Beautiful December: A Holiday Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Earlier we heard Martha Dallas’ Christmas story about the Bicker Family. Martha Dallas is a Unitarian Universalist religious educator in Burlington, VT. The story really gets rollin’ when there is apparently no Christmas present for Old Father Bicker. Honestly, I’m not sure he cares all that much, but he certainly puts on a good show of being grumpy. “Christmas is ruined,” he complains. When somebody sarcastically suggests that baby Amelia might have his present, he picks her up and asks, “Baby Amelia, is there something you have to give me?” She smiles. He smiles back. And then everyone starts smiling. Then Baby Amelia starts giggling. Old Father Bicker giggles. And then everyone starts giggling. Pretty soon they’re all laughing.  And old Father Bicker says, “Thank you, Baby Amelia, for giving me a smile. And thank you for giving this family the happiest Christmas moment I can ever remember.”

Christmas is saved.

We can all take a lesson from Baby Amelia. We can all bring light and joy into others’ lives—not just in this dark, mid-winter season, but in every season. A smile, a giggle, a laugh can make a difference. Our caring actions and support for those who are suffering and struggling can make a difference. Our witness and our actions on behalf of a more peaceful, just and loving society can make a difference. We can bring light and joy where it is needed most in any season.

I recently read a Hannukah blog post from the Velveteen Rabbi, one of my favorite spiritual writers, which makes this very same point. Reflecting on the Hannukah story and the practice of lighting the menorah lights in December, she writes, “We are all of us afraid of the dark. At night, anxieties suppressed or repressed come swimming to the surface of consciousness: am I safe? Am I loved? Am I needed? Is there meaning in the world, or is it all, ultimately, just a swirl of chaos?”

“Judaism does not ask us to ignore this darkness and the sense of doom it might [draw forth from] us,” she says. “On the contrary, it asks us to face them squarely, and then, ultimately, to defy them. But how?… “The soul of [humanity] is the lamp of God,” the Book of Proverbs tell us (20:27). What this means is that ultimately, our task is not to light candles, but to be candles. We have the potential to be the bits of light that help bring God back into a world gone dark.”

I like this notion: we can wrestle with our own challenges, with our own anxieties, with whatever it is in our lives that frightens us or orients us towards despair by being a light to others—smiling, giggling, laughing, caring, supporting, bearing witness, taking action. Our task is not simply to light candles, but to be candles.

Christmas in the Christian tradition celebrates the birth of Jesus, the birth of the messiah, the king, the peacemaker. In the book of Luke the angels announce his birth, proclaiming peace on earth, good will to all. We’ll read and act out this story on Christmas Eve. In our liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist tradition, we acknowledge that peace and good will don’t just come. The potential for peace and goodwill is always there, but for them to become a reality requires the addition of human hands, human hearts, human caring, human love: our hands, our hearts, our caring, our love. If there is to be peace on earth and goodwill to all, we must play a role. We cannot simply light candles. We must be candles.

December is beautiful for so many reasons. The first snows are beautiful. Frozen ponds are beautiful. Evergreens, standing alone against the backdrop of a grey afternoon, are beautiful. Flocks of Canada geese heading south in great, precise vees are beautiful. And lights kindled like beacons against the gloom of long, dark mid-winter nights are beautiful, just as the sun returning on the solstice is beautiful.

But lighting lights has never been enough. We must be light. We must smile, chuckle, laugh. We must find the lost, heal the broken, comfort the afflicted, embrace those who mourn, feed the hungry, house the homeless, release the prisoners, challenge injustice, dismantle oppression, speak truth to power when power is unresponsive, demand change whenever change is necessary, and bring more love into the world everywhere and always, everywhere and always, everywhere and always. We must be light. December is beautiful because it inspires us, in every season, to be light.  May we be light!

Amen and blessed be.

In the Waiting Time

Guest Minister: the Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

I am easily hope-impaired.

For whatever reason, I am the kind of person who looks at a glass and is tempted to tell you that it is half-empty rather than half-full.

