Called to Joy: A Christmas Sermon


Based on Luke 2: 1-14


I might complain (just a little bit) to my pastor friends who serve churches that Christmas, at Monmouth College, comes on December 7th—which means I have to start listening to Christmas music mid-November to prepare myself and my message. There is no Advent in academia, no expectant season of waiting and spiritual preparation.

This year, though, I’m not complaining. Christmas couldn’t come soon enough.

In my message last year, I prayed to God to save us from the darkness which I described as a nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading. Obviously, I’m still praying that prayer.

This year, though, the angels have turned me to joy.

In Luke chapter 2, when the angels proclaim Jesus’ birth as “good news of great joy for all the people”, they do not do so in a time when joy is easy to be found, or to a people whose lives naturally spark joy. The shepherds, whom the angels address, are the poor day laborers, the Unseen, the field workers like those bringing in the harvest here in rural Illinois no matter the weather. As I drive by these field workers in rain, sleet and Halloween snowstorms, with my car heater blaring I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work. These workers, I imagine, do not rejoice in the labor, as much as what the labor provides—food, shelter, a livelihood for the family they love.

It is to these—these head-down, hard-working, don’t-stop-to-think-about-your-life-or-your-life-will-overwhelm-you— that the angels call to joy—great joy, in fact; life changing, necessary joy.

The poet Christian Wiman writes that “joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmosphere like sarin gas.”[1]

I often counsel people who are going through difficult times to intentionally seek joy as they observe the day’s sunset, or listen to their children’s laughter, or receive their spouse’s embrace, or witness a stranger’s random act of kindness.  Seek joy, I advise them, not to demean or downplay their darkness but to help them find their way through it. Joy can serve as a buoy when life’s storms overwhelm; moments of joy are stepping-stones through the darkness and despair.

Perhaps you have come here tonight, to Christmas at Monmouth, seeking such an inoculation of joy—a decision the angels would approve of. Because here among the music, and the beauty, and the love and pride we feel for our students who have worked so hard to pull all this off, the world’s problems do not feel so heavy, or so insurmountable.

We need this. We need the good news of a baby born to turn an oppressive human empire on its head; we need the good news that there is a power greater than human greed and immorality; we need the good news that the arc of the universe bends towards justice; we need to hear Luke’s angels proclaim that this Christmas there is good news of great joy for all the people.

We need this joy not only as an inoculation against the darkness and despair but also as a way to resist it.

The poet Jack Gilbert writes:

“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

Joy resists injustice; joy resists despair and hopelessness; joy resists evil by refusing to acquiesce or accept that darkness is the more powerful reality. The angels call a poor, oppressed people to joy so that they can resist the ruthlessness of their world.

Recently, I was introduced to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam felt a moral responsibility to write poetry for his people during the Russian Revolution of the 1900’s. When the government demanded poets write patriotic poems to inspire obedience among the working class, Mandelstam resisted. He resisted by writing poetry that evoked a violent, upending kind of joy; the kind of joy that can save you when life is insufferable. Mandelstam also wrote a poem mocking Stalin, which got him arrested, exiled and eventually killed.

In this Russian context, Mandelstam’s poems weren’t written down—they were too momentous, too truthful. He composed in his head while walking the streets of St. Petersburg, reciting his memorized poems to his wife, who memorized them herself and only decades later, after Mandelstam’s death, wrote them down.

Even after he was arrested and exiled to a Russian corrective-labor camp, Mandelstam continued to compose poetry. His health declined. He was starving. The last time he was seen alive he was scavenging for food out of a garbage dump. Mandelstam knew full well that he was about to die. Yet, still he resisted the darkness. The last poem he wrote before his death was this, called “And I Was Alive.”[2]

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering
power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel declares, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Embrace the joy the angels proclaim. Rejoice in the hope God provides.

