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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why We Need Advent

There are a lot of people right now who are just not feeling that elusive "Christmas Spirit."  You know the one: that idea that everyone has to be happy and joyful for the entire month of December (or longer, if you take your cues from the retail industry).  Christmas is supposed to be a time of generosity and love, a time to enjoy friends and family, buy presents that will make the people you care about happy, and a time to eat lots of cookies but somehow not gain any weight.

But 20 young children died last week.  People are losing their jobs, and families are losing their homes.  A lot of people have strained relationships with their families or have recently lost loved ones, and Christmas Day brings out all the dysfunction you've been trying so hard to ignore.

For a lot of people it's not a very happy time, this Christmas season.

Fortunately, it's not really Christmas.

It's Advent.

You might remember Advent from Sunday School or CCD.  If you're a church-goer, you might recognize Advent as the excuse your pastor gives for not singing all the Christmas carols you love at church, at least not until the radio stations have stopped playing them.

But just as so many fervent Christians shout out that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," there is a reason for the season of Advent as well.  And the reason is that a celebration of the Savior's birth makes no sense in a world that doesn't recognize its need for salvation.

Isaiah writes in chapter 9:

2 *The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined.
3 You have multiplied the nation,
   you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
   as with joy at the harvest,
   as people exult when dividing plunder.
4 For the yoke of their burden,
   and the bar across their shoulders,
   the rod of their oppressor,
   you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
   and all the garments rolled in blood
   shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
   and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.  (NRSV)

The light is so important because the people have been living in darkness.  They were burdened with yokes across their shoulders, weighing them down.  They were under the rod of their oppressors.  They lived a reality of tramping warriors and bloody battles bringing terror into their lives.  There was pain, and suffering, and misery.

The Christian story does not deny the harsh realities of life.  The Christian story is so powerful because Christ comes to us in the midst of those harsh realities.

Advent is not merely a preparation for Christmas; it is the active expectation of redemption and liberation.  And in a world where children are murdered, people are homeless and hungry, and families are fractured, we need to know that we are redeemed and liberated.  Advent is a time when we look forward in hope and anticipation for better days, even as we acknowledge that although we currently sit in darkness, we have seen a great light.

Don't worry if you're not feeling the Christmas Spirit this year.  Advent will meet you exactly where you are, wherever you are.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Time Capsule Challenge

Received via Farai Chideya and Tayari Jones.  My assignment was to write about when I was staring down 30 and compare it to now (when I'm staring down 40).

A month before the big three-oh, I was on my pastoral internship in Edgemont, South Dakota.  It was part of my Masters in Divinity program at Wartburg Theological Seminary.  The population of Edgemont at that time was 864.  I'd grown up in a suburb of Boston, where there were about 1200 students in my high school alone.  Needless to say, I was suffering from some culture shock.  I was also struggling with my pastoral identity, trying to figure out how this female ex-Catholic Bostonian could possibly minister to a congregation of rural Midwestern Lutherans.  Being single, the isolation was difficult for me, and I was transitioning from a problem drinker into a full-blown alcoholic.  I was also a smoker.

Even though I wanted to get married, I expected I'd remain single for the rest of my life.  Before I'd begun preparing for ministry, I'd always had trouble attracting decent men.  Once I added 'Pastor' to my identity, it was like I was radioactive.  Most guys wanted nothing to do with someone in my profession.  Additionally I was told by some well-meaning family members that my standards were too high.  I decided I'd rather keep my high standards and remain single than settle into a bad marriage.  I planned to adopt a daughter after I was firmly established in my first call, about two or three years down the line.

I didn't want to make South Dakota my permanent home, but I knew I never wanted to return to New England, where I'd never felt I belonged.  I hoped for a call in Wisconsin or Iowa, where I would be a parish pastor in a smallish community (preferably with a population in the low thousands, rather than hundreds) and hopefully serve the same congregation for a very long time.

Ten years later I've burnt out on parish ministry after serving two congregations as called pastor and two more as interim.  Only one of those congregations was in the Midwest, and it was the most toxic of the lot, essentially destroying any desire I might have to go back (to parish ministry or to the Midwest).  I also quit smoking in 2003 and have been sober for over eight years.  I'm happily married to a man who met my standards (what do you know--he did exist!), and I'm a stay-at-home homeschooling mom to our two young children.  We're also living in New Hampshire, and are very happy here.  It turns out New England is where I belonged after all.

