Jan 11, 2018

In Good Faith: Always We Begin Again

In my January In Good Faith column I write about the commonalities and differences between New Year's resolutions and the spiritual life.

Always We Begin Again

Not to bring up a potentially sore subject, but how are your New Year’s resolutions going? I
mean, it’s been a couple weeks so I think this is a fair question. I’m not asking this to put you on the defensive. For all I know, your new vegan diet is working brilliantly and your six-pack abs have already caused a stir at the gym. Of course, if things aren’t going exactly according to plan, you’re not alone. Apparently only 8% of New Year’s resolutions stick, which is why I pre-empted the whole thing this year by not making any.

As I thought about this annual tradition of making and breaking resolutions, it reminded me a bit of the spiritual life. We fall away from our resolutions just as we fall away in our relationship with God. Every person of faith, no matter how devoted, goes through cycles of engagement and disengagement. Sometimes this occurs around prayer, those conversations with God that offer perspective and relationship. We intentionally set aside time for silence and introspection and all is well for awhile, until the demands of our lives come crashing back in, causing us to stumble.

Sometimes it happens with renewed dedication to church attendance before falling away again. We get out of the habit or something happens in our lives that we can’t make sense of and we decide it’s just not worth it. It seems easier to give up on God and drown out the still, small voice within our souls that gently invites us back into relationship. 

And it’s easy enough to do. Just turn up the volume on your life by avoiding silence, shunning introspection, over-scheduling yourself, staying online, and keeping the TV on. That’s pretty much the formula for avoiding the deeper questions of life.

These cycles of connection and separation don’t make us bad or weak, just human. They also bind us to the generations of saints and sinners who have come before us in the faith. People just like you and me whose faith has fallen short at one time or another.

The difference between breaking a New Year’s resolution and falling away from relationship with God hinges upon divine invitation. The guilt and sense of failure we put on ourselves when we give in to temptation and eat those bad carbs even after we resolved not to, is self-inflicted. In contrast, God doesn’t curse us when we stumble but offers a hand to lift us back up and make us whole. God continually invites us back into relationship; the invitation is always extended no matter what we do or fail to do. Which is an amazing thing and part of what makes God, well, God.

One of my favorite quotes from St. Benedict, the 6th century father of western monasticism, is “Even when we fail, always we begin again.” We will fail; we will fall. That’s not a question. But each stumble is an opportunity to begin again and renew right relationship with God. That hand with which God offers to lift us up is always extended in invitation. God waits patiently and eagerly for us to return.

So, perhaps you’ll resolve to draw closer to your faith this year. Or at least start asking some deeper questions about the world around you. No one has all the answers, of course, but every faith community helps us see the divine presence in our midst. And if you stumble along the way? That’s fine. Because “even when we fail, always we begin again.” 

Dec 18, 2017

"Our light will outlast their flag"

A couple days ago I posted a black and white photograph of a menorah in a window across
the street from a building displaying the Nazi flag. It was taken in Kiel, Germany in 1932, and while it is a famous picture, I had never seen it before. I remain mesmerized. 

A blazing menorah lit in open defiance of the Nazi regime is a powerful image, one that speaks to history as well as our modern day. What's painful, is pondering the millions of innocent Jews who would be slaughtered in concentration camps between the time the photograph was taken and the end of World War II. This, and the festering of hate in our own day.

What struck me most, beyond the visual, were the words hand-written on the back of the photograph: "Our light will outlast their flag." I wanted to know more about the photograph and the person who wrote these words so I did some research. 

The menorah belonged to Rabbi Akiva Boruch Posner, the spiritual leader of the small Jewish community in the German town of Kiel. The Posner's home was directly across the street from the Nazi party headquarters. The photograph was taken on the 8th night of Hanukkah by Rabbi Posner's wife, Rachel, on a cold December night.

Yehudah Mansbuch, the Posner's grandson later shared the story of the picture:
It was on a Friday afternoon right before Shabbat that this photo was taken. My grandmother realized that this was a historic photo, and she wrote on the back of the photo that ‘their flag wishes to see the death of Judah, but Judah will always survive, and our light will outlast their flag.’ My grandfather, the rabbi of the Kiel community, was making many speeches, both to Jews and Germans. To the Germans he warned that the road they were embarking on was not good for Jews or Germans, and to the Jews he warned that something terrible was brewing, and they would do well to leave Germany. My grandfather fled Germany in 1933, and moved to Israel. His community came to the train station to see him off, and before he departed he urged his people to flee Germany while there’s still time.
This prophetic understanding of the wrath that was to come, saved most of Kiel's Jewish community. Eight Jews were killed while the vast majority escaped Germany before Hitler's systematic slaughter.

