Wednesday, December 19, 2012

It's the End of the World as We Know it.....

Over the next two days we will endure senseless news coverage documenting the eventual end of the world... or at the least, the end of the Mayan calendar.

This is nothing new for a world that now has access to every crazy view or idea (your reading my writings and ideas is case in point). We all remember the imminent end of life as we know it during the Y2K scare. People were certain the economy would collapse and planes would drop from the skies all because our PC's might not be able to make the leap from 1999 to 2000. Last year a radio evangelist, Harold Camping, predicted the world would end by October of 2011. Rulon Jeff, the FLDS leader, told his children to skip college because they would not exist past 1997. All the way back to the 16th century, we have evidence that a mystic named Mother Shipton predicted the world would end in 1991.

The question is, "does anyone really take these predictions seriously or do we simply use them as an excuse for 'end of the world' parties, survival kits, or even weekend hotel packages?" (See Matthew Hall's article here)

I was living in St. Louis in 1990 when scientist, Iben Browning, predicted a major earthquake would occur on December 2nd. We did not believe his prediction but we did use it as an excuse to stay home from school, "just in case". I don't think my parents believed an earthquake would occur but they went along with my ploy to be home for my own safety.

When I worked with high school students I would ask them what they would do if they knew the world would end and those who answered honestly usually had some version of a life of crime and debauchery followed by a last minute of repentance.

Perhaps what this all points to is the human desire for "escape". We have a constant diet of destruction aired from countries in Africa and the Middle East. We have senseless tragedies hitting close to home in our schools. We have a pending dive over the "fiscal cliff" that we cannot control. We even have controversy over yoga in our local Encinitas schools. Are these all signs that the end is near or are they reminders of a world that is imperfect and at times, quite painful? 

In our faith communities we have apocalyptic writings that remind us of the difficulties in life and that point us back to the hope that God is in control and one day will bring peace to our restless world. These writings are less about telling us how and when the world would end and more about reminding us that hope exists and God still fills the world with His love. These writings are about re-ordering our priorities and about keeping us grounded when things seem to be breaking free. 

So whether this Friday "starts with an earthquake" or begins with a typical Friday commute, take a deep breath. Say "I love you" to your loved ones. Recognize the good things that are happening in your life. Re-examine your priorites and the goals for which you live. Trust that God is still in control. 

And unless you see John Cusak driving a limo through the streets while buildings collapse around him, you will likely make it through the day and I am almost certain most of us will wake up Saturday morning (albeit some will wake up with stronger than normal hangovers).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Art of Comforting

Yesterday our country faced another horrific tragedy when twenty children and six adults were gunned down at an elemnetary school in Conneticut. All of us are affected by this on some level. For parents, we project our lives into the situation and feel the profound pain the families are feeling and selfishly thank God that our kids are ok. Though we hold our own children closer we know life is fragile and there are no guarantees. 

Events like these cause us all to question and search for answers as to why this happens but the truth is no words are sufficient in times like these. I find one of the best models for dealing with grief in the Jewish tradition of "sitting shiva". In short, this is the seven day mourning period where friends and family visit those who are suffering a loss and grieve with them. This is a time to honor the memory of the ones lost and to offer a listening ear and shoulder to cry upon. It is not a time to offer explanations, it is a time to be a tangible comforting presence.

The main idea of shiva is to communicate "we are not alone". According to Jewish scholars this is a fundamental message in Judaism when it comes to death and bereavement.
"Every law and every custom of Jewish mourning and comforting has, at its core, the overwhelming motivation to surround those who are dying and those who will grieve with a supportive community. While some may argue that facing death and coping with grief heighten one's feeling of aloneness, the Jewish approach places loss and grief in the communal context of family and friends."

This communal aspect of mourning reminds us that God also does not leave us alone. The blessing said during mourning is "May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

In the article How to make a shiva call, "My Jewish Learning" points out the following;
"Ha-Makom is a name of God that literally means "the place," referring to God's omnipresent nature, including at the lifecycles from birth to death. It is only God who can grant the mourner lasting comfort. The comforter comes to remind the mourners that the divine powers of the universe will enable them to heal and go on with a meaningful life. Ultimate consolation comes only from the omnipresent God."

