Friday, November 28, 2008

The World is About to Turn

Thoughts on Advent Spirituality

When I think of what Advent could mean if we let the words and images of the season sink in, I remember the holidays of 1989. Sandy and I were visiting her family during the week following Christmas. She took me to a local park in Baton Rouge near her parents’ home. As I opened the special gift she had for me, I found a teddy bear holding the pregnancy test results. Yes, indeed, we were expecting our first beloved child, and my heart leapt with joy and excitement about this new journey before us. My world was about to turn!

Never mind that the season of Advent had already dissolved into Christmas that year. For me, a nine month Advent had just begun. It was nine months full of anticipation, fascination, worry, joy, stress, hope, love, hard work, and teary eyed wonder. Ready or not, her she comes! We didn’t just sit around and wait, nor did we get so busy with “doing” that we did not pause to behold the mystery of what this would mean. It was a nine month journey on its own, full of its own rhythm and fire.

I have realized over the years that we are a people who need to reclaim Advent spirituality. In a culture where the season is tritely seen as “getting ready for Christmas,” we get lost in too many parties and too much shopping. A balanced diet of activity is fine and good, but frenzy lacking balance leaves our souls exhausted and still hungry at the end of December though we’ve had plenty to eat. As one sign of this lost spirituality, I have been disturbed by the way I hear people talk about the upcoming season in light of the economic downturn in our country. The other day, someone said bluntly “it’s going to be a dismal Christmas.” A dismal Christmas? How sad that we can let economics and materialism have the power to overtake our language and lay aside our faith. Perhaps we need Advent more than ever.

I invite you to the journey of rediscovering Advent. Its rich images and stories dance in the mind and inflame the heart. Isaiah promises the coming of the prince of peace. Zechariah is struck mute in disbelief, but when his mouth finally opens it is filled with song. John the Baptist insists that we prepare the way of the Lord, who will lay the mountains low, exalt the valleys, and make the paths straight. Mary sings “my soul magnifies the Lord” and speaks prophetically of the new justice Christ would bring to the world. John the apostle writes poetically of light and darkness that will never overcome it. We fathom a mystery that shakes us up profoundly. I invite you to take time to be washed over by the rich texts and the wonder-filled songs. Go deep. Don’t keep things on the surface.

As I write this, I am attending a week of Academy for Spiritual Formation and we are singing a song probably unfamiliar to most of you that is based on the passionate, active spirituality of Advent. It is improvised from the words of Mary in Luke 1:46-53 traditionally known as the “Magnificat.” The song sings:

"My heart will sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!"

In today’s world when we are involved in two wars and have a stumbling economy, more than ever it is time to rekindle our passionate longing for God. Have an unsettling Advent. It’s what we need more than anything.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Berakah" for a People Weathering Economic Downturn

I have returned from a week of refreshing renewal at the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Dick Eslinger taught writing the berakah (Hebrew "blessing"), the traditional form for prayer in Jewish faith. This form was the context of early Christian eucharistic prayers and is divided into three sections: blessing God for God's majestic and creative works, thanksgiving for God's redemptive actions, and petition.

While, interestingly, Hebrew has no real word for "thanksgiving", I found the berakah to be a deeper way to pray than my typical prayers of surfacy thanks. I wrote a "Berakah for a People Weathering Economic Downturn" and I hope it blesses you during this week:

I. Blessed are you, ever-so-personal Creator
of all that was, and is, and is to come,
of all that is born and all that dies,
For you breathe into us life's breath.
You feed famished souls with good food of the earth.
You quench parched spirits with flowing waters of grace.

II. We give you thanks, Holy One,
for awakening in us every desire to
breathe, to eat, and to drink,
for it is your deeper desire to give.
We thank you, for giving us your Son,
Jesus Christ, who calls us to consider the lilies of the field
and the birds of the air.
We know that you provide. You are Jehovah Jireh,
the Great Provider.

III. Have mercy, Living God, on us who
forget with our hearts what we know in our minds,
that you are the source of all breath, food, water, and life.
We sing occasional praise from one side of our mouths,
while we continually speak words of trust in our own
security and exacting control,
in our banking institutions and investments,
with the other side of our mouths.
Restore us, oh Lord, to a people who
live out of your abundant goodness
rather than cowering in our self-created sense of scarcity.
Bring us back to dependence on the one thing,
love of God and neighbor,
when we are disturbed by so many things.
It is enough, oh Lord, for YOU are enough.

Blessed be you, oh keeper of the universe,
who draws us back to your heart.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Spirituality of Thanksgiving

I recently saw this fascinating article on the spirituality of gratitude. It is written by Father Kevin Goodrich, an Anglican Dominican priest. May it help prepare our hearts for Thanksgiving. I long for a more grateful heart, aware of the blessing of each breath, each moment, and each glimpse of beauty.

