On the park bench, Christmas Eve

(This was my Christmas Eve meditation a few years back.  Generally, I don’t think most sermons have much staying power, and maybe I’m being a little sentimental, but I think I may have gotten something right with this one.  A blessed Christmas, and gracious holiday to you.)

park-bench-1340697334wtQThere once was an old man whom, this evening, we will call Joe. Joe was single, never married, didn’t date much. He was an only child and his parents were gone, and he was a bit crotchety, which is to say he was all alone in the world. He had long since retired from a job which brought him a modest income, a few acquaintances, and no friends.

In his retirement he spent his days as he pleased – checking the morning headlines, washing up the coffee cup and cereal bowl. He’d run the few errands he had, get the daily special soup at the diner counter, run a few more errands. Late afternoon would find him on a park bench, alone. It was always the same bench, in the northwest part of the park, near a sidewalk but blissfully far away from the children’s playground. He would sit there, all alone, and with a fair amount of disinterest, he would watch the world go by.

Most days, that was enough for old Joe. Once in a while he would break his routine – he’d give a smile to the cashier as she handed him his change, or he’d bark at the server who overfilled his coffee cup. Most days his routine was enough. But every so often as he’d sit all alone on that park bench, a terrible melancholy would overtake him. That happens sometimes at dusk – babies instinctively cry and the colic worsens, or harassed parents, home from work, stress out as they try to transition from employee to chief cook and bottle washer. Every so often, as he sat on that bench at dusk, Joe would be overcome by a sadness he could not name, and all he wanted, in those anguished few moments, was for someone to come sit next to him. They didn’t have to talk, process feelings, make a plan to have dinner. All he wanted was company, a companion to sit with at dusk after years of going through life all alone.

As the seasons changed, Joe would change his routine ever so slightly and unconsciously so that he was always on the bench at dusk, be it a winter’s 4:00 or summer’s 8:00. The years passed, and the spasms of melancholy grew more frequent, and Joe, already so miserable in his aloneness, became all the more brittle, and a little desperate. He tried ways to make the bench inviting. He’d move the newspaper he’d been carrying around, as if to say, this seat isn’t being saved for anyone. He’d brush off the leaves. Once he even wiped off the residue from the pigeons – all to no avail. For whatever reason, no one ever sat by Joe.

Maybe passers-by feared that his loneliness was contagious, and they hurried past him so as not to catch it. Maybe after years of trying to smile and say hello only to be rebuffed, people stopped trying. Maybe after sitting on that same bench in the same park at the same time, year after year, Joe became invisible, the way the guy on the corner with the cardboard sign “Will work for food” becomes invisible. Whatever the reason, no one ever sat by Joe.

He could’ve died on that bench, so deep was the melancholy, so profound the despair, so pointed the loneliness he could no longer avoid. He wondered if that’s how he would end up – forgotten and ignored, sitting there one minute and dead there the next, without a soul to notice that his life had ended. He wondered if there would ever be anyone who would care. He wondered if he would live out however many days he had left sitting alone at dusk on that park bench.

There may be some here tonight who have felt like Joe at some time in their lives, or who feel like Joe every day. There may be some here tonight who know someone like Joe, some who have passed him by, some who understand how the relentless pain of another becomes invisible. There may be some here tonight who wonder how this story will end, and some who believe they know how it will end.

Tonight, on this night we have chosen to call holy, this is what I know: Our world has been like Joe, battling melancholy. The children of our world have known isolation; they have known what it’s like to be ignored or forgotten; they have felt, deep in their bones, what it is like to be alone. The children of the world have been battered, if not by loneliness or apathy, then by poverty or violence or forces beyond their control that have made them grow up too soon.

Our world has been like Joe, going through the same routines day after day without reason or purpose. The people of the world have known what it is to live by rote, to live in that routine of work and play and rest, of work and shopping and rest, of work and shopping and entertainment, confusing shopping and entertainment with godly play and holy rest. Our world has been like Joe, desperately trying to make that park bench a little more palatable, aching to have someone simply sit down next to us. We have feared the stranger, the other, for so long that it seems too late to make amends for our isolating tendencies. For so long we have sat on our proverbial benches waiting for someone to come to us, never venturing off to go to someone else.

