Thursday, December 31, 2009

Nineteen Sixty Forty-Nine

I remember the Christmas when I was four. Among other things, Santa brought me a little drawing board. For some reason I decided to practice writing dates on it, so I started with that year, 1961, and continued through the decade till I got to 1969 and “19610.” Dad explained that after “nineteen sixty-nine” we’d come to “nineteen seventy,” not “nineteen sixty-ten”. So I learned about counting, about dates, and in a very childish way, about the passing of time.

I don’t think I’m fatalistic, generally speaking, but like most people I experience concerns about the future. When the calendar changes to the new year, I inevitably think, “What if this is the year when some major, unforeseen problem happens?” My grandma died on January 6, when I was fifteen, and just as that new year had begun, I gained a healthy respect for the unpredictability of life. My birthday is January 2, so the fact the calendar year is almost exactly a new year of age for me also makes me very conscious of the possibilities of the coming year.

Unfortunately, I tend to isolate (mentally, at least) New Years Eve and Day from the Christmastide season in which they occur. Although the calendar year changes, we're already a few weeks into the liturgical calendar and celebrating the fulfillment of God's promises in Christ. Why celebrate God's promises on one hand and yet wonder about the future as if we had no hope and refuge?

Karl Barth writes of God’s “contemporaneity” (Gleichzeitlichkeit), God’s simultaneous “presentness” in past, present, and future. There are all kinds of theological challenges in expressing God’s providence--e.g., if God knows the future, could he and does he forestall future disasters, and so on. Even though issues of providence and predestination are complicated, I find great assurance in Barth’s idea. “Time, like an ever-flowing stream” may bear us away, as the hymn says, but God bears us more strongly, because he is already in our future.

God's care has certainly been evident in my own life, as I look back from the vantage point of what I would’ve called Nineteen Sixty Forty-Nine!

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Friday, December 25, 2009

“If God is for us, who is against us?”

A portion of Martin Luther's Christmas sermon, 1530. (Here is the piece in its entirety: ) Good things to think about!

"Take yourself in hand, examine yourself and see whether you are a Christian! If you can sing: The Son, who is proclaimed to be a Lord and Savior, is my Savior; and if you can confirm the message of the angel and say yes to it and believe it in your heart, then your heart will be filled with such assurance and joy and confidence, and you will not worry much about even the costliest and best that this world has to offer. For when I can speak to the virgin from the bottom of my heart and say: O Mary, noble, tender virgin, you have borne a child; this I want more than robes and guldens, yea, more than my body and life; then you are closer to the treasure than everything else in heaven and earth, as Ps. 73 [:25] says, “There is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.” You see how a person rejoices when he receives a robe or ten guldens.

"But how many are there who shout and jump for joy when they hear the message of the angel: “To you is born this day the Savior?” Indeed, the majority look upon it as a sermon that must be preached, and when they have heard it, consider it a trifling thing, and go away just as they were before. This shows that we have neither the first nor the second faith. We do not believe that the virgin mother bore a son and that he is the Lord and Savior unless, added to this, I believe the second thing, namely, that he is my Savior and Lord. When I can say: This I accept as my own, because the angel meant it for me, then, if I believe it in my heart, I shall not fail to love the mother Mary, and even more then child, and especially the Father. For, if it is true that the child was born of the virgin and is mine, then I have no angry God and I must know the feel that there is nothing but laughter and joy in the heart of the Father and no sadness in my heart.

"For, if what the angel says is true, that he is our Lord and Savior, what can sin do against us? “If God is for us, who is against us?” [Rom. 8:31]. Greater words than these I cannot speak, nor all the angels and even the Holy Spirit, as is sufficiently testified by the beautiful and devout songs that have been made about it. I do not trust myself to express it. I most gladly hear you sing and speak of it, but as long as no joy is there, so long is faith still weak or even nonexistent, and you still do not believe the angel."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Very Fine House

I decided to place a few longer pieces at a new blog while continuing this one. This past week I revised an essay, written a couple years ago but unpublished, which is related to Christmas. Here is the link:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mary, Elizabeth, and the Holy Spirit

Yesterday was the Fourth Day of Advent. The Gospel lesson was Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Several things we can gain from this story, including the lovely words of the Ave Maria, Benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” As I wrote a lesson on this passage last fall, I focused on the role of Elizabeth. In those days before the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered only certain people to prophesy, and when Elizabeth heard Mary coming, she was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 41). By the Spirit’s power, Elizabeth preached the Gospel of Jesus before his birth! She recognized Mary as Jesus’ blessed mother. She interpreted her own physical discomfort as God’s sign.

