Just Generosity – A Christmas Message

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Below is the message I recently gave for our College Christmas Candlelight Service…

A milestone has recently occurred in my family – one that many people my age and older always appreciate, and one that all our students here are looking forward to with great anticipation. My son finished college a couple years ago and moved out to the Rocky Mountains, where he can snowboard and climb sheer rocks all he wants. And this past summer, he got his first real “adult” job – one that has a decent salary and benefits and all those wonderful things. And I know that many of our students – especially our seniors – have lots of Holiday dreams about when that time will come.

A couple weeks ago, my son Caleb was asking about what I wanted for Christmas. He is actually able to come be with us in person this year, so I told him his presence and some dark chocolate covered cherries were plenty. And he said, “No mom, I can be really generous this year. You’ve done so much for me my whole life – and I am glad it’s my turn to be generous.”

Of course, I teared up – because that’s what moms do – but the word he used – generous – has stuck with me. People toss around that word a lot – I believe without actually thinking about what it really means. We might tell someone at the dining table – “Be generous dishing out the mac and cheese!” We like it when people are generous with their praise or thanks, especially when we are reading comments on a returned paper. We always appreciate people who are generous with time and money.

Generosity is a trait we all can admire, but it seems also to be something that people feel like they can only offer only after they have everything they need. The Christmas story before us today is one that abounds with the message of generosity, and from many people who had so little.

Teenage Mary knew all sorts of problems could come – even to the point of being stoned for adultery – when she found out she was pregnant with Jesus – but she generously offered praise and thanks for the blessing of being the mother of Jesus.

Joseph knew Mary was pregnant with a child not his – but yet he cared for her and protected her, and “adopted” the baby Jesus as his own.

The owner of the inn had space that was overflowing with people due to the government decree, yet he found room in a warm and friendly manger for Mary and Joseph, generously offering the best he could.

The shepherds in the fields were some of the poorest in the region, with days and nights filled trying to keep their sheep safe, yet they were generous with their time, coming to lavish praise and wonder on the event of Christmas night.

The Wise Men were generous with not only their time and money in journeying far to visit the new babe, and giving costly gifts, but even more generous in their wisdom of not giving away his location to the King who wanted to execute the baby Jesus.

Generosity is a theme we see throughout the Biblical narrative – in fact, it’s a theme throughout the major religions of the world. Every major religion has at its heart the message of treating others the way we want to be treated.

And we certainly want others to be generous with us, don’t we?

Ron Sider wrote a book first published almost 20 years ago, entitled Just Generosity. It’s a wonderful play on words. Generosity is the foundation of the spiritual life – being compassionate, loving, kind, supportive, understanding. Yet, true generosity is not possible without Justice – thus Just Generosity.

Generosity is not about the sloppy sentimentality that people can so easily fall into during this season.

Generosity is not about having big hearts, giving what is comfortable with our financial means, saying we love everybody, and being blind to systems and actions which harm others.

True, just, generosity is about giving when we aren’t certain we really can, and doing so with a loving heart.

True just generosity is about relinquishing our own power so that we can include someone who is on the margins and barely hanging on.

Just generosity is about taking our whole beings – our material possessions, our time, our ideas, our likes and our dislikes and our loves and our hates – and giving fully so that we can be connected with the rest of humanity and thus share in the true peace that only comes in that connection.

The old adage is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And it is. It’s a good thing to receive, but it’s an event better thing to give. And to give generously and justly – of what we have and who we are – that is the best thing of all.

So my Holiday wish for each one of us today – let us be generous in spirit – with each other – with those we love and those we don’t like. And let us be justly generous in all the many ways we can make this tumultuous world a better place. Amen.

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The Feminist Advent of St. Brigid

Brigid-jpg-740x986the following is the message I gave at a Christmas Lessons & Carols last week…

There are a number of women saints who have intrigued me over the years. At this time of year, I tend to recall fondly stories of St. Brigid. She, along with St. Patrick, are the two patron saints of Ireland. Now it’s hard to pin down what is historically accurate about a woman named Brigid who lived 1500 years ago and what are mythical stories that developed.

And it really doesn’t matter. The Celtic imagination knows that truth and inspiration can be found in these stories, no matter what may have factually occurred.

One story about Brigid is that she was the midwife during the birth of Jesus. Now we know that Brigid lived about 450 years after Jesus, but that’s beside the point. The story of Brigid helping Mary give birth to the Prince of Peace provides real truth. The figure of Brigid herself is all about new life, giving birth, transitioning to a new way of existing.

