Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Five—Advent Confidential




My five favourite memories, traditions, etc. around Advent and Christmas…

1. Advent calendars. Over the years, they have varied from the paper ones with a door, picture and Bible verse to chocolate ones (my son’s favourite!), to a wall hanging of a Christmas tree with an ornament to be hung each day until you put the star on top Christmas Eve. It’s the first sign of Christmas to me—at least the first one with any meaning (ads for Christmas specials in late October do NOT count).

2. Calling out Santa Claus. I think my mother invented this one, because I have never met anyone else whose family did this. About a week before Christmas, it was time to start calling out Santa Claus; my sisters and I went into the hall or one of our bedrooms and sang Christmas carols. The front door would open and we would hear Mom welcoming Santa—but we couldn’t go into the living room, we had to keep singing carols. After a bit the front door would open and close again, and Mom would bring us into the living room to find the candy Santa had hidden—small candy canes, chocolate drops (which my family called “hump ups”) and French creams (which I can’t find any more). This was practice for Santa in finding our house. Every night, a couple of candies apiece.  A foretaste of Christmas morning.

3. Advent wreath. When I was young, we would make our own, since we had cedar bushes in the yard. We shaped the curving branches on a round tray, with candles in star-shaped holders, and it sat on our dining room table. We lit one candle more each week at Sunday dinner.  As an adult living in Germany, I made a few and bought a few. The German ones are highly decorated, with ribbons and faux pearl strands and sparkles everywhere.

4. Creche/Nativity/Manager scene.  This went up about the same time as the Christmas tree; I loved hanging the angel on the hook in the stable ceiling, so she (he?) hovered over the manger. We also had one made of spools that one of my older sisters had created. I liked having that one in the bedroom. The two souvenirs I didn’t pick up in Germany were a cuckoo clock and a nativity scene. We used the one that had been in my then-husband’s family for years, mismatched angels and all. That meant more to us than a newly-purchased one, however lovely. My first year of ministry, I gave myself a nativity set; my intention was to add to it each year but that hasn’t happened. I also began collecting small ones. Oh, and Baby Jesus doesn’t appear in the manger until Christmas Eve, and the Wise Guys don’t show up until January 6.

5. Christmas Eve services at my childhood church. I don’t suppose they were any more creative or different 
from a thousand other churches’ services, but every year we would go and see our friends, take Communion, and sing “Silent Night” in the dim light of candles. And I had goose bumps every year.

6—Bonus! Because I have to add this one. Baking Christmas cookies with my sisters. I don’t know if we actually did this every year or if I am just remembering vividly two or three years. The five of us would gather in the kitchen and bake--sugar cookies, Mexican wedding cakes, cream wafers, stocking cookies, candy cane cookies, spritzen, fudge... And one year in particular I remember my sister Faye teaching me and my younger sister "Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella," and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Christmas cooking and baking are still one of my favourite parts of the season, with carols playing (or being sung) in the background.  



Saturday, November 16, 2013

Twenty Questions? How About 30?



Browsing around on Facebook the other day (a favourite procrastination method), I ran across this. After reading it, I decided, as part of my ongoing work, to answer one question every day. This gives me time to really think about the question, and the answer. It’s only been a couple of days, but I am already finding it rewarding and revealing.


See, these questions Andrea Balt asks aren’t about your weight or how your last relationship ended or whether you really like the work you do for pay or your bucket list. They go deeper than that and ask for some real thought, probing your motivations, your desires, whether your self is expressed in what you do and say. They are about bringing you—the real you, the you are working on becoming, the ideal you—into sharper focus and closer to reality. 

Some of the questions—what do you want to be remembered by, how do you manage your time, and so on—are fairly predictable. But she turns some of the questions into deeper probes—what do you want to accomplish, and why? What sort of person brings you down and who lifts you up? How many of each do you have in your life? What is your manifesto for your life? What feeds your spirit? 

These are the sorts of questions that require thoughtful responses. I find myself turning them over and over in my head as I drive to work, clean, cook, or stand in line at the bank. And then I go home and add to my response. There is always something more to say in response to these questions.

They aren’t all easy to answer, and some of them, if I am honest, will mean rethinking how I live my life, my attitude towards myself and those around me, and the plans I make for the future. Working on these and taking in what my responses mean, and what they imply for what I am doing (or not doing) in my life, will change how I live and act and see others.
 
Take this one, for example, number 26: What physical exercise makes you sweat  like you mean it and enjoy both the process and the afterward feeling? If youre not currently practicing it, can you read more about it, surround yourself with people who practice it, sign up for a class, do whatever will motivate you to practice it?