"Thank God" is perhaps the most basic form of prayer in Western civilization. Even if we didn’t grow up in a home that immersed itself in a rich tradition of spirituality most people would have some familiarity with the idea of table grace. In my work with families over the years I’ve always been amused by the "forced" thankfulness of some young people. If you’re a parent or where once a child you probably know what I’m talking about. Here is how it works. A parent comes to pick up their child from some activity at school, sports, or church. As they leave the parent inevitably says, "Did you say thank you?" to which the child replies with a monotone "thank you," as he/she walks off to the car. In families where manners are valued the idea of please and thank you are drilled into children from infancy. I’m not complaining about this because it was drilled into me and I’m glad it was.

Yet I wonder how much of this robotic responsiveness to thankfulness continues to influence our spirituality of thankfulness as adults. Consider the fact that in general we tend to approach thankfulness as an obligation and not as spontaneous response of gratitude. We write thank you notes because we’re supposed to, and we say thank you to gifts, lunches, and compliments that are less than appealing because we want to be polite. Recent events in our country and across the world bring out glints of genuine thankfulness in our hearts and from our lips. When a crisis strikes a neighbor or a different part of the country we are often reminded of our blessings. We pause to consider that our life isn’t so bad after all and we are very grateful that whatever tragedy has struck, hasn’t struck in our backyard.

Even this kind of thankfulness fails to capture the spirit of Christian thankfulness rooted in the Bible. It is true thankfulness but in a way it’s a thankfulness that says "I’m glad those other people got hurt, and not me." Closer to the Biblical notion of thankfulness is the mere acknowledged of your heartbeat. The simple thanks for the air you breathe or an innate sense of gratitude when watching children playing. It’s a thankfulness that has been placed deep in our hearts by the Spirit of God. It’s a posture that we as followers of Jesus are to approach life with.

Life may have its up and downs, but we won’t change our posture. Christians are fundamentally called to be a thanksgiving people. Are you a thanksgiving person?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Thoughts on the Election of Obama

This week, we witnessed with awe an extremely significant moment in history as the first African American was elected to the presidency of the United States.

I don’t wish to discuss partisan issues, and I affirm differences and disagreements as a healthy part of life. I do not believe either major party is entirely right or wrong, and Christians vote faithfully for different candidates based on the Christian values most important to them. But no matter who we voted for, I’d like to suggest that we pause and do two things.

First, we are called to support our president whoever that may be! I have said this after every election for all the years of my ministry. The new president is our president and we support him with fervent prayers, open minds, and willing hearts. It is important to give witness to our Christian faith by working together, even with those whom we disagree. The strength of a democracy is that candidates fight and debate hard, out of desire to serve the country they love. When the people have spoken, it is time to put fighting to rest and come together as one. If we don't, we don't really trust in the purposes of democracy, do we? I encourage you to express your discomfort to others who might continue negative rhetoric, including rhetoric against those who lost.

Second, let us take note what has happened here historically. As I shared many weeks ago in a sermon, it delighted me that no matter which way the election went, an important glass ceiling would be broken. One has been broken indeed, in a nation with a very difficult story of race relations beginning with our original sin of slavery. This is a defining moment that I would lift up regardless of which party won the White House.

My Wednesday night Bible study mused about this the day after the election. Some could personally remember when it was illegal for women to vote. Others recalled the poll tax and other prejudice practices which prevented elections from being fully inclusive. Still others, like me, were born later than all that, but born in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement when the injustice of segregation was addressed with a great deal of pain and passion. For most of our lives, it would have been very difficult to imagine this day.

I love our country very much. For me, part of that love is honestly recognizing its struggles as well as honoring its accomplishments. I believe this election is a significant historical event in the life of our nation, and I pray that it helps in the healing of some very old pain as well as giving those historically less privileged a renewed sense of hope. We can be prouder than ever to be American.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Prayer for the Presidential Election

This is a wonderful prayer by Ken Carter for the United States Presidential Election. May this be our prayer as the people of God. I pray that whatever the outcome, we unite around our new president as one, trusting that the people have spoken.

Creator of us all:
you are the source of every blessing,
the judge of every nation and the hope of earth and heaven:

We pray to you on the eve of this important and historic election.

We call to mind the best that is within us:
That we live under God,
that we are indivisible,
that liberty and justice extend to all.

We acknowledge the sin that runs through our history as a nation:
The displacement of native peoples,
racial injustice, economic inequity, regional separation.

And yet we profess a deep and abiding gratitude
for the goodness of ordinary people who have made sacrifices,
who have sought opportunities,
who have journeyed to this land as immigrants
strengthening its promise in successive generations,
who have found freedom on these shores,
and defended this freedom at tremendous cost.

Be with us in the days that are near.
Remind us that your ways are not our ways,
that your power and might transcend the plans of every nation,
that you are not mocked.

Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ
be a peaceable people in the midst of division.

Send your Spirit of peace,
justice and freedom upon us,
break down the walls of political partisanship, and make us one.

Give us wisdom to walk in your ways,
courage to speak in your name,
and humility to trust in your providence.