A New Year
The new year of 2017 is yet a little more than a month away. That is a marking of time that most people share in common. There is also the Chinese New Year, which will follow in late January. In Judaism. the new year begins with Rosh Hashanah, which usually comes somewhere around September (this year the observance being from the 20th to the 22nd). Then there is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year, which starts with the first Sunday in Advent, this year on November 27th. Each of these ways of marking time is significant, especially in the communities that observe them.
The season of Advent is observed in a multitude of ways. It is a season structured around the Sundays leading up to Christmas, and culminating on Christmas Eve. It is a time for singing familiar songs, and revisiting familiar stories. It is a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas.
Some churches, though I suspect not too many, focus their liturgy in this season on looking toward the second coming of Christ, because of course the birth of the baby Jesus happened more than two thousand years ago. Scriptures, mostly unfamiliar scriptures, about the second coming, dominate the worship. Christmas carols, which speak of that long-ago birth are reserved for after Christmas, because Advent is speaking of the coming and not just the celebration.
And when people sing about the twelve days of Christmas that is because the liturgical Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and lasts for the twelve days that culminate on January 5th. This is the time when Christmas carols are most appropriate, proclaiming the beauty and joy of the birth.
There are several factors that cause there to be a limited number of churches that approach the Advent and Christmas seasons in this way. To do so involves a lot of education about these seasons, and their intended content, before changes can be made in worship celebrations. Even if people could be convinced that the focus should be on the second coming, to wait to sing Christmas carols until the 25th may result in people going elsewhere. Liturgical intent and people’s expectations don’t always go hand in hand. Then there are the radio stations, television specials and in-store music that have been playing carols and highlighting Christmas since well before Thanksgiving. People are ready to sing the carols in worship, and to decorate in order to celebrate the season. There are also people for whom Christmas ends after dinner on the 25th. The tree goes out, the decorations are packed away, and preparations begin for the New Year’s party. To tell people to wait because Christmas has just begun, is apt to change the rituals of very few people.
This is not to say that the liturgical calendar should be abandoned and that the church should just conform to whatever is happening in the larger society. Nor is it to say that the church should stop speaking and planning when individuals have their own ways of going about things. But it is always a balance. There are some purely Advent hymns, which speak of the coming of the Messiah and not the celebration of the birth. To sing those songs, and even to highlight their content, is a way of helping people to understand the season better. To include the scriptures about the second coming, especially early in Advent, provides an opportunity to bring together the themes of the first coming and the second coming. To speak to people where they are, while at the same time helping people to grow in understanding, has always been a major task of the church.
Advent is an opportunity to speak about birth and renewal in a season when people are perhaps more attuned to such themes than at other times of the year. Advent provides a balance to the shopping and wrapping and partying that precede Christmas, serving as a reminder that at least in the church we are celebrating something that is truly wonderful, the love of God for each one of us. If singing Christmas carols and telling familiar stories helps people to receive that message of grace, then Advent celebrated in such a fashion has accomplished a great thing.
Giving Beyond Ourselves
I was listening to an interview the other day in which the entrepreneur who was being questioned about her work and her company was asked about the well-known fact that philanthropy was an important element of the business model she was living out. She shared that from the time of her first business at the age of nineteen, she had always wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. And now, as she runs a fairly large and successful business, she maintains that commitment of giving to others, doing so in a variety of creative ways.
I wonder how many people think about giving to others as a priority in their lives. There are of course some religious traditions that require tithing, giving ten percent of one’s income to that religious body. There are parents who give time and money to support their local PTA and the school activities that enhance their child’s life. There are people who have been affected, through a family member or a friend, by the challenges of cancer or other diseases, and who choose to participate in fundraising walks or give money outright for research. There are others who volunteer in soup kitchens, who give of their time to tutor young people or provide assistance for those wishing to learn a new language, and who sit on the boards of non-profits so as to offer their skills to those organizations. There are of course numerous other ways in which people look beyond themselves and give to others.
But I also wonder how many people give little thought to such giving. It may be in a religious congregation where a person figures the time they spend is giving enough, and they leave the financial contributions to others. It may be someone who is struggling to make ends meet and so decides that they need everything for themselves. It may be someone who is just so focused on their own life, on their own success, on their own happiness, that it doesn’t occur to them that giving to others might be a part of that picture.
