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Lent 2019

The Holiness of Lent

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. 

Book of Common Prayer, Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, p. 265
Photo by James L.W on Unsplash

In the Anglican-Episcopal tradition, the liturgical season of Lent begins with an invitation to participate in the observance of the season.  Active engagement in the season of preparation for Easter is for all Christians, lay people and ordained ministers alike.   It’s not simply a matter of “giving up something  for Lent.”  The “something” is often a little luxury that a person enjoys, but thinks is probably bad for them, like chocolate. The liturgy does not mention chocolate, or meat on Fridays!  Instead, the invitation is to look deep within oneself, in self-examination and repentance for the sinfulness that we all find there when our self-appraisals are honest.  Prayer, fasting, and self-denial are all time-honored spiritual disciplines that are encouraged throughout the year, but practiced in a more focused way during Lent.  The result is a picture of ourselves as God sees us, which leads to authentic contrition and commitment to follow God’s plan for us. 

During Lent we may practice self-denial by giving something up, or by taking something on that will benefit those who rely on God’s providence most.  When Lenten observance is grounded and shaped by engagement with God’s Word, we are assured that we are following God’s direction and not our own self-centered wishes.  Granted, it’s not as straightforward as giving up chocolate or meat, but it’s not complicated either.  In fact, the intent is to un-complicate this contemplative season.  Well-thought-through rules eliminate the stress of worrying whether we’re doing something “right,” and they help simplify decision-making, thus reducing stress.  For example, if your Lenten commitment is to attend a Lenten program such as a mid-week worship service or study, there is no decision to be made each week on Wednesday.   Attendance is a given.   Attention is freed up to focus on the message and content of the event.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Rather than being worrisome weights, spiritual disciplines have been proven over centuries to be effective ways to improve our relationship with God and with his creation.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Choose Lenten practices that help you live more simply.  Simple should also mean less stressful, so if a practice seems to produce more stress, that’s a signal that it either isn’t a good choice or expectations are unreasonable.  For example, I might decide to begin each day in Lent by reading a chapter in a book on spirituality, but then discover that my stress about time for meeting other responsibilities has increased.  That tells me that reading a chapter at the start of each day is not the right choice for me:  it may take too much time, or my mornings may need to be allocated to other tasks.  I should look for another type of reading material, or try reading at another time during my daily routine, or choose another form of practice, such as a short emailed meditation.  (see suggested resources below)
  • Structure your Lenten practice to incorporate contributing to the well-being of others.  For example, I might redirect the money that I would usually spend on a treat for myself (a daily specialty coffee drink?  weekly movie night?  a new book or magazine purchase?) toward a charitable fund or organization that will use it to meet needs of less fortunate people.  Another example:  if I commit to spending a set period of time in prayer every day during Lent, I can make that practice benefit others by devoting that prayer time to interceding on behalf of people who need God’s healing, strength, peace, discernment, or other comforts of his presence.

These are only a couple of ideas.  There are many more ways to combine sacred practice with simplicity.  Please share your suggestions – and, if you would, how they worked for you – in the comments.

A final word:  The essential component of any approach to the observance of a holy Lenten is authenticity.  Going through the motions for the sake of outward appearances will not benefit you spiritually.  Jesus talked about the Pharisees who loved to make public displays as they prayed aloud in the synagogue and on street corners, and who adopted facial expressions of deprivation to advertise when they were fasting.  Their reward, said Jesus, would be limited to the recognition or respect they gained from others who were fooled.  But they couldn’t fool God, who knew what was in their hearts, and we can’t fool him either.

Further blog posts during this Lenten season will focus on some of the spiritual practices that have proven helpful to Christians through the ages, and on the gifts of a holy Lent. 

Resources for Online Lenten Meditations

Breaking the Bread – from Paraclete Press; delivered daily

Go to https://paracletepress.com.  Click on link under “Stay in Touch” and provide email address in box.

Episcopal Relief and Development – delivered weekly

Go to https://episcopalrelief.org. Click on Church in Action, then Church Campaigns, then Lent.  Click on purple button “Subscribe to Lenten Meditations Daily Emails.”  Provide information requested.

Our Daily Bread –  delivered daily

Go to https://odb.org.  Click on Email.  Fill in required information.  (Can be delivered via Email or Mobile app.)