Andrea isnt simply urging more physical movementshe is asking what movement feels good, is rewarding, for a person, and suggesting that activitywhatever it isas a way to get that movement, that exercise, we all need. Shes not pointing to anything in particularin fact, she uses very few concrete examples, and I appreciate that, because it opens the question up to anything I can imagine. She isnt suggesting yoga, or fly fishing or gardening or rock climbing ot weight training or basketball as the perfect exercise. She is making the important point that if the physical movement is something we enjoy, we will do itand that is what matters. I may feel I need to take a Pilates class, or run every day or learn to play handball, and even try to do it. But if I dont enjoy it, I wont keep it up, I may not do it at all. But by looking at physical exercise more holistically, I can choose something I do enjoywalking, yoga, free weights, canoeingand I am much more likely to do it. When I finish a yoga practice, I may be sore and tiredbut I am also rejuvenated and I have done something for myself that I enjoy that is also good exercise.

Andrea does not offer canned suggestionsshe doesnt offer any at all. She suggests ways to look into your own heart and spirit, and to live out what you find there, in all the areas of life where it may be lacking. That may be work, or personal relationships, or self-carebut she is giving the reader paths into what is most themways to express themselves in their lives, not what others expect or suggest or even insist on.

As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living. These 30 questions offer us ways to examine our lives, to see where we are not living our best selves, and ways to do that, for usnot for some mythical typical reader.

I dread some of themthey will show me how far off course I am, I know alreadybut in the end, I think they will offer me ways to return to my best self, to being who I most truly am, how I most truly am, living as fully myself as possible.

I invite you to read the questions, think about themand see if you dont change at least a few things in your life.

Monday, November 04, 2013

“All the Saints of Our Lives" All Saints Sunday (November 3, 2013), MCC WIndsor, Rev. Martha Daniels




Luke 6:20-31
Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the realm of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Human One. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

****

Will you pray with and for me? God who is present at all times and in all places, refresh our hearts and spirits as we remember the friends and family who no longer walk this earth with us, and the ones we never knew in person, but whose stories lift our hearts with hope. Give us the grace to follow their paths with dedication and patience, not forgetting their humanity, but with gratitude for all that they taught us and the example they showed us. In all your names, amen.

Today we’re observing All-Saints, on this, the first Sunday of November. It is a time to remember the ones who came before us, their lives of example and their teachings of hope—the ones we call saints. But this begs the question--how do we define “saint?”  As a perfect person?  Someone who fulfills all those Blesseds and is the opposite of all the Woes? Many of our saints would be hard to live with and had faults. Saints are our role models—their lives are something we can aspire to follow and emulate.

We take this day to remember not only the understood saints—Peter and Francis and Mary—or the ones we hold as saints—Mother Theresa, John Wesley, Maximilian Kolbe—but also those who have been saints in our lives—a grandparent, an aunt, a friend—and who may still be among the living. One of my saints was one of my mentors at MCC-DC. He was an unfailing support in so many ways, with humour and grace and understanding and wisdom. When I was scolded by a congregation member for forgetting to put the plate back on top of the communion cup after communion one Sunday, Dan winked at me and said, “Was Jesus going to escape?” His was a true generosity of spirit—introducing me to people I would want to know in the UFMCC at conferences, making sure I was able to attend all the events he thought I should, giving me books to read and suggesting movies, magazines and even vacation spots. He wasn’t perfect—Dan had his demons to fight and he could be argumentative and provoking. But he believed in me and never let me down. And I was not the only one—I think if you polled the MCC clergy who interned at MCC-DC, you would find that most of them were enriched and blessed by his presence, love and support. And he was involved in so many other ways in the church as well, both at the local and denominational level, not only in training future clergy, but in securing MCC-DC on a sound financial base, offering advice and suggestions to the entire MCC in a thousand ways—unselfishly and with love.

People like Dan are saints not because they were perfect, but because they offer an example of how to live lives of grace and truth. Mother Teresa was heard to complain sometimes; Martin Luther King Jr. was rumoured to have had affairs; Peter denied Christ three times; and Oscar Romero awakened late in his life to the realities of corruption and poverty in El Salvador. But their lives were examples of God’s presence—Mother Teresa’s unselfish service to the untouchables of India, Martin Luther King Jr.’s uncompromising stand for racial justice; Peter’s confession to Christ and work in establishing the church; Oscar Romero’s refusal to back down on demands for justice for the poor, knowing it put his life at risk.

Because we don’t know if we could do the same, we admire the saints who gave their lives in the cause—MLK, killed by an assassin, Oscar Romero, shot as he celebrated Communion, Thomas Cranmer, burned at the stake for the daring idea of reformation of the English Church. But most of our saints were not called to that extremity—Francis and Clare died peacefully,, in their beds; so did Dag Hammarskj√∂ld and George Fox, and Karl Barth.

Their sainthood, my friends, is not about how they died, but how they lived. And that is the example they set for us—that is why they are role models, why we love, admire, and respect them.