I'm not letting my theological training go to waste, even as I acknowledge that parish ministry is not a good fit for me.  I'm an active member of a local Lutheran congregation, where I occasionally teach adult bible studies.  I also fill in for my pastor and other nearby colleagues when they need a Sunday off.  Finally, I'm combining my theological training with my life-long love of writing.  I'm in the process of launching my own publishing house where I will publish devotions, bible studies, worship resources, theological books, and even some fiction (which may or may not have a religious theme).  Of course, that takes a backseat to being a wife and mother, two jobs that are MUCH more difficult than I'd ever imagined (but worth it nonetheless).

Would you like to participate in the Time Capsule Challenge?  Leave a comment with your current age, and I'll give you an age to write about.  If you're willing, please either write your response in a comment, or provide a link to your own page.  Otherwise, just do this for your own edification.  It's fun!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Where Does It Begin? How Will It End?

I had to wipe my tears with a crumpled-up napkin I'd found in the glove compartment.  I was driving to the mall so my kids could run off some excess energy at the indoor playground, and my son asked me why I was crying.  When I told him it was because of what I'd heard on the radio, he--quite sensibly--opined that "Maybe we shouldn't listen to this radio station [NPR] any more."  I smiled and told him that would make sense, but Mama had to know what was going on in the world.

And what was going on that made me cry in the car was the news that 20 elementary school children in Newtown, CT were dead, along with six adults from their school, and the shooter.  Since then it's been revealed that the shooter's mother was a teacher at the school, whom he'd also shot and killed at home earlier in the day.

I could only wonder what kind of person would do such a thing.  And what kind of world do we live in that produces such people?  Because this was not an isolated event.  Sure, the fact that it was an elementary school was a new twist, but earlier this week someone shot up a shopping mall in Oregon.  Two weeks ago a young man shot his father with a bow and arrow as he taught class at a community college in Wyoming (after fatally stabbing his father's girlfriend at their home).  A few months ago someone else shot up a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin.  And a month before that, someone else shot up a movie theatre in Colorado.  Why do so many people resort to indiscriminate violence as the solution to their problems?  Why are they so unaware or uncaring of the pain and suffering they'll inflict on people who are in no way responsible for the wrongs committed against them?

Not long after arriving at the mall playground, I saw part of the answer.  Three boys, all the same age or not much younger than the majority of victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School, were running around pretending to shoot everyone with their index fingers.  And laughing as they did it.  When one of them pointed his 'gun' at me and I shook my head 'no,' he yelled, "Bang bang!"  He was about six years old.  I informed him sternly that guns are not toys, and it's not a fun game to pretend to kill people.  His two friends overheard me and came over, pointed their index fingers at me, and opened fire, apparently now with semi-automatic index finger-guns.  Then they ran away, laughing.  The mother of the two boys who came later, who were apparently brothers, was sitting nearby and saw the whole thing.  She was smiling.

A little while later, after the boy who 'shot' me first had left, my son Spencer began playing with the brothers.  Very quickly I found myself having to give him the same lecture I'd given the first boy.  I told him that I understood he was playing with those other boys, but he wasn't allowed to play that game, and if that's all they wanted to do, then he'd have to find someone else to play with.  They began just chasing each other, sans guns.  I would have preferred him not to play with them at all, but he has to learn to pick his own friends, and he was obeying me.  I know this because I was watching.  Closely.  Unlike the other boys' mother.

After a couple of minutes, Spencer came over crying.  One of the brothers had pushed him.  I told him that if he did that, then he wasn't really a friend, and he shouldn't play with him.  But Spencer is forgiving (or at least really enjoys playing with other kids) so he went back.  The boy's mother either didn't know what had happened, or didn't care.  A little while later Spencer was crying again.  This time the boy had pushed him off one of the climbing structures, and Spencer had landed hard on the floor.  The boy's mother pulled him over to her seat and told him to "Go say you're sorry."  The boy refused.  His mother sat him down next to her and told him he couldn't play anymore until he said he was sorry.  I told Spencer that even if he did apologize, I didn't want them playing together anymore.  Spencer agreed.  The other brother came over and invited Spencer to play with "just me."  Spencer went.  The 'pusher' saw Spencer and his brother playing and got up from his seat.  His mother asked, "Are you going to say you're sorry?"  The boy said he was, so she let him go.  He went in the opposite direction of Spencer, clearly with no intention of apologizing.  His mother watched him go, shook her head, then went back to playing with her phone.  I watched the little hooligan make his way around the play yard back to the climbing structure, where his brother and Spencer were playing, now joined by my daughter Naomi.  And then I heard a banshee shriek I know very well.  This boy had now pushed Naomi off the structure, too.

