When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations,
To bring Christ to all,
To make music in the heart.
Audio of Jim Strathdee singing I Am the Light of the World
Today, January 6th, is Epiphany, the day tradition tells us the Wise Men visited Jesus, Mary and Joseph. My mother used to call this day “little Christmas,” and she would prepare a special meal in the evening. I don’t remember gifts being exchanged but we did eat a lot, and usually finished up the Christmas cookies. But, it was years later when the song I Am the Light of the World by Jim Strathdee, based on Howard Thurman’s poem, came out that I began to look at this day differently.
Today instead of just thinking about nameless astrologers coming from the east and giving unusual gifts to the Child I see this day as less a celebration and more of a new start to living as Jesus taught. Thurman’s poem and Strathdee’s music remind us that Christmas isn’t just one day, 12 days, or the 34 days of Epiphany. (Yes, today only begins the season of Epiphany which will end on Ash Wednesday this year on February 10th when Lent begins.) We are called to carry the message of the love of compassion, justice and peace throughout the year. The season of Epiphany offers us the opportunity to make caring for our fellow travelers on this planet, human or animal, a habit. A habit that empowers the weak and the young, gives food to the hungry and compassion to our elderly, poor, lonely, homeless, and war torn neighbors in this place we call home. Strathdee’s hymn is the theme song for our work in the world, the work of Christmas.
Every year we are given the opportunity to begin again as Jesus followers. Every year we are reminded of who we are, and whose we are. Every year we are given another chance to live our lives in such a way as to bring change to the world. Every year we are given the chance to accept the radical challenge of being the Christ figure for the people we see and interact with every day. It is a radical idea! If each of our neighborhoods is changed, even a little, eventually we change the world and Jesus and God never asked us to be more than who we are, only to be the best that we can be.
To live with compassion, love justice and to travel in the company of the Divine is all we are asked to do. I don’t think that means a drastic change in our habits, rather it means we share what we have so that all have enough. Is that really so hard?
So I challenge myself, and you, to begin to change how we live in the world, feeding the hungry, helping the homeless, standing up and letting your voice be heard when justice is violated and oh so many other little acts of compassion. Each of us can do something. We don’t have to do everything at once simply pick one to get started, let one act of love become a habit this year.
Psalm 126:2a our mouths shall be filled with laughter,
our tongues, with songs of joy
Last Christmas Day my gift from Santa was a pinched nerve in my back. Apparently our dear Santa thought that was either funny or I was really bad last year. Actually the problem is due to the fact that we humans stand upright. If we still walked on our knuckles like other apes we would have fewer problems. But then we wouldn’t be able to see over the tall person, in the tacky Uncle Sam hat, during the 4th of July parade would we.
Any way I digress. What I am trying to say is in order to deal with the pain I have rediscovered the value of laughter as a spiritual practice. Like the little mouse above I have learned the grace of sharing my joy at being alive instead of being the grouch my beloved John says I can be. After all what does he know he only lives with me?
Spending time finding joy in all that is around me, offering that joy as prayer, and letting the response of joyful light to enter deep within does much for my own spiritual well being and for the life of those around me.
I am not the first to promote laughter as a spiritual practice, remember I said I rediscovered this practice. But it is one we forget when life overwhelms us. Taking ourselves seriously is important but it is also important to not go to the extreme. No matter what we do, how we feel, or how badly things have gone there is always something to laugh at, even if it is just ourselves.
Before you all get your knickers in a knot I want you to know I am not making light of those who fight depression every day of their lives. Because depression isn’t a choice it’s an illness that needs to be addressed. Caring for and helping those who fight mental illness is also a spiritual practice and an important one and something we all need to do.
However, for those of us who are fortunate not to experience depression learning to laugh, to find joy in life, and to bring joy to others is a spiritual practice, a spiritual practice that helps us all to not take ourselves too seriously. For me laughing at life in general and discovering the joy in simply living each day brings me closer to God, who, I am sure, is laughing along with me.
