Blue Christmas and the Incarnation

My colleague at San Diego Hospice, Lori Leopold, is a Methodist minister and has been a hospice chaplain for a little over 8 years. For the 2nd year in a row she has presided over a liturgy called “Blue Christmas” at La Jolla United Methodist Church. Their description of the liturgy is this:

The Blue Christmas Service is designed and offered especially for those who struggle during the holiday season. For anyone who has suffered a loss – the loss of health, the loss of a loved one or a pet, the loss of a job or a relationship – the holidays can be an especially difficult time of year. Just when our culture tells us we are supposed to be “merry and bright,” we can find ourselves feeling most lost and alone. It is an important time to draw close to God and allow God to draw close to us in a quiet, reflective service that acknowledges the reality of our wounds and the graciousness of God who comes to meet us there.

This year Nancy and I attended and I’m grateful we did. I expected this to be akin to “I know it’s a hard time of year but it’s going to be OK.” Lori’s preaching turned it into something much more. She spoke about how during times of despair, loneliness, and separation the Incarnation (birth of the Savior) is all the more poignant. Christ came for all of us, but most importantly for those in most need. The pastor of the church read from 1 Kings 19:1-16. Here is the text of Lori’s homily:

I love this passage from 1 Kings. It has intrigued me for as long as I’ve been familiar with it. It feels deep and rich, whispering of something profound and holy. And while this section is a small piece of a much larger story, I want to focus just on this small piece tonight. The prophet Elijah, fleeing for his life, becomes overcome by despair. He finds himself deep in the wilderness, sitting beneath a solitary broom tree and is so overwhelmed that he asks God to take his life. An angel encourages and enables him to continue on his journey and he winds up at Mt. Horeb where he is told to go out and stand on the mountain because the Lord is about to pass by.

The scripture says that as Elijah stood there, a great wind came up, so strong that it broke rocks into pieces, but that God was not in the wind. And the wind was followed by an earthquake, but again, God was not in the earthquake. And the earthquake was followed by a fire, but God was not in the fire. But after the fire, came the sound of sheer silence – and God was in the silence. And it was out of that silence that God spoke to Elijah about where he should go from there.

Can you imagine? There was Elijah, waiting, probably breathlessly, for the Lord to come, for the Lord to pass by. And all of these dramatic things began to happen – wind and earthquake and fire. But each time we hear that God was not in the dramatic event. That God was not contained in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. Now that’s certainly not to say that those dramatic events were coincidental, because it was the coming of God that set all of those things into motion. They wouldn’t have happened if God weren’t passing by. But they did not contain the holy – they were not the way that God chose to reveal Godself. God revealed Godself not in the flash of those happenings, but rather in the pure silence. In fact, the scripture goes on to show that God revealed Godself to Elijah in a way that was gentle, in a way that was understandable, in a way that was personal and in a way that was purposeful.

And I think that this scripture passage holds a lot of meaning for us as we contemplate the Christmas season, maybe especially if we, like Elijah, find ourselves in a time searching, struggling, despairing. It’s easy to identify the flash, the flurry, the whirlwind, the dramatic and out of the ordinary things that happen around Christmas. The decorations and lights and card writing and baking and singing and shopping and holiday parties. All of those cultural Christmas traditions are something akin to the wind and the earthquake and the fire. They are the things that happen around Christmas. And as it was with the wind and the earthquake and the fire, our Christmas flurry is, in some way, set in motion by God’s coming. Because, chances are, we wouldn’t be doing all of this if the Christ child hadn’t come in the first place. It is to God’s coming, to the incarnation, that we have attached 2000 years worth of tradition, layers of stuff that, in some way, shape or form, point back to the heart of Christmas.

So when we peel away the layers of activity, when we peel away all of the stuff that’s accumulated around Christmas, we return, really, to the heart of things. We come down to the stillness, the silence of one holy night. A night when God came, so like God, not in the furiousness of a wind storm, not in the dramatic shaking of an earthquake, not in the searing heat of a fire, but when God came into the world in a way that was gentle, in a way that was understandable, in a way that was personal and in a way that was purposeful.

