Thursday, December 09, 2010

Candlelight--the music video

Hanukkah ends today so I thought I should promo this YouTube video one more time (I shared it earlier on Facebook). From The Maccabeats--enjoy!

If you enjoyed that, be sure to see the video that inspired it, Mike Tompkins' version of Taio Cruz's Dynamite--incredibly clever and cute.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Advent dreams (Sunday Reflections for December 5, 2010)

One look out the window and it’s obvious: the world has gone dead. After a long and pleasant fall, we’ve finally experienced a hard freeze and even the first snow. My neighbor’s pear tree still has quite a few leaves on it and the grass still holds some residual green color but that won’t last long.

There are also reminders of the “green season” in some of the annuals and other plants that keep going to the very end, e.g. potted and now shriveled geraniums and marigolds. There’s a large rose bush that I walk by with a couple dozen blooms, now all freeze dried—kind of weird looking.

Balancing all this dying is the growing life and energy involved in preparations for Christmas. Malls and retail districts are bustling with shoppers. Holiday lights are glowing everywhere. Nonetheless, the shortening days, increasing cloudiness and our exhaustion at all the extra activity leave us feeling like some of our life is draining out, as well. When Christmas is past and we head into January, we hunker down for the slog to the time when life begins to return with the first signs of spring.

One of the geniuses of the ancient liturgical calendar is that it not only tells the church’s story of Jesus, it also repeats many of the experiences of nature and life. The current season of Advent is characterized by themes of expectation and preparation. The liturgy and music are generally more subdued and reflective.

For quite awhile this has put it at odds with the secular “Xmas season” (as C. S. Lewis called it). Popular culture tends to “front-load” its holidays. In other words, the holiday is usually the climax of a period of celebration. Once the actual day has come and gone, culture moves on to the next thing. In the church, the holiday begins the season. So when Christmas comes (or Easter as another example), the church’s celebration is just starting while secular culture has hit its peak and now it’s all downhill.

Wisely, the church has mostly stopped trying to impose its agenda on secular culture, or even its own members. At the same time, however, I think people have come to appreciate the church’s observance of Advent as a place of calm in the midst of the storm. I don’t hear the clamor for Christmas carols during Advent the way I used to. I suspect that’s due in part to the fact that we now start hearing Christmas music on the radio and in stores not long after Halloween.

The music and liturgy of Advent encourages us to pause and catch our breath. In the midst of the chaotic shopping, decorating and partying, Advent provides us a place to stop, think, meditate, and enjoy some silence. “Just come in, sit and be quiet,” the season seems to say.

In this sense, Advent is much in harmony with the natural world right now. While we may lament the cold and dark descending on us, nature is also “clearing the decks” we might say. In the Middle East, ancient Christians went to the desert as a place to clear their minds and renew their spirits. The barrenness of winter can provide the same service for us.

Barren times are not unusual. Not only are they built into the cycles of nature, we also know them as regular occurrences in our own lives. This is true individually and collectively. Today we are in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Many people have lost jobs and lost their homes. Nearly everyone has experienced some financial reversal.

It’s a barren time and it’s gone on a long time. And while it doesn’t seem to be getting worse, it doesn’t seem to be getting better very fast. Things will get better, of course, but it’s looking increasingly to be the case that things won’t just go back to the way they were. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Bible has repeated stories of success and reversal, often quite dramatic. In fact, in some ways those cycles are what the Bible is about. One of its most profound ironies is that while God’s people are repeatedly promised and looking forward to better times (“a land flowing with milk and honey”), success and prosperity is almost always a prelude to disaster. Here indeed is support for that popular wisdom, “Be careful what you wish for.”

After the various disasters that befall them, people in the Bible then have a period of time to reflect on what’s happened and how they can do better. The prophets are the people we most associate with facilitating this process. These times in the wilderness or in exile are indeed barren, yet spiritually they become the incubators for faith and hope and new visions of life and community.

Our country and in some ways the whole planet are at a turning point. Free-market capitalism, along with science and technology, have produced standards and qualities of living unimaginable just a few generations ago. Within our country, and even more so globally, these riches have been shared grossly unequally. This isn’t a new problem, and not coincidentally it is one the prophets railed against more than any other over two thousand years ago.

History has shown that such inequality simply cannot last. No society can function that is grossly imbalanced and we are seeing that the same is true for the planet. In this “barren time” we have an opportunity to reflect on what has past and what we wish now will come. What is our hope, our vision, our dream? Can we imagine a world of prosperity as well as one of fairness and equal opportunity?

In his Pentecost sermon in Acts, Peter repeats the words of the prophet Joel: in the days when God’s Spirit is poured out on the people, “your young shall see visions and your old shall dream dreams.” Such experiences rarely happen in the normal hurriedness of life but more often in the dark and the quiet. May these times of darkness and barrenness be, for each of us and for our world, times of visions and dreams, courage and hope.