Two years into a worldwide pandemic, and within that, a time of political and social upheaval in our own country and families, it can feel pretty dark right now. Where is the light, and how can we kindle it for one another?
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, struggled with lung disease throughout his short life. Constrained by ill health, his muscles of imagination strengthened, enabling him as an adult to top mountains that his body could never conquer, thriving in conjured worlds of physical and spiritual danger. He had been mostly unable to attend school as a boy or play with other children, and he grew up in his grandparents’ house tended by maids, tutors, and a fervently religious nurse named Allison Cunningham, whose folk tales caused the boy to have nightmares. “Cummy,” as Stevenson called her, also cared for him tenderly, reading to him from Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible, long day after long day, when he was especially weak. Once, late in the afternoon, Cummy found Stevenson staring out the window at the lamplighter, as the man moved from light post to light post, igniting the gas street lamps. She asked Stevenson what he was doing, and the boy responded, “I am watching that man poke holes in the darkness.” Stevenson’s writing, rooted in his own losses, offers his readers a similar gift: inviting them to envision a world better than the one they have. When times are especially tough, poets poke holes in the darkness.
That is the genius of the writer Isaiah, actually three different authors, who made sense of the people’s struggles over two centuries. The context of 8th-6th century BCE Israel would be very familiar to us: international superpowers treating smaller countries like pawns, institutions rocked by scandal and then weakened by apathy, average folks worried about their physical safety, how to keep food on the table, and what moral compromise their leaders would engage in next. When Jerusalem falls and the people are marched into Babylon, it even looks like they have lost their religion, until Isaiah helps them altogether re-imagine God’s power and presence. This period is called the Exile in Jewish history, and for all of its death-dealing losses, it is also the moment of a spiritual flowering whose gifts can be opened to us right now.
Isaiah helps the people see that their God is portable, not tied to a piece of real estate or a building. He helps them see that God is on the side of justice and peace, not in some political victory. He broadens the vision of God’s compassion and breaks the tradition of party and nationalism—God is for all people, and He intends the well-being of every tribe and nation. Every valley shall be exalted, he says, and every mountain will be brought low. And in this same moment of Exile, the poetry of the Psalms is penned, and the origin stories of Genesis and Exodus are composed. In that exceedingly dark period of time, poets gave us the language of creation and redemption, of struggle and strength, of a Suffering Servant who reveals that love is older and more powerful than hate. In your most bewildering wilderness, Isaiah says, a voice of light and hope will cry out: The kingdom of God is within you shining, and no power can ever take that away.
The light is in each of you—I see it and am warmed by it, even when you are fairly convinced it has gone out. The light is in the compassion you offer your parents or neighbors or children, especially on the days when you feel like there is nothing left to give. The light is in the difficult conversations you have with colleagues and strangers, when you say “Tell me more” and you ask where it hurts. The light is in the ways Redeemer is righting the wrongs of red-lining and inequitable schools, when you invest in affordable housing and help make every neighborhood a place to learn and thrive. The light is in your personal study and spiritual exercises and welcoming worship that invites everyone to join hands and build a better world than the one we have.
So many of us are in a night of struggle, but in the love you embody, I see a light that shines.
Last Tuesday, I was part of a circle of women* gathered around the fireplace in our Parish Hall. We began our time together by reflecting on and sharing our answers to the questions: “What do you love most about winter? What do you find most challenging about winter?” Light, both the exquisite quality of it, and the lack of it, was a common refrain. The architecture and silhouettes of naked trees, another. Some of us love wearing winter clothes and sweaters; some miss gardening and warmer outdoor activity. All of us, it seemed, were grateful simply to be gathered together, masked and all, by the fireplace, which crackled and glowed.
Our discussion was led by one of our “Ruth’s Sisters” who also happens to be a professional therapist. We learned about seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that begins and ends during a specific season every year; it doesn’t have to be winter, specifically, although most people do experience SAD during the winter months. What some of us call the “winter blues” refers to a milder version of SAD, which appears to be related to varying amounts of exposure to sunlight in different seasons; this in turn affects biological and neurological functioning and can lead to fatigue, low mood, increased appetite, difficulty falling asleep at night, and other experiences associated with depression. Getting sunlight (or a light box!) first thing in the morning for 15-30 minutes helps, as does going for a daily walk and committing to a regular sleep routine and schedule. To learn more, click https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder , with many thanks to Annick Barker, LCSW-C, for leading our discussion and putting together the handout/information sheet from which most of the above was taken.
