The past three nights, there has been Ellen’s Greatest Night of Giveaways. The unsuspecting crowd was drawn in under the pretense of filming another show. The winners of thousands of dollars were interviewed under the pretense of a show that was about how people in difficult situations turn their lives around never giving up and always holding onto hope. And of course, the audience was surprised with six-day getaways, new exercise equipment, gift cards, and the latest and greatest technology.
If you watched the show or tuned in on Instragram or Twitter, you found yourself laughing and crying. I found myself hooked on the stories of the families whose lives she was turning around. The boy who was raised living in his car with his family who started being a sign spinner who received a car and a job, his life taking a completely different trajectory than before. The single dad who lost his job who was sent to Europe with his daughters for a month. The single dad whose wife passed away just six weeks ago whose mortgage was paid off. Surely, this is the reason for the season. Surely, this is what power and influence and money can do for good.
Ellen ended each show by saying, “Merry Christmas. Spread some Christmas cheer today and remember to be kind to each other.” I couldn’t help but compare this to the impeachment hearings and the way our leaders are yelling at each other and at witnesses. The rhetoric of our political leader in regards to a sixteen-year-old girl who has a passion and a calling to change the world.
Why is that we are so unkind to each other? Why is that we are so competitive with each other? Why is that we find ourselves so entrenched in identity politics that we can’t even see the needs of other people around us?
It takes a lot of intention, reflection, and prayer to renew our minds and to open our hearts to the needs of other people. Instead of asking why the person is on the corner holding a sign asking for money or food, it takes wondering what it would feel like to be at the point where you have to hold a sign to ask for food. Instead of complaining about the fact that it is raining, it takes imagining what it would be like to sleep outside in the rain all night long and then be damp for the rest of the day as the rain continues.
It takes thinking outside of our lived experiences and imagining the lives and the realities of other people. It takes an understanding that the economic system that we live in has privileged some above others and continues to do so. It takes shifting our thinking from “I deserve this,” to “we deserve this.”
And if there is ever a season in the church year when we can change our thinking and that the Divine turns things upside down, it’s Advent. Watch and wait. Something is coming that will change the way we see the world and indeed change the powers of the world.
This time last year, we found out that our baby girl would be coming about ten days earlier than we expected. I can remember the feeling of panic that washed over me as I thought about having less time to wait on her. Even though we were ready to meet her, I was not ready to undergo another C-section quite yet. I was starting a new job and something about having her in January instead of the first week of February just felt like it was so much sooner.
I can remember the feeling of waiting four years ago when we were in the midst of the Advent season and I was on maternity leave. I was ready to be back in our community and I was ready to be back in the pulpit. I didn’t want to wait. I was impatient.
It’s interesting to me the way this high, holy season works. There are some weeks that seem like they are going so slowly and other weeks where it seems that we are rushing through the week. I find myself in the midst of waiting both impatient and not ready for the Christ Child to come, for God to be among us in the flesh.
For our family, this season of Advent has been one of new beginnings. Four years ago we welcomed our son who played baby Jesus on the last Sunday of Advent and last year we were waiting for our daughter hoping and praying she would continue to grow and that she would stay put. This year, we are chasing her around as she begins to explore her surroundings including the dog bowls and benches and all of her brother’s toys.
It is so easy to be distracted by the waiting and forget that it is in the midst of the waiting that the revelation comes. We are waiting for something more and yet the waiting is the magical, mystical preparation that opens our hearts and our minds to what is to come.
This week’s epistle text comes from the book of James chapter 5:
5:8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 5:9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.
The week’s text comes in stark contrast to our current political climate in which there is only grumbling between the two parties. In the midst of all the grumbling, it is so difficult to find the truth. Who is right? Who is wrong? These questions even make one side the winner and the other side the loser.
During this high and holy season of Advent where this epistle text is brought to light, I wonder if there is another way. Is there a chance that instead of being so quick to defend “our party” or “our perspective” that instead we could be patient and strengthen our hearts. Maybe, just maybe during this season of the coming of the Christ Child, perhaps we could open our hearts and minds to the ideas and perspectives of other people instead of digging in our heels and defending what we believe.
A recent article summarizing a report on generosity reported:
Atheists are more generous to Christians than Christians are towards them.
The report continues:
we found in multiple studies that our atheist participants behaved more fairly towards partners they believed were Christians than our Christians participants behaved towards partners they believed were atheists.
We, as Christians, find ourselves not inhabiting the very tenets and behaviors that Jesus Christ taught. We are not generous. We are suspicious and stingy. We do not treat others fairly. We defend and grumble against anyone who doesn’t believe as we do.
As a pastor and as a Christian, I find this deeply disturbing. There is so much hurt in the world and so much loneliness. As we wait for the coming of the Christ Child, I wait in hope that there we will begin to see and hear people who look different and believe different with open ears and open hearts.
