Advent 4

On this last Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy.

What is joy?

Perhaps we should start out by saying what it is not. Joy is not necessarily happiness. Happiness can be fleeting, dependent on events happening in our lives–or the lives of our loved ones. If circumstances change, happiness may disappear.

But joy…joy is an emotion that comes from deep in our heart. We can find joy even in the most difficult of life circumstances…even when common sense says we should be completely down in the dumps.

So what makes the difference?

Joy may include happiness, but it goes deeper. We have joy when we know we have a firm foundation we can build our lives on–someone we can trust to always be with us through both good and bad times…someone who loves us, no matter what.

Joy acknowledges that life is not always easy, but it also knows that we are never alone, even when it may feel like we’ve been abandoned. Our human family, our friends may turn away from us–but the One whose birth we are preparing to celebrate never does.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories (and movies) this time of year–Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Cratchit family lacks much of the “things” that we tend to think are necessary to find happiness, and also are dealing with the illness of the youngest child–and yet when they are preparing for their Christmas dinner, Bob Cratchit (the patriarch of the family) is still able to offer a toast of thanks and gratefulness for what they have…the love of family. They have joy.

And so…as we light this candle of joy, my wish, my blessing for each of you is this quote from Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one!” And may you be blessed with true joy, not just this day but throughout the year.




Adventskranz 3. Advent

Today we lit the third candle of Advent–the candle of love.

What is love?

There are many ways to define it. I remember as a child enjoying the Peanuts definition – “Love is a warm puppy.” But is that all there is to it?

English can be a challenging language because many times, we only have one word to identify multiple emotions. That’s true of “love.”

When Prince Charles and Princess Diana held their first news conference so many years ago, when someone asked Charles if he was in love with her, he replied “Whatever in love means.” That did not bode well for their marriage–but there is a lot of truth in his statement.

We love ice cream…if you’re a woman, you may love a particular dress…we love the weather…or a sports team…or our spouse…our children…

Do we really know what love is?

The One whose birth we are preparing for came to show us true love…a love so strong that he was willing to give his life for others. Occasionally we see that in other human beings around us. Unfortunately, far too often we settle for an “easy” definition.

But perhaps the best definition–and the challenge–of living in love can be found in a verse often used during weddings. But it’s a good challenge for each of us as we continue our preparation for celebrating the baby who came 2000 years ago–and whose coming we look forward to now:

What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels? If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

What if I gave away all that I owned and let myself be burned alive? I would gain nothing, unless I loved others.

Love is kind and patient, never jealous, boastful, proud, or rude.

Love isn’t selfish or quick tempered.

It doesn’t keep a record of wrongs that others do.

Love rejoices in the truth, but not in evil.

Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting.

Love never fails!


When is the dawn?

There’s a rabbinical story that I have always liked. There are several versions, but it goes something like this:

A rabbi was talking with his students. He asked them this question: “How can we know when it is dawn–the time at which the night ends and the day begins?”

The students were puzzled. One asked, “Is it when you can look from a distance and tell whether it’s your house or your neighbor’s?”

“No,” the rabbi answered.

“Is it when you can tell your animal in the field from your neighbor’s?”

“No,” answered the rabbi again.

“Is it when you can see a flower in the garden and distinguish its color?”

The rabbi was frustrated. “Why do you think only in terms of separations? The dawn has come when you can look into the face of another human being and recognize that they are your sister or your brother. Until then, it is still night.”

That story seems particularly appropriate in light of the last couple of weeks…when we seem to have been unable or unwilling to see the humanity of those we disagree with.

For some right now, it seems as though we are in night, a night that feels as though it will never end.

And yet…

There’s another saying as well that seems appropriate. It first seems to have appeared in 1650 and has been used in various ways, including in a recent movie about England in World War II: “It’s always darkest right before the dawn.”

And that’s what gives me hope.

In what appears to be a very dark time, I have hope that the dawn is not far away…that there are those who can help us see it coming as they help us see the sister and brother in “the other.”

