Thursday, December 21, 2017

Candles and Lights...

At St. Paul's, as in some other churches that started Advent a week earlier than the liturgical calendar suggests, we have four candles burning on our Advent display. Each of these candles slices through the darkness, as the Fourth Gospel says, "...and the darkness has not overcome it."

I like candles. I probably got this appreciation from my father, who was always buying, making, and experimenting with candles. He wouldn't just burn them, but would "fuss" with them when they weren't burning brightly and consistently, a quirk of many a "fat" or "pillar" type candle. Especially at Christmas time, the Sterlings would have numerous candles burning throughout the house. (With my two brothers and me, it's a miracle we never burned the place down.)

Candles burn wax (or often today, soy) via a wick that allows it to be slowly digested. While the flame is rapid oxidation, the ancient technology of the candle slows this to a crawl. Originally, candles were made from beeswax, and the best ones today still are. So, each simple candlelight is a product of the science of rapid oxidation, the burning of wax bees create to house both their young and the honey they produce, and mediated by a wick typically made from woven cotton. Candlelight requires some sacrifices and science to exist, but it has defeated the darkness for millennia, lighting churches, schools, homes, and places of commerce. Few of humanity's advances would have been possible, were it not for those earliest days of candlelight.

The other lights of Christmas have evolved, beginning with the candle as well. Edison's invention brought forth strings of large, hot, colored lights that began to adorn Christmas trees and porch eaves. I'm old enough to remember the transition to "miniature" lights, and while these offered a much simpler and "twinkling" alternative to the earlier incandescents, they introduced a greater frequency and fervency of profanity to the decorating process. Still, this newer technology caused neighborhoods to explode with the colorful lights of Christmas, unless you were one of those "all white," or "all blue" people. Our family never had the economic resources to be the Griswolds, but my Dad did always decorate our front door, illuminating it with a huge spotlight. Leaving our house at night at Christmas time meant being blinded for about the first five minutes or so.

When we were kids, my Dad would load us into the car and we would drive all over Venango County looking at Christmas lights. I continued the tradition, doing this with our kids, and to be honest, Dara and I usually take an annual drive to do the same. Christmas lights are still magical to me. The beginning of my personal Christmas spirit begins when I see the first seasonal lights in the neighborhood appear.

Now that we have our own house, I have taken to decorating outdoors as well. We have a townhouse, which is three stories high, so I'm not climbing a 40-foot ladder to hang lights. So thankful am I for the "latest in 21st Century Christmas lighting technology," the laser Star Shower!

Candles and Christmas lights are one way we announce to a world needing the illumination, hope, and love of God, that Christ has come into the world to BE the light, and to shine that light in such a way that the darkness shall not overcome it! So, let the light shine! Whether it is the flickering flame of the ancient technology of the candle, or the shimmering, bright points of light from a laser Star Shower, let our lights speak of the eternal light of Christ, a light that shines in the hearts of all of the children of God far beyond the short days of the Christmas Season! And may the darkness never, ever, EVER overcome it! Merry Christmas, Yinz!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Now is the Winter of our discontent...

While this line from Richard III by Shakespeare has nothing to do with the snow flying outside my office window right now, it seems a perfect lead-in to a column about the season.

It IS snowing, as I write this, and since it is a Wednesday, St. Paul's has its ambitious schedule of our children's program, Kids Go and Grow with God (KG3), choir practice for their big music program this coming weekend, a parents' LifeGroup, and the evening iteration of my mid-week Bible Study, ahead. Already people are calling wanting to know if we are cancelling activities for the evening. If I were still serving in Warren, PA, the calls would bring laughter on the staff-side, as cancelling events in Warren because of snowfall less than a foot is, indeed, laughable. But here in Allegheny County, it doesn't take many flakes looking like they will stay on the roadways more than 30 seconds to set off a wave of cancellations. I think the local TV stations hire extra personnel this time of year just to post that crawl at the bottom of the screen listing them all. Of course, our track record here at St. Paul's is not great when we DO cancel, given that the two times we made the decision in my three-plus years back here each resulted in a halting of the flurries and a burst of sunshine right around starting time. Talk about a discontenting Winter...

