Journey Through Advent – Day 11

29671_389906276786_3698836_nThe other day I went to the post office in Newton, Massachusetts. I parallel parked on busy Beacon Street and, just as I was about to get out, a car came up on the drivers side, stopped, and then parked. The driver popped out, looked at me, and said in an annoyed voice, “I’ll just be a minute.” The woman in the car ahead of me was attempting to pull out of her space, and pointed out the the driver that she was now stuck. “I’ll just be a minute,” repeated the driver, and she ran into the post office with some letters.

Longer than a minute later, after mailing her envelopes, and checking her post office box, she emerged again. Issuing no apology, she hopped into her car and drove away down the busy road. Finally, the woman in front of me could leave, and traffic could go on unhindered.
I get frustrated at drivers who inconvenience everyone because of their own selfishness. Often times it comes because they feel so busy and important that they can’t stop and see how their actions are affecting the people around them. I’m not sure what this driver was in such a rush to get to, but it struck me that had she waited a couple of seconds, the car in front of me could have left and she could have taken her space and not been rushed. But when we are so focused by our own “needs” and busy-ness, we often don’t see the simple solutions that could make things better for everyone. In the end our actions communicate to other people the message that, “I am more important than you.”
In the run up to Christmas we often feel stressed out, and like we have a hundred things to do. At our worst, we focus only on our own list of tasks, and overwhelmed feelings, and not on the people around us. The result is that we can act in ways that, if we truly took a look at them, would appall us.
But Advent can be the antidote. Instead of buying into the stress, anxiety, and pressures of the season, we can instead chose to focus on truly preparing our hearts for Christmas. This time of year I like to remember the four traditional themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. I try to make sure that my actions align with those four themes. But, before that can ever happen, I have to make sure that I am cultivating those things inside of myself.
This Advent, what are you doing to help yourself feel hopeful? Peaceful? Joyful? Loving? It may feel selfish this time of year to take time out of busy schedules and concentrate on our own spiritual life, but my guess is that if we all did it, the world would be a kinder, more considerate place. The paradox of Advent is that in the busiest time of the year, we are asked to slow down, to reflect, and to prepare our hearts. Maybe that’s not an accident. Maybe that’s what we need to most right now.

Journey Through Advent – Day 10

IMG_0215This time of year we who are pastors spend a lot of time trying to tell everyone it it’s actually Advent, and not the Christmas season. We push back against all the Santas and presents and Christmas carols and say “not yet!” We know we’re not going to win, but we fight the good fight anyway.

Which makes what happened at my church last Sunday all the more fitting. Midway through my sermon, Santa Claus, that symbol of cultural Christmas himself, walked through the back door and sat in the last pew. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, Santa attends my church nearly every Sunday. He just had an early gig on this particular day and he did what I encourage everyone to do if they need to: he came to church in his work clothes.

One small child on the front row turned around, saw Santa, and looked completely delighted. After worship she wrote him a letter, and gave it to him. He sat with her and talked about what Christmas really meant, and how it wasn’t all about him, but about how Santa and all the gifts were just a symbol of something even greater. It was sweet and funny and deep all at once.

Afterwards I thought about the ways the church tries to fight culture. Or, we try to co-opt it for our own needs. A few years ago I became disturbed by the proliferation of (rather creepy) yard displays featuring Santa kneeling over Jesus in the manger. Was our need to reclaim the season so great that we needed to commission these plastic theological rebuttals?

I’d like to think we in the church can do better than that. I’d like to think that when Santa, or anyone else, walks through the doors, we will welcome him and learn what we can from his journey. I know that the little girl who Santa talked to the other day in church heard the Gospel in a new way. Not because Santa evangelized her (I have it on good authority that this Santa also talks a lot about the miracle of Hanukkah to those who will listen) but because an adult took time to sit with her, and listen to her, and to tell her what he saw in this season that was good.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a guy in a red suit to do that. We all have an Advent story to share that comes from our own experiences. Even if we’re not flying down from the North Pole, we have a story of light and love to spread this time of year. Don’t be afraid to share it, and don’t hide who you are from the world. Even from the back row, it can bring unexpected joy and meaning.

Journey Through Advent – Day 9

598484_10151109140146787_1677567642_nMy wife and I were married three weeks ago, which means that we’ve spent a lot of time recently writing thank you notes. According to some etiquette experts, a newly married couple has up to one year to write them. According to my wife and my mother (far better authorities on the matter, by the way) that is completely false. We are aiming to get our notes out within a month of the wedding.

