Advent: A Practical Guide

Advent is one of the shortest seasons in the church year, a time of hope, preparation, and waiting. Today most of us experience Advent as a busy season. We rush around getting ready for Christmas. But in the ancient church Advent was a time for slowing down. This season, could you take a break from the bustle, the consumerism, the pre-Christmas insanity? Could this season be one of prayer, breathing, and slowing down?

Maybe this year, more than most, we could use a good Advent. In the calendar of Bible readings we encounter stories and poems from a people in exile. The words of the prophets, even the words of Jesus’ mother Mary in the Magnificat, all of whom long for a country and a world where justice reigns and powerful rulers are put down from their thrones. These stories help us to know that God is there with us in our longing for a different reality. This year, I think, we could use reassurance, some camaraderie of hope and longing with the saints.

What follows are a few practical ways to engage this short season of waiting and hope.

TRY A PRAYER PRACTICE

Many people think of Lent as a time for a new prayer practice, but I would argue Advent can work even better. Lent is a long haul. Advent is less than a month. If you are looking for a suggestion, here are just two — ok, three:

THE DAILY OFFICE

The services of morning and evening prayer in the Anglican tradition are a simplification of the early morning services and the later evening services of monastic communities. Such a simplification brings the rhythm of prayer out of specialized communities and into the daily lives of ordinary people. The Daily Offices, can really be seen as a guide to praying our way through Scripture.

You can access the daily office through Josh Thomas’ site Daily Office or from Mission St. Clare.  They both pre-load the readings and canticles for you.  They each have apps for IOS or Android.  Or, you can go analog and use The Book of Common Prayer, either online or in book form.

Or, during the season of Advent, I invite you to join me for Morning Prayer at St. Peter’s.  I will be there on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday mornings at 7:00am.  What a great way to start your day!

CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER

All the words of Morning or Evening prayer can seem like a lot in a season of slowing down. So, why not try silence as a gateway to prayer? The Trappist Monk, Thomas Keating, has re-introduced the ancient practice of centering prayer. Centering prayer is deceptively simple. You sit in silence for 20 minutes. When you find yourself engaging a thought process, you use a “sacred word” (a simple word, associated with God, that doesn’t lead to images and further thoughts). The sacred word helps you gently let go of your thoughts. Centering Prayer helps us to rest in God.

At St. Peter’s we have a Centering Prayer Group that meets on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month at 8:00am in the Columbarium area of the sanctuary.  Or, there’s a 4-session workshop, led by Judy Mullins, on contemplative prayer this Advent Season.  See our Website for more information about that.

QUIET DAY

Every Advent we select a Saturday to step away from the busy-ness of our lives to spend a morning in guided contemplation.  This year on Saturday, December 16th I’ll lead a guided Quiet Day from 9:00 to 1:00.  Each hour begins with a short meditation on Scripture, followed by an invitation to find a quiet spot to meditate on that, to journal or draw, or to just rest in quiet.  There will be coffee, tea, and snacks provided throughout the morning.  At noon, we conclude our silence with Eucharist and a lunch, provided by the Pastoral Care Committee at St. Peter’s.

SHOP WITH PURPOSE

We can always try to buy less, to live more minimally, but this time of year consumption is unavoidable. There are folks we love who might be hurt if we don’t buy them a gift. So what if we shopped more intentionally? What if we paid attention not to the quantity of gifts, but the quality of life of the people producing the goods, food, and services we purchase this season?

For example: Kathy and I are planning to get most of our family members gifts from Thistle Farms, a social enterprise that was conceived by and for survivors of human trafficking, prostitution, and addiction.  We also choose gifts from MOFGA, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to support and encourage sustainable, organic farming in Maine.

You can shop at Thistle Farms HERE

 

You can shop at MOFGA HERE.

EAT DIFFERENTLY

Advent was traditionally a season of fasting. In our time it can be anything but a fast! Cookies, candy canes, eggnog, and peppermint lattes abound. In the midst of all the temptations, could you choose to engage differently?

A fast is different from a diet. Fasting is not about body image. Fasting is knowing that you could eat something, and choosing to abstain. Fasting helps us remember that this is a season with a direction. We look forward to the Feast of Christmas by making the simple decision to eat less before the feast.

Maybe your fast could involve abstaining from meat, alcohol, or sweets. Or maybe you can choose just to have one cookie a day instead of indulging every time someone shows up with a plate. However you practice fasting, it will help you be intentional about food in a season of over-indulgence, and help you to look forward to the feast to come.

