Monday, November 29, 2010

Thoughts on Advent -- among other things

I admit it. I'm an Advent nut.  I long for Advent in the middle of summer so I set my iPod to play the tracks of Lessons & Processions for Advent Sunday by the King's College Choir. I find myself thinking of "Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending" and "On Jordan's Banks" at odd times of year. I think of the promising passages of Isaiah around Easter. I open the closet and look up at the box that holds the figurine Advent wreath I bought on sale at our parish because I had long coveted it (confession time again). I still can't find candles to fit it in the proper colors but I can be patient and enjoy the circle that tells the Christmas story.

Going into stores this time of year is trying. Most of the places I usually go are crowded with people, shopping carts and stray children running about. Carts are now more filled with toys and clothes rather than just groceries with an occasional non-grocery-store item. Inserts in the paper have increased exponentially around Black Friday and, even though they slow down somewhat, there are still proportionately a larger number than we've seen at our place in months. Not complaining --- just observing.

The word of the time seems to be "Sale" -- Pre-Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday, Doorbusters, CyberMonday (or CyberWeek), Pre-Christmas, Buy-one-get-one-half-price (or free), Buy More Spend Less, yadda yadda yadda.  The very word seems to tempt people to come out and see what wares are being offered, quite often something they probably wouldn't have bought but which are too good a deal to pass up. Of course, it is lovely to find something I would have bought at a much lower price. It gives me the illusion that I'm really richer than I thought I was.  Sales also remind me that I need to get a "little something" for this person at the office or that person next door simply because it's the season for giving presents. The word "Sale" is a double-edged sword but I guarantee what you'll probably never see is a sign or an insert for an "Advent Sale".  Advent just isn't that merchandise-able, I guess. Or should I say, thank God.

I'm one who applauds those who encourage us to spend less, give creatively rather than flashily, and love more. We have become rather mercenary about Christmas and the mid-point of Advent 1 seems to be a kick-off time for that push to Christmas Eve and a tree with so many presents under it the presents extend far past the circumference of the lowest branches. Stores have had Christmas trees up since about Halloween (when they only used to appear tastefully the day after Thanksgiving!) and Christmassy tunes appear more and more frequently as the run-up to Christmas starts. I will never hear "Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending" in Kohl's or Costco or Wal-Mart, though.  That's an Advent song and Advent doesn't sell. Most Christian denominations don't recognize the season of Advent so most folks don't even know we're in that season now and will be for a few weeks.  Come the day after Christmas all Christmas music will be turned off because it will be over and the stores will be stocking shelves with Valentine candy and frou-frouish nighties and perfume on by 6pm on Christmas night. For those celebrating Christmas from December 24th (ok --- very late December 24th) and January 6, we're on our own.

While I applaud the arrival of Advent I can't really say I totally reject all outward and visible signs of Christmas.  While Arizona may not have a "bleak midwinter", it's still chilly with short days and long nights.  Another year will be reaching its end and things don't seem much brighter than they were last January.  Still, the twinkle of the bright little colored lights is somehow cheering even on the coldest, darkest days.  The bright colors of Christmas (yes, purple and rose do show up now and again) somehow make it easier to get through what could have been just another day. Planning what to give a special person, even if it isn't big and expensive, makes things a little more bearable. Hearing familiar, cheerful or even reflective music instead of the usual barrage of noise and suggestive lyrics refreshes the soul. It may be just the overture to Christmas Day but it's a lovely overture and I wouldn't miss a day of it.

May it be a blessed Advent of preparation, expectation and optimism. It will pass by all to quickly so enjoy it, celebrate it, experience it while it is here.  And take some Advent with you through the next year.  Everybody could stand to live with some hope, beauty and joy. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thoughts on Sabbath

A couple of weeks ago the discussion in our EfM class was "Sabbath Time," one of the Common Lessons for this year and one designed to call attention to the role of sabbath time in the life and ministry of the student.

Firstly, according to the BCP, all baptized persons are ministers, most called to some form of lay ministry but some called to the ordained ministry. Ministry consists of not just talking about God to other people but even doing one's ordinary work -- teaching, counseling, practicing medicine, helping people find what they need in stores, libraries, or anywhere else, helping people solve problems, even those as simple as starting or stopping a newspaper, and the like. Ministry is the process of helping and serving but if I stop at just considering what I do to and for others, I'm missing a bit of the boat. All have to minister also to themselves in order to be able to fully and adequately minister to others.

