Monday, November 30, 2015

The Feast Day of Saint Andrew

It’s important to remember that we wouldn’t even know about Simon Peter if not for Andrew. Andrew followed John the Baptist, and John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the true Messiah. Andrew believed, and Andrew brought his brother to see what he had seen. Andrew is remembered as the first disciple.

Tradition has it that the brothers didn’t give up their family fishing business at first, but eventually, Christ requested full commitment. I’ve always wondered about the family relationships that simmer in the background of the Gospels.

I remember one Gospel reading that mentioned Jesus healing the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. I thought, mother-in-law? That means there must have been a wife. What did the mothers and wives and mother-in-laws think of the men abandoning their fishing business to follow Jesus?

I also think about the sibling relationships here. What does Andrew think about Simon Peter, who quickly moves into the spotlight? Is Andrew content to stay in the background?

We know from the passage in Matthew that begins with Matthew 20:20, that there is competition to be Christ’s favorite. We see the mother of James and John who argues for her sons’ importance. We see the other disciples who become angry at the actions of this mother. I extrapolate to imagine that there’s much jockeying for position amongst the disciples.

Christ never loses an opportunity to remind us that he’s come to give us a different model of success. Again and again, he dismisses the importance that the world attaches to riches, to status, to a good reputation. Again and again, Jesus instructs us that the last will be first. Jesus tells us that the way to gain prestige with God is to serve.

We see stories that show that Andrew is the kind of disciple who is working for the glory of Christ, not for other reasons. In John’s Gospel, Andrew is the one who tells Jesus about the boy with five barley loaves and two fish, and thus helps make possible the miraculous feeding.

Andrew was the kind of disciple we could use more of in this world. Andrew so believes in the Good News that he brings his family members to Christ, and he continued in this path, bringing the Gospel to people far and wide. We see him beginning this mission in John’s Gospel, where he tells Christ of the Greeks that want to see him.

Andrew gets credit for bringing Christianity into parts of eastern Europe and western Asia: Kiev, Ukraine, Romania, Russia. He’s the first bishop of the Church of Byzantium and patron saint of all sorts of places, from Scotland to Cyprus to Russia.

On this day when we celebrate the life of the first disciple, let us consider our own discipleship. Are we focused on the right tasks or are we hoping that our Christian faith brings us non-Christian glory? How can we help usher in the miracles that come with the presence of Christ? Who needs to hear the Good News as only we can tell it?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The First Sunday: Happy New Year, Happy Advent

Today is the first Sunday of a new liturgical year.  What will this new year bring?

I am ready for more light.  The past year has seen more than its share of heartbreak:  death of friends, relationships that aren't mine spiraling apart, lay-offs and then more lay-offs and cuts of every sort at work, and my body feels more pain than seems normal.

Of course, my fear is that this past year is the new normal.

And then there's the international news which seems increasingly bleak:  terrorist attacks and rumors of more to come, war planes shot out of the sky and rumors of more to come.

It will be good to light the Advent candle this morning.  My church will be making Advent wreaths.  I will make a new one too.  This year, as with every year, I will resolve to light one more candle each week as we watch for the Messiah.

I think I will also be doing some art projects.  I have a yearning to get back to fiber and paint.  It's a constant yearning, and I felt a spike this morning as I went to this site, The Advent Door.  I have a few more batches of papers to grade, but I see some vistas of time on the near horizon.

All too soon, we will be here, Christmas, with all the Advent candles lit:

Let us look for ways to slow time down--our Advent traditions can be those tools to slow down this hectic season and to make us more aware.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Poetry Saturday: "Advent Calendars"

In my thinking about a saner Advent and holiday season, I never give up on the idea of holiday baking.  I may not do much of it, but it's been an important part of my holidays since I was old enough to mix sugar into butter.

In the spirit of holiday baking, here's an unpublished poem, which I'd give a different title if I revisit it ever:

Advent Calendar

Orion, that winter visitor, reminds us of our frosty
obligations. Now is the time to prepare.
We dig in the cupboards for the cookie cutters,
creatures enough to create a healthy genetic
mix for the holiday planet we will create.

