Monday, December 10, 2018


                                            Luke 3:1-6
Malachi 3:1-6

               I read this story recently reflecting on how we see our resources and how we use them:   

She asked him, 'How much are you selling the eggs for?'

The old seller replied, '$.25 an egg, Madam.'

She said to him, 'I will take 6 eggs for $1.25 or I will leave.'

The old seller replied, 'Come take them at the price you want. Maybe, this is a good beginning because I have not been able to sell even a single egg today.'

She took the eggs and walked away feeling she had won. She got into her fancy car and went to a posh restaurant with her friend. There, she and her friend, ordered whatever they liked. They ate a little and left a lot of what they ordered. Then she went to pay the bill. The bill costed her $100.00. She gave $110.00 and asked the owner of the restaurant to keep the change.

               I saw something very similar to this when I was a college student in Guatemala.  We visited an outdoor market where extremely poor people were selling the work of their own hands.  Some were so poor that they did not have shoes, and were wearing very old and worn clothing.  One of the young men who went down with us prided himself on his ability to haggle.  At one booth a woman was selling beautifully embroidered backpacks for $10 each.  My friend haggled her down to $1, and was so proud of his accomplishment.  But another member of our group went up to the woman and asked her how long it had taken her to embroider the bag.  It had been very carefully stitched and she admitted to us that it had taken the better part of a week.  A week’s worth of hard work for $1.  My friend said, “Your work is worth more.  I will pay the difference.” And she handed her a $20 bill.  The tears of gratitude in the woman’s face spoke volumes to both of us.

          But the young man travelling with us saw this interaction and was outraged.  He said, “you took away her dignity by not honoring the haggling!  If it was really a hardship to her, she would not have made the sale!”  My friend replied, “sometimes a dollar and the food that it can buy, no matter how little, is more needed and therefore a person is willing to lower their price to make the sale.  That is not about giving them dignity by honest haggling.  It is about giving them wanting to live another day.  It also does not give a person dignity to fail to honor the amount of work she put into making that bag.  You did not honor the care and artistry of that work.  No, we gave her her dignity back by honoring the great work she had done.”

               In a similar way, I have known of other people who willingly and intentionally buy items made by poorer people, sometimes paying high prices for them, even though the items are not needed.  In one such case a child saw his father giving even more than was asked for something cheaply sold at an outdoor market.  The child asked why?  To which the father replied, "It is a charity wrapped with dignity, my child.”

               Those moments where vision is bigger than our pocket books, where care and compassion are bigger than our fear of not having enough for ourselves, where a choice to honor the work of another is bigger than our need to have a good deal: those are moments that reflect the promise stated today in the book of Luke, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” 

         These small acts of care and compassion: these are responses to the invitation we have from God  to be part of ushering in this new era, this new hope, this new possibility.  These are steps towards bringing the mountains down and filling the valleys.  They are steps towards an even-ing of the plains, evening of the resources, a leveling out of the abundance. 

               Someone said recently, “The powerful are doing what they want.  And the poor are suffering what they must.”  This is not a new thing, as our scriptures show us.  This is something that goes on in every age.  The promise of Advent, the promise of today’s scripture lessons is that God calls us to something different and is about creating that different thing.  The hard part of this is that we are part of those rich folk, just by having places to live, the choice to eat out at restaurants, houses filled with things we don’t “need” but simply want, we are part of the group of mountains that will be brought lower.  I know that’s not a comfortable idea, but I know it pains God to see us spend $100 on a meal when there are children starving to death who could eat for a week on that money that we’ve spent on ourselves.  That is the bad news: in this new kingdom that God is ushering in, we will not have the wealth and riches we have now. 

But the Good News for us is that we are invited to be part of that new creation, invited to be part of ushering in something different for ourselves, for our communities and for the world.

