Friday, December 30, 2011

Shine On, Friends, Shine On!

Two days before Christmas I had the pleasure of speaking before my Rotary Club here on Sanibel about various holiday traditions. I titled my talk "The Season of Lights" and focused on Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa.

Hanukkah, I reminded my listeners, is all about the ancient story of the Maccabees and their struggle to free Jerusalem from religious oppression. I told the story of the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days. I pointed out the history behind the Hanukkah game known as dreidel (it served as a decoy when children were studying the scriptures their oppressors had outlawed.) And I sang the wonderful Peter Yarrow song, "Light One Candle."

Christmas, the most familiar of the three to my listeners, also focuses on light. It was, afterall, set during December due to winter solstice! I spoke of the use of Advent candles, and the traditional Christian notion that Jesus is the Light of the World. I closed that section with one of my favorite carols, "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella."

Kwanzaa, the most recent of the celebrations, is a cultural festival, rather than a religious festival, and came into existence out of a desire on the part of African-American leaders to reinstill a sense of identity and roots. The seven candles of the Kwanzaa celebration emphasize virtues like unity and self-determination. I sang the old spiritual "This Little Light of Mine" to finish my presentation.

"Each of these celebrations," I told my audience,"reminds us that we can bring light into a dark world. Each reminds us to keep the lights of freedom, love and heritage burning. When ever we reach out to one another we do just that!"

Later I happened to be driving behind a car from Virginia. It had one of those specialty license plates. This one was dedicated to preserving old lighthouses. It said "Keep the Lights Shining." That, in a nutshell, was my message to my civic club. And it is my wish for you as the year draws to a close. Keep the lights shining!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Beaches, Breakfasts and Angels Day and Night

Every church has its revered traditions during the Advent and Christmas seasons. Here at Sanibel Congregational UCC those traditions reflect the fact that the weather is warm at this time of year. The subropical weather means we can hold a lovely Christmas Eve Beach Service at Lighthouse Beach. It is very stirring to watch hundreds and hundreds of candles being lit as the sun goes down over the Gulf of Mexico!

In one of my former churches, one of the traditions was the annual Angel Breakfast. The congregation's social hall was turned into a little bit of heaven every year. Golden stars were hung from the ceiling, tables were covered with white linens and decorated with shining candles and sprays of gold, and at the front of the room, the stage was festooned with puffy clouds and rays of starlight.

All the children in the third grade and under were invited to come with their parents on a Sunday morning before worship for a special breakfast. Carols were sung, sometimes there was a craft, and the highlight of the event was a visit by a band of angels.

The angels, of course, were the young folks of the parish, middle and high school students, dressed in white robes with golden halos. Most years, it was just girls. But one year, in recognition of the fact that biblically speaking angels are usually depicted as male, the boys were also actively recruited. That year, two young men rose to the occasion, they they did want to be known as guardian angels. Their role in the festivities was to stand watch on either side of the curtain as the girl angels first sang and then descended down from the stage and out into the audience.

The loveliest part of the whole affair came when the angels spread out and one -by-one, whispered special messages into the ear of each of the children at the breakfast.

One year one of the Dads who was at the breakfast told me that his youngest child, Jane, who was just three at the time, was spellbound, and very pleased when the angel whispered in her ear, "Jesus is coming!"

As things would happen, just as the angel left their table, Jane needed to go to the bathroom. So Dad took her by the hand and out they went to the restroom down the hall. A few minutes later when they returned and came back into0 the social hall, Jane stood at the door, surveyed the whole scene, and then, looking up at her Dad, asked, "So where's Jesus? Where is he? Where is he?"

It is the question we ask ourselves every year, isn't it? Where's Jesus? Where is he? When we survey the world around us, when we look at all the economic difficulties so many face, when we hear about a terminally ill child, when we read reports about the war in Afghanistan, we too wonder, "Where is Jesus? Where is God?"

Yet, then we hear about the many ways folks do reach out to one another, especially this time of year, and we realize anew that Jesus is right in our midst. We realize that the Christ Child is born anew every time we give of ourselves to our neighbors in need. And that, in the end, the self-giving love that can and does mark this Holy Season, is the greatest Advent and Christmas tradition of them all! Have a blessed Christmas! (And if you happen to be near Sanibel, join us at Lighthouse Beach at 5:30 on Christmas Eve, or here in the sanctuary at 9:00 PM)

(Photo Credit: Ed Neitzke)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On Line or On Point?

