What are we waiting for? (Advent & Waiting)

What Are We Waiting For? was given as a sermon on December 15th, 2019 at Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church.

Siblings in faith, I deliver these words in the spirit in which they were written; in the spirit of life and love. Welcome to the third Sunday of Advent, known in many Christian communities as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word meaning: Rejoice! In many Unitarian Universalist communities, our own advent wreaths are lit on this Sunday with the theme of “JOY!” And here we are, together in this space, in this time and in this place, to rejoice together: to feel and show great joy and delight in our community and in our common-union. Thank you for welcoming me to Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church.

Advent has a very special place in my heart. I grew up Roman Catholic, the son of a mother coming from a long line of German and Irish immigrants, and a father whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the early 20th century. Most of my life revolved around the interwoven celebrations of Irish Catholics and Mexican Catholics, who in my experience know how to both lament deeply and celebrate ridiculously. For my family, Advent was and is a time for preparation and expectation for transformation in the world.

Being raised in a high liturgical tradition, the year flowed differently from secular society. The Christmas season didn’t start on Black Friday (or as I know now, after Halloween). It started on Christmas eve at midnight mass. The four Sundays before Christmas marked the Advent season. They shifted from the green colors of “ordinary time” to the purple colors of “transition time.” In the Catholic church, there is another liturgical shift like this, marking the observation of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday. Both Lent and Advent are 40 days long; both are a time of turning inward; a time for reflection, repentance, forgiveness, and hope.

The definition of the word Advent is “the arrival of a notable person, thing or event.” For Christianity, the season of Advent is the celebration of the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth into the world. For Unitarian Universalists, it can be a time of multiple meanings: all of which involve some kind of waiting. Waiting for the Winter Solstice. Waiting for Hanukkah. Waiting for Kwanzaa. Waiting for the New Year. Waiting for the Capitalist Consumerist Industrial Complex to come to an end.

We all know that waiting is not an easy behavior for human beings. I am the father of a 5-year-old, and as he loves to remind my partner and me: “Ugh, I hate waiting!” I empathize with him. As a child my home would gently change through December with garland and lights, nativity mangers and ornaments; I would see presents begin to gather beneath the tree. Bright paper with bows and ribbons, every day was more excruciating than the next. Because all I wanted to do was find out what was in those presents.

Advent calendars, with tiny chocolate treats for each day of the season, added to the excitement. Every day came with a little bit of sweetness, with the knowledge that underneath each panel there was more chocolate. And for some reason to my own 5-year-old experience, that was never enough. I wanted it all now! The practice of waiting stretched me mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Now in my 40s I am thankful for learning the lessons of waiting, though I admit I am still learning when I am stuck in traffic on I-5.

For northern hemisphere pre-Christian cultures, there was a waiting in fear and hope that the fading sun and long nights would shift their course and light would come back into the world once again. Winter was not only coming, but it would leave, marking a transition back into daylight and abundance. Festivals like the Roman Saturnalia and Germanic Yule, with their focus on rejoicing, were about bringing light back into the world at its darkest moments. As Christianity spread throughout Europe it is no wonder that Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun”, became the celebration of the birth of the Son of God, who came according to the gospel writer John, as the “light of the world” and whoever followed him would “never walk in darkness.” (John 8:12)

My experience of Christianity is as a religion about waiting. With its eschatological focus, a focus on a future time, when Christ returns, and all creation is reconciled with the Creator. At its best, this waiting is marked in spiritual lives dedicated to “loving neighbor” as one loves themselves. (Luke 10:25-37) In a people who “turn the other cheek”, “go the extra mile” and who live a Christmas spirit year-round.

Advent, with its concentration on waiting, can have a spiritual effect of stretching time and space “thin.” In the Celtic tradition, thin time and space marks when the veil between life and death, sacred and mundane becomes permeable. Like in Unitarian Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it is a time when spirits can manifest and challenge the living. And for Unitarian Clement Clarke Moore in ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, it is a time when jolly old elves fly through the air on sleds pulled by reindeer and where saints can slip down chimneys to deliver abundance to those of good hearts and deeds. I resonate with these authors sense of wonder: the Advent season was for me a season of miracles: when our United States culture somehow magically shifts from “God helps those who help themselves” to a spirit of generosity, compassion, and charity. A “Christmas Spirit.”

