Monday Muse: The Collective Epiphany

Have I mentioned that I’m not a fan of the New Year’s holiday? Really I can take it or leave it. For one thing, it’s a whole lot of hype & fireworks & store sales just to hang up a new calendar. For another, I might be a little resistant to change.

So New Year’s strikes me as a holiday to (1) mourn the past & the unstoppable tide of change, and/or (2) kick & scream in the face of whatever unknown lies ahead.

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It’s better if I just go to sleep and don’t bother seeing in the new year.

Still, New Year’s is one of those holidays to which many churches give a liturgical nod, in part because the themes of New Year’s are well-suited to the celebration of Epiphany: new resolutions and new revelations, contemplating goals and contemplating visions, praying for the unknown that lies ahead and praying to the Unknown that is unfolding.

The good news of Epiphany over New Year’s, however, is its focus on God doing a new thing (whilst anything I do is pretty darn predictable…like finishing the Christmas cookies in one sitting under the guise that I’ll start a new diet tomorrow). Seriously, thank God for doing a new thing, because I’m predictable and I don’t like change so it’s a reasonable guess that “new thing” is not my forte.

But here’s the twist — the surprise, the wonder, the realization: when it comes to Epiphany, the new thing that God is doing just might be us. Take another look at Isaiah 60:1-6:

Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. It’s time, let’s go! And not just you … y’all get up. Second person plural (see the preceding Isaiah 59:21). One & all, here we go! God is your light, God’s glory has crowned your head and ignited the synapses between you. It is your time to shine for God’s sake. Get up!

For darkness shall cover the earth like a fog, and dense clouds will hide all people from one another, but the LORD will arise upon you and God’s glory will be over you. Seriously, it’s time! The grace that you know, the passion for justice that you share, the fellowship that binds you: these are needed to bear witness to the dawn!

Lift up your eyes and look around: nations shall come to your light, people will gather together; your sons shall return from their wars and your daughters shall find healing. Do not be shy or fearful. Look and see the light that you have been given to shine together. Live boldly as the very best community that God has called you to be, and watch how others come to join with you in beaming with God’s Spirit.

Then you shall see and be radiant. Your heart shall thrill and rejoice! You will be surprised by the gifts that are shared — brought by sea and by camel — in joyful praise of the LORD. Let grace beget grace, let joy beget joy, let light beget light, to the glory of God!

You — and me, and us, and all people as far as you can imagine with your arms stretched wide — together we are the new thing that God is doing in this world, for the sake of the world. Beloved Community, there is a Spirit upon your head, a word upon your tongue and a light within your core, and this is the new thing that God has given to you to shape your path … the new thing that God has given to the world to bolster its spirits.

While New Year’s resolutions draw us individually inward for personal reflection & self-development, Epiphany’s revelation draws us outward to community for radiating & gathering & radiating some more. Set your individual goals if you will, but make one of them “Shine with others.” Mourn the past if you need to (I do) and scream at the future if it helps (it does), but participate in the bright new thing that God is doing — which is you, second person plural.

CALL TO WORSHIP
One: We are searching for a light to guide us.
All: Arise, shine for our light has come!
One: We are longing for inspiration to motivate us.
All: The glory of the LORD has risen upon us.
One: We are wishing for the world to change.
All: Look around: people are looking for God’s light in us.
One: We are ready to see what God can do!
All: Our hearts rejoice in God’s glory! We join together to shine!

All These Things

You smile at me in such a way
that makes us both cry (a little)
for love of these ordinary moments
of watching life go by together:
how the kids grow and how
the world repeats itself
(for better and for worse)
and how love deepens
miraculously tho the scars.
All these things we ponder
in our hearts like Mary
until they make sense or
(even better) until we come to peace.

Monday Muse: Dance in the Desert

For the Christmas-weary and the inspiration-drained, for the spiritually overwhelmed and the spiritually skeptical, the simple story of Dance in the Desert is a gift of exquisite imagination and wonder for the post-Christmas season.

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Madeleine L’Engle’s Dance in the Desert finds the Holy Family in need of safe passage across the desert to Egypt, political refugees fleeing the violent wrath of Herod. They join a caravan, and when the travelers make camp one night along their journey, the perils of the desert draw near … and the impossible occurs:

Like Isaiah’s vision of the wild animals following a child, the beasts of the desert come to pay homage to the Holy Toddler. From the mouse to the lion, the eagle to the unicorn, every creature bows and dances in tribute to the refugee child.

The shadows and subtlety of Symeon Shimin’s artwork bring the wondrous story to life: the slow approach of a poisonous snake through the sand, the tender moment between Mary and the elusive unicorn. Together, Shimin and L’Engle continue the tale of holy mystery that began in a crude stable one starry night.

Dance in the Desert is a book to read and savor after the thrill of Christmas has waned and the food in the fridge has dwindled to leftovers, after family and friends are gone and the drear of winter settles into one’s soul again, in the quiet aftermath of the holiday when mystery and joy seem fleeting. Read and see: the One who inspires the desert to dance!

L’Engle, Madeleine. Dance in the Desert.
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1988.

Do Not Be Afraid

We should be afraid, of course,
to be so near to God.

We should be startled by the glory of God
and the disruption of angels.