I tend to borrow trouble long before it happens. Too often, it’s easier for me to play out worse-case scenarios than to hope for the best.

Now perhaps this is not what you want to hear from a minister. Especially not at the beginning of December with the winter holidays on the horizon. After all, we ministers are here to be the “messengers of hope,” aren’t we? Isn’t it our job to call us all ever towards hope, not to admit to our own hope-related challenges? But it is precisely because I can be hope-impaired, that I do the work of ministry. Because your hope rekindles my own. Because we call each other toward hope.

They say that ministers preach what we ourselves need to hear. And especially in this holiday season, do not we all hold out hope precisely because hope is so hard to find? So I confess to you that I am hope-impaired. 

And, I’ll tell you something else, here on what in the Christian tradition is the second Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the second week of anticipatory joy as we pass the deliberate days towards Christmas, as we revel in the wait: 

I really do not like waiting. 

When I’m in a store, I will put something back on a shelf rather than wait in a long check-out line. Better yet, I’ll shop online, choose a different restaurant, come back later, or change my plans altogether to avoid a line. 

I hate waiting for a bus too. Why stand and wait when I can start walking now? Usually, the bus passes me as I am chugging along down the street. This does not phase me. At least I didn’t wait, I tell myself. It’s a funny logic, I know. 

I remember as a child waiting for special days, like birthdays and Christmas, and feeling as though time was moving as slow as molasses. As a teenager, I would count down days until I could visit out-of-town friends or go to summer camp: month after next, week after next, day after the day after tomorrow. It felt like time crawled until finally it was … today! And somehow, the day, the moment had arrived. 

And then something odd would happen, perhaps this has happened to you: we wait. We count down the days, fritter away the time, fill our minds and our hearts and our impatient hands with tasks or TV, with imagining how it will be, envisioning the long-awaited event, and when it arrives, we wonder what happened to that time. Sometimes the event we waited for arrives and passes, and we are left feeling like we missed it all together.

We collect ourselves and prepare for the next count down. 

This time of year, we tell an age-old story of waiting. The Christmas story is the tale of a world waiting for hope, for joy, for the coming of the babe who would bring peace, hold the powerful to account, “lift up the lowly.” As a mother, the person I find most interesting in this story is Mary the mother of Jesus.

And I am incredibly sympathetic toward her: No one else in the story is pregnant! Mary literally carries the weight of the wait. 

The longest wait of my life was the preparation for my own child to be born. And when she arrived just over a year ago, the midwife placed her on my chest, And I whispered to her again and again: “you’re here.” 

I had felt like she would never come; I could barely imagine what her arrival would be like. Though majorly uncomfortable by the end of my pregnancy, I had tried, as so many well-meaning people had suggested, to enjoy the wait, to dwell in the uneasy space of anticipation, of not knowing.

 I practiced breathing in and breathing out, waiting for our family’s life to change irrevocably, for our hearts to be transformed in ways we could not imagine. 

I worked hard to be present in each moment. I was only successful part of the time.

More often than not, I found I was wishing the time away, distracting myself with internet videos and drawn out phone calls and cleaning closets. 

And then, after so much expectation, so much cleaning and organizing and preparing her room, readying our home as well as our hearts, she was here. And our days and our nights were filled with her presence. The reality of our lives was upended – in the most joyful way. 

The first year of a baby’s life, I’ve found, is a blur of moments and days and months and soon a year has gone by, and here we are again at the beginning of the “The Holiday Season” and the season of Advent, an official time of waiting.

The word Advent comes from the Latin, meaning “a coming, an approach, arrival.” In the Christian calendar, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas – the story from first century Palestine tells us that with him comes hope, love, the undoing of the status quo, a new reign of peace on earth.  

The promise of the babe in the manger is the same as the promise of all new babes: that the reality of our lives will be upended – in the most joyful way. The season of Advent provides the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the new reality. “Let every heart prepare him room…” we sing. 

My colleague Rev. Ashley Horan writes that Advent is the “four weeks when Christians the world over try to sit quietly in the midst of chaos, preparing a place in their hearts where the seeds of love and hope can take root.”  