LET GO OF WORRY

In her book “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening,” The Episcopal Priest and teacher Cynthia Borgeault points out that Contemplative Prayer helps us to let go. We try to let go of the noise that crowds our world. What we do in our prayer practice can also affect how we live our life. How can we let go of worry? How can we turn down the news, the rush, the busy? Are there ways you can practice intentional disengagement? Could you make space for quiet, for waiting, for hope?

This year, perhaps more than most, we could use a little creative spiritual disengagement. By unplugging from the rapid cycle of news, work, and consumption, Advent invites us to encounter this time differently.

Advent is a season to acknowledge the “world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” This season encourages us to rest in the hope that another world is on the way. If we are ready, we might help midwife God’s new creation in the smallest and subtlest ways. To be ready we need to slow down. We need to practice silence, patience, and hope.

 

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Keep Awake

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 04: Usain Bolt acknowledges the crowd during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the London Stadium on August 4, 2017 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

A sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Isaiah 64:1-9Psalm 80:1-7, 16-181 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37.

Keep awake. Keep awake.

These December day are short; it’s dark. This morning the sun rose at 6:54 and will set at 3:59 p.m. The darkness can be metaphorical, too, for periods of loss or trouble or worry that can grip our lives. In Mark’s telling, Jesus was speaking to a people who lived in the deep darkness of an oppressive and violent empire.

For those dark days, Jesus advised, “Keep awake.” Now, that might sound like Jesus being a drill sergeant, or a parent on a school day, or your spouse at the opera who has just nudged you back into consciousness, but I think Jesus was giving the people who lived in those dark, desperate days back then… AND us who live in our own dark, desperate days, a genuinely helpful strategy for living hopefully – even in the midst of the darkness.

The first part of the strategy Jesus was passing on here is what author Amy Cuddy calls “faking it until you become it.” In her research she’s found that when we practice physical postures associated with positive things, our brains chemically become more positive… more confident… more awake!

You know how when you win something, you feel incredible and your arms automatically shoot up? It turns out it works the other way too! Even before a race begins, if you put our arms up in that Victorious V shape, our brains release the same chemicals as if we’ve already won! We get those same feelings of accomplishment up front. And with that confidence we can run the race, believing from the start that we can win!

When Jesus says, “Stay Awake” he’s telling us, “fake living in the light until you live in the light!” It’s easy to do God’s work in the world when we feel God is with us. Feeding the hungry, challenging hurtful systems, bringing calm to chaos, and loving one another all flow naturally from that secure feeling we have when God is with us.

When Jesus says “Keep Awake” he’s telling us it works the other way too! When you do the Master’s work… even in the most challenging of times, the work itself the acts of generosity, compassion, of healing and justice open us up to the truth that God is still with us.

The other thing I think Jesus’ command to “Keep Awake” is meant to do, is to train our minds and spirits to see the smallest bits of light around us, even in the darkness. Jesus knew we would be tempted in times of darkness to simply put our heads down, grit our teeth, clench our muscles, and wait for the world to lighten up again.

But Jesus also knew that hunched over, tensed up, with our eyes closed, we’d likely miss even the light of stars falling from the sky!

Jesus asks us to begin now to train ourselves to notice the big things, like moons going dark and the Son of Man coming in the clouds, by practicing noticing the little things. Start by noticing things we often miss… like spicy smell of evergreens. Advent is a season set in darkness and it’s a season calling us to Wake Up even in that darkness.

Our Advent offerings are all designed to help you stay awake or, if necessary, give you a nudge to “Wake Up!”

  • Judy Mullins is leading another 4 part session on contemplative prayer. I urge you to do this, but – wake up! – it starts this Tuesday.
  • Next week, we begin a series of luncheon workshops on “Spirituality for the Second Half of Life”. We’ll provide the lunch and often bring in a speaker or facilitator to touch on matters that are near to the hearts of older adults.
  • On the 16th we’ll again have a guided Quiet Day — to de-numb yourself from pre-Christmas craziness.

Finally, I want to say a word about our liturgy. You know, liturgy (the form and shape, the movement and structure that gives our worship flow) is ancient, predating even Rite One by centuries, and is designed to help us be awake to the presence of God. It is designed to lead us into an encounter with the Holy.

One of my favorite liturgics scholars, Aidan Kavanagh, once said liturgy is like this: we are standing on the edge of a cliff where we are on solid ground and are comfortable, but there’s something of the divine within us that calls us into mystery, into something larger, something less well known, which is the Divine itself. Liturgy is the thing that invites you to step off the cliff and into mystery.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that that’s not a scary thing. Annie Dillard once famously said we all ought to be issued crash helmets for worship.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …. It is madness [for ladies] to wear … straw … and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For … God may draw us out to where we can never return.”