We should be freaked. out. that God even blinks
in our direction, let alone that God dares us
to walk a new path just to see what
God can do with life.

“Do not be afraid; have a child.”
“Do not be afraid; leave your home.”
“Do not be afraid; give up your reputation.”
“Do not be afraid; press on through hardship.”
“Do not be afraid; face a powerful enemy.”

Or,
be afraid.
Be totally overwhelmed.
Be stunned and terrified, in fact,
but here’s the critical part:

be near to God
anyway.

Monday Muse: In Defense of the Holly-Lily Crowd

Today’s “Monday Muse” may be less a muse that inspires worship creativity and more a muse that encourages thoughtfulness and conversation; this reflection is cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

For the first time in more than a decade, I am not attending Sunday worship regularly. For the first time in my lifetime, I do not have a home congregation with whom I can mark the liturgical year. A recent change in my job and geography includes a work schedule that does not center around weekly worship responsibilities.

Not surprisingly, my children’s Sunday soccer games have quickly filled the scheduling void. I am missing every Sunday in Advent this December to sit on the sidelines and cheer, and it’s a pretty good bet that any observance of Lent in the spring will likewise defer to soccer. I have become — oddly, startlingly — a member of the “Holly-Lily crowd,” those who are known for filling the church pews on Christmas and Easter but are scarcely to be seen in a sanctuary between the Christian high holy days.

It’s a fascinating position for me to be in: as a minister with a deep love for congregational life, I know every reason for investing my family’s time and relationships in a faith community … and as a soccer mom, I have obligations in support of my children that conflict with weekly worship.

In church circles, when pastors and staff and church members plan for the Holly-Lily influx (printing extra bulletins, preparing the overflow room off of the sanctuary, etc.), the feeling is usually less than affectionate. To congregants who support the church Sunday after Sunday, Holly-Lily folks can be easily stereotyped as slackers who want a good church without the hassle of participation. To pastors who are exhausted from extra holiday sermons and services, not to mention the stress of preaching for folks who hear only two sermons a year, it can be tempting to see the Holly-Lily crowd’s financial gifts as the only blessing of their attendance.

But with soccer occupying my Sundays and Christmas right around the corner, I have a new and personal appreciation for the challenges of being one among many in the Holly-Lily crowd asking, “Where will we worship on Christmas Eve?” For those pastors and churchgoers who are fortunate to have established worship plans for Christmas, here are three reminders for welcoming the Holly-Lily crowd with grace:

1. Attending worship in a church that isn’t (or is an infrequent) “home” is stressful. People long for connection and familiar space. This longing is keenly felt during the holidays, and it’s often intrinsic to that Holly-Lily appearance in church. To compound the longing: there’s a vulnerability when stepping into an unfamiliar space in which one is hoping to feel a spiritual connection. True, there will be folks who attend your Christmas Eve services just to “punch the clock” with God, but many will be looking for genuine relationship — with God, with people of faith — and they’ll be feeling spiritually exposed in doing so.

lilyWhat can the Church do? Welcome them. Welcome us. Sincerely and warmly. (Let’s be honest: this should be a no-brainer, but for too many churches, it is not.)

2. Remember what you don’t know. As I infer above, it’s easy to invent stories about why certain folks only come to church for the Christmas and Easter holidays. Yet, if you haven’t seen someone since the last major liturgical celebration, it’s likely that you don’t know the whole story! Life has been happening since the last Holly or Lily occasion: Families like mine are chauffeuring kids here-and-there on weekends, striving to shape their kids’ futures. Some folks are holding down a second job on weekends or pulling the third shift. And yes, some folks are catching their breath on Sunday mornings, perhaps with a few extra zzzz’s or a slow cup of coffee.

What can the Church do? Ask. Don’t pretend familiarity at church on Christmas Eve; engage with curiosity: “How have you been? Let’s set a date to catch up over coffee.” Or the more humbling and truthful, “I apologize, I should know your name. I’m so-and-so, it’s nice to have you here.” It may not be popular, but distribute nametags in worship on Christmas Eve to encourage mingling.

3. Lapsed church participation does not equal lapsed faith. It might, but it doesn’t always. (Remember tip #2: ask!) When I was serving as a local church pastor, life was all about church; it was easy for me to lose sight of the ways that faith struggles and grows outside of a congregation. But spiritual life has more shapes than the liturgical cycle. The assumption that a single Christmas or Easter service must satisfy a whole year of lapsed Holly-Lily spirituality hints of an ecclesial jealousy that spiritual growth should not happen beyond church walls. In fact, the Holly-Lily crowd may be shedding light on a logistical challenge: that our churches are best organized to support faith on Sunday mornings and the occasional Wednesday evening.

What can the Church do? Start with an internal audit: suppose a Holly-Lily individual wants to connect with your congregation after Christmas Eve — for spiritual nurture as well as community (see tip #1) — but is unable to do so on Sundays; what other opportunities are available to him/her? Once these opportunities are identified and supported in the congregation, share the good news and invitation with your Holly-Lily folks!

holly2The holidays are an important time for remembering God’s presence among and within us. Do not let this Christmas Eve slip by without welcoming God-With-Us in the infrequent but significant presence of the Holly-Lily crowd.