               And that is what is most important here.  This isn’t really about individuals. While we each are called into action, this image of hills and valleys and mountains is big because it is meant to be.  The original concepts of sin and wrongs was not individual but corporate.  And these images that are big: mountains, valleys, are so for a purpose.  Richard Rohr said it like this, “(The Advent scriptures)… focus… on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (i.e., what Pope John Paul II called "structural sin" and "institutional evil"). It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own particular "naughty behaviors," which is what sin now seems to mean to most people in our individualistic culture. Structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level. Large organizations--including the Church--and governments get away with and are even applauded for killing (war), greed, vanity, pride, and ambition. Yet individuals are condemned for committing these same sins. Such a convenient split will never create great people, nations, or religions.”  And it is exactly what is being confronted by passages such as what we read today.

             There are signs of hope, both at an individual level and at a bigger level. I think about the work of organizations such as Contra Costa Interfaith Housing.  They provide an increasing amount of housing for people who would otherwise slip through the cracks.  Some of their housing is for families on the economic edge, some of it is for people with mental or physical disabilities, also living on the edge, and some is for individuals who have simply fallen through the cracks: who did not have the support, the network when things went bad for them, to stand on their own.  I’m more aware of this than ever since moving back here to CA. When we first moved back here, the kids and I were without a “home”, without a steady place to live, for several months.  I had work: but in this area housing costs are so high that I was unable to rent a three bedroom apartment anywhere out here (and believe me, we tried!).  We had a very hard time affording a home to buy,  and were only able to finally get into housing by first, buying a total fixer-upper, but second, with the help both of the church and of my parents.  In those few months where we were struggling to find housing, we flipped around from friend’s couch to family couch.  Without a home address I was unable to register my kids for school. Without a home address I was unable to get a California driver's license.  Without a home address I couldn't even obtain a library card, or a grocery discount card.  Without the California driver's license, other doors were closed to me as well.  I couldn't get anything notarized, I couldn't set up a bank account, I couldn't get local checks.  In each of those cases I not only had to give an address, but had to provide "proof of residency", something I simply could not provide.  There was no address to forward my mail to. There was no place to receive my bills.  Without "free wifi" places like Starbucks, I really would have struggled to do basic things like paying bills and staying in touch with those who could help us along the way. Without a cell phone I really would have been sunk in terms of how to connect with the resources that would help us to get "un"-homeless.  Without my car...well, there is just nothing we would have been able to do.

Financially, moving across the country, trying to get into housing, dealing with still having a house to sell in Ohio - none of that would have been possible without, again, the safety net and resources of other people: the financial help of my extended family and the church, for example. The fact that I had a decently paying job also made a huge difference.   And yet even with that job, I needed help financially.  I learned it is extremely expensive to be homeless, and to move, and to set up in a new place.  If something had happened to my parents during that time?  All of us would have been in serious trouble.   This is the reality of people we call “homeless”.  These are folk, most of the time, who simply do not have the safety net that we had.  Perhaps they also don’t have the training and education that allows them to get a better paying job.  But even if they did have that, I can tell you from my own experience, it just would not be enough.

Organizations like CCIH provide that safety network, that support so that families and individuals do not have to fall through the cracks.  They are striving, in a small way, to help bring the mountains down and to raise the valleys up: it is something that you participate in, it is a way of ushering in the new era, of doing “advent”, of following God’s call.

               Bonhoeffer said,  “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself…. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”  And then, “Who will celebrate Christmas correctly?  Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger”

               Today we light the candle of peace.  And we are reminded that there is no peace where there is injustice, where there is inequity, where there is pain and suffering.  And as people of faith, we are called to be part of ushering that in.  At Advent we look for that way towards peace, towards justice, towards a raising of the valleys and a bringing of the mountains low.  We look for God’s movement in this, and we look for the ways in which God calls us to participate in ushering this in as well.  It is an amazing gift to be part of this work.  It is a celebration of God-with-us when we can share in this glorious hope for a world in which all have enough and no one is in need.  Thanks be to God that God-with-us is a reality not only 2000 years ago, but today as well as we see God in each other, as we experience God through our own work, as we live faithful and loving lives.  Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Friending, Unfriending, the complexities of relationships...