 

 

 

[1] Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University Press, 2017

[2] Read more about Osip Mandelstam in Ilya Kaminsky’s introduction to “Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam” and Christian Wiman’s interview here: https://onbeing.org/poetry/and-i-was-alive/

[Feature Image: Drew Selby]

A Case for Generosity in a Selfish Time

This August I spent four days in Nashville, Tennessee taking a class through the Lilly School of Philanthropy where I was introduced to a new study out of Notre Dame called the Science of Generosity Initiative and the book written from the research called “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” The data from this national study, led by social scientists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, reveals that the more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy.

Many Americans enjoy living very generous lives. But, according to the data, even more do not.

So why are Americans so selfish? One reason offered by the Science of Generosity Initiative is the fear of scarcity—a fear on the rise in America today.  We are worried about our personal resources, our national resources, our global resources. The fear of running out of money, basic necessities, and basic comforts leads us to a mentality best described by my friend Paul from Tennessee, “You need to get all you can. Can all you get. And guard that can.”

Certainly, there are people for whom scarcity of resources is a real problem. But for others of us, we would be well served to ask, Do we have a scarcity problem, or do we have a distribution problem?

We recently led a program for our college students on Adulting 101.  During the program we encouraged students to create a personal budget for themselves. How much money do you take in in income? How much are your expenses? Then—the all-important question—what is a want and what is a need? Do you need all those mocha frappe’s at Starbucks? Or do you need books for your classes?

Actually, a little bit of financial planning can go a long way when it comes to living a generous life. I will confess that money and economics are not my favorite topics. When my husband, Dan, and I meet with our financial advisor, I fight to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head from boredom. But after reading Smith and Davidson’s book, I realized that my loosey-goosey, unstructured way of giving (put a little in the plate here, contribute to that charity there) made very little impact on both me personally and the social causes I seek to support.  So I forced myself to sit down with Dan; we calculated our income, our expenses, tracked what we currently give to church and charities, discussed where we wanted to be on the scale of our giving (between 4% – 10% of our income) and made some decisions that felt faithful to both of us. Will we have to cut back on some of our favorite indulgences? Yes. (Mainly, I’m told, I’ll have to buy fewer clothes.) But we will benefit more from this planned giving and our causes will benefit more from our structured, monthly contributions.

The fear of scarcity is on the rise, but I imagine most of us could sit down, do a little financial planning and discover we have more to contribute than we realize.

Another reason Americans are less than generous, according to the Science of Generosity study, is a cultural value of autonomy, individualism, and exceptionalism. To put it more crudely; if it doesn’t directly affect me or my family or my people, it’s not my problem.

Greta Thunburg, the young environmental activist from Sweden, has her work cut out for her when she encounters such ungenerous people. When asked about the problem of global warming and climate change, Doug (who was surveyed for the Generosity Study) responded by saying this:

“I don’t pay attention a lot to that. But in the big picture of, “is the ice all gonna’ melt in Antarctica?” Yeah sure it probably is. Am I going to be here? Probably not. Are my kids gonna’ be here? Probably not.”

I feel like I could end this blog post here by just saying: “This is Doug. Don’t be Doug.” But Doug’s awful. And you’re not. So what can we less awful, more generous people do to help a self-centered, self-serving society that is afraid of losing….resources, freedoms, privileges, and power?

First, I think we need to be less shy about talking about money. The bible doesn’t shut up about money and all religions encourage generosity, so it shouldn’t be a topic people of faith avoid. Do our children and our youth know the happiness, health, and purpose in life we enjoy when we give generously?

Also, I think we could all benefit from examining our lives and considering where we could be more generous. For instance, when we vote, do we just vote along party lines, or do we listen to each candidate’s platform? Do we vote for candidates’ who promise to improve only our lives and our economic situation, or the candidates who will benefit the lives of the poor, the disenfranchised, the stranger? Do we invest in relationships beyond our small circle of family and like-minded friends? Do we take any great risks, or sacrifice resources we will really miss to benefit those whose need is greater than ours?

Generosity begets more generosity. I pray we can all enjoy the health, happiness and purpose in life our generosity inspires and encourage our society towards the same.

