Reposting from January 1, 2011: The Year Ahead

I am sharing again what I wrote a year ago: I didn’t get it right this past year, and there’s another year coming, and it’s time to keep on keeping on.

The Year Ahead

Posted on January 1, 2011

Reading and listening today on 1/1/11, I find both news of the individual resolutions for change of men and women around the nation and world, as well as a number of public predictions and wish-lists for the public world we all share.  I believe that the two are indivisible.  The considerations of any one of us as to how I need or want to change have to be seen in the context of the world around us.  There is no “I” that is not part of a larger “we.”  What I do has effects far beyond me.  What we do, in any part of this human world, has impact on me and on individuals near and far.

If there is any truth in this, what can I say in one small voice about the year that we are about to share and to live together?

This year,

I want to be honest and truthful in my dealings with others, in the words that I use and the deeds I undertake.  I will state, sincerely and openly, what I really believe, and then be prepared to listen to the truth my partner in conversation has to share.  To do so is to show respect both for others and for myself.   The premise here is that I have something of import to say about my life, the issues of the day, and about the state of the planet, and so do all others.  Some are better informed and educated than others, but all have an inviolable human dignity, a right to speak and be heard, a stake in what happens around us.  This is true in relation to governments, to churches, and to every institution large and small with which any person relates.

In the larger world, we could do with the leadership of our nation sounding more like leaders of the nation and less like ideologues of their political parties.  In times that are asking consistently more of our common creativity and commitment in order to devise together solutions to problems that might not have been imagined by our forebears in terms of either substance or extent, we need everything our leaders have to offer.  Staying on party message while the world shifts violently again and again is the least helpful approach to forging any possible future.

In other words, personally and publicly, let’s say what we mean, not what party or family or institutional attachment necessarily expects or urges us to say.

This year,

I will believe that more is possible.  I have seen in prior years that more pain, more destruction, more war and more disintegration is possible, and probable.  I realistically accept that I will see that ‘more’ as long as my eyes respond to the light.  But this year I choose to believe in another ‘more.’  I believe that I can connect more deeply to friends and family.  I believe that I can respond more genuinely to the needs of people I know well and to people whom I pass once here on the streets of New York.  I believe that I can find the energy within to become more truly the man that I am called and enabled by God to become.  I believe that I have not yet begun to mine the possibilities within for expression, for commitment, for excellence.

When I look at the world around me, I will look this year with eyes attuned to the ‘more.’  There is more common ground that we can discover together regarding who we are as a people, and who we hope to be.  There is more we can do to find ways to provide medicine for those who suffer, and to keep healthy those who are.  There are more ways that we can connect the ideas and the commitment of the young among us to the needs of those who are nearer the end of life, for a sharing of experience, wisdom, and possibility.  There is more we can do to bring believers of various faiths together in conversation, there to see that as great as their differences are, there are resources in each of their traditions that can be mined to face the challenges of these times as one.  There is more to hope for, even in the face of a difficult present and an unseen future.  There is more reason to choose hope, even when it seems blind, than to choose despair.  There is more that unites the child in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn to the child on the outskirts of Beijing than will ever meet the eye.

In other words, times of supreme challenge are the last times in which, personally or publicly, we should retreat only to what we have already known, and fail to envision something that has never yet been seen.  There is always something new, and it is not always bad.  Sometimes it brings the re-creation of the established by the unpredicted.

This year,

I will love beyond reason.

Reason has its considerable value.  I have never advocated for an unreasonable or unreasoned life.  I won’t this year either.  But while reason remains in his accustomed seat, love will be allowed to enter the scene, perhaps descending unexpectedly in a bright yellow hot-air balloon, perhaps being spoken from the lips of the seemingly least likely character.  Beyond what reason asks of me, I will be willing and open to love the unlikely, even the apparently unlovable.  After all, they by definition need to be loved most of all.  Can I love Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity?  It appears unreasonable to try.  All the more reason to do so.  And can Mitch McConnell love Barack Obama?  While only he can answer that question, he should know he has a responsibility – new with this new year – to answer anew.  And in the quiet rooms and the private places of living as well, there perhaps above all, love can trump reason in ways that will make this year worth living.

The death of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ strikes broadly.  I mean this: beginning this year, do ask what is lovable in those you meet, and do tell them what you see in them that you love.