         I've been thinking about friends and relationships and vulnerability lately, in particular as we've heard back from folk we've invited to our wedding.  Several wonderful, deeply joyous "yesses" have come in from people we didn't expect to come (because of distance and therefore the cost of getting out here) but who have decided to make the trip for our special day. Those have been truly uplifting, affirming, deeply meaningful and very exciting for us.
         On the other hand, there have also been a handful of folk we really hoped would come, people we have loved and do love dearly who have responded with "no".  Some of those have been very painful for David, or for me, or in some cases for both of us.  We have, whether right or wrong, taken those "nos" as an indication that we are not valued to the same depth with which we value the other, and that has hurt. With a couple of folk, it has actually caused me to pause, consider the nature of our friendships, and wonder if I needed to take another distancing step... "unfriend" from Facebook, for example; or at least move the friend into the "acquaintance" category of those who see less of my posts, and those whose posts I no longer see regularly.  Of course in many ways that is a very childish response on my part.  I see it as such.  I know that if I cared less, I would react with less extremism, and that the fact I even consider a distancing act is a sign of how much I really do care. Therefore any such action on my part is more likely to hurt me than the other person anyway. I recognize the impulse for what it is: a desire to strike out at someone who has hurt me. And I see that the one who would ultimately be hurt by that striking out is myself. So I let my revenge fantasies fly for a few minutes, and then I breathe, take a step back, acknowledge the pain for a moment and then make the decision to behave better.
          Still, I'm left with the realization that inviting people to something this important to us is an act of deep vulnerability.  It is so deeply vulnerable that I have thought, more than once, that we probably just should have eloped and avoided the entire big production.  And yet I know that if we had made that choice, other people would be hurt instead.  Also, the decision to celebrate what has been five years in the making is an opportunity to spend time with folk we don't regularly get to see, and to honor that our relationship does not exist in a bubble.  I believe in the collective connections of our relationships and our community.  We would not be where we are without the family and friends that have surrounded and supported us, that continue (in most cases) to surround and support us.  And so, the wedding is a celebration not only of our coming together, but for me, of all the relationships that have made ours a possibility and a blossoming reality.
          I know some of you will say that our reaction to the "nos" are just over-sensitivity on our parts. So let me just clarify, that not every "no" produces this response in us.  It is just a few very specific folk with specific ways of saying "no" that are causing the pain.  At the same time, there is no doubt that both David and I carry some scars that make us much more likely to jump into feeling rejected than might be warranted.  Still, acts of vulnerability, such as inviting loved ones to a wedding, are risky because they do sometimes bring clarity about where people stand and how deeply people value their relationships to you.  Other times the assumptions we make based on peoples' behavior are inaccurate. But regardless, I think events like this can change relationships, either by making clear what they really are, or by creating assumptions about what others feel that have consequences.  In the bravest folk, perhaps these hurts are invitations for deeper conversations about what a person values and how deeply a person cares about another.  But after the initial hurt, it is hard to take that next step into even greater risk.
         The point?  Relationships are hard.  They are complex.  They are, by nature, risky; and the choice to be in relationships creates a vulnerability that sometimes leaves us wounded.  I wish it were otherwise. I know I have done my share of wounding as well as being hurt.  And for that I'm sorry.  But still I choose to step into that vulnerability. I choose it and pray for the grace of gratitude and joy in the face of the unexpected depths and gifts; as well as for healing and wisdom in the face of the disappointments.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

An amazing gift received. Grace again and again.

