Thursday, December 20, 2012

Light--A Christmas/ Midwinter Meditation



Guest post by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole

I don’t recall how old I was when someone first told me we shouldn’t put up Christmas trees or otherwise celebrate Christmas because the holiday had pagan origins and anyway, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. If you grow up Adventist, you get exposed to opinions like these fairly early, even though such views were by no means mainstream in my church and were dismissed as foolishness by my very sensible Adventist family.

Even as a young person, it seemed to me that the timing of Christmas was far from an evil pagan plot or even an unhappy accident. True, nobody considered the date of Jesus’ birth important enough to record in Scripture, but I think the early church did exactly the right thing in holding their celebration of the Nativity at the end of December, and I think it was more than just an attempt to co-opt pagan midwinter holidays.

The image of light coming in the midst of our darkness is one of the most powerful spiritual pictures we humans have. Whether we’re lighting candles on the Advent wreath or the Hanukkah menorah, or burning a Yule log, or simply stringing up some coloured LEDs on the front of the house, we’re responding to a deep human urge to celebrate light — which is hope, and faith, and joy — when times are dark.

For those of us in northern climates this is especially true at midwinter.  Now, to be honest, I don’t think of the winter solstice, or Christmas, or anytime around the end of December as “midwinter.” Because of our climate, where Christmases are often green but Easters are frequently white, I feel winter is barely beginning in December. My worst “midwinter blues” hit around mid-February when I think how far we’ve slogged through the ice and snow and how far we have yet to go. 

But even in our late-starting, long-lasting Newfoundland winter, in a world illuminated by electric lights, I feel the burden of those dark early evenings, coming home from work with the sky already dark, waking up in morning darkness to get ready to do it all again.  I understand why our ancestors, less shielded from the rhythms of the natural world, felt the need to light candles and celebrate at the turning of the year, when the days began, imperceptibly, to lengthen again.  When the light returned.

God’s promise of light in darkness is for everyone, everywhere, all the time.  And of course it’s true that as a Christian, unlike a Jewish friend lighting Hanukkah candles or my pagan friend burning her Yule log (or a Hindu friend celebrating Diwali, at a different time of the year in a different corner of the world), I believe the truest and fullest expression of God’s light came into the world on whatever night Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Son of God, love’s pure light.  Whether He was born in the bleak midwinter or in spring or fall, He was the light that lights everyone as He comes into the world.

But the fact that I believe this and others don’t, doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m right and everyone else is wrong when they light their candles and logs and fireworks and LED lights, wherever and whenever and whyever they do it.  If we close the stable door and say that only in that one room, on that one night, was the Light of the World fully present and incarnate … well, light will still leak out under and around the stable door.  Light is like that. Grace is like that.  God’s presence is everywhere, no matter how we try to shut Him away or box Him up.  He is present in every light that shines in darkness. The humblest candle burning on a midwinter night speaks of the hope He brings … and so, in a faint and faraway fashion, does even the light-up, blow-up, tacky glowing Santa on the lawn of a neighbour who professes no faith in any god but the God of Shopping, and worships nowhere but at the mall.

We light lights because we believe, or because we want to believe.  And light calls forth what’s best in us — hope, faith, joy — giving us hints of the true Light, that shines in darkness and can never be put out.
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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Giving Up Everything for Love



Guest post by Elvia Miller

 They are a small group of three- to five-year-old children that I teach every Wednesday. There are about eight of them, six who come consistently. We usually cover the same stories. Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus is God. I learned the stories myself as someone who loved the Lord told of the story… and yet the magnitude of it never really sank in until much later.

“God has a plan” and “Everything happens for a reason” are platitudes we use to comfort or explain. I marvel at the plans of God and how everything fits together. I had known that I was going to teach of Christmas because what else was I going to teach…Easter? That was a no-brainer.

It was in another class that God started to work on my heart. The pastor taught the Cruciform Marriage class. My husband and I made the sacrifice to wake up early on Sundays for this class. I had missed the Sunday School class the week before. I had counted myself lucky that I missed the wives-submit-to-your-husbands lecture. I wasn’t left totally unscathed. This particular Sunday, we learned the second part of the passage, Ephesians 5:22-33, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The pastor painted a picture of the church as a woman. The poor thing never seemed to get it right. She was a Cinderella or Snow White who needed to be rescued. Along came the Prince who would rescue her and elevate her. But the Prince never gave up his kingdom for her. He never pretended to be a pauper to rescue her. I thought of this. It burned within me and cleansed. Jesus came for his church, his bride and it wasn’t easy—it was a sacrifice.