What has been interesting to me, though, is how dreaded this task appears to be by so many newly married couples. A quick search on wedding note etiquette found ways to order pre-printed cards, impersonal sample texts to hand copy onto a note, and more than a handful of couples trying to justify abandoning the tradition all together. And I get that some nights, twenty cards in, it can feel like a lot. But I also wonder if something greater is at work here. I wonder if sometimes the very task of saying “thank you” begins to feel, well, like a task? Gratitude becomes perfunctory, and a social nicety. It doesn’t hold the same joy and meaning that it could if we really meant it.

Sometimes our prayer life feels like that too. Giving thanks before a meal feels routine. Saying “thank you” to God when something incredible happens feels like an afterthought. And one thing I’ve noticed with church people is that when we gather together and are asked to lift up both prayer requests and thanksgivings, the thanksgivings are often outnumbered five to one.

This time of year the thank you notes we are thinking about have to do with the presents we are about to receive. But, maybe this is the exact season when our gratitude for God could be expressed all the more? In the beauty and wonder of Advent, I often feel as though we are drawn closer to God. The light surrounds us, and we feel that something big is about to happen. So, in this time of anticipation, and wonder, maybe it’s as good a time as any to say thank you? Not for what we will receive. Not for what is coming. But for the gift that we have now.

True, technically we may still have plenty of time, but there is a joy in saying “thank you” because you want to, and not because you have to, and the time is always right for that.

Journey Through Advent – Day 8

Copyright, United Feature Syndicate

Copyright, United Feature Syndicate

I’m a big fan of Christmas movies and specials, which is ironic because I’m not a big TV and movie watcher the rest of the year. Every December, though, I cycle through my favorites: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Emmet Otter, and the list goes on…

Last night we had friends over and we watched A Christmas Carol (the Muppet’s version, of course). And as I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge play out, I thought about the theme of the second Sunday in Advent: peace. In the course of the story, Scrooge goes from a man disconnected from any sort of spiritual concern for others to one who finds peace and joy.
This transition isn’t unique to one story. George Bailey finds peace in the end. So does Charlie Brown. Even Buddy the Elf’s mind is finally at ease. There’s something about Christmas that makes stories of losing hope and finding it again all the more special.
This time of year many people live with depression or anxiety or grief. The holiday season can make what is usually manageable seem particularly unbearable. We don’t talk about that much in the church, but we should. Because if ever we had a message of peace, it’s now in Advent.
For me, the “peace” that we talk about the second Sunday of Advent is akin to the serenity that Reinhold Niehbur wrote about in his well-known prayer. It’s a quick reminder this time of year that even when the world around us makes no sense, and even when we feel powerless in the face of the odds, peace is buried deep inside of us, a peace that Christians believe comes from Christ’s love for us all. It’s not a bad prayer for today. Actually, it’s not a bad prayer for any day:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

Journey Through Advent – Day 7

Christmas tree at West Dover Congregational Church

Christmas tree at West Dover Congregational Church

Each Advent I spend a lot of time telling people that we are not actually in the “Christmas season”. I remind my congregation in my sermons that Advent used to be a quiet, rather penitential time, where generations past of Christians spent time in reflection and spiritual preparation. Our festive Christmas seasons, far from being traditional, would be downright baffling to our ancestors in the faith.

Sometimes this time of year I feel a little bit like I might be coming across like the Grinch, snatching joy from all the Whos down in Whoville.
But here’s my Advent confession: the reality is that as much as I believe in observing a holy Advent, I really like all the trappings of Christmas a lot too. Here in my small New England town lights are up everywhere, and it’s beautiful. A little over a year ago Hurricane Irene hit this area hard. We were flooded, and we rebuilt. But last Christmas, some folks in town decided the area needed a little extra joy, and so they convinced homes and businesses throughout our entire valley to join in by putting up lights.
We decided to join in at the church. We wrapped lights around our sign, and around the trees in front of the building, and we lit our candles in the window. I wondered at first if we would get any negative feedback from those who felt the church shouldn’t be joining in on a seemingly secular display. But then I stop worrying, and decided to just enjoy it.
Now I look at the lights on the church and I see not only a beautiful display, but a sign of hope. Last year in the midst of a difficult year, the lights were a visible reminder that joy comes in even the darkest times. The same is true in Advent. In the time of the year when the days are shortest, and the weather grows cold, we have little hints that something wonderful is about to come. The signs that are all around us this time of year, like an Advent candle or a certain hymn, point to Christmas and to Christ’s birth.
The same can be true of all the Christmas lights, and carols, and even the Santas at the mall. They might not be Advent-related, strictly speaking, but for those of us who are looking forward to Christmas, they can be signs of a joy that is still to come. So long as we don’t confuse our worship of Christ with our worship of them, they can point us to the goodness of the season, and to something even more beautiful and festive.
Of course, you can wander through Advent embracing your inner Grinch if you really want to; but a holy Advent doesn’t have to be a joyless one. If anything, we can start to prepare ourselves, and the world, for an even greater joy.