This weekend, the kids helped me repot our window plants. I have two window plants that live on the window over the kitchen sink looking out to our backyard. One is a Christmas Cactus and one is a budding African Violet. The Christmas Cactus started blooming right on time as the Advent season began. Most of the year, this plant rests dormant with very little to show until these vibrant blooms start to appear.
After we repotted the Christmas cactus and I returned it to its place on the window sill, I noticed that through the window our Bradford Pear tree’s leaves were flashing the last brilliant colors of life before it rested in the dark and cold of winter. This picture of hope blooming even as death waited behind was the perfect picture of this Advent season.
Hope and death rest together during this season. The short days and dark nights remind us of the short time we have here on earth. The changing leaves remind us that death does indeed bring new life. The blooms of this Christmas Cactus remind of the hope of the Divine incarnate, something we have been waiting all year to remember and something we still hope will come again.
Hope and death. Light and dark. Cold and warmth. All pressing against each other during this season of waiting for the Christ Child. May our eyes and hearts be open on this journey.
As we turn our attention this week to the season of Thanksgiving, we are also right on the heels of the season of Advent. I have seen so many advertisements about the shortened shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas with the reminder that this store and that store have already started their Black Friday sales.
I can feel the pressure. I feel behind already because I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping.
In the midst of all the advertisements, it is easy to get caught up in our culture of buying and consuming. As I was sitting by the fire last night, I looked around and found myself in the midst of stuff. So much stuff.
Some of it was good stuff, stuff that had been given to us by friends and families. Toys that reminded me of our son’s first birthday, our little red house in Asheville where we became a family. Books that told the story of our educational careers and then our professional careers. Pictures that showed our children growing and changing.
Americans are surrounded by stuff. In fact, we own so much stuff and continue to live in the midst of stuff that new houses were 38% bigger in 2002 than in 1975. We have so much stuff that the average American will spend 3,680 hours or 153 days of their lives looking for stuff they have misplaced. We are surrounded by stuff with the pressure to buy more stuff.
The self-storage industry makes $38 billion a year on our storing stuff that won’t fit in the confines of where we live. That’s 2.3 billion square feet of storage. This is more than enough to house the entire homeless population in America many, many times over.
The home organizing industry has taken a different approach and has capitalized on our need to organize our stuff at the rate of $16 billion a year with a growth rate of 4%. We are living in the midst of so much stuff and that stuff makes us lose time, money, and our sleep studies have shown.
As we creep ever closer to Advent there is a whisper of something different. An invitation to leave all the stuff behind and marvel and wonder at the Divine Incarnate in the form of the Christ Child. Will we hear it in the midst of all the stuff we are trying to get done?
Almost without fail when I ask a fellow parent of littles how it is going, their response is: “It’s busy.” To be certain that’s true. Just trying to get out of the door with shoes, weather-appropriate gear, and all the other things “just in case” there is an accident or someone gets hungry can be overwhelming. Not to mention all the doctors’ appointments, haircuts, and dentist appointments.
It’s very, very easy in the midst of the busyness to never be fully present. To be moving at such a break-neck speed that we are never where we are and we are just on our way to the next appointment. Sometimes we move in the midst of busyness because we are feeling lonely or isolated. Sometimes we move in the midst of the busyness because we are fearful that we aren’t a good parent, that we aren’t paying enough attention to each of our children Sometimes we move in the midst of the busyness because we aren’t sure of our purpose. Nothing feels intentional about our daily activities and yet everything feels pressing and that it needs to be done right away. As the holidays approach, it’s even easier to get lost in the midst of the busyness and never be truly present.
Maybe today instead of being in the midst of the busyness, we can defiantly say stop and sit down for a minute and be present feeling our cold feet against the cold ground, noticing that we have been slouching out of fatigue and exhaustion, and paying attention to our dry knuckles that are reminding us that we need to drink more water.
When we stop in the midst of the busyness and say no to our culture of chaos, we remind ourselves that there is more to us than just our physical beings. We are emotional and spiritual and we need to feed those parts of ourselves. Busyness only starves those parts of us claiming there is never enough time or that we don’t deserve to pay attention to that still, small voice whispering “just be”.
Everything around us is telling us to work more, add more to our calendars, and spend more time running from one place to the other. Everything about the upcoming Advent season says the opposite. Wait. Hope. Be.
In the midst of the busyness maybe there is a deep cry for something more meaningful, less exhausting, and more fulfilling. Can you hear it?
We’ve been waiting and hoping for this day to come. The day that we celebrate the Divine Incarnate in the form of the Christ Child. The end of Advent is the beginning of the Christmas Season. The twelve days of Christmas: a holy number for a holy journey to Epiphany. This stands in stark contrast to our culture that teaches us to count down to presents and today is what we have been waiting for.