The boy's mother made him stay with her this time, but kept him occupied with snacks while she gave her other son a few more minutes to play.  When it was finally (mercifully) time for them to leave, the boy who hadn't pushed my kids threw a temper tantrum, and only promises of pizza and ice cream (for both of them) could entice him to leave the play area.

That child probably won't grow up to be a mass murderer.  But what did he learn today?  He learned that after you push and hurt other children, you get pizza and ice cream.  He learned that bad behavior, even violent behavior, doesn't result in negative consequences. And he'll remember, when things get difficult when he's older, how much fun it was to run around and pretend to kill people, and how much easier life was back then.

What mothers do matters, but we're not the only ones who influence our children.  Sometimes we do our best to teach them proper behavior and give them plenty of love, attention, and guidance, and they still turn out to do these horrific things.

I'm noticing a trend.  It's too early to begin to speculate about motive regarding the Connecticut shooter, but we do know a few things about him.  He was 20 years old, and has been described as quiet, reserved, and highly intelligent.  He came from a loving home, and had no known criminal record.

The Oregon shooter was 22 years old, and was described by friends as being a really nice guy in high school, popular with the other kids, and having a heart of gold.  School administrators described him as having average talent and earning average grades, with no record of disciplinary issues.  The only trigger anyone can point to is the fact the he had recently broken up with his girlfriend, though he'd seemed to be dealing with that OK.  His dream was to move to Hawaii.

The Wyoming guy was 25, had a Bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering, a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering, and was working a low-end, blue-collar job for a utility.  He lived in a rooming house and was described as shy and socially awkward.  He also had Asperger's Syndrome, which he believed his father 'gave him.'  He had no criminal history.

The Wisconsin shooter was 40, and had a history of behavioral misconduct and affiliations with hate groups.

The Colorado shooter was 24, and had been studying for his Ph.D. in neuroscience until he withdrew from the program after failing his oral exams.  He was described as quiet, responsible, and nerdish, raised in an upscale section of San Diego and once worked at a summer camp for needy children.  He'd never given any indications of problematic behavior until his academic career began to fall apart.

With the exception of the Wisconsin shooter, they were all promising young adults.  Most came from loving homes.  They were all most likely raised to believe that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to, and were encouraged to pursue their dreams, expecting they'd be successful.  Two were well educated, but found that in real life, you don't automatically get on the team just because you showed up at tryouts.  In the adult world you have to work hard, and sometimes hard work isn't enough.  You still have to deal with disappointment, despite your best efforts.  And when things don't go your way, you don't get to throw a temper tantrum and have someone offer you a cookie to stop.  Two specifically targeted a parent.  Only one is still alive today.

As parents, we want to protect our kids, but we also have to teach them how to cope with things not working out the way they want.  In order for them to learn to deal with disappointment, they need to sometimes be disappointed, and that means we have to let them fully experience it.  We can comfort them, but we can't fix it for them.  We have to let them know that some behavior is simply not acceptable, and punish them for it, even if it inconveniences us.  We have to let them know that they must meet certain expectations, and they don't get a prize or a passing grade just for trying.  The world doesn't really care about their self esteem once they're no longer children or teenagers.  Life can be harsh, it can be unfair, and we're doing them a real disservice if we lead them to believe otherwise.  And even when we do all that, we still have to help them navigate through childhood in a culture that expects absolutely nothing of them until they're 18 or 22, at which time they are expected to be fully-functioning adults.

In the days and weeks to come, there will be talk about gun control, increased security in the schools, zero tolerance policies, anything that might better protect us from the monsters who sadly aren't imaginary.  Those are worthy and useful conversations to have.  But what we really need to talk about is a culture that actively discourages children and teenagers from preparing for life as adults.  Take away the guns, and those who want to kill will use knives or bows and arrows.  Increase security at the schools, and the criminals will find ways to get to their targets, and everyone else will become accustomed at a young age to living in a police state.  Let's not waste too much time with the symptoms; we need to address the cause if we're ever going to end this.

All I wanted to do yesterday was hug my kids.  I know I wasn't alone in that.  I want to protect my kids from those horrors.  But I won't turn off the radio, even when it makes me cry, because that's the world we live in, and I have to know what the reality is if I'm going to live in this world, and prepare my kids for it.