And doesn’t this ring true this year especially? For we find ourselves these days in the midst of chaos with a justice system that is seemingly anything but just: With no indictment in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and no indictment in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice dead on a Cleveland playground. So much pain and heartbreak and grief and tears and rage. 

Each day it seems brings a new story of lives lost (we might say stolen), and fear and suspicion ruling the day, a new story of power abused and the ugliest parts of our human nature exposed. 

And still – whether we find meaning in the Christian story or in one of the many other traditions that mark this time of the longest nights of the year – still we are invited in this season to prepare room in our hearts for the seeds of love and hope. 

We are invited, as weary people have done since the beginning of time, the poet Victoria Stafford writes, to “kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,” to cradle our hopes like newborn children, to wonder what human love looks like in practice, to await a new era with patience and preparation.  

Now is the time for breathing, for being present, for waiting. 

This year, though, we might not feel like waiting for peace is the best move. We may even feel like waiting or telling other people – especially people of color – to wait for justice feels perverse.  

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” Martin Luther King wrote from his cell in a Birmingham jail in 1963. “This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’” We must come to see,” he continued, “that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” 

Once again there is no justice and there is no peace. And we may find ourselves more angry than peaceful this season, more riled-up than calm.

We may feel more ready to take action than patiently prepare. We may feel ready to cry out in lament for lives taken without account, ready to join our voices with those who cry for justice in an unjust land. And, with them, we may feel weary. We may even feel hope-impaired. 

And so this Advent we are challenged to wait actively.

This year, something is happening, and we choose to be present to it.

This year, what we are waiting for is growing on the ground on which we stand. The seed has been planted. Something has begun.

 A fellow Union Theological Seminary Alum, known in the blogosphere as Brother Timothie writes this week at the website “Theology of Ferguson”: “I used to think Advent meant that we wait patiently for Jesus to be born. The kind of waiting we perform at doctor’s offices. I was wrong,” he says. “Waiting in Advent means to be active in creating God’s Realm, which is always full of justice.” 

This kind of waiting – this Advent kind of waiting – requires that all of us carry the weight of the wait. Like a mother anticipating the birth of her child, we may find ourselves uncomfortable, drawing on strength we never knew we possessed, trying to imagine what the new reality might look like, knowing only that our work is to continue, to push forward, to give birth to something new, to wait, actively, until we can whisper (or shout) “you’re here” to a new age: an age when, in the words of Ella Baker, immortalized by Sweet Honey in the Rock: the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons; a new age where “justice for all” is no longer just a dream, and it is finally true that (#)Black Lives Matter. 

This kind of waiting does not mean never. This kind of waiting says “this moment is the moment.”

//

 “Now is the moment of magic,” Victoria Stafford writes of this time of year. Now is the moment. Not some future date, not the end of the advent calendar, not the day that the days begin to lengthen again, or that long-awaited morning of presents, now is the moment of magic. The magic is in the waiting time. 

Now, it’s not always easy to find the magic in waiting time, even when life is treating us kindly and we have things to look forward to: a blessed event or a joyful celebration. 

In these cases, we are like excited, impatient children on Christmas Morning, filled with anticipatory joy.

(Each year I, being the older sibling, would instruct my brother that we had to wait until at least 5am before we could tiptoe down to see what Santa had left.)  

In this kind of joy-filled waiting, we make our best attempts at waiting patiently; we make it a practice; we focus on the moment, we work on being present. Perhaps we breathe in and out intentionally to ground ourselves, to make our days deliberate, to experience the blessings that already exist. 

And what about when life is unkind, when we wait for justice too long delayed, or, worse, when we wait for yet another miscarriage of justice, another life lost?  

What about the times when we wait for word of an injured friend, or a dreaded diagnosis, when we wait for illness to set in, or for a child who does not arrive?  

Sometimes we find ourselves waiting for something we had hoped would never happen, waiting for the worst. In those times, breathing in and breathing out feels next to impossible and proclaiming a coming age of hope and peace feels naïve, laughable even.  