Elizabeth was a prophet, in other words! She was a prophet for this purpose, in a long line of Hebrew prophets which, most believed, had ended centuries before. My question is: If the Spirit came to a person who previously had been perceived as disfavored by God (as childlessness was then believed to be), doesn’t the Spirit now comes to all kinds of persons, whether favored or disfavored in society? What might the Spirit be up to in our present world that might startle us?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

News of Great Mirth

Advent is, of course, about the Gospel of Jesus. In my recent Advent study book I noted that we display poinsettias in our churches at Christmastime, but maybe we ought to intermingle Easter lilies among the poinsettias to remind us that Jesus’ whole life--birth to death to resurrection--was for our benefit.

In communicating the Gospel, balancing justification and sanctification (that is, salvation and holiness) can be tricky. Salvation is unearned, God’s love is constant and undeserved, Christ’s death covered all our sins “not in part but the whole” as the hymn goes---all these are wonderful, freeing aspects of the Gospel message.

On one hand, growing in grace, and loving and serving one another, are essential aspects of Christian living: “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life ….For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin….So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:4-7, 11). Paul is clearly thinking of a personal, ongoing effort on our part to “own” and live our salvation: our salvation is a reality which, nevertheless, we could neglect.

On the other hand, nothing we do in our Christian living is Gospel, strictly speaking: the Gospel is still Christ’s person and work which saves us and gives us the Spirit. The Gospel is what God does, not what we do. The things we do are important in so far as they are results of the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives--which, again, is included in the wonderful things God does for us, not our own feeble efforts to screw up our courage, force ourselves to love jerks, overcome our psychological defects, and so on.

Unfortunately, many people don’t get the message, or they get it and lose it. The Ligonier website, which I recently discovered from a Facebook friend, discusses the problem of “sad Christians.” I very much empathize with laity who feel more lost than fulfilled in church. I’ve grumbled, in these blog entries and elsewhere, about the way we pastors are under pressure to motivate and pep-talk our congregations into serving and giving: in other words, to ignore the basic message of the Gospel (or, at least, to bracket it) and substitute works-righteous messages that would shame or inspire people to do more and be more.

A better way of encouraging people to serve is simply to preach love. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley stressed “holiness of heart and life.” As many people have lamented over the years, he used the word “perfection” to describe the cleansing that we can experience from impure motives so that we are characterized in all our relationships by love. Consequently, he spent a lot of time qualifying what he meant by perfection instead of focusing on his main idea: the fullness of Christ’s love in our hearts. Perhaps he should have used a phrase like that one instead of a single word.

In his book, Housing Heaven’s Fire: The Challenge of Holiness (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002), John C. Haughey, S.J., calls attention to the fact that, in the Bible, we are holy because we belong to God. We’re holy before we do anything good and admirable; we’re holy by association, holy because God already loves us. Think about the experience of being loved and accepted by someone you think is fabulous: you feel happy and proud of your association and want to do things that please the person. That’s an imperfect analogy for our relationship with God: we need to realize deeply how much God loves us, and to hold fast to that unchanging and guaranteed reality. Holding fast to God’s unchanging love may not shield us from discouraging church experiences, but we can keep in mind that church people and preachers are, like us, human and fallible, but God’s Gospel is always wonderful and life-changing.

Which brings me finally to the hymn, “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing,” set by R. Vaughan Williams to a folk tune. The line “News of great joy, news of great mirth” is wonderful. How many Christians do you know who are joyful and characterized by “mirth”? I’ve certainly dealt with “the blues” over the years. I can think of some who are sad Christians as described above, others who were glum and disapproving because they had faith but also sour, angry personalities. How do we stay joyful?

The answer is to hold to the promise of God’s unfailing love, and to assume (correctly) that it‘s the only reliable thing in our lives. Christmas is “news of mirth” because God has made us his very own and won’t let go!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Supermarket Memories, Part 2

Still thinking about grocery stores ...

I found some websites that discuss the economic and cultural history of supermarkets, for instance, The site mentions the Piggly Wiggly company, interesting to me because my dad began his trucking career hauling citrus from the South to Piggly Wiggly stores in central Illinois. But chains like that and others would eventually crowd out privately owned stores. Even chains eventually became endangered in the face of larger companies. Among its several former stores, my hometown has Aldi and IGA, but the Wal-Mart dominates.

