Friday, December 30, 2011

Bold Spirits

This week a great many of us are making commitments for the New Year. Why now? It is a time we choose to begin again. Some of us made brand new commitments based in another calendar a few months ago. We can ask: how are we doing with those? We can recommit ourselves to the ones we have yet to fulfill.

Making new commitments also means, for many of us, making room for those commitments to become spiritual habits. It is really easy to never fulfill a commitment to welcoming strangers if we don’t actually make room in our lives to go out and meet strangers and welcome them into our hearts and wherever we live.  Or we might do that once, find it a lot of work, and be distracted and busy in our lives and find ourselves at the end of another year, not even remembering we had made the commitment to welcome strangers in the first place.

Many New Year’s resolutions focus on health and fitness. To fulfill those resolutions, we have to make room in our lives to change how we eat or to take time to exercise. We also set small goals to achieve those larger ones. We find friends who have the same commitments and we encourage each other.

Spiritual commitments becoming spiritual disciplines becoming spiritual habits work the same way. We have to make room for the changes, set small goals to achieve the larger ones, and have friends for courage. What spiritual commitments are you making for 2012? Will you welcome strangers every day? Will you feed more hungry people? Will you visit the sick or imprisoned? How many? How often? How bold will you be in spirit in 2012?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A New Earth

John’s Revelation is a letter about a vision (check out the beginning – the format of a letter is evident). This letter can be read in the now-traditional mode of prophecy of the end of world, but it can also be read in the much older traditional mode of apocalypse, which has much more to do with social and ecological justice right here and now. I read Revelation in the latter manner.

I have those moments. You probably have had one of those moments, too. You may be having it right now. I’m talking about those moments when you just want to scrap everything, trundle it on over to the recycling center and compost heap, and let total transformation get going quickly and right away. Those are the moments when we just can’t wait for a new heaven and a new earth (21:1).

What would we create on that new earth, sustained and transformed by steadfast love? That’s our task for this moment of turning into a new year, for in some way each day we are part of that new creation. (There I go into poetry and mysticism again, yet this is the spiritual life, full of imagining and hoping.) Let our aspirations and dreams for the new year grow into resolutions and promises, into renewed efforts and into wholly new efforts. There is so much we can do, ecologically, economically, educationally, spiritually, communally and in our families. Along the way, we’ll also be renewed and changed, but the focus doesn’t have to be on us for that to happen. What it is that we need to do for a new earth? What real commitments are you ready to make?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Blessing of Reverence

The psalmist gives us a song of astonished reverence, a heart full of verses that tell of one person’s wow and how that one makes sense of the blessing of being. As we travel from one year into the next, let’s take the time to sit for a few minutes with the blessing of reverence.

Reverence is an experience that casts us out of ourselves while we are very much in ourselves. (Reverence does that, shifting us out of logic of binaries - this or that - and into the logic of poetry – this and that and not this and that and some aha altogether.) 

Reverence draws our attention back to living generosity. How then shall we live more generously out of our wonder at the blessings we’ve enjoyed? True reverence has a generous heart.

Reverence invites us into the dance of wonderment and out of isolation. Communities without people familiar with and living with reverence are not real communities, where we hold something wonderful in common, where we honor difference and share wisdom, and where we share the joyful labors of care for one another and for this earth. Reverence takes us from me to we and beyond.

Reverence revives us when we’re feeling dry and worn down, weary and afraid. Wherever we meet reverence  -- under the shelter of trees or in a holy place of worship or through a creative act with others or in some other way – we find restoration and respite, the grace of renewal and the generosity of hope.

As one year ends and another begins, may we recommit ourselves to the habit of reverence, joining the psalmist in our own way, out of our experiences and gifts, contributing what we can to the blessing of being.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

G-d's Employment Office

What is your life’s work? How is it meaningful? The writer of Ecclesiastes offers us the idea that there is work the Holy has given to each of us. No one is unemployed or unemployable in the holy labors, which is a dream in the charter of human rights that we will translate to our every day human communities. Every person has the right to earn a living, no exceptions. Every person has the right to the dignity of a livelihood.

As a whole community we cannot cease working together to create a way that every person has the dignity of a livelihood. As a whole community we also cannot cease working together to create and know how our individual and communal gifts can serve the world’s needs. Serving love’s transforming power is the Holy’s work for all of us, the work in which no one need be un- or underemployed, the work for which not one of us is unemployable. The Holy is calling all of us, wants all of us, to meet this source of happiness in serving love’s transforming power in this world. No exceptions. You’re being called. I’m being called. The person you can’t stand to be around is being called. The person who just disrespected you is being called. The person you hurried past this morning is being called. We’re being called to attending love’s transforming power.

