Dear Messrs. Scrooge and Grinch

Dear Sirs,

It has come to my attention that perhaps you had it right all along, that is, before your impressive conversions.  Perhaps this joy we have manufactured for the Christmas holiday is just that – manufactured, like some piece of plastic that Airbrush Barbie will scoot around town in, like some small, flat rectangular thing, embossed with our name, that will drive up our debt load.

You see, I’m not feeling it all that much this year, and as I recall Mr. Grinch’s stealing of Christmas paraphernalia, I’m sensing a comrade.  As I picture Mr. Scrooge’s cold, dark mansion void of any glitter, tinsel, or bulb, a twinge of envy grows within me.

I believe we have confused things.  As I stood in line at the Dollar Tree, buying large gift bags to hold my purchases for the church’s Angel Tree, and as I heard the melodic voice of Gene Autry encourage us to “give thanks to the lord above, ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight”, I realized that I was done.

Which is to say, I am done with Santapalooza as a stand-in for Christmas.

On the one hand, Santapalooza is an opportunity to give something to someone as a token of appreciation or even love.  But on the other hand, those tokens become expressions of obligation and duty.  Santapalooza props up the disparities rampant in our capitalism-on-steroids.  We give charitably, thinking that a day’s moment of generosity makes up for systems of injustice that perpetuate racism and poverty.

Who’s the mean one now, Mr. Grinch?  Bah.  Humbug.

Christmas, though….  I’ll keep that, if we can strip away the wrapping paper and the stockings and wire-edged bows and all the sugar; if we can do away with presents that have no meaning; if we can spend just one day in celebration, or if that is too scant, spend twelve days that begin on the 25th and end, as they once did, on Epiphany, the season of light.  I’ll take the Christ Mass, the acknowledgement of the mystery of the Incarnation, the awe of light and love.  I’ll take the Word, full of grace and truth.  I’ll even take Baby Jesus, lying in the middle of the animal’s part of the home, carefully laid in a feeding trough, worried over by his father and mother, who soon will flee for their lives as refugees in Egpyt.

Mr. Grinch, I believe my own heart could grown three sizes too big if we could just separate these conjoined twins of Santapalooza and Christmas.  Mr. Scrooge, were that to happen, I would echo those true words of Tiny Tim, and with all my heart, ask God to bless us, every one.

But I will say in hope, and in confidence that all things are possible through Him who loves us, please God, bless us –

all those people standing in line at the Dollar Tree;
all those parents worrying that there won’t be enough for their kids under the tree;
all those people relying on the charity of others to get through the holiday;
all those people who don’t understand;
all those people who have lost their faith;
all the grieving, all the hopeless, all the sick, all the homeless;
all the rich, all the poor, all the waiting, all the wondering:

God bless us, every one.

 

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Giving up Facebook for Advent

I know, I know – Lent is the season when we’re supposed to give things up to help us understand the nature of sacrifice and self-denial, so we forego chocolate or swearing and feel that much more holy for forty days.  Advent is the time when we are supposed to prepare our hearts to receive the Christ child once again. It is a time for contemplation, reflection, but not sacrifice or self-denial.

Pish-posh, I say.

Allow me to explain.

At the congregation I serve we have chosen “Joy” as our theme for Advent.  Yes, I know that joy is supposed to be the theme of one of the Sundays of Advent (the Sunday with the pink candle), but as our Director of Music reminded us, there is a palpable lack of joy in the world right now.  I confess that as I start to think about my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, to preach on joy feels a bit callous.  How can we talk about joy when we spray tear gas on children whose parents are seeking asylum in  the U.S.?  How unfeeling is it to talk about joy when hundreds of people are still unaccounted for in the remains of the Camp Fire? I could go on. You could too.

But since, as Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God”, and since Advent is the season in which we prepare to receive the gift of the Incarnation, God-with-us, then joy will have its way this Advent.  And that has led me to giving up Facebook.

I don’t know if you do Facebook; chances are if you’re reading this blog, you may have found it because I posted it on Facebook.  So there’s that – if I’m off Facebook, you won’t know if I’ve written a few hundred words about my musings.  If I’m off Facebook, I will need to let my pastor colleagues know, because I do learn about pastoral care needs on social media.

