Friday, December 29, 2017

How to Have a New Year's Miracle

There are four other adults who claim credit for my daughter's conception. Four, that is, besides my husband and I, and besides the doctors and embryologists who ought to get credit. It was 2006, and after seven years of infertility, we were in for an amazing year, bright and strange by turns.  After seven years of infertility, we, along with the doctors, were ready to give up on finding a cause, and go for the cure--the big guns, in vitro fertilization.

I have never been an optimist. I had enough years of failure, and putting all that effort, and money, and injected hormones into the effort was painful. Of course I ping-ponged between terrified hope and dull despair. Luckily, we had friends to encourage us.

Sandra had one of her special talks with God, the kind where she says, God listens to her. Her husband David, on the other hand, tried for saying the magic word.

Janine took me to the big appointment, when it happened to fall on a day when Jim couldn't get away. She kept me company until the anesthesia took effect, and drove me home to nap afterward.

And Scott preached a sermon.

Yep, a sermon. It was New Year's Eve, as 2006 was just about to begin, and he was talking about resolutions. I remember him asking "What would you ask of God, if you really believed he would answer you?"

Sitting in the back pew of the Souderton, PA church, it struck me that I didn't believe he would answer. The reason I wasn't seeing a fertility doctor was that I was trying to protect my faith. If I didn't ask, I couldn't be disappointed.

 I was convicted. So we made an appointment and got started.

In May we finally had our procedure, and on a summer morning I sat in the same pew, and knew I was pregnant. I realized a miracle had happened in that pew--God had spoken to me. That ordinary space was holy, and I hadn't realized it.

In a couple of days, we're going to have another new year. It's the time when we all sober up from our holiday ferver and remember that calories and budgets exist. When we look back at all we didn't love about the year, and decide what we're going to do about it. Maybe we make new habits, and maybe we end up as members of a gym we don't visit past January.

The problem with resolutions is that they are only resolutions. They don't come with the power to fulfill themselves. Yes, I believe in the human spirit, but I haven't seen a lot of change in my life from a last-minute surge of conviction on New Year's Eve.

Except for that one. That one changed my life.

What if, this year, the miracles didn't come from us? What if having something great ahead wasn't resting on your shoulders? What might God have in mind for you? And most of all, what would you ask for, if you were certain he was listening, and would answer?

My goal today is not to go Pollyanna, (or Joel Osteen) on you, and make believe that God is a vending machine, and that faith is a lever to control your life. I know better, and I'm sure you do, too. God doesn't publish a Christmas Catalog from which we get to pick our new year. But I do believe there's more power, and more hope, than what we generate with our own gritted teeth.

New Year's Eve is a fragile space in the flow of the year. The daylight is scarce, and the world is cold, and the comfort and joy of Christmas are past. Our willpower is out of shape from spending and eating, and our strength is worn down from travel and short sleep. It's a place of weakness, just the right kind of place for miracles. It's a marvelous place to meet God.

So I wish you a happy new year. And I hope for you something better than your resolutions, better than you can make for yourself.  This year, I hope you'll think bigger than your own willpower, and ask for the will of God.

   For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
                                                                                      Jeremiah 29:11

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Christmas Eve Test (mini-blog)

I've been thinking about family lately. It's kind of the thing to do in the Christmas season, plus we're having our first college-employee Christmas break, so we're actually back in Washington state, visiting our families.

I don't have the most closely knit family. My brothers and I don't call or write, even though I think they're awesome. It's not a lack of liking one another, it's just that life is all-consuming. And so Christmas, and Easter, and a couple of other gatherings during the year are the sum of our relationship with each other. It makes the holiday extremely important.

But some years it didn't happen. Some years, we lived all the way across the country. Money was tight, and we decided it was better to visit in the summer, when the outdoors was going to be more inviting. It wasn't a bad choice, it just made for a glum Christmas Eve.  We would fancy up for the church holiday programs, bake and plan and sing and celebrate. And then, for the day itself, we were alone. All of our local loved ones went home, and spent time with their real families.

Christmas Eve is a sorter of priorities. It's a reality check.  Like thousands of other pastoral families, we poured our energy and time into the church. We had relationships and meaning there, and people we loved.* But when the holiday comes, all the lesser relationships have to give way to the most important. Those Christmas Eves on our own were invaluable, because they showed me the lay of the land.