Throughout most of history, wise women were midwives. These were women who understood nature and creation. They used the gifts of creation to help mothers as they endured the traumatic physical event of giving birth. Then they made certain this new little baby transitioned from the safety of the womb to a new existence in this world.

The message for this season of the year is about giving birth, symbolically transitioning to a new life. For each person here, we have all experienced transitions to a new life – a new birth.

Our first transition was a physical birth, just like the baby Jesus.

We had new births when we started school, and were students.

We had new births if younger siblings came along – and we birthed a new identity as an older sibling.

We have new births with celebration of birthdays – becoming a teen, a legal adult, a person of middle age, a retired individual.

We have births with new jobs and vocational opportunities.

We have new births when we enter into deep relationships which transform us and enable us to grow.

We have new births when we discover our calling in life, and take steps towards on that journey.

And at each point with the new births in our lives, there have been midwives – people who have used their gifts to ease the pain of transition and to help us be healthy and strong as we encounter our new lives.

During this Christmas season, I encourage everyone to think about how you can be a midwife. How can we be like St. Brigid, helping birth a new world?

We can seek to ease pain and suffering – whether it’s physical, emotional, or spiritual. We can offer words and actions of kindness and grace. As we celebrate the Prince of Peace today, we can share peace with others – and especially others who may not bring peace to us.

We can offer hope. We live in days when we are constantly bombarded by images and actions of violence, hatred, divisiveness, and fear. Hope can keep us moving forward on days when the awfulness around us can paralyze us. A midwife recognizes hope, encourages it, and helps others live in hope – no matter what we might encounter.

St. Brigid – whether she was a real woman, simply a legend which developed, or a combination of the two – inspires us to be midwives – to move forward to a new life, a new birth, a new way of being filled with peace, love, compassion, and hope. Let each one of us seek to be like St. Brigid – a midwife. Let us seek to help birth a new life, a new world, around us.

Today, as we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, I would like to close with the hearth prayer of St. Brigid.

Brigid of the Mantle, encompass us,

Lady of the Lambs, protect us,

Keeper of the Hearth, kindle us.

Beneath your mantle, gather us,

And restore us to memory.

Mothers of our mother, Foremothers strong.

Guide our hands in yours,

Remind us how to kindle the hearth.

To keep it bright, to preserve the flame.

Your hands upon ours, Our hands within yours,

To kindle the light, Both day and night.

The Mantle of Brigid about us,

The Memory of Brigid within us,

The Protection of Brigid keeping us

From harm, from ignorance, from heartlessness.

This day and night,

From dawn till dark, From dark till dawn. Amen.

 

A Post-election Christmas Message

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traditional Moravian beeswax candles, trimmed for Christmas

Below is the message I gave at our college Christmas Candlelight service last week.

Faith communities across North Carolina this weekend are coming together for a special focus in worship services. The North Carolina Council of Churches, working with other non-Christian faith communities, are focusing on this one theme – Love One Another. Every major religion in the world has at its heart the message that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. So the idea of loving one another comes naturally from this foundational message.

Love one another.

What better way to share the Christmas story than to talk about loving one another? This message is especially critical for us in our society today. Our country is greatly divided. Hate incidents and crimes have spiked dramatically in recent weeks, occurring to people I know personally, and people who sit in this congregation. What is supposed to be a time of great joy with the Holiday season, is instead for many a time of pain, anger, anxiety, and sadness due to the hate-filled division dominating our culture.

Jesus, the baby whose birth we honor today, was born into a time and place of violence, and a society filled with religious and racial and cultural divisions. Born into poverty to two very unimportant people, his family soon fled as refugees to escape the genocide of male children by an unstable ruler.

Yet, in spite of the danger and uncertainty of his time, Jesus brought together people across lines of division from the very beginning. One of our scriptures today tells of a time when the wolf will live peacefully with the lamb. This is a sign which indicates that the light of God’s kingdom is breaking through on earth.

At Jesus’ birth, this Jewish baby had shepherds who visited – men who were on the fringes of society and living out in the fields with the sheep. The average person didn’t want to associate with a smelly shepherd who couldn’t find a better way to make a living.

