Sigh. In the last few weeks, I have suddenly found myself trying not to look. It is kind of like driving through the red light district or by a horrible car accident, though, and I struggle to not see what is around me.

”Christmas.”

Or as I like to call it, the December consumer season.

Why is it that the Church has been so ineffective against this tide of creeping conspicuous consumerism? Why is it that so many who follow Christ succumb to Mall Time instead of resting into Church Year Time?

While this may make me sound like a crabby old lady, in reality, I am sad. I overheard someone the other day say that they were already sick of Christmas and it wasn’t even Thanksgiving yet. (Remember, Thanksgiving is supposedly the time when we as a nation stop and give thanks to God for all of our blessings. Now, the food has hardly hit our stomachs before the retailers want to drag us out for pre-Black Friday savings.)Image result for free photo Thanksgiving chasing Christmas away

The star that is in my town now goes on around Veteran’s Day. I used to anticipate its lighting; now, I try not to look at it because it makes me so sad.

Two things are happening, as I see it: the message of Christmas is being completely swallowed up by commercialism-run-amok. Children don’t even know Christmas carols anymore, only non-descript “holiday” songs. Even faith communities rush to get their Christmas programs over early in December so everyone “can enjoy the holidays.” Does anyone else think this is wrong?

The second thing I see happening is that, as the whole scenario gets so out of hand, there may be a backlash beginning. People are refusing to rush away from the table at Thanksgiving to go shopping. Advent and its themes are being re-discovered even in faith communities that have never heard of the Church Year calendar. Conspicuous consumerism is beginning to fade into memorable times and experiences together as family and friends. Handmade, local mean even more when gifts are given. Black Friday becomes a time to do alternative events, like being outside as a family.

God invites, even commands, us to celebrate but I challenge you to find true celebration in so much of what passes for “holiday cheer” in this culture. How many of us come to January exhausted and in debt, thrilled that the holidays are over? The Discipline of Celebration from God’s perspective leads to life and joy and goodness.

If what you are planning in the next five weeks doesn’t do that for you, it’s not too late to re-evaluate!

 

This past week, we went camping at Chaco Canyon National Park in northwest New Mexico. It is a very remote spot: the nearest bank is 80 miles away. There are no services, gas, food, or lodging, anywhere near the national park. We were completely off the grid, carrying our own water as the campground has non-potable water (the Visitor’s Center one and a half miles away has potable water), and food as well as everything we needed to camp for two nights in early November.

We arrived the day before the full moon. Getting up in the middle of the night the next night to head to the bathroom was magical: absolute quiet, towering canyon walls on three sides of the campground, and a full moon that was so bright, we didn’t need a flashlight. We also stumbled into the final ranger program for the year that allowed us to be in the most famous ruin, Pueblo Bonito, after dark, hearing stories and learning about the site and the stars. What a gift!

In this liminal space that we continue to live in, it was good to be in a mysterious site like Chaco Canyon. No one really knows why Chaco was built. It is believed that is was a place of ceremony, with fewer rather than more people living in it, that it was more like the Vatican than Rome itself. Yet, many roads radiated out of Chaco to settlements near and far that were permanent living places. As the ranger said, scholars know some of the answers to the “what” questions but few to no answers for the “why” questions.

Among other things to see, Chaco has some amazing stone work. They built three-story (maybe higher) buildings out of stone and used mere pebbles for much of the work! The belief is that it was for the sheer aesthetic of it. The time it must have taken to build on that scale with those tiny rocks in hard to imagine. It would be like building a three story building today and using Lego-sized blocks for much of the walls.

And then, everyone left. Again, no one knows why. They literally walked away as they did from Mesa Verde, Aztec Ruins, and so many other places that dot the Four Corners region of the United States. I remember being at he Kennecott mine townsite in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park area of Alaska. When the copper mine played out and the last train came to take the rest of the workers and their families away for good, many people walked out of their homes leaving the dishes on the table, the pictures on the walls, and the furniture in the rooms. They only took what they could carry in bags on the train with them.

In this liminal space, I am being asked to walk away from things as well. I sense it is so that I can move toward something else that has not yet been revealed. I don’t think I am being asked to literally walk out of this old house and leave the dishes on the table but I do think I am being asked to leave behind old certainties and thought-patterns. I don’t think I am to actually leave the pictures on the wall behind but I do think I am being invited to leave behind the picture I had of how my future would look.

