Pastor Kaye is taking the week off, but if you are interested in the past two sermons, please click on these links:
Have a very Happy New Year!
The journey of our lives is a continuing cycle of ups and downs, comfortable straight roads and unexpected, crazy turns, times of darkness and despair and times of light and joy. Metaphorically, the journey through Advent, is the same cycle. It gets dark before 5 p.m. and the days will continue to get shorter until the Winter Solstice on December 21, after which daylight hours will begin to get longer again. Jesus’ birth day (which we really don’t know) was deliberately placed on December 25, which, in ancient times, was the last day of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the winter solstice and the “Day of the Unconquerable Sun”. Symbolically, the birth of Jesus brings light (enlightenment, spiritual knowledge of God) to the world.
Metaphorically we have the promise of a brighter day. We have hope for the future. But in the dark days it is hard to feel that. And there seem to be plenty of dark days right now. What do we do with the darkness, the tragedies, the struggles, the unexpected difficult bends in the road?
(To listen to the full audio version of this sermon, click here.)
James Conlon, author of “The Sacred Impulse” writes, “Our spiritual journey is as much an embracing of “endarkenment” as enlightenment. It is a journey into silence, a context in which to face our fears, to embrace the cosmic shadow as well our own shadow, to discover a home for our pain, and to realize that our pain is a teacher. Our goal is not to escape life, but to embrace it, to find a home for it in our journey and to allow it to be our teacher.”
The older I get, the more I realize that the true journey of our lives isn’t about anything outside of us. In fact, our outside journey is merely a container for our inside journey. Our outside journey teaches us, or not. It makes us more compassionate, or not. It helps us learn to love better, or not. It deepens our connection with the Divine, or not.
Our spiritual journey is not about escaping life by living in denial, or running away from problems, or expecting God to look like a magic genie and fix everything. On the contrary, the spiritual journey is about embracing all of life and allowing it to teach us. We have to embrace the times of “endarkenment,” as well as the times of enlightenment. We need to be willing to take the bends in the road, the turns in our lives and learn from them.
Someone once said, “The bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you refuse to take the turn.”
Harold Kushner tells the story of an American tourist who found himself in India on the day of a pilgrimage to the top of a sacred mountain. Thousands of people would climb the steep path to the mountaintop. The tourist, who had been jogging and doing vigorous exercise and thought he was in good shape, decided to join in and share the experience. After twenty minutes, he was out of breath and could hardly climb another step, while women carrying babies, and frail old men with canes, move easily past him. “I don’t understand it,” he said to an Indian companion. “How can those people do it when I can’t?” His friend answered, “It is because you have the typical American habit of seeing everything as a test. You see the mountain as your enemy and you set out to defeat it. So, naturally, the mountain fights back and it is stronger than you are. We do not see the mountain as our enemy to be conquered. The purpose of our climb is to become one with the mountain and so it lifts us up and carries us along.”
Life is full of examples of how people became one with the adversity in their lives, embraced it and found a home for it in their journey. Here are two I read about just last week:
Wherever you are in your journey, whether heading up the mountain or down, whether on a straight, comfortable path, mid-turn, or facing what looks like a looming bend in the road, know that you are not alone. Center yourself and draw near to the divine. Know that your outside journey is a vehicle for growing deeper spiritually. What God offers is spiritual water and food to nourish us on the journey, to help us face and incorporate the times of endarkenment, to cherish and rest during times of enlightenment, to grow spiritually each step along the way. And perhaps even more than that, God offers hope that no matter how severe the bend in the road, new beautiful things will grow again in our lives and one day we will journey again in joy and peace.
In Isaiah 55, God says, “Seek me while I may still be found, call upon me while I am near!” Yes, God is always with us, the Spirit and Energy of Love resides in us at all times. But perhaps the vibration of that love is higher this time of year. I feel a palpable nearness of the Divine. I encourage all of you to find a worship service to experience on Christmas Eve, that night, more than any other I’ve ever experienced, is an especially thin place, where the boundaries between us and the spiritual become blurred. Emmanuel, God-with-us, draws near.
The angel said to Mary, “Rejoice, highly favored one… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you – hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God.”
Mary said, “I am the servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say.” (Luke 1:28b, 35, 38a)
I don’t care what the church has told us for centuries about how happy Mary was to obediently do God’s will to have a celestial child. First, I don’t believe it was possible for her to be joyously, jump-up-and-down-happy, with no doubts or fears. Why on earth would she rejoice about being a teenager, pregnant out-of-wedlock (even if it is God’s child) in an ancient society that stoned people in this situation? Second, I don’t like the concept of obedience (it smacks too much of one having “power over” another), so I’m going with: she reluctantly accepts what is being asked of her.