Here's what I learned--there is no work you can do, even work for the church, that will keep you company on Christmas Eve. That space is saved for relationships, and it's mostly family that makes the cut. It's the ultimate test for how you spend your time, who you give your best energies, where you look for your identity. We can waste a lot of our strength chasing things that fade to insignificance under the colored light of the Christmas tree.

I don't mean to suggest that there's only one way to be happy. I wouldn't want to imply that if you don't have good family relationships you're doomed to misery. Only that we need to value what we do have. Because life is busy.  All-consuming, in fact.  Our pace of life can keep us filling the days with what's immediate, instead of what's meaningful. 

The real meaning of Christmas is who loves you most. The good news is there is always a Father who loves you most, even if your family relationships are bunk, or you've failed the Christmas Eve test. Our relationships are his gifts, the tangible expression of his love to us. But with or without them, you are never alone.

So this Christmas, take some time to consider life, and meaning, and priorities. Take a break from the baking and wrapping, and sit a while in front of the lights. Experience the gift of being loved.

Merry Christmas!

*And if any of our much-loved church friends are reading this, please don't feel sad for me. I am glad that you had the right priorities.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

How to Have an Adventist Christmas

Adventists have a sketchy relationship with the Advent. It might be in the name--we're all about that other Advent. We're not sure what to do with this one.

And it's getting more complicated these days. Now, as conservative Christians, we have to choose whether we're more offended that Christians are celebrating a pagan holiday, or that heathens are celebrating "our" Christian one. If we try hard enough, we might be able to stay mad over the Christmas trees in church, and complain about Starbucks cups, too. Maybe. 

Here are the possible approaches I've seen to Christmas:

1. We can't celebrate Christmas, because it's pagan.

When I was a teen, I saw a video made by some conservative Adventist media outlet about how Christmas is pagan. Trees, fires, wreaths--everything came from some pagan tradition that meant that, if you celebrate Christmas, you're really worshiping some barbarian deity.  And I have known Adventists that believed just that. At least one church had no Christmas events, and we hardly dared mention the holiday in December, and certainly not without some apology.

More moderate churches could have a tree in the lobby, just not in the sanctuary. And still others could have a tree, but no decorations on it but lights.

Of course, this is pretty glum way to go, and members are forced to resent either their Scrooge-like church, or the rest of the world for having fun without us.

2. The heathens can't celebrate Christmas, because it's Christian.

This next option, popular with evangelicals, is a little more fun. We get to celebrate Christmas, and still be offended and aggrieved. This time the enemy are those who are making the holiday secular, instead of those saying it's Christian. This is where we get to argue about disposable coffee cups, and put up nativity scenes in public spaces in order to assert our rights. We can frown at those who say "Happy Holidays," because we're afraid they might be including Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, instead of just New Years'.

This one has an advantage of feeling relevant. After all, we're not complaining about long-dead pagans now. We're upset at things really happening right now, probably down the street. We have something to say to our own times.

The trouble with this one is that is comes with baggage. The need to keep up an assumption that we're all (or mostly) Christians in the public sphere is actually a child of politics, not of faith. And it keeps us at odds with our neighbors. The night on which the angels sang "Peace on earth, goodwill to men," makes an odd object for resentment and complaints.

3. We can celebrate Christmas, but only as heathens.

Believe it or not, that anti-Christmas video from my teens was making just this point. It's okay to give gifts and wear silly hats, just don't use it to worship God. It's okay as a secular holiday to spend with your family, As long as you don't worship God through pagan ceremonies, carry on.

The irony, of course, is that gives a free pass to materialism. The Santa narrative, centered on presents, is all cool. We can buy more stuff, eat extra junk food, and rock out at the office party. But we're not allowed to temper it all with the deeper, sweeter things, like the sacrifice of the incarnation, the light in the darkness, the comfort of God-with-us.

We can bow to the false gods of the modern world, as long as we don't bow to those of the ancient world. Yeah, I can't buy into that, either.

So I'm going to endorse another path, the one you're probably already taking.

4. We can make the most of it

We can quit worrying about the ancient pagans and the modern liberals, and even the historicity of the date,* and celebrate anyway. Celebrate what's really good--that God came into our world, and will not leave us to our own devices. We can enjoy love and family, and all the other gifts he gave us to keep the darkness at bay.

