Saturday, December 28, 2019

God of the Circling Years

During the Blue Christmas service at our church in town, the pastor asked each person to select a Christmas ornament from several that she had placed on the altar. We were to choose the one that best represented the way we felt this Christmas.

I chose a blue bulb with an encircling silver design that reminded me of a river or waves or wind. It was a pattern that could have been found on ancient pottery or textile. To my eyes it also resembled the yin-yang symbol of ancient China.

When my wife and I returned home, we hung the ornaments on the frame of our bay window in our living room, over our small Christmas tree and olive wood nativity scene. I have been contemplating my selection ever since. Meditating upon the ornament has become part of my morning devotions during Christmastide, which is the traditional twelve days of Christmas beginning the 25th. As the new year approaches it has become meaningful to me as a symbol of the future as well as the past.

Time flows in a never ending stream. From our perspective on this planet, time appears cyclical with no beginning and no end. The seasons and years come and go. The dark and light pattern on the bulb elicits thoughts of the good and the bad that makes up our lives. Weakness and strength. Joy and sorrow. The third chapter of Ecclesiastes was read at the service, and it continues to echo in my heart.

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

The words of a hymn written by Pittsburgh pastor, Hugh Thomson Kerr, during the First World War also comes to my mind:

God of our life, through all the circling years,
we trust in you;
in all the past, through all our hopes and fears,
your hand we view.
With each new day, when morning lifts the veil,
we own your mercies, Lord, which never fail.

God of the past, our times are in your hand;
with us abide.
Lead us by faith, to hope's true Promised Land;
be now our guide.
With you to bless, the darkness shines as light,
and faith's fair vision changes into sight.

God of the coming years, thro' paths unknown
we follow you;
when we are strong, Lord, leave us not alone;
our faith renew.
Be now for us in life our daily bread,
our heart's true home when all our years have sped.

Through all the circling patterns of light and dark that make up our lives, the divine design of our lives is beautiful. Ecclesiastes 3 explains, “He [God] hath made everything beautiful in his time.” The darkness as well as the light make it so. 2019 was good. 2020 will be good. As God said in Genesis as he sat back and contemplated his creation: “It is very good.”

May God bless you with a beautiful year of light and dark in 2020. May we always see the pattern of our lives as beautiful. For as the scripture says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Incarnation

The theology of Christmas is called incarnation. Those of us who call ourselves Christians celebrate God incarnate (enfleshed) in Jesus of Nazareth, whom we profess to be the Christ, meaning the anointed One. I embrace that theology wholeheartedly.

Most Christians stop there. But if we read the letters of the apostle Paul, for example, he talks a lot about our participation in this incarnation. We are “in Christ” and have been since the beginning of the universe. “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

We are united with Christ who is one with God. We identify with this Divine One. We lose ourselves in Christ. We are one with Christ, as Christ promised we would. We start out believing this by faith and end up experiencing it in our lives. As my favorite Scripture verse says, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”

John the Baptist put it this way of Christ, “He must increase; I must decrease.” As a sponge is filled with water, so are we filled with Christ. Like a fossil gradually loses all of its organic elements until it is fully replaced by minerals from the matrix in which it resides, so we who abide in Christ gradually lose ourselves and are replaced with Him.

In other words we become incarnations of Christ and incarnations of the Spirit who dwells within us. To put it even more boldly, we are incarnations of God. To fundamentalists this sounds dangerously close to claiming divinity for ourselves. In fact we are claiming nothing for ourselves. We are nothing. God is everything.

This incarnational language is at the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy, which was the original form of Christianity before Roman Catholicism, Protestantism or Evangelicalism existed. Orthodoxy calls this truth by many names: theosis, theopoesis, apotheosis, deification or divinization. (If you want to explore this more, look up the terms on Wikipedia.) The Patristic writings (the next generation of Christians after the apostles) are filled with this teaching. It is not heresy, but the oldest Christian orthodoxy.