We are beginning a new liturgical year and a new church season and I want to invite you to be open to where this service – with its older language, more sung parts, and glorious renaissance music – will take you. Be open to how it leads you into mystery.

  • Notice the differences in language (thee’s and thy’s, please – or the repeated poetry about mutual indwelling that is one of my favorite parts of the Rite One Eucharistic Prayer),
  • Notice how we hold our bodies differently, kneeling rather than standing if we are able (do not strain yourself ).
  • Notice what it feels like to sing more of the service (creed and Lord’s Prayer)
  • Notice what the mood of the music does for you. It is not meant to be easy. But, arms up, you will learn it and be so enriched by it.
  • Notice, you are stepping off the cliff and into mystery.

This is the season when long ago Wise men began to notice stars moving across the sky, women noticed babies leaping in their wombs, and it ended with shepherds noticing angels appearing in the sky.

What would happen, if every morning this Advent, as you lie there in the darkness, you asked God to help you notice. Notice the small things. Notice the birds, the smells when you bake this week, the name of the person who bags your groceries, the colors of the sunrise.

The promise of Advent is that as we practice noticing, as we seek to be awake, we will be able more fully to see the possibilities right there in front of us, lying in a manger, when he comes.


References:
Amy Cuddy, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are,” TED Global 2012, available from https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are.

Aidan Kavanaugh, OSB, On Liturgical Theology: Hale Memorial Lectures of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 1981, (Collegeville, MN: Order of St. Benedict, Inc. reprint of Pueblo Publications, 1984), 1991.

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

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New Service Music for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany

During Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany we will be using new service music — and I use the word “new” advisedly.  Most of our music is derived from the English Renaissance.  The Nicene Creed and Sanctus are composed by Thomas Tallis for his Dorian Service, probably shortly after the 1552 Book of Common Prayer was published.  The Lord’s Prayer is by 17th century William Smith, who was a minor canon (lesser clergy) at Durham Cathedral.  He is known for his choral anthems and organ pieces, but obviously composed service music, too.

Here is a sample from the Chapelle du Roi doing the Nicene Creed.

 

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Do You Know Who You’re Talking To?

Katy Kuhn, Mistaken Identity, mixed media

A sermon preached on Easter Day at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Acts 10:34-43Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24Colossians 3:1-4, and John 20:1-18.

Some of you may know the story of the elderly woman who arrived in church and was greeted kindly by an usher. He handed her a bulletin and offered to take her to a seat.

“Thank you,” she responded. “I’d like to sit in the front row.”

The usher replied, “Oh, Ma’am, you really don’t want to do that. Unfortunately, our preacher is excitable and prone to spitting during the sermon. We try and leave those seats open for the choir, who are hardened to it.”

The woman responded, “Young man, do you have any idea who I am?”

To which the usher replied, “No, Ma’am, I don’t.”

“I’m the preacher’s mother!” she said.

And after an awkward moment of silence, the usher said to the woman, “Ma’am, do you have any idea who I am?”

“No, I don’t,” she replied.

“Good,” he said. “Let me show you to your seat.”

***             ***             ***             ***             ***             ***            ***             ***

At the heart of the Easter story, in one account after another, there is a case of mistaken identity. People just don’t know who they’re talking to.

  • Mary finds the tomb empty and stands weeping outside. She turns and sees Jesus, but she doesn’t realize who he is and mistakes him for the gardener.
  • In another account two disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus and are joined by someone whom they take to be a complete stranger. They walk and talk with him for hours, and still they don’t know that the stranger is Jesus.

On that first Easter Day, people just didn’t know who they were talking to.

But isn’t that the way it is with all of us? I mean, we have glimmers of recognition about what a miracle a human being is.

  • When a baby is born,
  • when a couple is getting married,
  • when an artist creates something beautiful
  • or when someone does something heroic….

Sometimes the miraculous shines through, and we can see the truth about each other, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

But day in and day out, …

  • we greet our spouses after work (“what’s for supper?”),
  • you pick up your child after school (“what took you so long?”),
  • when you speak to your neighbor in the driveway
    • or the clerk in the market,
    • or the usher at the church door,
    • do we really know who it is we are talking to?