Today I challenge each and every one of you to find something that brings you joy. May your joy be your gift others and may it be a door to a deeper inner joy where you and the Holy Spirit have a good laugh.
13And suddenly there was with the angel
a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’*
God speaks to us in many ways–through relationships, our experiences, sacred texts such as the Bible and many more. Like Lectio Divina is Latin for divine reading, Visio Divina is Latin for divine seeing, praying with images to listen to God’s words. Think of Visio Divina as if you were putting on God-glasses to see how an image illuminates the Christ within you. Like Lectio Divina, Latin for divine reading, Visio Divina has four steps: Use the above painting by a Dutch artist Nicolaes Berchem painted around 1650, titled Annunciation to the Shepherds.
Look slowly and carefully at the painting, taking a first glance noting the colors, people, places and things. Remain with the image for one to two minutes. We are preparing for the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child, how does the paint help you prepare? If you would like, jot down a few words about the image in your journal.
Now take deeper second look. Where is there movement? What relationships do you see? Engage your imagination. Place yourself in the painting; are you a shepherd, a sheep, or angel? What do you see from that perspective? What emotions rise up for you? If you were a sheep what might you feel? If you were a shepherd how would you respond to the message of the angels? What else do you feel, or see in the painting? If you would like jot down your thoughts and feelings in your journal
Respond to the image with prayer. Did the image remind you of an experience, person or issue for which you’d like to offer thanksgiving or intercession? Offer that prayer to God.
Find your quiet center. Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders, arms and legs. Rest in this quiet. Let God pray in you. God prays beyond words.
May the song of the angels be with you as you go about your preparations for Christmas.
In the last couple of weeks I have been reading a book by Jay Michaelson, Everything is God, The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism, who described a prayer practice I have been using for many years but didn’t know it was a prayer practice, Non-Distracted, Non-Meditation. This prayer practice, as Michaelson describes it, has no focus, no sense of meditation, where you simply become very aware that you are aware. This is not exactly mindfulness rather this is simply opening up and letting the world around impact your senses in sound, sight, smell, taste and touch. It is becoming aware of who you are. Sounds a bit contradictory doesn’t it?
I have been practicing this manner of prayer for many years not knowing I was opening up to the Divine and letting Her in to the deep places of my heart. Sometimes I am just plain clueless about what I am really doing and who I am! I am by nature an introvert, a strong introvert, who is often very unwilling to let anyone into my space and awareness. This practice, however, opens doors, well maybe a window, where I become aware of the beauty of what surrounds me. The beauty of my grandchildren playing, my husband fussing in the other room, the softness of Suzies fur or the way sunlight plays on the water in Puget Sound. Most times I push those things away but when I sit and relax and open up for just a moment I am amazed by how they sweep over me in gentle waves. I am astounded by what I discover that I have been hiding from my own awareness. It has allowed me to rest in this place and simply be. It is being aware that I am part of the universe, becoming aware that my DNA sings the same song the stars do. It is awakening all of my senses to what G-d has created and knowing I belong here, in this place.
So how does the practice work? Well Michaelson says it best, “ … sit with eyes open, just relax into awareness, with nothing to do and nowhere to go … just, for a moment drop what is in your mind and become aware of awareness itself; inhabiting it, and [letting it] speak” It’s like sitting in your backyard with nice cold drink in your hand, not thinking, nowhere to go, nothing to do, just being.
You can practice this at anytime, anywhere, whenever you want, just stop, take a deep breath, and for a moment become aware of your surroundings, relaxing your body and refreshing your mind. You might say it’s a 5 minute vacation for heart, mind and soul.
May you find peace where ever you are, may the Holy Spirit sit with you as you both enjoy the view.