In short the Christian gospel teaches that the purpose of Christmas – of God becoming incarnate in Jesus – is so that we may be incarnations of Christ. So that people might not only hear about Christ from us but see Christ in us. Christmas is not about believing a bunch of stories and doctrines about an ancient man. It is becoming so infused with Christ that Christ is visible and present through us.

Jesus prayed this for us the night before he died. Jesus prayed “for those who will believe in me through their [the apostles’] word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me … that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me.”

In other words Jesus intended for his followers to be so united with God that we continue his ministry as incarnations of God. That is the meaning of Christmas and the intent of Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Christmas is not just about remembering something that happened two thousand years ago. It is happening today. It is about who we are as sons and daughters of God.

It is not just about Jesus as the Son of God, but as Paul writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ….” Elsewhere he reminds that that we have the mind of Christ and the Spirit of Christ.

Christmas is about having a God-aware mind, a God-intoxicated heart, and a God-infused life. It is about embodying the Spirit of Christmas every day. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and living from that awareness. It is not just about mouthing “Merry Christmas” but being living incarnations of Christmas. This is Christmas. Happy Incarnation Day!

Saturday, December 21, 2019

It is NOT Feeling a Lot like Christmas

You know the old song, “It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” I am still waiting for that holiday feeling to descend upon me. This Christmas season feels different somehow. Is it just me, or do others share that feeling? It could just be me.

I have had my share of personal issues these last couple of months, topped off with five days of severe dental pain this week (ouch!). Nothing like a toothache to put you in the holiday spirit! Thank God for dentists! None of my problems have been anything too serious, but they certainly colored the last several weeks for me.

I think it started when we decided not drive to Pittsburgh to visit my daughter for Thanksgiving – an event that always marked the unofficial beginning of our holiday preparations. I did not make a Christmas wreath for my front door this year - for the first time this decade. We did not attend the Baptist minister’s Christmas party.

Apparently while cleaning up after last year’s Christmas, I accidently threw out our beautiful evergreen garland that we use to decorate the living room. So our house does not look the same. And my Christmas shopping was done almost entirely online. Clicking a mouse just does not feel like Christmas shopping.

Furthermore we are not planning a big Christmas dinner this year. Our sons and their families are coming to our house for Christmas day (yeah!), but it will not be the feast that it normally is. That means no creamed onions. Sigh. Hopefully there will still be Indian pudding! I am putting in a special request to Mrs. Claus.

Then of course the impeachment of Donald Trump has dominated the headlines and airwaves this holiday season. That has put a damper on festive merrymaking for many people. Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the final impeachment vote put a “spring in her step.” Not for me. I am no Trumper, but the whole impeachment process only makes me sad.

In taking sides on this divisive political issue, Christian leaders are saying the most unchristian things and defending very unchristian behavior. The whole spectacle is unfortunate in its timing. It is not a good advertisement for the “reason for the season,” the celebration of the birth of Christ. It is no wonder that younger generations are distrustful of Christianity and church attendance has dropped to its lowest level since data has been collected.

For all these reasons and more, I have not been feeling very Christmasy. So I am trying to do alternative spiritual activities during these final days before Christmas. I am planning to attend the Global Silent Minute for global cooperation, peace and freedom at the North Sandwich Friends Meeting today. I am also hoping to attend the Blue Christmas Service at the Community Church of Sandwich on Sunday afternoon.

Then on Christmas Eve we will make our annual pilgrimage to Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord to watch our oldest grandson in the Children’s Christmas Pageant. This year he is Joseph!  I am a proud preacher/grandpa. When Christmas Day dawns I plan to be eating monkey bread, opening presents, and reading the biblical Christmas story with my beloved. By then I am hoping it feels a lot more like Christmas.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Missing Stanzas of Silent Night

The song Silent Night is one of the most beloved carols of Christmas. For decades I closed my Christmas Eve services with the congregation lighting individual candles and singing this lovely hymn.

