Browsing the blog archives for December, 2009

A New Year Spirituality of Hope?

Does the turning of a year invite some spiritual optimism and hope for what lies ahead?   Joyful, festive celebrations express a spirituality of delight and feasting.  But is there something that reminds us of the other dimensions of a spirituality of oneness, of unity and of justice for all?  I believe there is.

For over three decades my own New Year’s Day practice has been to recite, sing or reflect on the words of the gospel song, This little light of mine.   The song is a reminder of the spiritual light which flickers in each of us, going before us, illuminating the path and inextinguishable.  This annual practice has always felt to me like a reminder of the light which precedes us in the world.  A light which invites us to be radiant in what we try to do.  This annual practice and tradition is a reminder of the ground beneath me and before me.

A practice much older than mine provides a reminder of a profound spiritual yearning for freedom, emancipation, justice and liberty.  For surely these things are the expression of any spirituality of love and compassion?  At the cusp of a new year the reminder of this yearning comes in the form of Watch Night.

Watch Night is a prayer service that takes place on New Year’s Eve in black churches across the United States.  The practice began in 1862 when free African Americans, joined by abolitionists, gathered to pray that the Emancipation Proclamation would be signed by President Lincoln as he had promised to do on the next day, January 1, 1863.

In many black churches the Emancipation Proclamation is still read in its entirety, or in part, at every Watch Night service.  In some churches the lights are dimmed for the service and then completely turned off for the five minutes before midnight as congregants kneel in prayer. As midnight strikes, the lights are turned on and people rise from their knees and a new year is celebrated!

This tradition may celebrate one particular emancipation epiphany.  Its particularity invites reflection and participation in the universal hope it points to. It invites us to the window of what a spirituality of being beloved of the Holy means for the emancipation of all people.  The Watch Night rhythm of prayers offered on bended knees, the movement from dimmed light to darkness which welcomes the blazing light of a New Year is a metaphor for the cycles of dimness, darkness and the many shades of light which lead into promises of hope, justice and emancipation for all.

The celebratory partying of New Year’s Eve need not stand alone as an expression of a spirituality of delight and joy.  The Watch Night tradition is a reminder of the hopes for oneness and unity emerging from the shadows into the full disclosure of light.  The two strands of celebration are not separate but spiritual cousins.

My own treasured tradition with, This little light of mine, at the turning of the year is not diminished by these other traditions.  It is enriched and enhanced by them.  I am reminded that we each play a role in making the promises of the year ahead happen.

Perhaps your own traditions at the turning of the year reveal spiritual insights for yourself and others?

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Is There a Spirituality of Christmas?

Is there a spirituality to Christmas that reaches beyond religion and Christianity?  I believe so.  It is more than gift giving, baubles and Santa’s that draw so many non-Christians to this holiday.  Christmas invites people into three compelling spiritual truths:  the promise of becoming fully alive; discovering the Holy in the midst of the messiness of life and, hope.  The disruptive manger scene is an invitation to see beyond the lines of religion.

Almost 800 years ago Francis of Assisi created the first Christmas manger scene.  His live tableau reflected his imagining of the people and creatures gathered for the birth of Christ.  Francis’ nativity scene was a spiritually disruptive event – one of those moments that disrupt and open up the prevailing or dominant way of thinking.

Francis’ stealth move of cracking open a window into the Holy shed light on the distant, stultified view of the Divine which prevailed in the Western European churches.  God was omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent.  The disruptive brilliance of the manger scene was a seismic change in re-ordering the spirituality of everyday life.

The infant in the manger scene is a crying, giggling, charming, annoying, playful, sleeping baby.  The infant is an invitation to become fully alive with all of the contradictions that make us human.  To be spiritual is after all about becoming fully alive.  The word for spirituality means “breath of life”.   One of the invitations of Christmas comes in the notion of Incarnation – of the Holy taking on human form.  Whatever one’s personal belief of that view is, it is an iconic image of Divine life pulsating in a tiny child. For many, celebrating Christmas is an earthy response to the spiritual truth which it conveys – of the breath of life, of being fully alive, as spiritual gift for every person.

The second compelling truth that Christmas conveys is that the spiritual is discovered in the messiness and complexity of human life. The so-called Holy Family are comprised of a teenage mother who became pregnant before marriage,  a husband who is so disorganized that he cannot even arrange accommodation and a child given birth to on a rock among animals.  It is a homeless holy family.  This family dysfunction is part of the universal appeal of this holiday – the spiritual truth that the Holy is discovered in the messy, unfinished nature of our ordinary lives.

The third thing that invites celebration of Christmas is love and hope born in a child.  A child who represents the universal pathway  between the human and the holy.  A child who offers the promise of the holy present in the messiness and breath of everyday lives.  For many, Christmas is a renewal of hope, of re-imagined belief in the possibility of the impossible; of the chance to re-birth and renew that human and the holy meeting in our lives.

The electric snow-person that I received as a gift may be beguilingly silly as it changes color.  It might amuse us in the way that the inflatable plastic helicopter with Santa aloft on someone’s lawn caused me to smile as I drove by it.  Or the sparkling lights adorning people’s homes may enchant us, reminding us that the flickering lights dance with life. Or the vast plastic Santa’s on the wall of an office building in Tokyo may cause us to stop and ask if our eyes are tricking us. For many, this is the sum of Christmas.

