"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Sleep in Heavenly Peace" (Christmas Eve, December 24, 2012)

    One would need to be living in a total state of denial not to admit that this has become a much more somber Christmas than usual. The recent horror of horrors in Connecticut has made much of our usual holiday merrymaking seem somehow inappropriate. Singing about  “a holly, jolly Christmas” or even “Joy to the world” can ring more than a little hallow in the face of what we have seen. Our national mood might well reflect that of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow more than a century ago:

            “And in despair I bowed my head,
             ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.
            ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song
            Of peace on earth, good will to men.’”

            In a deeper sense, we might even wonder about the very relevance of that babe born in the stable in Bethlehem to this vale of tears we inhabit. Because Christmas traditionally centers so directly on the birth of a Holy Child, and because Christmas as more broadly celebrated emphasizes so persistently the innocence and dreams and joy of children everywhere, we are shaken to the core by what we have seen, and we can not even begin to imagine what those who have experienced this tragedy directly must be going through.

            So it seems as though, this year at least, the light has been extinguished, or pretty near. The angel voices have been rendered silent, or if they’re still singing, then they’re singing very softly. There might even be within us something of an urge to cancel Christmas this year, or at least postpone it, as if we could. Just forget about it. To pack up the tinsel, and put away the tree, and simply rejoin the mundane and prosaic pathway of the (so called) “real world”.

            But you see, it’s because the world, as it is, is too much with us that we need Christmas, and that we could not survive (spiritually, emotionally, holistically) without it, and without what it represents.  Because the darkness surrounds us so deeply at times, we need the light of Christmas. Because the world is mired so deeply in despair, we need its hope.

            Because this world is fallen, we need the Incarnation, the embodiment of God’s Holy Spirit with us, and among us, and within us.

Christmas shows us that when night is darkest, we can see the shining of the stars most gloriously. If there was no darkness of midnight, there could be no star to guide the wise men to the stable. When we are most empty, the abundance of God can fill our souls. When we are poorest in spirit, a divine inheritance will be ours.

At Advent, the weeks leading up to Christmas, we are shaken awake with the news, the reality, that God is on his way.Emmanuel: God’s Love—God’s Peace—God’s Hope—is coming, here, to be with us. So we must pay attention, and keep watch, and prepare a place, and attune our lives to dwell in the reality of that Presence.

This has been a rather bitter Advent, I know, and perhaps God’s angels are arriving this year more like First Responders than as sweet and airy cherubim.

But now, they have arrived, because He has arrived. It is Holy Night. That Holy Babe has been born. Now, God’s presence not only fills the universe, and swings the planets, and keeps the cosmos in order. Now, God’s presence also walks with us, here on earth.  And weeps with us, and comforts us, and allows us to believe that our hopes are not in vain.

Tomorrow, with the dawn of Christmas Day, we will all be called to be as little children again. Christmas only really works, I think, if we approach it as a child does, with a child’s faith, and a child’s hope, and a child’s love. Innocently. Expectantly. Without all of our adult agendas and issues and (all too) complexes. 

That’s tomorrow. Celebrate sweetly, then, to honor the sweet memory of those who have been taken from us, to honor all those we have loved who are no longer with us. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, is the day for childlike celebration.

Tonight, we rest. We sleep, in heavenly peaceIn himmlischer Ruhr.

            Tonight, the world sleeps in God’s embrace, like a newborn babe in his mother’s arms. And as we sleep, may we dare to dream again-- of angel chorus singing fully and confidently again, and bells ringing, and stars shining, and the laughter of all those we love, and the light in the eyes of all the world’s children, and the babe in the manger, calling us, challenging us, to follow him down the blessed pathway of God’s love.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent of the Heart (Sunday, December 2, 2012)

Well, here we are, believe it or not, with Thanksgiving well behind us already, and the year 2012 fading fast in the rear-view mirror of our lives. Looming up ahead on the horizon is Christmas, like the Hancock and the Prudential as we approach Boston on Route 93 from the south.

