Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Light

Although I grew up in a dysfunctional family system, my parents usually managed to make Christmas special. I remember falling asleep to Christmas music from vinyl records playing on our stereo Hi-Fi. Two particular records were played over and over. One had all the famous artists of the day, Rosemary Clooney, Burl Ives, Robert Goulet, Christy Minstrels, and others,  singing songs like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Suzy Snow Flake and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. The other album was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing traditional Christmas songs. 

The music filled the house, softly serenading my brothers and me. My bedroom glowed from the lights on the Christmas tree as the twinkling colors filtered through the small house. My mother would stay up late at night baking cookies and fruit breads. The house was filled with the aroma of Christmas spices. As I drifted off to sleep, all of my senses were soothed with the comfort of home, family, love, and the expectations of Christmas morning.

Almost a hundred years ago Christmas trees and homes were lit with candles. The idea of using electric light was just being born, and it was met with resistance. Who would want a constant source of light? Who would want light that bright? But the protest was short-lived. Before long every house and business was lighted by electricity. Gone was the old way of living, of going to bed early, when darkness prevailed. Gone was the time when long hours of being unproductive encouraged us to be present to the mystery of darkness. 

If one looks up at the night sky, one sees far more darkness than light. Most of the universe is dark, with a few stars and planets dotting the darkness. We humans are born in darkness - the womb is a dark place where we are formed into tiny humans. Darkness is fertile and rich with possibility. Darkness invites us to ponder life, God, and hope. Darkness points the way to light and new life. 

As Christians we celebrate the coming of the light as the birth of Jesus. The mystery of this night is that Christ is born in us. The light of Christ, God’s pure love, works from the inside out. Spiritual transformation is interior work that becomes exterior action. 

When the circumstances of our lives leave us feeling dark and bleak, God searches for a way to fill us with light, to work on us from the inside out, transforming our darkest night into the light of hope. Like Gabriel’s invitation to Mary, to birth the Christ Child, God invites us to let God into our lives. God waits expectantly for us to open our hearts to God’s love. Most often it is in the darkest places of our lives, when we are most vulnerable, that we open our hearts to God. Then, darkness becomes the womb that gives birth to hope. Emmanuel is with us. The Christ child is born anew this night in each and every one of us. 

This is our Christian story, of God active in the world through the birth and life of Jesus, and thus in us, too. Jesus is God’s love manifest in human flesh. God has chosen to work through human beings, to restore order out of chaos, to heal broken places, to soothe sorrow, to be present to despair, to love as God loves. God does not move into our lives and magically fix all the problems. God works through us, at our pace, to bring hope and well being.

In this Christmas season may we know God’s abiding presence of peace and love. May God’s peace and love transcend every challenge we face. May God’s love be birthed anew in us. Like a burning flame reflecting warmth and light into the world may we be a God-given ray of hope, peace, love, and joy to all the world. May our light be the light of Christ. Through this light, may we work together to heal the broken places of this world. And, may the flame of God’s presence sustain you all the days of your life. 

Merry Christmas.






Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mary, strong and sure

Many years ago I received this book, “Meditations on Mary”,  by Kathleen Norris. Norris was a popular author at the time, influencing many of us with her books on life and faith. This book is filled with beautiful photographs of famous painting and sculptures of Mary. In the book, Norris offers meditations on the basic Christian teachings about Mary: as the Virgin, the Annunciation - when the angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her of God’s favor toward her, and the pending birth of Jesus to which Mary responded with beautiful poetic words that have become known as the Magnificat. Norris writes about the Incarnation, of Mary as the one who birthed God into the world in human flesh. The Greek Orthodox tradition calls Mary - Theotokos - God Bearer. Other meditations in the book include thoughts on the Assumption - when Mary ascended into heaven; the presentation of Jesus at the Temple; and thoughts on the Virgin. 

Other traditional descriptions of Mary include:
the greatest of all Christian saints. 
The Virgin Mother 

the daughter of Sts. Joachim and Anne. 

cousin of Elizabeth, aunt of John Baptist. 

Mary initiated the miracle at Cana, telling to Jesus to turn the water into wine. Mary was present at the Crucifixion in Jerusalem, and there she was given into Johns care. 

According to one tradition, she went to Ephesus. Another tradition states that she remained in Jerusalem. The belief that Mary’s body was assumed into  heaven is one of the oldest traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. The feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15. 

The feast of the Immaculate Conception is not a celebration of Gabriel's visit to Mary, rather it is a celebration of when Mary was conceived, and comes nine months before her birthdate, which is Sept. 8. Gabriel's visit to Mary is called the Incarnation, although we tend to think of the incarnation as the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. 

All-holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady are other terms people use to describe Mary.

Mary’s influence has infiltrated India, a nation known for its reverence of women saints.
Like other Hindu goddesses, Mary is viewed as a saint who will fulfill the aspirations of people and answer their prayers. People in India, Christians and non-Christians, pray to Mary for divine assistance when seeking a job, conceiving a child, or alleviating an illness.

