Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Have Yourself a Merry



Many thanks to graphic designer Corinne Woodward for designing this series of Occupy Advent posters based on well-known Christmas songs.

Monday, November 28, 2011

All I Want for Christmas ...


Many thanks to graphic designer Corinne Woodward for designing this series of Occupy Advent posters based on well-known Christmas songs.

Guest Post: Sermon for 1 Advent

Today's post is a sermon preached by the Rev. Kate Layzer at Newton Highlands Congregational Church (UCC) on the first Sunday of Advent. Thank you for sharing!


A long time ago — it must have been around the time I turned 18 — I dreamt that Jesus was coming back.

This was a surprising dream for me to have, since I wasn't raised to believe in Jesus. In my family, there were principles, and there were facts, and there was art, music, and literature. And the daily newspaper. That was the Layzers.

Which didn’t stop God from occasionally sidling up to the family oddball — me — and giving me a nudge. The dream seemed to come out nowhere, though.

I dreamt that Jesus was coming back, and it was supposed to be a secret, but somehow I got wind of it. My soul filled with dread. I had the vision of a bonfire. Not the hell of eternal fire —no, this wasn't that! This was the refiner's fire. This was the fire that burns away whatever is unworthy of God. There was no doubt in my mind that I would have to pass through it, with all my faults and my flaws. And I was not looking forward to it.

So my first response was fear. My second was hope. And my third was resolution.

As much as I dreaded the fire, I realized that something deep within me was ready to embrace it. I wanted to be on the other side of the fire, with my faults burned away. I said to myself that if Jesus was real, I wanted to be able to stand next to him. If Jesus was real, I wanted "in." I wanted it more than I feared what I would have to go through to get there.

So in the dream I prepared myself. And then things took a comic turn. Jesus appeared—and it wasn't Jesus.

There was a real Jesus, I felt certain of that. But this wasn't him. This guy looked tweedy and professorial — a fraud, not a savior. I awoke to a feeling of genuine disappointment. Only later, on reflection, did the dual messages of the dream become clear. The first was that Jesus was real. His coming into the world to judge and to save — that was real too. And I belonged with him; the dream knew that before I did.

The second message was like a sly poke in the ribs. And by the way, the dream told me: Your father is not the second coming of Christ.

I guess we all come to that realization sooner or later on the road to adulthood!

Normally I don’t share my dreams from the pulpit. But this is the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent is a dreaming time. It is a time when God's people slow down—yes, you heard me, SLOW DOWN—gaze through the window and out into forever, and give ourselves up to longing…

Not for sweaters or iPhones or golf clubs… but for God to draw near.

Come, we pray. Come set things right. Come for the poor, the captive, for the blinded and the oppressed. Come for us. Come for me, God. Come take the weight from my heart, loosen dread's grip on my spirit, so that I can straighten up and breathe and rejoice as one who has hope. Come, God, come soon! Come with judgment against the insidious forces of corruption and the destructive powers of greed. Hand me a broom, and I’ll gladly clean up with you, all day and all night. But come. I need you. We need you.

Are we ready for God to come to us? No. But we surely are in need.



In Advent, we prepare a nursery for the holy child to be born again. A bed of straw, rough walls to shelter animals, carols for lullabies. We dream of stars and shepherds, kings and hovering angels.

But we also gaze beyond the story of a child in a manger, to the new world which he has come to birth, where babies are not born into poverty. As it was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth [says our God];
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating…


No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in [my city],
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…


They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat…


Call it God's dream, if you will.
The dream of a world of justice and peace, where human life is precious and everyone is cared for; where laborers reap the fruits of their own labor, and no one is permitted to exploit the toil of others for their own gain.

Who wouldn’t want to live in a world like that? Who wouldn’t want to sign on to God’s dream for us? As long as we don’t have to go through what we’d have to go through in order to get there. Which is to say, the dismantling of everything.

