Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy New Year!

It is normal at the end of a year in which you have experienced hardship to experience the end of one year and the beginning of the next year with some relief. We all like the idea that we can put grief and pain behind us and move on, but it isn't really true. Our experiences, whether good, bad, or neutral, remain with us and will continue to shape us for the remainder of our lives, for good or for ill.  Nevertheless, the changing from one year to the next is a good time to take stock and even make changes.
I tend not to make major New Year's resolutions because most people break their resolutions as soon as they make them. But there are other great ways to renew one's life besides resolutions. The early Christians believed the first day of the new year should be spent reflecting on past mistakes and resolving to improve oneself in the new year.

At they suggest committing seven days to starting over.  This could be a great way to shake things up for the first day of the year.

At wikihow, the suggestions are more along the lines of shaking things up in one or more areas of your life.  If you are shy, try being more outgoing, or if you are extroverted, try adding in more contemplation. suggests living with more attention to the little things that mean a lot, such as walking, eating and breathing. suggests making practical changes, such as getting more sleep or spending more time outdoors. offers quotes featuring the word "renew," such as this one by Anais Nin: It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it. 

The New Year, like so much in life, is to at least some extent what you make of it. I hope 2013 is a good one for you!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gifts of the Magi

Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage. (excerpt from Matthew 2:1-12)

Epiphany, the last Sunday in the Advent-Christmas season, is my favorite day in the Christmas season. As a child I don't remember having a separate observance of Epiphany at church. Perhaps the pastor gave a sermon about the story of Magi on the Sunday closest to January 6; I don't really remember.

I came to love the idea of Epiphany in college, when I learned that "epiphany" is a word that means "a sudden realization of a great truth."

How often has that happened to you? It has happened to me a lot--suddenly a lot of facts and feelings come together in my brain and I understand my world and my life in a new way. An epiphany can be frightening or inspiring, but it changes everything forever. 

I see Epiphany as a day to celebrate not just the Epiphany that Jesus came to be the savior of the world, but to celebrate and seek out other epiphanies.

What does Epiphany mean to you? 

A Christmas Story

It is the custom of most churches to gather on the evening of December 24, to tell the story of the birth of Jesus, to light candles, to sing carols, and to wish one another a happy holiday. This is the favorite worship service of the year for most people. It certainly was for me, when I was a child.  I liked it because all the parts of worship I enjoyed the most were present, and the things I didn't like about church mostly didn't happen.

At my church we had two services on Christmas Eve--an early service featuring a children's program, and a midnight service featuring candles and Holy Communion. At a fairly young age I came to prefer the second service, even though in my congregation children were not permitted to partake of the elements of wafers and wine.

I think I liked it because there was a lot of singing and not much talking, and a sense of mystery and wonder that our usual Sunday morning services lacked. The people seemed subdued and yet somehow also the air crackled with excitement. As a pastor I strive always to bring that feeling to worship services. 

What do you like about Christmas Eve?

A Tale of Two Women

For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. (excerpt from Luke 1: 39-56)

Although the story about a pregnant Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth only appears in Luke's gospel, it is logical to believe that John the Baptist and Jesus are related, though probably distantly. The Jewish community in Palestine at the time of Jesus' birth is probably both kind of small and insular. In any case, the story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is pretty special because the Bible does not record many interactions of this nature--a  demonstration of love and care between two women. (A notable exception to this is, of course, the story of Ruth and Naomi.) 

The circumstances behind the pregnancies of these two women could not be more different. One woman, Elizabeth, is older, long married, seems to be fairly secure both financially and socially, and has longed to become a mother for many years. In contrast, Mary is very young, probably more girl than woman really, is quite poor and not yet married, and never had a chance to worry about whether or not she would be able to conceive. And yet these women feel a strong sense of mystical connection. Their faith tells them that they should regard both of these pregnancies as a blessing. Having children (particularly sons) is the most important duty of women and families regard it universally as a gift from God. In Mary and Elizabeth's day, sons mean more hands to work for the family's economic welfare, whereas nowadays children are seen as a financial burden upon their parents--a burden that can bring great joy, but nevertheless a real and challenging responsibility. 

The bottom line, then and now, is that pregnancy is more or less the same experience, whether you are very young or older, whether you have hoped to become a mom for years or motherhood happens suddenly and without warning. For a period of nine months your body is not your own, and then for a long time afterward (some would say forever) your life is not your own. Pregnancy can be a blessed state that teaches lessons about surrender, and about love. It is an experience unlike any other. But pregnancy can also be difficult. Certainly both women had moments of profound joy and moments of great anxieties during their pregnancies. Fortunately, they had each other. 

