Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is it in Giving that We Receive?

This Advent season was wonderful for me. It was minimally stressful and I managed to make time to wait expectantly for Jesus' birth. I broadened my creative horizons with a couple of exceptional Christmas choral concerts (besides the usual seasonal music at Sunday services) and also considered some Advent poetry. Familial get-togethers and nurtured relationships were all overwhelmingly positive and fulfilling. It is a time of year like no other for getting together with loved ones. But, I struggled with the commercial aspect of Christmas much more this year than ever before. I am not sure why. (In fact, I even had trouble expressing myself evenly for this blog entry.)
I am sure it says something about me, but I have never been very good with gifts – neither giving nor receiving. I am getting better though. I've learned to accept help and love much more readily in the past year. But this season, the consumerism associated with Christmas nearly overwhelmed the many magnificent aspects of the season for me.
I can accept that so much of people's attention and discussion focuses on sales, stores and presents. Ultimately, what threatens to get lost in the shopping is the very reason for the holiday, God's gift to us.
I do recognize that gifts bring joy to many. Still, it seems ironic that ubiquitous consumerism commemorates the humble birth of a poor man who spoke out consistently against economic injustice. The monetary costs of giving challenge those with little, and seem to encourage the haves to Lexus levels of lavishness. The material waste undermines our responsible stewardship of the Earth God gave us. Related to that is the question of how much is enough. Our culture rarely bothers to ask that question; more is always better. Finally, more things imply more clutter (a personal peeve of a former Manhattan studio dweller) which undermines my mental and spiritual clarity. I am not advocating asceticism, but there may be something to a simpler life. Or maybe I am expecting meaning where there isn't any.
We struggle to get the "perfect gift" for our spouses, mothers, sibling and/or friends - a thoughtful something that might say "I love you". I must admit that (much to the chagrin of my family) I struggle with expressing myself that way. Love is, after all, addressing the needs of another. It might be that a trip to Brookstone might be just the ticket. Often, though, our loved ones have told us exactly what they want from us. A gift that can't go on a credit card, is the more difficult to give. Given the choice between stuff and love, genuine love asks much more of us. And yet it is also the much more natural and life-affirming way.

So, we come back to the greatest gift that is the pretext for all of the presents at Christmastime. The Midnight Mass sermon at the Catholic Church in town asked whether - beyond the fact that God is with us, are we ready to be with him? I have experienced the wonderful gift of God's presence in my life as I have faced my most difficult trials. Traveling with him is the greater challenge. That is where the love lies. What more perfect gift to everyone in our lives than to follow his way and walk with him?

I wish everyone a happy and healthy 2010!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent Waiting

The weeks leading up to Christmas are a time of expectant waiting. It is intended to be a time of spiritual preparation for the arrival of the baby Jesus. As we all know, the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas often ends up being a stressful time of shopping and social obligations. Chronological time seemingly speeds up daily with ever more to do before the 25th.
But I've come to consider a different kind of time at a Christian Ed class I attended at our excellent church. It is (in Greek) "kairos" which differs from the more usual word for time which is chronos. "In the New Testament kairos means 'the appointed time in the purpose of God', the time when God acts." Visually, I imagine it as a more circular time that (re)turns back in on itself rather than the more straight line time that we are used to. The Advent season including Christmas is a terrific example of kairos – a special time that God set aside filled with wonderful memories. Each year we long to recreate the warmth of childhood with hand-me-down decorations and traditions. For many, it is a safe place that we long to return to every December.
Besides the fond holiday memories, I've had a very different kind of kairos replay in the past couple of weeks. I have been remembering the bittersweet sequence from seeming perfect health to a cancer diagnosis and then ultimately a lifesaving surgery a year ago. Unfortunately, this year's experience is about much more than commemorating my happy anniversary. I am vicariously reliving the surreal progression from a distance as two dear cousins grapple with their own cancers. It is certainly a case of kairos – "of God’s purposes intersecting and overruling this finite world of chronological time."
At a Blue Christmas service this past Sunday night, I was struck again by the difficulty of kairos time. It is, for me, the most difficult challenge that God places before us – to submit gracefully to his timing for us. For instance, I wrestle with the unpleasant kairos possibility of a recurrence of my own cancer. It's a situation where I want time to be straight-arrow linear away from the days when cancer was growing inside of me. Just as God gives us life and health and abilities and wealth – God also gives us disease. Inexplicably (to us), he gives us tragedy. And the very best we can do in response- maybe the only and most impossible thing – is to submit gracefully to his timing and purposes.
The appointed time of Jesus' birth is a convergence of the sacred and the secular, of celebration and consumerism, of kairos and chronos. And each of those both invites and challenges us. May God be with you this season as you wait for the Christmas cookies to come out of the oven, for critical test results, or the presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Take a moment to remember what the meaning of Christmas is and submit gracefully to his timing.