 We just lit the first of the four candles on our church’s Advent “wreath”. (There’s no wreath there, I know.) A purple candle--  purple, the color of royalty, traditionally used to signify that the Church meant business about something; to signify something really important in Church doctrine: this time to signify the coming—the advent—the arrival  of Christ the King. (The pink one—for joy—we’ll light in week three, December 16 this year, which is the Sunday of our Christmas pageant by the Church School, so a little joy will certainly be in order on that day.)  

            So, anyway, here we are on the threshold of Christmas again. Already. It snuck up on us again this year! I bet that most of us approach this holiday neither from an all-good or all-bad direction, but rather with some complicated mixture of joy, dread, anticipation, and resignation. Here we are, almost at Christmas, and most of us probably aren’t ready. (Oh, I know some of you are; no doubt, someone will come up to me at coffee hour and brag that they’ve already got their cards for Christmas 2013 bought—and addressed.) But most of us aren’t quite ready for Christmas, not yet. Maybe we’ve already bought a few gifts; maybe we have this year’s cards addressed already, ready to put in the mail, or at least we’re thinking about it. Maybe we stocked up on wrapping paper in the after-Christmas sales last year. But in spite of all our well-intentioned vows that this year would be different, it probably won’t be. So we become a little anxious, and then a little frantic. And we try to cram more and more in; the days leading to Christmas get longer and more exhausting, because we want it perfect, too; we want it too perfect. In the words of one Presbyterian minister, we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child as though an overly-picky mother-in-law (or mother, maybe) was coming for a visit. Deep down inside, we may likely have this fear that when Christmas finally does arrive, we won’t be ready. We’ll be like Babushka in the old Russian folk tale, who is so busy sweeping her floors and cleaning her house and making everything perfect, that the Wise Men and the Baby Jesus pass her by. We’re afraid that because we’re so busy getting ready for Christmas, that the real spirit of the holiday, this holy day, will be lost in the shuffle.

            So, Advent is our reminder to “Wake up!”-- for the King is on His way. Not “Hurry up!” so you can get all that stuff done. But “Wake up!”—and, paradoxically perhaps—“Slow down!”  Pay attention—attune your hearts to why this season is important, anyway.  Open your eyes, wake now your senses, and get ready to experience the real miracle of Christmas.
As the German martyr-priest Alfred Delp reminds us, we need an “Advent of the Heart” to lead us to a true Christmas:

to shake us awake;

to call us to integrity and authenticity;

to remind us of our deepest faith;

 to lead us to respond to the miracle and mystery of Life with reverent awe and wonder.

            We need Advent to remind us that still, in spite of everything, the light shines. Love abides. And the hope that Christmas brings still remains.

            I don’t have to tell you that we live in difficult times. Many of our young men and women won’t be home for Christmas again this year, but will spend them in service of our country, far from their homes and families. There are rumors that the economy is picking up; other rumors that it’s not; in the meantime, we seem to hover at the edge of a cliff while politicians bicker.

            The years of our lives, especially in troubled times, do seem to have taken something from us, and have sapped our energies. Our spirits can feel trampled at times. The recent election may have provided some of us with a small surge of hope (or at least relief), but there seems an awful lot of anxiety in these times in which we live.

            But we gather here this morning, and in this season, as a people of faith (a peculiar faith perhaps): A faith that the spirit of the divine lives within the heart of every person, waiting, some time, to be born; waiting for its spring, to flower, to be called forth to life. With Camus, we affirm that “Even in the midst of winter, I learned that there was within me an invincible summer.”

            There is, even in the lower depths of life, a divine hope, made flesh and blood for some of us in the life of Jesus, our great brother, teacher, and friend,  whose birth once again calls forth to us.  As it has been called forth in the words and deeds of prophetic men and women throughout history—in the thoughts and actions of countless people, famous and unknown, who have—for a brief moment of heroism perhaps, or through a whole lifetime of service—lived that way which, if lived by all of us, would truly save the world.

            Perhaps where we stand now, on the threshold of December, the threshold of winter, the days can seem all darkness. But Advent reminds us—the calendar reminds us—that in a little more than two weeks, the days will start growing longer again, and we will begin our slow and steady journey back toward the light.

            It is no coincidence, it seems to me, that our Advent journey—our journey toward Bethlehem, where some of us hope to find our Light of the World takes place now, in these deepest days of almost primordial darkness.