In this season where Christians celebrate the message of Christmas which is " God is with us" , may we find the strength to be present and be compassionate and let others know that they are not alone in their hurt. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thank Jesus for Our Q4 Sales

Forgive me for my perennial soapbox session where I attempt to explain that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem might actually not have been God's personal economic stimulus plan but rather something quite the opposite. You have heard me say it before but it bears repeating that we are missing the point of Christmas.

The night the Angels appeared to the unclean and unwanted shepherds to declare, "The Son of God is here" marked the beginning of Jesus' mission to stand against oppressive powers, to bring hope and equality to the poor and marginalized, and to proclaim,  "peacemakers are blessed". The advent of Jesus meant  the ways of the rich and powerful would be challenged by the teachings of the Messiah who was born in the most unlikely of circumstances. This challenge would even  pierce the souls of the religious elite who apparently found company in the leadership styles of their secular counterparts. 

Statistics show that Americans spend somewhere around 450 billion dollars each year during the Holidays. Businesses and even churches count on our cultural celebration of Jesus to help finish the fiscal year with a boom. I think buying presents and enjoying the fun elements of the season is perfectly acceptable and something to look forward to each year but perhaps Christians should lead the way in toning it down a bit.

When our preparations for Christmas are reduced to purchasing "enough" gifts for everyone and making sure our calendars are packed full of Christmas cheer we will likely walk right past the low income family who laid their newborn baby in the feeding trough of a cow. We will forget God's great advertisement for the season was a host of Angels declaring a Messiah has arrived and He will save you from your need to perform and be great in the eyes of God and man. 

Diana Butler Bass said it this way, "Jesus Christ was not born that human beings would spend December shopping or saying, "Merry Christmas." Jesus was born to confront the rulers of this world with the love and justice of the God of Abraham -- that Jesus, the same Jesus who preached  the poor and marginalized were blessed, is the King of kings and Lord of lords. All earthly powers pale before him, the humble born one who will die a political traitor to Rome."

So put that extra tin of flavored popcorn back on the shelf (Aunt Myrtle will be fine without it) , drop an extra dollar in the bucket of your local Salvation Army, and remember this Q4 is not about record profits. It is about God's presence that changed the life of a despised group of shepherds and that can change the life of you and me.  

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Holiday Parade Star

Last week my son's class participated in the Encinitas Holiday Parade. I'm pretty sure this parade ranks in the top five best parades in the nation. Its quality falls somewhere between the "Rose Parade" in Pasedena, CA and the "Hey Days Parade" in Tamarack, Minnesota. (This ranking is not official but I'm sure it is accurate). 

Encinitas truly has a "small town" feel so this parade is actually a pretty big deal. Thousands of people line the main street through downtown to watch old cars driven by Santa and the ever-popular "Neuter Scooter" spreading Holiday cheer while promoting safe sex for Encinitas' dogs.

The best part of this parade is that there were literally over 1000 participants. It is a parade consisting of local Boy Scout troops, Indian Princess groups, dance teams, school bands, "Teacher of the Year" classes, city council members, and local businesses willing to pull a trailer filled with people wearing Santa Hats and drinking Egg Nog in reindeer mugs.

All three of my boys were able to walk in the parade carrying a banner for the elementary school so they all felt like the stars of the parade. The truth is that this parade doesn't have any stars and it actually doesn't have anything spectacular. Unlike the Hey Day parade in Tamarack, it didn't even have a local Shriners group driving their purple go-karts like a bunch of junior high kids. (Those of you in the Midwest can appreciate the previous comment). 

The fact that nothing spectacular is on display in this parade is one of the things that makes it great. This event is not about the spectacular, it is about being involved. It is about a community of people coming out to support one another in the normal things in life.

This is the time of the year when many are trying to make everything spectacular. We overdo the decorations on our houses, we overspend trying to give the perfect gift, and we even put pressure on ourselves to host the best parties in the best neighborhoods. Even churches overdo their programming in an attempt to make the season spectacular for all who attend.

The Encinitas Holiday Parade reminds us to be involved and be present with the people in our lives. Rather than going overboard to impress others, go overboard by letting everyone be the star. Give the gift of your presence and your encouragement. Take time to slow down and remember the first Holiday parade of people who went to see the true spectacle of a baby born in humble circumstances so that he could bring peace on earth and goodwill towards mankind.