12 days to wonder and awe at what the meaning of the Divine here on earth is. 12 days to look for signs in the sky that promise new life and transformation. 12 days to hold onto hope, peace, joy, and love and carry them close to the heart. 12 days.
And as I think of what these next 12 days will bring, I believe that they will bring assurance that God is with us. I believe that they will bring the promise that God loves us. I believe that they will whisper an invitation to you to join this great journey.
For Christmas is not over, it is just beginning.
The last three years of the Advent season have been particularly powerful in the way they have changed me. Three years ago, I traveled the Advent season nursing a newborn and being nursed by an incredible partner back to health and wholeness. The strangeness of not preaching during the high and holy season provided space to wonder and awe in new life and new identity. The following two seasons of Advent were filled with hope and grief. Wondering whether I would carry the promise of new life again and grieving empty arms after the promise of new life and the unexpected loss of new life. This year, I’ve traveled the Advent season the same way Mary did with swollen ankles, restless nights, and the knowledge that this new life will change everything.
This Advent season whispers of a new season of life not only for us as a family, but for me as a minister as I anticipate stepping into the role of Pastor at Garden of Grace UCC. As this new journey nears, I can’t help but carry the promises of the advent season with me. For thirty-three years I have been Baptist, even in the seasons when I was worshipping with Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians, I have been Baptist. With the new year, I will begin the journey of dual recognition of ordination in the UCC. My identity as a minister and as a person is changing.
And yet, there is a part of me that feels like I’m giving up hope. Since I walked into my first seminary class, I have held onto hope. Hope that there would be a Baptist church that would call me as a pastor, even though I was a woman. I have held onto hope that systemic sexism would be named and perhaps even changed. I have held onto hope even when comments like, “There is no woman who could ever pastor such an important church,” and “We did have women candidates for the pastor position, but they were all eliminated pretty quickly,” and the stories of sexual harassment of Baptist women in ministry from colleagues, parishioners, and denominational leaders burdened my heart and mind. But this season is a call for me to let the hope that Baptist women will be fully and wholly affirmed go into the hands of the Divine.
With the new year, there is a new call for me: to treasure this new life and new season for us as a family and for me as a minister. It’s a call to rest and immerse myself in the full inclusion and affirmation of me as a minister, not as a woman minister, but as a minister called to lead God’s people. Thanks be to God for this new season!
I am notoriously bad at putting lights on the Christmas tree. The first couple of years I put the lights on the tree, it looked like the tree had a been wrapped in a single line of lights. It was nice and orderly, but not aesthetically all that pleasing. Now, my approach is a bit more haphazard. I like to weave the strands of light up and down and around trying to make it look like the little bulbs of lights are appearing from out of the branches in a magical kind display. I take time to stuff the green strands as far back towards the trunk of the tree as possible so that at least upon first glance, you can’t see the way all the lights are connected.
There’s something about the tiny burst of light and the hidden strand that connects them that is mystical. And as I get up in the cold, dark morning and make my way over to the tree to turn on the lights, I am reminded of the Advent season. In this season, we try to trace the light of the world as it gets closer and closer to earth. We travel the journey of hope, love, joy, and peace getting closer and closer each week.
It’s a magical, mystical season in the church calendar. A season that asks us not to look at the single lights, but the divine weavings, the strand that holds all the lights together. Even in the midst of the influx of news about children being separated from their parents, children not receiving health coverage, and tear gas being thrown at children, I have seen little lights shining. But I’ve lost track of the divine weavings. I haven’t been able to find as clearly the strand of divine and holy work tucked away, invisible to the naked eye.
As Advent season draws near, there is a whisper calling in the darkness, “Search for the light.” And as my ears and heart open to that invitation, slowly a strand begins to appear. Emanuel, God with Us, here on earth working and weaving; Light to light; hope to love to joy to peace.
This is the longest I can remember our having our Christmas decorations up. Because our celebrations and traditions center around sharing kids, there have been many years where we haven’t gotten our Christmas tree until the second or third week of December. This year we went to get our tree the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This morning, the Christmas tree is still lit as we await Epiphany.
There’s something magical and mystical about celebrating and studying peace, hope, joy, love and the arrival of the Christ Child and then holding onto each of those until Epiphany. It’s something that we often miss in our haste to celebrate a new year and get things back in order after our Christmas celebrations.
This time invites us to include peace, hope, love, joy and Christ into our lives in the quietness and the stillness. This time invites us to wonder and question what including these things into our lives year-round would really mean. It’s a time as a Baptist who didn’t celebrate the Christian year that I’ve missed most of my life, and one I hold dearly to now.
May the Christ Child continue to fill us with wonder and awe as we draw near to Epiphany.