Monday, December 08, 2008

spirituality, stress and sanity

I want to focus on three words: spirituality, stress and sanity.

This is the season of the spirit. We live in a material world--- financial markets, consumer culture, very real human needs---but we yearn for something more. Immersed in what we can see, we long for what we cannot see, and perhaps that is for something new: a new birth, a new heart, a new heaven and a new earth.

Our two passages of scripture for this morning are in dialogue with each other, Isaiah written six centuries before Christ, just prior to the fall of Babylon, Mark’s gospel written a generation after the life of Jesus. Isaiah was called to speak to his people, and his news carried with it a sense of urgency: the war was over, the people would live in freedom, the exiles would return home, God had kept his promises. The journey would take them from Babylon, a chaotic environment, a world of many gods, to Jerusalem, a place of safety and sanctuary, the dwelling place of the One God.

The history of the prophetic text is that the people did come home, in 538 B.C., in the announcement of Cyrus that the people could be freed, and so Israel returned to Jerusalem, where they began to rebuild the temple, which had been destroyed, they began to rebuild their lives from the ruins of their recent history.

Where would the strength come from to do this work? It was the assurance of a God whose word would endure forever, whose glory would be revealed, and all flesh would see it together, whose power would be stronger than any human army and yet whose mercy would be as tender as a shepherd embracing the most vulnerable lamb.

John the Baptist knew the story of Isaiah and saw in his own circumstance a fulfillment of it, in the coming of Jesus the Messiah. John’s message also carried with it a sense of urgency: this was the inbreaking of a new moment, this was the spirit’s entry, now, and the sign was baptism, cleansing, new birth. John also lived in the assurance that God had kept his promises, although later, when he was imprisoned by Herod, he would have his doubts. The people came to John in the wilderness to confess their sins, to make the long journey from slavery to freedom, from being lost to being at home, from destruction, self-destruction, to wholeness and safety and sanctuary and peace.

The first word is spirituality. You and I have inherited a deep, rich, profound spirituality that is thousands of years old, that has been lived and tested and experienced by our ancestors in the faith, and yet this spirituality is as relevant as the beating of our hearts and the gasping for our next breath.

A second word is stress. Each year in the Advent season we see the same symbols, we read the same scriptures, we hear and sing the same carols, and yet alongside these experiences each year, we live oddly out of sorts with all of it: it is not only a season of the spirit, it is a season of stress.

Why the stress, the anxiety? The answers are close at hand. Many of us have the ideal of a perfect family, all around the table, the perfect couple, perfect kids, perfect turkey at the center of the perfectly decorated dining room. But such an image carries with it a great deal of anxiety. There are no perfect families, so most of us live with the anxiety that we have not measured up. Most of our homes are not in perfect condition, and we live with the additional anxiety that there are still chores to do and repairs to make. And most of us place such a high expectation on these family gatherings-- get-togethers that are so brief--that we expect them to carry the freight for an entire year. They become too important.

And so, the season can be stressful. The traffic is a little heavier, the hours are a little longer, the tempers are a little quicker, corporations are making end of year decisions, budgets are being squeezed, the losses in our lives become more unavoidable, it is stressful.

And the stress means that we may miss out on the gift of God that comes to us, the gift that we most need. I think of the honesty of W. H. Auden’s lines in his epic poem, “For The Time Being”. He writes from the perspective of post-Christmas:

Now we must dismantle the tree
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes…
Some have got broken
There are enough leftovers to do,
warmed up for the rest of the week—
not that we have that much appetite,
having drunk such a lot.
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully---
to love all of our relatives,
And in general grossly overestimated all of our powers.”

Have you ever left a family gathering and felt that you have attempted---quite unsuccessfully—to love all of your relatives? Or have you ever paused for a moment deep in December and sensed that you have “grossly overestimated all of your powers?”

It is a season of stress. One of the resources that my wife Pam came upon years ago, and has shared with a number of groups in our church is a book entitled “Unplug The Christmas Machine”. One of my favorite chapters in the book is “The Four Things Children Really Want For Christmas”. They are:

A relaxed and loving time with family
Realistic expectations about gifts
An evenly paced holiday season
Reliable family traditions

When I read that I begin to sense that my stress level is lowering. Because much of the stress of the season is the product of a culture that we buy into, and ironically it has little to do with why we have gathered here. In fact, the stress of the season threatens to crowd out the spirituality.

There is little doubt that the most stressful time of the year is the season between Black Friday---the day after Thanksgiving—until the “White Christmas” that we are all dreaming about!

How did this happen? And is there an alternative?

There is a third word: sanity. We do want to experience the spirit. We want to embrace the words of Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” We want to glorify God. We want to be more giving, and we want to serve those who are most vulnerable.

We also want to reduce the stress in our lives, the external threats that weigh us down physically and emotionally, and the internal tension that builds day by day.

What we are after, in the days of Advent, is sanity, a more sane existence. And sanity is something that we ourselves have to discover in the midst of a great deal of craziness. The prophet Isaiah spoke a word of hope in a despairing moment in history. John the Baptist pointed to the coming of the Messiah at the very time when the most powerful ruler on the earth, Herod, was at the peak of his powers.

Sanity is the intentional decision to hear the word of the Lord, which, in the words of the hymn, “disperses the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows puts to flight”. Sanity is unplugging the Christmas machine so that we might live in the days of Advent. Sanity is realizing, with Isaiah, that we are lost and that we want to begin the journey home. Sanity is knowing, with John the Baptist, that we are unclean, and that we need to be restored to health and wholeness. Sanity is picking up the broken Christmas ornaments and restoring them to beauty. Sanity is rebuilding the ruined cities so that the poor have shelter and work. Sanity is learning how not to grossly overestimate our powers, it is knowing that we are human, that we are not the Messiah ( I am going to preach about this next week), sanity is knowing our limitations.

Some of us have been wandering in the wilderness, and we are ready to find sanctuary;

Some of us have been withering and fading and are in need of the assurance of a higher power that endures;

Some of us have been overwhelmed by stress and have begun to imagine the alternative of sanity.

Sanity is the rediscovery of a deep, historic and profound spirituality---it is the story we hear in the voices of the prophets and apostles, it is the story we see in the messiah, who would come to bring us hope and peace, joy, love and light; and it is placing the stress of the season---some of which is of our own making----in its proper place. Sanity is keeping our eyes fixed not on the apocalypse of the terror of men and the tumbling of markets, but on the strength and power and goodness of a God who keeps his promises, whose gift comes at the point of our greatest need, who speaks through the voice of the prophet:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
And say to her
The war is over
The sin has been forgiven
You can come home now

Sources: W.H. Auden, "For The Time Being"; Jo Robinson and Jean Coppick Staeheli, Unplug The Christmas Machine.


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