Joy as Resistance: December 11, 2016

Every year about this time, I start to panic. I’d imagine that a lot of clergy would tell you the same thing. We are trying to finalize Christmas eve services, and get all the moving pieces to line up so that everything goes off without a hitch.

But that’s not what stresses me out about this time of year. What really gets me is Christmas shopping. I get so anxious about buying the right Christmas presents for my family. And shopping for a spouse is the hardest part. Every year Heidi tells me, “I have everything I want…I have you.”

And that is so beautiful and wonderful…and totally exasperating. I’m not going to show up on Christmas morning with nothing, and so I turn into this Christmas detective asking her friends what she really wants.

This year, though, she told me exactly what she wanted (and she told me I could share this story with you this morning). And Heidi is normally so serious and studious, so it surprised me when she told me she wanted this new Nintendo Classic video game console that plays all these old games people from our generation know.

“Great!” I thought. “I’m sure that every big box store around has it on sale, and I can go get one now and wrap it up for Christmas.”

Only, there’s a problem. You can’t find this thing. Apparently Heidi’s dream Christmas gift is the dream gift of the whole country. Stores get it in stock and it sells out in minutes. People are camping out. I’m searching every website I can think of, and the closest I have come to finding it is on a site that will sell you one for six times the retail price.

nes-classic-edition-in-hand

Seriously, if you find this thing, let me know.

I’m missing the “I have all I want…I have you” years.

It’s fun to laugh about this, but we also need to acknowledge that this time of year the pressure to make Christmas perfect is sometimes overwhelming. Because as much as I stress over them, the presents aren’t what it’s all about. And on this third Sunday of Advent, when we are so close to the big night, we read a story about what matters. We read about Jesus’s mother, and the surprise of her life.

An angel comes to Mary and tells her that she is pregnant in the most unconventional of ways. Immediately Mary gets up and goes to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. And Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, and when Mary enters the house the baby leaps up in her womb and Elizabeth knows immediately that something amazing has happened to Mary.

And Mary turns to her and says the words that we now know as the Magnificat: “My souls magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

There would be a lot of understandable reactions to this news that you are pregnant, delivered by an angel no less. Anger, disbelief, denial, fear. No one could possible blame Mary for those feelings. And, Mary may very well have been feeling all of those things, but in the Magnificat we learn that somewhere in all of those feelings she was also feeling something else: joy. “My spirit rejoices in God”

This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally the one when we focus on joy. And, oddly, we talk about joy by telling the story of a teenage mother in crisis. She was young, she was poor, she was pregnant with a baby that was not her fiance’s. And she must have been absolutely terrified. Her world would never be the same.

And yet, somewhere in there, there was joy. There was hope. There was the promise that as hard as it was, this was a good thing.

This has been, for many of us and for many of our neighbors, a difficult year. It may well be that you are ending the year feeling down, or scared, or frustrated. You may be worried about our world, and our future. That is completely understandable.

And that’s why this year, more than most, joy is so important. To find or cultivate joy in the midst of all that is going on is an act of resistance. It’s like Mary standing there terrified and uncertain, telling her cousin this crazy and confusing news, and still being able to say “rejoice”.

Mary’s joy gives me hope. But it also reminds me that joy is different than happiness. Because what Mary was feeling might have been joyful, but I don’t know that I would say she was happy.

And here’s why that matters for us. This time of year happiness is for sale everywhere. Turn on the TV, listen to the radio, walk into a store. Every advertisement, every display, is meant to tap into your hopes and promise you happiness.

And here’s the thing: as much as people say you can’t buy happiness, the truth is that you can. You can buy happiness pretty easily, really. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck, or a nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily, at least for a little while. And then you can lose it just a quickly.

But joy…that’s what you cannot buy. It’s not for sale in any store, and you won’t find it by getting every little detail of your Christmas celebration right. That’s not how joy works.

Now, joy does not always come easily to some of us. We prefer quiet dignity and reserved praise. On another level, for those of us who are so keenly aware of the inequalities and pain of the world, being asked to be joyful may even be met with suspicion. How can we be joyful when so many suffer?

Here’s what I think. I think it’s easy to be joyless in this world. It’s simple. It doesn’t take much effort. You can put others down. You can dwell in hopelessness. You can even lob out negative comments on the internet from the comfort of your own home. The best part is that if you lack joy, you don’t even have to do anything constructive. You can just dwell in it.

But it is a whole lot harder to rejoice. Why? Because joy is hard.

Now that may sound like an oxymoron. Joy is joy. Shouldn’t joy be easy?

I don’t think so. Because I think joy is something deeper than that. But that also means that it’s rooted. And it’s the thing that remains in you even when everything else around you is crumbling down. It has been said by many, in many different ways, that joy is resistance. That is especially true in the worst of days.

I started out telling you about my Christmas present crisis. But here’s the thing: even if I can’t find this thing, I know that Heidi will be just fine. Why? Because I know she is rooted in something that is much deeper than a need for the right gift on Christmas morning. (I’m still taking all tips on where to find it by the way.)

In all seriousness, we know this. We knew it even as children watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. You remember: “Every who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch who lived just north of Who-ville did not.” The Grinch hates the celebrations, hates the singing, hates the presents, and hates the whole thing. So he devises a plan to slip down into the town in the night, bag up all the trappings of Christmas, take all the presents, and ruin Christmas.