Advent marks the beginning of a new church year. It coincides with the joyous decking out of homes and stores and public streets, the merry sounds of carols and bells and rustling paper, the smells of peppermint, cinnamon, and pine. But the Bible passages we read in Advent aren’t about any of that. They are about sudden disruption. They are about God breaking into the world and overturning the tables. OUR tables.

Ready or not, Christ is coming. And when he comes, Jesus, warns,

the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
This is the beginning of the birth pangs.

It will feel, in other words, like the end of the world. The end that ushers in a new beginning.

Is his coming good news, or not? Is Jesus friend or foe?

Well, it depends on your perspective.

It depends what you have to lose, and what you have to gain. It depends whether your dream for the world lines up with God's.

That's the paradox of all apocalyptic writing. It's written from the perspective of those at the bottom of the heap. It's the cry of those with nothing left to lose — the ones who have long since given up hope that the system could ever work for them. Their only salvation would be if God stepped in and took on the ruling powers.

If you have a secure, comfortable income, health insurance, and a nice place to live, and it feels to you as if you got where you are solely on hard work and talent, and not because you got a thousand lucky breaks along the way—if that's your vantage point, then overturning and dismantling might sound like the stuff of nightmares.

But if you're one of those who have fallen under the wheels of this economy — if you're a recent college graduate crushed under student debt, or if you’ve been looking for a job for 2 years and are being told not to bother applying unless you already have a job; if you had to put off retirement when the stock market crashed, if you’ve been denied health coverage, or if you or someone you love had their home foreclosed on (legally or illegally) -

and if, when you heard about the Occupy protests and went out into the streets to add your support, you got a face full of military-grade pepper spray at close range—

well, your reaction to apocalyptic warnings might be, "Can't come a moment too soon for me."

Are the Occupy protesters prophets or public nuisances? It depends on your vantage point. I happen to think what they’re doing is straight out of the Bible's playbook, from the symbolic act of departing society for the wilderness, to the resounding messages about justice, compassion, and the common good.

You may or may not agree. But given the ferocity of the police response to these protests, I think it's time for us to ask what it is about this ragtag movement that is so threatening. Why are the authorities using truncheons, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, sound cannons, and their fists against unarmed peaceful protesters? And why, in New York at least, are they targeting the press who are trying to cover what's going on?

What is being protected, here? What do the ruling powers have to lose?

When change comes, not everyone is going to think it's a good thing. Ask an Egyptian. Or a Syrian. Or a Libyan.

The question is, where is God moving in all of this?

What new world might God be bringing into being—whether we like it or not?

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here,
until the Son of God appear…

Until the Son appears, to bring, as his mother so memorably put it, the mighty down from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.

To long for that day, regardless of our position in the world, is to long for God's coming—even through we know how disruptive that coming will be. When our longing becomes greater than our fear — that's when we become God's Advent people.

"No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor," wrote Oscar Romero. "The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God."

Such a sweet little baby, lying in his bed of straw. Yet he comes to throw down the tables of the money changers, and with them, the whole world order. We can’t think about that without a very human sense of dread.

But for those whose hearts belong to God, upheaval is not punishment, it's process. Like birth pangs. It's new life being born. It's the old world giving way to make room for joy.

What does Christ's coming mean for you, this time around?

What do you stand to lose?
What do you stand to gain?
What is your deepest, your truest desire… the one that cannot fit on any Christmas list, or bucket list; the one which only God can fill?

If you aren't sure, or if you can't imagine how God would ever answer such a desire, then this Advent may have a message for you.

Instead of speeding up this season, why not slow down? Put down that list every so often, and take a few minutes for quiet dreaming. Let your gaze move out beyond where the eye can see, and let your heart fill up with longing…

…Come, O God. Come for me, for those I love, for all of us. Maranatha. Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Congregation Occupies Advent

The theme for Advent this year at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA), in Washington, DC, is "Occupy Advent: The Beginning is Near." As you might guess, we really like this idea.


