Sunday, December 18, 2005

Candle Power

Wednesday is Winter Solstice. it's the darkest day of the year for our hemisphere. For one half of our planet, Christmas comes at the sunniest time of the year. For them it's the longest day. It's fitting to celebrate the birth of Jesus at the darkest time because he was born into darkness in more ways than in terms of the Northern Hemisphere.Thinking about Winter Solstice correctly is to not consider it in terms of darkness, but in terms of the return of light. It's the day that the earth begins it's revolution back around to the side that gives the Northern Hemisphere more light. Thursday will be a little longer than Wednesday. So, Winter Solstice is the day that our Pagan friends celebrate the return of Father Sun. Those of us who are practicing Christians don't celebrate the darkness into which Jesus was born, but the light of the love God that he brought to us.Not only was it good timing in the celestial year but it was good timing in history. It was a dark time for Jesus’ people, the Jews. Jesus came at a time when oppression for Israel was at an all-time high. The Roman appointed governor was an exceptionally cruel man and his family was about as evil as human beings can get. Jesus brought a beam of light into that dark time for his own people in the midst of that oppression.He also came to oppressed classes of people regardless of the hemisphere in which they lived. It's a shame that his name has been used to further oppress people and subject them to even more cruelty as the church its power across both hemispheres. Jesus was a prophet for the oppressed not the oppressors. They usurped his name and the power of his message to bring more darkness common folk across the planet. Jesus belongs to ordinary people not governments or corporations. The very conditions of his birth speak directly to that. Jesus was born in a barn, midwifed by a carpenter, and nested in a feedbox lined with straw borrowed from beasts of burden. The fancy-schmancy plastic nativity portrayed by the popular church and paraded up and down the aisles of wealthy malls and department stores is distasteful at best and heretical at worst.Jesus came to us - those whose families come from slavery and poverty. He's been appropriated by the rich and powerful and they have no right to him. Governments are lying when they make a claim to him and use his name to further their whims of oppression and control. His name is used to make more money than to bring light to those who live in the dimness of poverty and despair.Last week, our part of the world iced over in a storm that weighted down trees and power lines until they were ripped from root and pole. It was a time that thousands of us were reminded that of the false sense of security that modern technology brings us. We had to spend too much time bailing out basements and preserving frozen food to enjoy the quiet from the lack of machinery in our homes. But in our little house, there were hours that we sat with each other in the light of candles and oil lamps enjoying each other. There was something natural in that short time that reminded me that that the light Jesus brought was not the mega-Watt lights of stadiums but the tiny candle of hope that fits in my heart. Multi-mega Wattage and amplitude speaks of power even when its boomed in the realms of sprawling, city-sized churches and well muscled denominations. Candles glimmer in the darkness for people too poor in spirit to imagine themselves important enough for such flickering hope. One kind speaks of boardrooms, control and power the other of strength of character and love.Sometimes I hate Christianity for the way its been used to sell, overwhelm and suppress. But then the glimmering light of Jesus coming into the darkness of my discouragement reminds me that the power of the light of Christ is not in halogen filaments but in the waxy wicks of single candles glowing in each one of us - one at a time. This is the light that the darkness has not understood and until the church disconnects its power and lives in the lowly flicker of the light of Christ, it won't understand it either.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Good Pruning

Did a little pruning today. I’ve got about 15 blueberry bushes that I planted 20 years ago and they’ve gotten a little out of control since I branched out with my education. Now that I’m back and paying a little more attention to our little plot of earth, the bushes have been staring at me like a green man looking out from under eyebrows of tangled twigs. The biggest one took the biggest hit today. It was far too tall to pick berries without a ladder and too tangled to even reach in and pick them.

I really cut the thing back and I’m a little worried that I might have gone too far. It won’t produce much this year and I’ll have to keep an eye on the sprouts that’ll shoot out in a long, straight crop of buggy whip-looking wood that won’t do anything toward making berries for this coming season. I’ll need to trim them to force smaller sprouts out lower on the bush.

The second bush wasn’t so tangled and I left a lot of berry-producing branches on it but I did a pretty good number on it too. I still have a bunch to do but this is the first year since I’ve had them that I started pruning this early in the year. I hope I’m doing the right thing by them. I certainly love blueberries and especially love walking by them and stripping the twigs of a hand full of thumb-sized berries. When they’re ripe in late July and early August, they’re sun-warmed and full of juice. It just makes my mouth water to think about them.