That night I lay in bed and cried. My husband could not console me. I just kept repeating the verse over and over. There was no explanation. The verse said it all. I pictured Hosea, the prophet who was commanded to love a harlot. He was the example of how God loved us even before Jesus made His appearance. We are a fickle bunch, loving everything and everyone except the One we were created to love; God, who saves us even when we are wrong. He is God who saves us even though we are harlots to this world.

As I prepared to begin the children’s Bible lesson, I glanced down at their faces. Their sweet innocence was marked and their eyes were open wide, awaiting the message. I prayed. I prayed that they be like the good soil and understand the story that they will hear so many times. I prayed that it would not just be a story for them but an understanding.

I asked them, “Who is your favorite superhero?” The answers varied: Bob the Builder, Green Lantern, Hulk. I threw in Superman and Batman. They got excited talking about those they considered heroes. We talked about their super powers and what they could do. We talked about how they save people. Then I asked, “What if they had to give up all their special powers in order to save us?” The children looked confused. Why ever would a superhero give up their powers? Why ever would someone give up what made them special and be normal, and be humbled. I told them it was a sacrifice. Who would you give up your super power for? Most of them answered with family members, but it would have to be for a really good reason. What if you had to give up your super power for someone who had wronged you? It was beyond their comprehension. I left it hanging there and hoped the seed would grow in their hearts.

Christmas is about the Son of God, the Prince of Peace giving up more than his super powers, giving up his God-ness, to save us, a people who can’t seem to get anything right.

I learned about Christmas through teaching little ones about Christmas. I wonder about Jesus now. How much harder was it to know that he was God stuffed into the body of an infant? How much harder was it to know that he was King and to be rejected by his own people, his church, his bride? To know, even though he was young, that he was like a lamb sent to the slaughter? This truth is the essence of the Gospel. It’s such a privilege to teach this truth to young minds. It is through teaching that we teach ourselves sometimes. Praise the Lord!
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Elvia Miller is a wife, mom, elementary school educator, Bible teacher, choir soprano, jogger, friend, and daughter of God.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Dog in a Manger



© Christy K. Robinson

The phrase, “dog in a manger” comes from an ancient Greek fable about a dog lying in the food trough, growling and warning off the cattle who would feed on the grain, though the dog had no use for it. It refers to a person who can’t or won’t use something himself, but spitefully withholds it from someone else. (Politicians spring to mind!)  

The attitude is sometimes, “I don’t want it, and you can’t have it.” And other times, the ungodly actions and attitudes of professed Christians is a deterrent. They sow disdain for all other believers.

Here’s an unexpected one: preachers, teachers, and authors who use complicated theological concepts, “isms,” and multi-syllabic labels to explain what God has made clear and easily understood by children and Down Syndrome people: God loves us, and has moved heaven and earth because he wants to save us.   

Jesus had harsh words for religious leaders and teachers who have made following God’s lead unappealing, too harsh, too difficult to understand, legalistic, judgmental, and too full of restrictions. “Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.” Matt. 23:13

Dog in a manger!

The apostle Paul wrote about those people. “But God’s angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth. But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.”  Romans 1:18-23

How does this tie in with a Christmas meditation? Jesus could have come as a king, president, senator, priest, minister, university professor, Nobel scientist, or anything else but the baby in a blue-collar laborer’s family, born in a cave that sheltered travelers’ beasts of burden. And maybe even their shepherd dogs or guard dogs.

But no. He came as a dependent newborn, as harmless as a kitten. Babies are inoffensive, and they have no history for us to blame or resent. They represent hope and potential, growth and a future. This baby came to GIVE.

If there was a dog in the manger of Bethlehem, perhaps it looked something like this: a homeless dog who just needed a safe place with no kicks and blows and curses, a soft place to rest from the strain of living on garbage in harsh weather. A dog who would cuddle up to its Creator for sanctuary.

Are you that dog in a manger? Are you looking for the basic simplicity of home, and love, rest, security, and sanctuary?