Amelia is a 5 year old, little girl who is a mixture of tomboy, imp, princess and budding scientist but most of all a Grammy’s delight. Walking home from school with Amelia is always an adventure. Today we hadn’t gotten even 100 feet from her school when she bent over and said, “Look Grammy, I found a purple maple seed.” Amelia hands me the seed and says “now you carry this for me I want to show dad.” Off she runs to her next exciting stop, which is about 50 feet ahead. “Look what I can do Grammy,” she said as she runs up a yard to the brick wall and with one heart stopping leap lands safely on the ground in front of me. “My, my you are so good at jumping,” I said as I pushed my heart back into my chest.
Running ahead of me again she suddenly stops and gets down on her knees, as I walk up to her she is talking to a small ant hill. “Look how busy they are, Grammy, where are they going so fast?” “Well,” I tell her, “this is a new ant hill so they are just building it up right now and gathering in some of the leaves for food. Don’t disturb the nest or they will bite.” “Really,” she says as she prepares to test my theory. “Yes really, and those bites hurt so let’s leave them to their work, OK.” “Ok,” and she is off again.
“Help me look for snails, Grammy.” Amelia has a love affair going with snails of every shape and size. She picks them up and carries them carefully along with her, until, that is, she forgets she has them in the heat of a new discovery and then the snails are old news. Sometimes she carries them all the way home and we release them into the backyard and into the wild.
Every moment with Amelia is a discovery in a half, every rock a treasure trove, every leaf a rare jewel to be enjoyed. Worms and snails are potential friends or pets to be trained. We sing songs to stop traffic on our progression across a busy street and she dances down the street to a tune in her head.
Oh the life of a 5 year old, a world of discovery ahead and an imagination that has no boundaries. Where does all of the enthusiasm go to as we grow older? Is life so trying and stressful that we forget just what it means to be in the moment? As I watch my little adventurer skip down the sidewalk I am trying to remember what it was like to be that carefree, and find delight in a snail slowly making its way up a wall.
Maybe that is what grandchildren are for, to awaken in each of us that little boy or girl lost in the mists of time. To remind us of the important things like snails, red leaves, purple maple seeds and sunshine and shadow. Amelia has reopened a door I thought was shut and locked. A part of me remembers and dances with my little genius, princess, geologist, archaeologist, biologist, and junk collector as we walk home from school.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-18 (NRSV) 12But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 . . ., encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
There is an ancient story in the Orthodox Christian Tradition concerning a Pilgrim who searches for a deep communion with God, for an understanding of prayer and the spiritual practice of “prayer without ceasing.” In his travels and conversations with people of the church he discovers the writings of the Christian writers where he learns how to let his life be a witness to the teachings of Christ through unceasing prayer. Using the words of the blind beggar Bartimaeus who calls out to Jesus “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and timing his breath and steps to the rhythm of the prayer the Pilgrim repeated the prayer without stop as he journeyed from place to place. He found that even when he wasn’t literally speaking the prayer it was playing in the back of his mind and guided him in his actions towards all he me.
The prayer the Pilgrim used is called the “Jesus Prayer” and often used in a form of contemplative prayer called the Breath Prayer. By repeating the Jesus Prayer in a daily prayer practice the mind learns to become still and your being centered in order for the still small word of G-d to be heard and the presence of G-d to be felt. But the pilgrim wasn’t just praying a breath prayer; he was using an ancient form of prayer called chanting.
A chant is defined as a “short, simple series of syllables or words that are sung on/or intoned to the same note or a limited range of notes; A canticle or prayer is sung or intoned in this manner, or to sing or intone to a chant such as chant a prayer. It is the repetitive speaking or singing a single tone, word, or phrase that the one praying uses to open the door into G-ds presence. And, chanting has an eclectic past. It is used by almost every religion in some form or other. The far Eastern Tradition often uses a single tone, pronounced “ohm,” to draw their minds into stillness and into oneness with the universe. Those in the Judaic faith repeat the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” traditionally as they rise in the morning and as they go to bed at night. But it is also used as a prayer chant. Those in the Roman Catholic Faith have many chants which they use to draw their minds into stillness and their hearts into G-ds presence. One type, Gregorian chants, were psalms set to music in which medieval Monks used for the same purpose, creating stillness. I became interested in chanting many years ago when I heard my first Gregorian chant and found the cadence and sound of the notes lifted my heart into a new place that it had never been before. I have been chanting ever since.
