Thursday, December 13, 2018

Gaudete Sunday: Rejoice! Always!?!

When the peace of God surpasses all understanding....

Having joy can be a funny thing. Some folks assume that in order to express joy, you need to be happy. At the least, you should be in a favorable mood, yes? If we make joy dependent on happiness, or align it with feelings of comfort, satiety, safety, and security, then joy becomes something that is both as fleeting and dependent on forces outside our selves as all those latter states ultimately are, at core. Joy is something that rises from a place that is deeper than anything that depends on factors exterior to our being.

I have known joy when safety and security are scarce. I played two hard contact sports growing up, and both soccer and rugby were sources of great joy for me. They were not safe, and both offered little security. I trained in a martial art for over a decade, and I guarantee that there was little safety or security on the mat, even though the sensei and my training partners were as mindful as we could be most of the time. All of these environments were extremely high risk, and I have the old injuries and scars to prove that even being careful does not preserve one from enduring harm. Still, the sports I played and the art I practiced were and in memory now still are sources of supreme joy.

I have also known the deep assurance of joy when far from feeling comfortable. Going to the bedside of the sick, the dying and attending to the dead and their bereaved is not comfortable. A person may offer comfort to those who are bereaved, but even then we must admit there is little comfort in the moment when illness or dying are at their height. There is little comfort in those first moments of loss...and yet, even in the face of death, I have known the joy of being faithful to the people I am called to serve. Not long ago, in the very earliest hours of a day, I returned home from attending a death in my parish. My heart was broken and full of grief. Even in that moment of loss, though, I knew the joy of having been able to be there for someone in need, to say the prayers and to shepherd someone through the loss of a beloved parent.

Joy is not happiness.

Joy is the awareness that you are standing at the center of your existence, in right relationship with all around you and with your creator. It is an awareness that you could be no where else, with no one else, in any other moment that to be here and now and with those who complete your joy, and whose joy is made complete by being in relationship with you. You could be standing in the eye of a hurricane and know joy, if those previous factors are in place. You could be safe as houses and NOT know joy if those relationships noted are broken. Joy is a relationship that is full and fulfilled.

This pause in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday. The name is a Latin word for "Rejoice!" and the day was intended as a respite from the dour nature of a penitential season. It marks a pause in the progression we are making through this season of anticipation and preparation. We are commanded to draw to a stop in our march, to be HERE and NOW while experiencing joy. That joy comes from being in a right relationship with God, and to seek a right relationship with each other.

The prospect of joy, real joy, is one that should nearly rend us. What would it mean to you in your daily walk through life, in all your worries and concerns and cares, to pause and rejoice? If that pause is one we are open to, then can thanksgiving to God be far behind? I have known times when I have had little more to be joyful for than to be able to continue to breathe. Believe me, when I was made aware of that truth, the next breath was a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving to God that I had breath in me. That was a moment of the purest joy, one of the greatest I have even known.

So, I ask you....what is your joy? What makes that joy complete and what completes that joy in the people around you?

Do those things, and continue to do them....and give thanks to God while rejoicing in that joy which is a peace that truly passes all understanding.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

When Advent Confronts Addiction

When We See Sin as Addiction

Addiction is a profound element of life in the Western, developed world that most of us know and through which we make our daily way. It would be easy to assume that when we say addiciton, we are talking about the dramatic and visible signs of it. There is an opioid crisis caused by the over-prescription of commercially produced pain medications that are thousands of times more powerful that any OTC medication. Synthetic heroin, and heroin itself, is cheaper in some places than beer. Methamphetamine is more potent and addictive than almost any other drug. Try any of these just once, and you life's path will be altered forever.

Image result for recovery from sin
Those are just the more dramatic addictions that the media and treatment movements are trying to keep us informed about. Alcohol, tobacco, pornography, general media consumption....even food itself are all vehicles of addiction that can destroy us and the lives of those we love. We can see the impact of addiction in our lives. If it hasn't touched us, then it has impacted the people with whom we are in relationship. If you have a family, then it is likely that someone in your family has struggled with some form of substance abuse or behaviors that rise to the level that one could call addiction.

What is addiction at its heart? It is a dependence on a particular substance, action or behavior. That dependence rises to the point that a person ceases to have control over their behavior. They know that they shouldn't do that thing. They know that they should make better choices...and yet, they fail to make those good choices. They succumb to behaviors that take them farther down the warren of addiction and away from healthy relationships to themselves and with other people.

When St. Paul talk about sin, it sounds an awful lot like addiction, as he writes in the 7th chapter of his letter to the Romans:
For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Paul's struggle with sin is that grappling I have borne witness to throughout my life as a child of God and as a pastor. When the will to do the things that bring life, health and peace fails and we instead fall to the temptations to repeat behaviors that continue our decline from health and right relationships with God and each other, we call that sin. Paul affirms that while we know what we should do, even to the point that we would do it, we stumble and fall. We are powerless in its face to overcome it with our own will. Even though the right still dwells in us, we cannot.

I have again and again loved and cared for people who have struggled on this same path when we call it addiction. The first step to recovery for an addict? To admit that they are powerless in the face of that addiction. The first step for a sinner to find repentance and amendment of life? To admit that sin dwells in them.

The second step? In addiction recovery, it is to allow that there is a higher power in which you can entrust that restorative path. For a sinner? To place your trust in a forgiving God.