But here’s the tricky bit. Only you can answer how exactly you can serve that transforming power. Only you can decide to do it, find out how to connect with other laborers in that good and fruitful work, and then show up. There’s a time to weep and to laugh, to mourn and to dance, to set down stones and to gather stones for building together (3:4-5). But it is always the time to be in our heart’s true work, that which serves love’s transforming power.

The Holy’s employment office is everywhere. What is your heart’s work? How will you serve love’s transforming power in the new year?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Heri za Kwanzaa!

Heri za Kwanzaa! Happy Kwanzaa!

This post is for intentionally multicultural communities celebrating Kwanzaa. As an intentionally multicultural faith community, the Unitarian Universalist Association encouraged faith leaders to learn more about and honor Kwanzaa this year.

To learn more about Kwanzaa, visit the founder of Kwanzaa’s website 

Kwanzaa is celebrated December 26 through January 1. Kwanzaa invites us into seven pan-African Black Power values. Dr. Maulana Karenga created the first Kwanzaa celebration in 1964. Now, two generations of children have grown up with Kwanzaa and more families choose to celebrate Kwanzaa each year. Intentionally multicultural communities also celebrate Kwanzaa, recognizing both the importance of a holiday honoring pan-African wisdom for everyone and the need to attend to cultivating pride and belonging to those rich sources of wisdom for a part of our community that still faces discrimination daily. 

When celebrating Kwanzaa as intentionally multicultural communities, we pay particular attention to not adding values and culture that are from beyond the African Diaspora, so as not to violate the value of self-determination. The demands of assimilation and loss of culture is both a legacy of slavery and part of the daily struggle today, another of the practices of oppression and injustice Kwanzaa turns us away from. When Unitarian Universalists voted in the late 1960s to give a grant to Dr. Karenga for sharing the wisdom of Kwanzaa, we voted as an intentionally multicultural community to honor and support this principle of self-determination. Today, it might seem less revolutionary than it did in the late 1960s that healthy multicultural communities make room to honor each other’s differences and embody the principle of self-determination for each of the cultural communities that are part of the whole. Still, the learning continues for many of us. I am including links to Dr. Karenga’s website to encourage all of us to honor the wisdom of self-determination.

Celebrants set out a Mkeka (a woven grass mat) and place the Kinara, the Kwanzaa candle holder, upon it. Seven candles are set into the Kinara. Three of these candles are red, three are green. The center candle is black, celebrating the peoples of the African Diaspora. Red symbolizes the people’s struggle and green hope for the people’s future.  A unity cup, harvest crops, corn, and gifts are also placed on the Mkeka around the Kinara.

Each night, families and communities light candles and share stories, gifts, and wisdom that turn us to each of the Nguzo Saba. I have added questions to be asked in intentionally multicultural communities so that all might learn from the Nguzo Saba and honor self-determination, inviting stories and wisdom from members of the community who belong to the African Disapora.

December 26th – Light the black candle. The first principle is Umoja (Unity) in family, community, nation and race.

Questions for the community: Why is Umoja so important? What current conditions and what history make Umoja so necessary today? How is healthy multicultural community stronger because of Umoja?

December 27th – Light the black candle and the first red candle, symbolizing the people and the people’s struggle. The second principle is Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) in defining and naming ourselves, creating and speaking for ourselves.

Questions for the community: Why is Kujichagulia so important? What history and current conditions make Kujichagulia a value for every day? How do healthy multicultural communities embody Kujichagulia?

December 28th – Light the black candle and two red candles, symbolizing the people and the people’s struggle. The third principle is Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), growing and holding community together, solving our brothers’ and sisters’ problems together.

Questions for the community: Why is Ujima so important? What current conditions and history make Ujima still a struggle for today? How can healthy multicultural communities practice Ujima?

December 29th – Light the black candle and all three red candles, symbolizing the people and the people’s struggle. The fourth principle is Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), building and maintaining own stores, shops, and other businesses and for the the pan-African community to profit from them together.

Questions for the community: Why is Ujamaa so important? What history and current conditions make Ujamaa so important? Where do you and your family spend its money and work? How can healthy multicultural communities support a healthy economy for African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and African immigrants?

December 30th – Light the black candle, all three red candles, and the first green candle, symbolizing the people, the people’s struggle, and the people’s hopes. The fifth principle is Nia (Purpose), creating as our calling the building and development of the community in order to restore peoples of the African Diaspora to traditional greatness.

