Advent – Give


Today’s word is “give.” Conveniently, today is also Giving Tuesday, an altruistic answer to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two days named after shopping events.

I didn’t give anything today. I didn’t have much to give today, either in the way of money or in the way of emotional support. I drank too much tequila last night and woke up with a hang-graine (a slight hangover that sparked a migraine). I drank too much tequila yesterday because I was enjoying myself and tequila sometimes helps me ignore the mean voice inside my head. I had a hard time ignoring the mean voice inside my head because I hadn’t been taking my vitamins or giving myself enough “down” time after a long weekend of socializing and being “on.”

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I know the primary intention behind this AdventWord is to encourage us to give of ourselves to others. We cannot survive as a society if we do not support each other and share our gifts. The world would be so much nicer if everyone took it upon themselves to genuinely care about others outside their family and social circle. Not just blithely donate canned goods once a year, but actually go work to end hunger in their community. Not just hand out a pair of socks to the homeless man on the corner, but actively work to end homelessness.

These are worthy goals.

But so often, we forget to give ourselves the care we need. We ignore the signs that we are neglecting our emotional or physical health because we’re too busy being there for someone else. Or because we don’t think we’re worthy. Or because of another of what are probably a million different reasons.

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There’s a meme I’ve seen in social justice circles suggesting we care for ourselves as we would a toddler: feed yourself something healthy, make sure to get enough rest, take your medicine, go outside and move around. It might seem silly at first, but don’t let its simplicity fool you. It’s a vital reminder. The fact that it was created in the first place means someone felt it was important enough to spend the time creating a reminder. That it gets shared around frequently means it resonates with a lot more people.

The idea is that one cannot help others without first taking care of their own needs. It’s the old line from the flight safety spiel: put your own mask on before helping others with their masks. You cannot help someone else breathe if you can’t breathe yourself.

So, what I am giving on this day? I am giving myself a break. I am giving myself permission to feel sad or angry or disappointed in myself, but then I’m giving myself a healthy dose of forgiveness.

And while I’m at it, I’m giving myself the freedom to not know what I want to do with myself. I’m giving myself a chance to sit with uncertainty and listen to myself as I work through it. And, most importantly, I’m giving myself as much love and kindness I can muster, and permission to seek reinforcement from others.

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Advent – Wake Up


The television and internet are designed to hold our attention. Have you ever noticed how sometimes it’s difficult to turn away? How you keep surfing channels or sites, looking for entertainment long after you’ve said there’s nothing of value there?

More and more people are taking “social media breaks” where they quit for a couple of hours or even a couple of days. All because they are aware that the pull to constantly check for status updates and read notifications is eating away at their precious time.

I haven’t quite gotten to around to something that drastic but I feel like I’m ready to try it. Ever since the autumnal equinox I’ve tried to spend the half hour around sunset each night sitting in my living room with lighted candle and a book, welcoming the darkness while I carry the light inside. It’s a ceremony I started last year and one that has given me a sense of peace and connection with the earth and the seasons and my place in both.

But even so, my typical week only sees me making two trips downstairs in the late afternoon. Because of the near-compulsion to be online to read more, watch more, connect more, even as I know I actually need to disconnect more.

That’s why I cherish Advent and Lent and the activities related to prayer and contemplation associated with both. This year I will be following AdventWord, if not always here, at least always on social media.

After lighting the first candle in the beautiful advent wreath my mother gave me (and taking a picture for social media, of course), I set down my phone and sat quietly for 10 minutes, thinking about the word for today, #WakeUp, and what it means to me.

To wake up, we first have to realize we’ve been asleep. As we come into consciousness, we leave the world of dreams and enter the world of action. We tell people to “wake up and smell the coffee” as a way to get them to see the truth about a situation. In the social justice arena, we implore folks “Stay Woke” once they’ve been able to realize the truth about how the world works, as a reminder to not slip back into habitual thinking and acting.