Make peace with the ghost of Christmas past. Yes, the pagans probably had a holiday around that time. Still, your members aren't going to come to the church Christmas party and be reminded of their pre-conversion days. No one will be tempted to skip off to the Beltane fires because of it.

Make peace with the ghost of Christmas present. We aren't witnessing to our neighbors when we insist they have Christmas only on our terms. Happy holidays arguments not only contradict the holiday spirit, they make us unhappy.

Make peace, and then make the most of it.

We have a gift here. There is a cultural obligation to spend time with our families, to give to those in need, and to think about things bigger than ourselves. Sitting right alongside the commercialism, there is a truly Christian culture in Christmas that reaches beyond the church. For once a year, all the world believes they ought to do good to others and mend their relationships. We can do something with that, if we don't get overstressed and exhausted from our gift shopping and our holiday schedule.

Spend some time contemplating the Christmas lights in the dark. Connect with a friend or family member who needs you. Give some of your Christmas budget to a bigger cause.** Share your family with someone who's lonely. Best of all, connect with someone who doesn't believe--it's the one time of the year you get to be loving just because, without drawing suspicion. Get under their skin now, so they want to spend more time with you later.

Christmas is a lot of things, depending on how you play the notes. It can be everything from commercialism, stress, and obligation, to peace, hope and love. This year, let's play up the peace, hope, and love. I dare say it's the Adventist thing to do.

*Yeah, yeah, Jesus is unlikely to have a December birth date. It's okay.

**We're looking into ADRA's Really Useful Gift Catalog

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Welcome Lights (mini-blog)

It's been a hard week for blogging. It's not for a lack of trying or a lack of time. It's because this week I'm in Pennsylvania for my friend's memorial. I've struggled all week to think of a message that was both honest with my sorrow, and true to the Christmas season.

Instead, all I have is a symbol.

I spent a lot of Christmas seasons here in PA. I have so many memories, from the year I wore a bathrobe to play Mary in NW PA, to the Lansdale Christmas Eve programs. But the thing I keep thinking of, the thing I've missed in all the years since we left, are the welcome lights.

It's not just a Christmas thing, I know, but it was always Christmas-y to me. My friends would keep a candle (electric, and with a timer) in each window on the front of the house. Welcome lights. I don't know how to explain my fascination with them--every eye of the house awake and watching for your arrival. The handful of single lights was more eloquent, more beautiful than any festive display I've ever seen.

This is Christmas. We fill it with lights and cheer--the cinnamon-scented glow of family gatherings, the rush of music and shopping and presents, a hundred dreams-coming-true holiday movies. But if we're honest, it's really just a small light in an ocean of night.

The world is still dark. It's evil, and there's pain enough out there to swallow us without a thought. But the funny thing about darkness is that it only takes a little light to hold it at bay. Light just one candle, and you have an anchor, a reference spot of solid things to rely on.

This is Christmas. Not that God banished the darkness, but that he came into it with us. Not that our pains are exorcised by the music of sleigh bells, but that we have hope to hold next to them. Until the Second Advent makes us free, we hold on to the First Advent, because it's the promise that it will.

It would be nice if the movies were true, and Christmas was about homecoming, and everything being all right again. We make what happiness we can, but the truth is that we are still out in the cold, still hoping to get home.

But God has set a light in the window, to call us, to guide us, to reassure us that we are wanted. A small thing--a baby, helpless and poor. Because that's all our God needs to overturn the darkness.

So if you're dealing with darkness this Christmas season--some sorrow, or anger, or loneliness, the welcome light is for you. Christmas doesn't give us cure-alls, it give us hope. We are not alone in the darkness, and home is real. Comfort. And joy.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Adventist Coffee Break

I've only played matchmaker once in my life, and when I did, I picked a big one. I gave my lifelong bff's phone number to a friend from seminary. It was really terrifying—said bff was dating someone else at the time. In apology, I tried to be as honest as I could with my “inside information” on him. He doesn't like onions, he wears too much black—oh, and I think he's a little too dependent on his coffee. 

They talked on the phone, and then Jim and I got to introduce them in person at Christmas. She decided to bring him a present—a coffee mug, and a jar of Roma coffee alternative.