This year,

I will not tire.  There is too much at stake.

The news can drag me down with its daily litany of failures, of acts of hatred, of the celebration of misunderstanding.  Personal responsibilities can at times and for periods weigh heavily on any of us and slow our steps or change our direction.  This year I will take as my own the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah:

God doesn’t come and go. God lasts.

He is Creator of all you can see or imagine.

He doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch his breath.

And God knows everything, inside and out.
He energizes those who get tired,
gives fresh strength to dropouts.

For even young people tire and drop out,
young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don’t get tired,
They walk and don’t lag behind.”

(Isaiah 40: 29-31, The Message)

These are not days that allow for exhaustion.  I’m not advocating for denial when energy lags, as it will.   Rather I am admonishing myself and you not to let our lowest moments on a given day or throughout the year define either who we will be or what will be the history we write together from this day forward.  Not only do our times ask for our best.  They also ask that our best become better – much better.

This year,

I will not stop here.  Every hour and day of 2011 may mock what I’ve written above, mock it both in the most private moments and in the moments that will define and redefine our world.  This only means that this and other musings on the year ahead have to be re-examined and re-written as often as necessary to keep them fresh and real, and directed to the actual situations in which we live.  So I will return to this page, and so should we each I think, to like pages of our own, and to the common page upon which we are all writing together as darkness falls on this first day of the still-new year.

Christmas Thoughts

Dear Loved Ones,

 

Alexander Smith the Scottish poet (31 December 1830- 5 January 1867) said:

 

“Christmas is the day that holds all time together.”

 

That is a thought to hold, particularly as each individual celebration of Christmas arrives at a moment when everything seems to be falling apart.  Amazing and harrowing consistency there.

 

We humans find ways in every new year to oppose one another, to grouse, to forget the past, to fight again and again, and to learn (if at all) only ever so slowly.  So this Christmas we find ourselves within days of the ‘end’ of the longest war in the history of the USA (and that is saying something), and already the nation born out of that conflict in its present form, Iraq, is racing to fall apart politically and in terms of renewed and horrendous violence. 

 

Yet we will continue to believe, many of us, that there is reason for war, and that the reason this happens now is because the war was not long enough.  Might it not be instead, as the tiny Infant whose birth we recall this coming Sunday might remind us, that the peace is not long enough, and never has been?

 

How does Christmas Day hold all time together?  That day opens up into an eternal Day without end; a day filled with the light of the Christmas star,  with the light and the wisdom of the Child who grew up to be teacher and healer and self-giving-to-death Savior.  That eternal Day is always this day.  It is always directly before us.  It is always right here.  The only thing we need do to recognize that dawn is to accept it.  But instead, if you’re like me, you probably think that today, just for one more day, I may have a better idea of how things should be.  A better idea than the One who sent the Son to be born of woman in Bethlehem.

 

I pray that, despite our commercial and corporate lunacy, that this past has been a good year for you and your loved ones.  I pray that at least some of these past months of days have opened to a glimpse of the Day that will last forever.  And I pray the same may be true of even more of the days to come.  Many of you I see only infrequently since my move to New York.  That doesn’t mean that you are not on my mind and in my heart day to Day.  You are.  You are precious to me.  You have helped to form my life thus far, and in doing so, know it or not, you have been tender and effective tools in the hand of God.

 

I pray for you tonight, that this Christmas – in the midst of the turning world – may be for you the day that holds all time together, and the opening to a new and beautiful Day.

 

Love always,

John

 

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Choosing Advent ‘Anois’

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!”

So opens the word of God on this Advent season, this new year of the church’s life. It opens with a cry from the human heart God-ward, a cry that could only be heard by deity, only answered – if it is to be answered – by the one who is the Source and the Hope of all that is, the one who is both our origin and our place of arrival.

To that One, in the 64th chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah, returned home from exile, facing hopes for a renewed nation, a re-built Temple, and a reinvigorated economy that were fading fast in the face of factions who could only revile one another, the voice of God’s people through the prophet speaks. They say, “You are our only hope. In times past you did astounding deeds. Our fathers and mothers have told us. Do astounding deeds now. We are sinners, living in a sinful land. No one calls out to you from this place, but today we must. We are the clay, and you Father are our potter. We are the work of your hand. Now, re-shape us, re-create us, whatever it takes. Make us and our land new.”

