking for money began. All they wanted was to buy food for the big feast on All Saint’s Day.

Trick or treat, you’re so funny; now please give us a bit of money…

I think you get the idea—how all these traditions, legends, and stories mixed together over the years and formed new ones.
And of course, some traditions are easily marketed. Commercialism has made Halloween into another shopping season.

Meanwhile, the traditions with stronger meaning tend to be less marketable; they require more thought and even some spirituality.

And yet, all over the world, people still practice remembering traditions.

For example, in Mexico and in other parts of the Americas, people observe El Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Children, youth, and adults prepare homemade “altars” to remember their loved ones, decorating them with flowers and candles, their favorite foods, or other items to remind them of those who have gone on to the next life. Thousands of candles illuminate cemeteries and homes and huge crowds gather in large communities to sing, remember life, and celebrate.

In other cultures around the world, people remember those who have passed on and celebrate their lives.
Here are some striking photos of these remembering traditions from around the globe:

MexicoDiaDeMuertos budapestAllSaints Mexico-City-Mexico-Miniat-003 Mexico-City-MexicoA-man-d-006 Croatiacommemorate-All-012 PeruDayDead MexicoSanGregorio GuatemalaDead Perucemetary HaitiDead Spaindead An-Indian-Christian-famil-027 An-Indian-Christian-famil-028Remembering those who have gone before us, and pausing to do so—is counter-culture. Typically, holidays in the West do not include much pausing at all, but are in fact busier. Many, many people will not take even a few moments [much less two days] to reflect, pray, light candles, sing, eat with friends and family, and to remember.

Perhaps that’s why we struggle so much with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. They are not bumper sticker material or perfect for your newest t-shirt design. Jesus’ teachings, like those of any spiritual leader, require time and effort to unpack, study, and think about.

While the world keeps trying to convince us that we ought to fight with each other and compete for resources so that we will be in a certain social class, if we pause, we can hear something different.

We can hear from this Jesus of Nazareth that the path of humility is the one to walk; that our so-called important accomplishments are not so important.

That taking risks for the sake of others is important; that forgiving is far worth the time and energy; that loving people unconditionally as they are can move psychological mountains; that it’s better and more healthy to be skeptical of what the world says is normal; that it is oh so beneficial for you and for everyone if you stop judging others; and that if we do something good for a living creature [whether animal, plant, or human], without expecting anything in return—something positive spreads.

I don’t believe in saints [at least I don’t believe that there were or are certain people who are religiously more important or spiritually superior].

But I do think that we have an invitation to remember.

We’ll need to slow down our busy minds and bodies for a moment, though.
We will need to remember that where there is death, life is right next door.
And vice versa.

We’ll have to admit that the Jesus we often talk about in churches is not the Jesus of Scripture, who especially blessed the kinds of people who are typically left out of most churches.

And if we light candles, sings songs, say prayers, visit cemeteries, meditate, or think about it deeply—we’ll need to remember that blessing is not immunity from pain or loss or doubt. Remembering to be blessed is also remembering to be honest about what you feel, what you’re going through, and not ignoring it.

Such a practice will also help us to see others and their pain, suffering, and sense of loss.

And such remembering can lead us to the real blessing of wholeness [Shalom], recognizing our full humanity and that the Spirit lives and moves in us all. Such remembering can lead to contentment and an authentic joy in life that does not depend on all the external circumstances.

So friends, remember.

[1] 1. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saint’s Days: A Study in Origins and Survivals in Church Ceremonies and Secular Customs. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1974) pp.190-97.

JOY: What Is It?

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

bowlGo find a bowl. Any size will do—preferably glass. Look at it. This bowl is empty, is it not? And yet, still a bowl, right? Now put stuff in it. It doesn’t matter—fill it. Now what is it? Has the bowl changed its essence? Is it now “candy” if that is what you filled it with? Is it water? Is it coins? No, the bowl is still a bowl. Now I want you to imagine that this bowl is you—your life. Now imagine all the things that your life becomes filled with—events, circumstances, successes, failures, good and bad relationships, life and death, money and no money, jobs, school, sicknesses, discoveries, sunny and rainy days, etc, etc. Your bowl [your life], though filled with events and things and people—is still not defined by its contents. Your life is still your life. You are still you. In spite of what we may think, our bowls are still the empty vessels of life that they always have been.

