Monday, December 22, 2014

My Advent Companion

I have journeyed through Advent this year with an unusual companion—a small brown spider that has taken up residence in our Advent wreath. I expect he came in on the cedar boughs my husband cut for me to arrange in a circle. He seems quite content with his new home, and each morning as I light the candles and read my Advent devotion, he goes to work on his web. I take a few minutes after my reading to reflect on the message and to watch him work.

Candles for hope, peace, joy and love have all been lit, but even before that, he made his home on the Christ candle. A couple of days ago when I revealed to my husband that I had been companioned by this small friend, it dawned on me the significance of his residence on the candle we will light on Christmas Eve, the candle that reminds us that the light of the world has come again. For what better place to live than in the presence of Christ?

Our analytical, reasonable selves might pooh-pooh the notion that a spider knows the difference between candles in an Advent wreath. One might explain his choice of dwelling place by noting that it’s the safest candle because it has not yet been lit. But because Truth is not always explainable by analysis, I choose to believe the wisdom of this spider.

The Celtic Christians knew that the creation is a revelatory text. Meister Eckhart observed “Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature—even a caterpillar—I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.” St. Francis spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. He knew a kinship with all creation.

The Psalmist speaks of sparrows who find a home in God’s house (Psalm 84:3). So is it really too far-fetched for me to share my Advent meditation with Brother Spider, to be preached to by his example of abiding close to the Light of the World?

My favorite Christmas carol is In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti. The final verse, which is my very favorite, wonders at what kind of gift to give to the Lord God. As I witness my little friend remaining close to the Christ candle, I am reminded that my heart—embodied in my devotion, attentiveness and presence—is the best gift I can give to the one who created me and my Advent companion.

And come Christmas Eve, before I light the Christ candle, I will be attentive to the presence of my Advent companion, to keep him safe as we both celebrate the coming of Christ!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Impulse Items

Earlier this week I was in a big-box retailer to purchase one particular item. I picked it up quickly and headed to the cash register. Because of the season, I had to wait in a line to complete my transaction, which gave me an opportunity to observe the folks waiting in line with me.

I notice how many were studying the impulse items that were strategically placed by the cash register, and how many ended up adding one or more of these to their purchases. I wondered how many of these would end up as part of someone else’s Christmas gifts, these last minute, unthought through purchases.

Our culture is a culture of impulsiveness, not only in this season where we may feel the need to purchase more and more items to demonstrate our commitment to another. But in this season, we are often more susceptible to impulsive action. It seems to me that many of us wear a heavy coat of guilt, or at least of obligation in this season that is full of activity—eating, drinking, partying, purchasing, etc. I wonder if we see before us a whole host of impulse items, be they party invitations or actual things to purchase, and find it hard to resist adding them to our already full plates.

As we add impulse items to our life’s “cart,” we find it harder and harder to push through each day. Think about when you’ve had an actual shopping cart with a bad wheel—the fuller you fill it, the more you notice the cart’s defect. And just as a store doesn’t let you roll the cart to your car for free, filling our life’s cart with impulse items costs us dearly. It adds stress to our lives and our finances as we feel compelled to snatch up every event, every item that creates an expectation for us to respond by giving ourselves to it.

When we live impulsively, filling our lives with the expectations that others have of us, there becomes less and less room for God, less quiet in order to hear God’s still, small voice sing over us. When we are no longer anchored in Christ, we are subject to the constantly changing expectations of our culture.

We cannot draw life from impulse items. They actually disconnect us from the source of life. They disconnect us from the Vine that is Christ. And just as a live Christmas tree holds up pretty well for much of the season, we look okay for a while. But a life lived according to the expectations of others will eventually leave us dry and dead inside. That evergreen in your living room, when cut off from its roots, is no longer alive, even if it remains green for several weeks.

Who you are, who I am, is enough. While others may not understand why we no longer respond to every expectation made of us, for us to remain alive and connected to the Vine, we have to acknowledge that we cannot be more than who God created us to be and that is sufficient because God has filled each of us with our own unique ability. The greatest gift we can give to God, and thus to the world, is to live the life God created us perfectly to live. We cannot live another’s life.