Listening to our story for all ages, it reflects so many of our cultural Christmas parables about the Spirit of Christmas. A moral play regarding the poor who despite poverty and abuse rejoice in the small blessings of a suffering life and who demonstrate almost impossible contentment. Little Gretchen, despite her grandmother’s admonishments, refused to give up her hopes and dreams, praying to the stars for a miracle. And then accepting Christmas day as it came; thankful for what is rather than for what was lacking. For Gretchen, Christmas day was about the blessings of the now. This is the innocence of a child that Jesus spoke to in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt 19: 14)

There is also a shadow side to this narrative; an insidious darkness which I witness played out in our own time. If a life is dedicated to a silent waiting of prayer and hope, like our poor Gretchen and her Grandmother, living in poverty, what changes? For Gretchen, it was the miracle of life and love that made Christmas day. Where were her friends? Her community? Her church? In many ways the Christmas story distorted can be a message of “be happy with your lot in life”; be happy with your poverty. Be happy with your slavery. Be happy with your disenfranchisement. Make do with the seasonal generosity of Merry Gentlemen of wealth and privilege. Better things are coming; just wait and see.

It is this part of the Christmas narrative that I preach against. Because as Unitarian Universalists, we are not a people waiting for a God to do the hard work for us. We are not children learning how to wait; we are a mature faith who, having learned the counter-cultural lessons of delayed gratification, can know the wisdom of both patience and action. We are a sacred faith, free from the dualistic thinking of “either/or.” We are a people of “both/and.” We look to a future beloved community AND commit to the hard work of the transformation of the now. We believe in the salvation and redemption of all people regardless of their wickedness AND we work to dismantle the systems and structures of evil in the world.

In our readings for today, we are reminded of the generational struggle between waiting and acting. For the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, he came to embody a spirituality of both/and in his activism. At the time of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, many of his liberal white peers were advocating for him and his movement to “stop and wait.” He says, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” He recognized that there was a time for both waiting AND a time for action. He refused to wait for a Christmas miracle; he decided to be the miracle.

Advent is a powerful time for waiting AND a time for action. The power in waiting comes from its seasonal focus on our inward work. As the days grow shorter and nights colder, creation invites us into the restoration found in spiritual hibernation. An invitation to reconsider our capacity for charity, for volunteering, for advocacy and for our relationships. It is a time to hope and pray with each other in solidarity, facing the darkness of climate change and fascism with the chalice light of community. Advent is a powerful time for action because at its end, we are forced to ask: “What are we waiting for?”

As President Barack Obama said in our second reading, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. … We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us our house must stand divided, that we cannot come together, that we cannot remake this world as it should be.” We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Advent for Unitarian Universalists is an opportunity to tap into the strength and resiliency with which to act in the world. Our waiting is a spiritual exercise in accessing the powerful resource that theologian and civil right icon the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman writes about in his book Meditations of the Heart: “It is the insistence of religion that the God of life and the God of religion are one and the same. Implicit in the struggle which is a part of life is the vitality that life itself supplies. To affirm this with all of one’s passionate endeavor is to draw deeply upon the resource available to anyone who dares draw upon it. The aliveness of life and the power of God move through the same channel at the point of greatest need and awareness.”

Our season doesn’t begin with the waiting, just as Christmas doesn’t begin with Advent. Our season begins on the day we emerge into the world, filled with a Holy Spirit of life and love for prophetic work and transformative change. We do not do it for ourselves alone. We do it because we have inherited the success and struggle of our ancestors. We do it because that arc of history which bends toward justice has never bent itself. We do it for my child and our children and our children’s children.

Which is no surprise. Advent and Christmas has always been about children; and the dynamic tension between our desire to wait and their desires for now. We hope that they learn patience and they hope we remember urgency. Which is why this Advent song has always been my favorite:

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear
A song, a song High above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace wall mighty king
Do you know what I know
A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
They will bring us goodness and light
They will bring us goodness and light

In this song, written during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a challenge to both war and consumerism, creation and humanity call us into Advent. We are called to arrive. If we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the stars dancing in the night, it is our voices as big as the sea, we are the wisdom of shepherds who speak truth to power and transform the hearts of kings, and it is our children who will bring us goodness and light: because there are other children like shivering in the cold. Immigrants like my grandmother in detention centers. Mad leaders playing with our lives. There is a world on fire threatening our very existence. We can not just wait. We must arrive!

Siblings in faith, with so much darkness in the night it can be hard to rejoice. A Christmas Spirit seems almost impossible. And that is why we have Advent. Why we have a special season dedicated to waiting and healing; family and friends; gift giving and tree trimming. Which is why we light our chalice on Gaudete Sunday. Which is why we come together in this time and in this place. To hold each other tight. To tell the stories that kindle miracle and mystery in our children and rekindle our own sacred imagination. And when our children ask, “What are we waiting for?” We will tell them, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Amen.

A Christmas Song for a world on fire…

I really enjoy Christmas music. Even though I get frustrated when I hear holiday melodies before Thanksgiving Halloween, the familiar songs fill me with warm nostalgia. My memories of Christmas and Advent are good memories. My house would be filled with the smell of tamales and baked goods. Lights and nativity scenes would appear. Records that laid dormant for a year would be pulled out and played after dinner. Church would echo with carols and hymns to the coming celebration of the Christ child.

