Nov 29, 2011

Advent Countdown to Christmas 2011

Advent is about waiting. What exactly are we waiting for?

Advent means “the appearance or coming of the Lord” in New Testament theology. Accordingly, Paul writes in his letters about the two comings of the Lord. The first coming is what Christians celebrate when they observe the festival of Christmas. The Second Advent, what the church calls the “parousia” or the so-called “Second Coming of Christ,” addresses when Jesus returns to accomplish or complete history as humans understand it.

The Second Coming also ushers in what Hebrew scripture calls “The Day of the Lord,” or “Yom Yahweh.” Paul reminds the church at Philippi that the Lord will protect and fulfill the Lord’s promise on this day. Thus, the theological importance of the Advent of Christ and Christmas has deep religious implications. The coming of Christ is a tangible symbol of the fulfillment of God’s ultimate promises to God’s people.

To bring all this theology back to earth, I suggest that when life is tough on Christians the best defense is to remember what God has done. It is also important to remember what God has promised to continue to do for Christians. To fully and clearly remember God’s promises may fill us with joy. After all, God promises to do for God’s people everything that they cannot or will not do for themselves.

Divine gifts provide human beings with every reason for joy and rejoicing. When God’s promises fill us, we realize that we may contain authentic joy. As Charles Wagner wrote: “Joy is not a thing, it is in us.” In other words, we do not grab for joy, rather joy grabs us. Consequently Paul can write—and mean it—“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We, as Christians, rejoice because we know the source of our joy is not within us. Our joy comes from God.

Every pastor I know has a persistent love/hate relationship with his or her church. We love our churches, but we hate some of the things people we love do to themselves and to others. I know pastors who despair when their church members violate marriage vows, or break a promise not to drink again, or disappointed their children by forgetting their little ones’ importance. Yet the joy generated in being a pastor is not from the people we serve. Rather, the joy is in serving God, who has called them into ministry.

A beautiful quilt, given to my family by one of our first churches, hangs over the end of our bed. Stitched into the quilt were the names of every member of that church. Those names constantly remind us of a gift of love that produces joy in our lives. The quilt reminds us of the loving relationship between a church and its pastoral family.

Sometimes, I can even imagine that God looks at the names God has stitched into the heavens. As God looks at these names, God no doubt ponders of the loving relationship between Christ’s saints through the centuries and God’s own self. To be in that number is all the success that any human being needs. To be in that number is all the love that any human being needs. To be in that number is all the joy that any human being needs. We need not strive for it because God has given to us as a gift. We call the gift the demonstration of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Christmas, and the Advent of Christ that precedes it, is a constant reminder that God plants our joy into our hearts. We do not need to seek joy, nor do we have to work for it. Our faith in Christ gives us our joy. This is the true Christmas present that we may search for over a lifetime—and our joy was here all along.

Nov 25, 2011

Christmas is Coming...

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

It is the way the old children’s rhyme "Christmas is Coming" begins.

Indeed, here we are near Christmas, which is the one religious holiday that we all plan and work hard to celebrate. I will grant you that, theologically speaking, Easter Sunday and Easter season, the liturgical season by which the church proclaims the resurrection faith, may be the most important of Christian holy days. Yet, for some reason, all of us go all out for Christmas—sometimes, whether or not we want to and whether or not we intend to. By contrast, on Easter eve, for example—a day the church calls Holy Saturday—we see scant evidence that anyone is about to celebrate a major religious festival. On Holy Saturday most businesses are open and life looks pretty much like business as usual.

However, on Christmas Eve most communities have a different feel from daybreak on. There are fewer cars on our roads, many people choosing to prepare at home for the festivities at hand. On Christmas Eve afternoon, after the banks close at noon for the holiday, even the largest downtown square in the world look a little like the most abandoned squares in the world. We write Christmas cards and letters, we put lights on our houses, and we decorate the inside of our homes with care. Clearly, planning and preparing for Christmas are activities in which many, many people share at this time of the year.

Yet, despite our careful preparation and planning for Christmas, some of the most memorable moments of Christmas occur in times and places we least expect it. Like the unlikely birth of the Son of God in a stable to a young unmarried virgin, Christmas and its significance is all too often lost on us. Could it be, perhaps, that we look in the wrong places for Christmas meaning?

Regardless of our careful planning, my prayer for us this Christmas season is that we might find the meaning of Christmas in the mystery that God offers us in the Christ child. In a world that rarely listens to children’s voices, may we not forget the words of Isaiah who prophesied long ago “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

May we all open our hearts and lives to that mystery for which none of us can plan.

Nov 22, 2011

Thanksgiving Cometh!

Sometimes, we Americans think we invented the Day of Thanksgiving. The truth is, however, that Thanksgiving as a day dates plainly back to our Hebrew forebears. It is a day all about rituals that teaches us about giving thanks. Sometimes, modern folk see ritual as a negative word. Yet the truth is that ritual habitually helps us assimilate those meanings of our common life that are bigger than the words we use to explain them. This is why ritual is so important in life. Ritual relates the things we hold dear, although many of us could not articulate why these things are so important. Thanksgiving is mere a day, yet it reminds us about the gratitude we can express each and every day of our lives.