Verse and Voice – from Sojourners; delivered daily

                Go to https://sojo.net.  Fill in required information under Subscribe.

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Lent 2019

Lenten Gifts: Gratitude and Grace

A prayer card on the bulletin board in my office reads:

O Lord, you have given me so much. 

Please give me one thing more — a grateful heart.

Hydrangea – Floral Symbol of Gratitude

Owing to my long-standing fascination with word origins and derivations, I wondered whether gratitude and grace were related.  It turns out they are:  both are derived from the Latin word gratūs, meaning pleasing.  That word made me think of a Scripture verse I learned long ago:

And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments,  and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.                             1 John 3:22 (KJV)

This verse speaks of us doing things that we know will please God.  What he gives us, as reflected in the derivation of the words “grateful,” “gratitude,” and “grace” refers to things that are pleasing to us.  When  we seek to please God and he, despite his ultimate sovereignty and power, delights in pleasing us, the circle is complete.  Could that be what Eden was like before the fall?  Perhaps it’s similar to what heaven is like?

I started thinking about gratitude and grace a few weeks ago when I received a wonderful and entirely unexpected gift.  About two years ago I registered with one of the commercial DNA analysis companies.  They compare members’ DNA with that of known genetic groups to generate a profile describing each person’s genetic inheritance.  It’s also possible to compare an individual member’s DNA with that of other members in the database, to identify those that are genetically related.  I wanted to know about my genetic background because I was adopted at birth, and had only basic identifying information from my adoption record.  Perhaps – ideally – there would be others in the database whose DNA matched.  For many months only distant potential relatives showed up in the online match files, until I received an email from a man whose DNA matched mine at the 25% level, indicating that we are half-siblings.  Since then we’ve been in touch frequently by email and have spoken on the phone.  We’ve now embarked on a joint search for further information about our shared parent, and have plans to meet in person.  Gratitude is the most fitting word I know to describe the gift of knowing someone who is related to me.  I am so grateful for the former stranger I now know as family, as well as the technology that gives us the opportunity to connect with each other.  A remarkable development. 

At this point in human history our world seems tragically short of gratitude.  It’s a natural human tendency, exaggerated by some personality traits, to look first for what’s missing rather than what’s pleasing in a situation.  At least in western culture, possessing a “healthy skepticism” is considered wise.  We believe we should always be on our guard because “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”  Our first impulse is not to be thankful, but to be wary.  That’s a common outlook on life and not new, but these days such a perspective has been amplified.  Fear is the common denominator, a strong and pervasive undercurrent in our present discourse.

What if we intentionally cultivated the habit of looking first for what there is to be thankful for, before looking for fault or risk?  It may actually be fairly simple to change that perspective.  Take, for example, a physician with whom I once worked closely.  He came from Iran, and after many years in the U.S. his English was excellent, but he still had a few verbal expressions that readily identified him as a non-native English speaker.  One such comment was “Thanks God.” This was his response to any piece of favorable news that he received.  I couldn’t be sure whether he meant, “Thanks be to God” or maybe “Thank God,” as English speakers often say to express relief or satisfaction.  Still another possibility could be a personal mini-prayer:  “Thanks, God!”  It was an efficient, multi-purpose phrase, useful in a broad variety of situations.  In a way it really doesn’t matter which of the three meanings he intended, or even if there were other possibilities.  Any one of them expresses gratitude.  If we could prioritize thoughts of thankfulness over our typical skepticism, the rest of our thinking would fall into proper alignment.  God, whose grace is sufficient for every circumstance and whose power is more than sufficient to meet every need, is in charge.  The outcome is in God’s hands, not ours, no matter how diligently we search for lurking threat.

A final thought about the words “gratitude” and “grateful: ”  both are related to “grace,” and grace comes from God.  It’s a gift – unearned, unmerited, undeserved.  We can’t be grateful without God.  The prayer on my bulletin board asks for a grateful heart, that is, a heart transformed by God’s grace.  It’s the process that gradually breaks down our defensive posture and removes our need to be guarded and wary, as the heart softens.   We don’t make ourselves grateful:  God’s grace makes us grateful.  We need to be grateful for gratitude, as well as for every other good gift from the Creator.  How many times today have you said, “Thanks, God!”?

