Joy should be simple—it’s my name. It is a word tossed around quite a bit at Christmas. The angels appearing to the shepherds sought to calm them by saying, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”. For many of us, joy is what we seek in the outer world. We find it in the birth of the baby or the news someone brings to us. I believe joy, like all the advent gifts, resides within us. Yet, as one of my favorite theologians, Henri Nouwen, says, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Choice is another one of those spiritual gifts. We can choose where we place our faith. We can choose peace or struggle. We can choose love or anger. We can choose joy or all the things that feel like the absence of joy. In loss we may feel like all that gave us joy is gone. Yet just as love comes from within us, and we pour it out upon ourselves and others, joy wells up from within us when we allow it to and acknowledge it. In times of great loss, acknowledging joy may feel like a betrayal of the one we’ve lost. For me, I have come to understand it doesn’t work like that. None of the love is lost, even if the one I loved is out of reach. I keep loving because it is my nature to love, forced to find new avenues for the flow. Joy does not require perfection, or the absence of sorrow, or the worldly measures of success. I keep choosing joy because it remains an eternal reminder of Spirit in me and in the world. I choose joy when I smile; when I smell the winter evergreen; when the snow falls silently to cover every blemish; when the cardinal perches on the feeder like a scarlet kiss from heaven.
Advent gifts are celebrated on Sundays and because of the rhythm of weekdays and the 25th, sometimes we celebrate joy for a day and sometimes we celebrate for 6 days. This year we have a week to celebrate choosing joy. Choose joy. Do not let it escape your attention amid the parties and shopping; amid the sadness and loss; amid the expectations and disappointments. Open your heart to the joy that is there, waiting for you to claim it.
While Love may be the most familiar of the Advent concepts, it is also one that we complicate with layers of humanity and ego. In its purest, love is the very essence of who we are. It is the unifying and creative force in the Universe. We usually see love shrouded in our personal history and experience. We feel wounded by love as much as we feel healed by love. Actually, the wounding we might identify is our human response to the actions of other humans, not related to the pure essence of love at all.
Perhaps the original story of the visit of the Magi bearing gifts has contributed to the complication of the celebration of love and Christ’s birth. We measure both the love we give and the love we receive in gifts. We allow large and small, fancy and simple, time and companionship experiences, and yet, we keep ending up measuring love with gifts. A favorite Motown Christmas song implores us to “Give Love on Christmas Day.” We acknowledge that the heart of every gift is love and I just wonder what love looks like beyond the gifts.
This year I want to suggest we Be Love, not only at Christmas but all through the year. When we are being love, we are not only compassionate but also generous with others and with ourselves. I’m not sure how being love looks to you but I invite us all to explore the experience for ourselves. Amid the busy shopping, wrapping and cooking, take time to breathe and be the love that is Christ born anew in us each day.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace…” This message from the angels in the gospel of Luke focuses us on perhaps the most elusive of all the elements celebrated in Advent. We have glimpses of hope, faith, love and joy but how much do we experience peace? Hanukkah is a celebration of light over darkness, and yet another battle for the Hebrew people who continue to feel the stress of conflict in the world even today. The famous tale of Silent Night and the pause in World War I portrays how fleeting peace can be on earth. Yet here it is, the Advent Sunday and week of peace. What are we to make of it? How can it inform our preparation for the holy birth?
If peace is, at its simplest, the absence of conflict, what if we turned our attention inward? There is no conflict in the spiritual realm (or heaven), so this is an issue for our human experience here on earth. What if our first order of business is not so much the conflict we create among ourselves but the conflict we create within ourselves?
Created in the image and likeness of our creator, then our essential nature is love. How much time do we spend centered in, and thinking, feeling and acting from our love nature? The most basic conflict consuming much of our time here on earth is functioning out of alignment with our true self. I want to be love in expression and I cannot feel peace when I am thinking, feeling and acting out of anger, fear, guilt, worthlessness and pain. Peace calls me back to my essential self of love. When I accept my own struggle to be love in expression and am able to see the struggle of others, I let go of anger and know that I have nothing to fear from others. When I forgive myself for times I have been less than my best, I let go of guilt, even as I seek to make things right with others. When I know myself as the creation of the Divine, I realize I am precious to the creator and my worth has nothing to do with the measures of earth. There is no greater nor lesser in the Creator’s expression. I let go of condemnation of myself. When I am in pain, physical or emotional, I know it is a temporary experience that is not my essential nature. I let go of any sense that I deserve or need to hold onto the pain.