One of the Bible’s greatest history lessons relates Yahweh weaving certain rituals into the fabric of the Hebrew community’s life. For one example we can consider the ritual preparation for Passover (Exodus 12). There we find detailed instructions on how, when, and where to eat the Passover meal. Moreover, these instructions also yield theological meaning. Likewise, in a lesson for Thanksgiving Day, Yahweh instructs the people of Israel concerning other rituals that continue to remind them that they are not like other peoples. Rather, they are a people, constituted by God, to be a just society that bears in mind the less fortunate. In addition, they are a community that offers its thanksgiving to God (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

Moses reminds the people what they are to do when they have entered the land of promise. Not only will they possess it and settle it; they are also to offer “the first of all the fruit of the ground.” Why? By offering their first fruits to God they remind themselves that the land they have settled and possess was not by their own doing. Instead, it is a gift from Yahweh. It is a divine expression of the grace in which they dwell. Nothing they have done, nothing they do or will do will change the gifted nature of God’s bequest to them. Rather, the proper response of the people is clearly not self-congratulations—the appropriate response is nothing other than a human expression of thanksgiving to God Almighty. In fact, these texts remind us that Yahweh and Moses leave nothing to chance. The manner of the collection and the persons who are responsible for the gathering of the gifts are quite explicit. The offering commemorates “that I [or we] have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

Along with the gift is a reminder of why this gift of land is important. This is the people’s response: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous . . . ”  The response ends, appropriately enough, with these words: “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

When a “Ministerial Alliance” asks me to preach the ecumenical “Community Thanksgiving Service” as I have often been asked to do over the years, I always do it with “fear and trembling.” After all, what does the preacher say to people after he or she says, “We ought to all be more thankful”? DUH?

When the people bring their first fruits to the Lord, they do so as a token sign and symbol of the lavish gifts that God has poured out on their community. As people of faith, these Hebrews worship a generous and benevolent God. Not only this, but this same God expects this community to likewise live lives that reflect the generous and benevolent God they worship. In other words, Yahweh, through Moses’ mouth and speech, teaches the people the fine art of generosity toward others. Can we in this rich land of our do less?

Nov 18, 2011

Acedia: the Noonday Demon

A few weeks ago Mel LeBlanc, a religious-type who lives and “councils” in Arlington, sent me a book he thought we might have a mutual interest in and discussion about. The book was Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris. She has also written The New York Times bestsellers The Cloister Walk, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and The Virgin of Bennington. She is a lovely writer and I recommend anything she has written—very thoughtful and very honest.

Norris begins Acedia & Me with an except from Evagrius Ponticus’ treatise called The Praktikos (written near the end of the fourth century—roughly in the time of Augustine). Evagrius Ponticus writes about “The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon.” Funny thing is that the 2011 Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary informs us that acedia’s first known use was in 1607. Webster is wrong about this. Acedia is an ancient word that perhaps resurfaced in 1607—ironically the year that Jamestown, VA was established.

Recently, I was writing about acedia and of the dangers of success. I noted that the chief danger of success is that success places us in the province of little resistance and no struggle. The Greeks had a term for this concept and later the Romans called it acedia. Acedia is sometimes defined as sloth or uncaring. It actually comes from Latin root words that mean “absence of care” or “indifference.”

The time of day that acedia was most likely to overwhelm someone was at noontime—when no shadow was cast. It strikes in bright noonday sun of clarity, rather than in the darkness of despair. Acedia does not strike the struggling person, those who strive for daily bread and survival. Rather acedia always strikes the person who sits at the top of the success heap. It strikes the person at the apex of his or her achievement.

Norris explores this concept of acedia throughout a whole book and not just an article or essay. She writes that the:

standard dictionary definitions of acedia as 'apathy,' 'boredom,' or 'torpor' do not begin to cover it, and while we may find it convenient to regard it as a more primitive word for what we now term depression, the truth is much more complex. Having experienced both conditions, I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.

One of the reasons that acedia is so applicable to us today, is that we all know the malaise of too much food, too much money, too much success, and the like. We work like crazy for free time and when it comes we do not know what to do with it. As the writer Walker Percy notes in his book Lost in the Cosmos, “Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself.” This is as good a definition of acedia as I can think of. We are each too much of everything.

Nov 11, 2011

The Venetian Blind

I read a funny story recently that has something to do with how much thought we give to giving. Caskei Stinnett wrote in Speaking of Holiday:
A fellow in our office told us recently of a household incident of which he had been an innocent but perplexed spectator. Our friend had called a Venetian-blind repairman to come pick up a faulty blind, and the next morning, while the family was seated at the breakfast table, the doorbell rang. Our friend’s wife went to the door, and the man outside said, “I’m here for the Venetian blind.” Excusing herself in a preoccupied way, the wife went to the kitchen, fished a dollar from the food money, pressed it into the repairman’s hand, then gently closed the door and returned to the table. “Somebody collecting,” she explained, pouring the coffee.

I have to admit, I thought this was a pretty funny story. Yet how often do I simply give out of habit or routine? The last few weeks I have been reading a book by Doug Leblanc titled Tithing: Test Me in This. This book, which would have been one of the last books I would have ever considered reading, reminded me that often giving is something that we robotically do. Perhaps, however, giving should be something we think about as an activity, like prayer—a part of our systematic life of faith.

As a segment of his interviews of people who tithe, Leblanc writes about what Randy Alcorn said about the spiritual practice of tithing:
What I always say to people is that if you take the standard of 10 percent and say God required it of the poorest people in Old Testament Israel, and that we’re under the grace of Jesus and we have the indwelling Holy Spirit and we live in this incredibly affluent culture, do you think he would expect less of us?
I have always tried to be a good giver—sometimes better, sometimes needing improvement. The last few years I have tried to move closer and closer to the tithing standard—not quite there yet . . . but moving closer and closer all the time.

I am thankful that even now God challenges us to be better and more complete believers and leads us in the spiritual paths that lead toward the Realm of God.

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