I find Chaco Canyon both thrilling and unnerving: a great civilization, a great center of diverse culture and activity completely abandoned to the ravages of time and nature. I thrill to touch the walls made by such brilliant craftsmen over about a 300-year time period and wonder how they could simply walk away from these monuments to human creativity and religious practice.

It makes me wonder if I could let go of enough of my daily life as it is now to answer a call to something completely new, if and when it comes.

Here at this old house, we continue to live “singing the songs in between,” waiting for next steps to be revealed. It is an exciting time but it can also be a stressful time, waiting, as Nouwen describes, in the same way a woman waits to give birth: active, living life as opposed to the waiting one does when standing at a bus stop.

The other day, I was reminded of the sin of acedia, or sloth as is it called sometimes in lists of the Seven Deadly Sins. While sloth, or laziness, is somewhat of an accurate synonym, it doesn’t convey the full ennui implied by the more ancient word. Acedia, in addition to laziness, has the more sinister layer of “not caring” associated with it. It is the sin associated with the noonday demons in the classical description of the Seven Deadly Sins. It implies the heat of the day, a lack of being either “hot or cold,” and walking a slogging path that requires us to discipline our spirits to continue on the path of focused and intentional spiritual practices but a path we resist doing. It is the opposite of the spiritual discipline of submission in which we “fight the good fight” whether we feel like it or not.

Seeing the word, acedia, got me to wondering about what the difference is between it and “waiting on the Lord.” Regular readers of this blog know that I have been in a time period where all that I had been formally doing has ended and I am standing in a threshhold between the “what was” and the “not-yet-revealed.”

So how do I know if I am bogged down in acedia or waiting patiently for God lead? By the fruit each produces.

If I am more loving, patient, grateful, content, joyful, kind, then I am waiting patiently on the Lord to act, going about my days in peace and quietness, trusting that the next steps will be revealed at the right time.

If I am restless, crabby, feeling entitled, impatient, eating out of stress, not wanting to do my daily devotions or exercise walks, angry, and/or bitter, then I am probably beset by the sin of acedia.

Often times, we can’t discern these things by ourselves. We need a spiritual director or friend to help us see how we are really behaving. We can ask those closest to us how they see us and then humbly wait for their answer, which may not be to our liking.

None of us raised in a First World culture where everything happens instantly like to wait but if we can focus on the fruit of our thoughts, words, and deed during these “nothing is happening” periods in our lives, we will eventually discover that actually a lot was happening, deep in our souls, through the mysterious work of God’s Holy Spirit turning up the soil in preparation for new seeds to grow.

Our call is to be faithful and to keep being intentional and focused on what we do know from the Light while we wait and hold God’s hand in the dark.

May we all encourage one another to be faithful!

 

TABLE TALK

By Valerie E. Hess

We sang it loud! We sang it proud:

A mighty fortress is OUR God!

Death should hold no fear for us

(but it did. Oh, how it did!)

We knew who God was and how God worked:

Faith alone!

(But there was a point system.)

Grace alone!

(Plus our behavior

And remember,

God is always on authority’s side.)

Marching righteously

(oh, so self-righteously,

Works righteously–

Too heretical to say  out loud:

Anathema!

Anathema!)

Through the night of sin and evil,

We were saved.

We alone were saved.

Faith alone

(and good behavior)

Would win the day.

Faith alone, we alone!

Martin Luther was our homeboy.

I knew exactly who I was not.

Then my own Augustinian moment,

A profound shaking of all that I knew to be true.

A personal re-formation.

(What does this mean?)

Baptismal waters became bitter, bloody,

Splinters splintered.

Christ’s Body divided instead of his garments.

Martin Luther despised the Jews.

I really disliked Luther.

But reformations mellow,

swing

back

As pendulums do.

Luther asked anguished questions.

(So do I.)

My souvenir socks announce “Here I stand”

In Advent blue, in German.

In them, I stand here less secure

On ground that moves quite often,

Shaken by a restless Spirit that will not be tamed

Or domesticated

Or enmeshed in tribal warfare.

      “A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing.

      Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing.”

Grace, mercy, love

Resting in all I don’t know,

Embracing wider horizons of Truth:

Reformed and still reforming.

      “God’s truth abideth still, His Kingdom is forever.”

Here I stand;

Soli Deo Gloria!