The lyrics of "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" were written by Joseph Mohr in 1816 in Austria. It was set to music by his friend and organist Franz Xaver Gruber. The song was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf near Salzburg, where Mohr was the pastor. It was played on a guitar because the church’s organ had been damaged by flooding. Most hymnals include only three or four stanzas:

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Silent night! Holy night!
wondrous star, lend thy light;
with the angels let us sing
alleluias to our King;
Christ, the Savior, is born!
Christ, the Savior, is born!

These wonderful words set to beautiful music have graced Christmas Eve services for two hundred years. But there is more! These lyrics are only part of the original song. There were originally three more stanzas written by Mohr. The extra three stanzas add important elements to the message. Here are the missing stanzas. They are translated from the original German by Bettina Klein of the Silent Night Museum of Salzburg. © 1998

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Brought the world gracious light
Down from heaven's golden height
Comes to us the glorious sight:
Jesus, as one of mankind
Jesus, as one of mankind.      

Silent Night! Holy Night!
By his love, by his might
God our Father us has graced
As a brother gently embraced
Jesus, all nations on earth
Jesus, all nations on earth.

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Long ago, minding our plight
God the world from misery freed
In the dark age of our fathers decreed:
All the world is redeemed
All the world is redeemed.

The first of these stanzas focusses on the humanity of Jesus “as one of mankind” as a balance to the “Son of God, Love’s Pure Light.” The next stanza states that Christ came for “all nations on earth.” Mohr wrote the song at a time of intense nationalism, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He was looking forward to earthly peace and international cooperation. When he wrote that “God the world from misery freed,” he was undoubtedly thinking in historical and well as spiritual terms.

In addition to his hopes for worldly peace, this verse presents Mohr’s theological universalism. In contrast to the parochialism of his church at the time, which insisted that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church, Mohr declared that in Christ “All the world is redeemed.”

When we sing this great hymn this Christmas, let us remember that it is more than a lullaby celebrating the “round yon virgin mother and child.” It is an expression of an inclusive faith that works for “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” (and women.) The missing stanzas and their message are much needed in our nation and our world today.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Christmas Wars

The Christmas season always brings controversy in its wake. Often it has to do with nativity scenes in public spaces. Schools have to decide how much – or how little – to include music that mentions the birth of Jesus in their holiday programs. Most decide to omit any reference to Christ (or even the word Christmas), while including references to Santa Claus, who ironically was originally a Christian saint named Nicholas.

This year the annual Christmas War erupted in the heartland when the mayor of Charleston, West Virginia, unilaterally decided to change the name of the city’s Christmas parade to “Winter Parade.” Christians in the city and beyond saw it as an attack on Christianity. The outrage was so severe that she was forced to retract her decision and change the name back to the Christian version.

On the other side of the political spectrum, some churches this year are using their outdoor nativity scenes as a form of social protest against U.S. immigration policies. For example the Claremont United Methodist Church in California has redesigned their nativity scene to picture Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as border detainees, each figure separated from the others, inhabiting their own chain-link cage with a barbed-wire top.

The most regular holiday battleground is whether to say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” What do we put on our Christmas cards (if we still send them) and what do we say to our neighbors as we greet them on the street? Our president has said that under his presidency we are allowed to say “Merry Christmas” again. I didn’t know I had been forbidden to say it.

The truth is that that the December holiday season is older and more universal than Christianity. The date of Christmas was originally an ancient Roman holiday called Saturnalia, which the fourth century church rebranded to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Celebrations were originally centered around the winter solstice, which on the calendar of the time fell near the 25th, whereas nowadays it is between December 20 and December 23. (This year the solstice is at 11:19 PM on December 21.)

Acknowledging this astronomical pattern nearly all religions – including Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Wicca and Neo-paganism - have holy days in December. In the 20th century the holiday of Kwanzaa was added to the list. December – particularly around the winter solstice – is a holy time for many faiths and is not the sole property of Christians.

Personally I am thrilled that so many religious traditions observe this season when the darkness wanes and the light begins to increase. I do not see it as a threat to Christianity to acknowledge the religious diversity that exists in our country and the world. In fact I see it as confirmation that there is a cosmic spirituality that transcends cultural and religious differences.