Journey Through Advent – Day 6

IMG_0246This afternoon a good friend of ours is coming to stay for the weekend, so we spent last night getting the house straightened up. We put away wedding presents and cards, cleaned the bathroom, straightened out the kitchen, and tidied up the master bedroom. The only other room in our house, our office which doubles as a guest room, had already been straightened up after our last houseguests left.

Except this morning, I remembered that in the rush of post-wedding catch-up, the start of Advent, and my wife’s final exams, we had used the guest room as a sort of staging area for Christmas. Unused Christmas lights, ornament boxes, and wrapping paper were strewn across the bed and floor. We had spent last night organizing every room except for the one that mattered most for our guest.

Sometimes the run-up to Christmas can feel a lot like that. We are so overwhelmed with everything we need to do, that we forget to make room for the most important guest of all: Christ. We get ready for his coming by buying gifts, decorating, going to parties, and cooking, but in all the rush we can forget to open our hearts up to Jesus. When Christmas day comes, we might feel like the spiritual equivalents of a host who realizes they forgot the most important preparations of all.

Advent can be an antidote to our Christmas stresses and to-do lists. It can be a way to concentrate on the preparations that matter most. We can use the season to set aside time each day to prepare for the coming of a long-awaited guest into our hearts. And if we do it faithfully, we can find ourselves enriched and spiritually full on Christmas morning. Little things like saying a prayer each day, lighting an Advent wreath, or reading a devotional, can help us to stop and concentrate on what matters the most. What is happening inside of us is what matters most this time of year. The rest is just window dressing.

Journey Through Advent – Day 5

183546_304910926283702_304551001_nWhen I moved to Vermont I wanted to do something to put my background in trauma chaplaincy to good use, so about a year ago I became the chaplain to my local fire department. Not long after I started attending the bi-weekly drills at the firehouse. It didn’t take me long to realize that standing with my back against the wall, looking “chaplain-ish” while the volunteer firefighters rolled hoses and refilled air tanks wasn’t doing anyone much good. So, with the chief’s permission, I started learning my way around firefighting.

Last night I washed one of our fire engines, and I thought about Advent. Washing a fire truck probably doesn’t sound all that exciting. That’s because it’s not. It’s like washing your own car, if your own car was about ten times its size. And yet, there is something about it that I find deeply peaceful. The water hits the truck, and the dirt and dust and grime from our last call comes off, runs onto the concrete floor below, and gets carried away from the firehouse by the grates. And washing the wheel wells, the doors, the lights, and everything else because oddly satisfying.

Christians sometimes have a tendency to stand content in our beliefs, without actually doing any work to help the world. We claim to serve a loving God, yet we do not live lives of service to God’s people. In the end we become about as useful as a person standing against the wall while everyone else does all of the hard work. But, when we join in, and when we serve others by actually doing something, that’s when our faith really comes to life.

If Advent is really about preparing our hearts to hear Christ’s teaching, then learning how to listen has a lot to do with learning how to serve. Christ never preached a Gospel of self-service or religious contentment. He preached a Gospel of active love and concern for the others. When Christians spend Advent content with our own theological navel gazing, we’ve missed the chance to truly prepare ourselves for what Christ will ask of us. But if we see this season as a chance to truly do good work, we are that much closer to Christmas and what the coming of Christ means. And, in a way, the joy we find in the smallest things, like a clean fire truck, can be a Christmas gift that we can give ourselves.