The third step? In addiction recovery, it is to turn our care and keeping over into the hands of that higher power, to God as God is understood by that person. For a sinner? The Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church says it this way: "To persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord." That means that when we stumble, we understand that it is only through returning to a dependence on God, instead of our own sinfulness, that we will find reconciliation with our Creator and balance again within our self.

You might be reacting right now to this exploration of sin as an addiction. We so decry sinfulness as making a person "bad" and we have learned that an addict is someone who is victimized by a disease that to equate sin and addiction is to move to a place where we judge an addict BAD like a SINNER.

To the contrary: I am asking you to see sin as an addiction. We KNOW that the choices we make that are sinful, that are not of the will or in the mind of God, are destructive to our person and our relationships with others. We KNOW we want to stop making those poor choices. We KNOW that we are powerless to stop making those bad choices, and are reliant on a recovery from sin that we cannot achieve without grace from God and our beloveds.

I will honor the power of addiction I have seen in myself and in others and say that I am addicted to sin. I have been a sinner since I can remember...and a sinner in recovery so many times over that I have lost count.

What will save from this addiction to sin? What will save any addict? Recovery and reconciliation are found in a faith in a higher power. For a follower of Jesus, it means that with Christ himself in the world and in our lives we are bound forever to an agency that allows us to name our sins and by God's grace come to a place of recovery from them. In Church terms, that is called "amendment of life." For addicts, it is called "sobriety."

Advent is a season for recovery. It is a time in which we reset our understanding and expectations of a God who is no longer far off, but now in Christ is a God who has drawn near to us. It is a season in which we honor the long and turbulent history of humankind as we have stumbled and tripped over our own certainties and errors over and over again while calling it "good," when only God is good. We embrace Advent as a time to, as the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent offers:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
A prophet? One could call that one a sponsor....yes? A person whose job it is to hold up the light of truth when we would rather fold the shadows of delusion around our senses.

Advent....a season when we acknowledge that God is near and not far off...and that we are now again graced with an opportunity to give thanks that once again God's grace enfolds us in our struggle to maintain our recovery from sin.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Advent of Advent, The End of Beginnings...

...and the Beginnings of the End

Advent is a lost season for many who follow Christ in the West, particularly as we in consumerist society succumb to the romance of the marketing of Christmastide as the gift-giving season.

Mind you, I am not-and will not-decry the festal holiday cheer that comes with these weeks. I love the music-both popular/secular and sacred-that fills heart and head with both memory and anticipation of time with family and friends gathered around hearth, table and Tannenbaum. I love the looks of wonder and joy that small children have when they greet Santa, and hear the gentle rhymes of "Twas the Night Before Christmas." I rejoice in the scent of evergreens, the cloy of the balsam fir and the soft light of candles amidst the crimson of poinsettias. All the traditions are beloved to me, truly. And who doesn't enjoy a gift-either to give or to receive-when those packages accumulate under the tree? I am also deeply enamored of the tradition in my family to choose charities, so that we can give to others in our loved ones' names.

All of that celebration is precious to me; but I am also very reluctant to give up on the season that precedes the 12 days of Christmas. Even as the trees go up and the decorations abound as Thanksgiving and Harvest celebrations fade, a new season of light and dark, of promise and dread, of hope and anticipation is waxing-even as the daylight hours wane with the coming Solstice.

Advent is a season of time and timing. It is a time when we mark a quick succession of weeks in our calendar by drawing near to the cosmic wonder of time on God's universal scale. Advent is the lighting of candles in a count down to two major, transformative moments in our walk with God in Christ. We remember Jesus' birth, and we anticipate Jesus' return at the end of the age.

The scripture readings, the prayers and the hymns all portray that tension. We hear readings and sing songs of portents and signs. BIG things are happening around us that point to the One who is to come. The hymns seek to both provoke awe and inspire reassurance. God is immediate and our bodies hum and vibrate to that Holiness approaching...and at the same time we are assured that what is coming is ultimately FOR us and not AGAINST us.

What is coming is God's kingdom, and the justice and grace of the kingdom is like a winnowing fork on a threshing floor. It is like a sieve that sifts and separates grain from chaff. It is like a sorting hand that pulls what is not God from entanglement with what IS God.

Like a great branch, it hangs over us while also giving life to the fruit it bears. Like an axe, it lies at the foot of a tree. Like a fig, it sits dormant and waits for the right time to bud and shoot forth new growth. It has little to do with warm fuzzies, gentle memories and the scent of mince pies baking in the oven...and yet without that shadowy dread, when the light comes will we be able to know just what it means to us?

When the storms of the winter shake us up. When the darkness threatens to stretch into forever, and when foreboding seems to be the only news we get on a consistent basis, how important is it that we take a season to pause, reflect, anticipate and pray THROUGH the shadows as God guides us into the light?

In this Advent season, take the time to rest in its dark blue, abiding embrace. Let the shadows wrap around you. Allow the wonder to seep in to your bones. Soak up the dread, knowing that it is the prelude to awe and wonder. Drink deep of the cup of God's promise to draw near.

Even as the carols and the warmth of the holidays ripple around you, hold the tension. Let that Advental grace reign....after all, it is just four weeks long. Only four weeks to embrace God's perspective on eternity.