Divine light always transcends human flags. Even as we sing, "And our flag was still there," flags of the nations, no matter how powerful, will one day come down. But the light will remain. The presence of the Lord will abide. Or, as the prophet Isaiah boldly proclaims, "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever" (Isaiah 40:8). For me, this photograph, and the Posners testimony, stands as a witness to this light. 

On Christmas Day, Christians will read the prologue to John's gospel. And in this poetic introduction teeming with the language of incarnation, we will hear that "A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" (John 1:5). For Christians, this is the Light of Christ; of God entering the world in human form. 

But beyond the specificity of this light is a universal yearning for hope, equality, and justice that transcends the lines of belief. Which is why the menorah in the window offers us all hope in the face of despair. A reminder that light does indeed shine even on the darkest of nights. 

May you find light during this season of hope and expectation, recognizing that it often arrives in unexpected ways. Wherever and however you worship, may your life be illumined by the divine light that never dims or fades away.

Dec 7, 2017

In Good Faith: Unexpected Endings

In my December In Good Faith column, I write about those insipid Hallmark Channel movies. Maybe, just maybe, we have something to learn from them? Yeah probably not.

Unexpected Endings

“Whoah! I did not see that ending coming.” This is a reaction that no one has ever had while watching a Christmas movie on the Hallmark Channel. The endless loop of these seasonal movies is nothing if not formulaic. 

If you’re not familiar with the genre, every movie has several common elements. They all
star a vaguely familiar-looking actress who used to star in Full House or the Wonder Years convinced that she will, once again, be spending Christmas alone. They take place in cleverly named fictional midwestern towns like Evergreen, North Dakota or Holly, Iowa. The male love interest is a chiseled, young widower with a perky elementary school-aged daughter. There’s a kindly white-bearded grandfatherly type named Nick who works at the small town hardware store and dispenses timely life advice. The budding romance has a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — a failing family business or a job opportunity in the big city. In the end, the obstacles are overcome, the couple falls hopelessly, if unexpectedly, in love just as it begins to snow, the Christmas soundtrack crescendoes, and the credits roll. 

Hallmark Christmas movies are cheesy, predictable, and incredibly popular. Millions tune in during the weeks leading up to Christmas and for many, these movies have become an integral part of the season — at least as important as hearing an endless stream of carols in the mall or picking up a peppermint latte at Starbucks.

How do I have any clue about the plot structure of these movies, you ask? Hallmark Christmas movies are one of my wife’s seasonal guilty pleasures. She’s not addicted or anything but after a full day of work, she’ll sometimes relax by making a big bowl of popcorn and clicking over to the Hallmark Channel. I end up catching enough to predict the ending after watching for two minutes. They are that predictable.

But I think that’s the whole point. In a world full of uncertainty, people are drawn to the familiar and formulaic. There’s something comforting about knowing precisely how things will end up. Since we don’t have that luxury in our daily lives, we crave such control in other areas. Enter Hallmark who understands this at a deep and highly lucrative level. As one Hallmark executive recently put it, “We own Christmas.”

But this is where the Christmas of Hallmark and the Christmas of faith differ. People of faith are not seeking to “own” Christmas but to live Christmas. And when living Christmas, there are no formulaic endings. The Christmas of faith is about wonder and surprise and transformation. It doesn’t always go according to plan because that’s not how life works. There is pain and grief and anxiety and unmet expectations. Jesus enters the world to offer hope and light amid the dark places of our lives, not to tie everything up with a beautiful bow. 

I don’t begrudge anyone watching a Hallmark Christmas movie. Go ahead, pour some hot chocolate, put on your most comfortable PJs, and enjoy this seasonal cotton candy. But I encourage you to also embrace the comfort of the Christmas story this year. Christians draw comfort in the familiarity of Mary and Joseph and the manger and we know how the story turns out. We revel in the liturgy of Christmas, in singing the traditional hymns, in celebrating with one another. 

Yet we also know that many in our midst stand outside the warm glow of the idealized Christmas, and that God entered the world in human form to bring comfort to the lost, the lonely, and the least. This may not make for the picture-perfect, expected ending but it does add hope and meaning to the reality of the human condition.

Nov 1, 2017

In Good Faith: Day after Day

In the November edition of my In Good Faith column I write about the post-holiday blahs, the tradition of keeping vigil, and the potential for stale Halloween candy.

Day After Day

Be honest. Do you have any leftover Halloween candy or have you eaten it all by now? Your
answer likely depends on whether or not you have children in the Halloween-obsessed zone and just how stealthy you are about “reapportioning” some of the bounty.
But even for those of us who don’t get many trick-or-treaters (no sidewalk, live next door to a church) or who have children past the dress-up age, you still must be prepared. Which involves buying a few bags of your favorite candy — just in case. “Oh, rats, there’s just so much leftover candy. Well, I wouldn’t want it to go to waste…”

We don’t often think about the day after holidays. We’re big on eves, of course. Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, All Hallow’s Eve (aka Halloween — the night before All Saints’ Day). The word itself derives from “evening” and thus the evening before a big holiday is full of anticipation.

