Monday, December 27, 2010

 New Mercies

We have reached the end of 2010. As do many, I both look back and look forward at the calendar change. I spend time cleaning out files, drawers, and closets in preparation for the new year. I try to catch up on people I’ve neglected. I also start a new folder on my computer, labeled with the year number. So folder “2011 files” has been created, and will soon fill with my writings, messages, articles I particularly like, spreadsheets, bank statements, worship notes, photos, correspondence, and other life markings.

That folder marks a fresh start with work. But there is a far greater fresh start before me. The turning of the calendar reminds me of one of my favorite scriptures, Lamentations 3:22-23, where I read that God’s mercies “are new every morning.” For me, the changing of the calendar says, “acknowledge those daily new mercies.”

I have identified six practices that block my awareness of God’s mercies. I’ve learned that when I pay attention to these things, I am far more able to see God’s daily given mercies, to enjoy a free and light soul, and, even more importantly, to pass them on to others. I offer these to you at this year end:

Number one: Lay down the idea that gifts always come with strings. Learn to receive the gifts given by God and others with thankfulness and without suspicion. Should there be a string attached, that is the giver’s problem, not mine. Receive simply and give simply.

Number two: Stop letting others make my important choices for me. Live with courage, integrity and out of a strongly formed character despite the actions and attitudes of others. When I use a phrase that sounds something like, “I can’t do that (be obedient to God, be truthful, live generously, say a strong “no” to injustice and so forth) because someone else will (not like it, get mad at me, not respond the way I want them to, etc.),” then I am permitting others to make my vital choices. That is a death decision. Choose life.

Number three: Relinquish any idea that security may be found in any human institution including church, family, economics and politics. It won’t happen. When the primary driver of my life is to be secure, I immediately move to the worship of money and things and become very resistant to God, to change and to the needs of others.

Number four: Quit insisting that I occupy the center of the universe and that God stands ready to do my bidding. I am not the center and God is not my celestial vending machine. Those attitudes are appropriate only for the tiniest of babies, not for mature adults.

Number five: Leave behind the fallacy that if I understand enough about why something happens, I can also find meaning in random events. This does not mean giving up intellectual curiosity or scientific endeavor. It does mean that I need to recognize that there will always be mystery beyond my understanding, and that mystery will always be much bigger than my ability to grasp it or make complete sense of it. Learn to appreciate the wildness of mystery rather than domesticate or tame it.

Number six: Acknowledge my fear of innocence and vulnerability to being hurt by others. Leave behind cynicism and seek to transform fear into trust that goodness does permeate a universe held together by a good God. While I say to grow up and stop insisting that I am the center of the universe, I also know that I must find again the child within that enjoys intrinsic trust in an ever-present God who does very much love me.

Thanks for reading what I write. Send me your comments and thoughts. And have a blessed 2011!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Afternoon

It is late Christmas afternoon.  I'm alone in the house, listening to classical Christmas music, and doing so with a growing awareness that I am not the only one with a tendency to the minor key or to the tinge of sadness experienced by many during this season.

We Christians properly celebrate the birth of Jesus now. Not that we know a date or time of year this child came into the world. Not that we really understand the how of it.  The idea of an Incarnation--of God becoming human--really is beyond our grasp and if accepted, must be accepted in faith.  Not that we've even got the facts straight about the Holy Night.  Everyone has a slightly different story or take on what happened.  Nonetheless, we Christians for the most part acknowledge that we need to stop the December craziness long enough to at least listen once more to the good news and to consider its implications for our lives.

As I listen to the music, I hear that many of the most glorious Christmas songs do much more than suggest we should be happy about the birth of Jesus.  They call us to worship; they call us to bow the knee and even fall on our faces in awe.  They insist we look as ourselves as ones needing this child to be born and show us the way, the truth and the life.  

