Remembering the reason
Sunday, December 1st, marks the beginning of the Christian season of Advent which leads up to the announced birth of Jesus, the Christ, Christianity’s reason for the season. Have you, whether a professed follower or a non-believer, ever wondered what would happen to this child if he were born in the year 2019?
“I cannot help but think of the journey of the children, women and men forced to migrate. In September  the number of migrants globally reached 272 million, outpacing the growth rate of the world’s population.” Sr. Maryann Mueller, CSSF
Most of us who were raised in the comforts of an American Christian community surely remember the sweet stories about baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger being adored by the shepherds and wise men and lovingly attended by Mary and Joseph. We remember the art masterpieces depicting a handsome Jesus, obviously an Anglo-Saxon man, decorating the church wall.
We were somewhat dismayed upon learning that this proclaimed savior of the world was probably a brown-skinned, short man with curly black hair born into poverty to just one of numerous illiterate families earning a meager living working for the wealthy, religious elite. They were, of course, Jewish and followed Judaic traditions. Undoubtedly, they experienced hunger and probably did not have clean water or adequate sanitation. Security was to be found not in material wealth but in their devotion to the God of their ancestors and the cooperative charity of fellow villagers.
If Jesus were born today, he and his family would probably be immigrants on some nation’s border, possibly ours. He would risk violence at the hands of racial prejudice or trafficking in child sex trade. On the southern border of the wealthiest nation in the world, Jesus would likely be separated from Mary and Joseph and caged with other immigrant children.
Not much has changed, has it? Two thousand years later and we still treat immigrants as if they somehow do not really matter to the Father/Mother of us all, that they are less loved than we are. We continue to hang on to that image of Jesus, the privileged, Anglo-Saxon white man adorning the church wall. We noisily thump our Bible to support our prejudice while reading the words which state explicitly that every person on earth is made in the image and likeness of God. We somehow ignore the scriptures which tell us that we are to love our neighbors [earthly brothers and sisters] as ourselves.
The season of Advent is a journey for the Christian world leading up to the birth of its proclaimed Christ child. In addition to all the joy, jingle bells, gifts and Santa Claus let’s set aside time to contemplate what it would be like to be an immigrant. What if you and your family were forced to leave the comfort and security of your home and your community because of political or economic turmoil? What if the people on the other side of the border which you must cross hated you because of your skin color, creed or social status. What if you were financially disadvantaged and had to rely of the goodness and compassion of strangers to provide for your family? Would you be afraid?
If we justify our intolerance and lack of compassion for immigrants by citing the need to protect our families or protect our faith tradition or protect our racial purity, or protect white identity, then truly what we cherish is but a heap of rubbish, is it not? We are denying the reason for the season. How can we proclaim amazing grace at the altar while disregarding the message given to us through the life of Jesus, the impoverished immigrant?
“You make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Psalms 16:11
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be anymore pain: for the former things are passed away.” Revelation 21:4
Can we imagine a world as described above? Probably not. And most likely we should not expect it anytime soon. Back in the 1960s, when life was young and irreverent, my contemporaries who had taken time to read the Revelation of the Bible would exclaim,
“Cool, far out, that dude John must have been on some kinda awesome drugs.”
Drugs indeed. In my generation drugs, alcohol and sex were the answer to all of life’s problems. We proclaimed it on the streets and in our music. That was the world in which we lived. Many stayed there, some died there, but God, for unknown reasons, brought a few into His world of forgiveness and grace – a place where all the sorrows and pain still existed, but we now had the tools to co-exist with death and heartache living life abundantly.
That is what the ‘greatest gift’ given to us in the teachings and words of Jesus, the Christ, is all about. The world is what it is, always has been a violent, miserable place and probably always will be. But, now we don’t have to wallow in it. We have a place to go deep within and commune with a God who wants peace and brotherhood for all mankind. That light we experience within can defeat the darkness surrounding us. Like Jesus, we were born to live it and share it. Black, brown, white, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, male, female, gay, straight – all were invited to the table set by the birth of a baby in Bethlehem two millenia ago. I’ve been invited, you too. C’mon, let’s party hearty over the birth of the Good News! AMEN.