In the Christian tradition, the concept of keeping vigil the night before a major holy day runs deep. It is a time to wait, watch, prepare, and pray for the celebration that is to come. In the early church, the all-night liturgy that preceded day break on Easter morning was the most sacred ritual of the year and the Easter Vigil remains the most ancient of Christian liturgical rites. If you expand the idea, you could argue that the entire seasons of Advent and Lent are like extended “eves” before Christmas and Easter. 

Yet for as much emphasis as we have traditionally put on vigils and eves, we don’t think much about the day after a big holiday.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There is Boxing Day, which is celebrated in England, Canada, and other parts of the former British empire, on the day after Christmas. 

In the Middle Ages, it was the day when a church’s alms box was opened so the contents could be distributed to the poor. It was also traditional that servants got the day off to celebrate Christmas with their families — since they all had to work on the actual holiday itself. 

In modern America, since we don’t tend to have servants, “boxing day” might refer to either cleaning up all the boxes from the absurd over-abundance of Christmas gifts or the fights we get into with our dysfunctional families over the holidays. 

Boxing Day aside, little thought is given to the day after holidays. I know on December 26th I generally feel like I’ve been hit over the head by a giant candy cane. But that’s more a function of having led a slew of church services in the preceding 24 hours.

I do wish we collectively put at least a modicum of emphasis on the day after a major holiday. It’s probably enough to take a few minutes to pause and reflect upon the greater meaning of the day; to sit in the warm glow of shared memories for a moment; to contemplate the unique traditions inherent in our most beloved celebrations.

But all of this can wait. In the meantime, I have some candy corn to attend to. I wouldn’t want them to get stale.

Sep 28, 2017

In Good Faith: Patriotic Duty

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about the controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem and the importance of broadening the definition of patriotism.

Patriotic Duty

It was quite a weekend of football here in New England this past week. The Patriots pulled out a victory against a tough Houston Texans team in classic, last-minute Tom Brady fashion. Boston College hung valiantly with national powerhouse Clemson before being overwhelmed in the fourth quarter. 

Yet for all the action on the field, it was the conversation outside the lines that had the greatest impact. The posture of players during the singing of the National Anthem became more relevant than the final score. Kneeling or standing was subjected to greater analysis than blocking and tackling and the deep divisions within our nation were again exposed.

The emotional impact of this latest flashpoint is profound and there are few moderate voices on this issue — just log onto Twitter. The two trending hashtags #TakeAKnee and #StandUp point to just how polarizing this issue has become. The players who have chosen to kneel during the anthem — predominantly though not exclusively African-American — are either vilified as “whiny, millionaire athletes, disrespecting our nation” or celebrated as “prophetic voices fighting against injustice.” As with many divisive issues, where you stand depends on where you sit.

As someone who spends a lot of time both kneeling before an altar and standing behind one, I feel attuned to the rhythm of honor, sacrifice, service, and respect. Yes, as a Christian, my allegiance is ultimately pledged to the cross, but I understand the emotions surrounding loyalty and community.

What I don’t understand is how patriotism has somehow become the exclusive domain of the military. This is so often the response from people incensed at players taking a knee during the anthem — that to do so is a direct slap at our country’s soldiers. Serving one’s country through the armed forces is absolutely a patriotic act. I am thankful for those who have served, those who are serving, and those who have lost their lives in defense of this nation. They are indeed patriots.

Yet what gets lost in this perspective is forgetting that protest is also a form of patriotism. Rosa Parks sitting down on that bus in Montgomery is as patriotic an act as soldiers storming Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. 

We may not be able to solve the deep divisions in our country overnight but maybe we can work together to broaden the definition of patriotism. I’m convinced that patriotism transcends posture. So while it is patriotic to enlist in the armed forces, it is also patriotic to volunteer at a local food pantry; or have a heartfelt, honest conversation with someone who holds a divergent viewpoint; or donate money to support hurricane relief; or listen to the concerns of those crying out for racial justice.

One of the main reasons I served in the Army was to defend everyone’s right to voice their opinion — whether or not I agreed with it. That’s the Constitution I vowed to defend and that’s the America I dream about. What makes America great is our openness to debate and difference — not blind allegiance or a disregard for those who don’t look or think like us. 

Patriotism, like much of life, is not always so black and white. It’s not just a matter of loving it or leaving it; of standing or kneeling. There are shades of gray in the complex society in which we live and recognizing that patriotism comes in many forms is one way we can authentically honor America.