Supermarkets developed in tandem with American affluence and automobile culture. (See Older markets specialized in meats or dry goods, but “super markets” carried a variety of selections displayed as a kind of journey, with certain kinds of products first, ice cream and frozen food toward the end of the last aisle, and treats like candy near the check-out. This was exactly the layout of the Day ‘n’ Nite that burned in ‘67. Supermarkets revolutionized food shopping and created numerous other cultural changes.

In certain ways, kitchen items came to represent American culture. As many people know, a notable Cold War exchange happened in 1959 between Khrushchev and Nixon, inspired by the typical contents of a kitchen. Nixon argued the merits of American capitalism as he and the Soviet leader toured displays of household items. Not so long afterward, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol made art of things like beer cans, Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup labels. Pop art continues to capture public imagination. Food for additional reflection (no pun intended): how American well-being, even American creativity, became handily symbolized by grocery and kitchen products.

And speaking of brand names: one of my favorite "bathroom books" is What a Character! 20th Century American Advertising Icons by Warren Dotz and Jim Morton (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996). Leafing through this book I think back on childhood trips to the grocery store via characters and products like:

Snap, Crackle, and Pop
The Campbell Soup Kids
Florida Orange Bird
Funny Face soft drink mix characters, like Goofy Grape and Loud-Mouth Lemon
Big Shot Chocolate
Mr. Bubble
Brylcreem (a little dab’ll do ya)
Jolly Green Giant
Sugar Pops Pete
Sugar Bear for Sugar Crisp cereal
Tony the Tiger
Toucan Sam
Poppin’ Fresh
Cap’n Crunch
Quisp and Quake cereals
Trix Rabbit
Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (Coco Pops)
Punchy of Hawaiian Punch

What happy memories of everyday moments! I also remember a brand of cereal in the early 1960s called Kellogg’s OKs, which had Yogi Bear on the box. The cereal bits were little O’s and K’s. I suppose it represents the triumph of marketing and consumerism to draw a close connection between advertising icons, brand names, and one’s childhood memories. But at least one can be aware of the larger cultural context of one’s life.

How do you end a set of recollections of grocery stores? You don't, because it's a part of your life that's ongoing, even if you think of your trips as a chore rather than grist for recollection. My father hauled his elderly self to the supermarket each week, purchasing bargains and using his coupons, right up till his last few days. So will most of us.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Supermarket Memories, Part 1

Still in a nostalgic mood … Maybe the first draft of an eventual essay...

This past week I decided to add an additional grocery store to my weekly errands. I’ve been shopping at a Schnuck’s store near our home. Schnuck’s is a local company, founded in the 1930s, and has branched out into a few other cities during the past few years. I like the store near our home, but the other customers can be oblivious. I’ve nearly collided several times with people who push their carts very fast, with no regard for others who are “merging“ from the aisles. I try to make eye contact with folks but they’re in a “zone”, finishing their errand in a hurry. (Sometimes I’m in a “zone,” too. By definition you wouldn’t know if you were oblivious or not….)

But this past week, I couldn’t find an item at this store, so onward to the next-closest Schnuck’s, and what a difference! Some shoppers were disengaged, but no one pushed their carts around like they were in a damned roller derby. The décor of this store was pleasant too; in certain outside aisles, false ceilings made the space homey, somehow.

I don’t necessarily love to shop for groceries, but I love grocery stores as a “space.” I feel a little wistful when we move from a community and no longer patronize favorite supermarkets; such places occupy large portions of weekly time and attention, after all, and sometimes you get to know the employees, too. I actually said goodbye and “thanks” to some of the folks who work at the Akron grocery where I shopped before we moved to St. Louis.

I still remember the basic organization of the Day ’n’ Nite stores in my hometown. The store located at Seventh and Orchard burned in (I think) 1967, when I was ten, and was replaced by the store at Fifth and Orchard which remained open until the late 1980s or early 1990s. In that earlier store, we entered the front door (beside the mechanical horse and race car rides) and proceeded straight ahead into the aisle with breakfast cereals, which of course was one of my favorite foods. The cash registers were to the left. As we went down that aisle and around to the left, we entered a shorter aisle which ended at the comic books! Other aisles were laid out at right angles to these first ones. Funny that I remember the basic layout so clearly, considering my age at the time. Ice cream and “TV dinners” were at the end of the last aisle. Dad cooked from scratch, but I do that we tried frozen dinners one evening as we watched Jackie Gleason’s show. Frozen food wasn’t so great back then.