I'm one who needs much solitude, perhaps much more than many others, so I have to be careful about putting too much emphasis on such alone times.  Even saying that, however, I do wonder how one can live intentional, self-aware lives without some time spent alone (even when others are around) pondering the nature of our own soul and our relationship to something holy and wholly beyond us.

I listen to this great music, and wonder how these composers came up with it.  Surely they gave themselves time and space to integrate their musical gifts with their spiritual lives.  Surely they were willing to be bored and lonely and fearful and even hungry and cold for the sake of something greater.  And all that brings me to the melancholy that permeates much of the greatest of real Christmas music, as opposed to the holiday overly sickly-sweet jingles that fill too much of the airtime.

Even the most joyous of this great music seems tinged with awareness that we humans are just getting a peek at something so far beyond us that we must recognize our frailty and finiteness in the light of unlimited eternity bursting into our limited world.

In my first paragraph, I wrote that I am alone in the house on Christmas.  I have a sense that many reading that will say, "Oh, how awful.  Poor thing."  This response paints solitariness in a "not quite good enough" category.  So why am I alone?  Is this a bad thing?  I just recently received a message from a good friend who noted that her extended family gathering was about to send her into the screaming-meemies. Could it be that being not alone may have its own down sides?

Anyway, first of all, I am alone because of the challenge of dealing with broken marriages over holidays.  Who spends time with whom when?  Sometimes, others need to get priority here.  This is a good thing.  Tug-of-wars here only harm, not help. 

Second, I am alone because death does not delay even for Christmas.  My husband, who often handles funerals for families who want a clergy person but who do not have a local one, received a call from a funeral home in Dallas needing him urgently to come and care for a family.  This is also a good thing.  He brings his healing gifts to the grieving.

Third, I am alone because, even though this is Christmas Day, it is also Saturday, and a Saturday after an unusually busy week, and things must be done in order to be prepared to offer to my congregation the very best I have on Sunday.  Therefore, it is a work day for me.

There will be few in worship tomorrow--the vast majority of my congregation have traveled away this weekend.  I particularly noticed that last night at our Christmas Eve service.  Even with a packed room, I knew only about 30% of the people there.  Most of mine were elsewhere--and those who are normally elsewhere, were with us.  But for those few who will attend in the morning, I have an obligation to offer all of my gifts as their pastor.  So, I must have time to prepare, to think and pray, and to organize my thoughts.  For me, this is best done alone, not interacting with others.

So I content myself here, surrounded by books, music, warmth, and a beautiful awareness of the holy presence of God.  This is indeed Christmas. 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Weather and the Nature of God

It's Christmas Eve and it is cold and rainy outside.  Last Christmas Eve, we had a blizzard here in Krum.  Does God not want us to have Christmas Eve services?

I know that seems a silly question, but it is not one for those who think that God is in the business of making our lives easy and ensuring that houses of worship are full on special occasions.

Of course, we who live with sprinklers and sewers and water towers and all other conveniences of comfortable living occasionally forget that rain and any other moisture that falls from the skies, especially in a climate like ours in Texas, is very much a blessing.  

Rain means life.  Rain, slowly falling, deeply sinking rain, pumps up the drying, shriveling roots of our trees and shrubs.  It helps matter that has already died to decay further and turn to compost, thus enriching the next generation of plants.  It carries nutrients from the air into the ground.  Rain equals blessing.

I also know the temptation on a cold rainy night as this one promises to be is to just stay inside, hunker down, turn on the TV, brew a hot drink of some sort, and cocoon.  I simply ask that you consider the option of heading out anyway. Find that place of worship.  Join with a community of those who know that real riches come from intimacy with God, and that few of us can fully worship alone.  At our church, the chorale and musicians have been practicing for weeks to lead us in both a fun and powerfully meaningful time.  We'll consider together the state of our hearts and our readiness to receive the greatest gift of all.  

There's a part of me that wants to say, "Please come so the worship leaders won't be disappointed."  But I say to you, that is the wrong reason to attend worship.  The real reason: "O Come, Let Us Adore Him."  It is a good and right thing to give thanks to our Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, on this special night.

