Sunday, December 16, 2007

Presents = Love

Advent III A
December 16, 2007
The Rev. Linda Campbell
Presents = Love

A father called the church this week, distraught because he had no money to buy his pregnant wife a birthday present and no money to buy his four year old and eight year old any Christmas presents. There was no food in the house, and he had just written a bad check in order to secure his wife’s driving license.

Poking into cupboards around the church, I was able to gather up some new presents for his children, a great new mystery novel for his wife, and some cans of food for his cupboard, along with a check from the discretionary fund. Then, I sat down with him and listened to him download a tale of misery and family discord and general falling apart kinds of things. Besides the small practical things I had to offer – things that would help for a day or two at the most – the main thing I had to offer was hope and perspective and some wondering.

We talked about ways that he might take care of himself – kind of like putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, before you put it onto the ones who are depending on you – so you’re actually able to help them. We talked about ways that he might better understand his wife – or at least not take the great hormonal swings of a beginning pregnancy quite so personally. We talked about the possibilities of finding a supportive community, like a church – who might offer a place at least once a week that was peaceful and relatively orderly. And we talked about being a good parent in December – when you are targeted right and left with messages about how to be a good parent – most of which are unattainable if you have no money.

In Peter Sawtell's Christian Environmentalist newsletter, he tells about a four page advertisement from a major computer manufacturer that saddened his friend so much that she wanted to show someone who would recognize the depth of the problem our families face. “This particular ad campaign was for a "back to school" special last August. It was surprising, in part, because it sounds more like the marketing used around Christmas. The flier, of course, had lots of pictures of computers, and lots of text about features and low prices. The striking thing, though, was the message printed in a large, distinctive font that ran on each page:
Page 1: "Your child wants it. And you want to buy it for them."
Pages 2 and 3: "The urge to buy is good ... Give in to the urge."
Page 4: "Don't think of it as technology. Think of it as a symbol of your love." "

You know this kind of ad – we’ve all seen a hundred of them – usually they aren’t quite this blatant – but the message is the same. Presents = Love. That’s the double edged nature of Christmas – for us Christians as much as everyone else.

While we sing songs of hope filled waiting for the Prince of Peace on Sunday mornings, if you’re like me, when you leave here, you’ve got some shopping to do, and some presents to wrap! So this is not a diatribe against materialism. The truth is, gifts have a different meaning than greetings. When a friend and I went to the movies this week and she handed me a carefully wrapped box, I felt treasured and cared for.

We all know that a well-chosen present conveys love in a different way than words and gestures. Remember getting that one of a kind item back in May because it was just right for a dear friend? Giving that gift means “I know you. I respect you. I treasure you.” And what a great thing to say - and what a blessing that is to hear! The thing being given is an essential part of that message.

So I do not fault this good father for his despair over his inability to purchase gifts for his children. That’s why we had the Giving Tree! So parents at the homeless shelter could offer their children a present – could offer them a symbol of their love. Because that’s the real present isn’t it – the real present, under the cover of the Christmas wrapping and thing itself - is the message –I love you.

The truth is – there is goodness in this computer ad. This ad affirms the deep desire we have to let those whom we love – know that we love them. Your child wants it ….. think of it as a symbol of your love.

I invite you to take the energy and truthfulness of that ad, further. Your child wants it … but what exactly does your child really want? Really? What do you want? Really?

If you talk with young people, or your friends and neighbors, you will find that many of then really want peace and are truly concerned about war. You will find that many of them really want a healthy planet and a truly concerned about global warming. You may find that they really really want everyone to have enough to live on and are truly concerned about people who are hungry and about species dying at a very rapid rate. If you talk with young people you will find many of them have a real heart for helping others, and for making a difference on behalf of others.

I was sorting through computer files yesterday and I came across this “mission statement” written by my daughter when she was in her teens –

“I am dedicated to using my passion for exploring the unknown and my compassion for others to grow more hope in the world. My art, my social consciousness, and the time I take to help others are the primary ways in which I fulfill this mission”.

Whoa! This is an incredibly articulate personal mission statement – but my guess is that many of our young people would echo her sentiment – exploring the unknown, compassion for others, growing hope in the world.

When you take the time to truly listen – to your own heart, to your friends and neighbors, to your children and grandchildren – it could be that you will hear that “a livable world is more important than a faster computer – and that a local greenbelt with abundant wildlife is more fulfilling than a video game.” A gift that grows hope is harder to buy and to give – but not impossible. One father I know whose son is worried about global warming gave his son the gift of working together over the course of several days to change out all the light bulbs in their home to compact fluorescents. Years ago, a friend in my daughter’s first grade class gave her daughter the gift of a year of once a month picnics by the river that ran through our town to watch the deer and the squirrels and look at the bugs and the leaves and the changing seasons.

It’s not easy coming up with these imaginative gifts and big flat screen monitors are great – and I’m not warning you against them. But spending time with this distraught father this week made me wonder what his children might really want from him – how peace between him and his wife and a day spent coloring pictures together with their children might be worth so much more than the presents he was longing to buy them at Best Buy.

Enlarge your imagination and you might find yourself a lot happier and with a lot more great gifts to give others. God got quite imaginative when he sent us Jesus. John’s disciples thought that what they really wanted was a Kingly Coming One who would get John out of prison and overthrow the occupiers and issue decrees to spread the wealth equitably. Instead, Jesus simply pointed to what was happening – which, really, in the whole scheme of things, wasn’t grandiose. Yes, the blind receive their sight – but only the ones who happened to be at the right place at the right time. Yes, the lame walk, but not all the lame were able to abandon their begging posts. Yes, the poor have good news brought to them, but they were still up to their ears in debt. The Jesus that John’s disciples found paraphrased Isaiah and “pointed out small things, not big things, happening among little people, not powerful people, with local effect, not cosmic effect.

