Sunday, November 27, 2011

simplifying advent

The Christian year begins with Advent, a season of passive waiting and active preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ. Christian congregations find the liturgical framework useful in planning worship, mission, fellowship and education. The strength of this scheme lies in its biblical depth and traditional grounding; the weakness can be the result of a kind of predictability and even rigidity.

It is also the case in life that what was once simple can become increasingly complex over time. And so I offer a brief guide to the essentials of the season for pastors and church leaders, with an aim toward simplification. You could make additions or subtractions to this list, but it is a place to begin.

1. If you are a preacher, consider giving sermons over the next few weeks that are briefer by one-third. This will allow space for the music of the season (which is generally more expansive), silence, and the ritual of lighting candles. You will still have the opportunity to communicate the core of the gospel.

2. If you receive offerings in Advent, consider having them go exclusively to mission that occurs beyond your local church: a local homeless shelter, a prison ministry or a global initiative, for example. Find some creative way to cover the institutional needs of your local church (this will likely occur through pledges) and clearly communicate the missional focus of your congregation over the Sundays in Advent.

3. Do not hold administrative meetings during the month of December unless absolutely necessary. This will create space for two new offerings: a time of centering prayer, held once, and perhaps mid week, and a service on the longest night of the year (December 21), which focuses on grief, loneliness, depression and lament. These two simple services will benefit the more introverted members of your community who may be thirsting for just such an experience.

4. Choose one spiritual exercise and get started with it. The following are excellent resources: Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals; Child of the Light (Upper Room); Daily Feast; A Disciple's Journal; and Watch for The Light. I am suggesting that you choose one of these and not every one of of them!

5. For every party that you attend, engage in an extended time of exercise (walking, running, yoga, etc.). And for every elaborate meal that you enjoy, either fast or enjoy a very simple meal the next day for balance (for example, a bowl of cereal or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich).

6. Get to know the range of music related to this season. There are excellent Christmas recordings by Ray Charles, Bruce Cockburn, Diana Krall, Bela Fleck, the Chieftains, Kathy Mattea, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Louis Armstrong, Robert Shaw and John Fahey, among others. Yes, there is a great deal of kitsch (I would include Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow in this category), but I acknowledge this to be a matter of personal taste. I try to add one new recording each Advent---this year I am enjoying Bob Bennett's Christmastide---and I listen exclusively to Christmas music during this season. As the days approach Christmas Eve I always listen to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (King's College, Cambridge). And I confess that I am addicted to Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown soundtrack.

7. If you are a parish minister, or live in a family with multiple church responsibilities on Christmas eve, you might consider exchanging gifts on January 6. This is consistent with the Orthodox tradition, and is related to our observance of the Epiphany of the Lord. A friend who had joint custody of his children after a divorce, and was not physically present with them on December 25 began this practice and later shared it with our family. My wife and I have both been practicing clergy, with as many as seven services between us on Christmas Eve. And so we made the shift to January 6 as a time to share gifts with each other and our children, and we soon discovered a benefit that you might have already anticipated: the end of December is an excellent time to shop for loved ones!

8. Do not take a default perspective on the culture of Christmas that is negative or combative; here I have been influenced by Andy Crouch's Culture Making. Look for connections with the natural generosity of your neighbors outside the church, the innate curiousity of children, the innovative blend of sacred and secular music, and the search for silence and slowness amidst the calendar. Before you throw rocks, attempt to build bridges.

9. Reflect on God's gift of peace, in the person of the Prince of Peace, during these days. Recognize that many in your congregations are struggling with divisions within their own families of origin, and these spill over into workplaces and congregations. The holidays, unfortunately, are times when these divisions become more pronounced, and the result can become either displaced anger or an overwhelming despair. For a sense of this reality glance at PostSecret during the season of Advent.

10. Resist the commercialization of the culture, insofar as you are able. Make agreements to give simpler presents; exchange gifts that benefit local economies or provide employment in your own community (music or art lessons, for example); and remember, as my friend Mike Slaughter insists, that "Christmas Is Not Your Birthday." In the present economic crisis, this is one way of making a virtue out of a necessity.

11. Finally, spend a few minutes each day reflecting on the signs of Advent: the book of promises, the bread of heaven, the body of believers, the silent night, the light that shines in the darkness. The mystery of the incarnation---the word made flesh---is that a complex idea become simple. If we watch, if we are awake, we will know that God is with us.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

random thoughts on a somewhat random rule of life: morning

Our lives have rhythms to them. Formally or informally we find ourselves operating within a rule of life. Some of this is spiritual, some material. So here, my somewhat idiosyncratic rule of life these days:

1. I wake up around 5 a.m., and begin to listen to National Public Radio (Asheville, WCQS). Oddly enough, I am soon enough asleep again. But around 6:15 I am awake again, and here the morning hours begin to take a more intentional shape.

2. I have prepared the coffee the night before, but push a simple button to actually brew it. As life goes on I find myself becoming a coffee snob, and at the same time I delight in finding really good coffee at a correspondingly good (sale) price. So I rotate between Dunkin Donuts, Trader Joes, Peets and Smoky Mountain Roasters, the latter locally roasted in Waynesville.

3. While the coffee is brewing I enter into the morning devotional. For some time I have been using Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove and Okoro. I recommend it. For me, its strengths lie in the combination of intellectual and spiritual resources, in its acknowledgement that God is at work in the world beyond the church, and in its balance of personal and social holiness. I am also discovering that a number of very close friends have found their way to this book and are using it, and I sense that I am a part of a kind of informal and dispersed community.

4. If I have more time, I try to then do some deeper reading. This year I have selected a few books that have meant a great deal to me along the way, and I am re-reading them. So I have read Bonhoeffer's Life Together, Parker Palmer's The Active Life, and I am now working through many of the essays in the (Stanley) Hauerwas Reader.

5. By now I am drinking a second or third cup of coffee and it is time for breakfast. I have a very simple menu: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There are a few small variations, in that I may substitute honey at times of the year, and the kind of bread varies, from sourdough to rye to whole wheat. If the weather is exceptionally cold and I have had a light dinner the night before I may supplement the sandwich with oatmeal.

6. I should add at this point that I have not turned a computer on, nor have I looked at my smartphone yet. I want the agenda for the day to begin in silence, and who knows, perhaps it may even be the Spirit's voice, or my own plans, but I do not want to begin the day with an agenda that is set by demands that may or may not be helpful. I can respond to these soon enough.

7. I turn National Public Radio on again, and begin listening to the news. At the moment we do not have a television in the main area of the cabin where we live (there is a small one in an out of the way room downstairs), and I do not subscribe to a daily newspaper (although I do often buy the Sunday New York Times). So this is my source for news. Once I have heard the news cycle on Morning Edition, I shift to...

8. Pandora, which is a free internet music source. I love music and my own personal tastes in the morning for some time are most closely related to the Modern Jazz Quartet. So I listen to jazz music, begin to check my smart phone, respond to a few inquiries, look at Facebook,Twitter and my calendar, and begin to work on a to-do list for the day (see Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto). In Advent this changes, as I listen exclusively to a wide range of Christmas music.

9. It is still fairly early and by now I have the sense that the morning is passing, and it is time to go to work. But I have found this structure to be a helpful preparation for me as I move toward the needs and requests of others.