One way of thinking about the mistaken identities on Easter Day is that this was God’s clever way of inviting us to care for each other with the deepest reverence and kindness…because you never know.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the Letter to the Hebrews says, “because thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Jesus himself, in one of his last parables, says that the King will welcome the blessed by saying,

  • “You fed me when I was hungry,
  • you gave me something to drink when I was thirsty,
  • you visited me when I was in prison,
  • you clothed me when I was naked,
  • you cared for me when I was sick….”

And the blessed will be dumbfounded and say, “We don’t remember any of this. When did we feed you, and clothe you, and care for you, and visit you, give you something to drink…?”

And the King will simply say, “As you did it to the least, you did it to me.” In other words, you never know who you’re talking to.

Theologians say that Christianity is an incarnational religion. That’s just a fancy way of saying that Christians believe God has imbedded Godself in ourselves and in the people all around us.

Episcopalians have a habit of bowing to the cross when it comes by, but the point of Christianity is that we should be bowing to each other.

***             ***             ***             ***             ***             ***          ***             ***

A friend of mine recently told me about being late to one of the most important meetings of his life. It was a meeting that would determine, literally, the future of his career. But he’d gotten a late start, traffic was bad, and when he arrived, the parking lot was packed. He drove round and round but all the spots, even the illegal ones were taken. And he started to panic.

So, he looked up to heaven and he said, “God, if you’ll just find me a parking place, I promise, I’ll go to church every Sunday, I’ll give up whisky.” And just then, a parking place opened up right in front of him, and my friend said, “Never mind, I found one.”

Isn’t that the story of our lives? Day in and day out, there are all sorts of possible explanations for the way things turn out the way they do. But sometimes it seems we are so focused on the rational explanations that we overlook the possibility of the miraculous.

When the sun comes up in the morning, we lose sight of the stars. But that doesn’t mean the stars have gone away. They’re still out there – stars, planets, and entire galaxies; we just can’t see them.

I think something like that is going on in the spiritual life. Most of the time, we are attuned to only a very small portion of our total life, and the task of faith is to become opened and sensitized to a much greater reality, and a much larger life that God invites us to begin living right now.

***             ***             ***             ***             ***             ***          ***             ***

In a couple of weeks Kathy is going to visit her grandmother in California. This is the beloved, adored grandmother who raised her. Everyone says that Ruby is 94 years old, but by my count she’s been 94 for almost 10 years, so if you told me she’s over 100, I’d believe it. So, this is an important visit. Anyway, as we were looking to book flights for her, and banners kept floating by on the screen:

Attention, passengers. Please keep a close eye on your baggage. Do not accept anything from strangers. And report any suspicious activity to the nearest airport security personnel…

And in some ways, the modern airport, with it’s continuous loop of warnings about danger and people who might be out to harm us, could be a metaphor for much of our daily experience. No wonder we can become anxious.

Easter reminds us there is another, more important reality going on. Easter invites us to attune ourselves to that deeper truth:

  • that it’s not necessary to live our lives small
  • to be trapped by relationships and behaviors that are harmful to us and to those around us
  • It is possible now, in this moment, to be made new

We all know about the continuous loop that plays in airports, but the message of Easter is that there is another continuous loop playing from a spiritual dimension, one playing from our much larger life in God. You may have to do some things to change the frequency on your dial in order to hear it clearly (churches help with that). But can you hear it?

“May I have your attention, please. You are all passing through this place for only a short time.

  • Most of you are carrying a lot more baggage than you need.
  • Don’t worry about keeping such a close eye on your luggage;
  • it’s more important to keep an eye out for each other.
  • The truth is, you often don’t know who you are talking to.
  • So, love each other, as I love you, as I love you.

Look for the face of Christ in one another. Listen for that continuous loop this Easter season.  And you may discover that you, too, have been raised.

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Bending Down to Earth

A sermon preached on Maundy Thursday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-171 Corinthians 11:23-26, and John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

If you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, you’ll notice that the holiest of holy places in both churches have something in common.  The entrance to the shrine, to the heart of the holy (the place marking where Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the place symbolizing where he was crucified in Jerusalem)—that place is low. And just to enter in, most people have to stoop a little.  You’ve got to lower your head, to bend down in order to enter in.

It’s appropriate, I think, that we need to bend down in order to get close to the holiest truths of our faith because “bending down” is exactly what God is doing in the Incarnation.

In one of his Christmas sermons, St. Bonaventure, that medieval franciscan scholar, was reflecting on the phrase “And the Word became flesh” said this.  “These words give expression to that heavenly mystery… that the eternal God has humbly bent down and lifted the dust of our nature into unity with his own person.”