I have my old favorites: The Little Drummer Boy (specifically the one with Bing Crosby and David Bowie), O Come All Ye Faithful, Carol of the Bells. And I have some new ones. But my most favorite Christmas song is Do You Hear What I Hear? It breaks me every time in all the ways I need to be broken for the Holiday season; toward hope, giving, forgiving. Most importantly toward peace in a time overcome with the threat of destruction.

The song’s creators, Gloria Baker and Noël Regney, wrote the song in 1962 while the world was reeling from the Cuban Missile Crisis. And after it was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1963, it quickly spread across the world. Baker and Regney’s message was prophetically powerful in a time that needed a message of hope. Which is probably why I have always gravitated toward this simple Christmas classic. It reminds me to live in hopefulness.

The song, like the Nativity story, is subversive. It begins with a message whispered from creation to people on the margins: “Do you see what I see?” “Do you hear what I hear?” And then from the margins to the powers that be: “Do you know what I know?” How I long for those of the halls of power to suddenly realize that out in the freezing night, there are children who need silver and gold; who are homeless and hungry and in poverty. For the wealthy to realize that these children will bring goodness and light. For our leaders to announce peace; turning away from greed, racism, and bigotry.

55 years later, Do You Hear What I Hear? is in the background of a Holiday Season set amid chaos. I am clinging to it in desperation. I want some small whisper in the night wind. I want a voice bigger than all the hate in the world. I want an intervention, reminding the world: “Glory to God in the highest, peace on Earth, and good will to all!

This last Sunday, one of the children at my church came up to me and asked, “Do you want to know something?” I nodded with a smile. He told me, “God is everything. In the wind. In the trees. In the world. In you. In me.” I asked him how that made him feel. He smiled at me and said, “It makes me very happy.”

Do you hear what I hear?

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What Christmas is (supposedly) about…

Seriously, making
Seriously, making beer is hard work…

For the past seven years of our marriage, Heather and I have given alternative gifts for Christmas. Usually we make donations to non-profit organizations in the name of friends and family. This year, we’re adding home crafted items to the mix. Heather is making tasty treats, we have quite a few bottles of homemade raspberry wine, and I have some home roasted coffee and homebrew that will be given out.

Ok, I may have purchased a few presents... but they're VERY functional.
Ok, I may have purchased a few presents… but they’re VERY functional.

It’s not that we’re anti-capitalist or don’t believe in the spirit of Christmas. Gift giving is an important human ritual that solidifies relationships and strengthens bonds. We also haven’t gone native and decided that a hipster Christmas is better. I just believe modern American gift giving is redundant in our instant gratification society. My friends pretty much have everything they really NEED, and within my modest budget, they already have everything they really WANT. I also don’t want to add to their “stuff.” (Which I am decidedly against)

That’s why donating money to deserving organizations was a no brainer. We take the money we would otherwise have spent on stupid stuff and allow that money to make the world a better place. It’s like paying Christmas forward. Our intent is to honor our loved ones with a gesture of charity. This year, we’ve chosen three organizations which we believe are making positive contributions to our home in Seattle, our home in Las Vegas, and to the overall world.

Man, I may have to be naughty this year...
At least it’s local?

The crafted items for this Christmas happen to be byproducts of where we live. Seattle inspires people to make local, and the more homemade the better. While we are far from knitting beanies sheared from our backyard herd of sheep, it’s pretty awesome to give a bottle of wine made from raspberries grown in our garden, fermented in our home, and bottled in our kitchen. (Hopefully the wine is good–it won’t be ready to open until August 2014!) I’ve also been making some pretty decent homebrew and I haven’t met a coffee drinker who doesn’t like fresh roasted coffee. The best part is, we made these things by hand: we’re not only giving a product, but our time and passion. Now THAT’S love.

It really is the gift that keeps giving...
It really is the gift that keeps giving…

My belief in gift giving works both ways, too.  There are only a few things I really want for Christmas. First, I want people to donate. It doesn’t have to be in my or Heather’s name. Just do it. Find a great organization you believe in and drop them a Benjamin or volunteer some time. I will enjoy that a lot more than any DVD or collector’s edition velvet Elvis. If you MUST get me a thing, then get me something I can eat or drink. Small batch craft spirits are a great choice, but so are rare beers, coffee, and chocolate. Heck, make me a tray of smoked chocolate coffee cardamom brownies.

Best gift ever.
Best gift ever.

Really, make me some of those brownies. Pretty please. With sprinkles.

In any case, just rethink your gift giving. Consider what you REALLY want/need. The world is already filled with too much stupid crap and there are too many people who need things like food, shelter, clothing and most importantly, love. Which is what this season is supposed to be about, right?