For Christians, their entire faith and belief system is predicated on the birth of the Savior at Christmas.  The Christ whom they see as having been foretold in the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures is the fulfillment of an ancient promise they believe.  No wonder Christians sing about the “Holy Night” on which Christ was born and revel in songs like “Joy to the World”.   The beauty and joy of many Christian celebrations of Christmas is enough to thaw the heart of a turgid curmudgeon.

But for many others, those who are spiritual but not religious, or those who practice another religious tradition, there is a gracious universal invitation to Christmas.  The promise of becoming fully alive as a spiritual person, the reminder of the Holy mixed up in the bundle of life and the hope represented in a universal child revealing the Divine – these are spiritual truths and gifts to many at Christmas.  So the celebrations are joined for many varied reasons.

What does the spirituality of Christmas say to you and even those you love?

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Breaking out the light of Chanukah?

Chanukah is a reminder of light breaking out.  One rabbi refers to the light of Chanukah as “holy sparks”.  Another says that within Judaism there as many words for “light” as Eskimo’s have for “snow”.  Chanukah offers a reminder to what grounds our way of being.  What does it mean to discover sparks of light in our lives?

It is not by accident that the Hindu festival of Diwali, the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ known as the “light who shines in the darkness” and Chanukah all come within weeks of the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere.  These celebrations of light occur when lengthening shadows and parsed light invite us to reconsider light as the metaphor which grounds our lives.

Chanukah is a lesser Jewish festival with wide appeal inviting non-Jews into its radiance.  It transcends its own tradition because we each know about shadows or darkness.  We might wonder how to bring light to endless teenage killings in Chicago, the homeless hungry in our cities, justice and peace in the Middle East, Burma or the Congo.  Chanukah makes Jews of us all, if only for a season.

The lighting of the Chanukah candles, placed in a window, is a powerful symbol inviting us to ask how we ground our lives.  It says, “I invite the light of the Holy in.”  It is a life-affirming consciousness that it is possible to move from darkness to light.

What happens when we shine a light on what needs to be repaired, healed, restored or re-created in our own life or the life of the world?  We can choose to become part of the “holy sparks” of making the world a better place for all.  Chanukah offers a consciousness about how we want to be throughout the year.

The Buddha once told his followers to “Make a light of yourself”.  We are not created to be passive, pliant people.  The gospel song, This Little Light of Mine was originally sung to remind people of the Holy light burning inside of them, that no person could ever extinguish.  It was also a song of claiming our own destiny and power as people made I the imagination of the Holy.  Was this why it became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement?

Light can never be stopped from bursting out.  Our part is to let it shine.  Leonard Cohen wrote that we should “Ring the bells that can still ring” suggesting that we forget about perfection and perfect offerings.  He says “There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”

Chanukah invites us to be gentle to those “cracks” and so allow light in.  The light of Chanukah summonses our own courage to the let the light be radiant as we go about our daily lives. Those holy sparks become grounding for lives of justice and compassion.

This may be a lesser Jewish festival elevated to broad popular acknowledgment.  But I’m grateful to our Jewish friends for such a gift.  A gift of holy sparks breaking through the cracks.

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Obama – Our Prince of Peace?

Is President Obama our Prince of Peace?  Whether you think the President deserves the 2009 Nobel Peace prize or not, the award sticks to him like bees drawn to nectar.  Expectations about him as a peacemaker or the dismissal of the award coming too soon in this young presidency both miss the point.  The more significant question is how we are each peacemakers in our own spheres of influence.

When the Obama’s attend church on Christmas they will be among the hundreds of millions reminded of the birth of a child revered as the Prince of Peace.  The Christ of the Christian tradition speaks about peacemakers being “blessed”.   The juxtaposition of the peace prize being awarded within days of a deeper commitment to the war in Afghanistan is an irony reflecting the precarious nature of what we understand as “peace”.

In the time of Christ peace was widely understood to mean the absence of conflict for the Roman Empire.  The Hebrew tradition of Christ viewed peace as the “well-being” of all.  This was a social construct.  It was about the well-being of economic, spiritual and social relationships.  Quite different from an absence of conflict.  The Prince of Peace’s peace is proactive and engaged.  It is a peace that celebrates our inter-connectedness.  We are part of one human family in which our own well being is only possible when the well-being of all is actively pursued.

Obama is not the Prince of Peace.  Time will tell whether he is an active peacemaker or not.  But he does bring a refreshing understanding of what it means for Americans to be part of the human family that includes all, not just some.  If he becomes an activist peacemaker his successes will reflect how we each  understand ourselves to be about peace, about well-being for all.

From his Hindu tradition Gandhi believed swaraj, the concept of self-restraint, meant that all of the necessities of life should be enjoyed alike by all – the wealthy, poor and comfortable.   Gandhi said, “I give you a talisman:  Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test.  Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself is the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.  Will he gain anything by it?  Will it restore him to a control over his own fate and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and starving millions?  Then you will find you own doubts and yourself melting away.”

What a talisman for us and the newest Nobel Laureate!  Although Gandhi was never awarded the Nobel, even thought he was nominated for it five times, he is the spiritual and moral leader of the non-violence movement.  Gandhi, like the Noel Peace Laureates Muhammad Yunus, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, understood that without the well-being of all, peace is an illusion.

Leaders can’t do it alone.  Leaders need the encouragement and participation of others.  No wonder Mr. Obama paid homage today to the organizations and legions of people working for peace and well-being around the world.  The President has the moral leadership and capacity to engage and invite us to each to support the well-being of all.

While congratulating the President on becoming a Nobel Peace Laureate, it is we who are invited to be re-engaged with the entire human family.  Then peace will begin to break out.

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