Looking Ahead

According to Kaia it’s now Christmas time. Apparently as soon as the temperature drops below 40 degrees she thinks it’s time to put up the tree and start singing carols. I’d rather wait until after Halloween and Thanksgiving myself. But, I do think this is a good time to talk about all the special things we have coming during Advent this year.

Advent is one of those “church words” which refers to the four Sundays before Christmas and leads up to Christmas Day. This is usually about four weeks, but can be almost 5 like this year. Advent begins on November 27th and will continue all the way up to Christmas Eve. Since Christmas is on a Sunday this year, that’s as long as Advent can be.

Part of the confusion with Advent is that it lines up with the secular “Christmas Season” beginning after Thanksgiving and continuing through Christmas. (Let’s not get into the retail Christmas season…) But, the Christian Christmas season is actually AFTER Christmas! You know that song, “The 12 Days of Christmas?” Well it is based on the season from Christmas through January 6th (or the Epiphany.)

The Christmas season is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, where Advent is a time of preparation for that birth. Advent is a time of waiting, of anticipation. And, waiting is something that I don’t do well, and I don’t think I am alone. When I get into the checkout line at the grocery store, or at any busy retail outlet, I get anxious. Well, no, I get downright evil. I grumble about the slowness of the line and wonder why I am cursed to always choose the slowest line. I think the license bureau gets such a bad reputation because of this same thing, waiting.

It’s hard to wait. It can be even harder to wait for a birth. Talk with just about any mother in the last month of her pregnancy, and she is likely to express that she is “Ready to have this baby!” There are a LOT of emotions tied up in that statement. Those emotions of waiting and anticipation are what Advent is all about.

Each of the four Sundays has a different theme: Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. To help us think about those ideas we include the lighting of Advent Candles in our worship services. Each Sunday another blue candle is lit to remind us of that week’s theme. And we light the candles from the prior weeks to celebrate the building anticipation.

Then Advent comes to its completion on Christmas Eve as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Eve we retell the story of Jesus’ birth through the reading of scripture and the singing of Christmas Carols. And we light not only the four blue candles on the wreath, but the central, white, Christ candle as a reminder of Christ’s presence with us. Then we conclude our Christmas Eve worship by singing silent night and each person lights a candle and we surround the sanctuary with light, reminding each and every one of us that we carry the light of Christ with us.

This year, because Christmas is on Sunday, we get the opportunity to celebrate Jesus’ birth again on Christmas day. We will have an abbreviated service (no Sunday school) where we will hear the Christmas story again, sing familiar Christmas carols, and take communion together. I look forward to celebrating Christmas with my family, and my church family this year. I also look forward to celebrating Advent with you this year, as we anticipate the coming of Christ even as we remember the anticipation of Jesus’ birth.

The Not-So-Rapid Response

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
James 1:19-22, NRSV

Over the past few weeks this scripture has run through my mind countless times. With the political season in full swing, I cannot count the number of heated conversations in which I’ve been involved, witnessed in social media, or overheard. I am certain of one thing; this political season is testing our resolve to be civil with one another in a way I’ve not seen before. I’ve also noticed that we, by in large, have ignored the wisdom James conveys in his epistle.

We have seemingly reversed his advised speed ratings. It seems we are slow to listen, and quick to speak our minds, often in anger. And I certainly witness too little of the meekness with which we are to welcome God’s word into our hearts. It seems that we’ve focused on “speaking the truth” as we see it, but we forget that Paul continues to say, “in love.” (Ephesians 4:15, NRSV) Furthermore, Paul continues to insist we speak truth lovingly because, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” All-too-often the “truth” I hear proclaimed is not loving, nor does it build anyone up to be like Christ.

You may have heard it said, “God gave us two hands, two ears, and one mouth for a reason.” The gist of that saying is that we are to use them in proportion to their appearance on our bodies, using our hands to serve and our ears to listen twice as often as we use our mouths to speak. I imagine we have all known people who have reversed that image as well. If I’m honest, there are days when I talk too much and listen WAY TO LITTLE! I am often reminded of the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel always. And, if necessary, use words.” One way of presenting the gospel is to take the time to listen to others, to slow down, take a breath, and really listen to what others have to say.

Unfortunately when we do listen it’s often to reply, not to understand. While the other person is talking, we aren’t really trying to understand their viewpoint or their motivation. Instead we are trying to find the hole in their argument, or formulating our next witty retort. Truthfully, that’s not communication. It is two people presenting their own opinions and arguments, with no intent of truly listening and no openness to the change which dialog can foster. It reminds me of Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It seems to me that we spend too much time reacting and not enough time listening, and not enough time responding.

So, on this rainy Wednesday morning, I want to challenge us to elevate our conversations to listening and response as opposed to planning and reaction. Maybe you’ve heard my “bumper sticker” phrase, objects react, people respond. What I mean is that when we react to something we hear, we are not fully engaging our humanity. When we respond, on the other hand, we are doing something that honors the image of God in which we are all created. I’m suggesting (especially during these last few weeks leading up to the elections) that we all commit to be part of the Not-So-Rapid Response Team. I’m suggesting we use our hands to serve, and our ears to listen, at least twice as often as we use our mouths to speak. I’m suggesting that we truly listen, instead of just formulating our next reaction. And, I’m suggesting that we honor the image of God in ourselves, and in one another, as we respond in grace and love, rather than reacting to our primal impulses

As we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, may God bless the world through our love for God and for one another.