Last weekend, this church put on a multi-generational production of "Elf, Jr.," a down-sized stage version of the Will Farrell movie, "Elf," which has itself become a holiday classic. "Elf, Jr." was expertly staged, incredibly acted, sung, and "cuted-up" by a youthful cast, and deftly directed by Dick Neely, veteran of the long-standing "St. Paul's Players." It was absolutely incredible. Funds raised will benefit our Summer youth mission trip. Now, before you suggest that a topic like "Elf" isn't in the religious genre, let me make a few observations. "Buddy" is born to a single mother who sends him to be raised at the North Pole by a loving Santa and brother and sister elves. There, Buddy learns how magic life can be, and becomes his joyful, playful self. Then, when his humanness is discovered, he is sent to a "far country" in search of his earthly kin where he brings joy, love, and great expectations to everyone he encounters, literally transforming the lives of the people he touches. Hmmm...starting to sound familiar? It was a religious experience.

Speaking of Bible Study, my class this year is doing a second "Disciple Lite" whereby I created a "Cliff Notes" version of what was known as Disciple IV: Under the Tree of Life. We are pursuing the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, and the Gospel of John and Revelation in the New Testament. This week's lesson was on the Song of Songs, or "Song of Solomon" as some versions label it. The "Song" is basically a semi-erotic poem, if you're trying to be "good," and a patently erotic one, if you use a little mischievous imagination. As the Disciple author points out, it has "no commandments, no covenant, no Moses, no Temple, no mention of God." (Actually, "Elf, Jr." has more religious references.) Why is it in the Bible? Our group's answer is multi-faceted:

1. It is a beautiful reflection of intimacy and eros love between two EQUAL partners, countering the male-dominant version of relationships prevalent at the time of its writing. (Have we come very far since?)

2. Much of the story is told in a woman's voice, and was possibly written BY a woman--revolutionary stuff for that era.

3. The reader is naturally drawn in to reflecting on her/his love relationships--past and current--and a desire to better understand and practice integrity, equality, and intimacy in loving. For the Christian, this sure sounds like a good thing.

4. Being careful not to turn a love poem into a pure allegory about humans and our relationship with the Divine, we CAN imagine that God, in Christ, desires to enter into a relationship with us that is also one of integrity, equality (with each other), and intimacy, remembering that not all intimacy is sexual in nature.

5. Sex, when part of a mutual, covenantal relationship is fulfilling, nurturing, blissful, and fun. The Song of Songs sets such a beautiful context for erotic love that anything less begins to look like lust, by comparison. And promiscuous sexual activity appears tawdry, even exploitative, when held up against the rapture written of in the Song.

Bet you never expected Bible Study to get you hot under the collar, did you?

Next subject: Advent.

St. Paul's is celebrating the fourth Sunday of Advent this week. Yes, we know that the "official" liturgical calendar didn't begin Advent until December 3, but we started a week early--along with many churches--to complete the Advent cycle before Christmas Eve, since it lands on a Sunday this year. We didn't want to short-change the "preparation" season of Advent by lighting the fourth candle on Christmas Eve, and then lighting the Christ Candle in the same service. Call us didactic, say we're pandering to the "spirit" of the season, but also say we gave Advent its just due so its final candle of "love" didn't get lost in the shimmering lights of Christmas Eve. Our theme this year has been: "Be Home for Christmas," and our weekly themes were: Longing, Meeting, Welcoming, and Rejoicing. And on Christmas Eve, we're Arriving, and on New Year's Eve, we're Going. Yes, it's good "journey theology!" We're proud of that around here, because we do, indeed, believe the Lord Jesus is a peripatetic Savior who walks with us on each mile of life.

Last subject: Christmas! Oh, let's wait on that until next week. Shalom for now, Dear Ones!

What's Next?

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