          I was invited/asked/hired to play piano for one of the many choirs at our local Catholic church.  That in itself is a long story, but the short of it: we have a strong ecumenical community here and so I've played piano for several joint Ecumenical services at the Catholic church.  I was asked by the director who had heard me play at those services if I would accompany one of the choirs that tends to be more Ecumenical in nature (three of my parishioners are part of the choir) and that usually sings for memorial services (the Catholic church here is huge, so memorial services are common occurrences).  I debated about taking on a second job, but frankly needed the money to help pay for college for my daughter.  David had been out of work, too, and that was putting a huge strain on all of us.  Also, I haven't been playing piano regularly and the reality is if you don't use it you lose it.  And finally, for me playing the piano is part of my soul, part of my being, it feeds me, so it feels important. Having a place to play regularly felt like a gift to me.  I ran it by our session and they were okay with my taking this on.  Still, I've continued to struggle with this decision, in part because I was already working more hours than I probably should and to add in another job, even a small one...
       That was all before last night.  This choir that I accompany is putting on a concert this Saturday evening, and last night we had our first full rehearsal with the orchestra.  For the first time in a very long time, I was playing with a 14 member full orchestra (including full piano - my part, and full organ - my congregation's organist, Dale, playing that part), as well as the 33 member choir.  I cannot articulate how it felt for me.  I was transported, as I haven't been in a long time, into a place that was beyond this world.  The thin veil between here and eternity (which for me is not about 'forever' but is something that happens when we are moved outside of time and space into the place of Holy, of Spirit, of … well, again, words fail me) was absolutely torn apart.  To be able to be a living, breathing part of that music was suddenly and unexpectedly a gift so deeply received into my being that I felt moved beyond the physical completely and utterly.  I was overwhelmed with gratitude to be part of making this incredible sound, to be creating music that was beautiful and meaningful and heavenly (in the non-hokey, best sense of that word).
       And, as gratitude often does, it carried through to a fuller look at my life right now as well.  I have the gift of serving a congregation that is doing good things in this community, that is loving and caring and focused strongly on justice and compassion work.  I've been extremely busy at work lately, but it is all good things, work that feels like it has meaning and purpose and value.  My parishioners join me in amazing commitments to service and love to one another and the larger community and world.  I have three incredible children, the eldest of whom will be coming back for Christmas break in just fourteen days (not that I'm counting).  I am about to be married (four weeks from today) to a man who is incredibly kind and good to me and my kids.  I have an amazing group of friends in my life who add depth and wealth to each and every day.  The rain has cleared the air and the hills are becoming green with new life.  And then there is this gift of music...
        We are given gifts; training, education, talents, opportunities, people, invitations, resources, etc.  And I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the gifts that have come my way.  Today the gift that overwhelms me is this chance to play piano and the opportunities for concerts such as Saturday's.
        But it also leads me to reflect at a much deeper level on the concept of grace.  I look at the list of things for which I was grateful last night, and I realize that all of it came through grace.  I didn't ask to be invited to accompany this choir.  I didn't seek out this position. It came to me, unexpectedly and unsought.  Frankly, I never asked to take piano lessons in the first place: that too was a gift of grace that came to me in an unexpected and strange way.  I was terribly sick in first grade: missed several months of school as a result.  The neighbor offered to come into our home and teach me piano so that I'd be doing something when I couldn't be up for more than a half hour at a time for so long. I didn't want to take piano, but I did. When David first reached out to speak to me, I hesitated about whether or not to engage him.  If I'd walked away... well, I wouldn't have what I have now! Over the course of my life, many of my closest friends were people I initially wasn't sure I wanted to know more fully.  My children... well, let's just say that they didn't come into our lives when we expected.  And the list goes on.
        The gifts are there, always. Always there are new moments of grace, opportunities being offered, invitations being put forth, possibilities that arise. Sometimes we say "yes" with hesitation, sometimes we don't say "yes" at all, and sometimes we dive in.  All of those things: all of those unexpected twists and turns that change our lives, that invite us into new blessings: all of that is grace.  In the same way it was grace that helped me to SEE the depth and gift of what last night's rehearsal was for me, despite the struggle I've had internally about whether or not I should take it on.
            What I'm left with is the reflection that perhaps I am being called once again to be more open to seeing where the unexpected invitations and opportunities and gifts lead, and to be less hesitating about accepting the invitations when they come.  But that is for tomorrow.  For today, I am sitting in the grace, soaking in the experience, deeply grateful for what I've been given.

Monday, December 3, 2018

"Interesting" Attitudes from Volunteer Coordinators...