Journey Through Advent, Day Four

usps_site_2012_christmas_2The other day I went to the post office to buy a lot of stamps. It’s the time of year when we send out a lot of cards, so I wanted to be sure we had the right stamps for each one. For our religious friends receiving a Christmas card, I bought the religious holiday stamps with the Holy Family on them. For our friends who celebrate Christmas, but only because of the secular connotations, I bought the Santa stamps. And for our friends receiving Hannukah cards, I bought Hannukah stamps.
I left the post office with three books of stamps and with no fear whatsoever that Christmas was under attack. This time of year the “war on Christmas” rhetoric heats up, and we hear that rallying cry of the concerned: “Keep Christ in Christmas!” And Christmas is about Christ to me. It’s a holy and beautiful time of year, and I feel my spiritual life deepen tremendously every December. But, my spiritual life does not dictate the spiritual lives of others. Each person celebrating Christmas takes their own path, and finds their own meaning. I may not agree, but I don’t begrudge them or try to make their season less joyous.
Likewise, as I affix Hannukah stamps onto cards, I wonder why I’ve never heard any of my Jewish friends decry a cultural “war on Hannukah”. Despite the fact that Jewish kids grow up having their holiday pushed to the back of public consciousness, no one is yelling about it on Fox News. That’s because the real issue here isn’t that there is a “war on Christmas”. The real issue is that we are starting to understand that this is a country with many faiths and belief systems, and we are starting to respect other traditions as well.
So what does that change spiritually for those of us Christians who are counting the days of Advent, and waiting for Christ? Really, not much. Our journey continues, and our joy can be multiplied by those who surround us, regardless of whether they believe as we do or not. But what can change is the way in which we choose to respond to the diversity of God’s people.
In the Gospel when Christ is arrested, Peter draws his sword and strikes the ear of the slave of the high priest who was doing the arresting. Surely, if there ever was a war on Christ, this was the time. But instead, Christ tells Peter not to fight. In the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”, Jesus sings this line: “Why are you obsessed with fighting? Stick to fishing from now on.”
If Christians spend each Advent fighting against what they perceive to be an “attack” on Jesus, then we have missed the point, and we will never be able to do the sort of metaphorical “fishing” Christ was talking about. No one will ever be attracted to a religion that builds its faith on false calls of persecution and angry battles of words. But they just may be drawn to the sort of faith that calls us to something better, and that directs our attention to the hope that will change the world for everyone, and not just those who believe as we do. The Advent journey we are on leads only to hope, only to light, and only to a life of compassion. If what you’re finding is something different, you may not be on the road to Christmas after all.

Journeying Through Advent, Day 3

IMG_0307

I grew up in Central Florida, so snow was not something I encountered a lot. And when I went to college in Atlanta, the few snow storms we had shut down the city. Snow was a beautiful rarity that came and went too quickly. But when I was 31 I moved to New England in the middle of winter. One day not long after I was standing outside my car, pumping gas in snowy weather with temperatures falling fast, wondering what in the world had possessed me to move north.

I’ve lived in New England for almost five years now. Over half that time I have lived in the Vermont town where I pastor. On my second Sunday at the church it snowed. It was the middle of May. That winter I was bundled up in sweaters and jackets, scraping ice off my windshield, and shoveling my way out of the driveway some mornings. The last thing I wanted more of was snow.

But the longer I lived in town, the more I realized that the snow that frustrated me so much meant something very different to others. I live in a ski town, and the more it snows, the longer the lift operators and snow groomers and even waitresses and cooks have steady work. The first time someone prayed for snow in church I was surprised. Who wants more of that stuff? Then I realized they were praying for their livelihood, and for the ability to take care of their families.

It’s my third winter in Vermont, and it has already snowed quite a bit. I’ve learned when to put the snow tires on my car, how to walk on ice without falling down, and how to salt the front walk. But, more than that, I’ve learned that I actually love the snow.

It started when I began to see what it meant to other people: hope, possibility, life. When I realized that the minor inconveniences snow caused me were nothing compared to the major problems a lack of snow caused others, I began to reevaluate my outlook on snow days. Now I think that few things are as comforting or beautiful as coming home to a warm house on a snowy night. And part of that comfort comes from the fact that I know my neighbors can rest easier as well.

For me, Advent is about a changing of perspective. It’s about preparing our hearts for the challenges that the child who is coming will give to us. One challenge is to stop looking at only what we want, and to start looking at what is good for our neighbors as well. There’s no better time to start preparing than now, in Advent, for how we will open our hearts to that challenge, and to the one who gives it to us.

This reflection originally appeared in Huffington Post Religion’s Advent live blog, found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/01/advent-2012-a-season-of-waiting-before-christmas-photos_n_2221918.html#36_advent-reflection-day-3-advent-is-about-a-changing-of-perspective

Journeying Through Advent, Day 1

407243_10100198391029628_734145341_n.jpgYesterday I officiated at a memorial service for a parishioner who died after a three year long battle with ovarian cancer. We gathered at the church and remembered her life, and then we gathered at the reception and shared our stories about what she meant to us. One of the things I was left reflecting on was how much hope she had, even at the end of her life, and even as she knew that she didn’t have much time left. Not hope that she would be cured. Not hope that she would have ten more years. But hope in the truest sense of the word; hope that trusted in God’s love, even when facing the great mystery of what it means to die.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. For centuries Christians have observed Advent as a way to prepare themselves for Christmas, and for the coming of Christ. Each Sunday in Advent has traditionally been given a theme. The second is peace. The third is joy. The fourth is love. But today, the first, is hope. Today we reflect on what it means to look forward to Christ’s birth, and what it means to live into that hope. We also begin to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ into our lives, and into the world. And hope is a good place for our journey to start.