Questions for the community: Why is Nia so important? What current experiences, barriers, and attitudes challenge and distract from Nia? Why does Nia contribute to hope for the future? How do healthy multicultural communities support and live in solidarity with Nia?

December 31st – Light the black candle, all three red candles, and two green candles, symbolizing the people, the people’s struggle, and the people’s hopes. The sixth principle is Kuumba (Creativity), where we do as much as possible in every way we can to leave the community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.

Questions for the community: Why is Kuumba so important? What conditions, attitudes, barriers, and experiences work against Kuumba? Why does Kuumba contribute to hope for the future? How do healthy multicultural communities live creatively in solidarity and support with Kuumba?

January 1st – Light the black candle, all three red candles, and all three green candles, symbolizing the people, the people’s struggle, and the people’s hopes. The seventh principle is Imani (Faith), believing with all our hearts in our people, parents, teachers, leaders, and righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Questions for the community: Why is Imani so important? What attitudes, barriers, experiences and conditions work against Imani? Why does Imani contribute to hope for the future? How do healthy multicultural communities live in solidarity and support of Imani? Where are all our hearts?

Heri za Kwanzaa! Happy Kwanzaa!

May you have a wonderful Kwanzaa, whether for the first time or as a family tradition! May  our healthy multicultural faith communities honor the Nguzo Saba and grow stronger in our diverse wisdom and gifts! 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gift of Steadfast Love

The Christmas story is a story of the great generosity of sticking on through troubles and trials. The Christmas story is a story about the gift of steadfast love.

There’s Joseph who sticks by Mary and who calls this child wonderful and his. He is a model for adoptive parents everywhere, even though he probably faced down plenty of unkind remarks for going ahead and marrying this teenage out of wedlock mom. Although Joseph is portrayed as an older man, I usually think of him as a very young one, one acquainted with faithful risk in a time of oppression, one worried about what his friends have to say, and one with such reverence for wonder that he could risk everything in love.

There’s Mary who accepts the good news of bearing a child in a socially suspicious way, who not surprisingly flees for refuge and consultation to her cousin similarly blessed, who bears up and bears on to give birth to a child who is a gift of steadfast love. John’s gospel calls Jesus the Word, which makes Mary an evangelist. What is true evangelism? Let’s remember Mary, serving how she could, with humility and with wonder, to bear up in and give birth to steadfast love.

Then we’re told of these others – people who are on the edges, suspicious people like the shepherds, who in ancient days survived in part by the occasional highway robbery. And yet they’re not outside the possibility of also being a gift themselves, directly to Mary, who ponders what they say and finds comfort and hope. In that risky gift, the shepherds are bearing steadfast love.

We’re told about three wise teachers from different lands, people who may have been revered in other places, but so little respected when they arrived to this birth that the state tried to turn them into tools for oppression. Their resistance was bearing up and bearing on in steadfast love.

There’s the innkeeper too, who’s at wit’s end with the requirements forced by a military occupation, yet who finds room, who makes a way for holy hospitality when no way could be found. The innkeeper bore a gift of steadfast love, in the whirl of trouble and chaos.

May we learn from these gifts and bear our own in steadfast love, taking faithful risks for bold compassion and courageous love. May we find good news amid troubles, and serve love with humility and wonder, in every time and season. May we never think we’re too small and insignificant or have done too many bad and terrible things to turn and be bearers of goodness in steadfast love. When evil tries to use us, may we resist and find another way to create freedom rather than oppression, to bear steadfast love. When all ways seem closed, when oppression weighs heavily upon us, when there is nothing it seems we can do, may steadfast love spark a creative possibility within us so that we may make the way of love appear, opening into hopeful wonder.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Counting on Wonderment

What do you appreciate, treasure, and count? Do you count chickens? Presents?  The naughty? The nice? Sleights and evil deeds done to you? The number of lights your neighbor has strung up? The hungry hours? Who’s deserving and who’s not? The Christmas story Luke brings us takes us directly to what we treasure, what we count, how we live and the attitudes we bring to bear. What counts? Who counts? What are you counting?

Caesar’s census is about counting taxes. In the United States, the census is about voting and enfranchisement, equitable funding for multicultural education and for distributing resources to the poor and struggling areas of the country. Caesar’s census isn’t really about counting people in our amazing diversity and finding ways to celebrate that. The census Luke describes is about extracting money from a subjugated people – real taxes, not the thing we call taxes today that buy needed services and support the infrastructures of nation and its democracy. Instead, there’s a mostly one-way flow of wealth, and it is out, to Rome, oppressing and hurting the people of Judea and Galilee.