Maybe the rain, instead of being a hindrance to worship attendance, can serve as a reminder that God does not do our bidding, and that makes God worthy of worship.  We have been given the privilege of approaching this Holy One by the Son whose birth we celebrate this evening.  Let us handle that privilege with humility and responsibility.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Santa as God

Santa is "freaky."  That's the conclusion the youth I work with on Wednesday nights reached.

Last night, I had the youth compare two songs: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "O Holy Night."

When they actually looked carefully at the words of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" they immediately and as a group called out "freaky."  It really bothered them that Santa was watching them while they slept.  That he appeared to know everything about them.  That he had punitive and reward power in his hands.

Out of that song, they described Santa as male, fat, bearded, and red-cheeked and knowing way, way too much about them.

When we turned to "O Holy Night" and it's somewhat archaic words, we spent a lot of time just defining words.  Key for them:  What does "Divine" mean and far more, what does "Holy" mean?

As the lively and energetic discussion kept going, the question came up: "What is God really like?"  "Is God a man?"  "Does God have a beard?"

Suddenly, they all made the connection:  we have indeed turned Santa Claus, the one from the children's story written in 1862, into God.  After all, Santa does know when we've been bad or good.

And the youth asked, "If we stop believing in Santa Claus, do we stop believing in God as well?"

At this point, we began to discuss the nature of God and what in means to be "holy."  

And also at this point, something became more clear to me than it ever has before:  we do our children a huge disservice when we offer them a "Santa Claus" god.  Almost all young people will go through a period of questioning their faith as they go through high school and especially enter the more rigorous world of critical thought that the college and university years ideally bring.  Most of them rightly reject the god of their childhood because they are rejecting the "Santa Claus" model.  But we give them nothing to replace it with.

Why do they reject the Santa Claus model?  Because it suggests that they can control God's behavior by their own.  As long as they are good, Santa has to perform.

So it is Santa's (i.e. God's) job is to give them what is on their wish list.  When life's wish list is not honored, when unemployment strikes, when romantic attachments fail and disappoint, when friends are killed in car wrecks or destroy themselves with drugs or other bad choices, or sent off to fight foreign wars and are either killed or returned utterly traumatized and Santa doesn't come through to fix it and make it magically right, then Santa, i.e., God, gets tossed.

So, when they reject all they know about God, they are left with a void.  

They don't know what "holy" is.  They have no tools to begin to address the mystery of a God who uses these words as self-definition, "I AM."  

Confirming our youth at 12 or 13 or 14 does not solve the problem.  They are just beginning to understand the power of critical thinking.  I think the reason we lose most of them after Confirmation is that all we've done is give them a slightly gussied up version of Santa Claus and they know it doesn't really work.

What are we going to do?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Checklists and Holiness

Note:  the musings below will run in the local newspaper, The Krum Star, rather than the article I wrote which is posted above in order to lesson the possibility of some unnecessary conflict that could happen in this lovely and small town in which I live.  It is always a challenge to live both from compromising integrity and deep love for neighbor and it was my choice to write something a bit softer--but still to the point, I hope.  All comments are very much welcome!  Please feel free to email me, or post a comment below.

During this Advent season, the time Christians have used for ages to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Savior, I decided to do something I have not done before in worship.  I've been taking some of the well-loved but not necessarily religious Christmas and seasonal songs and using them as doorways to the hallways of grace.

I know that I personally have struggled for years with Christmas songs that seemed to me to have nothing to do with Christmas.  So this year, I sought to take a different view, and honor in a whole new way the fact that I really do believe that God is Lord over all, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

I started with "The Christmas Song" (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .) and compared it to "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" a classic and powerful hymn by Charles Wesley.  Both of these songs invite us to consider the importance of family connections, one for our earthly family, the other for the family of God.  They do not exclude one another; they connect us.

