Up Into Beauty

Last week I offered my reflections on the spiritual blessings of New England’s late autumn landscape; how its empty fields, its leafless, grey branches, its slowly freezing ponds and streams, its long, dark nights, its silences and stillnesses invite us into our own emptiness, darkness, silence, stillness, nothingness. In response to the natural mystery of the season, I spoke of letting the ego recede, letting the self disappear. I said, ‘do as Earth does.’ Let emptiness fill you for a time; let stillness move in you for a time; let silence speak in you for a time. I suggested we learn to ‘praise nothing.’ There is great spiritual value is letting ourselves lie dormant.

You may have noticed echoes from last Sunday in the lyrics of the opening song, Dave Carter and Tracey Grammer’s “The Mountain.” There’s a movement in the song away from distraction, away from sensation, away from the noise and allure outward manifestations of organized religion: prophecy, temples, fine altars, tall hats and robes spun fine—a movement of our spiritual focus back to the earth, in this instance to the immensity—perhaps the mystery—of the mountain. They sing “I see the mountain and that is all I see.” And in this seeing the self disappears: “Miller take me and miller grind me / Scatter my bones on the wild green tide / Maybe some rovin’ bird will find me / Over the water we’ll ride.”[1]

You may also have noticed echoes from last Sunday in the words of the meditation from Elizabeth Tarbox: “Grey, the color of the lake before sunrise; grey, the underside of the gull that flies overhead while the earth … searches for morning…. In the bright red and green, and blue and gold of the season, and the noise and the festivity , give me grey, for the quiet of my soul, the moment of heaviness before sleep, the peace of meditation.”[2]

The late autumn season continues through this week. The earth’s northern latitudes now face as far away from the sun as they can through the course of any year. The dark hours are as long as they can be, the stillness, silence and emptiness of the season are as deep and pronounced as they can be through the course of any year. The solstice comes next weekend. Christmas comes shortly after that. The northern hemisphere will then lean back toward the sun, though our bodies will not perceive the change immediately. Despite the return of the sun, and despite the occasional winter storms that are sure to come, the landscape will continue in its emptiness, stillness, and silence for a few more months. The opportunities for us to ‘do as Earth does’and bring these spiritual qualities into our own lives remain well into winter.

 Remember our ministry theme for December is mystery. I acknowledge I’ve been speaking as if this particular seasonal descent into mystery—into emptiness, silence, stillness, darkness, nothingness—is easy, common, something everybody does. “Just reduce your ego, let go of yourself. No big thing.” In truth, not everybody does this. In fact, I suspect most people don’t  do this, at least not well. It’s not easy at all. Yes, sometimes mystical experience comes upon us, the self disappears for a moment into the vastness, into oneness, but it returns quickly. The mystical experience is fleeting, hard to hold onto. The other way into it, of course, is through some disciplined spiritual practice: meditation, prayer, yoga, chanting, sacred dance, etc. Over time, such practices can lead one to mystical experience, to the ineffable, to communion with the Holy, to the disappearance of self, to deep, lasting silence and stillness. But this usually takes years of practice and learning, often under the guidance of a mentor or spiritual director. I’m not pointing out these challenges to discourage anyone. I’m simply acknowledging that the descent into mystery I’ve been naming—this descent into the quiet, still, dark, empty spaces within ourselves—doesn’t always happen. It is not easy. It may seem intuitive to some of us, but unless we practice, our intuition will only get us so far.

 It’s not easy for two reasons. First, it’s not easy because we inhabit these bodies filled with elegant arrangements of neurons that enable us to sense the world, to touch, taste,smell, hear, see. Obviously some of these senses wane as we age; and not everyone is born with a full complement of senses—some are deaf, some are blind. My point is that our bodies sense. Our bodies feel. Our bodies perceive.And as deep as we may enter into states of emptiness, darkness, silence or stillness,our senses will always pull us back into the world of light and color, sound and music, pleasure, and pain, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, and all the various fragrances and aromas. It may be possible to resist the pull of our senses. It may be possible to gain exquisite control over our sense-driven impulses. But, as the Buddha learned, we have to eat. We have to live in our bodies. We have to tend to our bodies. We have to care for our bodies.

The second reason it is challenging to stay in emptiness, darkness, stillness, silence, is because we humans have evolved as meaning-makers. We want to feel at home in the world, so we’ve learned to tell ourselves stories—cultural stories, religious stories, family stories, national stories—to help us feel at home in the world. We want to feel hopeful about the future, so we tell ourselves stories that engender hope. The descent into the mysteries of emptiness, darkness, silence, stillness, nothingness is a movement away from meaning, away from our practices and habits of meaning-making. It is a break with and from meaning. The spiritual value of doing as Earth does in this season, of resting the mind, the senses, the feelings, of easing the self back, is immeasureable; but it is also immeasureably difficult for us to stay there because our desire for meaning is so potent. This desire pulls us up out of the depths.