Which brings me to Sabbath time and what it means. Normally in church Sabbath refers to a day of rest although with 24/7 stores, kids' soccer games scheduled on Sunday, house- and yard work that always needs doing and the like, the normal Sunday becomes another day just like Saturday or even Tuesday.  Society seems to encourage us to keep busy, to keep doing stuff and to buy this or that to organize our time and maximize what we get done and more, not to mention buying this car or minivan with certain features that give us some comfort while keeping us on the move between home, work, church, soccer practice, gymnastics, the hardware store and the hundreds of other places we need to be. Tradition, however, says that Sabbath time should be for rest, not just for us but for the whole of our household.

Jesus withdrew periodically to "be" with God so that he had the strength and energy to "do" the many things people wanted and expected of him. He was following the commandment to "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. It was a practice that not only included one day a week but also a sort of super-Sabbath every 50 years. Think of it, a day with no runnning around (except to synagogue or church), no sudden trips to the hardware store for a fitting or bracket or running to the grocery store for the forgotten ingredient necessary for preparation of some fantastic Sunday dinner -- provided the family has time for a Sunday dinner together.

I remember that as a child Sunday mornings were for church and Sunday afternoons were for visiting relatives. For me it was pretty boring, listening to adults sit around and talk about life, other relatives, plans and the latest news, and there usually weren't any other kids to play with. Still, I wandered around yards and fields, watching cows, horses, chickens and dogs, and occasionally got to read a catalog or magazine. Perhaps boring for a child but it took me away from the stuff that went on the rest of the week -- school, piano lessons, homework, etc. I got to look at nature instead of TV or homework. I wish now I had more of that kind of time in my present life. I think I'd appreciate it a lot more than I did then.

These days I find myself observing Sabbath time more often on Saturday than Sunday. At the end of a week I'm ready for playtime, for staying home in my pajamas all day if I want to, doing only what I feel like doing and not doing something I don't. Then, by Sunday, I'm ready to begin again.

Today being Thanksgiving Day is a day off from work so therefore candidate for some Sabbath time. I think about my work days, usually a constant string of things to be done from the time I arrive until I leave. Often I almost have to make an appointment to get time to go the rest room and don't stop for lunch either. I keep my iPod handy and my preferred music (a mixture of Renaissance and Baroque church music, staid old-fashioned hymns, TaizĂ© chant --- and Tahitian drums) often serves to give me mini-sabbaths that may only last a moment or two but which are places to stop, catch a breath and relax for a moment. Many of the pieces are familiar, either from having sung them in various choirs or from frequent listening, so even as I am entering data, sending emails about received inserts or coloring maps for drivers I feel I have some connection going on with God. Maybe the saints of old wouldn't have approved of multitask work/worship but it's what I can do with what I have.  I think God would prefer that to being ignored. I know I need it; it keeps me sane and more relaxed than if I didn't have the music going and, like Buddhist prayer wheels, sending prayers upward even after those who pass by and cause them to turn have gone on to their own work.

I need the sabbath time, whenever and wherever I can get it, just to "be" rater than just "do". God knew that we needed breaks for rest and battery recharging so when Moses got the set of rules we call the 10 Commandments (maybe there were 15 but Moses dropped one? Or 613 but were too heavy for him to carry in one trip?) "remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" was one of the top ones. It wasn't just about worshipping God, but about renewing ourselves and reconnecting with God who often gets left out of the day otherwise.

In order to do ministry to others I have to do ministry to myself. Keeping sabbath time in my daily life as well as my spiritual life is something I need to remember to do. I think the time to start is right now.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Forest Road

I was the year after college graduation. I was living away from home, more or less on my own, and with a new car which I could drive just about anywhere I wanted to go.  I, a child who grew up along the coast, was living in a more mountainous area. The common thread was lots of forest all around.  Driving around one day I came across a one-lane dirt road. The road led down into the forest so I turned the car and began the drive. The sun peeked through the leaves of the trees over the road, dappling the road and bringing out shades of green that were just incredible.  Deeper and deeper I went into the woods, the road seeming to turn at odd places, the dips got deeper the rises higher and the track narrower.  After a while I was noticing sharper turns and increasingly steep rises.