One remedy or way of navigating through winter blues can be delighting in even the smallest of things. As a holiday gift this year, a friend of mine gave me a lovely collection of essays called The Book of Delights, by award-winning poet Ross Gay. The mindfulness and attentiveness he gives to things many (most?) of us would overlook, combined with his gift of writing, are truly a delight (I will never look at a praying mantis in quite the same way again, after reading Essay #7!). If you’re looking for a book that you can digest and be nurtured by in small, bite-size pieces, I commend this gem to you.
Speaking of delighting in even the smallest of things, below is the poem with which our group of women ended our “fireside chat” the other evening (with many thanks to Annick Barker, again, for sharing this with us!). On this cold winter day, on the ??th day of our ongoing pandemic, amidst so much that continues to be hard in our lives and in our world today, may you experience something of bounty and delight … and remember that God delights in You.
Make much of something small.
The pouring-out of tea,
a drying flower’s shadow on the wall
from last week’s sad bouquet.
A fact: it isn’t summer anymore.
Say that December sun
is pitiless, but crystalline
and strikes like a bell.
Say it plays colours like a glockenspiel.
It shows the dust as well,
the elemental sediment
your broom has missed,
and lights each grain of sugar spilled
upon the tabletop, beside
pistachio shells, peel of a clementine.
Slippers and morning papers on the floor,
and wafts of iron heat from rumbling rads,
can this be all? No, look – here comes the cat,
with one ear inside out.
Make much of something small.
~Robyn Sarah, from A Day’s Grace (Porcupine’s Quill, 2003)
*Ruth’s Sisters: Women navigating midlife transitions in body, mind and spirit together in community grounded in faith and spirituality – meets twice a month, typically the 2d Tuesday evening 5:45-7:15 p.m. at Redeemer and 4th Saturday (time TBD) for a fun outing. For more info, contact Cristina.
“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
This quote has been attributed to the late Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist and deeply spiritual human being. Allegedly he spoke these words in reference to the need for a new ethical perspective in light of the development of the atomic bomb. With the continued competition within the human species and lack of true compassion and collaboration, he believed unless the heart of humanity changed our species would annihilate itself. Spoken during the middle of the 20th century, truer words have never been spoken given the current situations of our present day and time.
Perception creates reality and whatever we continue to perceive is magnified. But, what if we could perceive differently and thereby affect our lives and the lives of others in wonderful, life-giving ways? What if we could know shalom more consistently right now? What if we changed our point-of-view? This was the message of Jesus of Nazareth preaching repentance in order to experience God (the kingdom of heaven).
Changing our perspectives, changes our reality, and Life takes on a newness previously unknown. Our thinking shifts from darkness to light. We begin to live life in the Spirit which is eternal, loving, and liberating. The alternative is to live in the current temporary, unloving, and enslaving state of be-ing. Let’s face it if we do what we have always done we will result in get what we’ve already got! How can we make room for the creativity of Spirit? Isn’t it time to create something better?
LIFE in the SPIRIT, is a new adult forum beginning in late February which will allow us to explore together the challenges of shifting our perspectives to create something new in our lives. Adapted from the book, DISCOVERING OUR SPIRITUAL IDENTITY, by Trevor Hudson, we will learn and share together. Through defining what we mean when we talk about “spirituality vs. religion” and discussing what makes for a spiritual life (a life of meaning and purpose) we begin to come to know who we truly are: Spiritual beings living in a temporal reality. As we come to understand WHO we are, we begin to perceive the connection between us and everybody else; indeed between the rest of creation.
There is a word in the Zulu and Xhosa languages of S. Africa, ubuntu. It means “I am a person because of other persons,” and it is actually a philosophy or way-of-life which states that no one of us exists in isolation and that we are all interconnected. True spirituality is a way of describing that connectivity.
Requirements to attend the forum are an open heart and mind and the desire to become the change you wish to see in the world. All sessions will be on Sunday afternoons on ZOOM twice a month. “Holy experiments” are designed and provided to help us integrate what we are learning into our everyday lives. We hope you will join us. Watch e-Redeemer for more information.
Remember, Change your mind…change your Life!
Many blessings and Much love in this new year!
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and out on the lawn
150 were gathered, ‘round dusk (‘twas not dawn!)
Luminarias were placed round the driveway with care,
In hopes that the deer wouldn’t stomp on them there!
People were wrapped in warm blankets on chairs,
While light from the firepits danced round their hairs;
Dear friends and loved ones, and I in my cape,
Had just settled in for a Christmas Eve “date”
When out from the church there arose such a clatter,
We sprang from our posts, to see what was the matter!‘
Twas only the choir and the pageant-tableau
Nice and toasty inside, oh wouldn’t you know?
What a year, what a year! More like two years, in fact!