When I’m squeezing my loppers through a thick branch or clipping dead wood off of the living with my shears, I can’t help but think about God’s work in my life. I also wonder if he worries about me and how I’ll respond to the cutting. My bushes are a little more predictable than I and in some ways a little more resilient. After all, with the bushes, I’m dealing with wood and roots; God’s dealing with free will and a fragile ego. I’m never sure where those sprouts will pop out but God has to anticipate a thousand different probable outcomes with me. If he prunes this, will I move there? If this is whacked, will I flare up with anger or cower in pain? If that little habit is isolated and pointed out, will another as bad or worse show up?

I’m not sure he knows what’ll happen. I think it’s possible that God is able to calculate out the whole spectrum of possible outcomes for every scenario. But I don’t believe he can absolutely know which choices I’ll make until I make them. Granted, he may know before I’m fully conscience of my decision but he allows me my “head” (as horsemen call it when they loosen the rein and allow the horse to pick the path).

Out of that comes two things. One is that there is a sense of control for me. I can choose to be aware of God’s work in my life and respond in the best possible way. In my dealings with fruit, I don’t have to consider that the plants are aware of me as I am of the inner and outer workings of God in my life. It’s true that I’m dealing with a living thing just as is God, but it’s not quite the same. My bushes have no conscience ability to shoot a sprout here, die off there or flower at all. I can choose and be aware of choosing to go with the work of God in my life or not. I have some control until the day I die and possibly beyond.

Second, God must indeed have the pleasure and the agony of cropping, pruning and weeding a sentient (aware) being. It must be infinently tedious to work on the likes of this man who is just as capable of raring up to fight tooth and nail as he is to dive under a rock and hide (along with infinite variations on those extremes). I enjoy pruning, especially when I’m working with shaping. I’m not very knowledgeable about pruning fruit but I can shape a tree to make a beautiful thing. It’s not hard for me to believe that God is challenged by the work. Pruning for me is a work of art. I am too. God’s work in my life is a thing of beauty and as my soul grows it’s own way under the care of such a master artist and gardener, it becomes a masterpiece. I’m just not there yet – not quite.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Gratitude and Giving

I watched the sleet come and go this afternoon with some disappointment. I like the way it peppers the windows and makes me want to snuggle up to one of my critters (or maybe even my wife). My house is a warm little place with lots of happy stuff trotting around like a pack of puppies. But, I’m grateful that the sleet didn’t get worse and make the highways slick. The foul weather always helps me get into Christmas too and when it hits this time of year, I think about all the good things in my life that comforts and warms me. It makes me want to give.
I think it’s interesting that the season of giving and light follows the season of gratitude. Gratitude is a spiritual discipline. When we practice gratitude, giving always seems to follow The kind that attracts me is the gratitude that shows respect for my effort to give, and for the meaning of the gift.
There’s a restaurant in my area of ministry that I always go to. One day I got excellent service and tipped accordingly. From then on, I began getting better and better service and my tips got higher and higher. Now when I go in, I don’t even have to order. “Find yourself a seat, Honey,” the waitresses drawl. “That’ll be ice water with lemon and a course chopped sandwich with lettuce and tomato. Right?” Right. My sandwiches are just a little thicker now and once in a while, I notice my desert doesn’t show up on the ticket. There’s a relationship between me and the girls that work there based on appreciation for each other. They go beyond what good employees are supposed to do and I go beyond what good customers are supposed to do. There’s a mutual attitude of gratitude and giving that’s mature and equal.
Is it possible to live all areas of our lives this way? Can we be parents and lovers and friends and children with a mutual attitude of gratitude and giving? Is it possible to drive our highways this way? To allow someone in and thank with a wave when they let us in? Is it possible to do business this way? Can we give a good deal as well as we get one? Can we set a fair price for good value? Can we be good employees and employers giving and taking with mutual respect? Can I work a little harder to save the company money and can my employer give me a few hours to get a child from day care?
Must I always get before I give? I believe that my attitude of gratitude is a spiritual exercise and it comes before any gift I might receive. I’m grateful first and out of that I give—not because I was given a gift and therefore I owe one in return. The waitresses at my favorite barbecue joint didn’t expect a better tip than usual, they just did a good job and I was grateful. Gratitude generates giving. When we give out of the expectation of a gift in return, we’re looking for payment.