 

[Feature Image: yarenlen]

 

How I more than doubled the books I read as a busy, working mom

I love to read, always have. But after I became Mom to my two beautiful kids, I mourned the loss of my reading time. I’ve tried to convince my husband to read with me at night, side by side on the couch after the kids have gone to bed (so romantic!) But he reads during the day to prep for teaching his college classes and just wants to watch TV or movies at night. I want to spend time with him, so we typically watch TV or part of a movie, then I head to our bedroom upstairs for about thirty minutes of reading time before I fall asleep. With this scant amount of time dedicated to reading, I’d be lucky to finish eighteen books a year. It took me almost a year and half to finish Anna Karenina. (That book is like a trophy on my shelf now.)

I tried audio books, but found myself getting distracted, then losing the storyline, then quitting in frustration. This past December, though, I started something new.

I’m not sure how I started reading with both an audio book and a hard copy. I think I needed to read a book quickly for work and decided to buy it on Audible even though I already had a copy. But it worked. I’d listen to the audio book while driving, getting ready in the morning, exercising, folding laundry, doing the dishes. If I found myself getting lost, I’d return to the hard copy to re-read what I needed to get myself back on track with the story. Then I’d continue with the audio book.

Having to re-read the hard copy of a book may sound like it would take me twice as long to read a book. But now that I have found a way to make audio books work for me, I am reading books all the time—instead of just 30 minutes at night. I’ve even found that I’m learning how to focus on audio books better now.  Before I started this new reading method, I couldn’t listen to an audio book and exercise at the same time. Now I can.

Since I started reading books like this, using both audio books and a hard copy to turn to when I get lost, or reading both at the same time, I have read thirty books in 6 months. The key to this approach, though, is to avoid BUYING two versions of the same book. That would break the bank! So I’ve learned to rely on my local libraries for the hard copies of my books, shop the sales on Audible for credits, and use apps like Libby for older audio books to rent.

Happy reading!!

[Photo Credit: Magda K]

Prison Book Club

Fifteen minutes into our discussion of Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III, Harold raises his hand. We were in the cleanest, air conditioned classroom of the prison’s vocational building, but the fan was blowing directly above Harold’s head. “Would anybody mind if we shut this fan off?” Shutting the fan off would definitely warm the classroom.  But all twenty of us–seventeen inmates, two faculty and me (the college chaplain)–understood that Harold just wanted to hear the conversation better.  We agreed to shut off the fan.

This is par for the course in our book club discussions at the men’s prison 15 miles from our college’s campus. As our faculty lead discussions on books such as Plato’s Republic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Martian, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the men lean forward in their seats, not wanting to miss a word. They are thoughtful, intelligent men who are hungry for opportunities to learn.  Our faculty love teaching in the prison. The men who attend our book club have renewed our vocation as educators.  Every time we are with these men we witness the liberating power of education. After class, each man expresses his gratitude for us coming to read books with them and oftentimes they write us heartfelt thank you notes.  Here are some quotes from the men about our book club:

“I felt like a free man for those two hours. The time went by so quickly.”

“We, as prisoners, are rarely the recipients of altruistic acts performed by strangers; therefore, in the rare occurrence when we are, not only do those acts connect us, albeit loosely, to society, but also they affirm our humanity.”

“Having the opportunity to read material that I normally wouldn’t is a breath of life infused into my soul…The collaborative open dialogue of the book club allows me to grasp on to the very thing which my closed prison environment was built to strip away, little-by-little, year after year…my humanity.”

“This book club has given a forum for those intellectuals among our population to gather and fellowship, as well as, challenge ourselves and each other. Perhaps the group’s greatest virtue is that the club is diverse and welcoming of people from different walks of life. In a profound way, your contributions have brought together men whom under normal circumstances may not associate, and so you’ve provided us all with the opportunity to grow beyond just the knowledge provided by the books we’ve read. Knowledge we glean from each other.”