When I think about it, I always imagine that the vast darkness of that night swallowed up the sight and the sound of that small family in that small place. Or maybe I should say that I imagine that the night seemed to swallow up the sight and sound of them. Because we know that ultimately it did not. It could not. We know that the birth of that child – so small, so subtle, birthed into the holy stillness of that night was a flicker of light that would burn bright and eternal, changing the world and changing us forever.

There have been times in my life when despair has darkened the doorstep of my spirit. Despair over personal circumstances, despair over the violence that wreaks havoc in our world. I can’t imagine that there is one among us that wasn’t shaken to the core, shattered in some way, by the shootings in Connecticut last week. There have been times in my life when I have found myself beneath the proverbial broom tree. Perhaps you have been there too. Times when I wanted and prayed for a sign – a big, bold catastrophic sign, to assure me of God’s presence. I never got one. But what I’ve come to believe is that God is not forceful or showy, especially with those who feel particularly tender or wounded. Rather God reveals Godself lovingly and sometimes surprisingly in those precious moments of stillness and silence. God provides an unexpected angel or some small sustenance, strength for the journey, even when we may have many miles of wilderness left to go.

It is a great irony to me that those who are grieving oftentimes find themselves feeling utterly disconnected from Christmas. I was talking with a friend the other day and she said, “I hate Christmas.” She’s dreading it, can’t wait until it’s over. And it’s true that against the backdrop of all of the more superficial merriment, our grief can make us feel alien, alone, out of step with everything and everyone around us. But in reality, when we go back to the heart of things, peel away all those layers of fluff around Christmas, it is that aspect of all of us, the part of us that is wounded, that is broken hearted that God most wants to reach with the miracle of Christmas. How much we might miss if we tuck those aspects of ourselves away as if they’re somehow inappropriate in light of the holiday season. I believe, with all my heart, that what God wants from us this Christmas is to make those parts of ourselves available – to God, maybe to one another – that, resting in silence, we might receive the blessing of the One who came to love us, to encourage us, to heal us, to set us free.

Thank you Lori: it was an evening well spent. I have ahead of me many hours of thinking and praying on this.

America, Stop Listening to the NRA

After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School the National Rifle Association went silent for a few days. Many of us were hoping they would either remain silent or consider a dialogue about gun safety. So much for that hope. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre responded by saying that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The NRA is now calling on Congress to put an armed guard in every school in America.

That’s right: the answer to gun violence is more guns.

Years ago one of the NRA’s tag lines was “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Clearly gun violence happens only in combination of guns and people; I used to joke that the difference between the NRA and me was that I wanted to eliminate the guns and the NRA wanted to eliminate the people. I didn’t realize how right I was until now. They argue that the world is divided into good people and bad people, that bad people will always have access to guns no matter what we do, and (we) good people have to make sure we’re not outgunned.

Their “reasoning” is silly (and dangerous) on so many levels. First and foremost, we simply can’t divide our nation between good people and bad people: it’s not that simple. The overwhelming majority of us would never dream of turning a gun on anyone and I’ll admit that even nations that have restrictive gun laws haven’t completely eliminated gun violence. But we have way too many murders in this country only because there is easy access to guns, and guns that are too powerful for any other use.

Sandy Hook is a good example. We still don’t know the shooter’s motive but we do know what happened. His mother legally owned a number of powerful weapons. He had access to them and used them to kill 26 people and himself. If assault weapons were illegal there is no indication that he would have had the interest or opportunity to obtain them illegally. Whatever rage, loneliness, or other demon lived in his soul may have found a violent outlet, but it wouldn’t have killed 20 children and 6 adults.