In the scripture quoted above from 1 Thessalonians Paul calls us to pray without ceasing. When I was a teenager and heard those words my first thought was that is impossible. After all, I have class work to do, problems to figure out, chores to do, people to talk to, games to play, work to do, you name it and I could find a reason why such a task would be difficult. I’m betting you could add to this list, after all our lives are busy with living. So how on earth can we pray constantly? Well it has taken me a little while, Ok, OK, a long while, to figure that conundrum out. I realized that Paul wasn’t asking us to give up our lives. Rather he was calling us to center our lives in prayer. For me chanting has been the way to accomplish that task.
Now you might be asking how chanting helps me pray unceasingly? A while back I was laid off from my job and I was truly afraid of what could happen if I didn’t find another one. Every evening, following a day of unsuccessful job searching, I took long walks with my dog and tried to come to grips with what was happening to me. The problem was I was the only one talking. In fact I realized I was talking so much that if G-d was there she was never going to get a word in edgewise. One evening a friend invited me to a Taizé service and I rediscovered the peacefulness of singing chants in order to quiet my mind and offer the simple prayer of myself.
My Spiritual Practice of Chanting
So how does chanting help G-d enter, well the steps are pretty easy really. First of all there are really no hard and fast rules. You begin by identifying a word or phrase that draws your attention and has significance for you. This is a trial and error processes so don’t worry if it doesn’t quite fit and you have to change it. You will discover your chants will change over time as your needs change.
To begin a spiritual practice of prayer chanting set aside 15 to 20 minutes in your day and repeat your chant, rhythmically, timing it to your breath or your step as you walk. You may chant out loud or you may do it silently it all depends on where you are and what is happening around you at any given moment. The major thing is to practice it every day. Learning a Spiritual practice means you must do it every day just as if you were learning to play an instrument or play a game, it takes commitment.
You have a wide choice of times to choose when to practice your chants. You may set aside a quiet time as you would for any meditation or you may chant while preparing for you day in the morning or rest at night; waiting and riding public transit; doing dishes, laundry, or other housework. The key is to do it every day. Gradually, just like the ancient Pilgrim, the prayer will begin to “play” in the background of you mind all the time, providing comfort and guidance in all your daily activities.
You may chant using whatever method you are most comfortable with such as a single tone, as those in the Far Eastern traditions do; a single spoken word or phrases, such as the Jesus Prayer; or, and this is my preferred way, a musical chant. Whatever you choose the process is pretty much the same. Musical chants are often short scriptures or spiritual phrases set to a simple tune that is easily remembered and sung. Because I love music, even though I no longer am able to sing well, and I find musical chants the easiest for me to remember and repeat when I am praying. I find that music triggers a sense of stillness the spoken word alone cannot do.
I mentioned my chants change from to time to time and it is because my relationship with G-d changes over time. As my relationship deepens I become more comfortable with certain chants because they draw me deeper into the mystery that is G-d. You will know when that happens and you will also simply know what chants deepen your experience with G-d and other don’t. I have a number of different chants that I am particularly fond of that I use depending on where I am emotionally and spiritually that day. Most often I use scripture passages that have been set to music but occasionally I will use a phrase that means something to me at that time in my chants. Currently one of my favorites is based on Matthew 28:10, 20 “Do not be afraid, I am with you always.” The music is written by Harpist Linda Larkin and the arraignment is by John P. Newell. This chant reminds me I am not alone and I find comfort in it when I am confused and frustrated. I also often use the Taizé chant Ubi Caritas (Live in Charity) written by Jacques Berthier of the founder of the Taizé community. Currently these are very meaningful for me but you may use whatever chant fits your current spiritual journey.