I admit I am not a devout Christian by anyone’s standard. If anything, I am a lapsed agnostic. My faith and spirituality doesn’t fit neatly into any of the boxes I’ve come across, and instead I’ve taken it upon myself to create my own. But even so, there a times when I find the traditions of the church I grew up in to be a valuable tool for expressing my beliefs. The rituals of reflection and prayer around Advent and Lent are especially resonant for me, coming at times in the year when such activities are welcome as a quiet space in an otherwise hectic schedule.

Advent is a time of preparation. Not just a pre-Christmas warm-up, but a time to create a space for the message and meaning of Christ’s coming. It is a time for me to reflect on what that message means to me and how I can actively live it out. Meditation and prayer are not simply one-way communications with the divine, they are part of an active and on-going conversation, filled with hope, motivation, support, and most importantly, guidance on how to be an agent for love and kindness in the world. A prayer without action is simply words — powerless, impotent, nothing more than noise. We must recognize that a prayer is a call to action. We must be the ones to carry it out into the world. To make it happen.

The command to “Wake Up” is a call to step out of our comfortable bubble and look around us. Where are we needed? Where can we help?

There are many in positions of power who would prefer we stayed asleep — unquestioning, uninterested, and uninvolved. The work to divide us, fostering hate and deception, and rewarding ignorance. They lie and tell us to fear differences, to fear change, to fear the “other.” Tragically, too many too often use Jesus’s name to do so.

As a progressive Christian, as lax as I am, it is my prayer that we can find a way to overcome that fear and hatred and replace them with love and kindness. It is my duty to make it so.

Advent 2


Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 2 Peter 3:14

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” Mark 1:2-3

I bristle at the admonition to “have patience” in the face of suffering. I am thankful that Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote in her message following the readings that patience in this context may not mean simply sitting quietly and waiting.

As Peter puts it, we wait for a new heaven and a new earth, in spite of all the forces that stand in the way. We wait patiently, confident that God is working his purposes out. Yet patience does not mean total passivity. Perhaps surprisingly, passive originally meant that one was capable of suffering; today it often implies that one is unfeeling and unresponsive. To live as Jesus did is to embrace the world’s suffering — in as full a way as possible — and yet to endure, knowing that God is still in our midst, and in the heart of the pain. Patience in this season of waiting is not just about putting up with delay, but having deep compassion for all who wait for justice, healing, and peace. It is about solidarity, and suffering-with (which is the literal meaning of compassion).

John the Baptizer is announcing the presence of compassion in the flesh — and reminding his hearers that God’s road builder toward that future is coming. Not only will a fellow sufferer stand with you, but he will help unfold that path to a healed world. The pathway isn’t finished yet, but if you’ll turn around, you will see it and become part of it.

Advent 2In this way, patience is a virtue in that it re-centers the individual within the larger world with its suffering and its grace, placing the focus on hope. By remaining centered and aware of the larger problem, we can offer compassion freely, with the strength to resist despair, which is the absence of hope.

And it is hope that allows us to continue forward on on our task to prepare the path toward righteousness.

I worry that the word patience is sometimes used to stop that forward movement by those who are afraid of what they believe they will have to give up in order to live in a truly just world. People in positions of power have long turned to those they oppress with advice to “have patience” to dissuade them from taking meaningful action. We see it even now when some misuse the words of Dr. King to calm angry protesters, claiming they are tarnishing his legacy.

But patience has its limits. And the patience that Peter is advising is not the passive kind that does not push forward. We are told to wait for the coming new world by making sure we are the very best we can be, “without spot or blemish.” I would argue that passively allowing another to abuse and mistreat us is a type of blemish, and that standing up to that kind of treatment is not only a matter of self preservation and/or solidarity, but one of incredible patience as well. Patience in knowing that while we may suffer additional abuse, we are working for the betterment of ourselves and the betterment of our world.

