Tag Archives: advent

making room

© erin dunigan 2012

nara, japan                                                     © erin dunigan 2012

“….any happiness that is demanded from life never becomes happiness because it is too narcissistically and self-consciously pursued. The ‘joy that the world cannot give’ always comes as a gift to those who wait for it, expect it and make room for it inside themselves.”

-Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas Day 2

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advent: waiting

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waiting                                                                                   © erin dunigan 2009

 

“Perfect fullness is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now. This keeps the field of life wide open and especially open to grace and to a future created by God rather than ourselves. This is exactly what it means to be ‘awake’ as the Gospel urges us.”

-Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas, Day 1

the ‘christmas spirit’ ~ on sheet-mulching and incarnation

I realized the other day–a realization that was a bit troubling, actually–that I don’t, this year, feel much in the ‘Christmas spirit.’

last year while in London in December I came upon this 'santa flash mob' in Trafalgar Square

Don’t get me wrong–I’m no ‘Ba Humbug.’ No, it’s not that. It’s just that, well, something has seemed to be missing for me this year. I didn’t even listen to my Christmas music until significantly after Thanksgiving–a patience that has not really ever been successful before.

As I continued to ponder this somewhat unique occurence in my life I began to realize something else–in my attempt to ‘dwell’ during advent (the season preceding Christmas in the Christian calendar) as a way of trying to create space for a bit of ‘being’ amidst what is typically a season of much ‘doing’, I had wound up doing something else as well.

Central Park, in snow. From my first winter on the east coast.

A bit of backstory: for most of the past decade, really, I have had a Christmas season tradition of being in a big city to enjoy the decorations and ambiance of the season. While I was in seminary that big city was New York, which is an incredible place to be for ‘experiencing the Christmas spirit’–from the ice skating rinks in Central Park and Rockefeller Center, with its tall tree and lower level Starbucks serving holiday eggnog lattes, to the wandering in front of store windows, or even a Christmas concert at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, to hear its choir, or a trip to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockets. Even after seminary I continued to make the December pilgrimage.

Last year, rather than New York, I was able to be in London during December–another fantastic big city experience of the Christmas spirit.

But this December I have spent in the very small town of La Mision, Baja California, which wikipedia says has a population of 920. This has been by choice, as I mentioned. There are no ice skating rinks, though the temperature in my house (with no central heat) could probably sustain one. There are no decorated storefront windows, except for the ‘sponsor a winter outfit for an orphan’ tree in Maganas, a local taqueria. I did get a tree this year–it’s a meyer lemon, and I planted in the ground on the first Sunday of advent. One of my neighbors stealthily hung a beautiful Christmas wreath on my front door, but that’s the only decorative element in the house that gives a hint to the season. I did have an eggnog latte, back when I was in London in mid-November, and though there is a Starbucks 40 miles away in Ensenada I have not been there to see how ‘eggnog latte’ translates into Spanish.

So, it really isn’t surprising, considering the context, that it occured to me that I don’t feel all that much in the Christmas spirit this year.

Except for that it is.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I love enjoying the ‘festivity’ of the season, from lights to decorations to the smell of pine, and the colors of beautifully wrapped gifts. I think it is a fantastic way to enjoy life, family, and celebrate the season.

But, at the end of the day, if I were to try and communicate ‘what is the underlying meaning of Christmas’ or ‘what does Christmas really mean,’ though those things would be in the mix, they would be in a supporting role, not the lead. For me, as a Presbyterian minister (and an ordained evangelist, no less) and a person who is trying to live my life in the way of Jesus, shouldn’t there be some sort of ‘God stuff’ in the mix? It is, arguably, the biggest day of the year in the Christian calendar.

Because what I believe the underlying message of ‘the Christmas spirit’ is about is that, ultimately, God/Spirit/Divine/Source/Breath (they are all just our attempt to put words on something that is unnamable, aren’t they?) is not far off, out there, distant or remote, but rather right here, with us, in our midst, amongst us. The fancy theological word for this is incarnation, which, put simply means, ’embodied in the flesh, or a concrete or actual form of a concept.’