But, of all these titles and images, perhaps the most fascinating are the images of the Black Madonna. Famous Black Madonna’s can be found all over the world. Many of them were created between the 12th and 15th centuries. Some newer images have arisen as cultural expressions of Mary from African or African-American people. Some Black Madonnas were created using dark pigment or stone. Some of the Black Madonnas have turned black with age and patina. Some were created black to represent the woman from Song of Song’s a book in the Bible that compares the love between two people with the love of God for humanity. In the Song of Songs the woman is described as “I am black but beautiful.” Some think that the Black Madonnas have a historical link to pagan goddesses of the earth - the rich black soil of the earth transfers into the Madonna as the one who birthed God into the world. An ancient Eastern Orthodox Eucharistic Prayer uses these words:

I am the bread of life, said Our Lord.
From on high I came to earth so all might live in me.
Pure word without flesh I was sent from the Father.
Mary's womb received me like good earth a grain of wheat…
(from http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/blackmdn.html)



One of the primary images of Mary portrayed by the Christian tradition is that of a poor, submissive, passive girl. This image has been used as a model for feminine virtue through the centuries, not a very useful model for real human beings. However, if one really listens to the story in Luke, one hears something quite different from Mary. She is brave and confidently takes on this task asked of her by God. She accepts the role of birthing God into the world, despite a very uncertain future in doing so. She stays with her son, God in the flesh, to the very end, despite the dangers of being at the foot of the cross where she too could have been crucified for treason just because she was there. This Mary is hardly weak, hardly submissive, hardly passive.

Our readings this morning tell the story in reverse order. In place of the Psalm we have the Magnificat. This poetic piece is often sung and is one of the standard offerings in morning and evening prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. In the Gospel of Luke the Magnificat comes after Mary is pregnant, when she travels a distance to see her cousin Elizabeth who is about to give birth to John the Baptist. Mary and Elizabeth represent the miraculous way God breaks  into the world - an old woman, long past her prime is about to give birth to a baby boy, a prophet who will pave the way for Jesus. Mary, a young girl is pregnant too, and she will give birth to God in human flesh. Both women are favored by God - not so much because they live exemplary lives, although they may have. Rather they are favored by God because they are lowly. In a world where human beings honor great leaders - kings and queens or athletes or movie stars, or artists or business people - God works in a different way. God works in unexpected ways and as a result sometimes the world is turned on its head.

God has worked in unexpected ways in and through us, too. A few years ago we had no idea that we would help build a school in Liberia, create an exterior plaza that will be a welcome place of respite for humans and animals alike - not to mention a great social venue as well. We had no idea that we would become immersed in Blessings in a Backpack, feeding hungry kids on the weekends during the school year. We had no concept of a food pantry in the church nor of our ability to feed over 23 families on a monthly basis, And, although we have talked for years about increasing the wheel chair accessibility in the church space, we had no plan and no idea how we would do it. But in the last three years, God has stirred our hearts and inspired our spirits, and we are working on all of these, and more!

As we come to the end of Advent, with Christmas just around the corner, let us give thanks for the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit. For in breaking through into our lives God helps us, leads us, guides us, in doing more than we could ever imagine. With God’s help we are able to make a difference, to impact the world around us, to transform pieces of this broken world and make them whole. For, as we learn from Mary, although nothing is impossible with God, God chooses to work in and through us, to bring forth God’s kingdom, here and now. 







Saturday, December 06, 2014

Awake, Aware, and Wild-eyed

A reflection on Mark 1:1-8 for Advent 2B

The Shoshone are a diverse tribe of indigenous people who inhabited parts of California, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho and Utah. One particular Shoshone tribe lived in  the mountainous  region of what is now southeastern Idaho and northern Utah. A peaceful people, this traveling tribe of hunters and gatherers, found themselves struggling for food and land as European settlers moved into the region. In 1862 one settler discovered a horse missing and accused a Shoshone boy of stealing it. The boy was convicted of the crime and hung. The Shoshone retaliated by killing a couple of the settler’s relatives. Anxiety escalated among the settlers who requested that the US government intervene. Col. Patrick Connor with an army of 200 volunteers from California was hired to intervene. 

Before sunrise on Jan. 29, 1863 Col. Connor and his volunteer army waged an attack on the Shoshone tribe as they slept in the homes near Bear Creek, just a few miles north of Preston, Idaho, which is where my mother was born. The attack was brutal and resulted in the deaths of 450 Shoshone, many of them children. The women were raped, beaten, and killed. The men were tortured and then killed. The hundred or so who survived struggled to rebuild a life.

Ten years later the remaining members of this Shoshone tribe initiated a working relationship with local Mormons. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Mormons had a peaceful relationship with the Shoshone. In response to the request for help Brigham Young sent George Washington Hill, my great grandfather five generations back, to work with them. 