My prayer for you journey is you will find comfort in G-ds presence as you sing words of peace, prayer, love.
1-2 On your feet now—applaud God!
Bring a gift of laughter,
sing yourselves into his presence.
3 Know this: God is God, and God, God.
He made us; we didn’t make him.
We’re his people, his well-tended sheep.
4 Enter with the password: “Thank you!”
Make yourselves at home, talking praise.
Thank him. Worship him.
5 For God is sheer beauty,
all-generous in love,
loyal always and ever.
This past Sunday at Queen Anne Christian Church, we celebrated in song, word, prayer Thanksgiving. We also decorated the church for Advent, which starts next Sunday. And we have a new and tasty tradition at Queen Anne; the kids decorate gingerbread houses, while the parents enviously look on. Cherry S is a baker first class and she makes the gingerbread, puts together the houses, parents bring the candy for decorating and then we turn our budding artists loose. I must say they have a great time and the houses look wonderful.
As I sat and watched the kids, took video and a few pictures I couldn’t help but think about the worship service. The Scripture was Psalm 100 and Pastor Laurie’s reading from The Message gave me much to think about. First of all Psalm 100 was my father’s favorite and it was read, from the King James Version (KJV), at the beginning of every Thanksgiving meal in our house. But when I heard Pastor Laurie’s reading I was struck by the joy and celebration that resides in this Psalm that I hadn’t heard before. I felt the celebration inherent in this Psalm. However the words in Verse 4 jolted me upright. “4 Enter with the password: “Thank You!” Make yourselves at home, talking praise, Thank him. Worship him.” I thought what you have to have a password to enter G-ds presence, is not my gratitude and thanks enough, now I have to know a password. Well it is a simple password, and one I learned to use when I was a child. Still I have to say “thank you” to enter into G-d’s home! Why would G-d want my gratitude?
What does it mean to acknowledge your gratitude, out loud, and/or in writing? Well the expression is a witnessed event; people hear or read of your gratitude. They learn you are capable of good will by acknowledging the works of others. They in turn are blessed with your gratitude and that encourages them to also wish to express their thanks for their blessings. One person expresses thanksgiving for a small act of kindness, and the recipient, or someone who observes it is then empowered to offer their thanks to someone else and the boundary of the circle of kindness extends into infinity.
You might think saying thank you for a job well done, or a gift, does little to help you or anyone else, but you’d be wrong. Remembering your blessings grows an “attitude of gratitude” within all that you do throughout your life. In the late 1940’s Bing Crosby sang a simple song in the move “White Christmas,” Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep, and for many years it was a popular tune. The premise is an easy one to remember, counting your blessings is more productive than counting all the wrongs you’ve received. In fact once you begin counting you discover that the hurts and wrongs far fewer than blessings.
For me I have all too often let anger and resentment cloud my vision preventing me from counting my blessings and that has resulted in some very unpleasant times in my life. One of the spiritual practices I have been doing on my life journey is to change that pattern of behavior. Now every morning I offer a gratitude to the Divine Spirit before I even get out of bed to start my busy day. And every evening I end my day with a review of the blessings I received during the day. It has made my life much more joyful and I am now more likely to see the face of the Divine in all that I do. So I have two questions for you to ponder this week:
1. What gets in your way of expressing gratitude? And . . .
2. Have you counted your blessings lately?
It is a joyful practice to count your blessings and say thank you. It is not really a password; it’s a way of life, to live in gratitude for the blessings we receive day in and day out, offering our lives as a blessing to those around us. Can you imagine the kind of world we’d live if everyone just counted their blessings?
So my gratitude for this Tuesday Morning is that I am grateful for the ability to write to each of you, I am grateful for the blessings I’ve received from my loving husband and family. I am grateful for the comforting presence of my companion animals, the fur kids Fred and Suzie, and the feathered kids Cuddles and George. And I am simply grateful for my life, for being alive today, at this moment. May all of you remember all of your blessings this week.