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Categories
Epiphany 2019

Christmas Blessings

Wait – why are we talking about Christmas at the beginning of March?  It’s been over for two months!  But as I see it, Christmas isn’t over, because Jesus is not a seasonal Savior.  His life-giving love and redemption are needed and available to us every day of every year, for as long as we dwell on this earth.  His payment of the penalty for the sin of the world is not a limited time offer.  Therefore, Christmas is not over, even by Super Bowl Sunday, or Valentine’s Day, or Shrove Tuesday or any day after that.

But our commercial culture is firmly wedded to the idea that Christmas is time-limited, and that it must end on December 25.  In an effort to exploit potential profits to the greatest possible degree, retailers stretch the season by starting it as early as they can.  Christmas decorations and gift ideas appear in stores and online by early September, intended to “put us in the mood” (the mood to buy, that is).  Magically, just as Santa manages to deliver all the toys and gifts during the night of December 24, commercial Christmas ends on December 25.  Holiday decorations disappear, merchandise is marked down for post holiday sales, and wreaths and bells are replaced by hearts and chocolate.  In the world of retail, Christmas takes a long time getting here, but it vanishes in a heartbeat.  That’s a shame, in my opinion.   There are more than enough blessings in the festival of the Savior’s birth to last till next December 25 and far beyond.

In the secular world, Christmas must move over to make room for the next major festival, Valentine’s Day, which styles itself as the ultimate celebration of love.  But it focuses on only one kind of love: human love – only a narrow slice of the breadth of love that God gave to the world he created.  It’s not the money we spend on cards and candy that keeps Christmas alive.  Romantic love between human beings can’t do that.  The only kind of love that can is God’s love for us.  Divine love is the soul of Christmas, the wonder of Epiphany, and the heart of our eternal salvation.  The Bible captures it in a few powerful words:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (3:16) God’s Son gave up his kingship, and ultimately his human life, showing us that perfect love is sacrificial.  The Apostle Paul describes how such love transforms our relationships with each other, so that how we love others reflects God’s love for us:  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)  Out of God’s love came the gift of his Son to be the means of salvation and reconciliation for all, because God loves all.

It’s fine to enjoy a hearts-and-flowers celebration of love when it’s put into proper context.  God is the source of all love and good in the world.  It’s the profoundly comforting and reassuring awareness of all that God has done and continues to do for us, whom he loves, that brings lasting joy to the soul – at Christmastide and in every season.

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Lent 2018

LISTENING FOR THE MESSAGE OF SACRIFICE

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

For some reason, the concept of Jesus’s death as a sacrifice is difficult for us to grasp. It seems archaic at best, barbaric at worst – but the idea of sacrifice really isn’t as foreign to our own experience as we sometimes think. All of us can probably think of many 21st century examples of sacrifice. For example, parents make financial sacrifices for their children so they can have better educational opportunities, or develop musical or athletic talents. Military families make many sacrifices in the service of their country – the separation of husbands and wives, parents and children; the loss of limbs and physical functions and at times psychological well-being; and sadly, in some instances, the loss of life. Only a month ago during yet another tragic school shooting, a beloved coach sacrificed his life to save the lives of students by shielding them from fire with his body. While these sacrifices vary widely in terms of their personal cost, they are all contemporary examples of people putting the needs and interests of others ahead of their own. Why, then, is the idea of personal sacrifice so disquieting when we apply it to Jesus?

Perhaps the answer lies in the incomparably greater sacrifice that Jesus made. We believe that Jesus’s death by crucifixion was the ultimate sacrifice for sin that releases all who believe in him from the power of evil and death. There are several ideas in this doctrine that might be uncomfortable to think about and also difficult to grasp. One is the sacrifice of a willing death. Jesus knew that according to God’s plan he had to die, and he chose to go through that death. He wasn’t coerced or compelled. He could have gotten out of it – he was the son of Almighty God and fully divine, after all – but he didn’t choose that course because his death was the only sacrifice that could satisfy the penalty for the sinfulness of the human race.

