Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Saturday, December 1, 2012

From the Advent and Christmas Archives

In addition to this year's Advent reflection, the following Advent/Christmas-themed articles have been published in the past two years on this blog.   I decided to share them again in hopes that you might find them worth pondering anew—or perhaps for the first time!—in the days leading up to Christmas.  Even if you’ve read them before, perhaps they’ll impact you in a different way this go-round the liturgical calendar.  Enjoy!! Have a blessed Advent and Christmas.  —ABW

Advent Writings

·      With Us on Unplanned Journeys.  Have you ever had to take an unplanned journey or go somewhere against your will?  Perhaps you “there” right now?  Then you may appreciate the situation Mary & Joseph faced leading up to their son’s birth—a difficult journey in every sense.  But despite all the fear and uncertainty, they remain faithful and obedient—and God is with them and works through them to accomplish God’s purpose.

The Traditional Advent Wreath.
Most Christian churches will have a wreath like this on the altar during Advent.
The purple and pink candles are lit on the four Sundays preceding Christmas—
a single candle the first week, two candles the next, and so on...
 The pink candle is usually lit on "Mary's Sunday"—commemorating Joy or Love.
The white "Christ Candle" in the middle is lit on Christmas Eve and/or Day
—along with all the others—then by itself for two Sundays after Christmas.
·      Embracing Our Christmas Stains.  Every year, as we prepare our hearts and homes for the Holidays. We “scrub and scrub,” trying to make things look perfect to all outside observers—at home and at church.  But in doing so, do we miss the whole point God is trying to make in sending Christ to Earth?  Are “stains” somehow an indelible part of our God-given identity?

·      The Edge of Glory.  At first glance, Lady GaGa and Mary, the Mother of God, would seem about as different as two women could possibly be. And of course, separated by two millennia, they obviously are.  But a closer look at the meaning behind the lyrics to one of the pop star’s most famous songs reveals an unexpected Advent connection.  (Note: This article was slightly updated this year.)

Christmas Day/Eve Reflection

·      Light Up the Patches of Darkness.  We adorn our Christmas trees with strands of beautiful lights seeking to even out the lights so we cover all the “dark patches” on the tree.  Should the “spreading out of the light on our trees to cover all the dark places” be a metaphor for our Christian life?  Followers of Christ should bring light to the all the “dark places” of our world—each in our own unique way!

Bringing Advent Light to Black Friday

Have you noticed that every year, the retail stores open earlier and earlier for their so-called "Black Friday" sales? This year, some stores even opened late Thursday evening! And that says nothing of the many restaurants and bars that opened Thanksgiving afternoon to cash in on the football games going on.

There was a time not that long ago that you would be hard-pressed to find any businesses open on Thanksgiving—and certainly not on Christmas. These were days that somehow seemed “sacred” and "set apart."  Commerce and consumerism took a break so employees and patrons could be at home with their family—and somehow we all survived.

That's not the way it is anymore, though. Places like Food Lion, Starbucks, Buffalo Wild Wings, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart do brisk business on Holidays. They assume: If they open we will come and, like moths attracted to the eternal flame of consumerism, when they open we do come

The result is that the "sacredness" of these Holidays erodes a little more each year until eventually they start to seem just like any other day on the calendar.

As a follower of Christ, I for one am a little troubled by this trend. Seeing "Black Friday" spread into Thanksgiving Day seemed particularly bothersome to me—as if some kind of “sacred” boundary was violated—and I don't think I'm alone. I've seen some "backlash" on Facebook with people "boycotting" businesses that seem to be in too much of a hurry to jump into the rampant consumerism surrounding Christmas. It was refreshing to know that Nordstrom didn't decorate their stores until November 23—i.e., specifically stating that they are taking time to celebrate Thanksgiving before jumping into Christmas. However, what they are doing stands out precisely because most establishments have been playing Christmas music, stringing lights, and selling Holiday merchandise since Halloween—if not before.

If you are like me, you may feel a sense of despair as “Black Friday” spreads its insidious tendrils into Thanksgiving—a day set aside to focus on gratitude and thanks. Cultural darkness creeps a little further each year, and it seems that there’s not a thing any of us can do to stop it.

How should followers of Christ respond to this disturbing trend? Should we just accept it as “normal” and let ourselves be swept along by the tidal wave of consumerism and self-fulfillment that has come to be synonymous with the Season?

I think perhaps the season of Advent on our liturgical calendar offers us an answer. This is a season when we remember other times in history when God's people faced fading light and fading hope that things could be different, times when it surely seemed that “the way things were” was the way they would always be.

The Scriptures we read during Advent remind us that into those dark moments came the comforting light of God’s Presence. We frequently recall the Prophet Isaiah's hope-filled words, spoken ~700 years before Christ, to a people who, in the face of exile, despaired that light would ever shine again. Don't give up, says Isaiah; in time, a new king will be born who will reverse the current trend toward darkness.  (See Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)

With the benefit of hindsight, Christians also read those words of Isaiah as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus—the Messiah, the liberating king. John's Gospel, written a few decades after Jesus lived, adds that Jesus was the "light of the world," whose light shone so brightly that no human darkness could ever overcome it.  (See John 1:4-5; 8:12; 9:5.)