Patience goes out the window and we find ourselves wishing time would pass more quickly so that we might be on the other side of a nightmare. How do we live in that kind of waiting time? 

// 

Finding the magic in this season of waiting can be difficult for many of us not just this year, but any year. 

The holidays can bring stress, emotional triggers, and family strife along with those tiny candles. This time can be filled with painful or bittersweet memories right alongside cheer, loneliness in the midst of celebration – which is the worst kind of loneliness there is. We might find ourselves waiting with heavy hearts for December to be over, wishing for the sun, feeling like it might never return. We may feel hope-impaired. 

In our home, the soundtrack to the month of December includes Handel’s Messiah which tends to play on our CD player on a near constant loop. When you listen to something that often, you hear different things each time. 

It’s early, but we’ve started, and the other day, I heard a word that I had never really noticed before in the music: “abide.” But who may abide the day of his coming? the tenor sings. The quote is from the book of Malachi in the Hebrew Bible (3:2). The prophet writes to the Jewish people about the coming of the messiah, a messenger who would arrive to usher in a new age of righteousness and justice. “Who will wait for him?”, the prophet asks. “Who will prepare themselves for this new reality?” The Hebrew word translated here as “abide” can also mean endure, or contain. Abide comes from the Old English meaning remain, wait, dwell. 

To abide is to wait actively,

To have faith in the seeds,

To make room in our hearts for a new reality.

And that is the secret, Henri Nouwen tells us.

“This moment is the moment.”

 

This is a holy way of waiting.

 

It happens one breath at a time. In and out. Each moment the moment.

We live our lives on, one breath at a time, giving thanks for the blessings of the waiting time, giving thanks for the magic of each moment, giving thanks for the communities that hold out hope when we are weary. 

We join our lives and our breath with all who are waiting: waiting for justice, waiting for peace. 

May it be so this season, and always.

Sunrise

 

Resources

Dr. Briallen Hopper, “Ferguson Sermon at Yale,” November 30, 2014:
http://briallenhopper.tumblr.com/post/103995200459/ferguson-sermon-at-yale?og=1

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Brother Timothie, “What Shall We Cry Out?: A #StayWokeAdvent Lectionary Reflection,” Theology of Ferguson, December 2, 2014 https://medium.com/@FaithInFerguson/what-shall-we-cry-out-a-staywokeadvent-lectionary-reflection-c407e6ffaaab

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “One Hug Does Not End Racism: An Advent Message,”
The Huffington Post, November 30, 2014 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-susan-brooks-thistlethwaite/one-hug-does-not-end-raci_b_6243670.html

Joy Shall Be Yours in the Morning: A Humanist Christmas Homily

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Night is falling, snow is coming on a frosty, December evening. Mole and Rat are sprucing up Mole’s home in Chapter 5 of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. They’ve just arrived there, somewhat unexpectedly, after a long journey. They are tired and hungry. Mole is anxious and a little embarrassed by his meager possessions and barren cupboards; but he’s relieved to be home after so much time away, surrounded by familiar things. Rat is trying to give Mole a proper homecoming, figuring out how to add an air of festivity to their night, when suddenly a group of field-mice come to the door singing carols with shrill little voices. “Joy shall be yours in the morning,” their song proclaims. A feast ensues. And in the end it is a wonderful homecoming for Mole. Later, as he drifts off to sleep, he is content, at peace, and mindful of how blessed he is to have this home “to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.” Joy shall be yours in the morning.

It’s a version of the timeless theme we return to in this season, year after year: cold and darkness give way to warmth and light; anxiety and distress give way to contentment and peace; brokenness to wholeness; lost to found; despair to hope; sorrow and suffering give way, in the end, to joy. The messenger of peace, hope and love isn’t born on a sunny, summer day. That birth speaks to us, inspires us, moves us because it takes place—at least in our imagination—in the bleak midwinter.