     As I've done my usual volunteer activities at various places over the last month, I was struck with a weird sense that at several of these places, I was meeting the same person with different faces, and it was a person I thought very ill-fitted for the job of managing volunteers.  To be more specific, these are people who seem extremely controlling of the people they are in the position to oversee.  Keeping in mind that the people who are coming to work for them are volunteers donating their time for something they believe in, the managers overbearing, unkind, and extremely picky behavior could potentially chase off the people they need in order to provide the service.  So I've found myself thinking and reflecting a great deal this last month on what is really going on with these volunteer managers.
       To give specifics: I was helping prepare food at a place that serves the poorer community out here with daily meals (not going to name te place... not fair since they really do a wonderful service in the community).  One other woman and I were cutting vegetables for a salad, when the person who was in charge that day came over and was very, well, clear about the fact that she wanted the vegetables cut all uniform (whether they were carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, radishes, bell peppers, onions, etc.) in these extremely precisely sized cubes.  Not only was this impossible for me, but I could not figure out why this was necessary.
         Finally, I just asked, "Why do all of these vegetables need to be exactly the same shape and size?"
        "Well, some of the guests don't have teeth."  I stared down at the vegetables.  That didn't actually answer the question for me.  There was no way that someone without teeth was going to be able to handle a carrot of any shape or size, and I thought that if all the vegetables were exactly this same cubed size and shape, it actually might be harder on the guest to pick the carrots out.  I did not voice this.  I was just baffled.  Well, I tried to do my best to produce the cuts she wanted, but again, I was just simply not gifted in this cubed cutting thing and eventually she came over and recut everything that both I and the other woman who was also trying her best but not meeting the manager's standards, had done.
         Okay.  That's fine.  Except I probably will not volunteer to cut vegetables again when she is in charge.  I don't need to waste my time if it's going to be redone anyway.  And I continue to think her extremism around this was actually not helping in the way she believed it would.
        Second scenario: also a place our church volunteers each month.  This time it was a ministry in which guests are offered multiple services.  They come to wash their clothes (which the serving churches pay for), they are served a hot meal, sometimes someone comes to offer hair cuts, and the guests can pick up all kinds of clothing and packaged foods to take home with them, whatever and wherever home may be.  My encounter here was with a different woman, but I've run into her each time we've gone to this location.  The first time I met her, we had a huge bin full of socks.  I know that socks are often one of the clothing items most needed by our homeless population, so I was happily putting the socks out on the table with the other clothing items for folk to pick up.  This woman came over to me, "Oh no!  We don't put the socks out.  We don't give them socks unless they ask for them.  And if they ask, give them only one pair each!"
         Again, ever inquisitive me, "Why?"
         "Well, because if we put out more, they would take them."
          Well, yes, isn't that the point?  I'm confused.  I thought we were trying to get rid of the donated items.  They aren't for us, we don't need them.  The point of this is to give away the things that are needed, isn't it?
          Then the last time I went, I was standing at the packaged foods table, putting out cans and pastas and other foods.  One man came over and asked if I had any Vienna Sausages.  As it turned out, there were a couple cans, so I found them and gave them to him.  At that point the same woman bustled over, "Don't give a person more than one can!"
          Undoubtedly, she has gotten used to my responses every time she gives me an order, but none the less, I persist, "Why?"
         "Well, it's greedy on their part!"  Again, I just found myself confused.  We hand out the food to folk over the course of a few hours.  But the number of people who approach the table asking for canned foods is not huge.  Probably one person every 5-10 minutes.  There were piles and piles of canned foods behind me waiting to be put out.  So why are we not willing to give a person two cans of something he specifically requested?  There obviously was more than enough, not a high demand.  And equally obviously, the food has been donated for the purpose of being given away.  I have no doubt the man who asked for the sausages will not waste them.  So why be stingy in this way?