But if I’m to be about joy this Advent, then I will give up Facebook because Facebook does not bring me joy.  It entertains, it infuriates, it updates, but it does not bring me joy.  I relish the number of comments I get; I envy friends and acquaintances whose lives are so much more beautiful than my own; I long to live closer to family and old friends.

Facebook is the emblem for a deeper dis-ease.  I fear my world is starting to revolve around “likes” and “views”, around how many hearts I receive on an Instagram posts, around the approval I receive when I post something.  That is not life.  Those things do not bring joy.  Having a popular brand will not make my life complete.

Nothing will make my life complete this side of the grave, but many things will bring joy.  My beloved husband and daughter are the source of much joy in my life. Having work that is meaningful and fulfilling, work that I think adds some good to the world brings me joy.  An email or a phone call or an in-person visit from an old friend brings me far more joy than any pithy Facebook post ever could.

In the conversations around the spiritual practice of giving up something for Lent, some have suggested that rather than give something up, one should take up a practice that is sustainable for only about forty days.  So I wonder what I will take up for these twenty-four days of Advent – in giving up Facebook, is there something that I can take up, some way to spend that now free time, something that might bring me or the world some joy?

According to my phone, I spent four hours and forty-five minutes this past week looking at Facebook.  Perhaps I will use that time to pray.  I could write an actual letter to an old friend.  I could call my siblings.  I could write some liturgy. I could make some art.  I could make a meal for this family I love so much.  I could meditate.  I could do so many things that would lead me down the path to joy, and in knowing joy, I might deepen my appreciation of God and the Incarnate Christ Child.

I’ll let you know – but not till after December 25.

A joyful Advent to you.

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Making art brings me joy

 

About that hope thing

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who dwelled in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us,
Authority rests upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

I was looking at these words earlier this week in preparing for one of the Christmas Eve services, and it stuck with me, the way Handel’s music does, the way a reading you’ve heard for forty-something years does.  I read it after a colleague commented in staff meeting that there seems to be an epidemic of hopelessness right now.  And then Isaiah’s words offered something I couldn’t name.

Today I heard an amazing person who works for the county in the Department of Human Services thank a bunch of us religious people because we offer hope.  She said that without hope, there can never be change.  And I realized that in the many trees of grief and pain and shock and despair, I had forgotten to take a step back and see the whole forest, whose canopy looks a bit like hope.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a story Jim Collins tells in Good to Great, a story about Admiral Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam for three years and survived.  Collins does better service to the story than this blog, but I wanted to share Stockdale’s words:  “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Hope.  Hope that brutality will not last forever.  Hope that grief will feel more like a dull ache than an icy, rough piercing.  Hope that things will get better, whatever those things might be.  And for me, as a Christian who really does believe all this Jesus stuff, and the miracles, and the promises, hope that God has not abandoned us to our worst selves, that God is moving in the midst of all that seems turbulent and immoral and wrong.

I also have hope in the resurrection but it’s sort of the wrong season for that.

So I’ll be seasonally correct.  I think Christmas is, more than anything else, about hope.  It’s the hope that God is still at work.  It’s the hope that the life of a baby will change the world.  It’s the hope that God makes promises and fulfills them and we are better for that.

So what do I hope for?  That we’ll figure out a way to prevent cancer and treat it more effectively.  That we’ll learn how to be there for each other, and that we’ll get better at all the mental illness stuff.  That we will never forget those who live in poverty, and that we will work tirelessly to make the deep changes necessary for poverty to be alleviated.  That humane and thoughtful people will make the rules, with a real sense of liberty and justice for all.

Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s weird to talk about God and say you believe in Jesus.  The assumption is that you don’t go to church.  But I have this hope, at least for those of us who are hanging in there with church (or temple or mosque) that God will poke us this season, and remind us of the Great Love that is not letting this world go to hell in a handbasket.

Hope makes things bearable and beautiful.

I hope….

winter-solstice

 

 

The Christmas bread is leavened

The Christmas bread is leavened, of course
This is a feast of joy and warmth
The yeast will rise

We have been anticipating this
For nine months
For four Sundays
There is time to let the dough rise, let the yeast ferment, let the child form

Joy comes in the morning
As mother and child sleep

Another child rises early
Anticipating cinnamon rolls

For the Christmas bread is leavened.

May our hearts be leavened too

cinnamon-roll

 

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.