Then we looked at "Frosty the Snowman" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" and made an move into acknowledging the mystery of the season.  I mentioned how very, very much all of us don't know about the workings of the universe and the workings of individual relationships and the workings of God.  Out of that huge field of "not-knowing" we are invited to consider a whole chorus of angels who periodically show up and remind us not to be afraid because God is getting ready to show up in a new way.  Frosty can be seen an a scaled down angel, giving us opportunity to enjoy the mystery of an unseen and animated world.

Last week, we enjoyed "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" and "O Little Town of Bethehem" as we thought together about hospitality.  Just as a hotel is a place of hospitality, inviting different people to come together and experience unusual moments together, the town of Bethlehem extended its hospitality to the young family of Joseph and Mary with the baby to come.  The biblical "inn" was really a private house where the guest room (the "inn") was already full of other extended family members who had come to register.  Joseph and Mary would have been brought in to what ever space was available, and then been surrounded by loved ones and and the larger family during this time of sojourn and birth.  Our fabulous chorale offered  their voices, singing "White Christmas" as a complement to the congregation singing "O Little Town of Bethlehem." This beautiful, haunting arrangement created by our worship director, Damon Downing, gave us all insight into wholeness of the good news of Jesus Christ.

This Sunday, I'm going to talk about Santa Claus and see how this funny little man can be for us a shadow that points into the presence of the Most Holy God.  Santa's "checklists" may be seen as a way to ask if we are really prepared to receive the Savior who shows up on that Holy Night.  As a congregation, we'll hear again the words to that most beautiful of songs, "O Holy Night."  Perhaps, by the grace of God and our own willingness to be repentant of our sin, we can use the Santa Claus myth to move to the reality of a God who loves without restraint.

Prepare your hearts, all.  The Savior is on the move!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Naughty or Nice List

I'm on a rant again--which I suppose is nothing new to those who know me.  But it's true:  I'm going to gag if I hear one more time, "We've got to put Christ back in Christmas." 

How ridiculous. The whole idea suggests that someone has the power to take Christ OUT of Christmas. Can't be done. Christmas IS the Christ Mass. The word itself stands as the acknowledgment of the Incarnation, the breaking into the confinement of time and space of the firstborn of all creation ultimately to die and then live again. Sure, there are lots of overlays on that, but for goodness sake, celebrating the Christ Mass on December 25th was itself an overlay on a pagan custom to have fun around the time of the winter solstice. 

So who has the power to take Christ out of Christmas? No one. And this is why I think I want to gag even more at the website set up by First Baptist Dallas announcing their judgment on those who don't acknowledge Christmas in the way they think it should be acknowledged. These deluded people have set themselves up as defenders of God and they are going to show the world what God is really like. Their site actually says, "Help us preserve Christ this Christmas."

Really? Is God so powerless that God needs us puny humans to muster a defensive army to preserve the Creator, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords?

I'm all for loving God and working out my salvation with fear and trembling. But defending God? This is the kind of stuff that leads to rampantly destructive religious wars and leave the landscape soaked in the blood of others who were also defending God but whose weapons were less advanced. 

But the powerful Jeffress and his minions use their billion dollar church base (OK, slight exaggeration) to shame businesses and civic organizations into saying exactly what these self-appointed "correct" ones have decided is the best way to offer greetings and display decoration this time of the year. "Happy Holidays" is out. "Season's Greetings" earns a spot in the fifth or sixth circle of hell.  Generic seasonal decorations without overtly Christian themes suffer major condemnation by these denizens of Christmas Correctness. 

Reality check:  Christmas is a minor church celebration with minimal biblical support that has been blown way out of proportion by the very ones who insist that people are taking Christ out of Christmas. In the life of the church, Easter and Pentecost are far, far more important.  They are just not nearly as much fun. After all, when is the time you decided to have a Pentecost Party, or the children of the church performed a "Pentecost Pageant" or you decorated your house with tongues of fire?