Mary, the way Luke tells it, treasures and ponders a great deal. Pondering is just another way to say we're counting, telling, attending, staring at, or thinking about something. Luke is emphasizing the counting side of Mary's thinking, but using this phrase "treasuring and pondering". She's in her counting house, but it isn't money Mary is counting out. Mary isn't counting what Caesar is busy counting. In the middle of all the struggles of imperial power, in the middle of oppressive laws and people breaking expectations, Mary is treasuring and pondering wonderment and hope, resilience and renewal. She ponders what the angel tells her. She ponders what the shepherds relate. She treasures and ponders. Mary’s spiritual habit is wonderment. She is full of the wonders and blessings that tumble around her and that she has a part in bearing. She is full of wonder and the treasures of blessings. Mary is counting out hope in the middle of a season of despair, counting on wonderment in the middle of a reign of injustice, delivering what such counting brings into the world - steadfast love.

As an adult, Jesus will teach, “where your heart is, thereyour treasure shall also be.” (Matt. 6:21) I wonder if he learned that lesson in part from Mary, out of her season of counting, of treasuring and wondering.  

What are our hearts treasuring this season, where injustice still stalks and hurts? Are we ready to join Mary in bearing, in our own disparate and often small ways, steadfast love? Are we counting on wonderment?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sing A New Song

Can there be a season, something we return to repeatedly in our lives, where we are to sing a new song? Pause for a moment in how funny that is, to have a ritual of creating something new.  We’re supposed to be startled, not just nod our heads sagely, like we’ve seen and done and felt everything there is, like we’ve stored away all the wisdom of the world in our heads and practiced every good deed it is possible for a heart to do. Join me in the wonderment and surprise that salvation from day to day, an every day miracle, is offering a new song.

The psalmist’s song invites us into the spiritual habit of surprised wonder, of delighted joy in the blessings that are in every day. Today is a miracle, as was yesterday, as will be tomorrow, this salvation from day to day. What a blessing it is to breathe, to sing, to give, to be in this world! Strength and beauty are in this sanctuary, right here alongside trouble and weariness, sickness and fear. Marvelous works are among all the peoples of the world, right here alongside our less than marvelous works, the petty jealousies, the flaring tempers, the ungracious edging out of our neighbor.  Sing a new song that rejoices in the surprising goodness from day to day.

I know I need the seasonal return to the surprise of daily miracles, to attuning myself to the goodness and blessings that are just as much part and parcel of this life as the grief, exile, and trials.  Let me exult with the fields, since I’m working in them. Let me rest under the trees and sing with them for joy.  We can create so much trouble, live in so much grief. Every now and then we really need this seasonal return to the wonder of this new day, this new song we can create and join in singing. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Advent - Bearing Love in Difficult Times

The season of Advent is one of exile and difficulty in the religious Christmas story. Many people are struggling with feeling overwhelmed, turned off by the expectations and commitments they feel and not having enough, meeting our own exile and separation from each other, from reverence, and from ourselves. How do we reach into the future for some good cheer? How shall we endure our experiences of exile, being worn out, the dread of disappointing the people we love, the fear of being alone, the present grief for loved ones who have died or around divorce, incarceration, and illness?

I know well that sense of being dried and broken bones in the valley of sorrow and frustration. I also know there are real things we can choose each and every day to claim joy. Here are six ways to turn back out of exile and into belonging, some ways to trust and claim the future Christmas and the arrival of hope.

Find a good story to share. News bureaus are especially careful during the Christmas season to share stories of abundant joy and people risking faithfully to live in bold compassion and care. Find a story each day and share it. I like to make sure I share that story with at least three people, because I will return to the heart of that story’s joy three needful times and can give that joy to others.

Be the good news story to share. Seek opportunities to be those unreported good news stories. This isn’t about serving for public recognition, but about attuning ourselves to the many ways we can be generous and bold in compassion. Listen to another person who is distraught. Help someone with a heavy burden. Bring a pile of books and handwritten holiday cards over to the correctional facility or hospital. The gift of bringing unexpected joy is also a gift to our selves: we always feel better when we’ve truly affected someone is a good way, lifting all of us together.

Commit to a volunteer program in need for the next 12 months.  Researching and deciding how you can help is a liberating decision, and because it is liberating, it is also scary. We are so used to limited choices and making decisions based on limited time offers, the gift of a large amount of time and a huge number of choices can make us both terrified and giddy at the same time. But once we’ve figured out how and where we can help and connected with the program or agency to volunteer with, we have present both the anticipatory joy of being useful to creating goodness, and returning to the love and joy of  why we’re working so hard to make a good holiday season for our families and communities.