Currently, there are many disturbing cases where books are being banned from prisons, in spite of evidence that reading builds empathy, emotional intelligence, critical thinking skills and reduces recidivism. We feel fortunate that our local state prison continues to let us run this book club.

Would you like to support the program? If you would like to purchase a book for an incarcerated man in our book club, please follow this link to review our wish list of upcoming books we have been approved to read.  If all the books are purchased, you can also support these men by buying a gift card that will be used to buy books we are approved to read in the future. All our books need to be paperbacks and go through an approval process at the prison.

 

Jesus’ Ascension and Max the Dog

It’s been TOO long since I’ve posted on my blog. One of my summer goals, along with getting back to meditating, is to start posting again.  So stay tuned….

I have been writing a lot, though, working on my first book and I have three Living by the Word articles out now in the Christian Century.  Here’s a link to the article I wrote on Jesus’ Ascension from Luke 24: 44-53–a text I find challenging and a little hokey.

And here’s a picture of our dog Max, who gets me every time when he begs like this with those big brown eyes.

img_2418.jpg

More to come!

Adjusting our Eyes: A Christmas Message

What follows is my sermon delivered at the  Monmouth College Christmas concert and worship service.

[A spot light is turned on me, the rest of the chapel is dark.]

Wow. I can’t see a thing.  It’s so dark out there.  I mean I know you’re there—I can hear you breathing, and shifting in your seats, and laughing….but it’s creepy because I can’t see you.

You know what’s creepier, though?  To be in this chapel alone…at night…without any light. I’ve had to come in here sometimes at night and crawl through the pitch black, in heels no less, to get to the light switch behind the stage.  If I were smart, I wouldn’t rush that walk through the darkness, because I’m clumsy, and sure to trip over something or walk into a wall. But I want to get to that light switch as quick as possible. All my life I’ve been conditioned to believe bad things happen in the dark—Edgar Allen Poe things.  Every horror movie I have never watched is set in the dark. Every monster jumps out from under the bed after the lights go out.  It’s scary here in the dark.

Isaiah 9: 2-7 is read by Christians at Christmas because of its reference to the birth of a baby, born to save a people.  But tonight I want to focus on the darkness inherent in this text. The monsters the Israelites were facing were real—the yoke of foreign oppression; the boots and blood of war.  It was not just a dark time, according to Isaiah, but deeply dark.

Our historical context is far from that of the 8th century, but Isaiah’s words still resonate today. I mean, can you remember a darker Christmas than this? Maybe you can.  But this season, to me, seems particularly bleak: our nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; tear gas and rubber bullets used against refugees; the #MeToo movement revealing what we women already knew; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading.  Then, here in Monmouth we’ve got Thanksgiving blizzards dangerously stranding students on the road, friends and loved ones struggling with their mental health—suicide, dementia, cancer, marriages and families breaking under stress—seriously, our list of dark things could go on and on.

Dear God, I pray every day, save us from the darkness. I want to move through the pitch black as quickly as I can, even in heels, because it scares me. Maybe you’re scared too?

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that  “70 percent of our sense receptors are located in our eyes. Those of us who can see rely heavily on our sight.” Darkness is disorienting. It frightens us because we don’t know what to expect of the dark, we don’t know where we are going when we are in its midst, what we will find, or what will find us.

Here in the darkness, though, the prophet Isaiah wants us to slow down; he wants us to give our eyes time to adjust. Even while walking in darkness—he says—there is something to see.

I was recently introduced to contemporary artist James Turrell who uses darkness as his medium. In an essay entitled, “In Praise of Darkness” Heather Lanier describes one of Turrell’s exhibits at a museum in Massachusetts. “You enter,” Lanier writes, “by stepping into a narrow corridor—the only source of light is behind you—which quickly turns 180 degrees to the right. As you get farther along, the walls must be painted black because now the darkness is nearly complete. If you go with children, this is when they’ll start to grasp your hand tighter. If you go alone, this is when you might seek out the handrail, flu season or not. You’ll feel the handrail bend, and you’ll let it guide you through another 180-degree turn. The darkness at this point becomes thick, almost palpable, and if you’re like me, you’ll put your hand out in front of you because you’re certain you’re about to walk into a wall. You’ll follow the handrail until you reach its end, at which point you will have no sense that the space has just opened up into a room. Your hand will eventually find an armrest, which means you’ve arrived at the viewing chair. You sit and wait in the blackness. It can take as long as 15 minutes for the irises to open sufficiently to perceive this work.”