At Jesus’ birth, the Magi from Persia came with gifts of great monetary value. These non-Jewish leaders, men of great wealth and power in their homeland, gathered with the castaways from society to honor a baby born into poverty in a stable.

At Jesus’ birth, animals were present, welcoming the child into their home in the stable, and signifying that all God’s creation is meant to be united in love and community – the poor, the outcasts, the wealthy, Jew and non-Jew alike, the most vulnerable of creation.

It was certainly a feast of Love at the first Christmas.

What does this mean for us today? When we focus on loving one another, I am absolutely not saying – Just be nice to each other. That is superficial and meaningless. It reminds me of that phrase I often heard growing up in the South, “Bless her heart.” Now it sounds innocuous on the surface, but my mom always said people really meant, “Bless her pointed little head.” – It meant being nice to someone’s face, but disdaining who she truly is. It placed the person as “the other,” separated from ourselves where we lived in a place of privilege and power.

Truly loving one another is not just “being nice.”

Love is the most wonderful and life-giving thing in this world – but we all know that what means the most in this world are the things for which we have to work the hardest.

Something I appreciate about working in the heart of Salem is the Moravian Motto – “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”

This doesn’t mean we gloss over injustice or try to “be nice” – it means we do our dead level best to find ways to respect, engage, and encounter the other person as a child of God. There is not one person on earth with whom we will agree 100%, and sometimes we will find our disagreements are so big that relating to the other person seems impossible. Liberty in non-essentials can be a major challenge. And if we don’t agree on what is an essential or non-essential, it becomes even more difficult. There are no easy answers in trying to figure out how to engage and be in community across what feels like as essential to us. It takes commitment to that relationship with the other person. It takes patience. It takes grace.

This is not easy, but we are always meant to reach out in love – no matter how the other person responds. Loving another can be tough – parents knows we have to provide tough love on occasion for our children. There are times we have to speak words of truth and justice, which the other person may not want to hear. And Love doesn’t mean we always like the other person. Love takes a whole lot of hard work. It takes a generosity of spirit in being in community with that person, trying to understand that person’s point of view. And the more abhorrent or foreign that view seems, the more important to respect them and remain in community together.

Now in the end, love is all we really have, isn’t it? There is far too much hate in the world today – hate which will consume each one of us if we let it. There are far too many people spewing words of division at each other. There are far too many loud voices not respecting the humanity in others.

Love is all we really have, isn’t it? Jesus was love – his life was about loving others – each and every person – and it threatened the establishment so much that the people in power decided to execute him. But that didn’t stop his love. And it didn’t stop millions of people over the centuries being inspired by his example and reaching out in love to others, no matter the consequences. And not just Christians. People of other faiths – Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and others – see him as a great teacher with a prophetic message who has shown us a better way to live.

So I say to you today – go forth and love each other. It’s often not easy. And when it’s not easy – that’s when it is the most important. It will be the most challenging and difficult thing we do in our lives. But it will definitely be the thing that makes us the most fully human, and that makes us most filled with the Divine.

It will be that which makes life worthwhile.

Go forth and love.

 

 

The Prince of Peace in today’s world…

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The traditional Moravian beeswax candles for our Christmas service

The first Thursday of December is when Salem College holds its annual Christmas Candlelight worship service, which has been a tradition since the beginnings of our school in the late 1700s. As College Chaplain, I am privileged to provide a meditation. Our world right now is so particularly shattered by hate, violent rhetoric, fear and misinformation, that it begs to be addressed, especially during this season of advent. Below is the message I gave last week –

We come together today for this annual worship service to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. And Christmas is all about honoring the Christ Child. During this season, there are many names we call the Christ Child – the Light, the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Prince of Peace. This afternoon, I would like to focus on what it means to prepare for the coming of Peace.

Peace is something we talk a lot about in this world, but it is so elusive. The name Salem itself comes from the Hebrew word Shalom, which means peace. The Moravian founders of this area sought to build a peaceful society in the midst of a world that seemed so far from it. At the heart of this sacred ground of Salem – peace should reside.

Just as the early Moravians knew, just as Sister Oesterlein (our first teacher) herself knew, this world is not peaceful. In recent months, we have been particularly reminded of that. Violence pours forth in so many parts of the world – whether the streets of Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Kenya, Nigeria, or other places not deemed as news-worthy. Violent, mass shootings have become so commonplace in our own country that many of us aren’t as shocked as we should be, and think that all we can do is pray. Institutionalized racism is still a core fabric of our society – 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement – racism is present, whether it’s obvious, subtle, or unrecognized by the people in power. People who don’t fit what society deems the “norm” are seen as less than and less worthy.