I was still into comic books when the new Day ‘n’ Nite opened, so I liked that section. You came into the store and walked past the check-out lines and past the manager’s station (which was slightly elevated; the manager was Lily Ritchie), and the magazines and comic books were on the other side of the manager’s station. As you browsed the magazines, the produce section was behind you. I collected issues of the comic “Enemy Ace” during my phase of building World War I airplane models. The sexy magazines were supposed to be in the back section of the magazines but were sometimes left in front next to the Redbooks and McCalls. I was afraid someone would see me look at them, so I didn’t, but the covers were usually “intriguing” enough.

During my growing-up years Vandalia also had a Kroger store at Seventh and Gallatin, and the Tri City grocery, which was part of the First National Bank building (the old Dieckmann Hotel) along Fifth Street downtown. Vandalia also had an A&P store at Sixth and Gallatin, and an IGA at Kennedy Blvd (formerly Third St.) and Jefferson. Kroger eventually moved down to the plaza of stores at Third and Gallatin. Three things I remember about Tri City, which operated till about the late 1970s, were the hand-drawn price signs, the Lucky Stripe gum at the check out, and the row of seats where older folks sat. We’d sometimes see a widowed cousin, Homer Fisher, sitting there; he was always glad to talk to us. We must’ve gotten Tootsie Roll suckers at Kroger, because shadowy childhood recollections of the store still pop into mind (no pun intended) when I see ads for those suckers and, occasionally, treat myself to one. I remember aspects of all these stores in Vandalia because my dad was such a bargain shopper; he would drive all around town to get the best prices. Whatever he saved on the price of bananas, he must’ve spent on gasoline for multiple errands, but he didn’t seem to consider that. I think he just liked bargain-shopping.

Another memory of Dad concerns the (in retrospect) amazing policy of Day ‘n’ Nite, where faithful customers could charge their groceries like a bar tab: the cashier printed the total on a card, you signed your name, and you could pay the bill later. What a great honor system, and probably something even a small-town store couldn’t do today. Dad always got upset if our total got over $50, which at the time represented four or five major shopping trips. Although Dad did most of the grocery shopping, he’d scold Mom for letting the total get too high. So typical of Dad: quick to disapprove, but a devoted provider.

During the 70s and 80s, when going barefoot was a fad, shopping for groceries was pleasant without shoes. (I like to think of summertime during wintry weather like today’s!) You’d see teenagers and a few adults heading shoeless into the store with fair regularity. On a hot day, the feeling of the cool linoleum on your feet as you navigated the air-conditioned aisles was delightful, particularly as you strolled past the frozen foods.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jesus Off-Road?

Very random connections, ending with a sweet wish by a little child. As Emily and I drove down to her dentist the other day, we passed Annunciation Church. Outside was a small sign, “Catholic Radio, AM 1410” or whatever the number was.

“Catholic Radio,” I thought…

The term make me think of that 1980s song “Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo, and the tune stuck in my mind for a moment…

Then, as we drove along, I thought of Radio Free Europe and Cold War-era TV commercials which asked Americans to support it. When I was a very small child (worried even then about the Soviet threat), I got Radio Free Europe mixed in my mind with the Iron Curtain. So I pictured the latter as a big metal wall with a section that contained radio dials--and that was the only radio station available in Europe, I thought, because otherwise the countries were “radio-free.”

Then, this scrambled thinking reminded me of a relative’s comments on Facebook--another, sweeter example of young children's thought-processes. My relative's young niece had engaged her in this conversation:

“Did the Wise Men bring Baby Jesus gifts?”
“Yes, they did.”
“Did they give him a rattle?”
“I’m not sure…”
“Did they give him a dirt bike?”

Poor Jesus didn't get a dirt bike for his birthday! Wouldn't it have been sweet, though, if the children who gathered around Jesus (Luke 18) had asked him about his birthday.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Robin Laid an Egg"...

Christmas is inevitably a nostalgic time. Even foolish little-boy songs like the subject heading --a recess favorite in elementary school--come to mind among holiday memories!