All of the stuff our bowls get filled with does not define us.

The bowl is about identity, of course. And so is the Matthew Gospel story about John and Jesus. During this season when many Christians are focused on the baby Jesus—a story that appears in only a handful of Bible verses—it is appropriate for us to talk about who Jesus was and is. Of course, that identity of Jesus has been determined by people over the centuries and still today.

Most of you probably have already figured out that Christ-mas and December 25th have little to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. These traditions of Christmas [leading up to Dec. 25th in the West and January 7th in the East] are relatively new and more closely related to cultural traditions and winter solstice observances. In fact, celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. Moving forward, in the 1st and 2nd Century there is no mention of any celebrations of Jesus’ birth in the writings of early Christians like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen of Alexandria. Still in this time period, Jesus of Nazareth was defined by his life and ministry, and his death. The four Gospels provide much more detail about his life and his death. They even provide more specific times as to when his death may have occurred.

So to sum up, the earliest NT Biblical writings—Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark—do not mention Jesus’ birth. Neither does the Gospel of John. Only Matthew and Luke tell this story and in entirely different ways with different details. The New Testament is much more concerned with what Jesus did as an adult and how he died. This is how he was defined.

But in Matthew’s Gospel, this was not even the case yet. John wasn’t sure about Jesus.

Everyone was waiting for a Messiah, a ruler of some sort, or at least a prophet who would shake things up and change the current state of people’s lives. They were all waiting. John was waiting. Was Jesus their guy? Or had they been waiting in vain? John was confused. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly no king. Actually, he wasn’t even a religious leader. He had no sway in the temples, no power or authority in Jerusalem.

So was it time to give up on this Jesus and start waiting for another Messiah?

Of course, Jesus’ response isn’t what many wanted to hear. Jesus did not tell John:
Sure, I’m the Messiah. Here I am!
Bow down to me, worship me, the deal is done!
Everything is going to get better!

Instead, Jesus told his disciples to report back to John—to remind him of the compassionate and life-changing things that were happening to those who were typically left out and pushed down. Once again, Jesus borrowed from prophets like Isaiah, and lifted up the healings of those who were suffering; the new life for those who were considered dead; the poor being uplifted rather than ignored. But Jesus never really talked about himself. In fact, he talked about John. Who was John? How did people define him? What did people expect? A great priest with long, flowing robes who would lead the people? A prophet who would preach to them? John certainly was a prophet, but more than that. John was a guy who told the truth [no matter how painful]; he lived among the people without pretense; he exposed hypocrisy, greed, and injustice.

People tried to define John in certain ways and with various titles.

So did people try to define Jesus in certain ways and with various titles.

We still do it.
At Christmastime, we talk about Jesus as Savior and Messiah—and these are things that Jesus actually never said about himself.

We sing joy to the world, the Savior reigns…but after 2000+ years, does the Savior reign?
I mean, the world that John and Jesus both hoped for still doesn’t exist.

People are still incredibly poor. There is still great evil and corruption in the world.

Many times, joy is hard to come by.

I know that I am challenging a lot of our most popular assumptions. But I think that we need to do this if we are to concretely live out faith and practice compassion in life. Jesus of Nazareth and his cousin John both taught compassion, love, truth, and justice. Neither one of them believed that one person alone could bring such balance to the world. It would take a village—no, a whole community of people. And so Jesus called people lights in the world. Lights is plural. You, me, everybody else—lights in this world.

It is one of the biggest challenges of this holiday season, because we often force an identity on Jesus and then on ourselves. Christmastime is supposed to be a happy season of smiles, hugs, warm feelings, and stuffed stockings. But that’s not really at all what the story and message of Jesus of Nazareth is about.

It is about JOY.

Okay, but what is joy? To address this question, we have to ask another question:

What is happiness?

Often, the two words [and ideas] of joy and happiness are lumped together. Certainly, during this holiday season, we are bombarded with images, songs, and stories that tell us to be happy. Have a holly, jolly, Christmas! We say merry Christmas for a reason, right? Or..happy holidays? I mean, who would really go so far as to say to someone have a mediocre, melancholy Christmas or May you have a realistic holiday or better yet,
Miserable Christmas to you, too!

