Enter God's On-going Story this Christmas

blogpic nativitysceneI have often heard congregations explain Christmas to children by telling them we are celebrating Jesus’ birthday. We’re having a party! This makes it easy to explain our Christmas traditions: On Jesus’ birthday we all give and receive presents, we light candles and sing, we have special cake or cookies or other desserts, and so on. It makes Jesus seem more like us – we have a birthday, Jesus was a baby and he has a birthday. I have seen religious supply stores offer the sale of hats, party bags and Jesus cake decorations all around this birthday-theme.

While this is fun to do with young kids, we as adults might also be attracted to this explanation because the truth requires more of us. There isn’t anyone else for whom we celebrate their 2,015th (approxiamately) birthday . The limitation of this birthday language reinforces the idea that Jesus was born once in history, a long time ago and that’s it. We celebrate a past event, and like other birthdays, once the party is over, we move on with our own life as if nothing has changed.

But something has changed for us – something radical and life-transforming. The real story of Christmas is not that Jesus was born once in history, but that he continues to be born—not just once a year, but every single day. He is born right now; Jesus is born in us and becomes an intimate part of our lives and our life story. Our lives change every day that we allow Jesus to be born in us.

Perhaps this is why the story of Jesus is so compelling and why the Bible is the best- selling book of all time. Because it’s really about God’s intimate involvement in humanity – in the lives of those who came before us and in our lives today. The Bible shares the narrative about God’s relationship—God’s deep involvement in human life—and how we experience it and what it means. It’s not just about past events, the Bible is about how God continues to be present in our lives here and now and in the future.

We are the on-going narrative of God’s love for and activity in the world. This is why we love to hear the Christmas story over and over and over–we find ourselves in this very human story, opening us up to see how God is present and at work in our lives today. This kind of deep truth asks us for our attention, our involvement, our willingness to be changed and shaped by this Jesus who is born not just in history, but in us today.

As Jesus is born in us, God invites us into the story as it unfolds and seeks to meet us with this message of love, forgiveness and hope. We enter the story at different points depending on the circumstances and time of our life; we enter the story with the diverse characters depending on the emotions and needs of our soul.

• Sometimes we are Mary pondering the meaning of faith in our hearts;
• Perhaps we are the innkeeper who just doesn’t seem to have any room for God;
• Sometimes we might feel like a barn animal – at such a low place in our life physically, emotionally or spiritually, we are shocked that Jesus has come to live with us;
• Maybe we are like the shepherds, going about our business when God breaks into our lives and we are compelled to follow a new path;
• Perhaps we are like the Wise Sages – on a long journey to encounter God, seeking the holy and sacred for ourselves and the world;
• Sometimes we are like the angels and we enter the story with so much gratitude we can’t help but sing and share the news of what God has done for us.

As we hear God enter the lives of everyone in the story – no matter their station, emotions, circumstances or faith, we experience once again that God enters us. We behold in the baby at Bethlehem, the living Christ who dwells within us and lives out the story of God’s love and engagement in the world through us.

Rather than showing up for a party and leaving unchanged, we become the Incarnation of God as we leave the manger; we become the gift of love and forgiveness for others, we become the people through whom Jesus acts as we follow a God who is deeply involved in the world.

The story was true in history; the story is true today and you are part of it. Jesus is born for you and in you. And you are changed forever. For you are the incarnation of Jesus Christ in God’s unfolding story in the world.

Photo Credit: ValerieTarico.com File:04567 Christmas nativity scene at the Franciscan church in nativity DeviantArt

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A New Conversation for the Holidays

blogpic questionmarkbubbleHave you ever concluded a family visit or holiday gathering feeling like you didn’t have substantive conversation with anyone? That you don’t know anyone more deeply or understand what makes them hopeful or passionate? That you’re not sure how they’ve changed or grown since the last time you saw them? That you’re really tired of superficial chitchat?

With travel, taking care of children, present-opening, special outings, and lots of cooking and eating, we can rush through this holiday time, and not feel any more connected to those we love than before we gathered. When we do have conversation, we often get caught up in reciting our “to-do” or “have-done” lists—what activities our children do, what we do at work, what we’re going to do in the New Year. But laundry lists of activities do not lead to meaningful conversation in my experience.

What if one simple question could change the quality of your conversations, the level of intimacy you feel with people you love and the satisfaction you get from holiday gatherings?

Dan and I saw a marriage counselor when we were making the transition to me staying home full-time with our children instead of working full-time. We wanted to make sure we were aware of the issues such a shift would create and able to have productive conversations about our changing needs and roles. Reporting what we did during the day, with whom and what we ate for lunch and other such minutiae is where we and other couples often begin and end daily conversation, but none of these topics address what’s going on in the heart and soul. Instead, our counselor gave us a magic question to ask each other at the end of the day so that we revealed to each other thoughts and feelings related to our activity; it became a tool to increase intimacy and connection as we each grew and changed over time. Dan and I still use this magic question seventeen years later, especially when we want a more substantive conversation. It’s very simple and easy to remember:

What is the impact of _____ on you?

You fill in the blank with the topic at hand (e.g. your new job, the loss of your mom, your child’s move to college, current political discourse, a health problem, whatever). Asking about the impact helps people reflect on and share what is changing and growing inside them as the result of their activities or circumstances. This leads to more intimate sharing that acknowledges that all events, large and small, continue to shape who we are, how we think and what we’re learning about ourselves and the world.