“We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience… But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, December 5, 1955

I am struck by the phrase “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” Many of the images we have of Jesus or John the Baptizer have them quickly being surrounded by throngs of excited, accepting people. We forget that they were seen as kooks and frauds by many in their day, forced to go out into the literal wilderness to pursue their cause. We are viewing them through the lens of over 2000 years of history, and compressing their lifetimes into a few moments as we read through their stories, it becomes easy to forget that they had to face the daily abuse of those who wanted them to simply be quiet.

Lone dissenters in modern times are rarely viewed so charitably. And yet, to stand up against oppression we may have to stand alone at times in what is surely a kind of social wilderness with hostile forces all around us. Solidarity is not guaranteed, and we need to have the strength of our convictions to do it anyway. By the same token, when we see others making a stand toward the same goals, we must support them however we can, in whatever way they need.

This is our task. This is the road to the future. We are the ones who must build it, “through the wild and fearsome darkness.”

Beware


Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. Mark 13:33 

When I was a child going to Sunday school (we were Southern Baptist at the time), this is one of the teachings that stuck with me long after church was out. I suppose it had something to do with the idea that children should always be on their best behavior in case an adult is watching, or something like that. “Be good” was pretty much my mantra at the time.

As an adult, I read this passage somewhat differently. Sure, it can still be interpreted as suggesting that people should always be acting as though Jesus was coming back tomorrow. It’s clear to me that many people still feel this way when I see jokes like “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” As though Jesus is the boss who will fire us for being lazy.

Instead, I read it as a reminder to be wary of being turned away from our mission. Be careful that we don’t become so wrapped up in our own experiences that we neglect our task to make life better for everyone. This is especially important for people in privileged positions in society. Just because I don’t have to worry about some issues, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t care about them or work to improve them. I must make the effort to become and remain aware of issues that negatively impact others, and work to reconcile them.

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On a more personal level, I also read this as a reminder that tomorrow is promised to no one, and that at any time I could lose someone dear to me. Or that I may be the one to leave them. And because of this uncertainty and impermanence of life, it is important to be mindful during the joyful moments, with the knowledge that they are precious.

Monday Musings – Coming Home


I love synchronicity. It always feels like it’s a kind of reminder that whatever I’m doing is the right thing.

Tonight I was determined to get back into my new winter routine of shutting off everything, lighting a candle and welcoming the darkness while quietly reading. Before stepping away from the computer, though, I re-read the Advent readings for this week, and checked the word of the day, as well as re-read my post from yesterday. Yesterday’s word was “awake” and today’s is “coming.” (This will be eerily important soon.)

I lit my candle and sat down and began thinking about the word “coming” and all its meanings and relevance to Advent and to my own life.

The list I came up with:
Second coming
Homecoming
Coming to a conclusion or decision
Come to Jesus (meaning to be forced to understand something)
Coming out (of the closet as well as the darkness)
Coming in from the cold

I then opened my book, My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss, with the intention of just sitting quietly and reading, and not really thinking much about Advent. But, coincidentally, the chapter I read (chapter 15) was more appropriate than I could ever hope for. In this chapter, she’s struggling with the break-up of her relationship and feeling lost in her life. Most people I know have felt this way once or twice in their lives. Honestly, I think of this kind of struggle as the hard work of becoming a whole person.

In those strange, clear days in late spring in Paris, I remember finally realizing with earthshaking certainty this simple yet essential fact: You, and only you determine your own fate. You get only one chance at this life. Do something with your life; open your heart to risk. At some point, enough is enough and you must think of the biggest leap you can fathom and then take it.

I’ve taken this leap. And I’ve watched many dear friends take their own leaps. And the one thing I can say with absolute certainty: The ‘universe’ will always catch you. Always. It always does.

The difficulty comes learning to trust in ourselves enough to believe in what we’re doing. I’m watching a friend going through the process of walking up to the edge of the precipice and then edging back, still unsure. I know that eventually the pain of remaining will cancel out the fear of leaping, and she will close her eyes and hold her breath and step off the edge… and gracefully fall into the open arms of those who love her and support her, and land solidly on her feet, albeit still a bit shaky from the experience.