The following is a newsletter article for written by the Rev. Ashley Goff, Minister for Spiritual Formation and Director of The Pilgrimage at Church of the Pilgrims. We commend it to you as an excellent reflection on Advent. Thank you for these words, Pastor Goff.


On September 17th, a handful of people occupied Liberty Square in Manhattan to fight against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process. Since September, Liberty Park has become home to hundreds of people and the Occupy Movement has spread to over a hundred cities, including Washington, D.C., where McPherson Park is now home to 150 people.

I have visited McPherson almost weekly for the past two months, aligning myself with a group of clergy that has organized themselves as protest chaplains. Like the Occupy movements themselves, protest chaplains have popped up throughout the U.S. and abroad to listen, pray, be a presence and be transformed by these alternative communities which speak truth to power.

If you haven’t been to McPherson Park, you should go. There is a kitchen serving 1,500 meals a day, an aqueduct system created from drinking fountains, a library, a prayer tent, and a compost and recycling area. Occupiers gather everyday at 6pm for their General Assembly, where the leaderless movement makes decisions about political actions and community life through a consensus model. When I’m in McPherson Park, I worry less about the strategy of Occupy. What are their demands? Do they have a method to the madness?

Instead, I take in an alternative landscape that has become a consciousness-raising experience for me. The community is a testimony to the brokenness of our economic system. As Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, said, we are part of a “dirty, rotten system.” McPherson breaks into that reality and has built a powerful community that is thriving on the norms of consensus and sharing.

Occupy is like a crack, breaking into the fa├žade of economic injustice and corporate greed. So is Advent. A big part of our Advent story this year focuses on that wild man named John the Baptist. Jesus’ cousin walked through the city of Jerusalem, barely clothed, eating locusts, and invited people to journey with him to the wilderness. The wilderness was no safe zone; the wilderness was a wild place. Rome, the dominant political system of the time, had a cosmology, a world view, that was logical, orderly, and based on the power of Caesar Augustus. Rome’s cosmology applied to everything but the wilderness. The wilderness was the anti-thesis of the Pax Romana and ignored by the powers-that-be.

For John, the wilderness was the place to receive the waters of new life and transformation. The wilderness was where you went to be outside that dominant space of the Pax Romana. People went to the wilderness to be baptized, repent, and turn away from Roman ways in order to embody the ways of the One to come. After the wilderness experience, they were to look at the world and Rome’s power structures in a new way; they were to go back to the city and do differently.

Advent is the birth of an alternative; it ushers in a new realm, a new cosmology. Occupy, as an alternative community, is doing the same.

Our theme at Pilgrims for Advent is Occupy Advent—making the connection between this burgeoning movement of alternative, political space in cities and the alternative, political land of the wilderness created by John the Baptist. Our hope is that our sanctuary will become an alternative space, a space where we hear and respond to the stories of Advent and go forth to proclaim a new way of being, seeing and doing.

How do we create a wild space, a wilderness so people can see the world in John the Baptist’s God-given cosmology vs. the cosmology of domination?

How does Advent take us to a wild, earth space where we remember our baptisms, the call to repent, and head into the city in a new, powerful, alternative way?

What parts of our lives need to be occupied so we can be and do in the ways of Jesus? What in our lives, in church, and on God’s planet needs be reclaimed, to be occupied, so we live as if a new beginning is near?

Advent begins on November 27th. As one body, let us Occupy Advent together.

I'll Have a Blue Advent

It can’t be helped this week, I’m thinking of my favorite holiday of the year—American Thanksgiving.

As congregational pastor, Thanksgiving is one is the easiest holidays of the year. There is nothing really to prepare for liturgically. Besides turkey, potatoes, and other good food, there is nothing to buy. Besides gathering with family and friends to eat, there is nothing extra to do. It is a true holiday for those of us in local church ministry.

This week is also the beginning of the “Christmas season” in The United States. This, of course, is not exactly accurate from a world perspective or from the liturgical practices. Christmas does not begin until sundown on December 24. Before that, we have the season of preparation, Advent. Much of the time we have a tendency, especially in The United States, to skip Advent and move directly into Christmastide.