            Christmas is the promise that our emptiness will be filled; our hungers fed; and that the deep darkness will be flooded by divine cascade of an illimitable light. It is a promise that the sad, the weary, and the hopeless will be comforted—and that means all of us. That those who wander in a strange land, or in the land of alienation, will find a place to rest. That those who yearn for truth and meaning will find a star to guide them.

            Then it is that our Advent road will lead straight to Bethlehem. The stable at Bethlehem is not primarily a place in the physical geography of the world. It is, rather, a place in the spiritual geography of our hearts. Christmas will come--  truly come—if we prepare a place in our hearts for it.

We can not make it come. We can not force it (like the child who tries to make the flower grow faster by tugging at it). Advent is not about getting stuff ready for Christmas (or getting us stuffed already for Christmas). It’s about getting our hearts ready for the Christmas within, which is often more about clearing out, than adding to. As Meister Eckhart reminds us, “The soul grows not by addition, but by subtraction.” Or as the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka reminded us, “Sometimes, in order to see the stars, one must descend to the bottom of a well.” Oftentimes, it’s away from the tinsel and decorations and the recorded music—even away from church!-- that the true miracle of Christmas can find a place in our hearts.
            If we’re ready for it. If we plant its seeds. If we live Advent’s spirit of hopeful expectation.

            The deep and hopeful waiting which an Advent of the heart requires is not all quietness and passivity. Real waiting, in its most profound and deepest sense, is an active process. It’s about engagement with life; engagement in the living of our lives.

            The real waiting of the heart’s Advent is not about expecting spiritual blossoms if we don’t take the time to tend the seeds which God has planted.

            Advent reminds us that we need to first of all tend the seeds of God’s love planted deep within our spirits. Advent reminds us that are spiritual searchers, and not merely way-worn wanderers. Advent calls us back home. Back to the stable. Back to our true birth. Back to our simplest humanity. Forward to that man or woman whom God intends us to be.  

A poet named Angelus Silesius once wrote:

Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born,
Unless he’s born in thee,
Thou hope is still forlorn…
For Christ though a thousand times in Bethlehem be born,
Unless he’s born in thee,
His kingdom thou shalt never see…

            “This is our task,” wrote the great Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes of Community Church in New York City, about seventy-five years ago. “This is our task. To seize and hold and perpetuate the Christmastide. To live a life, and not merely a single season, which is delivered of prejudice and pride, hostility and hate, and committed to understanding, compassion, and good will. Then there will be no more Christian and pagan, Jew and gentile, black and white, native and alien, or any other division, but only one human family, one as God is one, [and all of us] heirs to God’s kingdom.”

            As Zorba the Greek put it in the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis “Life is what you do when you’re waiting to die.”

            Which, of course, sounds like such a downer for this cheerful, joyful, happy time of year.

            And I admit that thinking upon our own end times is not the most cheerful thing to dwell upon. But it is our ultimate wake up call, and a reminder to the wondrous things to which these lives of ours are called. “More, and on a deeper level than before, we really know this time that all life is Advent,” Father Alfred Delp wrote shortly before his death.

            “Life is full of suffering,” wrote Thich Nhat Hahn, good Buddhist that he is. “But it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us, and all around us, everywhere, any time.”

 Each day is the Advent of its own tomorrow. At Christmastime, perhaps, we grasp that truth in higher definition.

            So, for now, we wait. Not passively, not despondently, but in joyful hope, full of the joy that only this blessed season of magic and wonder can bring, if we let it. Not lost in frenetic activity, but with arms outstretched to life, all of our senses open wide, wide awake to the call of life.

            Wide awake, and poised on the moment—the day—the season—that is before us now: ready to hear its glorious music; see its vivid colors; taste its richness and its sweetness. Ready to wait, and live, and hope, and take our time, and seize the time, and make this time our own.