Healing spiritual wounds…

I’ve mentioned before that a few years ago I was deeply wounded by people in my church–people who were in leadership positions and who made decisions that impacted me and many of my friends in negative ways to the point that I wondered if there was a place for me in the church that I had spent my entire life in, worshiped in, and worked for. Thanks to some wonderful counseling, the gift of presence from a couple of other individuals in leadership positions, and the grace of God I’ve been able to come through that situation with healing, although the scars will always be there.

Recently someone (and I can’t remember who) recommended a book that I checked out of the library and have been reading through. It’s a book I wish I had had during that very dark night–but I also am not sure that I would have been ready to read it then. Because I find myself still sometimes dealing with feelings triggered by actions or words that remind me of that time, it’s a book I’m going to buy and actually work through. With it being a library book, that’s been harder to do…I can’t write in it, and I need to get through reading it so that it can be returned on time!

It’s titled Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God after Experiencing a Hurtful Church by Carol Howard Merritt. While her experiences were different from mine, she has some good exercises for working through hurts that have been caused by churches and church people. 

Some of those hurts sometimes seem to be intentionally caused because of a specific theology. Sometimes the hurts are unintentional–people simply fail in living up to the ideals they espouse.

But either way, the hurts can be deep…and they can leave us wondering how–and if–we can heal…whether there is a place for us in our spiritual home.

It is possible–and this book can be very helpful in working through the process. 

Without a past…

Those of you who know me know that I love to read. I’m currently reading a book whose title intrigued me (The Woman without a Past)—and inspired this post. (That’s the only thing the two items have in common!)

What happens when we live “without a past”?

I’ve been musing about America…and wondering if, in many ways, we are a country without a past. Perhaps not in the way people might think—after all, we have a 200+ year history.

But…if we are not willing to honestly come to terms with our past, perhaps we really don’t have one.

What do I mean by that?

We need to listen to each other…all of us.

We are not simply a white Christian country. There were indigenous civilizations before the white people came to this country—and we have yet to truly become aware of their history…and how the interactions between their civilization and the white civilization impacted them and continues to do so today.

Others came to this country by choice (or semi-choice)—and yet, even they were not all welcomed or their culture acknowledged. We can look back at newspaper articles and posters of a couple hundred years ago and become aware that Chinese, Irish…and members of other cultures…were not allowed in certain places. Unfortunately that has still been true until recently. I had a Chinese-American friend who—with her white husband—was not welcome in certain communities because she was not white.

And then there’s the elephant in the room that no one really wants to confront. Africans were brought to this country under duress for many years—torn away from their families of origin…and then separated again from their families under the burden of slavery.

It is true that none of us alive today had anything to do with those atrocities—but we are all still impacted by them. Once a culture has been so terribly broken as the African cultures were for those who came to this country, it is difficult to find something to hold on to. It may take many, many generations for that brokenness to be healed—if it ever can be completely. And those of us who are white are also impacted. Many of us have been comfortable with who we are—and we may find ourselves getting angry with those who want to continually harp on past wrongs because we don’t understand what that has to do with us.

But we have to confront that past. Our history is not the sanitized and whitewashed history of Gone with the Wind where the slaves were part of the family and well taken care of. It is more the history of 12 Years a Slave if we are truthful with ourselves.

Fear of each other—and each other’s stories—keeps us from truly having a past. It allows us to continue to perpetuate myths about who we are and how we got where we are today. It creates an environment where neo-Nazis can march openly on college campuses, chanting slogans from a past that we thought we would never see again…where a biracial 8-year-old boy can have a noose put around his neck and be tossed from a picnic table by a group of white boys…where young black men fear any kind of interaction with policemen…and where policemen (whether black or white) fear themselves about their actions being second-guessed and whether they are walking into danger.

We DO have a past. It is both wonderful and horrifying—but we will never really understand it…or ourselves…until we are willing to be honest with ourselves and with each other.

Advent musings

We look back 2000 years and think that somehow it must have been a better world. Yes, there was violence, hatred, and fear…but was it really as bad a time as ours is?