But what we miss when we skip Advent and move directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, is a time to truly reflect and prepare for the Christmas festival, which is grand, magnificent, and filled with joy, wonder, and delight.

We invite you this Advent to join with us as we focus upon the season of preparation even as we live within the world.

What do we mean? Well, let’s take this example: In liturgical churches, colors help define the season. In times of celebration (Christmas, Easter, Weddings, Funerals), white is on the altar and the pastor’s vestments. In times of growth and everydayness of life, green is the color, symbolizing those ordinary times of life. During the times when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, we use Red, symbolizing flame! In times of preparation, we use purple. Purple is the color of penitence, of royalty, and of waiting. Purple is the color of Lent and Advent.

But Advent has a second color: blue. Blue is the color of waiting, of expectation, of royalty. Blue is also appropriate as we think about Advent not just as a time of penitence as it is a time of preparation. It is a time of reflection and acknowledging the “not yet.”

Occupy Advent is not about playing dirges, being Scrooges, and having a miserable time for you and everyone around you. That is not what Advent is about. We hope that you will take this season of Advent and truly prepare. Set aside the national holiday, the rampant consumerism and focus instead on preparing, with joy, for the coming of the Christ Child, Jesus, who was born, laid in a manger, and was worshipped by, shepherds (the working class), kings, and angels.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Advent Practice: Silence

We live in a noisy world. Cars driving by, cell phones ringing, TVs blaring, radios thumping. Around every corner, in every nook and cranny of our life, there is noise. We have become accustomed to it - the noise is the soundtrack of our lives.

Into all this noise, we raise our voices in prayer. We tell God what we want, what we need, what we think God should be doing in the world. And then we go back to our lives, surrounded by the noise, and wonder why God does not answer our prayers.

Last week, I found myself in conversation with a young man with his iPhone earbuds on. Don't get me wrong - I'm no curmudgeon about technology. Actually quite the opposite. Yet this conversation was near impossible. He approached me at a coffee shop, to ask directions to another spot in town. I turned, and quickly gave him directions. He said, "What?" I spoke a little more slowly, a little bit louder. Response: "I didn't catch that last bit."
St. Anne says, "Shush!" 

Without recounting the whole thing, you see where this is going. It was a very aggravating conversation. I answered him very clearly, and very directly, but my inquirer could not make sense of my answers because he was not listening.

And so it is in our lives. Sure enough, we talk to God. We are quick to tell God what we think God should be doing in the world, or to make requests to God. But we are too busy talking and listening to the noise of our lives to hear any response that God might make.

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone, and just known that they were not listening to you? As you talk, you can see on their face that - rather than really listening to you - they are thinking of what they are going to say next? I have a feeling that we often seem that way to God.

Advent invites us to quiet the noise, quiet down, and listen. Stop talking for a minute. Turn off some of the noise that we invite into our lives, and really - attentively and intentionally - listen.

It's not always easy - especially this time of year. But find a quiet space and a quiet moment. No phone, no music, no television, no interruptions. Find a still and quiet space in your life, and listen. For if we can hear, God is speaking.

The Lord said to Elijah, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice.
~ 1 Kings 19:11-12

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Changing the Conversation

Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.

James 3:2-6

James reminds us that words are never just words. Words carry power within them. It was with a Word that light came into being and God created the heavens and the earth. At was through the incarnate Word that God set about to redeem that world. In our daily lives, our words can cut right through those we meet, making them feel worthless and unlovable. Or our words can help those we meet recognize their value in God's eyes and ours as beloved daughters and sons of God.

Words have power. It is true in our one-on-one conversations, and also in our public conversations. As Christians, as pastors, as the church, we engage in conversations that carry beyond ourselves - public conversations.

Around this time of year, much of our public conversation has been shaped by corporate interests. Often we are unaware of this – but a quick look shows it to be true. From the way we talk about Santa Claus (what a great pitch-man!), to when we begin decorating our homes and shopping for presents. We all, in many ways, participate in this conversation – billions of dollars are spent every year to shape this conversation.