           I know that I am part of the issue here.  First of all, I don't like being bossed around, micromanaged, snipped at, yelled at, when I am trying to do my best.  Secondly, I have my own opinions about how people should be served, and I believe we should work from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. That naturally will mean that I will lean towards giving more when others might be working from a more fearful, "we might not have enough" thinking.  Third, while hearing and acknowledging the woman at the second place, I also choose to ignore her mandates and continue to give from that place of abundance, so in this way, I cause her to "keep a wary eye on me."
          But I also see that this personality, the one who micromanages the volunteers, keeps showing up at so many of these places.  I've given you two examples.  But I have seen this same personality type at many of the places I've volunteered, often controlling, and even bullying, the volunteers. I've also heard my parishioners and friends talking about this personality at other volunteer places they have served, not just here but in every state where I've lived. So it also causes me to think.  Why does this personality keep showing up in these volunteer locations?  Why does the volunteer manager behave in this controlling, stingy, rigid, legalistic and overbearing way with consistency?  Why does she insist on asserting her authority in this bossy and unkind way?
          I think there are several things going on. One is a simple need for these people to claim power somewhere in their lives.  Perhaps these service locations are the only place where they have authority and so they take it, assert it, insist on making it known.  Maybe they are worried they will lose their position of power and authority if they don't assert it in an aggressive way.  Perhaps they went into the position for the very reason that they needed a place where they had some power or control.  Perhaps they are used to being shut down in other places and they are simply reflecting how other people have managed them in other situations.  
         Second, I think many people do work from a more legalistic and structured world view than I am used to, and they need those rules and that structure to be in place where they lead. There may not even be real reasons anymore for the rules that are in place, but maybe at one time there were.  And those rules have remained even when the reasons behind them no longer exist.  They give the person a sense of comfort, knowing the structure, knowing the boundaries.  This may especially be important when there are people who are not always behaving in socially acceptable ways.  Sometimes those we serve act unpredictably and so having rules may offer order in the midst of a bit of chaos.
        I'm sure there are other reasons as well.  
        I am grateful to the many people who continue to serve even when pushed around, because they believe deeply in the work they are doing.  I know my own parishioners, while they find the behavior of these managers irritating and occasionally annoying, will not be put off by it.  They believe in what they are doing, they have a strong sense of their own self-worth and will treat any belittling or controlling behavior as an issue of the person acting this way, rather than a slight to them.  I am grateful for that response.  I wish everyone had it.  
          I continue to worry that this managerial stance will turn some folk away from service who would otherwise have an opportunity to learn, to grow, to serve, and to be part of something bigger than themselves.  But I realize I don't have control over that.  So I will do my part to challenge rules that I feel are unjust, to offer a different perspective when I think the rule being enforced is failing to take into account the real situation.  I will also try to support those I see being bullied.  But mostly, I am using the experiences I've had volunteering to look at my own behavior when I am leading volunteers, and to strive to offer a different model for how to lead: not one of micromanaging and mistrusting my volunteers, but one of trust, openness, flexibility and giving a lot of latitude.  I believe in the gifts of my folk, their discernment and their ability to see and do ministry with grace and love.  I believe the Holy Spirit works through them, their vision, and their efforts even when they have a different world view and different way of doing things than my own.  Being the volunteer (rather than the manger) is a good reminder to me of what I choose not to present, not to model, not to be in my leadership positions. And for that I am deeply grateful. 