We remember anew the joy of the well-seasoned
skillet, so versatile as we fry the meat
and cook a well-crusted cornbread.
We strive for abundance, to be prepared
for the unexpected visitor, the waylaid
traveler who might arrive without gifts.

We rediscover the joy of bread baked
fresh in the morning. We afford
the extra splurges that festivity demands:
exotic nuts, dense pastes, sweet icings,
breads heavy with butter and spices.

We could not maintain this pace
all year, but for a month, we pretend
we can handle the additional load.
We try to ignore the yearnings from the stomach’s
pit, the one that wonders why every day
can’t be filled with goodies cooling on the hearth,
a household bathed in the fragrance of baking bread,
the comfort of cake.

For a recipe for a great and fairly easy holiday bread, see this blog post.

For my favorite holiday cookie recipe, go here--the cookies can be made thinner, like sugar cookies, or thicker, like a tea cake.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Remembering the True Christmas Gifts on Black Friday

Today many people in the U.S. will be celebrating Black Friday by shopping. And they likely won't be supporting their local monasteries:

Before we join the frenzy, let's remember the true purpose of the Advent season.  It's not about shopping, decorating, entertaining, and all those other frantic activities that can keep us distracted.

 For today, let's keep our attention on the true gift, the God who so yearns to be with us, the God who will take on human form and become incarnate in the form of a tiny, vulnerable baby.

It's also good to remember that it's really not about Christmas at all.  That baby in the manger, he's cute.  But he's got a larger purpose:

And if we leave Christ on the cross, we've lost the even larger story.

No, it's not about Heaven. 

It's about all the gifts and talents that we are given so that we can be co-creators of the better Creation that God envisions.

We have a mission--and it's not to get the best bargains.  How can we transform the world?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Gratitude

I have always said that Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  I love that there's no gift giving tradition to leave us all in some variation of anxious and/or disappointed.  I love that the food can be towards the healthy edge of the spectrum.

But most of all, I love a holiday that revolves around gratitude.

Let me now make a list of all the things for which I am most grateful in the past year:

--At my midlife point of losing friends and not just because they move to a new town, I am grateful for the family and friends who are still here.

--I am grateful that my family continues to enjoy spending time together.  I had wondered if we might drift away from each other after the death of my grandmother, but we have not.

--I am grateful for the publishing successes of the past year, particularly my chapbook acceptance and my inclusion in this book that celebrates the Annunciation.  But more than that, I am profoundly grateful for my various creative communities.

--I am grateful for my various jobs and volunteer work--how wonderful to be fed in so many ways.

--I am grateful that my spouse has returned to teaching and that he likes it.

Let me not get so lost in my luckiness that I forget to pray for those who can't be so grateful.  Let me offer a prayer for this Thanksgiving holiday: 

God of abundance, thank you for all the gifts that you have given us.  Forgive us for the times we complain and forget to notice how much we have.  Teach us to share.  Kindle in us the fierce desire for a world where we will all have enough.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 29, 2015:

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10 (Ps. 25:1)

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Many of us begin to accelerate our holiday preparations about now. Perhaps you've already gotten all your shopping done. Maybe you put up your tree a week or two ago, so you could shift into full celebration mode when you returned from your Thanksgiving travels.

If you're in a festive mood, the readings for Advent must often seem jarring. They tend to be apocalyptic in nature. Take this week's reading from Luke, for example, with its mention of men fainting with fear and the heavens shaking and the return of Jesus--at least, that's a common interpretation of what this text means. Many of the Old Testament readings for Advent will focus on the prophets who foretell doom and offer comfort to the oppressed. If you're oppressed, perhaps you feel fine. Otherwise, you might sit there, wondering why we can't sing Christmas carols like the rest of the world.

It's important to remember that Advent is seen as a time of watching and waiting. We remember the stories of others who watched and waited.