Christmas houses the past and cares for it. I remember childhood days when the now-familiar Christmas carols were new to me, and television ads stuck strangly to the holiday ("trust your car to the man who wears the star"). When I was little, I loved to see the silver, red, and green holiday decorations hung upon the downtown street lights, and the feeling of snow and cold on my face as my parents and I walked among the stores: Don’s Camera Shop, Merriman’s Flowers, Cain’s Drug Store, Greer’s Hardware, Fidelity Clothiers, G. C. Murphy, Craycroft’s, and others. At the time, I’m sure, I was impatient to go home rather than to shop, but one’s memory selects and interprets happy images from childhood. That old song “Silver Bells” inevitably reminds me of Vandalia—hardly the “city” of the lyrics, but it seemed so to me.

On Christmas itself, a muted stillness lay over the town. Having dispatched my Christmas toys with a boy's greedy vigor, I traveled with my parents across the river bridge and through the woods as we drove to Grandma's house for a holiday feast. Nothing in town stirred, no people stood in laundromats, no one walked downtown, and no kids played in the city park. The earth was covered with clouds. The timber beyond Four Mile Prairie's idle fields seemed faded in the snowy air. White skirts of snow ringed the fence posts. Time seemed to stand still.

Christmas is a day that revolves around rituals of home, marriage, children and family, a fact that ads to the often sad aspect of the season. We miss people and circumstances, we miss the habits of the past. Christmas contributes to the painful realization that life does, indeed, pass and change. Childhood, with its rhymes and games, fades away; our loved ones are remembered but not present. When I preached regularly, I think I added a caveat each season: if you're feeling blue this season, seek out someone to talk to!

The central meaning of Advent and Christmas, though, is the mysterious, saving Love that is not bound by time and place. God reached deep and deeper into human circumstance with a Love that doesn't let go. That reality comes with a surprising and undeserved fullness which, though more lasting than the season's other kinds of plenty, hallows all our days and gives us abundant hope in God's goodness.

These thoughts are adapted from my essay "Home for Christmas" in my book Journeys Home (1995).

Laid into a Manger: Yuck

We are accustomed to the stories of Jesus' birth and fail to think about them beyond the sentimental and nostalgic. A farmer friend at my first parish offhandedly referred to the manger in his barn and, although I knew what a manger was, I had a sudden realization: Baby Jesus was laid into a trough from which slobbery animals eat.

A few years later, I read a Catholic author who made a Eucharistic connection that I found interesting: of course Jesus was laid into a feeding trough, as a precursor to the time when we would share his body and blood in the mass. Protestants don't believe in transubstantiation but instead believe (with nuances among denominations) in the spiritual presence of Jesus in sharing of the Lord's Supper. Unfortunately, we are liable to emphasize the humility of Jesus' birth and miss the subtle implication (perhaps not even realized by the gospel authors) of his first bed, a feeding trough.

“Take, eat: this is my body”. He took the cup, gave thanks and said: "...“Take, drink: this is my blood”...."Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you shall have no life in you." Yet more upended expectations: surely God would not appear to us like this, a humble child in a manger, a "bloody enthronement on Calvary." [1] Surely God would not be known in such messy, heartrending circumstances...

1. Dominique Barthelemey, O.P., God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), p. 236.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Advent Dashes Expectations

Here are a few more observations from the Time essay that I mentioned in this past Saturday’s entry. (The essay can be found at,9171,1942957-1,00.html)

The author, Nancy Gibbs, had heard the show “Glee” criticized as “anti-Christian” because the show portrays Christians as phony. “The fact that Glee is about a club full of misfits already makes it ripe gospel ground; Jesus was not likely to be sitting at the cool kids' table in the cafeteria.” Another good thing about the show, Gibbs writes, is the way it confuses our expectations, as in the thoroughly nasty cheerleaders’ coach who, it turns out, has a tender relationship with her sister with Down’s syndrome. “The point is not whether there is an embedded moral message to be found beneath all the snark and snideness in this show or any other. The point lies in the surprises that jostle us out of our smug little certainties and invite us to weigh what we value, whatever our faith tradition.”

I was thinking about all this in terms of Advent. It’s de rigueur to say that, at Christmas, God overturns human expectations. The Gospel lesson yesterday was Luke 3:1-6, which cleverly lists the people in power at the time. Duly noted, the powerful people are nevertheless not recipients of God’s prophecy: John is. And the newborn king Jesus is not in a position of great power, either. Wouldn’t God choose showy, authoritative ways to reveal the divine plan, in order for God to get the maximum credibility and results. Well … no, God doesn’t work that way.