Furthermore, how many of those Christmas Correct folks are themselves guilty of misusing the season? Christmas trees have a pagan base. Wise men do NOT show up the night of the birth, and we don't know how many there were. Christmas programs highlighting a nasty inn-keeper who heartlessly sent the already laboring Mary and her bewildered husband to a lonely, dirty and cold stable do not reflect well what happened at that time. 

I need to stop my own "grinchness" here. Christmas has never been my favorite holiday. I think we kill ourselves during this time, as we run from our pain and our darkness with frantic activity and make ourselves miserable with forced merriness and unhealthy eating, sleeping, partying and spending patterns.  I wonder how many will say on Christmas Eve, "Nope, can't make it to church because it will interfere with the meal preparation or I still have to buy and wrap one more gift."

It's time to find peace. That's what the angels announced to those lowly and despised shepherds. Peace. This world sorely needs it. Peace. A time to reconcile with others and with God.  Peace. Peace, my friends.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Practice Abnormality

Guess what? Scholars have finally figured out that forgiving others is really good for you! An article in a publication that deals in the latest issues in higher education has confirmed this. Since these researchers agree, it must be right. Wow--what a piece of intriguing news--that this whole biblical idea that we really should set down those grudges and resentments might actually pay off! 

Forgive my sarcasm, but sometimes I wonder why something like this has to be quantified to be believed. This is not rocket science. Forgiveness and reconciliation are absolute basic necessities to forming human communities that actually work, and a huge key to physical, spiritual, social and emotional health.

Try this: this moment, think of someone who has grievously wronged you, or brought destruction on someone you love. I'm talking serious, long-term hurt here--those tough ones that all of us face.

Pay attention to what happens to your body when you bring the face of that person to mind. Do you feel your gut tighten? Your jaws clench? Your breath quicken? Your shoulder muscles contract? Your "fight or flight" mechanism activate? Your brain racing with ways to get revenge? Your hope that something bad might happen to that person? 

Every one of those responses is normal in the face of wrongdoing. But staying in the "normal" is a sure recipe for death. Clench those teeth and watch them be ruined by nighttime teeth-grinding. Tighten those shoulder muscles and eventually be unable to turn your head and see a wider world. Keep that gut tight and watch your digestion stay perpetually out of whack. Maintain the the perpetual "fight or flight" state and see your flooding stress hormones destroy nearly every system in your body. Seek revenge and watch your soul shrivel to nothingness. Hope for bad outcomes for others and see sourness infect every single relationship you have. 

Read history and see how many of the world's tragedies spring from the refusal to forgive and reconcile.  Yes, this is a complicated act, and does not mean giving into evil, unchecked power, or on-going abuse.  It does mean facing our own souls squarely and seeing how the normal act of non-forgiveness destroys hope and life.

This is the time of the year to make an intentional move from the normal to that which is most definitely not normal: the contemplation of God entering the restricted world of space and time and saying, "The normal is killing you. Try receiving and giving forgiveness instead."

When the angels announced Jesus' birth, they said, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." 

Peace, peace between God and humanity, peace between us and others. Peace permeates the abnormal act of forgiveness. Peace comes when we set down the need for revenge, when we wish good, not evil upon even the worst among us, when we unclench, relax, let go, and breathe the clean air of forgiveness. 

Paradoxically, it is often only in the doing of this abnormal act that we find our own minds receptive to the possibility of angelic presence and to their message.  When we insist on measurable proof for immeasurable and foundational spiritual truths, we often close our eyes to the possibility of the mysterious and lose much of the sweetness and serendipity of life. 

The seasonal holidays that are upon us, both religious and non-religious, bring families together in ways that sometime build tensions.  Long-held grudges simmer over; tiny slights or misunderstandings turn into wall-splintering fights; unrealistic expectations lead to bitter disappointments.  These times, then, give the best opportunity all year to practice the abnormal act of forgiveness.  Pay attention to the bodily signs of unforgiveness.  See if you can stop the cycle before it destroys. Seek to create openings for the angels to enter with their pronouncements of peace.  

Practice abnormality.