It's also important to remember how often our Scriptures give us stories of the Kingdom of God breaking into our current reality. Many modern theologians talk about the Kingdom of God, and about the mission of Jesus, as both “now” and “not yet.” N. T. Wright says, “Jesus was telling his contemporaries that the kingdom was indeed breaking into history, but that it did not look like what they had expected “(emphasis Wright’s, The Meaning of Jesus, 35). He goes on to clarify that Jesus, like many Jewish mystics, “was bound to be speaking of the kingdom as both present and future” (37). Brian D. McLaren ponders the implications of the message of Jesus: “If Jesus was right, if the kingdom of God has come and is coming . . . if we do indeed have the choice today and every day to seek it, enter it, receive it, life as citizens of it, invest in it, even sacrifice and suffer for it . . . then today our future hangs in the balance no less than it did for Jesus’ original hearers in AD 30 or so” (The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything 180). In later pages, he ponders the kind of decisions that people who believe the impossible is possible might make—and the kind of decisions that people who believe that the Christian way is just too unrealistic and difficult will make (181-182).

One of the messages of Advent is that God breaks into our dreary world in all sorts of ways, some scary, some comforting, some magnificent, and some hardly noticed. The story of Jesus is one of the more spectacular stories, but God tries to get our attention all the time. We are called to watch and wait and always be on the alert.

The message of Advent is truly exciting. God wants us to participate in Kingdom living now, not just in some distant future when we go to Heaven. What good news for people who might find their nerves frazzled by all this celebrating, all this money being spent, all this once-a-year cheer which can seem so false.  What good news for us all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Creating an Advent Strategy

Soon, we will leave Thanksgiving behind.  Before we get too deeply into the coming Christmas season, let's take some time to plan for how we're going to have a meaningful Advent, how we're going to resist the consumerist, capitalist madness of a whirlwind that tends to sweep us all along.

Let's strategize. How can we avoid a hectic season? How can we invite more contemplation and quiet into December?

--Make a budget now. Just days from now, the Christmas shopping season begins for those of us brave enough to go into stores, if it hasn't already started. Before you go shopping, make sure you know how much you can spend. It's easy to get caught up in the shrill cycle of good deals and fierce desires. Don't buy so much that you'll still be paying off those credit cards in July. Nothing is worth that.

--Instead of buying stuff, buy experiences. Most of us have too much stuff. Why not give someone a meal out or a movie? Give the gift of your time.

--Instead of buying stuff, donate to charities. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy just about everything I need (and my needs are fairly simple). I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way.

--Plan your social calendar now. And keep it simple. Choose only one or two events per week-end. Declare that you won't go out on school nights. You can't do everything, and you'll only feel irritable if you try. What's most important to you and the ones you love?

--Purge the traditions that have ceased to have meaning. This one is tough. For example, I often find myself bored and irritable as I sit through The Nutcracker. I always think I'll love that ballet, probably because I loved it as a child. I don't love it as an adult. Why spend the money and time? Of course, if everyone else in the family adored it and wanted to go, it might be worth it. But now is a good time to have a frank discussion, before we're caught up in the sentimental sweep of December.

--Streamline some of the traditions. Do you really need to bake every kind of cookie that you remember from past holidays? Maybe you and your friends could have a cookie swap. Or get together to bake cookies together. Have a wonderful afternoon of cookie dough and wine and leave with enough cookies to get you through the holiday. For years, I did a cookie bake/swap with friends, which grew into a dinner swap, which we'd still be doing today, if I hadn't moved 700 miles away. Consider other ways to make the holiday meals simpler. Maybe this is the year to simplify the holiday card tradition. Ask yourself which church events mean something to you and which you're attending because you always have.

--Take time to help the needy, and bring your children along. Some of my favorite holiday memories involve helping others. My Girl Scout troop used to go caroling at nursing homes. The church of my adolescence assembled gift baskets for homeless women. The words of Isaiah are knitted into every fiber of my being: "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1: 17). My parents, along with social institutions like church and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. Advent is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work.

--Maybe today, as we begin to prepare for Thanksgiving, we can think about how we'll have some meditative time during the upcoming season of Advent.  Will we have an Advent wreath?  Will we start the day with a devotional time?  Will we listen to sacred music during our commute time?

It's important to remember that even with all the best plans, we may find ourselves overscheduled and cranky.  Plan now to forgive yourself for those times.  Plan now for how you'll get back on track.  Plan now to get yourself back to the waiting and watching state that should be our Advent mindset.