This kind of light is the only light that has sufficient "illumination" to reverse creeping cultural darkness, in whatever form it takes in a particular time or place.  In Isaiah’s day, the darkness came from a looming external threat to Israel of an imminent foreign invasion; in Jesus’ time, the darkness was imposed upon the Jewish people by the Roman Empire; in our age, it is the insidious spread of consumerism embodied in practices such as “Black Friday.”

Advent anticipates and the arrival of the “true light” of Jesus on Christmas that has power to expose the insanity of what we have come to consider “normal” and illuminate an alternative way that we can follow out of the darkness.

But chances are, if we continue to passively accept things the way they are, and make no real changes to how we live, things will keep tending toward darkness and chaos.  Eventually, “Black Friday” will take over the whole week!

Advent wreath with four candles lit...
Notice how the "first candle" is almost gone by week four.
It has given its all to light up the darkness!
No, in order for things to be different, you and I, whom Jesus called, "the light of the world"Matthew 5:14-16—will have to consciously choose to shine. We can't simply keep following the “path of least resistance” and expect anything to change.  Insanity is defined as doing the same thing and expecting different results.  

Perhaps you and I are a bit like the candles on an Advent Wreath?  We have to allow ourselves to be lit and then shine for all the world to see—giving all that we are to the cause of bearing Christ’s light to the world.

If that’s true, then I believe our biggest challenge—and not just for Advent—is for it not to be benign business as usual in terms of our Christian practice. Part of the reason the cultural darkness of “Black Friday” continues to spread so rapidly is that we who claim to follow Christ have not really decided to stand against it—in fact, often we walk lockstep with it!  We may attend worship services, light candles during Advent, and sing Christmas carols, but it doesn’t seem to impact the way we live our daily lives.  Too often, when it comes right down to it, we’re virtually indistinguishable from our “non-Christian” neighbors when it comes to consumerism.  I for one would have to admit that I can easily get caught up in the “rat-race” of the season just like everyone else.

If followers of Christ are to truly be “light of the world,” we will have to be more intentional about claiming our unique identity in the world—while respecting other points of view—and standing against those practices that are opposed to the Message of Jesus. We cannot continue to shudder our light for fear of what others will think.  Jesus calls us to be a people who stand out from the world around us.  If we do our job right, we will not just blend in; our “light” will attract the attention of others. 

Our churches should be communities of people who encourage one another to discover and practice the distinct ways that God has created each of us to shine, and who, together, learn to let “the light of Christ within us” shine for the all the world to see—not just during Advent but throughout the year. 

Churches should help us become people who refuse to accept the normalcy of “Black Friday.”  Followers of Christ should demonstrate an alternative way of living in this world—proving that we really can step off the “consumer treadmill” and survive. I can’t help but think that if enough followers of Christ made up their mind to do that, I mean really do it, the light of Jesus would break through in a powerful way this Advent, and it would make a real difference in our churches, our communities, and our world.  

To read previous seasonal reflections from this blog, visit the Advent/Christmas Archives.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Deepening Our Friendship With God, Part I

The Voices of Silence

This weekend I attended a retreat at Loyola Retreat Center in Faulkner, MD.  It was a good time of renewal and refocusing for me.  Loyola is a Jesuit retreat house, so I spent the weekend with about sixty Roman Catholics most of whom came as part of groups from parishes all over.  To my knowledge, I was the only Protestant there!  I was a little out of my comfort zone, but God was there and all went well.

I had the opportunity to participate in Catholic Mass—even taking communion.  While I wouldn’t necessarily choose to worship this way every week, I try to practice a generous orthodoxy, and I appreciated the rich sense of entering into the mystery and reverence of God. The Mass is structured so that all of ones senses are engaged and directed toward God; the structured liturgy definitely further hones ones focus on God.  Although it was certainly a different worship experience from what I typically do on a Sunday at Good Shepherd, it was certainly not completely foreign to me.  There was enough similarity with our United Methodist liturgy (particularly the Great Thanksgiving and the communion ritual) that I could feel pretty much at home and I “faked” my way through the parts I wasn’t as familiar with.  By the end of the weekend I figured most of it out—I think…

The Icon of Christ and his friend, Abba Menas
was a focus for our weekend.  The original of this 5th c
Egyptian icon hangs in 
the Louvre in Paris.
The theme of the retreat was Speaking as One Friend to Another.  We looked at developing our friendship with God.  The Ignatian (Jesuit) Way is one that emphasizes listening to God in prayer—as opposed to us doing all the talking.  To help facilitate that, the retreat took place in an attitude of silence.   That meant that after our first meal together on Friday evening, all participants were encouraged to keep silent to the extent possible until the retreat was done. 

God is always with us and is constantly speaking, but too often we cover over God’s still small voice with the constant clamor of our own.  It is important that we learn to silence ourselves and listen for those other voices in our lives.

