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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?”

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Advent 2017

First Week of Advent: Looking Back

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, it’s a challenge to avoid looking back. Nostalgia is rampant. Families observe many long-standing holiday traditions: unpacking treasured decorations, putting up the tree, sharing holiday meals featuring favorite menus and recipes, attending concerts and programs, sharing memories and family stories, and singing familiar Christmas carols. In many families the celebration cannot be considered complete without engaging in all of the customary activities, right down to the last tiny detail.

The Church, too, invites us to look back, but much further back: to the time hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, when prophets foretold the coming of a Savior who would fulfill God’s plan of salvation for his broken world. The Old Testament prophecies pertaining to Messiah, many of which are read during the Advent season, are comforting and hopeful:

 

He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:11)

 

 

 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. (Isaiah 61:1-4)

 

… they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid; (Micah 4:3-4)

 

 

Who wouldn’t want to live in a wholly just and peaceful world? Leaving behind the pain and chaos of the world as we know it, to live in a world without oppression, pain, and sorrow, should be universally appealing, even to those with hardship-hardened hearts. The promise of eternal life in such a world is encompassed in the promise of Messiah. The Israelites held onto it for many centuries. At the appointed time God’s Anointed One would come to liberate his chosen people. From the powers like the Assyrians and the Babylonians in the time of the prophets, to the Romans of Jesus’ earthly lifetime, to the anti-Semitic forces such as the Nazis in more recent times, wave after wave of oppression was endured because of faith in the promise that Messiah would come to overcome the human sinfulness that resulted in so many forms of human suffering. In God’s good time, all would be well.

It’s not exactly news that greed, lust for power, suspicion and hatred of others and other forms of human sinfulness have yet to be eradicated. The end of the age that Jesus spoke about has not yet come. Christians believe that Messiah came to earth once, and will come again to inaugurate the reign of peace on earth. So this season we join with the Hebrew prophets who still wait for Messiah’s arrival, and take comfort in their message of hope.

Questions for Reflection

1. What type of oppression in the world today is of greatest concern to you? How does it relate to the human inclination to sin? What could you pray for that might help mitigate the consequences of this type of oppression?

2. How have you experienced the presence of Messiah and of his Spirit in your life? How have these experiences impacted your daily life?

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Advent 2017

Advent: Preparation and Perspective

The season of Advent has been observed by the Christian Church for the four weeks before Christmas since the sixth century. It was designated a time of preparation and penitence, and initially observed similarly to the Lenten season that precedes Easter. Advent was to be set aside for prayer, fasting and alms-giving, focused on preparing the hearts of the faithful to receive the Christ Child at the time of the Feast of the Incarnation (Christmas). The thirty or so days of Advent were solemn and subdued, in contrast to the joyous mood of the Twelve Days of Christmas that followed.

Contemporary society seems to have reversed these two seasons. The time before Christmas is now the time when we try frantically to squeeze in everything we feel compelled to do to celebrate the secular season: the shopping, the gifts, the baking, the parties, the performances, and for many, the travel arrangements. The days after Christmas have become the more subdued time. As a result, the pre-Christmas season is now known for producing high levels of stress and anxiety and not much calm or contemplation. Many of us long for even a moment of peace amid the chaos of commercial Christmas.

This set of weekly reflections is intended to help you arrive at a new perspective on the Advent season. I invite you to pause and take a brief “time out,” to create a space of calm and quiet during which you can prepare to receive the Savior. Keep in mind that we prepare for the arrival of a person and not a date on the calendar. Remember, too, that the goal is not to stage the “perfect” Christmas celebration. Rather, the goal of Advent is to be ready to greet God himself with a contrite spirit and a humble heart. May we all have a Blessed Advent season.