Well, this old house is on the market. Time for a change and one does not get change without change. It is a bittersweet time but it feels like the right next step. The potential move facing us if the house sells has caused me to begin purging files, drawers, and cupboards. Thirty years of articles related to teaching classes and writing books on the spiritual disciplines are being organized or recycled, not a bad project to do even if the need to pay to move it all out-of-state wasn’t a distinct possibility! Image result for free image of a house for sale sign

It has been interesting to see how inundated with information and resources I have been in the form of magazine articles, journals, newspaper articles, and notes from classes and retreats I have taught. Some of this accumulated long before the digital information explosion began. I still like the feel of paper and reading from paper vs. reading online so I have kept probably half of what I had collected but it is all in a more usable form, waiting for the next writing project or class to teach to begin.

One of the things I found was an article I wrote many years ago. I don’t remember when or for what occasion but I share it (again) here:

“How to Live a Radical Christian Witness in Five Easy Steps” by Valerie E. Hess

Do you want to be a more radical witness to the goodness of the Kingdom of God here and now? Are you interested in being more effective in living for Jesus but don’t know how to go about it? Well, I have five easy steps you can take to do that.

1. Live liturgically.

2. Live without fear.

3. Be a blessing to all you encounter.

4. Stay in close fellowship with other Christians.

5. Live in gratitude.

Let me fill this out a bit.

  1. Live liturgically. Instead of doing holidays on “mall time,” do them according to the Church Year calendar. The biggest example here is Christmas, which does NOT start when the stores begin putting Christmas merchandise out. Christmas in the Church begins December 25th and goes for 12 Days, meaning it doesn’t end in a big sale on December 26th. The simple subversive act of celebrating Advent for the four Sundays before December 25th and then truly celebrating Christmas from December 25th until January 6th gets many people’s attention. Another radical idea is Easter in the Church lasts for seven weeks and is preceded by forty days of fasting of some kind (a very foreign concept to many) and self-reflection that doesn’t necessarily “feel good.” Another truly radical idea is Sunday morning worship is not one option among many and is not dependent on how you feel about it. The question is not “what did I get out of church” but “what did God get out of my worship today”? It really isn’t about you, trust me, which can be a real shock to some people.
  2. Live without fear. Several times throughout Scripture, angels tell people not to be afraid. The prophets thunder it throughout the Old Testament. Moses tells running Israelites to not do it. Jesus assures frightened disciples after the Resurrection to be at peace. I have been increasingly suspicious in recent years that God means it: DO NOT BE AFRAID. This does not mean we throw caution to the wind and sky dive without a parachute but it does mean that since we know the End of the Story (see Revelation 21-211), we know Who wins. And if we are playing on the winning team, while there may be some significant plays lost here on earth, we can engage the game of life with confidence. Deeply confident, anxiety-free people who sleep well at night tend to get other people’s attention.
  3. Be a blessing to all you encounter. Simply do not return evil for evil, snarky comment for snarky comment. Do not participate in unholy anger, hatred, lack of interest, lack of compassion, or anything else that hurts another person. This does not mean that “tough love” situations aren’t called for at times, especially with the children in our care or addictive personalities in the family tree, but tough love is still a form of love. Do not stoop to the level that Satan and his minions play on. Play by the rules of Jesus. We know what Jesus would do in every situation and it would be the most loving thing. (We only need to ask the specifics and not the over-arching principle question in each situation we encounter.) If you have trouble discerning what that loving thing is, we turn to number 4.
  4. Stay in close fellowship with other Christians. The idea of an isolated Christian may make sense in a region where people are actively trying to stamp out Christianity and there really isn’t anyone else seeking to follow Jesus but it makes no sense, and isn’t even Biblical, in the region where most of us live. We need each other. Swallow your pride, join a faith community, and remember point number 3. Everyone is fighting a hard battle, despite what it looks like from the outside. Be the blessing to others that you want them to be to you on your worst day. Use their guidance to help you distinguish between when you are being loving and when you are being co-dependent and enabling (see number 3). A candelabra will withstand the wind much better than a single small candle.
  5. Live in gratitude. Seek to be thankful IN all circumstances while not necessarily FOR all circumstances. You will exude a lightness and joy that will get many people’s attention. You will also be helping to accomplish point number 3 above.

So there you have it: five easy steps and you are in the category of “a radical witness for Christ.”

Disclaimer: These five easy steps are not to be undertaken without first consulting your entire self and making sure you are sold out as completely as you can be for the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. These steps may not win you friends and may cause you to lose some of the friends and even family members you currently have good relationships with. You may need to be prepared to take different employment or move to a different neighborhood, city, or country. Economic changes may also occur. (My lawyer made me put all this in.)

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