All of us have saints in our lives, whether we know them personally or not, whether they are still among the living or have gone on before us. We have learned from them, they continue to teach us. They have been our support and have encouraged us, if only by example. 

As we remember our saints today, it is a good time to rededicate ourselves to following their examples, to living lives like theirs, as far as we can; and to honouring them by continuing to work for what they worked for, what they knew to be true.

As I light this candle of memory, I invite you to speak aloud or in your heart, your saints, known to the world or only to you—those who are your examples, your role models, your guides.

(light candle and silence)

Holy One, as we have lit this candle to remind us of the ones we honour, rekindle in us the flame of devotion to those principles and those causes that our saints upheld. Give us grace to follow in their footsteps, that we may be a beacon to those who follow us. Amen.

Just Keep Praying! October 20, 2013 (Pentecost 22), MCC Windsor, Rev. Martha Daniels



Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, Grant me justice against my opponent.For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And Jesus said, Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to Gods chosen ones who cry out day and night? Will the Holy One delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Human One comes, will he find faith on earth?

****

Will you pray with and for me? Loving God, open our hearts to your wisdom; may all we speak and hear be a reflection of your love for us.

I think this is one of the most interesting of Jesus' parables. Now, parables, of course, are stories with a point--not necessarily a moral, as a fable has, and not necessarily a direct comparison, like an allegory, although parables resemble both fables and allegory. A parable is a story with a point to make, but it makes that point indirectly--the listener draws their own conclusion from what she hears. They may be based in fact or in generally true situations, or they may be fantasy settings. The woman who lost one of her ten coins, for example, is a could-be-true sort of story. We have all lost something small but important--keys, a ring--and searched and searched until we found it. The parable of the vineyard workers who killed all the messengers, on the other hand, is fantasy--that could not have happened. A gang of people could not take over a vineyard and kill people without any consequence except more people being sent to the vineyard.

This parable, however, is in the first category--I am sure there were many widows in first century Palestine who longed for justice and kept after the judges until their cases were heard. Windows were in a bad situation in that place and time. Unless they has sons who were grown, or daughters with husbands who were willing to take them in, widows were on their own. They did not inherit anything when their husbands died--everything went to the oldest son, in general--the farm or the fishing boat, the pottery business, the weaving or woodcarving business. Sons grew up learning their father's trade, and followed him in the business. Girls, of course, grew up in their mother's trade--housekeeping. They were expected to marry someone who brought land or more trade or was in the same line of work. Marriage was a business proposition, not a love match. So when the husband died, if the widow didn't have a son who was running the business, and her late husband's brother or nephew or whoever was running the business didn't take her in or help pay her support, she was in serious trouble and literally faced begging on the street. Legally, women were under the control of some man--father, husband, son, brother, son-in-law, uncle--some male of her family. She couldn't own property or work--there were no jobs as we understand it now.

So the story Jesus tells of a widow who is seeking justice--probably understood by those listening to Jesus as trying to induce the brother or uncle or whatever to support her--would ring very true. Probably the sympathies of the crowd would be with her  because all of them had a mother or sister or cousin who had been or might have been, in those circumstances. 

The judge, even though he is portrayed as unjust, realizes he has to listen to her. She has worn him down and like a parent exhausted by a nagging child, gives in and gives her what she is asking for.

Now, Jesus compares this to any of us, praying to God for help or deliverance. We pray and pray, and pray some more, and eventually God is so tired of hearing us that God grants us justice.

So what is God saying here? That if we nag God enough, we will get what we want? No. That is exactly what he is not saying, Jesus is talking about prayer, which is not one-sided. Prayer is not, or shouldn't be, just us talking to God--this terrible thing happened, God, please fix it now, because I can't stand it, she is in pain, he is lost--whatever it might be. Prayer is a conversation. We tell God our fears  and hopes and dreams and worries, and if we listen, if we can be still and just listen, God will speak to us. Not in words, necessarily, but to our hearts and spirits. In the words of friends and teachers and therapists, in the actions of those we love, we can hear God speaking to us.

The widow sought justice from the unjust judge and got it because she refused to give up. We seek many things from God--justice, but also healing, comfort, guidance, understanding--and God, who is just, freely gives us what we need. Remember, God is not a vending machine, where you drop in a prayer and get a new job in the slot at the bottom. God gives us what we need, not what we want. The widow needed justice and got it. We ask for guidance and God gives us people in our lives who offer advice and suggestions. We want comfort, and we have friends and family who are there to support us. We seek a cure--for ourselves or another--and God sends us healing as we find we are stronger than we thought.

So, my friends, keep praying--keep that line of communication between you and God open. That doesn't  mean you will get exactly what you are praying for,  but a response will come, if you can but see and hear it.

Keep praying, keep faith, and be open to God moving in your life. In all God's names, amen.