But, with the advent of social media (see what we did there), the power dynamic has shifted. A short ten years ago, in order to reach thousands of people you had to spend exorbitant amounts of money on advertising – which meant that the only voices who had the reach to shape the public conversations were large corporations. Through really slick and effective marketing, corporations have branded this season as the shopping season, the spending season, the debt season. All that has changed. With one tweet, one status update, one blog post, thousands can be reached. With no cost.

The power has shifted, and the power of words resides with all of us. We shape the public conversation, just as much as the corporations who spend billions. Are you tired of all the talk about how expensive gifts are the best way to show love? Tired of the coming of our Lord being used as an excuse for the worst sorts of crass commercialism? Together, we have the power to change that. Together, we can re-brand this season.

Here at Occupy Advent, we are going to spend the next month talking about the things that are most important to us. We are going to talk about our coming Lord Jesus, and the values of his Kingdom. We are going to talk about slowing down and simplifying our lives. And, by extension, we are not going to talk about purchases, sales, or products on social media.

It will be a challenge. We get as excited about gifts as anyone else. We think there are some retailers that are really worth supporting, especially local retailers. We love our friends and neighbors whose livelihood depends on the retail industry. However, we think it is vitally important – and within our reach – to change the public conversation.

And so we are choosing to not participate in the conversation of commercialism this holiday season (see how pervasive it is? Even that phrase – holiday season – was created by the advertisers for us). Perhaps you will consider joining us. Perhaps you are also willing to consider James’ warning, and what happens when we make careful use of our powerful words on social media.

When social media shapes the world, what happens to the conversation of commercialism if we refuse to participate in it?

Together, we can change the conversation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Welcome & An Invitation

Christmas will soon be here. It seems far off, yet it is so close. In the United States, it seems like Christmas hits stores earlier and earlier. My particular favorite bulk-buying store has had Christmas decorations up since early October. Most retailers “wait” until after Halloween to change displays from Halloween displays to Christmas.

At least in the United States, the “Christmas kickoff” really happens at Thanksgiving. When that last Thursday in November rolls around we are free to play Christmas music and carols on the radio. It is time to setup the Christmas tree and let the season of good will begin. The people within the churches on Sunday morning clamor to sing Christmas carols. Then on December 26, the trees begin to come down, the decorations are put away, and we enter into the winter season.
           
From a Christian perspective – and from one who has spent years in professional Christian circles – it is clear that when we celebrate Christmas this way we are missing something from our lives; we are missing something from our spiritual journey.

So we step back, and we slow down together.

The Christian year is divided into two great cycles: the Christmas cycle and the Easter Cycle. Each of these two cycles has three parts each: a time of preparation, a time of jubilation, and a time of reflection. In between these two great cycles is the ordinary time of our lives, the time where we grow, and live, and have our being. The Easter cycle is comprised of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. The Christmas cycle is comprised of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

In Western Christianity, Advent begins four weeks before Christmas. Christmas begins at sunset on December 24. In much of the Western world, Christmas has become a national holiday, supplanting the religious celebration in favor of a more generic, secular celebration. We are equally willing to sing along with White Christmas and Winter Wonder Land as we are with Silent Night and O Come, All Ye Faithful. We begin the celebration of this “secular Christmas” with one of my favorite holidays, Thanksgiving. Let me stress—none of this is bad. But what we miss when we skip Advent and move directly from Halloween to Christmas is a time to truly reflect and prepare for the Christmas festival. Unprepared, we often miss the grandeur, joy, wonder, and delight of that holy night.

This Advent, we invite you to join with us as we focus upon the season of preparation even as we live within the world.

In the weeks ahead, we will be talking about how we can slow down in our lives, how we can simplify our celebrations, and how we can watch and wait for the coming Lord. Join the conversation here on this blog, on our Facebook page, and on twitter.