Brokenness and the Christmas Season

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This is the message I gave at our recent College Christmas Candlelight Worship Service –

A number of you know that I have been struggling with knee issues for a while, and had a partial knee replacement a few weeks ago. I feel fortunate to have access to the surgery, and to the follow up physical therapy. I also am very fortunate that my parents are in good health and were able to come and stay with me during my first week home from the hospital.

My mom had a full knee replacement a few years ago, and is a retired nursing home administrator – so she really understands knee issues and the therapy required to heal from the surgery.

In my first few days post surgery, as I struggled with the pain of doing everything the physical therapist instructed, my Mom offered these words, “Well, Amy, maybe something good that is coming out of this is that it can help you be more sympathetic to those who struggle with physical issues.”

I laughingly responded that I thought I was already sympathetic enough. My mom was right – as she normally is. I am a fairly sympathetic person, but going through the pain I experienced for the months before the surgery, and then the challenges of recuperation – including using my departed grandmother’s cane every day – has certainly given me insights I would not have had otherwise.

As I am hobbling into this season of preparation for the Christmas celebration, I have been thinking about what it means to be broken. No one wants to be broken. We all want to be healthy, whole, strong, independent.

A central part of the Christmas message is that God chose to enter this broken world through the life of Jesus. A tiny baby was born into poverty on a cold, dark night in the backwoods of the mighty Roman Empire. His family soon had to flee their home and seek asylum in a foreign land due to a political tyrant. This baby would grow up, and would love others so much that his heart and body would be broken.

Jesus experienced a broken world. He witnessed people ostracized, alienated, harmed, rejected, demonized. He saw hate and fear oftentimes dominate love and compassion. And he understood that when one of us is broken or hurt in this human family, it breaks the entire body.

And it was into this brokenness of the world that love and hope were born.

My knee now has a piece of titanium in it. It is perfect – the muscles around it are still adjusting – but I know this right knee is the strongest physical part of my body. I keep hearing the words of the pop song, Titanium, in my head. I’m sure many of our students know it –

I’m bulletproof – nothing to lose
Fire away, fire away
Ricochet, you take your aim
Fire away, fire away
You shoot me down but I won’t fall, I am titanium…

      Now this song is fun to sing, but the truth is that our real power and strength come through our brokenness. 

When our hearts are broken by the pain in the world we see around us, that is our strength.

When our arms are tired from reaching out a helping hand, that is our strength.

When our hands hurt from holding tight in solidarity with the oppressed, that is our strength.

When our legs buckle from trying to lift up others, that is our strength.

When righteous anger over the harm done to others keeps us awake at night, that is our strength.

The Christmas message is not that we are called to be titanium. We are called to be broken – and in that brokenness, we know the very best of humanity. In that brokenness, we are connected to others – every other person we will ever meet, and every creature throughout this world. We  know that each person we encounter is our sibling. The connection to others and the world around us is our strength.

Leonard Cohen’s beloved song, Anthem, has a line that speaks to us today. It goes – “There is a crack in everything – that is how the light gets in.”

The light can’t get in when we are titanium. The light only shines through what is broken and cracked.

As we see the Moravian star before us today, and as we light the Moravian beeswax candles in a few moments and see that soft flame – Let’s think about the light that comes in the darkest, longest night of the year – and let’s remember that the light we need only comes through what is broken. Being broken is not the end – it is the beginning. When we are broken enough to open ourselves up to others and to love and to grace and to compassion – that is when all of us together become as strong as titanium. 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.