The Hope of Hanukkah (Sunday, December 9, 2012)

          At this winter time of year, when the days seem almost perpetual darkness, it is easy to bemoan the fading of the light. There is, for many of us, that certain winter weariness that starts to set in. As I have said before, I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that most of the great religions of the world have some sort of festival of lights at this time of year. We need to remember the light, and celebrate the light, when winter comes. One of the most important of these celebrations, of course, is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

            For eight consecutive nights, starting last evening, our Jewish neighbors and friends will light candles in their homes, as will members of the Jewish faith around the world. These candles will symbolize the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 137 BCE, when just a tiny bit of sacred oil burned, miraculously, for eight straight nights. “Hanukkah” is the Hebrew word for “dedication”. It is a time for joy and celebration, for merriment and gift-giving, and fun and games. It is also a time when the Jewish people are asked to remember what a dedicated few can do against a mighty empire.

            So that’s why I think that it is fitting and proper, whether we are of Jewish heritage or not, to take a little time during the rush of the Christmas season to mark the festival of Hanukkah as well. For the story of the Maccabees represents a precious legacy to all of us.

            Hanukkah is about the victory of freedom—religious freedom, in particular. It doesn’t celebrate the Maccabbes’ military skills or the might of their weapons or the tactical prowess. Rather, Hanukkah celebrates the depth of their commitment to a sacred cause, a spirit which inspired a few dedicated souls to persevere, and eventually to triumph, in the face of overwhelming odds and great difficulties. Indeed, it is a story written not just in ancient scriptures, but deep upon the human heart.

            Just as it is easy in December to bemoan the fading of the light, so it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming mired in the long, sad litany of folly and failure that litters our human sojourn on this earth. There are certainly enough stories of war and mayhem and senseless violence in history to go around.

This is, for even the most casual student of history (for even the most casual observer of life, for that matter) a hard story to ignore. But it’s too easy to come to believe that it’s the whole story, because it’s not. Perhaps this is another reason we have Hanukkah and Christmas and other days that celebrate the human spirit: to remind ourselves that the story of human stupidity and callousness and depravity is only about half the story of our human race, perhaps—maybe a little more, maybe a little less.

For, yes—only a fool can deny the face of evil in human experience. But we have seen the face of the divine there, as well. In our own lives—in our history—in our common human story—we have also seen the many blessed faces of hope. They have met us along the pathways of our existence in a fascinating and inspiring variety of shapes and sizes and ages and races. History can depress us, but hope can take our breath away, as we watch it dancing, and hear it singing, from so many unexpected corners.

Yes, though humankind walks through the darkest valley, hope abides.

In the bleakest years of experience and the grayest years of history, hope abides.

Amidst our deepest fears and our greatest disappointments, hope abides.

Hope is also always borne by men and women (and even children) who look just  like us. Who wear the face of humanity as we do—no more, but no less. Who are no less than fully human, in all that magnificent potential; no less than fully alive, completely open to the Spirit’s power moving within us, transcending the limitations of human history; transforming the often-drear and turgid prose of human experience into the vibrant, singing poetry of hope.

In spite of persecution and prejudice and pogrom and even unspeakable Holocaust, the eternal light of the faith kindled by the Maccabees still shines.

In spite of greed and selfishness and exploitation and tyranny, the eternal light of hope still illumines the path of human history.

In spite of darkness and depression and despair, the eternal light of love still burns in our hearts, and lights our days and fires our nights, and reminds us that we are created in the image of the divine.

As Vaclav Havel reminded us, in words that have become a sort of mantra for me, hope is not the same thing as optimism. Hope is not the assurance that things will be easy or will turn out well. Hope is, rather, the blessed assurance that what we are doing makes sense and has purpose, and that it is the right thing to do, whatever the immediate consequences.

The words of the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, too, echo with hope: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Parker wrote, “but it bends inexorably toward justice.”

Arrogant and self-satisfied little men might strut about the stage of history for a little while, acting like a sort of schoolyard bully. But history does not belong to them, and sooner or later, they always face a day of reckoning.

Hope is a dimension of the spirit; it is a gift from God. But it is a divine gift which bears a human face. It is a divine gift passed down by fragile human hands. Hope is a gift from God. But it only comes alive if we light the lamp, and live out hope within our lives.

Seek out and find your own angels of hope, my friends. Listen to the stories of your own days, your own stories, and ponder the deeper questions in your hearts. Discern for yourselves who it has been—which people, which men and women, have spoken words which lit up the darkness, have lived lives which reflected that deep hope?