Back to my original pondering, about the Christmas spirit…

The thing is, this advent I haven’t just been sitting around contemplating and watching the clouds go by. And I also haven’t been boycotting the mall and it’s crazy search for that parking place, though I have to admit, it’s a bit of a relief.

yesterday's sunset, looking inland...

What I have been doing is quite a bit of work in the yard–sheet mulching two large areas to prepare the soil and keep out the weeds for what will become the site of spring planting. I’ve been baking bread and pasta and cooking soup. I’ve been spending time with my neighbors. I’ve been reading and learning. I’ve been trying to maintain a mindfulness of beauty by making photographs. I’ve been participating in activities that are trying to help others who are in need.

Incarnation, embodied in the flesh, the actual or concrete form of something.

Something like love? Cultivated in the garden, or expressed in a shared loaf of bread, over a meal, amongst neighbors, and extended to those in need…

Perhaps I’ve been in the Christmas spirit all along. Maybe, in my assumption that it should look a certain way, I just didn’t know how to recognize it.

lemon trees, advent and orphans

ImageI’m a big fan of weaving things together—often things that don’t seem, on the surface, to necessarily have much in common. Take, for instance, my current mix: a lemon tree, advent, and orphans. See? I told you so…
Let’s start with advent, which most people, if they have heard of it, is in the phrase advent calendar—a calendar to count down the days until Christmas, beginning four Sundays before.  Growing up I had an advent calendar that had Bible verses in each of the windows when they were opened. I thought it was kind of a rip-off, actually, since I knew there were chocolate advent calendars out there—eating a bit of chocolate is a lot more exciting to a kid (and to an adult?) than simply reading a Bible verse.
The term advent simply refers to the season preceding Christmas. It starts four Sundays before, which for us in America is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Often the season is marked, in addition to calendars, by lighting a new candle on an advent wreath each Sunday. There are readings that go along with it, and there are even songs. But the point of advent is to be a time of both waiting and preparation. The waiting is a waiting both of the birth of the baby Jesus, but also a waiting for the coming of the Christ to make all things new. More on that later.
The lemon tree. On Sunday, the first Sunday of advent, I planted a lemon tree. (Just for the record, this is not a traditional way to celebrate advent.) It is actually the third lemon tree that I’ve planted (the first two are no longer with us, due to issues of soil, water, and a potential lack of nutrients). The lemon tree planting is part of an overall experiment to see what food producing plants and trees might be able to grow in the small piece of garden that is in my care. This experiment has included rainwater harvesting by finding ways to allow the ground itself to capture more rainwater, thus increasing its overall health. It has also included planting vegetables in both winter and summer, and persevering in the midst of gophers and some other small animal that was leaving half eaten green tomatoes on the ground. In the midst of this process I picked up a new term—permaculture, which, at its most basic, is the idea of the relationships between living things and trying to cultivate an environment that fosters them. So, for instance, planting flowers that attract beneficial insects near vegetables that need to be pollinated, or diverting greywater from sink or shower to reuse it for watering a tree.
Orphans. I know, you’re wondering how this can possibly all go together. Stay with me. In the community where I live, La Mision, there is a group of people, American expatriates, who have come together to ‘love their neighbor as themselves.’ In this case the ‘neighbor’ is an orphanage about 40 minutes away, in the Guadalupe Valley. Casa de Paz has about 48 children in their care. They are doing amazing work to become more sustainable—raising chickens for eggs, getting milk and cheese from their two cows, growing their own vegetables and using the surplus to trade for supplies such as rice or sugar. But, at the end of the day, they’ve got an electric bill to pay (close to $1000/month much of which is because they need to pump all of their water—for personal and agricultural use—up from a well) and propane to buy, in addition to the cost of feeding over 50 people on a daily basis. They survive through a bit of help from the government (which supplies money for medications for their special needs children), some outside work by the orphanage’s director Jonathan, and through donations from churches and other non-profit groups that try to help them.
So, I’ve been pondering these things, as I’ve been considering the beginning of advent this week. Of course with advent it is easy to see how we can be so busy with the ‘Christmas season’—buying gifts, going to parties, sending cards, wondering how we are going to pay for the gifts that we are buying—that it is very easy to go from Thanksgiving to Christmas without ever really having the chance to pause. Advent is an invitation to reflect.  To contemplate what this season might be birthing into our world, or asking us to bring into being.
The first rule, if you will, of permaculture, is a prolonged and thoughtful observation. Before doing anything, it is important to observe—to ponder, as my dad would have called it. For instance, observe how the rain falls on your land—is there runoff? If so, where, how fast, in what direction? How might you slow its path so that it can seep into the ground, rather than simply washing into the gutter? Of course then it is important to act on the observation—it is not simply contemplation for contemplation’s sake. But to act before such a sustained contemplation is to risk missing what is actually needed or beneficial.
Which is the same with trying to help others. Of course, helping others is a noble and worthwhile thing to do. Some version of the ‘golden rule’ (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—or, love your neighbor as yourself) is present in most of the worlds religions. Compassion for those in need is to be commended. But often we have the tendency to rush in with our own ideas of what might be needed—toys at Christmas or a meal at Thanksgiving—without that prolonged and thoughtful observation. When we do that we often feel good about our efforts, but just as likely those efforts can leave those we aim to help worse off rather than better. (For more on this see the book review Wasted Charity) This Christmas, in seeking to address some of these issues, those who are trying to help Casa de Paz have decided, rather than collect toys, to organize a clothing drive for the children. They are inviting people to ‘sponsor’ a child and provide a warm winter outfit—of a total cost of about $100/child for each of the 48 children.  
Lemon trees. Advent. Orphans. For me, what weaves these three together is the invitation—an invitation to be mindful, to contemplate, ponder and observe—and then to take that contemplation and allow it to grow into action.

