Beginning Anew

In this season of the year we have two events that invite us to reflect on the past and move into the new. In the first, Jesus’s birth is seen as changing the world. John the Baptist comes before him to prepare the way. He calls the people to repentance (an invitation to take stock of what is going wrong in our lives and the world and to make a decision to change or be changed). And Jesus as the son of God–God present with us in the world (Emmanuel), the one who makes all things new (the Messiah or Christ)—makes change possible.

In the second, the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one is also understood as a time to take stock—to reflect on the past and to make resolutions about changes to be made.

I can’t say that I find it easy to take advantage of what the season offers. I don’t always feel reflective. I can’t program myself to talk with and listen to Jesus in the light of some seasonal schedule, and I usually avoid making New Year’s resolutions so I won’t break them. Yet I do know that taking time for reflection and review of the past day, month, or year can open me to personal insights, create more space for the Holy Spirit’s gifts, and give me a chance to choose changes that matter.

Thank you, readers, for affording me the opportunity this past year to reflect on things that I care about and to express openings that have come to me. Whether you take time for reflection and renewal at this time of year or not, may your new year bring Spirit-filled change and rich and fulfilling newness for you.

Queries:

What is important to you at this time of year?

To reflect and consider possible New Year’s resolutions, would it be easier to take time alone or to do the work encouraged by being part of a group?

Prayer:

As the daylight gets longer, use the natural phenomenon to make you more conscious of opening to the Light of Christ.

For further reflection:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (see John 1: 1-5).

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Expectations

In Luke’s Christmas story Zechariah didn’t expect to meet an angel as he was doing his priestly duties, and he didn’t expect that an angel would speak to him. Only becoming unable to talk let him, and others, realize that something special had indeed happened to him. In Matthew’s story Joseph didn’t expect to marry someone who was already pregnant. But he was able to hear the angel and accept what he was told; he went ahead after all and married Mary.

The Christmas season is a time of many expectations. We expect that we can make or buy the perfect gift for everyone on our list, we can do all the extra work that decorating and preparing for the holiday calls for, and we will be together with family members and everyone will get along and be happy. I may expect that my husband will get me something really special and thoughtful. We will do everything the way it has always been done. Or maybe the expectation is to do something different this time, which surely will please everyone. Whatever the expectations, our egos get a workout. Stress levels soar.

Meanwhile, if an angel were to speak to us, we probably would take no notice. Maybe because we would be too busy, maybe because we don’t believe in angels, or maybe because we wouldn’t listen since the word most likely wouldn’t fit into our agenda. And we fail to receive the true gifts of Christmas—light, love, hope, faith, joy, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, new life.

As long as my mother was alive my family celebrated Christmas in much the same way, year after year. But now everything is different, and I can spend a lot of energy longing for some parts of how it used to be. In the remaining days of the Christmas season, I hope I can let go of my door-closing expectations and open to be able to experience wonder, surprise, joy. Everything won’t be smooth or familiar. But I can expect that Christ will be present. I hope I will notice.

Queries:

What memories of Christmas are particularly meaningful to you? Or maybe particularly painful?

What expectations do I need to let go in order to let God/Christ/the Holy Spirit be at work in me this Christmas?

Sometimes the expectation that Christmas will be meaningful is an expectation that closes doors. What would it take to let go of even that?

Prayer:

Sing your favorite Christmas carol. Listen to the Messiah. Find time to be quiet.

For further reference:

“And he shall stand and feed his flock . . . and he shall be the one of peace” (See Micah 5: 2-5a).

“And blessed is she who believed [trusted] that there would be a fulfillment . . .” (See Luke 1: 45).

Baby Jesus

The gospel writers Matthew and Luke tell stories of the birth of Jesus. It is my contention that they do so in order to help their readers apprehend that Jesus is, and was always, the Messiah (or the Christ), the one who makes all things new—and why that is good news. I believe that stories are important and contain Truth whether or not everything in them actually happened. This Christmas season as I listen again to this story I am listening for where its Truth connects with my story and brings the possibility of new life to me.

I love that the One we worship comes among us as a baby. How intimate and personal, ordinary and vulnerable! I see that being little and humble leaves more space for God to be present and at work than does being important, proudly virtuous, or hierarchically powerful. I see that with God all things are possible. Closed doors and brick walls and what-shouldn’t-be need not be the final word.