Life’s felt upended and hardly in-tact
Darn virus persists, pandemic’s still here
It started with delta, now omicron we fear
Divisions abound, wherever we turn
Politics and race, oh when will we learn?
Loved ones fell ill, and others, they passed
Masks, on or off? Boosters, how long will they last?
To gather or not? How many, how few?
And 2-point conversions, the Ravens don’t do!
People are hungry, students can’t learn
Folks keep on struggling for wages to earn
And yet here we are, we’ve gathered once more
To sing and to pray, to watch and hear lore
A story so ancient, so treasured, so true
Of God born among us, for me and for you
God came not to kings or to queens or to power
Not to glimmering, shimmering wealth on the hour
But to Mary and Joseph, poor, humble and meek
Who struggled to make it, week upon week
To a world that was messy, uncertain, unsure
A world that so desperately yearned for a pure
Message from heav’n, from deep within all
That love’s born anew, whatever befalls
Us folks, then and now; distant, near or far
Light shines in the darkness, and spreads from a star
A single flame kindled, in you and in me
Binds one to another and through eternity
We need not know what exactly the future will bring
Love reigns in our hearts, it’s there She is King
And so we’re reminded for once yet again
To keep watch for that star to shine forth, oh dear friends
On Bert and the choir! On Robert, Connections!
On Barb and Rebecca, Jan, Mary and Ellen!
On Freda Marie! On Mark, Chuan and Grace!
On Katrina … On David … our leader in this race!
A race not to conquer, to win or to beat
But to serve others with kindness and joy, is our feat
So onward together, and on with our fight
Merry Christmas to All! And to All a Good Night!
If you met a person who had never heard the story of the Incarnation, what would you tell them? It’s not an idle question. In mid-December fifteen years ago, a parishioner pulled me aside at coffee hour. “I think we need to become more active at St. John’s,” he began sheepishly. “My wife and I decorated our house yesterday for Christmas. We packed the kids in the station wagon, drove out to the east end of Long Island, and bought a tree. Back at home with mugs of steaming hot chocolate, we carried the boxes of ornaments up from the basement, and made new ones on a card table set up in the living room. Close to dinner time we unpacked the creche, and our older daughter giggled as she placed the wise men on a window sill in the kitchen. ‘They’ve got a long way to go before they get to Bethlehem,’ she said. The twins, who are five-years-old, thought this was a great idea, so they positioned the animals and shepherds on the dining room table, two rooms away.” That all sounds great, I said. “We were feeling good about the day,” the parishioner said, “until we heard one of our five-year-old’s whisper to the other, ‘Now what’s the name of that baby in the straw?’” I signed them up for Sunday School.
How would you tell the story of Christmas? I wondered about that with a group of friends at Blakehurst recently. They gather regularly to puzzle over theological questions, following an example set by June Finney years ago, and they invited me to join them as Advent was beginning. “If someone landed from Mars and wanted to know what the December fuss was all about,” I asked them, “where would you start?”
“An angel got the whole thing going,” said one person. “I think it begins with Mary,” said another. “She was 14, pregnant, and unmarried. What do you think about that, rector?” We were off and running! “What about the man—I forget his name,” someone asked. Joseph, I offered… and what do you make of the fact that he seems forgettable, I wondered. “Oh, I think he’s very important,” said someone. “He could have turned his back on her, cast her out of the family. I think he took a risk by doing the right thing. It’s not such a stretch to believe knowing who the father was could be a mystery. We were all 14 once upon a time.” Now the group was giggling, and nodding their heads.
What about the manger, I asked them. “That’s where the baby was born, because there was no room at the Inn.” What do you think that means, why do we include that detail? There was no innkeeper in the scripture… did you know that? That’s a role we have created for our Christmas pageants. Our conversation got quiet, and I told them about some research I’ve been doing.
There were no hotels or B & B’s in first century Israel, no Holiday Inns with the lights on for all the people who were travelling for the emperor’s census. Modest houses at that time would be constructed with two rooms, one at street level and one upstairs. The lower space would be where a family would keep an animal or two, usually a cow to provide milk for the small fry. It was warm and dry and swept clean for cooking and storing food. The word for the other space is “inn,” and elsewhere in the gospel the same word is translated as “upper room,” like the one where the disciples gathered after Jesus died. Because other family members would have traveled to Bethlehem to be counted, as well, by the time Mary and Joseph arrived, the “inn” was full, so the couple was invited to stay downstairs. They weren’t cast out. The poor family did what poor families do—they made room for them in the best place they could offer. Jesus was born into a space of hospitality.
That’s how I would tell the Christmas story.