Of course the world in which Jesus lived was much more familiar with sacrifices to atone for sin, not only in the Jewish temple, but also among pagan religions. Sacrifices of livestock and other animals were common, and among some groups human sacrifice was also practiced. We consider the sacrifice of a human being to be barbaric, and the idea that the God of love would require the sacrifice of his own son is virtually unthinkable. But it’s precisely because of God’s love, expressed in human terms by his son, that Jesus’s death was sacrificial. The IVP New Testament commentary explains:


[Jesus’s] death is at the heart of the Son’s revelation of the Father, for God is love and love is the laying down of one’s life (cf. 1 John 4:8; John 3:16). So in the cross the heart of God is revealed most clearly. Selflessness and humble self-sacrifice are seen to be divine attributes. Throughout his life Jesus has done the Father’s will, and such selflessness is a key component in the eternal life he offers. God’s own life is a life of love that denies self for the sake of the beloved, and therefore such love is the very nature of life itself, real life. (IVP New Testament Commentary, downloaded from biblegateway.com)

Love, selflessness, and sacrifice are all bound together. Love motivates self-denial for the sake of the beloved. Thus Jesus’s sacrifice was not simply a mechanical killing to settle a score; it was the logical conclusion and fulfillment of divine love.

No doubt another troublesome aspect of Jesus’s sacrifice for humankind is the manner in which he died. The cross was an instrument of terror and torture, and not just a method of execution. The Romans made a big point of publicly displaying crucifixions as a deterrent to insurrection, so there was public humiliation in addition to physical suffering. Those executed on the cross were first flogged, and then went through hours and sometimes days of inescapable exposure to the sun and agonizing thirst as they hung from the cross. Breathing was difficult because of their body position. Pain was excruciating. It was one of the most inhumane ways to die imaginable. It’s generally pretty hard to find the love as we view at an artist’s rendering of the crucifixion.

But love is there, radiating from the cross, sustaining the savior through the ordeal, and pointing toward the triumph of resurrection. The story does not stop abruptly on Good Friday, because the crucifixion was not the end. Love overcomes all, even death.

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Lent 2018

LENT: A Time to Listen

Lent is the liturgical season of preparation for Easter, similar in nature to Advent which is the time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. In the early days of the Church, individuals who planned to be baptized at the Easter Vigil service spent the 40 days of Lent in prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Their preparation to join the family of the faithful followed the pattern set by Jesus himself during his 40-day fast in the desert. As Mark’s gospel records it, this time came immediately following Jesus’s baptism – literally the first thing he did as he began his ministry. The gospels also record Satan’s attempts to sabotage the fast, trying to take advantage of a hungry stomach and a mind playing tricks in the desert heat. Satan didn‘t appreciate that fasting was an experience of spiritual nourishment and refreshment for the Savior as he prepared to undertake his mission. We too can find nourishment and refreshment in our Lenten observance, if we approach the season as a time for listening for what God wants us to hear from him.

The last Sunday before Lent is observed as Transfiguration Sunday. That Sunday’s Gospel story of Jesus on the mountain, appearing before Peter, James and John in dazzling white clothing, and talking with Moses and Elijah, culminates in the spoken message from God: “Listen to my Son.” That’s all. Listen. No mention of working miracles or healing the sick or preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth. Listening is what God expects. We may think that sounds too simple, but it really isn’t because “just” listening isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Most of us have experienced the frustration of someone misinterpreting something we’ve said, or failing to acknowledge it. What do we say to that person? “You weren’t listening to me!” Not being listened to is insulting and emotionally hurtful, and has the potential to damage close relationships. The person who wasn’t listening may have heard the words that were said, but he may still not have an accurate impression of the intended meaning. That’s because the process of listening depends not only on our auditory function, but also on the cognitive and emotional components that interpret meaning and intent. All of those elements are also involved in listening for what our Lord has to tell us, plus one more crucial component: the spirit. The Bible often refers to it as “heart.” Many well-known thinkers have written about what the heart perceives that the mind and senses cannot; for example:

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart. – Helen Keller

Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye. – H. Jackson Brown, Jr. (author of Life’s Little Instruction Books)

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. — Blaise Pascal

The first step, then, is listening for God is to open our hearts. The Psalmist in Psalm 51 asks that God transform the sin-stained heart that has led him astray into a new, clean heart. We need to join the Psalmist in his humble request, because we cannot cleanse our hearts on our own. Thus we follow our Lord to the desert – figuratively, of course: taking six weeks out of our lives to become temporary hermits it isn’t practical for most of us! However, each of us can commit to giving special attention to a discipline like prayer, spiritual reading or meditation during the 40 days of Lent.