Visit a neighboring faith. Cultivating neighborliness is the way out of exile. One way to cultivate neighborliness is to get to know those strange to us. What neighboring faith group do you know the least well? Who is the practice of loving our neighbor calling you to meet? Go visit the mosque, synagogue, gurdwara, temple, sangha, or church. Meet the religious leadership of that community. Ask how you can be a better neighbor in this coming year. Make the commitment.

Begin reconciling with someone you’ve been separated from. Ending exile happens in many ways. We might have amends to make. We might have to forgive. We might have some difficult conversations and heart wrestling ahead. But the freedom of reconciliation is freedom from not being consumed by bitterness and anger, shame or grief and the freedom to be more loving and compassion. The relationship won’t likely ever be the same as it was; it might just be a freeing civility. But it could also become really wonderful. Neither is possible if we’re not willing to start the end of exile.

Send a joy note to a friend or family member. Take a cup of coffee or cocoa or tea and the time to write down what you admire about someone. Seal it up and send out the note. The recipient will treasure it. You’ll feel heartened and ready to live more boldly in love and compassion yourself.

Living boldly into the practices of love at this time of year, we can renew our flagging spirits and turn again to loving both the Holy and ourselves and bear glad tidings in loving strangers, enemies, neighbors, family, and friends. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Vices and Virtues

Spiritual growth occurs when we develop spiritual habits that shape us and help us bear the fruits that our faith traditions teach are the way (of oneness, of love, of obedience, of service, of justice, of mercy, of wisdom). Virtues are names for attitudes of the heart that our faith holds good. Vices are names for attitudes of the heart that take us away from that good. A person is no more reducible to a virtue than a vice and, if we’re honest, most of us have both virtues and vices that are easy for us to slip into, and both vices and virtues which we struggle to imagine, let alone live.

What are vices are easy for you? What do you slip into that draws you away from goodness? Some of my easy attitudes of turning away from goodness are bitterness, cynicism, anger and defensiveness.  The ease at which I slip into these vices startles me at times. But knowing them, if you look at my daily prayer blog, you’ll see these vices show up regularly, sometimes not directly named, but answered with the virtues I’m seeking to cultivate as habits of my heart. The vices that are easiest for us are the attitudes we’re seeking not to eradicate, but to shift, to reclaim the energy consumed by these attitudes and free it for supporting other ways of being.

What virtues are easy for you? You have some, even if you are unaccustomed to naming them. Every one has virtues that are easy for them. I’ve met people convinced they’re terrible people and yet they still had ease with certain virtues. Some were incredibly generous, some trusting, some deeply caring, some could find and name the goodness in others. What virtues are easy for you? These are the spiritual habits we maintain and return to, the habits that will strengthen and nourish the other virtues we will work on developing over our lives.

Mercifully, if a vice is difficult to imagine, we can set focusing on that until later, as part of cultivating the practice of empathy and compassion. When we slip into contemplating vices beyond our experience and imagination, we’re either engaged in spiritual procrastination or a kind of voyeurism. Most of us have many more vices yet to work with that we don’t need to yet focus on vices we’d struggle to imagine. Flying over to challenging vices is a seduction taking us away from grappling with our own real issues.

What virtues challenge you? Everyone has some of these, even people who’ve been devoted to spiritual practice for decades and decades. You might not know the virtues that some people are challenged by from their outward appearance, but, like you, there will be some. If you’re wondering what these could be, turn back to your easiest vices. Your challenging virtues are probably related. Bitterness challenges me in generosity of spirit and forgiveness. Cynicism challenges me in hopefulness and wonderment. Anger challenges me in open-heartedness and compassion. Defensiveness challenges me in faithful risk, failing, not knowing, and humility.  Knowing our easy vices points us to our challenging virtues, but also the places of most fruitful spiritual growth.

Before making your spiritual commitments for the next year, take the time to review and name your easy vices and virtues and then what virtues you need to attend in growing most. Select spiritual practices then that will enlarge your spirit and open new spiritual habits of worthy virtue.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Virtues, Practices, and Habits

This is a time of year when many of us are considering new promises based on how this past year has gone and how we would like the next year to be. I hope you’ll also think about your spiritual self, what opportunities for growth you’re facing (hint: they’re probably areas you don’t want to address or prefer to avoid), and what practices can be part of your transformation. There are five parts to planning how to go from having an idea of a virtue to cultivate to actually cultivating that habit of the heart successfully.