Then I reached a very steep climb. I put the car into the proper gear and went up but just as I reached the top I stopped, terrified. I couldn't see the road ahead.  The car's long hood seemed to be pointing at distant tree tops but what was just ahead for my tires was a total mystery. The trees didn't give much clue nor did looking out the side windows.  I must have sat there for 20 minutes or more, unable to go back and too afraid to forward. Even getting out and looking wasn't an option as the brush grew up against the sides of the track that stretched out behind me.  Was there really a road ahead or the edge of a sheer dropoff? If it was a road, did it go straight or curve to the left or right? If it was a dropoff, how big and how much damage could I expect? There wasn't any room to make a mistake, I thought. There aren't any "do-overs." I had to move one way or another.

I don't know why I dreamed about that incident last night. It happened so many years ago and I don't think I've thought of it more than a few times in all the intervening years. Mostly when it would come to mind it would be the beauty of the trees, the colors, the dappling of the sunlight, the sounds of birds and the rustle of the leaves in the unseen breeze. this time, though, it was the feeling at the top of the rise that came through.

I wonder --- is there a message here?  Something to ponder today.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Not long ago I had a plumbing problem. Something was blocking the line to the skeptic tank (as Dad used to call it) and so some rather unpleasant matter spread across the ground.  Luckily it wasn't my problem to get fixed (other than being disinclined to flush or run water, then calling the park office to inform them of the difficulty)  and it got resolved. Anyway, things have been running as normal, something for which I gave thanks this morning. Don't ask me why I was giving thanks for properly operating plumbing but perhaps it wasn't such a bad thing when I remember people living in places where the offending matter isn't (decently, I think) concealed in below-ground pipes and tanks but rather runs down the street and into waterways that provide water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Yes, perhaps thanksgiving for properly running plumbing isn't such a bad thing after all.

I tried reading last week's EfM lesson again today and gave up. Compare Hegel's view of reality and truth with that of Kierkegaard.  It was enough to make my hair hurt and my brain feel like blocked-up plumbing. Nothin' seems to be goin' through that pipe.  I started reading the questions for this week's lesson only to find it recommends  that I "Compare and contrast Newman's position on 'faith' with that of Hegel and Kierkegaard."  The blockage just got thicker. 

I've wanted to write something for a while now.  Don't ask me what I wanted to write; I don't know. I just needed to write something but couldn't find anything to write about that would mean anything or say anything to anybody of any value much less give me any release.  I just know that there's an internal blockage that is close to a physical pain. Even writing this isn't easing it.

It seems so hard to slog through philosophical ideas and try to untangle concepts that must be important or EfM wouldn't include it in their course work for Year 4.  Still, it's like chasing smoke -- or trying to get through blocked pipes.

Perhaps what is important is what MY position on faith is and how I determine it.  I have faith in God, I believe in the life and ministry of Jesus and the work of the Spirit in the world today. Why do I have these feelings and beliefs?  Honestly, I don't know; I just know I have them and know also that it is impossible for me to be without them. I've tried.

There may be a lot of blockages of various kinds in my life but faith isn't one of them, at least faith that comes in. Faith going out --- the physical, mental, and spiritual effects of faith -- may be another story.  Still, it's what I have to work with, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Newman notwithstanding.  I guess I can handle most of the rest of the blockages as long as that one pipe is clear and free-flowing.  Thank God for the pipe of grace that doesn't block up.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

This morning.

Kneeling for my before-church prayers I found myself saying this today. I don't know where it came from but I think I know where it goes...

Lord, bless those whom I love and those who love me.
Bless those whom I like and those who like me.
Bless those whom I dislike and those who dislike me.
Bless those whom I hate and those who hate me.
Bless those whom I know and those who know me.
Bless those who share with me my joys and sorrows and those whose joys and sorrows I share.
Bless those from whom I learn and those who perhaps I can teach a little.
Bless those who have gone before me and those who will come after me.
Bless those with whom I share this earth and this time.
The rest of creation, Lord, is in your hands.

Not very profound, or even particularly pious, but it's stuck with me today for some reason.