As Christ is born in us anew this season, may we draw from the life Christ has given us. May we give birth to our True Self this season, the self that is intimately connected to God.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent Meditations

I've been writing Advent meditations for our church worship bulletin. The one for the First Sunday of Advent is found here on page 6.

The one for the Second Sunday of Advent is found here also on page 6.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Dangers of Having

“You are enslaved by the verb “to have”. . . The very mainspring of your activity is a demand, either for a continued possession of that which you have, or for something which as yet you have not: wealth, honour, success, social position, love, friendship, comfort, amusement. You feel you have a right to some of these things: to a certain recognition of your powers, a certain immunity from failure or humiliation. You resent anything which opposes you in these matters.”
                                                --Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism

In this season where gift-giving and receiving is the subject of almost every advertisement and many conversations, it may seem antithetical to consider that “having” is something to beware. If you have children, you may at least be aware that it is dangerous to fulfill their every desire to have, but there are more subtle aspects of having, which Underhill mentions, that may escape our notice.

We are a discontented culture. That discontentment not only manifests in our consumerism but also in our voracious appetite both for experiences and self-improvement.

Back when I had an accounting practice, I remember reading a book that advocated for creating customer experiences, because it wasn’t enough simply to satisfy customer expectations. Business owners needed to craft a unique experience, something to thrill and excite those who came into contact with your company. We see how this is manifested in the growth of extreme sports, in worship that places an emphasis on entertainment, and in restaurants that create thematic atmospheres of jungles, medieval banquets or island beaches, to name a few.

Underhill says we feel we have a right to comfort, amusement, honor and love. We don’t enjoy failure or humiliation, but do we have a right to be exempt from these?

What if we were to see failure and humiliation as gift? If we could welcome the disappointment of not having, and see it as good? What if our appetite for having was replaced with reliance on God and the recognition that Christ alone is enough for us?

If we can begin to see everything as gift, then our compulsion to have diminishes. We can celebrate all of life, even the hurts and failures, recognizing that in all things, God is present with us, sustaining us, holding us, bearing the pain with us. We are never alone. That’s the best comfort, the best experience of all!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Feeding the Right Wolf

In preparing to lead a discussion about prayer practices, I came across a tale that illustrates the battle within us for how we choose to live life. It speaks of two wolves that live in our minds—one wolf is negative, wearing anger, envy, jealousy, greed, arrogance, resentment, pride, inferiority, superiority and ego. The other wolf is positive, wearing joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The two wolves battle within us, and the one that wins is the one we feed.

Which wolf do you feed? It’s worth looking at the traits listed above and evaluating your general disposition. It may not be a comfortable exercise. Most of us would rather look for the wrong in others rather than seek it in ourselves. When one ventures into self-assessment, it’s not always a pleasant journey! Teresa of Avila, in her book, The Interior Castle, which describes the journey toward union with God, describes the ugliness and unpleasantness we discover in ourselves as we first set out on this journey.

Advent is a season where we are called upon to change, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. Are we willing to change? Or when confronted with the invitation to change, the recognition that there are less than desirable traits within, do we shrug our shoulders and say “That’s just the way I am”?

Feeding the positive wolf, if it is to me more than a veneer, must begin by recognizing how easily the negative wolf masquerades as savvy, shrewd and clever. When pride, jealousy and greed are painted as self-promotion, self-protection and self-sufficiency, we may fail to see the way we are feeding the negative wolf.

Philippians 4:8 is a scriptural description of feeding the positive wolf: From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely and all that is worthy of praise.

Why does any of this matter? Because the wolf doesn’t simply stay in our minds, as thoughts. Thoughts become words and words become actions and actions become our character. The wolf in us, positive or negative, comes out of us. It does not stay hidden away, and if it is a negative wolf, what we are feeding is likewise devouring us!