One: How are you being called to grow spiritually? (Go ahead, write this down.)

When I strengthen a particular spiritual discipline or take on a new spiritual practice, it is usually because I’m working on making that discipline or practice into a habitual state of being. This slow developmental change is sometimes hard work, but it bears both real results and blessings over the long haul. I’m a considerably happier person as a result of pursuing the practices of gratitude, trust, forgiveness, and generosity. I laugh more easily. I still make mistakes.  I still can be disappointed. I still have fears, hurt others, and am hurt by others. But those four practices pursued have changed me as I’ve grown accustomed to living in their blessings. I'd also say I'm a better person because I've pursued these habits, a person living what I believe more faithfully.

Two: What spiritual practices will support the spiritual habits you need? (Yes, write them down.)

How does the change from practice to habit happen? It is a lot like the way we learn anything, from writing to riding bikes and tying shoelaces. We fumble, fall, make mistakes,  and struggle and then, right about the point of giving up because this is just so difficult, there’s a moment where we glimpse an easier time, or things start to fall in place, our muscles become used to the actions we’re asking, our minds open a new door.

Three: What spiritual skills do you need to learn? If you’re taking up meditation to practice attentiveness to the moment, you’re needing to learn focusing your attention over longer and longer periods. How will you start? Break down the skills you’re pursuing into manageable goals. If you’re struggling to imagine how to do that, check in with a spiritual guide.

Some folks say it takes about three weeks to form a new habit. Maybe I’m just stubborn, but I find I need over a year of a spiritual practice to make it really a habit. I need to meet that practice in differing seasons, day after day, hour after hour, and really work with it. For this reason, I encourage folks setting out in a spiritual practice to commit for 14 months. If a day goes by without the practice, just get back on to the work. If a week elapses, begin the commitment again.

Four: Schedule time to practice every day for 14 months from your named day one.  Stick to the schedule. As the practice becomes habitual, you’ll find yourself engaging the practice in addition to your scheduled times. That’s good news, but it doesn’t take you away from the scheduled practice.

I appreciate my spiritual partners who accompany me on my journey, hold me accountable to my commitments, and encourage me along the way. Without them, I don’t develop new spiritual habits. If you’re interested in developing spiritual habits, I recommend find a spiritual partner or two who can accompany, encourage, and hold you accountable.

Five: Find a spiritual partner. Share the virtues you want to make habits, the spiritual practices that will help you, and your commitments. If you don’t have a mutual spiritual friendship, then pay someone, like a spiritual director or guide. But you need someone to be with you on this journey; spiritual companionship is itself a virtue and a discipline/

Virtues are those habits of heart that we call good. The way we cultivate virtue in ourselves and in our world is in learning how to inhabit them, how to live into them, first by aspirational promise, then through practice, and, eventually, as a habit. Spiritual practices, pursued regularly, change us by becoming habits of who we are. In difficult times, when we’re challenged, when we’re stretched or constrained, the spiritual habit shows most keenly. If I have a habit of being grateful, I keep practicing gratitude even in the middle of all kinds of trouble. These practices change us and equip us to live faithfully by making new habits of the heart.

Here I Am

Familiarity can lead us into a comfortable half-attentive state. We know a particular story so well, we can tell it ourselves, finishing the words our friend is speaking before they are finished. We have been through the routine of turning off the stove and turning out the lights, we cannot really remember if we did those things and get back up from bed to check again. We find comfort in the predictable, and can grow angry and unsettled when disrupted, when we are surprised into full attention again. How familiar and inattentive are we on an adventure?

This week’s central Advent reading, Luke 1:26-38, is among the most familiar of the Advent stories, retold in numberless paintings and sculptures, songs, poems, and homilies. An angel appears and announces to the virgin Mary that she’s going to have a child named Jesus who will be given the throne of his ancestor David. The shock and surprise and challenges of the story can be lost while Mary is launched on her life filled with faithful risk and holy adventure.

Part of being ready to serve the holy is being awake to the adventure of that service. Mary is awake, which means she’s also troubled by what she’s told. Bearing a child of David’s house isn’t the surprise – she’s due to marry Joseph, who’s from that family. Bearing a child right now is the surprise, and it will bring hardship beyond childbirth. How are unwed mothers treated in your community? Surrounded by joy? Greeted with glad tidings and open hearts? How are the children received?