 

**If you would like to help the La Mision community support the children of Casa de Paz by contributing to the winter clothing drive, you can send a tax deductible check made out to: The La Mision Childrens Fund and send it to:

La Mision Companies
PMB 840
PO Box 439060
San Diego, CA 92143

Please indicate that the check is for ‘winter clothing drive’ and send it before December 14.

first things

It’s amazing, it feels like summer lately even though the calendar tells us we are in mid-November, swiftly approaching the holidays, as many retail stores have been making all too clear with their displays of trees, lights, ornaments and tinsel. Soon, the Christian season of Advent will be upon us.

Advent, as you are probably aware, is a season of waiting, of anticipation, that spans the four Sundays before Christmas. Many people light advent candles and children often open advent calendars, both of which are ways that we mark our waiting. This Advent waiting reminds us both of the Hebrews who waited for the coming of the Messiah, but also serves to remind us that we still wait for that time when God will make all things new.

But if the stores can get such a long headstart on Christmas, why can’t we in the church as well? What if we get a head start on Jesus before we start singing about him being in a manger? What if we take a look, before we get swept up in the pageantry of the Christmas season, to pause and look more closely at the man that this nativity baby was to become? At Easter it is often common to remember and contemplate the final days of Jesus’ life and to commemorate the ‘last words of Jesus’ so why not, before the Christmas season, take a look at some of the ‘first words of Jesus.’

Of course, we do not mean the actual first words, mama or dada or the like, as we do not have a record of what those might have been for the baby Jesus as he grew up.

But what about the first words of Jesus as we have them recorded in the gospel accounts, his first public words and the context in which they were uttered? Before we get wrapped up in all of the commercial packaging of the celebration of his birth, the “Jesus is the reason for the season” what if we take a look at what Jesus said was the reason for, well, for Jesus?

So listen with me to the word of God, as we find these first public words of Jesus as told by the Gospel according to Mark in the first chapter, beginning with the first verse. Listen for the Word of God.

Mark 1:1-15

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the book of Mark we do not have a Christmas story, the traditional nativity scene of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels and wise men.