Spending even a short amount of time in quiet on a regular basis, listening for what God is communicating to us, will begin to open our hearts. We may not receive clear messages right away. Think about the many years of training and practice that counselors and pastoral caregivers undergo, and still they don’t hear everything perfectly every time. Listening, like other skills, improves with repetition. One key is to be open to receiving a message in any one of several forms, because God speaks to different people in different ways. Some people report ideas that perhaps quietly or perhaps more dramatically enter their minds, apparently from out of the blue. Others say that other people in their lives have transmitted messages, and still others speak of an unmistakable “sense” or awareness that permeates their consciousness. No matter what form God chooses to communicate with you, it’s well worth the time and effort to practice regular listening, and the season of Lent is an ideal time to begin.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

1. Most of the time, is your heart closed or open to receiving messages from God? How do you know?

2. What steps can you take to set aside a time and space conducive to opening your heart to God’s communication?

 

PRAYER

God, please cleanse my heart from all of the worldly attachments that distract from and shut out what you’re saying to my spirit. Open my heart to you and to your will. Amen.

Categories
Epiphany 2018

Epiphany: Let it Shine!

The previous blog post raised this question: How could the news of the Light of the World be spread to all people everywhere in the time of Jesus and afterward? Only a small minority of the population could read and write, and there were only rudimentary communications systems. Given such constraints, how would you go about sending any message to a significant number of people in a broad area? The answer is simple: You would tell people. Those who knew Christ carried the Light of his message to others, often one person at a time. Word-of-mouth is still an essential (and perhaps the most effective) way that this news is spread today.

Photo by takenbytablo from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/photography-of-black-metal-post-lamp-during-night-time-759958/

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:15-16)

Some believers shine their Light in highly visible settings by preaching and teaching, similar to the apostles in the early days of the Christian church. Others tell people individually, one conversation at a time, about how their lives have been changed by Jesus. Ways to share the Light include doing as well as telling. Many believers shine with the Light of Christ in providing practical forms of care and support to people in need, while others make the Light visible by sharing their material resources for good works. All of these methods are valid and useful, and all of them make a real difference in our world and to the people who inhabit it.

On the other hand, many and perhaps most believers are reluctant to spread the Light of Christ. They say they don’t want to be intrusive to others’ privacy, or they don’t feel qualified to tell the news, or they’re afraid of being rejected or ridiculed, or … you’ve probably heard these reasons before. Bushel baskets come in many different styles and sizes! Of course we all need to respect the rights and preferences of others: No one is favorably impressed by an encounter with a steamroller. And we do want to make sure that the message that we spread is true to the historic teachings of our faith. In a post-religious society we must certainly be prepared to face the realistic risk of rejection or ridicule. Being rebuffed is not pleasant, to be sure, but letting our fear of that experience prevent us from trying is neglecting our mission. This kind of thinking focuses too much on the messenger and too little on the message.

To regain a proper perspective, it may be helpful to examine some of the physical properties of light. Light is powerful. You don’t need the wattage that emanates from a Broadway marquee to illuminate an average-sized room, or even an auditorium. As long as there is even a tiny glimmer from a single candle, a space is not dark.

Do you remember the 1920s children’s hymn that was later adopted by the Civil Rights movement, “This Little Light of Mine?” Its lyrics remind us of a key truth about light (repeats are edited):
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine….
Won’t let Satan blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine….
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine….
Shine all over the whole wide world, I’m gonna let it shine….
Let it shine till Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine….

Did you notice that the song doesn’t say “I’m going to make it shine?” Shining is what a light does naturally: you just have to let it shine.

By its very nature the Good News pierces through the darkness of evil. Jesus came into the world to release all people everywhere from bondage to sin. Those who have welcomed this news to guide their lives naturally live in the Light of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit beams that Light through everything they do – how they treat the people with whom they come in contact, how they go about their daily duties, how they make decisions and set priorities. It pervades their attitudes and emotions as well as their actions. It’s actually a much bigger job to keep the Light hidden than to let it shine! Attempts to hide the light under a bushel basket rather than putting it on a lampstand may be futile, because light seeks its own way around barriers or obstructions, seeping out through any small crack or gap. Light is both powerful and persistent.