O come, O branch of Jesse’s stem, unto your own and rescue them! From depths of hell your people save, and give them victory o’er the grave.
O come, O King of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind. Bid all our sad divisions cease and be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel.
“Victory o’er the grave?” Is it possible? Absolutely! Ask any addict who has been saved from the hell of his/her addiction, the death sentence of a spiritual abyss, and you will be told, “Yes, yes, yes! I have been raised from my personal hell on earth, my living grave, and we, my Higher Power and I, are victorious over death.”
That is what the gift of Immanuel, the spirit of God made incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, has done for mankind. This is an inexhaustible gift which can never be used up, discarded, put in the attic, or trashed before next Christmas. But, it can be repurposed and shared with other hungry, dying souls. I like sharing gifts. How about you?
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55
“No matter how many Advent seasons sweep by, Lord, your reminders remain the same. Each tear we cry has a purpose. Each trying stage has a divine reason. And in your capable hands, each icy rain of adversity is transformed into the warmth and sparkle of your grace.”
~Edited from Janet Perez Eckles’ “3 Reasons to Dry Your Tears of Sadness at Christmas”
This short writing from Janet Perez Eckles details the tears, the difficulties, and the challenges of a mother and wife facing blindness. Her loss becomes unbearably painful during the Christmas season when the delightful sights of decorations and children opening presents sends her to the bedroom in tears. Those joys of Christmas have been reduced to a gray blur. Her ophthalmic condition is incurable. Yet Janet finds comfort in her Lord’s capable hands.
This mother’s loss of vision is a physical reality. It is challenging, difficult, and disheartening. But, her salvation lies in spiritual vision, the ability to go deep within and allow her Lord and Savior to dry the tears, encourage and strengthen this child of His to move on in life.
That is the beauty of the Advent season. Immanuel – God with us – says that you and I do not have to battle life’s unfair punches alone. We have deep, inner reserves of courage and strength that will transform the adversarial events, the tears of disappointment and sorrow into a season of “warmth and sparkle” embraced in the arms of the Lord.
“The Lord is my rock, my fortress, my deliverer….my stronghold.” Psalm 18:2
Like most people, I love gifts. As a little boy, Christmas morning was a delightful time with family unwrapping the treasures given and received. Being a member of a farming family and enduring the vagaries of farm income, some Christmases found nothing more than simple gifts of necessities under the tree. Underwear, socks, toothpaste and brush were just as much appreciated in those years as were the toys and shiny bicycle in the prosperous years.
No matter the financial status, always the Christmas spirit, the reason for the season was the prevailing theme of our celebration. The act of giving was predominant. Receiving a nice present was cool, but we were taught who and why we were celebrating. That mindset was a prelude to maturing in a community of like-minded farm folks. Life was enjoyed in very simple ways and the gifts of a loving God were not taken lightly.
It seems much has changed in America. The biggest, brightest, most expensive gifts fill the kitchen with new appliances, the den with a 60″ widescreen, the driveway with a new Mercedes, and closets with brand new designer clothes. Most often the holiday decorations glamorize Santa Claus, snowmen, and Disney characters. Rarely do I see a crèche or angels on front lawns and certainly not at the county courthouse as I remember from my boyhood community. Times have changed. Jesus, the babe celebrated in the book of Matthew, is no longer center stage in our festivities. His presence is no longer America’s reason for the season.
Jesus, the greatest gift-giver of all time, is relegated to candlelight services on Christmas Eve and nice music on the radio. The giant retailers which pumped our heads full of pre-Christmas sales events and materialistic dreams of unaffordable gift ideas take a breather on the holiday only to return with a vengeance after Christmas Day to once again entice us into more debt buying the “must-have”, discounted unsold merchandise.