Jesus says, Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. Matt. 11:28-30
In Criciuma, Brazil, a church set up an outdoor crèche,
with images of Joseph and Mary, angels, shepherds,
and baby Jesus lying in the straw-filled manger.
On the night of December 16, 2008, a young stray dog found her way there
and snuggled up with Jesus for the night.
Photo by Kiko Della Giustina. The dog was adopted.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Your best love, every day



Guest post by Jo Ann Butler

 A few years ago I crossed the Great Divide. If you are a woman, you know the one I’m talking about. My eggs have passed their ‘use-by’ date, and I no longer need birth control. I faced that aspect of aging with great delight, for many decades ago I decided to remain childless. Perhaps that decision was never mine to make.

I think that personal biology made the choice for me. When you look at our family photos, my sister was holding a baby doll from the moment her arms could wrap around it. I wanted to be a cowboy. One Christmas I got a rocking horse, and also a doll of my own. Photos show a beaming Jo Ann in cowboy hat on her noble steed. My parents insisted that I play with the doll too. After they convinced me that I carry it ‘right’ instead of by one foot, I mounted the horse with my passenger, and stuck the doll’s bottle in my holster.

Years went by and I became interested in boys, and then in men, but not in motherhood. Don’t get me wrong. I like children. Other people’s children. I earned spending money by babysitting, and played happily with relatives’ offspring. But I wasn’t driven to bear a child of my own, and my biological clock never rang its alarm as I grew older.

Now, at the ripe old age of almost-58, I am facing the prospect of becoming a mother. My own mom was diagnosed a couple of years ago with the first stage of dementia. She didn’t tell us, though we’ve noticed that she’s more forgetful. But this summer, when she took 18 hours for what was normally a 6-hour drive from Pennsylvania to New York, we heard the diagnosis from her doctor.

My mother and I have always been very close, and I’ve told her many times that I’d care for her when she needs it. She cared for her childless aunt, who had cared for her own relatives. It is a loving task that I want to do for my Mom. I’ve even had a dress rehearsal, so I know what I’m in for.

For several years my partner and I lived with his aging parents as they needed more help. His mother was an uncontrolled diabetic, and his father had had his first heart attack when he was 39. Modern medicine is capable of wonderful things, and bypasses and stents kept Burt alive until he was nearly 87. However, heart failure made his last few months an ordeal. Using my experience working with severely handicapped children, I nursed Burt until he took his final breath. I would have cared for Virginia, but a fall put her in a nursing home, and infections from diabetes killed her a few months later.

I loved Burt far more than I ever loved my own father, who was a caustic and critical man. Caring for Burt was a sacred experience, and I do not use that word lightly. Watching him weaken, fighting the inevitable, and trying to hearten the rest of his family was gut-wrenching, and an extremely moving experience. Soon I’m going to do it again.

Hopefully Mom’s problems will not go beyond forgetfulness, for her type of dementia is slow to progress. Perhaps it will grow no worse, but perhaps it will. We are preparing now. She is leaving committee seats at church which she has held for years, and I am familiarizing myself with her accounts and papers.

I am also preparing myself to become a mother. Mom’s sister is 95 now, and a stroke has brought her to childlike dependency. I’ve watched my cousin take on the task of ‘raising’ one more child, and the love and respect she brought to the task is inspiring.

When Christy asked me to write this, I said that we were still working everything out. I can’t think of better words to end than what Christy told me: “Nothing is ever perfect or settled. You do your best and love your best with what you've got.” And so I will.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress. James 1:27 


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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Enlightened


By Christy K Robinson

If you know of Mary Barrett Dyer, perhaps it’s the memorial statue at the Massachusetts State House; or that she was the Quaker woman hanged in Boston in 1660.

Mary was born in London at the time the King James Bible was published, and was admired for her intellectual, spiritual, and physical beauty. She and William Dyer were married under Anglican liturgy at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but in 1635, they emigrated to ultra-Puritan Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and were immediately admitted to membership in the First Church. (Some people committed suicide because their membership was denied.) The Dyers had to conform to Puritan ways to be accepted so quickly. However, Governor Winthrop observed in 1637 that Mary was “addicted to revelations.”

Mary became a disciple of Anne Hutchinson, a religious dissident who claimed that God revealed insights about scripture to her—a “weak-minded” (but highly-educated) woman. She pointed out that instead of trying in vain to earn salvation by perfectly keeping the law, believers were set free from eternal damnation by God’s grace. They could trust divine leading in their conscience, with no need for intercessors or interpreters.

But the Puritan theocracy believed if every man did as he pleased, all would be anarchy. After several ecclesiastical trials, the Hutchinsons and Dyers and about 75 Massachusetts families were exiled for sedition and heresy. They purchased Rhode Island from the Indians, and founded a new colony in 1638.