I use this question in just about every conversational setting I’m in, including work and ministry settings, in addition to family gatherings. Managers can better understand what’s going on with their team if they inquire about the impact of changes to company policy and practice. Imagine how such a question could change how committees report to the governing board in a church or non-profit organization. Boards usually know already if the essential work is getting done or not, so wouldn’t you rather hear about how a program or ministry has had an impact on the participants or the community served?

Engage in some experimental impact questions this holiday season and reflect on how it deepens conversation and increases satisfaction and enjoyment at your gatherings. Maybe it will become part of a goal to have more meaningful, healthy relationships in 2016!

 

Photo Credit: http://www.123rf.com/photo_13955802_speech-bubble-with-question-mark-icons.html?&vti=myp6oe9xid4ydav0mg; Image ID : 13955802; Image Type : Stock Vector
Copyright : Marina Zlochin

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Resisting Change? It’s Time to Get Good at It

blogpic onlyconstantischangePhilosopher Heraclitus of Ephoses, (c. 500 BCE) made the assertion that “life is flux” meaning everything or all things change. 

When I was growing up, I heard it as “The only thing that is constant is change.” At a young age, I took this as a strange form of comfort because we moved about every four years for my father’s job with 3M; this was how life was supposed to be–always changing. This thought helped me embrace a move with a sense of adventure rather than make myself miserable fighting the inevitable.

This experience has given me the illusion as an adult that I am “good” at change, that I don’t resist it with the monumental effort that I sometimes witness in others. To which those who live with me might argue, “au contraire mon ami” or “the lady doth protest too much, methinks,” if I can use both a French and a Shakespearian quotation in one sentence.

I’m not sure any of us are very good at change. Change necessarily implies loss of the status quo. Our flexibility and openness to all kinds of shifts—in our job, our family, our daily routine, our relationships, our community, our congregation or in society—depends on how deeply invested we are in the way things are right now, and how much we fear an unknown future.

I have learned two good questions to ask myself when I resist change:

  • What am I afraid of losing?
  • What am I afraid I won’t get?

Thinking, writing or talking through with a trusted friend my response to these questions helps me identify what’s at stake in any given situation. These questions help reveal my highest values and what I need in order to grow through change. Such reflection also gets the creative juices flowing, so I can uncover new ways of getting what I need or want.

We live in a rapidly changing world, and some days it feels like the pace of change is quickening. To a certain extent that’s true. Technologies like computers, biotechnology, and nanotech are self-accelerating—they produce the ability to improve themselves. The current best computer chip is used to develop the next, faster computer chip.

The US population is shifting as well. Futurist Gary Marx identifies these among many other trends: For the next thirty years about 10,000 baby boomers a day will turn 65. Millennials started turning 30 in 2013, so a new style of leadership and parental expectations are on the rise as retirements increase. By 2018, half of those age 18 and under will be people of color.

Whether all of Gary Marx’s 21st Century Trends will come to pass, I don’t know. But I do know that it’s time to good at change. Now more than ever, I see the practice of being open to change and the attendant reflection on my values, needs and losses, as a necessary spiritual exercise in today’s world. Such a daily practice can only aid my engagement in our Global Knowledge and Information Age, and the future that it’s bringing. Maybe I can even get a new computer without the usual level of stress and meltdowns (but my husband isn’t holding his breath!).

Photo Credit: http://leadinganswers.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/2007/03/15/monarch_stages.jpg

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Stepping Up

blogpic womanonstairsFor the last two months, I’ve been in physical therapy for both of my knees. I’ve been experiencing pain going up and down stairs accompanied by a crackling, crunching sound. Welcome to the 50+ club. Apparently women’s knee caps are more prone to misalignment. The goal of therapy is to first strengthen the muscles around the knee to hold the knee cap in the proper place and second, to stretch the tight muscles along the outside of the quads which, when constricted pulls the knee out of alignment. We have also used tape to try and hold my knee cap in place for 48 hours at a time.

In order for these therapies to work, I need to do a regimen of exercises everyday – strengthening and stretching, building and loosening, pushing forward and letting go. If I strengthen without stretching, the muscles up my leg still pull the knee out of alignment. If I stretch without strengthening, there’s not sufficient muscle to hold my knee in place.

In addition, I have to pay attention to how I walk up and down stairs – keeping my feet straight, pressing with even weight, stepping with intention—no more dashing up and down stairs in a hurried jog or a happy jump. The daily exercises to strengthen and stretch help me to be present to how I move my legs and feet throughout the day.

What a wonderful metaphor and pattern for our daily spiritual life. We have exercises that help us strengthen our faith like prayer, meditation, contemplation, devotional reading and more. In and of itself, these practices do not make up a full spiritual regimen, however. We also must engage in stretching and letting go of the places where we hold tension, control, or rigidity. Releasing to God’s care the outcomes, events and people over which we have no control is a second and necessary part of our spiritual exercises.

If I strengthen my relationship with God through daily spiritual practices, but don’t allow myself to be released from that over which I desire control, my ego can pull my soul out of spiritual alignment. If I let go of all my tension and control needs, but don’t also engage in strengthening my faith through prayer, meditation or other practices, I am flapping in the wind and blown off course by whatever whim comes my way.

Like physical therapy, both of these spiritual emphases of strengthening and stretching, building and loosening, pushing forward and letting go, invite us to pay attention to how we move through the day. Rather than dashing around in a hurried flurry, we can step forward with mindful intention—both in body and in spirit.

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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