Epiphany is a good time to think about the Light of Christ: Where have you seen it shining lately? What do you think might have happened if the person who carried the Light had instead hidden it under a bushel basket? Do you ever try to hide the Light of Christ within you? Under what type of bushel basket? What would it take to replace your bushel baskets with lampstands?

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Epiphany 2018

EPIPHANY: Light to the Ends of the Earth!

At the conclusion of the Advent season we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, popularly known as Christmas. The liturgical season of Christmas lasts for twelve days, beginning on Christmas Eve and ending on January 5. In stores and homes the Christmas trees and decorations are often back in their boxes by noon on December 26, but the celebration that the church awaited through the long, dark weeks of Advent continues into the first days of the New Year. As hours of daylight lengthen, albeit ever so slowly, our thoughts turn to hopes for the year to come.

The Twelve Days of Christmas are followed by the season of Epiphany, which lasts until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The Greek word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “appearing.” The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 commemorates the revelation of the Messiah to three “wise men” (better translated “Magi” or “astrologers”) from the East. As told in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, three sages (most likely Middle Eastern, not Oriental, as the well-known carol says) noted the rising of an unusual star in the course of their study of the night sky. They interpreted the star’s appearance as a sign of the birth of an infant king of the Jewish people, and determined to use the star to guide them to him. They first went to Jerusalem, the logical place to look for a Jewish king, but the star led them further and they found the baby and his parents in Bethlehem; there they presented him with royal gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Photo by Inbal Malca on Unsplash

The story of the Magi and their gifts to the Christ Child is sometimes cited as the origin of our present-day practice of giving gifts at Christmas; however, gift-giving was actually a custom of the Romans during their Saturnalia festival, which celebrated the winter solstice. More significant to the observance of Epiphany is the type of gifts brought to the Christ Child, because it reveals that the astrologers understood the extraordinary nature of this birth. Gold was precious, reserved for a person of great importance, such as a king. Frankincense symbolized sacred worship, and foreshadowed the earthly ministry of the Son of God. Myrrh was a rare and valuable resin used in burial rituals, and foretold the sacrifice that Jesus would make to fulfill God’s plan of redemption. How could three Gentile sages studying the stars arrive at such deep insight into the coming of the Jewish Messiah? Some scholars have suggested that it must have been a revelation from God – a gift of wisdom. That may, in fact, be the greatest treasure of the season, given specifically to non-Jews.

The dual emphasis of the season of Epiphany is on two fundamental aspects of the identity and ministry of Jesus: Christ the Light of the World, and Christ the Hope of the Gentiles. The story of the astrologers who visited the Infant King with their treasured gifts captures both of these elements. The star that summoned and guided them stands for the Light of Christ. Their identity as Gentiles makes clear that God’s Son came to bring the hope of release from sin both to God’s chosen people and also to non-Jews. Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming of the Light of the World has the force of, “All the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; all those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. “ (Isaiah 9:2) We must always remember that we (most of whom are not descended from Jewish ancestors) would not have been included in God’s plan of salvation if Messiah had not been sent for us. And it’s equally important to remember that the Light of the World who came for us also came for all people created by God.

While we rejoice in the good news that the Light of the World has come for us, we may wonder how that Light and Hope could possibly be spread from a small obscure village in Judea to all people, Jews and Gentiles, across the world. More about that question in the next blog post.

Categories
Advent 2017

Fourth Week of Advent: Looking Up

Some scholars who specialize in studying ancient religions say that to understand the spiritual practices of a people it’s necessary to know whether they believed that their gods were beings of the heavens or of the earth. This information helps explain the derivation of their images and icons – sun, moon, stars and comets versus mountains, rivers, thunder and lightning, and fire. It also helps clarify their observances of cycles in time, such as the seasons. For example, some early peoples measured time by the cycles of the sun and moon, while others defined time in terms of changes in vegetation and animal behavior. You could say the defining factor is whether they looked up to the heavens or down to the earth to connect with a spiritual dimension of existence.