Reading Signs

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10

Luke 21:25-36

In today’s lesson from Luke, Jesus is talking about a new day coming.  He is announcing what that will look like when the new earth begins.  But the pictures that he draws are not pretty.  “On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.   People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”  These catastrophes, these crises, these traumas, they are the sign of the new world coming, a new life coming.  They are the sign that things are changing.  Do we experience these things now?  Of course we do, as did the Israelites in their time as well.  People are in anguish.  People do become terrified, anxious and perplexed.  This happens in all times.  And the message to us is two things.  First, when horrible things are happening, these are invitations for us to rely more fully on God, to trust in God knowing that God is with us in these changes, in these challenges.  And second, we are called to remember that these difficult signs and hard times are actually fertile ground for new birth, for new life, for a resurrection that comes again and again, and again. 

I’m reminded of a quote I saw recently. “When you’re in a dark place, you sometimes tend to think you’ve been buried.  Perhaps you’ve been planted.  Bloom!”

Today we begin the new church year.  The church year begins with Advent, not New Year’s.  But like New Year’s day, in the church we are called to begin the new church year with anticipation of the new life that is coming, as we look towards Jesus being born anew into our lives.  We remember that out of whatever chaos we have and do experience, new life will come, is coming, has come.  And we are invited to celebrate that today. Today is a chance for a new start, a new look, a new approach to our lives.  It is not that we forget what has gone on before.  Trying to avoid what has happened rather than incorporating it into our beings means that we fail to heal from it.  Denying things that have happened leads to them coming out in strange and unresolved ways. Instead, we have to take our experiences, all of our experiences, incorporate them into our beings and allow them to help God in transforming our lives for the better. 

In the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula struggles to find balance between family traditions and desires for her, with what she hopes for and sees as fulfilling a dream for her future.  She falls in love and decides to marry a non-Greek man, and her father, in particular, feels betrayed by this, forbids it at first, is angry and hurt by it.  Toula struggles because she loves her family and does not want to hurt them.  But as her brother finally says to her, “don’t let your past dictate who you are but let it be part of who you will become.”

            We carry our past with us.  But we decide, by our choices about how to deal with that past, if it will hinder us, bind us, control us, hold us captive and refuse to let us go or heal; or if it will inform our future, lead us into a place of new growth, new healing, new challenge, and new life.  There is a wonderful book that I’ve shared with you before called The Beethoven Factor.  In it Paul Pearsall talks about the different responses people have to crisis.  He says we are aware of two of those responses: we’ve all heard of victims and we are also aware of survivors.  Victims are people who stay in that place of being victims, who cannot heal from their pain, cannot get past it but live in that.  They often become bitter, cynical, dysfunctional and stuck in an endless cycle of loss.  Survivors are people who fare better, but who still wear their experiences in a way that limits them and continues to define them.  But he then identifies a third group of people, a group that he believes is exemplified in the person of Beethoven.  As he tells it, “There stood Beethoven, gravely ill and totally deaf.  Eyes closed, he kept conducting the orchestra even after they had ceased their performance and the audience had risen to its feet in thunderous applause.  As a singer stepped from the choir to turn him around to see those whose shouts of “bravo” resonated throughout the concert hall, tears of elation filled his eyes.  Perhaps the worst loss a composer could experience had been the catalyst for a remarkably adaptive creativity that allowed him to transcend his tortures to become immersed in the thrill of conducting the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy”.  At that moment, and not only in spite of but because of his adversity, Beethoven had experienced the thrill of thriving through adversity.”  Thrivers, people who are able, with God’s help, to take their challenges and create new life from them, be part of resurrection, be part of seeing the new, that is what we are called to be.

            In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding Toula discusses with her mom the struggle she is facing between the needs or concerns of her family and her own decisions about what will lead her into the life she wants for herself.  And her mother, in her wisdom, says this, “My village saw many wars.  Turkish, German.  They all made a mess.  And my mother said, ‘We’re lucky to be alive.’ And I thought, we’re not lucky to be alive.  We’re not lucky when they are telling us where we should live, what we should eat!  Nobody has that right!  And then I see you and I see your sister and your brother.  We came here for you.  So you could live.  I gave you life, so that you could live it.”

            God came to give us LIFE so that we could LIVE it.  That doesn’t come without going through pain and struggle.  It doesn’t come without challenge to our understandings of the world, to our very being, to our comfort.  But we are invited to move through pain and into a new year, into new life, into a new beginning.  

I want to end today by reminding you of the Old Testament readings.  From Jeremiah we heard:  “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” 

And from the Psalm we heard:  “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.”  When we trust in God, we can live in the hope that the new life will be glorious and full of God’s love and care.

            Sister Joan Chittister said, “The essence of happiness... is having something to do, something to love and something to hope for. At the outset of the liturgical year, the church presents (us) with a model: a Child who lives only to do the will of God, who opens his arms to love the entire world, who lives in hope of the coming of the reign of God by giving his life to bring it.”  Jesus gave us his life, his teaching, his love: he risked his own life and died because of those commitments: he did all of that, that we might live.  We honor Jesus then by choosing the new life, a life of hope, that he would have us live.  As we begin our new year, I invite all of us to begin again, to search for meaning not by letting go of the past but by incorporating it into our beings, moving through all of the lessons and challenges and gifts we’ve been given, and inviting God to make us new.  Amen.