Uh, I’m joking, of course. But I am not joking about this word happiness. We have got to take a closer look because Happy Christmas is less about reality and more about marketing.

According to the Free Dictionary and Psychology Today, happiness is an emotion based on the external. It is based on situations, events, people, places, things, and thoughts. Happiness is also connected to the future—something you do not currently have but hope to have one day. Happiness depends on outer circumstances that will need to align with your expectations in order for you to “feel” happy. Thus, a “Merry” Christmas, in this sense, depends on whether your family and your friends meet your expectations for the holidays to be “happy.” If they don’t, unhappiness results. Happiness, then, is a roller coaster of emotion; we are at the mercy of other people and things, speeding up and down and hurling through loopy-loops until we get sick. Now I happen to like roller coasters, but just not the emotional kind that I was speaking of there. I’m not a huge fan of being happy one moment and then depressed a bit later, and then repeating the same cycle again and again.

So that’s happiness. But what is joy? Ah, here we go.

Joy is actually not external, cannot be bought in a store, is not conditional on someone else’s behavior—in fact, joy is completely independent of everything and exists on its own. Joy laughs at attachments. Joy doesn’t need them. Joy is free; joy lives and breathes on its own. Hmmm…so do you think we can start a movement? Can we instead say to other Christians, have a joyful Christmas? Can we say to those who are not Christians, have a joyful holiday?

I think we can. And I think it is more real and certainly healthier. For joy means being at peace with yourself—accepting who you are, where you are, and why you are. Joy is about accepting who you are not, and who you are not with. I received a great question about joy this week: what does joy feel like? Seems like something children are privy to. Explain the way joy feels!

Joy does not feel like happiness. It’s deeper, fuller, more realistically yours.

JOY does not come from your successes or achieving goals you set for yourself.

JOY is not dependent upon external circumstances.

JOY is when you are grateful consistently—even when there is no success.

JOY is internally and eternally yours when you are joyful regardless.

With practice, we can experience joy even in the midst of sadness. We will need to see life as more than just one disappointment or success after another. We have to let go of judgments and the negative emotions that come with them. If we can work on that, we will find joyful freedom.

Life is a gift. And each and every one of us is a life-gift. Our bowls can be filled with plenty of things, but it doesn’t change the fact that each one of us is a life and gift. Gratefulness comes when we just realize how much of a gift life actually is. And those around us are gifts, too. And this life is unpredictable and will always surprise us. Joy is in embracing the changes and the surprises. It is seeing a snowstorm not as an inconvenience or a fearful event, but as a moment to pause and admire creation—to stop and breathe and laugh, cry, and experience. When joy and gratitude live in you, the imperfections of your life add beauty and wholeness to your life.

Friends, we are trained at very early ages to believe that we are defined by other people and by the things we have. We are often told that only when we acquire certain things will we be happy. We are conditioned to believe that if we do not have certain things, we cannot be whole or content.

But we are not valued by what we have, nor by what we accomplish.

Our value is in who we are.

So find inner joy in who you are, as you are. And may that internal joy you discover lead you to compassionate living with others—recognizing the life and gifts in them. That is what this season and this life are about.

Amen.

Hope?

Luke 21:25-36:  The Fantasy of Hope

The first Sunday of Advent is known as the first day of a new church year. Christian Churches [Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox] around the world start with the stories of the prophets and the gospels in late November/early December and then walk through the stories together, leading up to Holy Week and the celebration of resurrection in the spring. Parts of the world differ on the calendar, but the basic sequence of the story remains the same. This year we start with Luke’s gospel. Now each gospel is unique of course, in terms of how it was written and pieced together, and how it tells the story. Mark’s gospel was written first; then Luke and Matthew; then John. Matthew copies Mark a lot and only adds a few unique stories; Luke copies Mark about 50 percent of the time and often changes Mark’s telling of the story to a more literary, flowing style. Luke also contains unique stories that the other gospels do not have at all.

Luke tells the story in a “moving forward” kind of way. So Luke starts from Jesus’ birth and humble beginnings in Nazareth of Galilee and then moves to Jesus’ teachings and those who followed him; then to Acts and the birth of the church [also written by the same authors of Luke and meant to be Luke part 2]. Luke’s story begins in Bethlehem and ends in the heart of the Roman Empire. Three characters appear throughout Luke: Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Other books of the Bible do not mention Mary much. But in Luke Mary is the link between the birth of Jesus’ ministry and the birth of the church.