If we were to make a nativity of the opening scene of the book of Mark we would likely have a river, a somewhat odd looking guy wearing fur and eating bugs, a lot of people (the text says that ‘everyone from Jerusalem and people from the whole Judean countryside went out to John at the Jordan). As the scene unfolds we begin to catch a glimpse of one guy, coming all the way from Nazareth, probably about 100 miles away, on foot. It must have taken him awhile to get there—an average walking pace is about 3 miles an hour, so that would potentially be a three day’s walk. Instead of baby Jesus in a manger, we’d have grown up Jesus with a lot of dust on his sandals.

The last time I was with all of you I was living in Orange County, and waiting to be ordained. Since then I have finally been ordained, as a ‘designated tentmaking evangelist’ and I have moved to live in a small community in Mexico. It is my grandmother’s house that I’ve moved into and it is surrounded by a yard which, before I started working in it, had been long neglected and overgrown. Over the past couple of years I’ve been slowly working my way through the overgrowth, trimming, digging up, and planting. It is common amongst my friends down there to realize that if they call me on the phone and I don’t answer, I am probably out working in the yard. One of my favorite things to do is to make a path for the rainwater, so that it creates almost a stream through the yard when it rains, and allows more of the water to soak into the ground. This not only keeps the rain runoff from getting too much and out of control, but it also helps to bathe the dry ground in fresh water.

A few weeks back, in October when we were having all that rain, I found myself outside digging around in the garden in the mud…in my pajamas. I had meant to just go outside to check on the water’s flow, but one thing lead to another and I wound up in the mud, digging, my pajamas getting wetter and wetter, and trying to keep them from getting muddier and muddier. I knew it was a bit odd, but I was occupied with my task. All of a sudden I heard a car pull up on the road outside. Sure enough, as I looked up at the car, I saw my  Doug, Kathy and Leslie–who had come for a visit. They took one look at me, soaking wet, muddy, and in my pjs, and burst out laughing.

…..

John the Baptist must have been quite a sight. Clothed in camel’s hair secured by a leather cord, and eating a rather interesting diet of bugs and honey. Why are we told all of this? We are not given wardrobe information for anyone else in our story, not Jesus, not the crowds, just John. If we stop to think, one wonders why the author of the book of Mark includes these details. Is it just to make him sound a bit weird? His strange appearance doesn’t seem to be off-putting though—the text tells us that all of Judea and Jerusalem were coming out to John at the Jordan. Maybe they were just going out to see a crackpot in the wilderness, outside the city? But they weren’t just going out to see John or to gawk at this strange sight; they were getting baptized by him.

Sometimes, when we read the Bible, we have become so accustomed to it that we don’t see what is actually in front of us. I am a photographer because I like to help people see that which they somehow overlook when not guided in the direction of a particular image. Mark is giving us a photograph of John, inviting us to pause and take a closer look at this unusual man. For those who knew their Hebrew Scriptures would know that John was not the first person to be described in this way.

Elijah, one of the Hebrew prophets, was described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” who lived out beyond the normal borders of society. Elijah, coincidentally, did not die, as it is told in the book of Second Kings, but was simply surrounded by a chariot of fire and taken into heaven. Where did this miraculous event happen? None other than the banks of the Jordan River. The same Jordan River where we now find John.

But so what? So what if there is this guy who seems to look like Elijah and happens to be found in the same place where Elijah had last been seen? What’s the big deal about that?

That is where the writer of Mark gives us another clue. “It is written in the prophets…I will send my messenger ahead of you, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make his paths straight.” There are actually two quotes here, one from Isaiah and one from Malachi. Both passages talk about the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the one who will turn the people back to God and make the world a place of peace, justice and harmony—the one who will make things right.

But Malachi goes further…”Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes…” The reason Elijah matters is that it was believed by the Jews of the time that before the Messiah would come and usher in the day of the Lord, that time when all would be made right, that day for which the people of Israel had been waiting…before that day would come, first Elijah would return, a precursor, a messenger announcing the coming Messiah.

John even seems to echo this belief himself, proclaiming that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…I have washed you in water, but he will wash you in the very Spirit of God.”

…..

One of the results of this summer we seem to be having in November is that it has brought with it some beautiful sunsets. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to catch any of them, but from where I live in Mexico, they are hard to miss as they paint the sky with pinks and oranges and yellows. You can’t spend too much time watching sunsets in Mexico without someone bringing up ‘the green flash.’