I confess I sometimes feel uncomfortable mapping this narrative onto our lives. I sometimes feel disingenuous as a pastor offering a bright vision of the future, when it’s difficult to say with confidence what the future will bring. There are times when, in the presence of someone who is grieving, someone who is in great pain, someone who is angry at an injustice that has been done to them, I wonder: who am I to say, it will get better, when I’m not always convinced it will? Who am I to say, time heals all wounds, when I’ve witnessed wounds that seem to never heal? Who am I to offer hope when I’m aware of so many people in situations that breed hopelessness: the slave, the prisoner, the war refugee, the victim of violence, the homeless family, the hungry family, the person living with loss, the person living with illness.

I want us to say to each other and to the world, Be hopeful! I want us to say to each other and to the world, Fear not! I want us to say to each other and to the world, Peace on earth, good will to all! I want us to say to each other and to the world, Joy shall be yours in the morning! But I don’t want us to make false promises. I don’t want these words to ring hollow. I don’t want these words simply to be the rote things we say at Christmas time and then return to some other words, some other life once the light has returned. I want them to be real. I want them to mean something. I want them to have the power to change us in whatever way we need change in our lives.

This seems to be the lesson I keep learning—throughout my ministry, but certainly in this holiday season when we in Connecticut are so mindful of the tragedy in Newtown one year ago; when we in Manchester are so mindful of a horrendous incident of domestic violence just two Saturdays ago; when we in the United States continue to witness the humanitarian crisis resulting from the war in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan—the list is long, it’s always long, always too long—the lesson is that we human beings never seem to reach the promised land. No matter how much we say it, there is no guarantee that joy shall be ours in the morning. No matter how much we say it, not everyone who hopes will live to see the dawn. Love is alive in the world—the power of love is real—but it somehow fails to touch every heart. So, therefore, these Christmas time words of hope, peace, love and joy do not refer to some inevitable future which will come if we are patient or if we have the correct faith. They do not refer to some divinely ordained new heaven and new earth which will come at the end of history. Rather, they describe our longing. They describe the world we want to live in.They describe our highest values and aspirations. They describe our best selves.

But since we cannot count on world to change on its own, we must count on us. That’s the lesson. We must count on us! The work of bringing peace into the world must be our work—not because we are convinced there will be peace, but because we long for peace. The work of bringing love into the world must be our work—not because we trust love will touch every heart, but because we long for love to touch every heart. The work of creating a better future—a more fair, just and compassionate future—must be our work, not because we have any evidence that the world is consistently moving in that direction, but because we long for a more just, fair, compassionate world.

So, in these last few days before Christmas I offer a prayer. Not a promise, but a prayer. May we embrace the stories, the words and the timeless themes of this season. May they wash over us, speak to us, inspire us and move us to make them real in the world. And as the light returns, as the carols sing of hope, peace and love, may we be able to say with conviction: these are the things to which our lives are dedicated. And with our lives so dedicated may we, with the coming of the dawn, discover joy—a deep, lasting precious joy.

Amen and blessed be.

Rejoice! (A Defense of the Holidays as They Are!)

Gaudete! Rejoice! If you hear me say nothing else this morning, hear my          invitation to rejoice this midwinter season. Gaudete!

I am rejoicing over something that technically has nothing to do with the   holiday season but just happens to be occurring now. The United States war in Iraq has formally ended. The remaining U.S. troops left Iraq this morning. Although I don’t want to imply in any way that the work of rebuilding Iraq is finished—it is not; or that US leaders who brought us into the war ought to feel their actions have been vindicated—they have not; I feel, nevertheless, that the formal conclusion of this war—the formal conclusion of any war—is a reason to rejoice. Gaudete!

There are many traditional religious reasons to rejoice at this time. We are mindful of the central Biblical story of Christmas: an angel bringing tidings of great joy to shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, news of the birth of a savior, a message of peace on earth and good will to all. We are mindful of the story of Hannukah—which begins on Tuesday—the story of the Maccabees’ resisting Greek rule, liberating the temple in Jerusalem, recommitting to their ancestral religion, purifying and rededicating the altar and the temple, and celebrating! As it says in the Book of First Maccabees, “Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days.”[1] These stories are in the air. Gaudete! Rejoice!