In a James Turrell exhibit, what helps you follow that handrail into the darkness and sit in the black room long enough for your eyes to adjust is the belief that there is something there—something good and beautiful.  You just need to give yourself a little time—you just need to be patient enough and courageous enough to sit in the dark in order to see it. But that’s not easy. Lanier described two college age women who stumbled into the exhibit with her, linking elbows. Standing at the entryway, they whispered that they couldn’t see a thing and refused to take another step. Then one of them drew something from her back pocket, and in an instant the stark light of her cell phone lit up their faces.

Isaiah wants us to know, and believe, that the darkness hold promise, that the darkness is not dark to God, that art and beauty, meaning and purpose can be found even in the bleakest of circumstances. This is, after all, the message of Christmas.  When all that surrounds us feels like death, new life is born. When hate is on the rise, love prevails. When darkness blinds, light illuminates. God is not absent in the darkness. Beauty and meaning are not absent in the darkness. The key is to believe—that something is there—something is here for us—something good and beautiful. Then being patient enough and courageous enough to give our eyes time to adjust.

Eventually, in the Turrell exhibit the art emerges. Heather Lanier describes it as, “A faint, gray amorphous source of light. It’s so faint [at first] you might not be able to place its shape. Circle? Oval? Blob? It’s like a reflection of a reflection of light, like a moon of a moon, like a gray lake’s mirroring of a dulled silver spoon. The art you eventually arrive at varies, according to who you are and how you view the world. But if you wait long enough, there is actually something there.

If we wait long enough and let our eyes adjust something is there…something emerges…

Maybe it’s the dark silhouettes of the people sitting around you, reminding you that you are not alone.

Maybe it’s the exposed wooden beams of this Chapel ceiling, appearing as arms outstretched drawing us closer together as one community.

Maybe it’s a darkness so large and unfathomable that it takes the shape of God.[1]

Maybe it’s a light we hadn’t noticed before.

What we see will vary according to who we are and how we view the world.  But the darkness holds something for us all.

Wendell Berry writes:

To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight, and find
that the dark, too, blooms and sings.

For Isaiah, the darkness blooms and sings about the birth of a child.  God has not forsaken you, Isaiah declares. God has not abandoned you in the darkness. Tonight, let us give ourselves a gift. Let us sit in our viewing chairs, give our irises the time they need to open, and receive what the darkness holds for us tonight. It might…it just might…give us hope.

Now to the God who calls us to this night vision, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

 

[1]This phrase attributed to Sara Miles from her recent Christian Century lecture.

[Feature Image: Billie Grace Ward]

Only undefeated because we have gone on trying

I dreamed about Brett Kavanaugh the night after he was confirmed as our newest Supreme Court Justice and President Trump apologized to him on behalf of us all.  My dream was vivid in detail.  Judge Kavanaugh had grown his hair long and was sitting, open-robed, among the other justices, smoking a cigarette, a large gold medal strung around his neck on a royal blue ribbon.

As I dream, my feelings—about white male entitlement, a patriarchal system that promotes those of the wrong temperament, a society that doesn’t believe women like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford or #MeToo—betray me. Last week was long and difficult. How does one bounce back from a week like that?

Thumbing through my books in search of words that might offer me a renewed sense of purpose, some reason to keep on keeping on, I came across this:

…And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying…

T.S. Eliot

Keep on trying, for our daughters and our daughter’s daughters and all the daughters of God who, made in Her image, deserve better than this.

[Feature Image: Joseph B]