This story awakens me to the possibility that I might meet Christ in anyone, that I am wise to be open to the unexpected instead of holding on to how it has always been, that I haven’t figured out where Christ will be and need not box Him out of unlikely places. In this political season I am delighted by the details in this story that suggest that the power, misdeeds, or regulations of government cannot prevent Christ’s coming. This story invites me to risk and vulnerability rather than control.

The shepherds and the wise men find the Christ Child.  Those who have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts that are tender can find and recognize the Holy One. I pray to be prepared to receive the Gift that God has given.

Queries:

What do you need to let go inwardly in order to have room for God’s Love Gift?

What keeps you from recognizing or receiving the Christ Child?

What insights come to you from this story?

Prayer:

Think of a person or persons or a set of circumstances that you will encounter this Christmas season. Pray that you might see the Light that shines in the midst of your experiences. Pray that you might encounter the Christ Child, and that if you do, you might recognize and receive Him.

For further reflection:

See Matthew’s account of Jesus’s birth—Matthew 1: 18 – 2: 12.

See Luke’s account—Luke 2: 1-20.

For other people who recognize who the child Jesus is, see Luke 2: 25-38.

Joy

One day I was in a group talking about our favorite part of Christmas. “I love having my grandsons come to my house and make presents for their parents,” Dot said. “They really get into it and get excited. Their love for their parents is so apparent.” While she shared her story, her whole face was a smile, her eyes danced and radiated delight. The joy she felt communicated itself to the rest of us and we too knew joy.

On another time with the group Jim told us about the sudden death of a dear friend of his. We felt his grief and invited him and others to tell us about the man. Their faces glowed as they told of the man’s care for the land and for the people of our area, and of all the quiet differences he had made in our community. Even though the circumstances were sad, joy dwelt in our hearts, because as a group we were united in grief, appreciation for the friend and the land, and love for one other.

Whereas happiness is light and carefree and depends on a positive environment, joy is something different. It is deep and strengthening and can happen in any kind of circumstances because it comes from within. Joy is the condition when the deepest part of me connects with another, united by something ineffably other.

Queries:

What is your experience of joy? Of “something ineffably other”?

How attuned are you to noticing experiences of unity, allowing them to teach and change you?

Prayer:

Make a collage of joy. Play music that touches your soul and brings deep joy. Dance with joy. Open your senses to joy in any way that works for you.

For further reflection:

“Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp!” (See Psalm 150. I like NRSV best here.)

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . .” (See Galatians 5:22-26).

Mercy

Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be the Year of Mercy. To grant mercy for people who make mistakes and are repentant or “worthy” of mercy is fine. But what about those people or groups who are doing terrible things, or who might include some who would oppress or do great harm—or even have values different from mine? Don’t we need to judge them, or wouldn’t we rather pass judgment? James 2: 13 says that “mercy triumphs over judgment,” a statement that seems backwards.

J was arrested for selling cocaine. Mary knew too many young men whose lives had been ruined by cocaine. She could easily judge J. She was clear that what he had been doing was wrong. Yet, he was in fact a young man she had known from the time he was a baby. She had been his youth group leader at church. She knew his father abused his mother and had beaten her so badly that she had been blinded, and she knew that his mother had only recently died. She felt compelled to offer mercy.

She lined up his pastor and got letters of reference to take to his hearing, and together she and the pastor went to court and waited all the time it took for J’s case to come before the judge. Convinced by the support that had been presented, the judge, pointedly holding the young man accountable for what he did with this new chance, released him into their care.

Mercy is not the same as passivity or accepting anything and everything. It is a standing with, recognizing one’s own need for mercy, rather than feeling or acting superior and standing on top of. Mercy has costs. It isn’t about safety and security. Mercy recognized for what it is and received has the effect of yeast added to a measure of flour and liquid. Mercy transforms hearts. It comes from Love.

Queries:

What about your life would make you want to receive mercy rather than judgment?

What do you need to leave behind in order for your life to be more mercy-full?

Prayer:

Breathe in mercy. With the outward breath, let go.   An alternative prayer is the one routinely used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church–“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.”

For further reference:

See James 2: 1-13, a passage that warns against showing partiality for one group over another and ends with the call for mercy.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).