But let’s imagine, just for a moment, that the traditional religious reasons for rejoicing in the midwinter season don’t really speak to you. Those old stories don’t hold any real meaning for you. You cringe when you hear people take seriously the notion of a war on Christmas. And you think, I know there’s a deeper meaning to the season and Rev. Josh and Vicki try really hard to tell those stories in a more universalistic way so that they speak to everyone—that’s their job—but messiahs and angels? nahh. Peace on earth, good will to all? I’d like to think so, but I’m a bit too cynical. And really what I like about the season is shopping, and getting or making gifts for people (and maybe a few for myself) and spending money, and just relaxing with friends and family, and perhaps overindulging in food and drink a little more than I should. That’s OK, isn’t it? I know none of you actually think this. But let’s pretend for a moment that you do.

Are you pretending?

OK. Good. I think you’re onto something. In fact, I’ve said it before, but I haven’t said it in a while (maybe I’ve just been too serious these past few years): We can’t get to the true or the deeper meaning of the season without the shopping, without Hallmark cards and a trip to Macy’s, without the food, without the festival and the spectacle of the holidays, without the gifts—both useful and useless, practical and luxurious—without the general excess and over-indulgence, and without, dare I say it, the commercialization of the season. The season is not only about peace and good will; it is also about fun. It is also about rejoicing just for the sake of rejoicing. We need the glitz and the glam, as corny and as tacky and as crass as it often seems. As long as people have celebrated the return of the sun at the darkest time of the year, they have done so with a certain amount of irreverence, with a certain amount of excess. They have always let down their guard, gotten a little raucous and taken themselves a little less seriously. And there have always been people selling things to draw a profit from the season.

I’m not just saying this. I’m taking my cue from the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt whose wonderful book, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays,[2] reminds us that under Puritan rule in the New England colonies there was no Christmas. Puritans were Biblical literalists; and because there is no mention of an annual celebration of Christmas in the Bible, it wasn’t their practice. Later European immigrants brought midwinter and New Year traditions of partying and gift-giving. That’s where the holidays as we know them today began.  There wasn’t necessarily a deeper religious or theological meaning. It was partying and gift-giving which, over the years, became associated with Christmas.  The business world always saw the potential for profits and commercialized Christmas from its earliest days in America. Schmidt’s argument is that businesses like the big urban department stores (such as Philadelphia’s Wannamaker’s) actually drove the development of the Christmas holiday in the late 19th century and gave us Christmas as we know it today. Only much later did more devoutly religious people start reminding the country of a “deeper” meaning.

Don’t get me wrong: the deeper meaning is important. Peace on earth and good will to all are immensely important and we ought to rejoice when we encounter this meaning in this season. But not all the rejoicing needs to hang on this meaning. I can barely believe I’m saying this, but who says a holiday can’t be a little materialistic? And as Schmidt points out, a common feature of festivity is to overindulge, to eat, drink or spend to excess. The surplus of gifts, the over-spending, the conspicuous consumption (ultimately within our means, to be sure) associated with Christmas gives expression to a kind of festival excess that is fundamental to celebrations and holidays.[3] That is, there is something inside us that really needs the partying and gift giving, really needs Santa Claus and Rudolph and Frosty, really needs mistletoe and evergreens, really needs to go shopping, really needs to visit with family and friends, really needs to sing holiday music and really needs to take life more lightly for at least a few days.

And maybe, just maybe, as the celebration of the holidays fulfills these needs and reverses the normal patterns of our lives for a time, a new openness to generosity and spirit is created in us that isn’t there at other times of the year. And maybe, just maybe, the deeper meaning of the season, the message of hope and peace and goodwill, becomes just a bit easier to hear. So rejoice friends. Gaudete! Rejoice!

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] 1 Maccabees 4: 59a.
[2] Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) pp. 6-7.
[3] Schmidt, Consumer Rites, p. 8.