When you are in an important moment in your life, whether it is a pregnancy or a time of falling in love or a loss of a job or a serious illness, having someone there to listen and to understand can make all the difference. If you need to reach out to someone for help or comfort or an unbiased opinion, don't be afraid to reach out. 

And, even more importantly, it is good to be aware that someone may be reaching out to you for support, just as Mary reached out to Elizabeth. So many of us have lives that are so full that we can miss the signs that someone needs us. If I could encourage any type of prayer during this season, this is the type of prayer I would urge you to make--that like Mary and Elizabeth, you will be open to God's call, whatever form it takes.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Blue at Christmas?

Here at the "A Time for All" Blog I mainly like to keep things light and breezy, but I thought it would be good to tackle the important subject of Christmas Blues. While feeling "down" or depressed is tough at any time of year, it can feel especially difficult when you are expected to be making the rounds of parties and when everywhere you look, even at ads and on television shows, people are pictured looking excited and caught up in some sort of Christmas magic (brought on by being given the gift of whatever product the ad is selling, of course.)

There are lots of reasons that people are sad at Christmastime, and Christmastime sadness knows no boundaries of age, gender, income level or any other category of person. I have been there, myself, plenty of times. 

  • Maybe you have experienced a loss recently, or around this time of year. It could be a death, or other loss, such as a divorce, a move, or even becoming an "empty nester."
  • Maybe you are not feeling well physically at the moment.
  • Maybe you are unable to be with loved ones with whom you had hoped spend the holidays.
  • Maybe your financial circumstances are difficult, making your usual holiday merriment a challenge to afford.
  • Maybe work or other obligations have left you with no energy for your usual holiday traditions.
  • Understand that what you are feeling is normal and not uncommon. You are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. "Beating yourself up" because you don't feel happy at a time of year that is supposed to be happy will only make things worse. Give yourself a pass. 
  • Take care of your needs. If you are sick, don't overdo it. If you are sad, allow yourself to have a good cry now and again, but don't "wallow" all the time.  After you cry, dry your tears and find something cheerful to do. Listen to happy music, or call a friend and go to a movie. If your sadness has persisted for more than two weeks or is interfering with your work and usual activities, see your doctor for a physical checkup and make sure to mention that you have felt "down" or "off" recently.
  • If you are mourning someone who has died, try and include something in your holiday celebration that will help you remember the person. For example, the Christmas after my mom died, I baked her cutout cookie recipe for my family. You could do something like place framed photos of the person from Christmases past. This might make it more difficult the first time you do it but in the long run it is a good way to get past the saddest part of grieving.
  • Eat well, exercise and avoid consuming a lot of "vices" like rich food, alcohol or tobacco. Alcohol is a depressant, so if you are feeling sad, maybe it's best to avoid it all together. 
  • Don't be afraid to mix up traditions. A tradition is a shortcut to help people get into the proper frame of mind and heart. If a "tradition" doesn't work for you anymore, don't be afraid to change things up. Sometimes just a little tweak is all you need. 
  • If you aren't feeling yourself, be honest about your feelings with those close to you. There is no reason to lay a heavy burden on others, especially if they are grieving the same loss as you, but sometimes a little honesty helps people stop going through the motions and helps bring changes to the holiday season that are healing. 
  • Do something for somebody else. Sometimes what you need to feel better is to know that you are not alone. There are plenty of charities that can use help this time of year, or maybe you could reach out with a phone call, a letter or an invitation to someone else you know who could use a friend.
  • Make room for spirituality. Pray. Read scripture. Listen to inspiring music. Attend a "Blue Christmas" worship service near you.
O God of all seasons and senses, grant us the sense of your timing to submit gracefully and rejoice quietly in the turn of the seasons.
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of endings;
children growing, friends leaving, loved ones dying,
grieving over,
grudges over,
blaming over,
excuses over.
In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of beginnings;
that such waitings and endings may be the starting place,
a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born—
something right and just and different,
a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love—
in the fullness of your time.