Second, the NRA “solution” likely would not have worked. The shooter shot his way through the front door of the school. Had there been an armed guard in school he would have had to be at the entrance the shooter used (did your elementary school have only one entrance?) and be able to accurately fire the first shot. In my previous post I spoke of Texas Congressman Louie Gohmer’s suggestion that if the principal had been armed she could have prevented this. Yes, but only if she was carrying the gun and was able to outshoot an assault rifle.

And finally, we need to stop listening to the voices who insist that more guns equal more safety. The shooter’s mother was killed by her own weapon, and any gun in a school has the potential to be used accidentally. Lock it up? Sure, but that makes my point: any gun that is secured won’t be instantly available if needed.

We don’t need more guns. We need to get rid of the these “personal weapons of mass destruction.” Yes, I made that up.

And again, we need to tell our representatives that the NRA may target their seats, but they cannot target my vote.

It's Time to Stop the Moment of Silence. It's Time To Do Something

You would have to live in a cave not to hear about the events on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It’s been an awful weekend for anyone with a conscience.

I have lots of feelings about this, but I have to confess I keep coming back to the issue of gun violence and the Second Amendment. I’m one of the people who believe that the 2nd Amendment mandates only a National Guard. Alas, the Supreme Court found in the case of District of Coumbia vs. Heller that there is an individual right to private gun ownership.

I’m willing to concede the right to own guns for hunting or protecting your home and family. I don’t have any desire to hunt and I worry that a gun for my own protection could be used against me (as it was with the shooter’s mother Nancy Lanza). But this allows for a fairly narrow slice of the guns we own. If you want to hunt you will probably use a rifle or a shotgun. Rifles normally carry 5 rounds before needing to reload. Shotguns need to be reloaded after one or two shots. If you’re hunting game this makes some sense.

If you have a gun for personal protection your needs can be met with a simple revolver. If someone breaks into your home in the middle of the night it’s hard to imagine that 6 shots won’t do what needs to be done.

I’m troubled by the proliferation of assault weapons. The last few decades have shown us rifles and handguns with incredibly high firepower. Adam Lanza showed up at Sandy Hook Elementary School with three guns: a Bushmaster Assault Rifle, a Glock 9mm pistol, and a SIG Sauer 9mm pistol. According to news reports he had hundreds of bullets and could have killed every teacher and child in the school. He shot himself only when he heard the sound of sirens. There are variations but the Bushmaster clip holds 30 rounds and is easy to reload.

Is this what our founders had in mind? I don’t think so. High power guns with huge clips are not designed for hunting or protecting. They are made for mass violence and they are incredibly successful. Had the shooter needed to reload after only 5 or 6 shots someone might have been able to disarm him.

We keep having the massacres, and yet we keep having these weapons. Why? The NRA and other gun lobbies are incredibly successful in convincing a small but powerful number of us that banning these guns won’t solve anything. They are also successful in telling our lawmakers that they will defeat any candidate who opposes them. The Sunday news shows covered the massacre and had no trouble finding people like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Senator Dianne Feinstein talking about the need for sensible gun legislation. The pro gun lobby was largely silent; the exception was Texas Representative Louie Gohmer who said that if the school principal had been armed she could have stopped the massacre.

Talk radio was not silent. Rush Limbaugh said this on his show Monday: “[P]art of the [liberal] agenda that was being advanced was, of course, gun control. And there was glee, there was excitement at the opportunity that was presented here.” Sorry, I can’t bring myself to link to Rush’s page. You can find it on the transcript on his web page.

I’m pretty outraged at being told that my reaction to this massacre was glee. This is not an opportunity to talk about sensible gun control, the massacre is reason we need to have this discussion.

For those of us who favor sensible legislation about guns, it’s time to move. It’s time to write to our representatives and tell them that we will support sensible legislation, no matter how much the NRA tries to block it. We need to tell them that we will not vote for NRA backed candidates, no matter how much money they spend.

We need our legislators to know that our vote is safe.

My prayers are with the victims.