Ilia Delio recalls how this image of God’s bending down reminds her of what she used to feel when she would see her baby nephew in his crib.  The humility of God is like that, she says, “God is at once the small helpless infant who lies quietly in the crib of the universe, and also the strong one who can raise up a fragile human being and draw that person into the embrace of infinite love.  God is Most High and Most Humble.”

We get an up-close look at that graceful gesture of God to bend down to us in tonight’s liturgy.

Think about this for a moment….

Running like a golden thread through legend and saga is the story of the king who walks in the guise of servant or slave. On this night we see the king of kings among us a servant.

  • It is Thursday.
  • There are now less than 24 hours of freedom remaining to Jesus.
  • He has already decided how the last hours will be spent.
  • Whatever is done on this evening must be so powerful and universal in its images that it will be inexhaustible in its meaning for generation after generation.

There would be supper. That would be normal and tradition. But there would be something more, something at once utterly simple and utterly profound.

All his life since childhood Jesus had known the story of the king’s feast. He had used it himself to communicate a vision of God’s kingdom that was so central to his whole ministry.

I imagine his mother telling him the story, about how a great king had decided to give a feast. What he had remembered was that the feast was boundless. There was food and drink for all. No one was turned away. All were accepted at the royal table. “Antwone Fisher”, one of my very favorite movies, opens and closes with a beautiful sequence of a table set for all in the middle of our ordinary life.

  • That table, more than any other symbol, spoke of the kingdom of God.
  • That table with its feast was a symbol of what all human beings and every human society dreams and hopes for –
    • a world which is itself such a table
    • where all human beings, cherished for their uniqueness and difference are yet completely at one
    • where there is justice in the distribution of what is available
    • where there is peace.

That night they gathered at a table. The atmosphere was tense. The recent PBS “Last Days of Jesus” depicts it as a challenging strategy meeting. Whatever else was said, everyone in the room knew that events were moving to some ghastly climax. Jesus himself was obviously intensely involved in every word and action of the evening. It was if he knew this opportunity for fellowship would not come again. Years later they would remember this night. Every moment of it engraved on their memories.

  • They would remember the strangely ambiguous moment when Judas left.
  • They would remember forever the moment he broke the bread and passed it around, and the cup too that followed it.
    • There was something deeply reassuring about even the act itself. It seemed to bond them for a brief moment against the darkness beyond.
    • They struggled with the possible meaning of what he had said as he began the journey of the loaf and the cup around the table.
      • They did not know what it could mean to have the bread as his body and the wine as his blood.
    • But for some reason this act was desperately important to him, and he obviously wished it to become of immense significance for them.
  • But there was one more thing they would see vividly in their minds eye for the rest of their lives.

At a particular point in the meal Jesus rose, took the rough towel and the water container set by the entrance, and returned to the table. Instead of sitting down, he stripped as if for work and, turning to Peter, bent down and kneeled before him to wash his feet.

Peter’s confusion of emotions was total:

  • astonishment, anger
  • embarrassment, mingled with and focused in his absolute refusal to allow Jesus to touch him
  • Peter’s words were almost angry: You will never wash my feet!

Jesus’ reply was quietly but totally authoritative: “if I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Simon accepted the foot-washing, as they all did. (There’s something important there about accepting love as well as giving it, but that’s for another sermon.)

The image of our Lord bent over his task in the shadowed upper room has come down the centuries.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” he asks them.  And they must have been in shock.

  • A rabbi doesn’t sit on the floor.
  • A great teacher doesn’t get on her knees.
  • And as for God, God is high and mighty,
    • demanding and judging,
    • all-powerful,
    • all-holy,
    • untouchable and removed.

“Not true,” Jesus says with his whole being.  Not true, at all.  That’s not who God is.

  • God is humble.
  • God comes close.

Jesus shows us, over and over, how God bends down to us no matter how far down we may be

  • whether the world has pushed us down,
  • whether we’ve fallen,
  • or whether perhaps we’ve chosen some way that debases or degrades and takes us under…
  • Nevertheless and no matter what, God bends down and meets us.
    • God touches, holds,
    • soothes, and loves,
    • all so that we might be raised with love
    • and learn to love – from that experience – how to love one another.

The experience is derived from recognizing our need, our common and equal need for God. But we don’t get that heart stretching (like the Grinch whose heart grew 3 sizes that day) on our own. It is not about our capacity but about God’s bending to us. Teaching us to bend toward one another. Or, as Jesus puts it, to love one another.

That is how we become a community where all men and women, rich and poor, brilliant and mediocre, practical and intellectual, so-called successful and so-called failures, may be at one. What makes us one is our common and equal need for Christ.

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