Tonight, on this night we have chosen to call holy, this is what I know: That the miracle of the incarnation might be described as God coming to sit down next to us on our park bench. Because while we might have forgotten or ignored all the Joes of the world, God hasn’t forgotten. God cannot ignore this world that was created by deep love. God will not forsake this world so plagued by fear and greed and pride. God will not turn a blind eye to the pain of the world’s children.

Ours is a visited planet, as the Bible scholar J. B. Phillips once said. Ours is a visited planet, which is to say that God is no theist watchmaker kind of God, setting the world a-ticking and then moving on. Ours is a visited planet, but not in the way you or I might want to visit Tuscany or the Grand Canyon. Our is a visited planet, in the way we might want to sit and visit with a beloved grandmother who died, whose advice and date pinwheel cookies we still crave; the way we might want to visit with our best friend who’s doing his best to beat cancer; the way we might want to visit forever with a child or parent or sibling who is wedged deeply in our hearts.

That is how God has visited with us: with the love a Creator has for his creation, with the love a mother has for her child. Why God would choose to do this is beyond my ken, and all that I know on this night we have chosen to call holy is that it has something to do with love. And this love transformed God (if we could say God is transformable) from being a mere visitor to being an inhabitant of the world, like we are. God visited us, and came to us, and became one of us so that you and I and all the Joes of the world would know that we are not alone.

On this holy night, it is as though Joe is sitting on the park bench again. He has put his paper in the recycling can; he has brushed away the pigeons’ offering. He has waited for the light to dim, once again, alone. But this dusk, this time, this holy time, Someone sits down next to him. He just sits down with Joe, and Joe is not alone. We are not alone; we are loved. Thanks be to God.

Help me, Baby Jesus- you’re my only hope!

stormtrooper-costumes-christmas-coupleA few recent conversations have gotten me to thinking about the large Load of Expectations people carry around with them this season. It’s a bit crazy making, really.  Here are a few:

That I will purchase The Perfect Gift for a someone in my life, and they will love it so much.

That our gathering (family or friends, co-workers, girlfriends, whomever) will be perfect, the stuff of catalog stock photos.  Everyone will say it was the best holiday party ever.

That I will preach the perfect Christmas Eve sermon -or- the church service I attend will renew my faith/inspire me to sell all my goods and give to the poor/make everything that is wrong in my life or the world right.

That the dinner I prepare will make the judges on Top Chef cry with jealousy.

You get the picture.  We need to tone it down because:

You probably cannot afford the perfect gift or there is no way you have time to find the perfect gift.  It is the giving that is important here, and if the recipient of your present doesn’t know that, it’s on them and not on you.

Your gathering will not perfect.  Your family will likely not all get along, and someone might be sullen and someone might drink too much and not in the good way and someone will be disappointed.  Your friends might cancel at the last moment because their kid is throwing up or because they can’t do one more thing.

Something will go wrong with your dinner – the turkey might be overcooked (which, admittedly, is better than being undercooked). The person in charge of the wine might bring something dreadful.  The souffle might fall.

So let me ask: why are we doing all of this?

If you are a religious person, particularly a religious person who identifies with the Jesus people, you are doing this for Jesus and not for anyone else.  So if you think Jesus will be disappointed with you because you did not give your father-in-law the matching tie and pocket square that he wanted, you are wrong.  Jesus does not care about the presents you give or receive.  The Wise Men thing?  About honoring a king, not about making Mary and Joseph happy that the neighbors did the right thing.

If you are not a religious person, there could be many reasons you are doing this.  I am a religious person and always have been, so I’m not entirely sure.  But you might be joining in on all the holiday stuff because the sun sets too early and rises too late in this season and you need to add a little cheer to the gray dreary days.  You may be doing the holiday thing because you have time off from work and everyone else is doing it.  You may be doing it because you think it adds some good to a world that’s hurting.

Here is what I know:

That some people will be disappointed no matter what.  They have unrealistic expectations of you, or of the church, or of this season.  You are not responsible for their disappointment.