It’s a scam! Americans have been hoodwinked into spending billions of dollars to create a sense of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” when that peace and goodwill are free for the asking from the greatest gift-giver ever to walk this earth. Just ask. Just seek. Just knock. It’s all there in one neat, readily available package and it costs nothing other than a willingness to open the door to the One who dispenses love and compassion as eternal gifts.
7“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8
Love, joy, and peace are the 1st three of the fruits of the Spirit detailed in Galatians 5:22-23. They are internal gifts which will be realized when walking this journey with God as a constant companion. They were made incarnate in the character of Jesus as depicted in our Christian Scriptures. They are attainable elements of a life surrendered to the grace of an almighty God. This is not just a fairy tale or myth. Jesus is truth given not only at Christmas but every day of the year to those willing to ask, seek, and knock. Try it. Those shiny presents under the tree will fade quickly. The gift of Jesus will not!
“Meister Eckhart, the German Dominican mystic (c. 1260-c.1328), said that spirituality has much more to do with subtraction than it does with addition.  Yet our culture, both secular and Christian, seems obsessed with addition: getting rich, becoming famous, earning more brownie points with God or our boss, attaining enlightenment, achieving moral behavior. Jesus and the mystics of other traditions tell us that the spiritual path is not about getting more or getting ahead, which only panders to the ego. Authentic spirituality is much more about letting go—letting go of what we don’t need, although we don’t know that at first.” cac.org
When’s the last time you had a yard sale? For one or two days we dust off all those necessities which have been stored away in the attic or garage and make a decision that we no longer need them. Many of our cherished keepsakes are simply not worth keeping. They are not heirlooms, they do not enhance our lives, and they likely will not be the cash cows we had hoped they would be.
It’s a cleansing endeavor which adds a few bucks to the household pantry budget, sweeps out the dark corners of our houses, and declutters prime storage spaces. For the cost of a few hours of our time we receive the realization that material things are not really all important and we recognize how they can actually clutter our daily routines.
Ahhh, you’re way ahead of me; you see where this is going, don’t you? Yes, my spiritual life also needs to occasionally have a yard sale. Meister Eckhart agrees. Today, I am serious about my Quest to become the man my Higher Power would have me be. By God’s grace I now have the willingness and sincerity of heart to make a difference in this world. I have realized my need for a Shepherd. I took my sorry butt to the altar and begged for renewal and, miraculously, the trash which I had called ‘my life’ became another voice calling out of the darkness. Sobriety grabbed me off the beach of drunkenness and said, “Follow me. I will make you a fisher of men.”
But, my humanness continues to have a need to feed the ego which drives me. I am still broken in many places and I often look to the place within which has served me well in the past. I continue to accumulate unfounded fears, I harbor resentments, I entertain unhealthy thoughts, and I resort to anger. These character defects have been a part of me for many years, they have gathered dust in my brain, and they have become the unnecessary yard sale stuff in my attic which regularly needs a housecleaning.
My humanness also leads me to want to gather favor with God, to think I can influence God’s opinion of me, and to believe my works will put me in better standing with God. My humanness drives me to look upward for enlightenment believing it is a condition to be attained, a place in the heavens where God will love me more than here on earth. My humanness continues to try to deceive me.
It’s tough to accept that less is more in my spiritual life. Emptying out one’s self is serious internal work because my ego enjoys the religious traditions, the church doctrines, and the hymns of worship. But, that’s all icing on the cake, tasty but not necessary. Emptying out is like a twinkling star on the horizon, a newly discovered truth to be followed, a way of life to be embraced. It’s somewhat like the story which tells of the appearance of Jesus in Bethlehem. He replaced everything which the Jewish people thought they needed in life to attain salvation in heaven. They had a rich tradition, but, it was not necessary and eventually led to stuffed attics and bulging garages.
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” —Martin Luther King, Jr
In my Lutheran worship service, after the prayers, “the peace of the Lord” is extended by the pastor. The congregants then take several minutes to greet each other with hugs, a hand clasp and a repetition of “God’s peace.” It symbolizes the attitude we are encouraged to assume in greeting the world with a universal message of love and compassion.