Sometimes we can go too far into meaninglessness. We can get stuck in meaninglessness—or we worry we’ll get stuck there. Our musical meditation this morning was the song, “Blue-Spotted Tail,” by the Fleet Foxes. I hear in it a very human longing for meaning in response to the apprehension many people have that maybe there is no purpose in the universe, no point to our existence, that maybe all there is, ultimately, is emptiness. They sing “Why in the night sky are the lights hung? / Why is the earth moving ’round the sun? / Floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one…. / Why do I do all this waiting then? / Why this frightened part of me, it’s fated to pretend? / Why is life made only for to end?”[3] They don’t answer these questions. They leave them hanging, open, still searching, still longing, as the song ends. There’s an important insight here: meaning is often the only thing that stands between us and alienation or despair. If we have no story to help us feel at home in the world, then we feel alienation. If we have no story to help us feel hopeful, then we feel despair. The voice in the song is the voice of a person teetering on the edge, perceiving a vast emptiness, longing for meaning, and not finding it—yet. The lyrics don’t convey a full-blown existential crisis, but the person is struggling to find meaning. How can we have experiences of emptiness and nothingness in our lives without getting stuck in a kind of spiritual alienation and despair that overwhelms meaning entirely?

 Once again, I say, “do as Earth does.” Remember that nothing about this season is permanent. Remember that this season is but a portion of a larger cycle. Remember how Earth cycles through days, through seasons, through years, through millennia. These cycles contain their own mysteries which offer themselves for our contemplation and our meaning-making.In her meditation, “Shadows of Unknowing,” Elizabeth Tarbox first invites us to descend into the grey of the season, the silence and peace of the season. prophecy, This is last week’s sermon.

Then, she invites us back.

“The earth bows to find the dawn and feels its first slanting beams.”[4] She’s right at the point of transition in the cycle from night to day, from the greyness of pre-dawn to first light. Then she explores what it means for her. “Can I take this as a promise,”she wonders. “That after the questions, the doubts, and the hours of contemplation, there will be gold through the grey, promise fulfilled and truth revealed. I don’t know, but I believe in small epiphanies, a single beam of light in the darkness, some sought-for star, some one certainty emerging from the grey.”[5]

She not overstating a promise that isn’t there. She’s not assuring us of anything she can’t prove. She’s just moving along with the natural cycle. She’s letting her own body—in this case her eyes that perceive the arrival of dawn—pull her up from the grey, from the quiet, from nothingness, into the sensual world. And in that transition she finds a kind of confidence, faith, hope; enough to say, in the very least, “I believe in small epiphanies.”

Do as Earth does. With the season,descend down into nothingness, emptiness, stillness, quiet where there is no knowing, no perception, no self, and no meaning. Then, as Earth moves, let yourself move with it. Let your body, let your senses pull you back up—a sensual, perceiving,knowing, meaningful ascent.

 I call this sermon “Up Into Beauty” as a way of naming this sensual, bodily movement up from emptiness and nothingness. I notice that those moments when our senses perceive Earth or Nature moving through cycles, crossing thresholds, making transitions—those moments are often filled with beauty—breath-taking, language-defying, memory-evoking, mysterious beauty—the transitions from yesterday to today to tomorrow, from season to season, from generation to generation, from mountain spring to steam to river to ocean, the phases of the moon, the rhythm of the tides, the coming and going of storms: beauty arises in these precious moments.

The band played the Hothouse Flowers song, “Thing of Beauty,” which offers a cascade of images from such moments in Nature. “Lookout your window on a winter’s morning / Your breath is steam and there’s frost falling / And the sun casts a spell upon the road / A thing of beauty is not a thing to ignore.” There are images of evening and moonlight, water dancing upon stones, the secrets of dawn, the secrets of the night, the wonder of a bird in first flight, the mother who finally knows her child is grown, the wonders of the changes in the world, the mystery of sound, the glory of the sun. It’s a call to rise up and sense beauty, experience beauty. “Face up to morning / Face up to day / Face up to reality…. / There is so much to breathe, see, know, understand and do.”[6] It’s an invitation: “Can’t you feel it, can’t you see it?”

As a complement to the song, I offered Lynn Ungar’s meditation, “Salvation:” “Haven’t you seen / the way snow curls down / like a fresh sheet, how it / covers everything, makes everything /beautiful, without exception.”[7]

Perhaps earlier I spoke in a misleading way. I said it’s difficult to stay in that seasonal place of emptiness, silence, stillness, darkness, nothingness, first because our bodies are sensual, and as they sense they pull us back and up to the world; and second because our longing for meaning pulls us back up to the world. But in truth, it isn’t one or the other. It isn’t either/or. It’s a cycle back and forth between emptiness and fullness, between silence and sound, between stillness and motion, between darkness and light, between the mysteries of nothingness and the mysteries of the physical world. We encounter beauty as we descend from the world. We encounter beauty as we ascend to the world. Beauty arises as we move between dark and light. Beauty arises as we move between stillness and motion, between silence and sound, between unknowing to knowing.