What about us? Where do we derive our inspiration? What animates us – earthly things or things of heaven? It seems we should be able to draw a clear line between the two, but in the countdown to Christmas it’s far too easy to slip over that line. Of course we know that Jesus is the Reason for the Season, and that the Messiah comes into the world in the person of the Christ Child born in Bethlehem. But we also know in our heart of hearts that we love to receive gifts as well as give them. If we were completely truthful with ourselves, we’d have to admit that there are things we hope for as much as Ralphie Parker coveted the Red Ryder BB gun in the classic Christmas movie. We’re creatures of the earth, after all, and earthly things hold an inherent appeal for us.

Jesus spoke to this point in the Sermon on the Mount, recounted in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (verses 19-21)

The key sentence, often passed over, is the last one. Where we invest ourselves – our time, energy, affection, and financial resources – is where our hearts will follow. If we spend every waking moment laboring to advance our career, then our heart will belong to that career. If we invest as much of our financial resources as we can possibly manage, sacrificing or deferring other things, in order to visit a particular place or acquire a particular car or other type of property, then our heart will belong to that possession.

What’s especially telling is where we choose to invest our time where there are competing possibilities. When two or more options are mutually exclusive, how we decide between or among them reveals our core values: what we consider good and worthwhile and desirable. The season before Christmas presents many such choices, because there is never enough time, not to mention money, to do everything.
As we end the contemplative season of Advent and move into the Twelve Days of Christmas, it’s a good time to assess our values and priorities, and commit to realigning them with the heavenly treasures that the coming of the Christ Child makes possible.

Questions for Reflection

1. Think about some of the choices you have made through this season – which gifts to buy and not buy, which events to attend and forego, etc. Which of your core values were revealed by each of those choices?

2. What are two measures you can take to shift your focus away from earthly things and toward heavenly things?

 

Note:

In 2017 the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls on December 24.  Therefore the fourth week of Advent is shortened to a single day, because the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas begins after sundown on Christmas Eve.

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Advent 2017

Third Week of Advent: Looking Ahead

 

If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard (or said), “if only:” “If only I had more time, I could get involved in the local _____________ agency (fill in the name of a service organization of your choice).” “If only my parent hadn’t fallen on the basement steps, s/he wouldn’t need more care now.” “If only we had more young families in our congregation, we could have a strong youth program.” “If only our congregation were bigger, we could afford to do community outreach.”

The “if only’s” are one sign of a common and potentially destructive thought pattern. You might call it pessimism or negative thinking, focusing on the glass half empty versus half full. I look at it as deficit thinking: Despite naming an asset or favorable circumstance, the emphasis is on the lack of availability or loss of that asset. Framing an issue as a deficit leads to flawed reasoning in at least three ways:

(1) It assumes that the absence of the asset is real, that is, it would be confirmed by a neutral observer, and that the deficit is permanent and irreversible.

(2) It implies that the deficit is the sole reason for an unfavorable situation.

(3) It keeps people from looking and moving forward, creating a chronic perception of “without-ness” that skews perceptions of other present and future situations.

When a person believes that there is a deficiency that cannot be changed and is solely responsible for a poor outcome, it’s easy to see how deficit thinking can keep him stuck and actually excuse him from taking action to improve things. If only we could rid ourselves of “if only” thinking!

The good news is that there’s an effective antidote to the “if only” trap: spending the quieter moments of Advent in meditation about God’s promises throughout the ages and their fulfillment in his Son. Pondering what God has already done, still does, and will continue to do for us lends a fresh perspective. He has already paid the penalty for the sin that we are attracted/addicted to. He has already sent his Spirit for our guidance, protection, strength and comfort. When we pay attention, we can see evidence of the Spirit taking action in our lives every day, as individual children of God and in our life together as God’s earthly family. God assures us of his continued presence and providence, and ultimately of life forever in his presence. If Christmas is defined by the giving of gifts, Christians can celebrate Christmas every day.

Some of our daily gifts come wrapped in peculiar packages. Some look like barricades, or feel like arrows aimed at us, or sound like doors slamming in our faces. We don’t get what we want all the time, but sometimes delays and denials are gifts too. Sometimes when our plans don’t work out in the way we’d like, we are instead given opportunities to serve in other ways or to develop other skills and talents. If nothing else, frustrations are an exercise in patience, and most of us can always use more of that!