The green flash is a phenomenon that occurs right as the last bit of sun has sunk below the horizon. If the view is clear and there are no clouds or smog to get in the way, the story goes that this flash of green can happen just as the sun disappears. It is a story that I’ve heard all of my life, and to be honest, I sort of thought it was the product of people having too many cocktails, rather than there being any sort of real occurrence. I assumed that the green flash would be just that, a flash of green lighting up the sky, impossible to ignore, obvious to all who were paying the least bit of attention, like a bolt of lightning casting a green hue across the horizon.

It turns out, the green flash is much more subtle than that. You’ve got to be watching for it. You’ve got to be paying attention. And even when you are, you might miss it. It’s less of a shout, more of a whisper. I always assumed that because I hadn’t seen what I expected it to be, that there was no green flash. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps I might be staring it in the face and not even see it right in front of me.

…..

And so onto the scene walked Jesus. Jesus who had traveled a few days journey to get to the Jordan where John was baptizing, immersing the whole of the region in water as a sign of repentance, of turning, of a fundamental shift. John had already warned them, this is only the beginning. What I’m doing, what you’re doing by coming out here to me, this is just the start, this is the first step. There will be another and that other will bathe you not just in water, but in the very Spirit of God. I’m doing this to prepare you for that.

And then, just like that, Jesus enters our nativity scene, getting baptized by John just like the rest. But when Jesus comes up out of the water something new happens. The text says ‘he saw the heavens opened’ but literally it means the heavens were ripped open, were torn or rent apart. And the spirit like a dove came down upon him saying, “you are my beloved in whom I delight.” And immediately the Spirit drove him further out into the wilderness, alone, tempted by the adversary.

If this were a movie I think we’d stop right here and say, what? After all that build up, all of that careful stage setting in showing that this John the Baptist was actually fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was the one to appear before the Messiah, the anointed of God, came upon the scene and made all things right, brought the world into justice, peace and harmony…

And everyone has come out to the wilderness to prepare, to make themselves ready for this big event that the Jewish people have been anticipating, toward which God has been guiding all of history…and then Jesus shows up and the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon him.

And just when we are waiting for a green flash to proclaim itself across the entirety of the evening sky, it is much more subtle than that. Instead of stepping onto the stage and proclaiming, here I am, the one you’ve been waiting for, the chosen of God, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Spirit drives Jesus from that place out into the wilderness to wait for 40 days.

After that 40 days Jesus shows up back in Galilee, back where he started, and utters his first public words as recorded in the book of Mark: “Now is the time to turn around, for the reign of God is here, right now, so put your trust in the good thing that God is doing.”

It sounds a little bit like a passage you will likely be hearing in the coming weeks, a passage that comes from Luke’s gospel: “And the angel, the messenger, said, fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.”

Or, to put it as Mark does, “This is the beginning of the good tidings of Jesus the anointed Son of God…”

Did you catch that? When we first read the passage? The first line of the book of Mark isn’t a sentence at all—an English teacher would call it a fragment. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the anointed.” Some might call it a title or a heading. The only problem is, if you keep reading the book of Mark, there are no more headings, other than this one.

If you spend much time with the Gospel of Mark you will see that it is not always neat and tidy, cut a dried. Often Mark leaves us hanging, without answers, without conclusions. In fact, what is referred to as the ‘shorter ending of the book of Mark’ ends with the women coming to the tomb after Jesus has risen, seeing an angel, and fleeing in fear. Even in our text this morning, we have suggestions more than assertions. The prophets have written about a messenger, an Elijah-like figure. And here we have John. John talks about preparing the way for someone greater. And then Jesus shows up. Mark gives us enough of the story to draw us in, to invite our participation, to cause us to wonder. But he doesn’t give answers. That he leaves up to us.

Jesus comes onto the scene and his first public words are, “Change, turn around, turn from the way you were going and toward something new, for there is good news, there are good tidings, the kingdom of God has come near, have confidence.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ…

Perhaps, the author of Mark is suggesting, I’m going to give you the beginning, but it’s up to you to keep the story going.