Here in New England the dark season blesses us with its invitation to let self recede into nothingness for a time. But just for a time. The cycle now approaches a point of transition, a turning, an alteration. Do as Earth does. As the solstice arrives, let your body respond, softly, gently, slowly. Let the lights pull you up into the world. Let the tastes and the smells of this holiday time pull you up into the world. Let the sounds of carols and Christmas songs pull you up into the world. Let the touch of family and friends pull you up into the world. Let the stories pull you up into the world.

Search for meaning. Stay close to Earth as you do. Stay close to Nature as you do. Beautiful, brilliant stars may not lead magi to a savior, but they may offer guidance to those who are lost. Virgins may not give birth to Gods, but there’s something of divinity in every newborn. Angels may not appear on cold winter nights singing to shepherds and proclaiming ‘peace on earth, good will to all,’ but we can respond to such messages nevertheless. We can build beloved community here and in the world. There is reason to be hopeful.

Do as Earth does.From the emptiness, darkness, silence and stillness of the season rise up into beauty.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Carter, Dave and Grammer, Tracey, “The Mountain” from their 2000 album, Tanglewood Tree. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0ZhdcvUta0.

[2] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Shadows of Unknowing,” Evening Tide: Meditations by Elizabeth Tarbox (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998) p. 50.

[3] Fleet Foxes, “Blue-Spotted Tail,” from their 2011 album Helplessness Blues. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teElNB0WuDI.

[4] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Shadows of Unknowing,” p. 50.

[5] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Shadows of Unknowing,” p. 50.

[6] Hothouse Flowers, “Thing of Beauty,” from their 1993 album, Songs From the Rain. see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woa0GFwhciQ.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Salvation,” in Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House, 1996) p. 21.

Ministers Column December 2018

Star of wonder, star of light, star, with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us through this prefect night.

Our theme for December is mystery. My thoughts go immediately to the barren December landscape—the leafless trees, the empty fields, the brownish lawns, the slowly-freezing lakes and ponds, and, perhaps most significant, the long, dark nights. There’s something utterly mysterious about a dark, pre-winter sky, dotted with star light and perhaps a silver sliver of moon. It’s not surprising to me that the birth story of Jesus features a night sky and a shining star (though I’m mindful that we should not equate winter in ancient Israel with winter in 21st-century New England).

I love the long, dark nights at this time of year. To behold the late autumn night sky makes me feel infinitely small and impossibly large at the same time. It makes me feel completely insignificant and also informs me that my life matters. It makes me feel alone, apart, isolated and entirely related to the whole of life. These sets of dual feelings—these both/ands—are part of the mystery of this season. In response, all I can do is pause and wonder.

I choose that word ‘wonder’ very intentionally. Wonder is, I believe, the appropriate response to mystery. Wonder is the appropriate response to phenomena and experiences we cannot explain rationally. Wonder is the appropriate response to profound—and at times profoundly mixed—feelings in the presence of the inexplicable. Wonder is the appropriate response to beauty that takes our breath away. Wonder is the appropriate response to mythical stories that cannot possibly be true, yet which nevertheless contain truth.

In the response to mystery, we have choices. We can choose to downplay or deny the depth of our feelings. I could say, “It’s just night-time. There’s nothing else going on. If I’m feeling something profound, it’s just some chemical reaction in my body making me feel that way.” Or, we can offer supernatural explanations: “God wants me to feel this way.” However, both of these responses, by providing explanations, undercut the power that comes with just letting the mystery be mysterious!

I prefer to wonder. What does it mean that I feel this way—big and small, significant and insignificant, alone and connected? How is it that I can contain all these feelings at once? What does the immense darkness mean to me? What do the stars mean to me? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it awesome? What if there were a God (goddess, spirit, energy, source) that created all this? What kind of being would that be? What might they expect of me? Of us?

Moreover, when it comes to miraculous Christmas stories of virgin births, angels singing to shepherds and magi following stars, of course, we can explain it all away as mythology. But what if explaining it away wasn’t our first response? What if we simply let our hearts and minds wonder about the meaning of the stories?

When we respond to mystery with hard and fast explanations, we lose something. However, when we respond with wonder, we gain. Wonder creates space for questioning. Wonder allows the mind to traverse paths it may not otherwise traverse. Wonder allows for creative thinking. Wonder allows for an assessment of one’s feelings.

As we enter into the holiday season, mysteries abound. Let us not explain them away too quickly. Let us meet them with wonder.

 

With best wishes for a wonderful holiday season,

—Rev. JoshRev. Joshua Pawelek

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.