The more I can experience peace within, the less I perceive myself in conflict with others. The more I can acknowledge the unifying nature of love, the more I seek to find a path to understanding the struggles of others and solutions that create a world that works for everyone. As there is more peace within my earthly experience, I begin to see more peace out in my worldly experience. Peace is always one of the infinite possibilities available in each moment. Today I choose peace. I claim peace on earth.
The beginning of Advent is often designated Hope and Unity prefers Faith. It may be a matter of degrees but here is an analogy that might be helpful. Hope is the opening and Faith is the power to walk through, push through the opening. And sometimes we have to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) even when we do not see the opening. Openings and Hope are what “representation” is in the media. Let me explain.
Back in the 80’s, single parent adoptions weren’t popular or well known. Single, disabled parent international adoptions were something I hadn’t seen. But I did it anyway. For eighteen months I waded through paperwork, navigated delays and unexpected obstacles and lots of prayer work to bring my son Victor home from India. It was a long journey with lots of opportunities to exercise my faith that if this was my child, as I believed he was, Spirit would make a way for him to come home. I shared my journey to give Hope to others; to let others see an opening they might be guided to walk through. I even have an article from an Indian newspaper documenting “a disabled American woman adopting a boy from India with the same disability”. Maybe that provided hope in another country.
Sharing this time with Hanukkah, we are reminded of how unlikely it would seem that the small amount of oil would last for eight days. Or how impossible it would seem that a small band of Maccabees could overcome a vast army. These are metaphors for the ways that Faith keeps us centered in the infinite supply that comes from Divine Source and the strength, wisdom and guidance that dwells within us all, even when it seems the world is against us.
Everyone needs hope. With more representation of diverse, disabled people achieving success, sometimes in the most ordinary ways others take for granted, we create hope. We long to see openings for our dreams. May each of us find hope this season of Advent and then exercise our faith in an unseen power to move us in the direction of our dreams. The power is within us. Claim it!
A few months after my infant daughter Sarah died, I purchased a blank journal and starting taking notes. The notes were ways that Sarah continued to appear in my life: the angel-wing begonia cutting bursting into bloom in January; the pink balloon drifting across the sky at the cemetery; the adoption pictures I was beginning to look at. There was a healing in writing the notes but there was more healing in the expectancy of purchasing a blank journal and knowing there would be experiences to put on the pages. Faith seems to be a more active form of expectancy than hope. If hope is the blank journal, then faith is the purchase, keeping a pen handy, staying alert for the good unfolding and committing to writing it down.
This year’s advent season also begins Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light and faith, when good triumphs over evil and hope stands strong in the face of fear. We’ve been through some interesting times the last couple years and it is easy to focus on loss and darkness. Yet faith encourages us to be the light whenever possible and expect to see the light in the darkness. As the late Thomas Kadel admonishes us in the title to his ministry book, we must “Keep The Book Open.” Look with expectancy at the blank page of each day and commit to seeing and noting the good as much as you commit to being the good others see. It is the light of Radical Wholeness within each of us that is seeking expression.
This advent will be the first season of freedom in 43 years for Kevin Strickland. While the state of Missouri declines to give him compensation to begin after 43 years of wrongful conviction, the Midwest Innocence Project started a GoFundMe page and raised $1.5 Million.
While a menorah was first placed across from the White House in 1979, this will be the first Hanukkah celebrated by the family at the Vice-President’s house. Residing there is the first female, Black and Asian Indian Vice-President.
Vaccinations are available and we have the potential to limit the spread of COVID and all its variants. People are traveling again and with vaccinations, people are gathering in homes and embracing loved ones. We have missed the hugs of connection.
Let this season of light illuminate the darkness with the beams of each smile, each kindness, and each connection and may the path be revealed for each step forward in faith.