And some people will be sad or depressed in this season no matter how much cheer and twinkly lights surround them.  They have good reason to be sad.  They’re not getting enough vitamin D this time of year.  This is their first Christmas without their beloved and frankly, it sucks.  They are staring down cancer or ALS and wondering if this December is their last.  Their family won’t fight because their family won’t be together, for whatever reason.

The world is a mess and our country is a mess and that’s always been the case.  There has never been a time when everything was okay.  Everything will not be okay this Christmas, and to expect that it will be is to set yourself up for disappointment.  But that doesn’t mean there can’t be some good in the midst of the sad.  That doesn’t mean there can’t be some hope in the midst of all that is dreary and awful.

For some of us, Baby Jesus is our only hope – the hope that God did not give up on the world when it was a mess but instead came to the world because it was a mess in order to start getting it cleaned up a little.  If you’re doing all this because you’re a religious person, you might want to keep that in mind.

I suppose others find hope in other place – in the potential of good in the human heart, in that long arc of history that bends every so slowly toward justice, hope that there have been cures and ceasefires and confessions and pardons and there will be again.

Maybe Leonard Cohen said it best:

Ring the bells that can still ring.SONY DSC

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

On poverty

Last week I went to the dentist to have a little problem fixed; my bill, after insurance was figured in, was $963.  I put it on my Discover card and consoled myself that at least I would get a little cashback bonus for my trouble.  And then I got to thinking: I have dental insurance and a credit card and a decent paying job, but $963 does make a dent.  What do people do who don’t have dental insurance, or credit cards, or decent paying jobs?

They don’t get their teeth fixed.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about poverty, the cousin of racism.  I know many people in my various circles of family, friends, and church who will not hear one more word about white privilege, racism, or any of it.  I don’t agree with their position, but I also know that however eloquently or loudly people proclaim their message, others simple will not hear it.

But I wonder if these same people who will not hear one more word about racism will listen to a word about poverty.  I think the two are very much entwined, though poverty may cast a wider net.  I think as much as we have a problem with racism in this nation, we also have a problem dealing with the reality of poverty.  I am not an economist, a social scientist, or a psychiatrist, but I do read a little in these areas.  I am a pastor in a faith tradition that teaches that we must always have special consideration of the poor, who will always be with us and who will always rely on our goodness or guilt or generosity.  Some friends would say that Jesus has put this on my heart this season, and so I share my thinking with you.

Walmart-strikers-food-bin-return-e1416863017929I think about those Walmart workers who are not paid a living wage, who gave back the food donated to them at Thanksgiving saying they would rather have a raise than a turkey.  I think about the Walton family’s wealth.  I think about the discrepancy between what a CEO makes and what the janitor makes.  The figures don’t add up.

A recent study showed that there is a point at which more income does not equate to more happiness.  “Emotional well-being also rises with… income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ~$75,000. Low income exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone. We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.”  (http://www.pnas.org/content/107/38/16489.abstract)

I think about the cycle of poverty.  Brain research has shown how brains under stress get rewired.  Children who live under the stress of poverty, food insecurity, abuse, and other factors essentially run the risk of having their brains rewired.  They get stuck in the “fight or flight” response mode.  Toxic stress also cause long term physical damage as well.  Harvard University has done great work on the developing child, and I commend their research to you. (http://developingchild.harvard.edu/key_concepts/toxic_stress_response/)

I think about world poverty.  After the nation of Liberia ended a fourteen-year civil war, there were only five doctors there to care for four million people.  Ebola has ravaged parts of west Africa because the poverty there has insured inadequate medical care, sanitation, communication, and support systems.  What is fueling the so-called immigrant crisis on our U.S. southern borders?  Poverty, in part, in Central American countries.  Violence, corruption, and crime also play their part, but those might all be rooted in poverty.

Last week I attended a meeting of city officials, housing department staff, and religious leaders in my part of the city to talk about undoing and repairing the effects of gentrification in North and NE Portland.  Some of that is tied to Portland’s shameful history with regards to the African American community here, displaced three times in the twentieth century.  But some of it is tied to the gap between poverty and wealth in this community.