The problem is that we're accustomed to understanding the way God worked in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Advent no longer surprises us. The season no longer poses the questions that might shatter our faith in what we think we know about God. God might still be working (and surely is) in ways that overturn human expectations! We might never know, because we're like all the people too busy and sure of ourselves to find the Bethlehem manger.

It takes a good deal of openness and open-mindedness, I believe, to perceive God's grace in the world! But this kind of open-mindedness is not different from sincere humility. God, after all, doesn't have to check with us first before doing marvelous things.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Can't-Sit-Still Feeling of Expectancy

Nancy Gibbs writes an essay, "The Gospel of Glee," in the Dec. 7, 2009 issue of Time (p. 112). She writes that "a bright, earnest youth minister" had told a group of kids that the television show "Glee" is "anti-Christian" because it "portrays Christians as phonies and hypocrites."

I never feel sympathetic toward Christians who think that the media persecutes them. I wonder, instead, what it is about us Christians that conveys that impression: maybe a lot of us are behavior-centered, disapproving, and inconsistent--off-putting because of ourselves rather than because of our message.

How might Christians convey a different "signal" to the world? Several ways, I think, but one is to talk more about the Gospel--the person and work of Christ which accomplishes our salvation regardless of anything we could ever do---than about things behavior and our perceived place in the culture.

For my recent Advent study book, I found this comment from the Bible scholar William Barclay: Christians, he says, should be people “in a permanent sate of expectation.” [1] We can live in hope about the fullness of Christ’s presence. This isn't the same thing as wishing our physical lives were over! It means that, as long as we do live, we feel happy and hopeful at God’s steadfast love, and confident in the blessings God bestows for this life and the next. We could even dare admit that we are not perfect and get a very great deal wrong in our lives, but that God is steadfast.

What wonderful hope we can have! I enjoy the movie The Shawshank Redemption and its theme of hope. Of the two major characters, Andy has hope (symbolized in his love of music and chess) but his friend Red believes that hope is deceptive and prevents a person from accepting reality as it is. After the movie has passed you through several despairing circumstances, the last five or ten minutes of the movie are so uplifting: Red arrives at a point where he does feel hope. He’s so happy “I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.”

Some of the joyful Christians whom I’ve known are very hopeful people, both in head and heart. Sure, you meet Christians who aren't very happy, who are angry or put-upon. Let's not judge them too harshly; let's pray that they feel more deeply God's hope. Joy and hope can be ours because God’s promises are absolutely certain!

I believe God works constantly to remind us of that. I also believe that God prepares us to be ready. Thus the power of Jesus’ words: we shouldn’t succumb to “the worries of this life” in case the day of the Lord should “catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Luke 21: 34-35). Advent can be a wonderful time to reacquaint ourselves with God's love and grace.

1. The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke, by William Barclay (The Westminster Press, 1975), page 261.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

(Re)Turning to the Center

In my book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), I wrote: “The word “repentance” (in Hebrew teshuvah) means to turn around or to return. Repentance is a synonym for regret and restitution. But [repentance can also have] a more positive meaning: of aligning one’s priorities in order to remain true to one’s values. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes that, “The beginning place, as with any return, is of having a place from which we start, a home base, a point of origin, a beginning.” But Rabbi Artson also notes that turning/returning includes “finding our essence…our core.” He asks, “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered? This kind of turning is not a turning to get back to some earlier time; it is a turning to remain true.” (1)

Advent is traditionally a period of solemnity, repentance, and fasting. You may be thinking, Yeah, right, as you think of the un-solemn busyness, shopping, crowds, and holiday feasts that are typical of contemporary life, although in churches, the purple color of church vestments conveys solemnity (according to ancient church traditions).

How might we think of Advent repentance in the way that Rabbi Artson writes: not just sorrow for sin but a rediscovery of our true nature? One way might be to reassess the “truth” of who we are and where we are in our lives. Are we involved in activities that give us a sense of satisfaction and service? Are we engaged in unhelpful activities (gossip, maneuvering for position, etc.) that bespeak a core of unhappiness and selfishness? Do the words we speak sound like the person we want to do--or like some angry, dispirited person?

Rabbi Artson’s questions can inform a meaningful Advent time of reflection: “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered?”

1. Bradley Shavit Artson, “Turning,” in Tikkun, Sept.-Oct. 2002, pp. 66-67 (quotation from p. 66).