The art of acceptance is a life lesson we can all draw from this story. Life does not always take the turns we want or expect it to take. Sometimes difficult, even tragic events occur in our lives. The question is: how do we react?
(Check out the full audio version of this sermon.)
I’m sure you all remember Michael J. Fox, a great actor with a promising career right up until an early onset of Parkinson’s Disease rendered him unable to keep acting. He had this profound thing to say about acceptance: “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.”
What does acceptance mean? Well, it does not mean giving up. Acceptance means not dwelling in the negative emotions and attitudes that can dominate our minds when we don’t like the situation we’re in. Acceptance means being able to say, “Okay, this is what it is, now what?” Acceptance brings us freedom from the weight of disappointment, frustration, anger, guilt, pain, grief and any other negative place you may get stuck in. Acceptance also gives us the ability to move forward. Instead of getting stuck in those unhealthy emotions, we have the ability to see new options, new possibilities and to approach life from a more peaceful, centered, balanced place.
When we relax into the twists and turns of life and trust that we’ll be ok, we have a much greater chance of being happy in the midst of it all. Cats are a great example. If you’ve ever had a cat, you know that they are determined to go wherever it is they want to go. But if someone blocks their way they will simply take the opportunity to sit back, lick their paws and preen themselves.
Sometimes we get stressed over relatively little things that we have no control over, when acceptance would go a long ways in the happiness and lower blood pressure departments. Perhaps you’re panicking because you haven’t started your Christmas cards yet. Really… so what? I have one extremely creative friend who sent me a Valentine’s card one year that looked suspiciously like a Christmas card. Know what? I really didn’t care. I was just happy to have been thought of, and I could probably even appreciate it more since I didn’t get any other Valentine’s cards! Acceptance allows us to find new possibilities.
And then there are the bigger things that perhaps we need help accepting. These things may take more time, work and maybe even some help. I know the holidays are especially hard when you are facing things like not having the kids home for the first time ever, or you’ve had a significant loss recently, or you’re estranged from your family. It’s absolutely normal to feel sad about these situations, and it is good to recognize and accept your sadness. It is also okay to move into some acceptance of the situation. It’s okay to find different people to share the holidays with, to develop different traditions and to smile, laugh and enjoy yourself without guilt.
There is so much more to all of this, but I will leave it here for now. May you find peace and acceptance of yourself and your life this Christmas time.
Evelyn Underhill once said, “A lot of the road to heaven has to be taken at thirty miles an hour.” Frankly, I think the road to Christmas should also be taken at 30 miles an hour. Personally this is extremely hard for me. I only have two speeds – stop and fast. Thirty miles an hour is like a slow form of torture; like getting behind every driver going five miles under the speed limit when you’re in a hurry.
(This post is a shortened version of Sunday’s sermon, to listen to the full podcast, click here)
Still, I know that to truly honor the Advent season and feel spiritually and emotionally ready to embrace the thin space of Christmas, I need to slow down. My absolute favorite night of the year is Christmas Eve. Liminality disappears and the boundaries become blurred between this world and the spiritual world. The energy of love, peace and hope is palpable… if we’re in a place to feel it. If we’ve been going 80 mph for the last three weeks and we come skidding into that Christmas Eve service, how will we expect to calm ourselves enough to truly be present and experience the magic? It’s next to impossible.
So, here are my suggestions. First we need to get beyond the superficial trappings of Christmas. Bake the cookies, trim the tree, decorate the house, write the cards if that is all important to you, but do not let it consume you in such a way that you ignore your heart. Your heart should be the focus of this season. How is it with your heart? What does your heart need to receive for Christmas? Is it aching? Are there ways it needs to be healed? Does it need to know joy again? Does it need to let go of something? Does it need to find acceptance or forgiveness? What gift of Christmas would make your heart more whole? Then hold that desire before you for the next three weeks. Write it down. Recite is as a mantra. Wait with it. Pray over it. “My heart needs find forgiveness.” “My soul needs to let go of…” “I need to make peace with my past.”
I firmly believe that God works more diligently on our hearts and souls than on anything else. When we set this prayer or intention out there, it is almost like giving the Spirit permission to enter in and begin the healing.
Second, we need to wait deliberately, at 30 mph, for Christmas. Find ways to slow down and BE. Dance to Christmas music, watch “White Christmas” for the three thousandth time, savor the Christmas cookies you just made, meditate, enjoy this time.
I’m going to give you a gift now… I’m giving you three “nos”. Maybe this will help you slow down. You can say no, you won’t bake three dozen cookies for your kid’s Christmas party. No, you aren’t buying as many gifts. No, you don’t have to endure the drunk relative anymore. No, 12,000 Christmas lights are a few too many. Whatever you need to slow down, you have three “nos” to help you. Just blame it on me.
Have a wonderful, slow, peace-filled Advent,