Angelic visitations are not sweet moments of comfort in the Bible. Angelic visitations only happen when someone is about to live into something really wonderful that is also really scary and difficult. If you like a simple, peaceful and predictable life, the last thing you want is an angelic visit. But if you’re already struggling, like Hagar, whose angelic visit happens in Genesis 16:7, or like Mary in this week’s passage, the invitation to love’s great adventure is both troubling and thrilling. We’re ready to be of service to the good in the midst of familiar grinding iniquity.

Being ready to live in the adventure of serving bold compassion and courageous love means living in faithful risk, and that is scary and unpredictable other than to predict challenges and probable suffering along the way. Like Mary, if we’re to serve faithfully, we can’t first ask how to manage the risks we’re facing on the adventure that’s been announced. We might be wondering that, pondering those concerns in our heart, but we also, like Mary, have to find a way to focus on the goodness in the adventure. We have to be really ready to say, “Here I am.”

Yet Mary’s story grants us another mercy. Before she says, “Yes, Here I am,” she asks, “Say what? Surely not yet!” When the time comes for us to serve abiding love through faithful risk, through adventures perilous and trials predicted but unknown, we too can have our “say what? Surely not yet!” moments as we reawaken to “Here I am.”

Here we are. Perhaps we are unprepared, half-awake, not ready, our attention turned to getting and giving acceptable gifts for friends and family, our attention focused on how we are going to survive today. Here we are, and here is the holy, inviting us, too, onto the great adventure of serving goodness with bold compassion and courageous love. May we have the courage of Mary to have our “Wait! Not Yet!” transformed whole heartedly and joyfully to “Here I am.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Blessings of Darkness & Light

When you describe what is evil, what images do you use? When you describe what is good what images do you use?

This Sunday’s Advent Gospel passage bears particular grief in the middle of this season, wrapped in the poetic but polarized creation story that begins John’s testimony. John sets light and dark opposite of each other as moral opponents; for John, darkness is a symbol of evil. This creation of light apart from darkness in John then, is not the creation in Genesis 1:1-5, where the first cycle of day and night is good. If humanity had not gone on to apply John’s symbol to creating literal laws justifying racism and other kinds of oppression on lightness and darkness, and if a great deal of evil had not been done in the name of defeating darkness, then we would have a beautiful creation story, and a different telling of John the Baptist than Mark offered us last week. But there has in fact been tremendous evil done in applying darkness as evidence of iniquity, and so that brings us back to the exile that begins Advent and winds its way right through the whole season of waiting, hoping, and wondering.

When we turn in this Advent season, waiting, hoping, and wondering, when we turn back toward Steadfast Love, we have another chance to draw forth goodness and turn back iniquity. We can embrace the blessings of darkness as we embrace the blessings of life, returning to the first creation story, remembering day and night are good.

What are the blessings of darkness? What are the blessings of light? How are both holy and whole, belonging to Steadfast Love? How shall we light into those blessings with thanksgiving and joy?

Turning toward and bearing on with Steadfast Love means, in part, ending iniquity done in the name of goodness. John was not talking about skin color. John was not talking about races. But we have inherited the weight of history, and people today, who do apply lightness and darkness as moral categories marked in our melanin.

This week, we’re turning in wonder, realizing how easy it is to fall into a negative way of being when times are tough, how easy it is to cast aspersions, to set off responsibility as not ours, to live in exile from every blessing even while we are gifted with and surrounded by many blessings.

John the Baptist and John the Evangelist are singing a song to the people of returning to steadfast love.

 John the Baptist is meeting the sincerely repentant by the river for a symbolic washing away of those easy missing of the mark, those sins so often made with good intentions, those ways of being we can be remarkably unaware of us until after we’ve caused or contributed to great suffering. 

John the Evangelist is inviting us to welcome in this presence of steadfast love, this presence that vivifies and heals.

In this turning this week, let us recall then, with steadfast love, the blessings of every person, the blessings of darkness, the blessings of light, and the blessings of being able to turn again and again in love with thanksgiving and bearing true joy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ceaseless Joy

How do you hold your faith in one sentence? One-sentence summaries of faith are not formulae that reduce how we live faithfully to a few simple instructions to assemble a life. These formulae are often very challenging in living out. But the rendering of a way of faithing into one sentence equips us with a meditation focus and with a heart guide to easily and regularly reference. There are several simple formulae throughout the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures that form the Bible that recall us to living faithfully. One is "Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and all your strength." (Deut. 6:5) Another is “Love the Lord your God and yourneighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) Another is “Live humbly with the Holy, do mercifuljustice, and love your neighbor as yourself" (Micah 6:8)

Paul, writing to the community in the capital of Macedonia gives us another simple formula to remember, particularly in times of resistance and adversity. He writes. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thessalonians 5:16). These might seem like words to a people whose lives are easy, where everyone in the community agrees with them and supports one another, and where there is neither adversity nor iniquity. But the Thessalonians have been having a rough go of it. All of Paul’s uncontested letters are occasional, meaning there is a difficulty for the faith community that Paul is addressing. He’s not writing  a systematic theology, but a practical one, commenting and encouraging around particular challenges.