Caroling, Caroling

Slate online magazine has a story about the history of Christmas Carols today. It's a question most of us have probably never asked--why do we sing special songs for Christmas? The history, as you can imagine, is long and convoluted:
Although there are accounts of birth-of-Christ hymns being sung in second-century Rome—by order of Christian authorities, not public preference—it was not until the fourth century, when Christmas was formalized as a feast and fixed to Dec. 25, that a songbook started to take form. Some of the first contributions were existing, non-Christian carols adapted to the new celebration. The early church did not appreciate these pagan-Christian conversions and answered with hymns of its own. 
Sounds sort of grim, doesn't it? But things got better, thanks to our old friend the patron Saint of Animals, St. Francis:

 In the 13th century, Francis tried to break the Christmas celebration from its tedious husk, mostly by making the birth of Christ into a live theatrical event. He organized nativity pageants featuring real hay, real animals, and, for the first time, real music: Deviating from tradition, he allowed for narrative songs in audiences’ native languages, turning Christmas music into an opportunity for mainstream creativity. Drinking songs were given Yuletide lyrics (greatly to the church’s horror) and disseminated by traveling entertainers. Christmas began to take on a life of its own, beyond the exigencies of the sacred feast.

There's more to the story...much more, in fact, including how the Puritans did away with the excesses of Christmas, including caroling, and how Charles Dickens helped to encourage a merry celebration of Christmas through his short story "A Christmas Carol." 

At Riverton Church we love Christmas music and it is always a struggle to figure out which ones we should sing on Christmas Eve, which is when we have the highest attendance of the Christmas season. Silent Night is a must, of course, but there are too many favorites to include them all.

If you want to find out what we will be singing this Christmas Eve, our service is at 7:30 p.m. and all are welcome. We try to make the service equally memorable and enjoyable to those who come every week and those for whom it is their first time.

Friday, December 7, 2012

This is good news?

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham...So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Excerpt from Luke 3:7-18

This passage of scripture starts out intense and then ramps it up to eleven on a scale from one to ten:  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Okay then. That was...intense. And then, just when you think this guy is just another crazy street preacher, he starts getting specific about what he means when he says, "Bear fruits worthy of repentance." 

"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

That sounds kind of reasonable--at least, compared with the "brood of vipers" talk, it sounds reasonable. And then he makes a prediction: 

 "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

This is what he refers to as "good news"--the stuff about the winnowing fork and burning chaff. Again, we're not used to thinking about preparing for Christmas in this way. Our idea of good news is hearing that the price of gas went down, or that a package we've been waiting for has arrived, or that someone we loved who was sick is recovering faster than expected. Most people, most of the time, spend most of our energy thinking about our own lives--our jobs, our families, our communities, the people and things that are familiar to us. 

John the Baptist doesn't see the world the same way that we do. Is that a good thing? The author of Luke's gospel thinks that it is. What do you think?

Preparing the way

"...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins..."
(Excerpt from Luke 3: 1-6.)

Advent is called a season of preparation. It is supposed to prepare the faithful for the coming of Christmas.  Advent is supposed to be a penitent season (that is, a time for repenting) like Lent. According to this way of thinking, Christians are supposed to spend time searching their souls looking for their own sinfulness, acknowledge their sins before God and then prayerfully ask God to help them change. 

However, different cultures have a different understanding of Advent. In Mexico and some other Spanish-speaking countries, for example, Christians prepare for Christmas through a 400-year-old custom called "Las Posadas," a celebration that lasts for nine days, beginning on December 16 and going through December 24. Las Posadas involves people processing through town behind a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph. The procession stops at a different house or church each night and enacts the story of Mary and Joseph trying to get lodging. Unlike in the real Christmas story, eventually the holy couple are accepted, and the entire procession joins in a time of feasting, often partying until the wee hours.

While this particular custom may seem unusual to those of us who did not grow up with it, most of us in the United States find ourselves spending many days and evenings in December partying with various configurations of friends and acquaintances, usually with no mention made of the idea that the Advent season is a journey that takes us from our ordinary lives to the extraordinary event that is Christmas.

Las Posadas focuses on a particular sin in the Christmas story--the sin of inhospitality. This may be one of the reasons that the Latin culture, much like the culture of the Middle East, is known for its hospitality. There are other sins in the Christmas story that we can focus on in the Advent Season as well, but the sin of inhospitality seems like a pretty good one for our culture as well. As you go about your Christmas-season rounds of visiting, partying, shopping and gifting, take a moment and think about who is being included and who is not being included in your holiday preparations and merry-making. Clearly we can't include everyone in the entire world on our Christmas gift list, but by expanding our circle of hospitality, we enlarge our hearts and enrich our lives.