Why couldn’t we have been living then? Wouldn’t we have recognized Jesus as the Messiah? Wouldn’t we have understood his message if we could just have walked side by side with him?

Or why couldn’t he have been born today? Surely our time needs him even more than the time 2000 years ago…

But “advent” means “coming”…and every Advent we celebrate is a time when we look back to when Jesus was born…and forward to his second coming.

We can fold our hands and sit patiently, waiting for that second coming…for that time when the world will be changed. Or…we can be part of it.

We can work to bring about the changes Jesus tried to teach us…the changes that are caught up in what he said were the two greatest commandments: (1) to love God with everything we have in us, and (2) to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

The first one seems easy…the second one not so much. Especially now.

We might find ourselves asking again, “Who is my neighbor?” And can we hear Jesus’ answer? Our neighbors are not just the people who look or act like us…the people who believe like us. Our neighbors are those who look different…who have different understandings and perspectives…and yes, even those that we might dislike and even fear.

But fear only breeds more fear. And the baby whose coming we look back to–and the incredible teacher and peacemaker whose coming we look forward to–came to help us bridge those gaps of fear and violence. He taught that perfect love casts out fear.

That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

But what would our world be like…what could it be like…if we really believed that?

Maybe we’ve reached the tipping point when we’re ready to live it. Maybe we’re tired enough of the violence…the hate…the fear.

Maybe…just maybe…this is the year.

Each one counts

It is terribly easy to get overwhelmed with numbers…and we hear so many of them in the news.

In Paris, 129 killed and another 350 injured…the plane apparently brought down by a bomb in Egypt, killing 224…at least 46 killed in two bomb attacks in Nigeria, with another 120 injured…41 killed and over 200 wounded in Lebanon…and it seems to go on and on.

They are just numbers. We may shudder at them…and we may worry if it touches too close to home…but they are abstract numbers. That is, until we are directly touched.

I have not been directly touched by these recent events, but I have been touched by a tragedy that has changed these numbers from abstractions to realities. A friend of mine was killed yesterday in a tragic accident while he was walking his dog. He was doing a normal, everyday activity–as were so many of the people involved in these terrorist attacks. There was no inkling that he would go out and not come home safely.

And it helped me realize–each one of these numbers represents a unique individual. Each one has someone who is in mourning…who now has a hole in their heart that will never totally close. Each one counts.

And yes, that means even the ones who initiated the attacks. They also have families. Some of those families might have had an idea of what their loved one was up to…but others did not. And even if they knew, that doesn’t mean that there is not a sense of loss.

We hear so many numbers, and because we do, we can shut ourselves off from them. We can consider them only as abstractions, or we can realize they are just like us. They are people who loved…who were often doing their best to make the world a better place…who were artists, business people, athletes…adults, children…

We also hear other numbers–of people who are trying to find places to live to avoid these terrors. And those numbers are mind-numbing.

We see pictures–and while the pictures may tug at our hearts, we shut ourselves down…out of fear. Justified fear? Perhaps…in a small way.

We can seem them as “other”…not understandable, and so we don’t even try. We fear who they might be…what they might bring to us. And so we turn them away.

We’ve been there before.

In June 1939, a German ship anchored so close to Florida that they could see the Miami lights. There were 900 people on board, seeking refuge from terror, but they were turned away…and many of them died in concentration camps. We were afraid…afraid of losing jobs…afraid that some of them might by Nazi spies.

In 1942, President Roosevelt signed an order requiring all Japanese Americans to be interned for the duration of the war…even those who had fought for the United States during the previous war. Again, we were afraid…afraid of espionage…afraid they might be a fifth column.

And now…

We look at pictures of people…people who have been terrorized and victimized, whether in the attacks identified above, or whether they are among those fleeing countries where those attacks are more prevalent than they have been for many of us. And we fear again…

There are valid concerns. I understand that. But I also look at the eyes of the children who are haunted by what they have experienced. I look at the eyes of the parents who want nothing more than a place where they can bring up their children in hope.

And I am reminded of what we can be and do in our better moments.

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”