It’s no coincidence this is on my heart in December, this month when we spend so much money on things, and some money on organizations that help people.  It’s also a month when many non-profits received a good portion of their annual donations as people take advantage of the tax credit available through charitable giving.  In our little family, we spend more on ourselves than we do on others, but we do give some money – to our church’s Angel Tree project, to Habitat for Humanity, to Heifer International.  My parents asked that this year our present to them be a gift to their church’s school in Haiti.  They know they don’t need one more thing.

I am no communist.  I don’t think we should all throw all we have into a big pot and everyone gets an equal share.  (Sorry, disciples in Acts 2.)  But I do wonder how much is enough.  I wonder what would happen if some gave up a bit of their abundance – would that help another get out of some of their poverty?


Putting the “vent” back in “Advent”

Advent is upon us, and I’m just not feeling it this year.  Granted, it is only the second day of Advent, it’s only December 1, but I’m not sure I can muster up all the mystery and purple and candles again this year.

Yesterday I heard myself say in my sermon something about making our hearts ready to receive the Christ Child this season.  I said it yesterday as I have said it every Advent for the last twenty-one years.  And tonight while I was doing the dishes I realized that I haven’t the foggiest idea what I mean by that.

Every liturgical season has its church-speak.  Some of my favorites: Transfiguration, when He was “changed from glory into glory.”  Easter as we leave the cross and face the beauty of the empty tomb.  Pentecost, when God set our hearts on fire.  Lent, as we make our way to Calvary/Golgotha/the cross.  And Advent, when we prepare our hearts to receive the Little Lord Jesus.

LittleLordSuit“Little Lord Jesus” makes me think of Little Lord Fauntleroy which I’m pretty sure is not an incarnation of anything divine; Jesus in satin knickers, a ruffly pirate blouse, and pilgrim shoes with buckles.  I do not want to make my heart ready for that.

NowI can be as awestruck as the next person by a baby.  I love to think deeply about the theology of the incarnation, the foolishness of God who chose to take on human flesh.  But making my heart ready for baby Jesus?  Or really, making my heart ready for anything?  What the hell does that mean?  It probably means I shouldn’t use the word “hell.”

Does it mean I’m supposed to be nicer to people this season?  Does it mean I’m supposed to be very generous?  Does it mean I should confess all my sins?  (As if there were time for that in this busy season.)  Does it mean I rid myself of impure thoughts?  Does it mean I wake at 4 every morning to meditate on Christ?  Does it mean I look for ways to tell people about the Good News?

The problem is that my heart is unreachable.  It’s not that I don’t feel; it’s not that I don’t respond emotionally to the sorrows of the world.  It’s not some things don’t hit me in the gut because they do.  It’s that the heart as a metaphor isn’t working for me right now.  Maybe it’s cardiac overload.  Maybe it was the cheesy Christmas carols I heard while in the dentist chair today having my teeth cleaned.

I know how to get my house ready for Christmas: move the desk, put up the tree and lights, figure out where to put the Christmas and holiday cards that come in.  I know how to get the church ready for Advent: know who is leading worship when and figure out the logistics of the candles lighting and blanket brigade.  Write the candle liturgy.  Thank the volunteers.  Pick the right balance of Advent and Christmas hymns.  Be sensitive to those who are having a hard time because it’s Christmas.  Wear purple on Sunday, red for parties.

But I don’t know how to get my heart ready for Jesus.  So I’m not going to worry about it anymore.

olyhInstead, this year, I think I’ll make my hands ready for Incarnation.  They will be ready to type words that are as true as I can make them, about God and this weird life we’re called to.  They will be ready to hold the hand of the woman whose Christmas is her first as a widow.  They will be ready to wrap presents for the family whose name we pick in our giving program. They will be ready to chop and dice and stir the soup I’ll make for the volunteer thank-you lunch.  They will take up the green pen to address the Christmas cards, and they will wrap about my sweet girl on Christmas morning when she gets up early, excited because it’s Christmas, excited because it’s a day we have together as a family and no one has to be at work.

You get your hearts ready, and I’ll get my hands ready, and if we don’t, Jesus will come anyway.

Whatever that means….