This is all very important to know as we read the stories together. Often in the United States, we have a story in our heads about Jesus’ birth that looks a lot different from the actual stories of scripture. A lot of that, of course, is due to religious traditions created in Rome as the Christian movement became an established religion. So we must always be aware of our sources of the stories we tell about Jesus.

Of course, my hope is that during this Advent season we can hear the story of scripture as clear as possible. I hope that you will be open to being surprised, moved, and perhaps even shocked by the story of Christ’s birth as you seek to hear it anew. Yes, the scriptural stories and their realities will challenge your typical beliefs and traditions about Christmas and this story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, and a manger. But if you open your minds and hearts to the story itself, I do think that you will be blessed, challenged, and moved to connect it to your own story. Since reading the Life of Pi and seeing the movie, I’ve been moved to really examine how the stories of our lives  make us who we are. And I am also thinking quite  a bit about how we sadly convince ourselves that our telling of a particular story is somehow superior to another’s telling of it.

This is so true as it pertains to what we call the “Christmas” story.
My Advent hope rests in our connecting the stories of scriptures  to our own stories in an authentic way.

Jeremiah 1Jeremiah, Michelangelo, 1516

Jeremiah’s story will lead off. Now you may wonder what the heck a Hebrew prophetic book, Jeremiah, written well before Luke’s NT Gospel, has to do with Advent and Christmas. Well, good question. So let’s explore Jeremiah, whose name means the weeping prophet. The context was a really difficult moment in Israel’s history. Jerusalem had been destroyed; the line of David’s kingdom was broken; the temple of Solomon was burned to the ground. The Israelites were exiled to Babylon three times, starting around 598 B.C.E.[1] Jeremiah, the prophet, spends most of his book talking about how God is not too happy with the people of Judah [Israel], more specifically its political leaders, because they have not kept their end of the covenant promise they made with God through Moses. They did not take care of the poor; they did not love God as they said they would. Of course, the leaders of Israel didn’t like Jeremiah’s message. After all, they had built much comfort, status, and power for themselves. They had great influence. So Jeremiah calls them out, and even though the prophet is obviously no fan of political leaders, in the face of very little hope for Israel, Jeremiah decides to promote a new vision of a leader.

This new leader didn’t look like the others. Radically inclusive and strangely ordinary, the righteous branch that will spring up restores a new kind of way for Israel, a world in which all people are given an abundant life. He calls upon imagery of trees and branches like in Genesis—ways to describe God’s good creation and human beings’ participation in it.
stump_jesse21

The branch is reflective of the God-qualities of justice and mercy; it springs forth. But Jeremiah doesn’t see this as real yet. He only hopes for it. It is only fantasy. The reality is that the righteous branch did not spring up from among the people of Israel. Instead, Cyrus the Great, a Persian king, took over Babylon and Israel in about 538 B.C.E.[2] Cyrus actually embraced other religious traditions and therefore allowed the Israelites to return home, rebuild the temple, and practice their religion. For many of the Jewish faith, Cyrus is referred to as an anointed one, or a messiah.

Notice I haven’t mentioned Jesus yet. Why? Because Jeremiah has nothing to do with Jesus. It was not until many, many centuries later that the Christian church in Rome interpreted the hope of Jeremiah to be a reference to Jesus of Nazareth and the rebuilding of the line of King David and the salvation of the world. Certainly, over the centuries, the Israelites [who many in modern day identify as the Jewish people] and Christians have interpreted prophecies like Jeremiah’s in different ways. But as we connect Jeremiah to Luke, I want us to hear the story’s message above all.

Jeremiah’s story is not about Jesus. Luke’s story is. But despite that difference, both stories point us to the same theme:

redemption follows deterioration;
restoration follows chaos;
justice and mercy follow oppression;
and hope is the key.