Like that long ago community, I can too readily fall into a negative way of being when times are tough. I can lose track of what’s good and live in the shadow of trouble, when that trouble might indeed be only part of my life. Yet joy abounds, blessings are present, and I could be celebrating what is good. Doing so becomes a spiritual discipline, a way of continually turning away from permitting iniquity and trouble to control my spirit, and turning toward the goodness and graciousness that is present in holding my spirit and heart together. It isn’t that rejoicing always will mean evil and trials will disappear, but that we need not be ruled by evil in how we live.

For a long, long, long time I defined myself in great part by evil I had endured. It was a bitter way of being. Gradually, over time, I came to understand two truths. The first truth was that by living in bitterness, iniquity was still running my heart and winning. The second truth was that there really was a lot of wonder, grace, and cause of celebration that I was missing by staying stuck in the mire of bitterness. I wasn't being faithful in attending to the goodness present and I was permitting the folks who injured me control my life.

Rejoicing and thanksgiving go together and both are forms of prayer. (Remember the basic prayers: Yes, No, Please, Thanks, When, Why, How, and Wow). When we pray ceaselessly attending to rejoicing and giving thanks it is very difficult to repay evil for evil. Rejoicing and thanksgiving ceaselessly strengthen us, keep us out of being mired in bitterness, and help us be present to others with a full heart ready for compassion, generosity, and steadfast love. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Joy for the Humble

Do you count yourself among the humbled, the humiliated, the defeated, the broken-hearted? What’s your experience with humiliation? How do you feel when you’ve been humiliated? When you’ve humiliated someone else?

The experience of humiliation is something I try to avoid, and yet, try and I might, I will, in all likelihood, experience humiliation again. I may have sought out humiliation by putting myself above others in a hurtful way. I may simply be dished a plate of humiliation from another’s need to hurt and make me look and feel less than their own selves. I may have failed spectacularly, which is so very often in an ordinary way. I may be humiliated to diminish another’s sense of loss and failure. Humiliation may be something I try to avoid, but it isn’t uncommon either from my own efforts or from the lashing out of others.

What is called justice is often has a degree of humiliation in it, humbling us in painful ways. Because we have become so used to humiliation as part of what is called justice, I use the phrase “merciful justice” all the time, to turn my own heart away from the humiliations and cruelties that bitterness might want, to stay awake to how compassion calls us in all we do, including creating justice.

What is called character building often has a degree of humiliation in it, trying to cultivate toughness of spirit and conformity to a culture that is fearful of both difference and compassion. Hazing and bullying both are regular and often ritualized practices of humiliation, and they create terrible violence, resulting often enough in permanent injuries, murder, and suicide.

In Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11, the prophet is speaking to a people who have experienced long humiliation, two and a half generations, a life time of humiliation. Isaiah speaks to people who’ve become accustomed to being treated as less than fully human, to people in bondage. The prophet recalls the people to the promises of Jubilee (Leviticus25:10), when those who’ve lost their standing as citizens, as people who can make their own living, as householders and producers, are restored. After not being treated as fully human, after exile from being wholly part of the community, restoration is truly a cause of joy. After your own humiliations, how was it when you were feeling part of the whole again? If you haven’t yet had that experience, can you imagine how good that will feel?

The United NationsDeclaration of Human Rights and the subsequent dialogues, conventions, and efforts around ensuring those rights for all peoples, including, most recently, peoples living with disabilities, indigenous peoples, transgender, bisexual,lesbian, and gay people, children, and women, are efforts at bringing joy to those often humiliated and desolated. Human rights practices are practices of steadfast love, reconciliation, and generosity, practices that liberate the captives and bind up the wounded and bear comfort to those that mourn. Human rights practices are ways for us to weave back together a present worthy of dreaming and a future where the earth may thrive.

It takes both courage and steadfast love to not turn and humiliate someone else when we’ve suffered humiliation. It takes courage and steadfast love to instead reconcile, to help others, to rebuild the desolated cities and restore desolated hearts.

This week, how will you seek restoration? How will you free the captives, bind up the wounded, and comfort those who mourn? What Jubilees need proclaiming and then living?