The interesting, almost coincidental connection between this chapter and its personal relevance and the Advent words I mentioned above are that we can only know we need to make a change once we’ve woken from our slumber of ignoring the problem. And one we’re awake, there is no going back to sleep. Ever. It is only after we leap into the unknown that we realize that we are coming home.

The title of the chapter I read is “It Shook Me Awake.” And the final paragraph reads, “The next day it was warm enough to wear my new red sandals to work. And at the office my Irish friend, Dervla, told me that pigeons — and doves — are the symbol of homecoming.” Now, if that’s not a timely coincidence, then I don’t know what one is.

But how does this relate to Advent and the readings for this week? Well, to me, I have never been one to believe in the strict teachings of the bible I received as a child. Instead, I’ve read it more as a guide with simplified language for complex concepts. When I think of the “coming” of Jesus, what I translate that to for myself is something akin to the majority of the world living in love and kindness. We are not so much waiting for Jesus to return to us, so much as we are tasked with making this world one where his love is ever present.

It is an enormous challenge to ponder, and one that we cannot hesitate to undertake. Because, once we’ve become awake to injustice and hate, we cannot go back to sleep. We must make the leap, jump into the void, do the scariest things, to set the world to right, with the faith that while we running into danger, we are truly coming home.

Advent 1


“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13:37

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I am not a church-going person, unless you count sitting outside watching the birds as church. (I do. I call it the Church of Outside.) And so it’s always a bit of a surprise to them to learn that I do practice certain religious rituals. Primarily, I like to observe Lent and Advent. At least, I do so in my own way. I find it comforting. Like going home, in a way. Home within myself.

This year, the Episcopal Church is taking to social media with a program to bring a kind of daily practice to our media lives. They’re encouraging folks to share an image or post related to the #EpiscopalAdvent word of the day. Today’s word is “awake” and I’ve already posted my image to my Twitter. The word comes from the readings for Advent 1, which ends with the quote I have above.

The word “awake” is rich with metaphorical meaning, and is perfect for sparking some meditative musing. The first thought that comes to my mind is the social justice movement on Twitter and the tag #staywoke, as a response to the building anger about injustices faced by people of color, and particularly black men, in the United States. It was reignited after the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

True justice requires that we all are awakened from the slumber of ignorance and realize that each of us has a role to play in righting any and all injustices. Privilege is easy. It allows those of us who are not directly affected to ignore injustice, as though we were sleeping through life.

The word “awake” also holds special personal meaning for me, on both a philosophical and a physiological level. Physically, my ‘tired monster’ is back again, and I’m sleeping far more than I would like to. While I cannot just wake up from that, it is a timely reminder to check my routine for any possible causes, including making sure I’m taking my vitamins consistently and looking for ways to include more physical exercise.

Philosophically, the word “awake” reminds me to stay present in my encounters. Coincidentally, this image popped up on my Google Plus feed this morning.

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It is a timely reminder to stay present in all my dealings — remain awake, in other words. As we slide right into the height of the Silly Season, we will all be pulled in a zillion directions, and have seemingly never-ending to-do lists (shopping, cooking, cleaning, working, visiting, eating, etc.), and the rush to get it all done will make it seem as though we cannot waste even a second of time to smile at the store clerk or to let a confused driver make a mistake.

Already this past weekend, I began to notice more tension and frustration in the people around me at the store or on the freeway. What would happen if we all stopped running to someplace else, and took a deep breath and just stayed calm and in the moment? Maybe we wouldn’t have the “perfect present” for so-and-so, but maybe we would have a more perfect present.

During the holiday season, I have a personal policy of giving everyone a second benefit of the doubt. I already try to give everyone a first one, but it seems that this time of year, many people need another one. To be honest, by doing this I’m actually being quite selfish, believe it or not. I’m saving myself from getting angry or frustrated by what I choose to believe is merely a momentary lapse in judgment by someone who just cut me off, twice, in traffic headed to the grocery store.