This call is repeated by the psalmist today. “The only bread we have is tears. Bowls of tears are our only drink. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine on us; only in that light can we be saved!”

What kind of beginning to Advent is this? The world around us, long before the Thanksgiving turkey had been stuffed and placed in the oven, has been stringing the lights; cuing Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Burl Ives from the great beyond; calling us to rejoice and to sing and to hang the mistletoe, and above all, to shop with abandon. But here in this place dedicated to the Grace that flows from the Divine One, the season opens with a cry of devastated hearts to God, a final desperate cry rising up to say: Save us! Save us from complacency. Save us from despondency. Save us from living blithely along the surface of life. Save us from the worst of ourselves and save us for the best of ourselves. Save us for love. Save us for service. Save us for joy. Only you, Lord God, can do it. Tear open the heavens and come down! Let the mountains around us shake as you come. Do something unexpected and new.

Not long ago I was getting new license plates for my car. New York plates. I chose plates that help support cancer research, and I was given the chance to choose the letters and numbers that will be on the plates. As you might imagine, tried and true possibility after tried and true possibility were all taken. Finally I decided to fall back on my family heritage and I chose a word in Gaelic. The word is Anois, a n o i s. It means ‘now.’ My thought at the time was that the word reflects a spirituality that invites us to remain ever in the present moment, attentive to what is happening here and now; more importantly attentive to what God is doing in this precise passing moment.

Anois. I think this may be the word for me this year as Advent begins. Forget what may be happening next week, or three weeks from now, or on Christmas Day. Never mind that I know, and that I will celebrate again, the amazing gift of God come among us as one of us in the Incarnation. That comes later. But now. What is God doing now?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr to the faith in the last century, preached a sermon on “the coming of Jesus into our midst.” His words, spoken many years ago, can call us today to the now of this moment, the anois of this opening Advent season.

Bonhoeffer said, “It is very remarkable that we face the thought of God coming among us so calmly. . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God,” our modern-day prophet says, “is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”

The Israel for whom Isaiah spoke lived in a time of societal upheaval, of the collective inability to put things right; a time of economic near-ruin and political near- paralysis. The Israel to whom Jesus speaks in apocalyptic terms in the 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel lived in a time and place in which they were not their own. Greater powers dictated much of their lives, and there appeared to be little they could do about it. The major forces were forces beyond the control of the ordinary people; the disparity between the powerful and the powerless was beyond reckoning; the distance between the experience of life of the wealthy and that of the impoverished was almost immeasurable.

So these were times not unlike our own. In their respective ‘nows’, these ancient Israels chose to call on God as their hope. They chose to know themselves, and to be known to the greater world, as people of God. They chose to be awake and aware of the presence and the action of God among them, even if that action seemed to be almost unnoticeable, unseeable, at the time. They chose to make known publicly their vulnerability. In word and action they said, “We are alone. We feel powerless. We don’t know how to move from our present place to something better. We need help. We need God. We need God not only to open up possibility for us. We need God to tear the top off the world, to break through the heavens, to do things that have never been done before, to change everything. And we dare, weak as we are, to ask for all that.”

In our time, in our Advent, in our now, are we able, are we willing, to be as honest and as vulnerable as they were in their times? As we do buy the tree and hang the wreaths and hum the familiar Yuletide tunes, as we write the cards and plan the next holiday meal and the travel it will take to reach that table over the next few weeks, can we allow at least this space, this sacred space where we come together to keep Advent, to pray Advent, to be a place where our vulnerability and need can be revealed? Can we make this a table around which we are not afraid to admit that we hunger, and that only this bread can begin to fill us? Can we trust one another to be men and women who dare to live in this present moment, this now, this anois, as our children always do, and there to be people open to God, and to God’s plan to ‘draw near and lay claim to us’?

I dare say we can. If we can, we will find more in this present moment than we otherwise would ever know. More of the greatness of God, and of the great potential we are as God’s people.

The poet Luci Shaw puts the challenge in words so well in her poem, “…for who can endure the day of his coming?”

“Sterile skeptics, yet we may be broken
to his slow, silent birth, his beginning
new in us. His big-ness may still burst
our self-containment to tell us,
without angels’ mouths, Fear not.

God knows we need to hear it, now,
when he may shatter with his most shocking
coming, this proud cracked place,
and more if, for longer waiting,
he does not.”