Spiritmatters August 2011

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To love another person is to see the face of God…

 
In the book of Genesis, God states that: “It is not good for man to be alone.” God neglected, however, to elaborate on just how hard it would be for people to live together. In the biblical story, it didn’t take very long at all for Adam and Eve’s relationship to encounter serious trouble, and THEY were living in the Garden of Eden. It should come as no surprise to us then that relationships continue to be the central struggle of most of our lives.

 

Whether it is with a significant other, a family member, a friend, a co-worker or a stranger on the street, the relationships we have with the other people in our life can be a blessing or a challenge and frequently they can be both at the same time. They are the source of our greatest joy, and of our greatest pain.

 
We all want to be loved. There is something deeply affirming and gratifying about having people in your life that want to be close to you either emotionally or physically. It gives us hope that the universe may not be as cold and lonely as we otherwise might imagine. None of us is perfect. We all have moments when we don’t feel loveable: a bad hair day, a bad mood day, or just a bad day period. We all have things about ourselves that we would like to change. It is important to have people in your life that can see past your flaws even when you can’t. The people in your life that truly love you know about all the skeletons in your closet and don’t care. They are the people who have seen you without your make-up or your game-face. They are the people who know who you truly are and not just the image that you project to the rest of the world. True love can really only happen when you truly know someone. It is amazing how many supposedly serious relationships are based upon false pretenses. The world can be a very difficult place in which to live, and we cannot be vulnerable to everyone all the time, but we all need at least one or two people in our lives to whom we can reveal our truest self.

 

On August 6th, many Christian churches observe the Feast of the Transfiguration, which memorializes an event mentioned in the gospels where Jesus takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to reveal to them who he truly is. We know from the gospel accounts that Jesus was closer to some of his disciples than he was to others. It was only to Peter, James and John that Jesus felt comfortable revealing his innermost self. Perhaps in that moment of transfiguration, when Jesus revealed his true nature to the three disciples on the mountain, his desire was to be known and loved for who he truly was, and not just for what others wanted him to be. It is a desire that I believe most of us share. There is an iconic image of Christ holding open his chest to reveal his heart. It is meant to convey just how vulnerable God is willing to be in order to be loved by us. To open your heart to someone and reveal your innermost thoughts and feelings is an extreme act of vulnerability, but it is really the only way to be truly loved. If life were simply about survival of the fittest we would probably never allow anyone else to truly know who we are; it would simply be too risky. Luckily life appears to be about more than just survival and we each have the opportunity to be known and loved by others in a way that helps us overcome our own humanity. Perhaps the desire to be loved for who we are and not just for what others want us to be is a trait that humans have in common with God. Maybe that desire to be known and loved is a part of the divine image in which the book of Genesis claims we were created.

 
Who knows you? Who are the people in your life that know all your baggage and don’t care? Who can you be completely and totally honest with? Pay attention to the people in your life that pay attention to you. Hold on to the people that want to know what makes you tick; the people that know your foibles; the people that can anticipate your thoughts and actions. Those are the people that want to know and love you for who you truly are, and aren’t just looking to cast you into a role that they have already written.

 

As the story goes, immediately after Adam and Eve took the bite of that forbidden fruit, their first inclination was to try to cover themselves up and conceal themselves from God. Our reality as humans living in a broken world is that we aren’t able to reveal ourselves completely to every person we come across. Not every relationship in our life is meant to be deep and meaningful, and they aren’t all meant to be life-long. But pay attention when someone opens their heart to you. It is in those knowing and loving relationships that we experience how it feels to see another person with open eyes and a vulnerable heart. It might just be the way that God looks at us.

 

Spiritmatters Monthly December 2011

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The hopes and fears of all the years…

If you think that Christmas is just about hope and love and light and happiness then you are setting yourself up for a huge disappointment come December the 25th. Despite all the carols played constantly over the radio, this time of year isn’t always the “Hap, Happiest season of all.” Let’s face it, December is probably the most stressful month of the year for most of us: the crowds, the shopping, the traffic, the parties, the Christmas lists, and that’s just if you are lucky. For some, the holiday stressors take on an entirely different dimension: fear, depression, loneliness, anxiety. The darkness of December isn’t always outside our doors; sometimes it’s within us as well.
We all have this cookie-cutter image of what a happy holiday is supposed to look like, but most of us know deep down that our celebrations are rarely, if ever, perfect. Despite so much commentary and complaint about the commercialization of Christmas in recent decades, the reality is that holiday stress is hardly a new thing. If you spend much time watching old Christmas movies over the next few weeks you may notice a theme throughout many of them: anxiety, fear and desperation. Consider the following list of holiday classics:
A Christmas Carol

It’s a Wonderful Life

Miracle on 34th Street

The Bishop’s Wife

Christmas in Connecticut

White Christmas

A Christmas Story
And yes even, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Each of these classic stories about Christmas includes at least one or more characters that are driven to their absolute limit by the demands that life places upon them this time of year. Even Charlie Brown was overwhelmed by Christmas stress and that was over 50 years ago! Anxiety and fear are not a product of this generation, they are a product of every generation. Things like the media and the economy might make our problems worse, but they certainly don’t create them. We are human; and humans, for whatever reason, get stressed out and depressed this time of year. Maybe it is the weather, maybe it is the darkness, maybe it is something more profound and mysterious, but whatever it is, it is real and we need to be willing to address it and deal with it. Trying to act as if Christmas is merely a happy time, and nothing more, is destructive and dishonest. If we take the time to look closely at our holiday traditions, we just might find that they actually do try to address the great range of emotions we feel this time of year. The next time you are sitting in a church and suffering through a boring sermon (it happens), grab the hymnal in front of you and actually read the text of some of your favorite Christmas carols. You might be surprised to find out that these hymns, which many of us think we know by heart, actually have a lot to say about the darkness and brokenness in our lives. See if you can identify which popular carols these verses come from:
“Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

and waring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;

O hush the noise and cease the strife and hear the angels sing!”
“For he is our life-long pattern; daily when on earth he grew,

He was tempted, scorned, rejected,

Tears and smiles like us he knew.

Thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.”
“Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?

Good Christian, fear: for sinners here the silent Word is pleading”
“O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,

Dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere:

True man, yet very God, from sin and death now save us, and share our every load.”
“Where children pure and happy pray to the blessed Child,

Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild;

Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,

The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.”
These songs were not written to be sung by children; they were written to be sung by adults who know very well just how painful and dark the world can be. I get very frustrated when I hear people say that Christmas is a holiday about children or for children. It is not. Granted, there is great joy and fun in having little ones around that still have faith in the magic of Santa Claus, but that is just the point: they still have faith, they still believe. It is the adults in the world that need to be reminded of the power of God. We are the ones who need to hear the message of hope; we are the ones who need to be reminded that God’s love can heal our brokenness. Christmas is stressful, and we only need to review the story of the Nativity (cue Linus with his blanket) to be reminded that it always has been. Our holiday celebrations may not compare to those we remember as children, but then again, we aren’t children anymore; we know full well how tough the world can be. We need Christmas in a much different way than our children do: we no longer have visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads.
Of course the holidays can add stress to our lives, but they can also give us the added hope and inspiration that we need to get through that stress and keep going. If we listen to every verse of our Christmas carols, we just might realize that they are about hope AND fear. If we revisit some classic Christmas stories, we just might realize that much of the stress that we feel this time of year isn’t unique to us or to our generation, but is a part of the bigger picture which is Christmas. Of course, we could just do away with the holiday: we could take down the trees and the lights. We could blow out the candles, turn off the carols and cancel the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. We could get rid of everything that is Christmas, but it wouldn’t get rid of the stress in our lives. Christmas can help us to find what light there is in a world that can at times seem very dark. Know that every emotion you feel this time of year (joy or sadness, fear or relief, hope or despair) is a part of the Christmas story. Perhaps Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal Priest in Philadelphia, said it best when he wrote this carol in 1868:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by;

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Spiritmatters Monthly October 2011

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“No self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits.”
Growing up in the South, I have eaten my fair share of grits. They have always been a staple of my diet and even today I find myself reaching for the bag of grits on the shelf when I am looking for a hot comfort food that goes with just about anything. Many Northerners know about the South’s love affair with grits because it was a crucial part of the plot in the popular film “My Cousin Vinny.” Grits are a tradition in the South that European settlers learned from the Native Americans and in ages past many poorer Southerners survived on grits and not much else.
In the early 1900s, a horrible disease known as Pellagra (which is a niacin deficiency) became epidemic in the South, particularly in the poorer regions. Originally it was thought that Pellagra was caused by some germ or toxin in corn, but that explanation didn’t make much sense given that corn had always been a staple in the Southern diet. Why was this strange disease becoming a problem all of a sudden? Because the traditional method of making grits involved soaking corn kernels in lime water (the mineral lime, not the citrus fruit) before grinding them. This simple step makes niacin nutritionally available in corn, and therefore Native Americans and early settlers could survive on a diet of corn without many ill side effects. In the early 20th century, with the advent of so many new farming and milling methods in the South, the traditional method of preparing corn, including the preparation of grits, was replaced by what was thought to be a more sensible and faster method of just grinding the corn without soaking it. The results were disastrous: by 1916 approximately 100,000 Southerners had developed Pellagra and many died for the simple reason that they dispensed with an old tradition that they didn’t understand. The Native Americans didn’t know anything about niacin or specifically why soaking the corn in lime was important, they had just learned (undoubtedly through trial and error) that this was a step that needed to be taken.
I am always suspicious whenever any individual or group dismisses tradition lightly. It is a particularly nasty side-effect of so much wonderful innovation: we fall into the habit of thinking that the new way of doing things is always the better way, and it simply isn’t. Believe it or not, people have been having good ideas for a very long time. In our desire for creativity and innovation, we often forget the importance of wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge that comes largely from time and experience. If creativity is a spark, then wisdom is a slow-burning ember. We need wisdom because it keeps us from having to learn every one of life’s lessons the hard way. Tradition is one way in which the wisdom of our ancestors is handed down, but we have fallen into the belief that we must understand a tradition in order for it to be of value to us. We did not understand the purpose of washing corn kernels in lime water before milling them, but that doesn’t mean that tradition had no value. By dispensing with the tradition we were forced to learn the hard way just how important it was.
If the Pellagra outbreak in the South can teach us anything, it should be the danger of modern arrogance. Modern arrogance is the idea that we have only really figured the world out in the last 60 years or so and that every idea, every tradition and every practice of previous generations should be regarded with suspicion or condescension. Modern arrogance teaches us that people in the past were superstitious, ignorant and backward and that we, in contrast, are more enlightened and more clever. It just isn’t so. Next time you look at a medieval cathedral remind yourself that this building was built without power tools and calculators. How many of our modern buildings do you think will still be around in 500 or 1000 years? I am all for progress and innovation, but it should be done with humility and respect paid to tradition. We forget that traditions have had to stand the test of time, which is usually a far more severe judge than we could ever be. Give traditional ideas and methods a chance and don’t easily dismiss them. We may not understand everything our ancestors did, but that is probably more a sign of our ignorance than theirs.