Because I am a Christian I say “Merry Christmas” when my holy day nears, and “Happy Advent” until then. To my Jewish friends I say, “Happy Hanukkah.” I will gladly accept other religious greetings that come my way from friends of different spiritual traditions. My atheist and humanist friends can greet me any way they want. I am not threatened but enriched by this variety.

As I see it, the holiday season is not a time to wage cultural battles with people of other faiths or of no faith. It is not a time to draw distinctions between people and fight over words. For me Christmas is a time to put on the Spirit of Christ and try to represent my Lord as graciously as I can to everyone I meet. The best way that Christians can honor the one whose birth we celebrate is to incarnate Christ for others at this time of year. When people glimpse Christ – however imperfectly – in our lives, words, deeds, and attitudes, then we are truly embracing the spirit of the season. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Antidote to Anxiety

The apostle Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything.” (4:6) Really? Not anything? Is that possible? Sounds like heaven to me. Paul did not pen those words lightly. He had lots in his life to be anxious about.

In his second letter to Corinth he compares his sufferings to that of other apostles. He writes that he has had “far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

Whew! It makes my concerns seem trivial in comparison. So if he can “not be anxious” in the midst of such circumstances, so can I. But how? The scriptural context of the injunction holds the key. What comes immediately before and after these words? Here is the rest of the sentence: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

“The Lord is at hand.” The presence of the Lord is the foundation of his peace of mind. There is no need to be anxious if the Lord is near. I take the words “the Lord is at hand” to mean the spiritual presence of Christ. It is what Jesus meant when he said, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” The omnipresence of Christ is the basis for freedom from anxiety. Relax! The Lord is here now!

Then Paul suggests that we replace the pattern of anxious thinking with an alternative practice: “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In other words, when you are anxious, just pray. Place yourself - and everyone and everything around you -into the hands of God. Do it with thanksgiving. Count your blessings, and life look better. As Paul says in another letter, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

There is a lot more in this biblical chapter. I could easily preach several sermons on the fourth chapter of Philippians. Right beforehand he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Practicing the spiritual discipline of “rejoicing in the Lord” serves as preventative medicine to the “dis-ease” of anxiety.

Then he says, “Let your gentleness be known to all.” There is a gentleness deep inside. It is the inner sanctuary of the soul where the Spirit resides. Let this gentleness come forth in thoughts and actions. Be gentle with yourself and with others. Living life gently and simply is an antidote to the anxiety-producing modern lifestyle.

If one practices what the apostle suggests, he offers this promise: “Then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The peace that he is speaking about is not of human making. It is not a “self-improvement” scheme or a pharmaceutically induced equilibrium. I am grateful for the blessing of prescription medication. It saves lives and has helped me. But there is a spiritual dimension to peace that transcends the medical arts. There is more to peace of soul than brain chemistry. This is the peace of God.

This type of peace “surpasses all understanding.” I have tasted it often. I glimpse it always in the background, even at those time when I am anxious. The secret is to abide in this peace. Paul says it stands guard over our hearts and minds, just like the Roman soldier who was standing guard over Paul as he wrote those words.

Then come these wonderful concluding words: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” One translation says: “meditate on these things.”

I practice meditation daily, during which I intentionally calm my mind and heart. For years my wife has used “thought conditioners,” biblical verses that condition our hearts and minds to be in harmony with God’s Spirit. Wholesome ideas counteract the negativity that invades our lives.

During my last appointment, my primary care physician told me to stop watching the television news. That advice has helped. I don’t miss the drama. Furthermore I find that reading the news gives me a far better understanding of what is happening in the world.

Paul closes this section of his epistle with these words: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” In other words, we learn peace from those who live peaceable lives. Be around peaceful people, and their peace will be transmitted to you. Then our peace can be passed on to others. As the song goes, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

So those are my thoughts today as I meditate on one of the greatest chapters in the Bible. I hope they help. It helps me to share them.