I don’t want to judge anyone, because I am not walking in their shoes. I also know that sometimes, when people appear to be totally absorbed in themselves, they do actually give to others, in ways that are private, even anonymous. But I do wonder still about people’s choices. For me, giving to others is one of the ways in which I feel most fulfilled. When I write a check to my church, or to another charity, along with all of the usual bills that I am paying, it feels good to be reaching out to others, to be offering something of myself to people other than those who provide my utilities and process my credit card purchases. It feels good.
I guess that summarizes it for me – giving feels good. I wish that feeling for others. And as we approach the celebration of Thanksgiving next week, one of my expressions of gratitude will be that I can and do give to others.
Life Changes in an Instant
As I was sitting in my office yesterday, meeting with a church member, we heard what sounded like a collision between two cars, and then looked out the window to see a car speeding right toward us. My friend yelled something about getting out of there. I jumped up, hit the bar on the exit door, and as we exited the office the car hit the wall right outside where I had been sitting.
Now, two things before I say anything else. First, please pray for the woman who was driving the car. She was injured and the paramedics took her to the hospital. I don’t yet know her name, but I have been praying for her since it all happened, and I ask you to pray for her too. Second, I don’t intend for my description in the first paragraph to sound melodramatic. We were both fine, and, as it turned out, the brick and railing outside my office seems to have stopped the car from coming into the building. In reality, if I had not seen the car coming, and hadn’t moved, I would have been injured very little, if at all. So, I don’t want this to come off as avoiding a brush with death.
But, things do change in an instant. For this woman, life has been changed in ways I don’t yet know, and may never know depending upon how things go. Her new car was totaled for sure, and yet that can be replaced. The wall of the church, and other parts of the building affected by the crash, will be repaired. Yet, without airbags, I imagine this woman may have been killed. Without the time to get out, and absent the brick and railing, well, who knows what could have happened.
The thing is, when we get up in the morning, we never quite know how things will go. Reflecting on that, I will redouble my attention to my relationships so that, as much as is possible, I have said the things I want to say and done for others the things that I would not want to leave undone. I don’t expect that I will die anytime soon, but that day will come eventually, and I will leave this earth with peace in my heart if I have kept to this way of living.
And too, things change in an instant even when physical injury or death isn’t part of the picture. There are phone calls that change things in many ways, doctors’ diagnoses about ourselves or loved ones that do the same.
And, of course, sometimes there are those moments when things change such that they bring great joy and peace. Those too are moments when life changes in an instant.
Have a beautiful day.
The Saintly In Us
All Saints Day was this past Tuesday. In some traditions, perhaps especially in the Catholic Church, it is a very important day. For many Protestant churches, it means little or nothing. I have talked with folks who don’t even know what the day is about and why it is celebrated. Yet, there are Protestant churches named Saint Paul’s, and Saint John’s, and Saint Andrew’s, and many others who have the title of Saint in their names.
But what does it mean to be saintly? We can come up with a list of numerous qualities that many people would identify as being saintly, among them perhaps, giving to others without any thought of receiving anything back, compassion in many forms, the willingness to be with people whom others don’t want to associate with, the willingness to help people whom others can’t imagine helping, and so on.
But interestingly, Saint Paul, who I think would have cringed at having the title attached to his name, refers to the saints in the salutations of many of his letters, and by the use of “saints” he means all those who are gathered as that church, all who are a part of the church family in that place.
By that definition, you and all the participants in your church, if you are a churchgoer, are saints. Now we may not all live up to that list of qualities that many would associate with being “saintly,” but in Paul’s mind we are saints nonetheless.
To me, being a saint means always being in process. To be a saint means that we are on a journey, not that we have arrived and are forever-after acknowledged as saintly. To be a saint is to celebrate the ways in which we are living and acting as God would hope for us to, and it is to be striving to improve in those areas where we need to grow.
There are beautiful, saintly things, in all of us. That is something to celebrate every day.
Welcome to my website. I hope you will discover a connection to the life of small churches, and the richness that the arts can bring to these churches.