Claiming the greatest of all of God’s gifts – life with him beginning now and extending into eternity – requires looking ahead. The coming of the Savior into the world is not only a historic event; it happens every day. Jesus promised that he would always be with us, and that he would send his Spirit for our daily strength, guidance and comfort. He did not promise that this life would be perfect, if by “perfect” you mean “problem-free.” Trials will continue to press in from every side, or pull us in a hundred different directions at the same time. The Spirit’s presence helps us look ahead to the other side of trials and crises, possibly identifying options and solutions that may not have appeared before.
Ahead-thinking is possibility thinking. The future always looks brighter in light of God’s grace and mercy. His unfailing love is always present to us in the work of his Spirit. The God who made us and continues to shape us in his image bestows his gifts on us every day of our lives on earth. We have and always will have enough of whatever we need. We can look ahead with confidence and joy.

Questions for Reflection

1. What is one example of “If only…” thinking that keeps you locked into the past and/or prevents you from looking forward?

 

2. Which of God’s gifts to you can you claim more fully now and in the future?

 

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Advent 2017

Second Week of Advent: Looking Around

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” proclaims the familiar song. That is surely an apt observation: it’s been looking a lot like Christmas since before Hallowe’en. Are you willing to do an easy experiment? Every time you think of it today, take a moment to look around and allow the sights and sounds of the season to come to the forefront of your awareness. What do you see and hear? Any of the following?

• Frantic, frazzled shoppers searching for the “perfect” gift for each person on their lists.
• People rushing to decorate their homes, send Christmas cards and letters, and get pre-holiday baking and cooking done in time.
• Loudspeakers in the mall, the grocery store, the bank, the restaurant, and any other place of business you can think of playing Christmas carols and songs.
• Lights, glitter, tinsel, boughs, bows and still more lights on stores, homes, street lights, even cars and buses.
• Promotions for an endless listing of Christmas plays, concerts, programs, and displays, to be crammed into holiday calendars already packed with office parties, church functions and family get-togethers.
To sum it all up, too much of everything – noise, activity, spending, consumption – squeezed into too little time and stretching thin too few resources, including time and energy. That’s a recipe for lethal levels of stress.

Now compare what you see when you look around with the nature of the season of Advent as originally intended: a time for personal preparation in silence, reflection, repentance, and almsgiving. Can you imagine anything more opposite? We’ve gotten to a place so far removed from the meaning of the season it’s hard to imagine how we’ll ever be able to get back. True, it takes courage to counter the culture of commercial Christmas, but even small changes in the right direction can have a big impact.
Where to start? Anywhere you can! A few ideas:

• Turn down or turn off the sounds of Christmas by turning off your car radio or TV. Avoid Christmas music until Christmas actually arrives. Instead, spend some time in quiet places in your house, at work, or at a place of worship.
• Set aside time for reading, reflection and meditation. Choose books, articles, or Scripture passages about the meaning of the festival of Christ’s birth: God coming to share life with us on earth.
• Wait to decorate your tree and home until just before Christmas. Schedule the parties and gatherings that you host during the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 6) or later in January.
• Make time to volunteer with charitable organizations and/or donate to causes that provide for the needy during the Advent season. You can combine gift-giving and almsgiving by making donations in honor of your family members and friends.

If you can only make one change in your Advent practice this year, start with silence. Remember that the prophet Elijah at Mount Horeb could not hear God’s voice in a great wind, an earthquake, or a fire, but finally heard God speak through the sound of sheer silence (see 1 Kings 19:11-13)**. Replacing some of the holiday clamor with silence makes space for the Spirit who speaks in silence. It will also make a difference in your holiday observance that you will notice and appreciate, and may inspire friends and family members to make changes too.

Questions for Reflection
1. When and where can you set aside time and find a place for reading and quiet reflection? (HINT: The span of time need not be lengthy, and the best space may not be in your home.)

2. What one activity in your holiday schedule can you modify, reschedule or eliminate to reduce stress and create space for personal preparation? (HINT: Changes in family structure often necessitate modifying long-standing traditions, such as when an adult child marries and the in-laws’ holiday plans need to be incorporated. These are opportunities to simplify the season.)

References

* Organizations such as Heifer International and Episcopal Relief and Development pool modest gifts to make larger scale investments that improve health and self-sufficiency in Third World communities. Donating to such organizations is a good way to reset the tone of the season and offer a good example for younger people, and take care of some of the stress of gift-giving at the same time.

** He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”