But I am also trying to create the world that I want to live in. By choosing to see their rudeness as simply an outcome of the overall social stresses, and not as a personal failing, I am trying to remember that we are all fallible humans relying on the grace of God. I am choosing to see these people as how they will be, rather than how they appear right now. I am trying remember that God has left us in charge of this world, and that, like the servants who were left in charge of the household in that passage from Mark above, we will be called to account for how we have managed things.

Never Enough Time


On this, the shortest day of the year, it’s worth remembering that even when the days are longer, there’s never enough time to do everything we want to do. Which is an especially important lesson to keep in mind during the Silly Season.

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The funny thing is that we’ve been sold a bill of goods regarding Christmas that was never anything more than a ploy to sell us more things. And even though I know this, I still feel the ridiculous pull to try to do ALL THE THINGS. Sometime in late October, I catch myself thinking about what kinds of cards I want to make from scratch. Then it’s the lists of items to make for friends and family — jelly, jam, cookies, brownies, bread, etc. And don’t forget the idea of endless parties and individual gifts, which I always promise myself I’m going to wrap in the cutest handmade paper, and (this year, I swear) I will mail them on time!

Over the last week or so, I’ve seen several of my friends post comments to the effect that they feel like failures because they can’t get everything done before Christmas — cookies, presents, parties, dinners, cards, and all the other little things we feel like we need to do to make Christmas the way we think it ought to be.  It’s like there’s this big rush to get it all done in time so we can enjoy the 25th. Like there’s some kind of deadline on doing Christmas, and if we can just get to the 25th with the proper number of items checked off, then we’ll have the perfect Christmas.

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Like we can even really enjoy the day after all that planning and worrying and stress. You know that sad, empty feeling you get after all the presents have been opened and the dinner has been eaten and the dishes are done and put away? Yeah, me too. It’s because no matter how wonderful the day actually is, it can never live up to the day we hold in our collective unconscious. The one sold to us by whomever produced the most tear-jerking commercial of the season — usually Folgers, but I think Apple is in the running for the 2013 prize.

It’s no wonder most people rip down their decorations and take down the tree on the 26th. They’ve just run an emotional marathon since Thanksgiving, and all they have to show for it is some ugly sweater and some useless fancy electric knife that will probably break down in the middle of carving the Easter ham.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I love the social aspect of it. And I really do love doing all the things I dream about doing in October. But I just can’t do them all. Heck, I don’t even think I can do some of it these day. Not and pass my classes, write term papers,  and study for finals. It’s just not possible. Or, more accurately, if it IS possible, it takes an unGodly amount of dedication and perseverance. And lack of sleep.

I’m not willing to give up my emotional health on a manufactured version of a very serious and special holiday. I mean, I still WANT to do all the things, but I accept that I just can’t, and instead I will focus my attention on the things that bring me the most joy. And which doesn’t disturb my very fragile sense of peace. And isn’t THAT what Christmas is all about, really? Joy and peace?

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Maybe instead of focusing so much on this relatively recent version of Christmas, we should look further back into the history of the holiday. Instead of rushing around, stressing ourselves out, we think about the early Christmas celebrations. Or, if you want to go even further back, think about the Solstice observances. It’s winter, the days are short, and darkness is close. Maybe instead of forcing so much light and activity, we listen to Nature and what she says we should be doing. Going inside, gathering around the hearth, enjoying a period of rest and renewal.

It is this sense of peace and quiet that I have been trying to cultivate in my reinstatement of Sunday Dinners during Advent. It’s nice to sit around the table and talk with people without loud music or games or lots of drink. It feels like a real connection. Instead of feeling like I’ve added more to my worry pile, it’s as though I’ve spent two hours recharging my batteries.

I still have that urge to make lists and plan surprise gifts. But I’m giving myself permission to spread them out over the coming year instead of trying to get them all done in the next week. Which will not only make this Christmas more peaceful and enjoyable, but will likely have the added benefit of spreading a bit of the Christmas cheer throughout the year.

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Peace to you on this solstice.