George learned their practices and their language, built mutual trust and respect, and created an English-Shoshone dictionary to help with communication between the Mormons and the Shoshone. When the government wanted the Shoshone to move to the Ft. Hall Indian reservation the Mormons intervened. Some went to the Reservation, while other Shoshone chose to keep their land, although they had to be members of the Mormon church and pay taxes to the US government in order to do so.

I imagine the Shoshone would tell a much different version of this story than my Mormon family genealogy. They would tell a story of white settlers taking over the land, using up all the resources, and marginalizing the indigenous people who had lived on the land for generations. They would tell a story of violence and poverty and degradation. My grandfather is considered a saint by the Mormons, but I don’t think that the Shoshone people feel the same way. 

Conflict between people who are different from one another, whether by skin color, ethnicity, religious beliefs or gender and sexuality, is as old as time. The Bible is filled with stories of genocide and war. Current news reports cover a multitude of stories on violence, of one people killing another simply for being who they are.

We are not immune to it here in Dearborn nor in the metro Detroit region. Tension around race, religion, and human sexuality define us, too.  No doubt in recent years the people of Dearborn, and we at Christ Church, have worked hard to grow in relationship with our sisters and brothers of all colors, religions, and genders. Nonetheless, my clergy colleagues, people of color, upon learning that I live in Dearborn, tell me that to this day they will go out of their way to avoid driving through Dearborn. This is residual reactivity from the days when the phrase “Keep Dearborn Clean” was not about litter or untidy yards, but about persons of color. My very first day here in Dearborn was marked by Terry Jones’s visit to the Islamic Center of America where he intended to burn a Q’ran. Many of you were part of a protest movement against Terry Jones, in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters. Far from perfect, we are making an effort to live our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human being. This is an ongoing process and requires us to be ever mindful and action oriented. 

Our readings from last week, the first Sunday of Advent, called us to stay awake, or in other words to be aware and attentive to how God is acting in the world around us and how God is active in and within us. This week the readings build on that theme and ask us to be aware and to repent. 

Repentance is one of those words that make me cringe, from misuse and abuse. Used as it is intended, repentance is an important word in Christianity. Repentance is an interior process of looking at ourselves as individuals and as a society with a keen eye for the ways in which we are hurting others economically, socially, spiritually, or physically and then doing something to change our behavior. Often the way we hurt others is hidden from our understanding, lost in the complexity of our social and economic institutions and systems. The challenge of determining who should be held accountable for the deaths of young black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice leaves some enraged and others perplexed. Disputes over how justice should be served as a response to these killings bring out strong emotions on all sides. The New York Times runs daily articles and editorials on the “chasm” between races, our legal system, and the difficulty for white Americans to grasp the depth and breadth of institutional racism. There are similar struggles with religion and human sexuality. 

Ultimately we are all subject to the consequences of systemic racism - some of us live in daily fear for our lives, others of us live in denial that racism still exists, some of us are mute because we cannot understand the way racism continues.

Robert B. Moore wrote a popular essay about the subtlety of racism through the use of language. He writes, “An integral part of any culture is its language. Language not only develops in conjunction with a society's historical, economic and political evolution; it also reflects that society's attitudes and thinking.” He asks people to rewrite a paragraph eliminating the 30 uses of racist language in it. Here is a portion of that paragraph:

“Some may…accuse me of trying to blacken the English language, to give it a black eye..… They may denigrate me by accusing me of being black hearted, or having a black outlook on life…which would certainly be a black mark against me….I may become a black sheep, who will be blackballed by being placed on a blacklist in an attempt to blackmail me to retract my words. But attempts to blackjack me will have a Chinaman’s chance of success, for I am not a yellow-bellied Indian giver of words, who will whitewash a black lie…..”

Have you ever thought about how the words we use perpetuate racism or sexism or prejudice of any kind? 

Today’s text from the Gospel of Mark makes reference to Isaiah chapter 40 and Malachi chapter 3. Both of these Old Testament readings ask God to deliver the people from suffering, but with the caveat that the people must first look at themselves and understand their role in causing the suffering. 

In this context repentance means becoming aware of and having the ability to tell the truth about ourselves in order that we can redirect our lives toward God and God’s desire for us. One way we can deepen our awareness is by paying attention to the words we use and whether those words build up others or whether those words in some way disparage others. 

So whenever find yourself beginning to say something like “black-sheep” or“blackballed” or “Indian-giver” stop and think about how those words perpetuate the undercurrent of systemic prejudice in our language and consider what you might say instead. I guarantee you will find the process of considering the words you use to be eye-opening and transformative and grace filled in a kind of John the Baptist wild-eyed way, preparing your heart to open even more to the love of God in Jesus and leading you to an ever deepening and more authentic love of neighbor.




One Degree of Difference

I did this exercise with us a few years ago, but I want to do it again. How many of you have your cell phones on you? If your cell phone ...