The truth is that while we, along with John and his disciples, might think that great armies on thundering horses is a much more adequate display of power and would be a great gift on behalf of the poor and suffering – it isn’t the gift that God gives. God’s gift – God’s redeeming and hugely imaginative gift – “sent a human child into the world instead of a mighty king, sends servants instead of troops – and people like you and me and the distraught dad, instead of real disciples” – so that we all might continue giving gifts of our imaginations, gifts of really listening to each other, gifts that grow hope and healing for even a few others – maybe our children, maybe our grandchildren, maybe our friends or neighbors, maybe even for our very own selves.

Resources: Barbara Brown Taylor, 2004, Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

Peter Sawtell, Eco-Justice Notes, December 14, 2007 A Symbol of Your Love

Staying Awake - A Bad Commercial or a Calling?

Advent 1, Year A
December 2, 2007
Staying Awake – A Bad Commercial or a Calling?

This past Wednesday, at the Anglican devotional poetry gathering, a participant made an intriguing comment about Christian enlightenment. Whereas in many other faiths, the believer spends their lifetime in substantial efforts to gain enlightenment – through meditation, body postures, deep and rigorous education of the mind, leading towards a spiritual breakthrough at some distant point – Christianity is virtually the opposite. You are baptized, holy hands are laid on you, your forehead is anointed with the cross, you are fed bread and wine, and wa la! You are a Christian. You’ve made it. You’re in.

So then what? If you were older when you became a Christian, instead of just having been raised up in the faith, you may have experienced euphoria – joy and in love ness with the world and Christ and the Creator of all that is. Or you may have experienced deep joy at a time when your faith just opened up for you and you found a renewed vision of what it means for you that God shows himself in creation, that God shows himself in your life.

For most of us, those first blooms of conversion and renewed faith wear off. We do good deeds, we pray, we come to church, we join the choir and the committees, and eventually we wonder where the joy is? Where is the peace that passes all understanding? Where did it go? Staying awake and alert to what God is up to becomes increasingly difficult.

I’ve got George Herbert’s poetry at my fingertips right now – compliments of John Coolidge and Richard Cushman! And so I can’t help but notice that Herbert experienced this same arc of difficulty – from being at first joyful, to finding it increasingly difficult to stay awake and alert and ready for whatever God might be doing - Herbert writes about the beginning of his enlightenment:

“When first Thou didst entice to Thee my heart,
I thought the service brave:
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of naturall delights,
Augmented with Thy gracious benefits.

And so, full of bravery and with fantasies about the joys God is going to send him, Herbert enters into God’s service …. he serves with fidelity and patience this God who enticed him, who lured his heart into bondage … but instead of going from joy to joy, he gets really sick and writes “I was blown through with every storm and wind… and

Yet, lest perchance I should too happy be
In my unhappiness,
Turning my purge to food, Thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thus doth Thy power cross-bias me, not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Eventually, this good Christian man wishes he were a tree instead!

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree –
For sure, then, I should grow
To Fruit or shade; at least, some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

The poem by the way is titled “Affliction I”. Apparently, there is more than one poem that Herbert wrote, titled Affliction! So, even our great Anglican poets found waking up to the Divine and staying awake and attentive and ready to respond, difficult to do.

When he was an old man, T.S. Elliot wrote about his conversion and what followed:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

After a long time leaning in the same direction, running the race set before us, as St. Paul says, it becomes difficult to “stay awake, especially when we too, like Elliot, live in the old dispensation – with an alien people clutching their gods …. Actually, we live in a time and place in which there are many forces conspiring to help us clutch at false gods and stay asleep. Retail therapy is one among many common avenues that can lull us into sleep. That’s a particular form of sleepiness pushed at us from every angle during this Advent season – ironic really, as this season has been devoted, from the 6th century on, to waking up.

But more than that, the pace of our lives and the tiredness that dogs us, makes good sound sleep sounds like heaven. The notion of staying awake and alert at all times sound like a really bad commercial. The truth is that for many of us, the good things that fill our lives – the everyday activities of eating and drinking and marrying and being married, and all the other activities such as picking up the pants at the cleaners, baking the birthday cupcakes, finding candles for the Advent wreath, getting the clothes out of the dryer before they are all wrinkled, making the costumes for the school play … just doing what we need to do to genuinely care for the immediate concerns that confront us seems like enough, like more than enough. Meanwhile there are large scale systems and structures pressing ahead, above and beyond us …. Things which affect economies and ecologies; relationships that are developing and breaking down between communities and nations. How attentive are we, really, to the big picture and the longer perspective? How much can we take in? How awake do we need to be? How awake can we be and still function in our day to day lives? How do we live within the old dispensation that is based in envy and greed and revenge with the new dispensation of equality and freedom, justice and peace that we have been baptized into in Christ? No wonder Herbert just wished he were a tree!

Thank goodness for the Eucharist. "Because in the Eucharist, God comes to us from the future as well as from the past. This Jesus – shaped God is able to lift our gaze beyond the immediate and place it into the perspective of the eternal, where there is bread and wine and rest enough for everyone." We are fed by this eternal perspective, so we can return to the world as awakened, wise and faithful servants. Awake and clearly convicted that all we have now is only entrusted to us as stewards. The truth is we come together primarily to be nurtured and sustained in thinking, speaking and acting continuously from that conviction.

Difficult? Yes. But there is plenty of daily help. Almost every day, I say the prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr, the same prayer that so many others have also found helpful to staying awake and

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

The Rev. Linda Campbell


Process and Faith, commentary by Paul Nancarrow, Advent 1, Year A

George Herbert, Affliction 1

T.S. Elliott, The Journey of the Magi