Last Saturday I engaged in two quintessential holiday traditions: I went shopping and I attended a performance of The Nutcracker. The first was actually quite depressing. The second, was a sheer joy. And not just because I love Tchaikovsky (though I do!)

My shopping expedition involved going to a chain store devoted to video games and the paraphernalia needed to play them. It was a relatively small space, jammed with shelf after shelf of video games. Games for Playstation. Games for Wii. Games for Xbox. There were games for little kids, games for adults, and all manner of games in between. Most of them very expensive, and many of them very violent.

There was a rather long line wending its way to the cash registers, and one of the folks standing there was a very overweight boy of about thirteen and his mom. He was clutching three games to his chest, very pleased to be making the purchase. I imagine he spends much of his time after school plopped in front of a monitor, chasing down virtual bad guys and the like.

Later that night I attended Nutcracker. It was a modified version of the full-length ballet, presented by a local ballet school. Dozens of girls, ranging in age from four or five to the mid teens, and one little boy, danced their hearts out. One kid danced wearing a cast on her arm. Another little girl slipped and fell, and like a real trouper got on and finished out her number as if nothing had happened. The smallest children were adorable, if a bit uncoordinated. The oldest demonstrated that years of training and practice really do pay off.

This end of semester presentation involved hours and hours of practice. It involved real teamwork and learning new skills. It tested both body and mind in real and significant ways. There was nothing virtual about it! And while soldiers did chase down bad guys, they were just make-believe mice!

I worry about kids today--I worry about the hours and hours of time that they are "connected" to screens and all things virtual. I worry that they aren't sufficiently connected to other people and to their own bodies! I'm not opposed to video games in general, but all things in moderation! The game store only reinforced my fears, but the ballet gave me hope.

Along the walls in the game store were hundred if not thousands of games marked "preowned," games that had been traded in by previous owners who grew bored with them, or who wanted to have the newest thing. At the ballet we were told it there have performances of it all around the world for the last 119 years. You be the judge!

(Photo Credit: Milissa Sprecher aka "Proud Mom")

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

God, the Mall and Jersey

My wife is going to be away this coming weekend and she asked me to use the time to finish up some of our Christmas shopping. Horrors! It's not that I don't like giving people gifts. I actually enjoy that part of it. But facing the malls and the shops . . . that's another matter! All the commercialism seems so contrary to the true meaning of Christmas. Then again, there is the Jersey story. Let me explain.

Several years back now, there was a young woman from my parish while I was in New Jersey who was facing a difficult pregnancy. And she was far from home. At one point she was rushed to a specialty unit in a Philadelphia hospital Her unborn baby had developed serious problems, and treating the fetus would have put the mother at some real risk.

Meanwhile, the young woman's mother-in-law was many miles away. She was able to pray. She did her best to support her son and her daughter-in-law with visits and phone calls. Still, she worried. More than that, she was afraid.

But Christmas was coming, and she had things that needed to be done, including some last minute shopping. So with a heavy heart she headed off to the mall. She wrestled the traffic, found a parking spot, and was exhausted before she even got inside.

As she passed through the mall hallways, she came across a group of school children singing in one of the mall courts. She sat down to listen, and soon the poignancy of their Christmas carols just washed over her, and she began to weep.

One of the school children's moms was seated next to her. She reached over and gently touched her arm. "Are you all right," she asked.

With that, it all came flooding out: my friend's fears, her worries, and her tears. The singer's mother turned out to be a woman of faith, and within seconds she gathered up three of her friends, and right there in the middle of the largest shopping mall in New Jersey, they prayed for a woman they had just met, her daughter-in-law a hundred miles away, and a baby not yet even born.

After my friend finished telling me the story she said, "John, I'm sure God sent those young mothers to tell me, 'You know where I am, and you know you're what you're doing, so just keep doing it.'"

At Christmas Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the one known as Emmanuel. It means, "God with us." I guess if God can show up in a shopping mall in New Jersey, God can show up anywhere! So I'll go look for presents this weekend--but maybe it will be a better experience if I also look for God.