And we all know the saying “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – and we know the lie that fills that phrase. Words of hate, fear, division and ignorance do hurt us. Peace is that intangible thing we talk about, especially at this time of the year, but which we struggle to grasp. Before we can even define what Peace in our own lives, and Peace in the world, truly means – it slips through our fingers.

The child we gather to hear, sing and pray about this afternoon was someone who lived in a time of great violence and upheaval. He knew that Peace was something greatly desired in his world of unrest, hatred and fear. And when he talked about Peace – it wasn’t a sanitized version, where everything was clean, neat, happy, and uncomplicated. It wasn’t just the absence of violence. It can be too easy for us to buy into this – to sit in our nice clothes in a beautiful setting with the comforting aroma of beeswax candles and think this is Peace.
This – this that we experience here today – this is what propels us to work for Peace. Peace is real – it’s authentic – it’s messy. We come together not because this is Peace – but because this gathering lets us glimpse the possibilities before us. As we see the goodness in our sisters and brothers – we want to carry the hope and promise of true Peace with us tonight and tomorrow and the day after – we want the world to reflect what we see in small part here.

There is an old saying that holds true – If you want Peace, work for Justice.
Jesus was someone who didn’t just sit around and talk about lofty ideals. How he lived – his actions spoke far louder than words. He reached across lines of division – whether it was religious or cultural or political or socio-economic – and brought people together in unity. He insisted they operate with respect for the other, and place others before themselves. He modeled that Peace does not come from a place of power, but from a place of servanthood, of understanding, of walking in someone else’s shoes – especially if they are shoes in which we’d rather not walk.

I encourage you today – take the glimpse of the beauty and peace of this afternoon – this wonderful hint of a better world that is before us at this moment – I encourage you to carry it forth to a world filled with violence, division, fear and hatred. Take steps – both big and small – to work for the abolition of violence in all its many forms, to work for justice – so that peace may prevail. Breathe in the Peace around us, and release that breath of peace to the world. One place, one person, at a time – let peace begin with each one of us, as we seek to go forth and change the world for the better.

Peace be with you. Amen.

Change for Advent

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As Tom Petty intones, “The waiting is the hardest part.” The Christian Church is in the midst of the season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas. Most Christians in our society are completely unaware that the season of Christmas does not actually start until Christmas Eve, and then continues for twelve days until the Feast of Epiphany. (Hence, the much loved song, The Twelve Days of Christmas.) This past Sunday, I asked the older youth of our church when Christmas actually started.

“It’s not supposed to be until Thanksgiving, but some people are starting in the middle of November now. My mom won’t listen to that radio station then.”

“No, it’s December 1. You know – when you get to start the Advent calendar chocolate every day!”

They continued debating, until I ended the discussion with the correct information. Curious why people don’t know this information, they asked why our society doesn’t observe Christmas like people used to do. I quoted Tom Petty, a keen observer of our modern culture, who has sung numerous truths over the years. The youth and I talked about how impatient people are. They seemed to grasp this concept fairly easily, to say the least. Why spend four weeks waiting and preparing when we can go ahead and celebrate and party? Because we have to prepare for the party.

How do we prepare for the party of Christmas? It’s not buying presents, pulling out trinkets and handmade decorations, or tying a tree to the wall so it won’t fall over (again). Those aren’t bad things – they just aren’t spiritual preparation.

My friend Mamie preached a great Advent sermon this past Sunday. At the heart of her message, she stated that we need to change to prepare. While we wait for the Christ child, we can change ourselves, and thus change the world. This is how we prepare the way. Change is never, ever easy. It might be exciting, but it can also be stressful, discouraging, scary. The old saying is that eggs need to be broken to make an omelet. When we invite God into our hearts to change who we are, we can’t control how that transformation will take place. We can even imagine the kind of person we will be when we are formed by God. And once we allow God to change us – we will want to change the world – to fight for justice – to care for those in need – to see the light of God in each and every other person. And the real catch is – the change doesn’t stop there. When we try to change the world for the better, when we open ourselves to others, we will be changed even further.

If we stop changing, we stop waiting, preparing for the appearance of the Christ child.

The waiting is the hardest part – but it truly leads to the best part.