With the exception of dinner on Friday, we ate all our meals in silence; that was an interesting experience!  That’s one place where the natural tendency is for us to chat with the persons sitting around us.  I admit, I missed not being able to get to know people more—something I am used to doing at other retreats I have attended.  On the other hand, something interesting happened as the weekend progressed. I found that I became increasingly aware of so many of the other voices (sounds) around me—e.g., the clamor of silverware, the soft music playing in the background, and the many voices in my head—and even of other ways I could “communicate” with others. 

As an introvert, not talking much for 36 hours wasn’t too hard, but I became keenly aware that I think a whole lot of things I never say!  The real challenge for me was to silence that internal conversation in my head and start listening for those other voices that God wants to use to develop our friendship.

Next: Wrestling With Jesus' Questions.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Autumn Glory

Here in Maryland, as I write these words, it’s October and autumn’s glory is unfolding before our eyes.  It begins slowly; we notice an isolated tree starting to change color and then day-by-day it quietly spreads; color seemingly descends from the sky.  The highest branches often turn first (the top of the canopy is more exposed) but the Artist of Autumn continues to work until the entire landscape, which was lush and green not all that long ago, is now afire in hues of orange, yellow, gold, and red.  The display only lasts a short time before the brighter colors give way to the dull hues of November and the barrenness of the winter months sets in—when only the hardy pines and other conifers stay green. 

The whole process happens without us giving it much conscious thought. We go on about our daily routines of living, and then suddenly, one day we are driving along, and we look up at just the right time and a patch of color peeking out from the green catches our attention and captivates our imagination.  A while later, perhaps we come around a bend and behold a scenic vista overlooking a valley with the Sun hitting it at just the right angle—and we are undone.  With the Psalmist we echo:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God… the firmament declares his handiwork. —Psalm 19:1

Science can explain what’s going on.  Triggered by longer nights and cooler temperatures, deciduous trees start to get ready for winter.  The photosynthetic activity wanes, and the chlorophyll pigment that produces the green color gives way to other chemicals present in the leaves that lead to the colors we associate with autumn. The exact timing of the change and intensity of the colors vary from year to year depending on the weather conditions experienced during the summer and fall, but we can count on the fact that come October the leaves are going to start to change color and we’ll be treated to autumnal splendor for yet another year.

After that, the trees will drop their leaves and hunker down for the winter—and we will all be raking like crazy in a few weeks J. In the winter, the trees around here will look pretty dead, but, of course, they really aren’t.  They are just lying dormant for a season; they actually need this time to prepare for spring and the next season of growth.  Just as we can count on the leaves falling in the fall, assuming the tree is healthy, you can expect that come next spring, buds will appear and new leaves will follow as the whole cycle of life begins anew. 

So science has a pretty good handle on what happens to the trees, how it happens, and even when it will happen, but it doesn’t begin to explain why it happens the way it does. No, delving into the why question requires something deeper. It takes faith[1] to ask why—even if the question often goes unanswered.

Have you ever wondered why autumn unfolds as it does? It certainly didn’t have to unfold this way each year.  God the creator didn’t have to design these trees so that in the process of them doing what they were created to do and hunkering down for the winter months, we humans are treated to a spectacular display every autumn.    But God has put this in place, almost as if he knew that we would enjoy it so.  And the Almighty’s hunch must have been on target—try getting a room anywhere in the Shenandoah Valley right now! 

When we view life through the eyes of faith, a whole new dimension of reality dawns.  The glory of autumn is no accident; it is a glimpse of the glory of God.

Glory is the essence of what something or who someone is.

The glory of autumn.
Every tree in the forest is unique in the way it changes color in the fall.  We can say that each tree reflects God’s glory in its own distinct way.  By itself, it has beauty that we recognize when we see it, but when it joins with an entire forest, that beauty is magnified and we get the views that take our breath away—we behold the glory of autumn

If it’s true for trees, then how much more must it be true for human beings—the pinnacle of creation.  By ourselves we are wondrously made, but when we join together with one another and connect with God, we rise to a whole different level of living—we come fully alive.

Says St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive and the life of a human being is the vision of God.”  With due deference to the Saint, I might say it this way: 

God is glorified when we are fully ourselves and we become most fully ourselves as we behold God’s glory and reflect it to the world in our own unique way.

In Jesus Christ, we see the perfect reflection of God—the glory of God. We learn from the example of Jesus and others in Scripture, who each saw glimpses of that glory and reflected it in their own unique way in a specific place and time. (Hebrews 11 contains a list of examples.)  But we also see plenty of glimpses of glory in this life.  There are people, places, and moments along our journey that help us connect with and experience God more fully. Autumn leaves are just one example of the glory that surrounds us—if we can just train our eyes to see.  I urge us all to take time to discover and savor those gifts.  Live life with full intensity.  Become all God has created you to be.   

Reflect God’s glory to the world! —2 Corinthians 3:18

[1] While I say takes faith in something to ask why, I also recognize that some would not call that something “God”.

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