It worked. Previous Boyfriend went the way of the dinosaur, and the next September I got to be matron of honor at a lovely beach wedding. The Roma, I understand, had a long life, surviving at least one move. I haven't tried it. But I always enjoy the coffee at their house.

Coffee showed up at our house along with our first child. It started at the hospital. It turns out that, while I had the advantage of contractions to keep me awake, poor Jim had to find some other means.

We'd had the baby home less than a week before my mom came to visit, and bought a coffee-maker to help her survive. We made no objection that she didn't pack it into her suitcase to take home later. We went from the adrenaline-high of the new baby to the bone-deep exhaustion of the not-so-new baby, and on into the sleepless grind of parenthood, and the coffee-maker came with us, and held our hands.

Two more kids later, we've moved on to bigger and better, and then smaller and better machines. We went through the Keurig stage, and out the other side, to a french press, and now a pour-over system. I'm a bit of an Other-Adventist hypocrite, I have to confess. I haven't managed to develop a coffee habit myself (mostly I drink it when visiting bff). But I am a good enabler. Frankly, I'm just happy to know I can always make Jim happy with a bag of whole beans for Christmas.

It's entertaining to drink coffee in the Adventist world. We have often packed our own supplies when going to overnight events for pastors. Sometimes there's coffee out with the breakfast service. Sometimes it's hiding in the back of the kitchen, for those who know where to look. Sometimes there is none, and we get to share out of our room.

Coffee is getting to be more mainstream in the church. I remember the first time we went to a church where one of the adult classes served coffee, guiltily, in a back room. Now I know many that serve it in the lobby.

A few years ago, a certain Adventist magazine ran an article on coffee, apparently trying to re-stigmatize it. It was a confession, written by an anonymous pastor telling his/her experience of having medically unusual withdrawal symptoms when s/he quit drinking it. The anonymity was more telling than the article's content--the intention* was evidently to tell us that coffee drinking really was something of which we ought to be ashamed, and hide back in the back room again.

I don't think it's going back. In fact, I think it's time to give up on debating coffee. As a church, it isn't worth our time anymore.

Medical research won't help us here. I know I've heard good and bad research, although only the bad gets shared around Adventist circles. I won't deny it's real, but I have to suspect it's subjective. Sadly, having a medical study is kind of like having a Red Book quote—it comes with a context (almost always to answer a specific question), it isn't the whole story, and it usually comes with interpretation supplied. It doesn't really end the discussion. 

It's a tough to live in a world with so much information (or to read from a prophet who has such a large body of work, from such a variety of situations**). It means, like it or not, we're going to have to use our own reason, make our own choices. It means that authority isn't as simple a concept as we'd like it to be.

It's hard, but we're going to have to navigate that reality somehow. Otherwise we find ourselves doing silly things. Things like pushing all manner of untested natural remedies because they're plants, so they must be safe, but then demonizing the one that does get studied. Or making life harder for one another.

At the end of the day, the reason we use coffee isn't really its chemical effects. For all the memes about how it prevents murder, the fact is much of the value is comfort, and ritual, and the social time it creates. The coffee break is about a lot more than caffeine. Coffee is just another tool for managing life. It works for many people. Not so well for others.

Yes, caffeine has an effect. Like any other self-medication, it has to be used thoughtfully. But experience says that's what most people do. We rest when we can, we caffeinate, we commiserate, we spend a little extra time together. And then we go back out and tackle life again.

Life is hard. The Christian life is complicated, and often muddled, and we can't afford to waste time making it harder for one other. Especially when we're following the path of a Savior who says it isn't what you put in your mouth that does the harm, but what comes out.***

My burden isn't for the coffee. It's for the church. We are all the church. Some of us reach for the coffee and some from the Roma (and some for an unsweetened herbal tea). But we are bound together by a faith that is much bigger than beverages. We worship a God who is greater than our differences, and we bear a message which is far too valuable to neglect so we can argue over food.

To my church I say, keep the faith. Drink the Roma, or drink the coffee, but don't drink the proverbial Kool Aid. Skip the judgement. Keep the faith.

*I'll keep the name of the magazine anonymous. You know, to protect the guilty and all . . .

**As a general principle. I am not trying to imply there is more than one opinion on coffee in her work, only that we're forced, by seeing the whole of what she wrote, to understand that inspiration is more complicated, and more contextual than we would like.

***Matthew 15:11