During the Christmas season the words “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” will take center stage in celebratory endeavors. It is a sentiment which our enlightenment envisions for all of humanity regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. It is a dream shared by John Lennon, IMAGINE, Martin Luther King, Jr., millions of pacifists worldwide, and me. Sadly, peace seems to be, in the Christmas season of 2017, the last item on the agenda of the world’s politicians, strident religious leaders, and governments. Just as a popular song by Lennon in the 1960s anti-war movement laments, “why can’t we give peace a chance” GIVE PEACE A CHANCE , we also wonder what is so tough about peace?
Indeed, why not give peace a chance? What is Larry doing today to give peace a chance? Hmmm, that’s where it starts, does it not? I can’t change the world, but I can surely, with divine help, change me; if each of the world’s 2 billion plus inhabitants could assume a commitment to peaceful co-existence, we might have a chance. Yes, I know, it’s a pipe dream, but, the process has to start somewhere with someone. Let it begin with me. As the Buddhist would ask, “How is your good heart today?” As Jesus would say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I have within my being the solution to the worldwide pandemic called heart dis-ease. Lord, bring it on, let the cure begin with me.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” Luke 2:14 KJV
Ever had an ugly Christmas tree? I mean, even the prettiest of ornaments could not cover the scraggly, lopsided, double-topped stick that Grandpa dragged home from the woods the year the crops were bad and our household was on a Christmas budget that did not allow for a “bought” blue spruce from the neighbor’s tree farm. Grandma whined, but, the tree went up as usual in the living room’s front window for all passersby to see. The saddest thing about that tree was that no amount of thrown tinsel and no arrangement of the strings of lights could justify calling that smattering of pine branches a Christmas tree.
The lights in those days were the kind that would heat to an unsafe level making it necessary to sit in the room at all times when they were plugged in. I often wondered what fun it would be to watch that burning bush being scooted out the front door. My imagination envisioned Grandpa, a diminutive man, in the aftermath of the tree fire, being scolded by his 250 pound spouse and being chased with a broom about the house much as I had seen in my favorite cartoons on TV.
We have made great advances in the season’s lighting options. Neighbors vie to present the most impressive outdoor light show in festive colors and themes. The lights rock and bounce to the rhythm of the accompanying Christmas tunes much to the delight of young and old merrymakers who wind around the streets in a procession of vehicles. Bulbs of the led variety shine brightly and safely on artificial trees which are often equipped with those strings of lights at the factory source. Pre-lit is the tree shopper’s buzz word.
All colors, all shapes, all lengths of lights to choose from and all wonderfully convenient….when they all work. Yes, every American male knows what I’m saying. Long, irreverent hours are spent checking each of the 2500 bulbs on the string of lights trying to determine which one is not properly plugged in causing the entire circuit to remain unlit. We sit on the floor muttering about that smug, smiling, underpaid factory worker in China who assembled this mass of wires and bulbs knowing that somewhere in America a befuddled man will be sitting teary-eyed on his living room floor holding his string of 2500 unlit lights. Often, we head to the WalMart for another cheap string of lights rather than endure the frustration of trying to fix the unfixable.
Perhaps that is the answer to our dilemma. None of these ornaments and lights purchased today were ever intended to give long-term enjoyment. They are not going to become heirlooms for the grandchildren to enjoy as are my beautiful icicles, glass Santas, and stars which my grandmother purchased at the local 5 and 10 cent store almost 100 years ago. Today’s mass-produced ornaments “Made in China” will probably not find a very special place in the grandkids’ hearts or on their Tannenbaums. Like many of us, the decorations are seen as conveniently disposable.
I don’t believe that God cares much about lights that don’t work or ornaments that end up in landfills. But, I know God does not make disposable people. Each life is a valuable heirloom to be cherished and held dearly in our hearts. God does not see undocumented visitors/workers as illegal people. They are his children who have legal status in his kingdom. God does not make worthless people. Each has immeasurable worth in his eyes. God is not about fancy glass ornaments, expensive presents, and bright lights. God is that small glow within that lights the world.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine this Christmas season.”