And he does. And the next morning he stands on his mountain waiting for the people to wake up, and be devastated.

how-the-grinch-stole-christmas-christmas-movies-17364435-1067-800But instead, he hears singing. It turns out the Whos woke up and it didn’t matter to them that they didn’t have trees or presents or decorations. And it turns out that no matter what he tried to take away from them, Christmas came anyway. And it stuns him. And he says to himself, “Maybe Christmas, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

The Grinches of the world don’t know what real joy is. And so when they try to take it away from you, they will go only for the things that bring you happiness. And that is not right. But it’s also not the end of the story.

Because joy is indeed resistance. And because joy is how we keep singing in the midst of the pain and fear of the world. I’m fully convinced that nothing strikes fear in the hearts of those who would oppress others more than joy. We do not excuse it. We do not allow it to go unchecked. But we do proclaim that it will not win. Instead we set our hearts up on the front lines, fortified with joy, and we promise to work with Mary’s child to bring light to all the places that need it the most.

But in order to get to that place, we have to get ready. And so, here is my call to you: this Advent, do not settle for happiness. You are worth more than that. Instead, gather the ones you love, and find joy together. Live in the world and look for the moments where joy is breaking through. Open your heart, and let the joy of Christ’s birth really fill it for the first time.

Resist what can never love you back, and rejoice in the One who can. I guarantee that if you do this, no matter what else happens, you will have a truly Merry Christmas. Amen?

Christmas Movies and Advent Stories: December 4, 2016

I’ve said before that I firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. There are certain shows and movies that I just have to see each year for it to really feel like Christmas.

movie-mcc-promo03-crachitsThis week I watched A Christmas Carol. The Muppet’s version. And once again I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted miser to a generous and loving man. And as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. And I realized that the main character often goes through some sort of transformation.

George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…

But then, we have this other seasonal character. John the Baptist. He’s not exactly camera-ready, and he wouldn’t animate well into a cuddly character. John lived out in the wilderness dressed in camelhair and eating locusts and honey. This would be a horrible Christmas special. But this time of year, right before Christmas, we read about how he preached to everyone who would listen and he told them “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”.

In other words, he told the people “get ready”. Get ready because someone else is coming, and he is about to change everything. Get ready because your world is about to change.

We read this story every year in Advent, and John may as well have been talking to us. Because Advent is all about getting ready. It’s about transformation. It’s about preparing our heart for someone who is coming, and opening it up to new ways of being.

In Advent we prepare ourselves by focusing on four themes as symbolized by the Advent wreath: hope, peace, joy, and love. Last week we lit the candle of hope. And today we light the candle of peace.

Christians follow the one who was called the Prince of Peace, and Advent is all about waiting for his birth, and preparing ourselves for what he is about to ask us to do. Things like working for peace. Ending violence and suffering. And standing up against hatred and injustice.

This should be the most peaceful time of the year. But have you ever noticed that sometimes people people preparing for Christmas seem anything but peaceful? Our stress levels go up. We argue. We get frustrated in the stores when we can’t find what we need. Some people even go on TV and yell about the color of Starbucks holiday cups and how no one cares about Christmas anymore.

When you think about it, if you are yelling angrily about Christmas, you are probably missing the point. But unfortunately that happens far too often.

black-santa

Santa Claus (aka, Larry Jefferson). Copyright, CBS News.

I was reading this week about how the Mall of America in Minnesota hired its first African-American Santa Claus. This man is a convincing Santa. And, like every other Santa, he does a great job listening to kids share their wishes for the season. My guess is that none of the kids he holds in his lap care all that much about what color Santa is, so long as they get to tell them what they want.

But the adults…they are another story. Adults angrily called the mall and took to social media to denounce the fact this Santa was black. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to take down the comments section online because of the horrifically racist and nasty comments they were getting.

It seems a lot of people are on the naughty list this year.

But more importantly, can you imagine what Jesus would say about this? This is his grand birthday celebration, after all, and I’m sure more than a few of those comments came from church-going people who would call themselves good Christians.

The reality is that Christians are supposed to do a better job. We aren’t supposed to be spreading anger and hate. We’re supposed to transform the world.

But that’s a tall order. It’s hard to create peace in the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: often you can’t create peace in the world, until you create peace in yourself.

Oddly, those Christmas movies helped me to realize that because when you think about it, as much as those are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives.

Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and only then is his heart transformed. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds peace in love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.

One word we give to finding peace within ourselves is “serenity”. A sense that no matter what is going on around us, we will ultimately be okay. A sense that God is will us. And a sense that no matter what the rest of the world is doing, we are able to still find peace and joy and hope deep inside of us.

It’s been said that serenity is an inside job. No one can give it to you. And, really, no one can take it from you, either. It’s a peace that, I believe, comes from knowing what matters most in the world, and opening ourselves up to the peace and the grace that God wants us to have.

And if we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, then serenity is the natural byproduct of this time of year. Because if you are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that you won’t be changed by it.

Maybe you won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside your heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the peace filling you.

This time of year, no matter what is happening around us, we are called to prepare our hearts anyway. We are called to open them up to grace and to love and to get ready to welcome Christ into the world. We are called to be messengers of peace, not only in our words, but in our actions.

georgebailey1This week as we go back out into the world, we can go with our hearts holding that promise. We can go as witnesses to the peace that Christ offers us. And we can go as Christ’s transformed people, and Christ’s Advent people.

These are the stories we love to hear, and they are the stories the world needs to hear. The Grinch, Scrooge, Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all the rest…they were once Advent people too…looking for peace…waiting for a transforming love. And they found it. And so are you, and your story is just about to get good. Amen?

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.