Mary visited England in early 1652, where she observed several new religious movements, including the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). In some respects similarly to Anne Hutchinson, the Friends believed that Old Testament laws were obsolete, and had been replaced by God’s voice in the individual’s conscience, which was revealed during times of silent reflection and worship. They experienced God as Light and overwhelming love, in contrast to the vengeful Judge who predestined only certain people for eternal life. Some of the scripture they quoted included:
  • God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. … If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 1 John 1:5-7.
  • Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light. ~Jesus. John 12:36.
  • For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” Ephesians 5:8
In 1657, Mary returned to America, was accused of being a Quaker, and was cast into Boston’s prison for weeks before William Dyer learned of it and rescued her. Thus began three years of Mary’s repeatedly defying religious oppression to gain relief and freedom for the violently persecuted.

Quakers in New England were fined, beaten, branded, whipped with a knotted cord, banished, tied to carts and dragged from town to town, imprisoned without food or heat in winter, and banished “on pain of death” for their efforts and beliefs.

For supporting Quakers, Mary was arrested and imprisoned at least five times, and defied banishment. Finally, she was sentenced to death. She wrote a letter to the General Court on the night before her execution date. “I therefore declare that in the fear, peace, and love of God I came … and have found such favor in his sight as to offer up my life freely for his truth and people’s sakes. If this life were freely granted by you, it would not avail me to accept it from you, so long as I shall daily hear or see the suffering of my dear brethren and sisters.”
Mary Dyer's handwriting. Letter to the General Court, October 1659.

She believed that her death would be so shocking to the public that it would bring about the end of the severe tortures and repression of Quakers by the Puritan leaders. Many Puritans sympathized with and helped Quakers, and had begun to turn away from their harsh, vicious government. Fearing political unrest, the court granted a reprieve when she was on the gallows. She was imprisoned in Plymouth two weeks later, spent the winter at Long Island, then deliberately returned to Boston seven months later—to obey God’s command, and commit civil disobedience.

She was again condemned to death, and was hanged on June 1, 1660. Because her vengeful Puritan former pastor offered a cloth to cover her face, I believe that the Light was strong on her countenance.

Mary’s sacrifice was successful. Her letters were presented posthumously to Charles II, who ended executions for religious offenses. Her husband and close friends had significant influence on the 1663 Rhode Island royal charter of liberties that granted freedom of conscience to worship (or not), and retained separation of church and state. The charter was a model for the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which has in turn been the beacon of light for constitutions around the world.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas Season: Taking Notice of Important Things




Guest post by Lawrence T. Geraty

The Christmas season has always been special to me, even though it is often a whirlwind of activities: giving and receiving cards, attending concerts and parties, shopping for appropriate gifts, visiting relatives and friends, and attending special services at church.

Because it comes near the conclusion of the calendar year, it is always a time for reflection as well as making sure that the donations for the various non-profit causes we support have been delivered or mailed before the end of December. But primarily, vertically, it is a time for worship, the Babe in the manger, the Savior who goes about doing good, and being grateful to the One who has transformed my life and who I'm expecting one day to return the Second Time, this time to save us from the mess we humans have made in the world He originally created and vouchsafed to us.

Wow, what would I do without Jesus in my life? He brings balance and is my source of hope. Of course, this year, Christmas was immediately preceded by our national political election—and what a dismaying marathon that was. I think it was Pete Seeger's niece, Kate, who observed that "the world is divided into people who think they are right!" For sure they are divided and it seems that the divisions are unwilling to talk or compromise.

Jesus must be very disappointed in the majority of followers who bear His name. What does He really expect of us in this old world of ours this season?

Horizontally, the Christmas season is a time to "spread the love." There are so many people who always need our love, but especially this season of the year. And it is often so easy to overlook the various categories of people who are systematically marginalized in our society—the poor, the undocumented, the mentally and physically challenged, those who are different from us, gays, singles, even women.

It was Cornel West, one of the most thoughtful African-American scholars I know, who once said, "Justice is what love looks like in public."  

So during this Christmas season, I'm trying to do what I can to "fight" for justice in society—putting in the right word at the right place, supporting organizations who foster the same values I endorse, and seeking out for special attention those who may otherwise be missed.

May the Christ of Christmas help us to spread His love around in every corner that needs it! Merry Christmas!
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