You see, Luke’s gospel, like Jeremiah’s prophecy, tells us a story about the current state of the world and what is to come. Luke 21 is sourced from Mark’s gospel [chapter 13] and is sometimes called the “little apocalypse.” Apocalyptic literature involves story-telling in difficult times. Notice this business of signs in the sun, moon, and stars; nations in anguish and confused as the ocean roars; people fainting out of fear and anxiety, concerned about what will happen next. Like Jeremiah, Luke’s gospel is about Israel. After the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Greek ruler Alexander the Great conquered Israel in 300 B.C.E. Then, years later in the 1st and 2nd century C.E. another conquering empire, this time Rome—took over Jerusalem, destroying the temple once again in 70 C.E.[3] So we’re back to that again. Luke parallels Jeremiah’s story. Things look bleak. Help is needed. Redemption seems far away.

But there is still hope in the middle of despair.

Instead of the weeping prophet, we have the grown-up Jesus–not the baby in the manger we associate with this time of year. In fact, the baby Jesus is mentioned only six times in all of the Bible! Instead, the teachings, ministry, and life of Jesus are the most significant parts of the story. Keep in mind that the apostles and the the early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. This idea of Christmas was not mentioned in history until the Roman Church established it as a tradition in about 336 C.E.[4] This shouldn’t surprise us, because the stories of the New Testament clearly tell us their purpose: to tell the Good News of the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings, ministry, and death. Advent is a time of preparing for Jesus the grown-up version—not the baby. Keeping this in mind will only enrich the stories.

figtree2For Jesus then tells a parable about a fig tree–an allegorical story with a point. Like Jeremiah, Jesus uses the natural world. Trees are usually metaphors for humans. The fig tree sprouts leaves and tells us that summer is near. Likewise, when we see all this chaos and uncertainty around us, God is near. Hope lives in despair. Sprouting leaves and blooming plants remind us that new life is still possible when life around us says the opposite. The Greek word for near in this case is engizo, a word that literally means coming nearness.[5] Redemption, then, is coming near. What a perfect message for Advent—a time when we recognize that the apocalypse is not some future, world-ending event someone predicts, but apocalypse is actually right now. Things are difficult now. Hope is hard to come by. At times, we can feel like the world is crashing down and the foundations of our lives are rotting beneath our feet. But redemption is coming near… FigBranch

Jesus says: watch at all times. Don’t watch for calamity or destruction or something else to stress out about. Don’t throw your hands up in the air and scream: “We’re all going to die! AAAAAAHHH!” Instead, watch for signs of redemption. Watch for God. And: pray that you might have strength. And don’t just pray; stand up. God will even help you stand up. For the low are lifted high; the last are made first. The apocalypse is in fact not bad news, but good news. All the worry and fear of life is shared by everyone. And it is in recognizing all this chaos that we notice the redemption that is coming nearer and nearer.

Friends, I, like you, often wonder about hope. Is it a fantasy? I look around and I see pain and prejudice and apathy and separation. Look, it may be Christmastime, but we cannot escape reality. We should never ignore the people suffering all over the world. We cannot gloss over injustice. Instead of looking for quick fixes or easy answers that help us forget, we should stand up. That’s right! As Jesus said, our prayers and our faith practices should stand us up.

We should all stand up stubbornly out of hope—believing that in a world seemingly beyond repair, there are still green sprouts appearing in this church and others who say to our lesbian, gay and transgender brothers and sisters—you are welcome, loved, and accepted here. You are part of our community.

There are buds blooming where people show that color and culture and language matter less than character; if we don’t hope and pray for these things, we won’t do these things!

There are branches budding and bearing fruit in the middle of our chaos and destruction. And you and I—we have this fruit to bear. But it’s not false hope. It’s not ignoring the problems. It’s seeing the world for what it is and seeing ourselves for who we are. And then it’s standing up to do what is just and merciful and kind. It’s you and I springing forth with new life and lifting up others who have fallen down.

I close with an excerpt from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on April 3rd, 1968 in Memphis:

mlk

“…the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars..”[6]

Hope is only fantasy until we make it real. Redemption is coming near. Look for it. And bear redemption’s fruit for others. Amen.


[1] Amy Erickson, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Iliff School of Theology.

[2] Jona Lendering (2012). “Messiah – Roots of the concept: From Josiah to Cyrus”. livius.org.

[3] Jewish Encyclopedia. Temple of Solomon.

[4] Biblical Archeology, Christmas origins, www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp

[5] Gospel Commentary, Karl Jacobson, Asst. Professor of Religion, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, MN.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr.I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee.

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