Then remember this: The spirit that was within them also lives within you. It is within you right now, waiting in this season of Hanukkah, this season of Advent, to come alive, to bear fruit, to grow, as the perennial seed lies waiting in the ground of winter for its season of new life to come again.

There are angels of our common human history who call to us, as well. Some walk still among us now; others are long gone, except in memory. All still live in special places in our hearts; they still burn in the candles of the menorahs of our souls.

We can remember Mahatma Gandhi, his creativity, his persistence, his discipline. We can remember his commitment to human liberation, not just of the physical person, but of the mind and soul as well.

We can remember Rosa Parks who got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and took her seat on that bus in Montgomery on the first day of December in 1958, and launched a new American revolution.

We can remember Nelson Mandela, whose quiet grace and dignity led a nation away from an almost certain abyss of violence and bloodletting, and onto a road toward promise and possibility and peace.

 We can remember Lech Walesa, a simple electrician in a shipyard on the Baltic coast of Poland, who through conscience and courage and religious faith and good old Polish stubbornness alone, decided that working men and women in his country, no less than anywhere else, deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. And so, Solidarity was formed, and the face of Europe (and the world) was changed.

When we take the easy way out and despair of the sad state of our world, let us take time to remember this great cloud of witnesses that travels with us on this human journey. Remember these cherubim of the human spirit, these seraphim of hope: men and women, sometimes of extraordinary powers, but oftentimes not; all somehow inspired, either by a spark from heaven, or some spark deep within their souls, to put aside the easy, well-worn path of lukewarm living, and find within themselves a little more love, a little more courage, a little more responsibility, and little more hope.

Back in the year 137 BCE, the Maccabees could have said: “Oh, the Seleucids are too strong. We’re doomed. Our people will never be free. Let’s just worship their pagan idols.” Or, later, they just could have lamented: “Oh, there’s not enough oil. We can’t rekindle the lamp. The Holy Light will never burn again.”

But they didn’t. They fought on. They lit the lamp with the little bit of oil they had. And so, the lights of Hanukkah still shine.

Gandhi could simply have said: “The British are too strong; they’ll never leave India. But I’m well educated; I’m bright; I’m ambitious. To heck with these Untouchables; I’ll just set up a law practice for myself and make enough money to get by comfortably.”

But he didn’t say that, and so the lights of Hanukkah still shine.

Rosa Parks could have just gotten up from her seat when that bus driver in Montgomery told her to. It would have been easier for her just to get up, and walk to the back of the bus.

But she didn’t. She sat in that seat—a defiant and courageous angel of the human spirit. And so, the lights of Hanukkah still shine.

Mandela could have given into those who told him to preach violence and race war and revenge. It would have been easy to do so; it could even have been justified. But he didn’t. He chose the more excellent way of non-violence and reconciliation. So, light another candle on history’s great menorah.

Walesa could have lost himself in personal concerns. “Why should I worry about anyone other than myself?” he could have asked. “I’ll join the Communist Party instead; I’m become a careerist, an apparatchik and boss other people around.”

But he didn’t. So boldly light another candle, and let the hope of Hanukkah still shine.

There are other lights, too—small and flickering now, perhaps; but waiting to be fanned into full flame by the winds of hope.

Light a candle for Myanmar, for Burma, where the seeds of democracy planted by brave souls like Aung San Suu Kyi might truly be bursting through the hard ground of tyranny.

Light a candle for Syria, where brave men and women once again have proven (nearly 40,000 of them with their lives) that the way of hope is seldom easy, but that no amount of military force or totalitarian tyranny can quench a people’s longing for freedom.

In Burma—and Syria—and in so many other places around our world—the true lights of Hanukkah still shine.

Emma Lazarus once wrote:

Kindle the taper like a steadfast star,
Ablaze on evening’s forehead o’er the earth,
And add each night a luster till afar
An eightfold splendor shines above thy hearth.
Clash, Israel, the cymbals, touch the lyre,
Blow the brass trumpet and the harsh-tongued horn:
Chant psalms of victory till the heart take fire,
And the Maccabean spirit leap new-born.

May the spirit of Hanukkah be born anew within us, every year. May that spirit of justice and freedom—and of hope—move within our hearts and hands, and resonate in our time, and illuminate the world.

Shalom. Amen.