Rebuilding the Traditions of Our Lives
November 28, 2004
There is a saying in architecture, “First we shape the building and then the building shapes us.” This insight points to an interplay–a give and take–between ourselves and the spaces we inhabit. Buildings don’t just happen, someone shapes them, someone designs them, someone decides how many rooms there will be, how many windows, how much open space. But, once those decisions are made and we live in the buildings, the buildings then shape us. They influence our lives either for good or for ill. What is true about buildings is also true about traditions. We shape our traditions. But then our traditions shape us. Our decisions about what we are going to do or not do, how we’re going to gather with other people are decisions we make. But once we put them into practice they influence us and help shape who we are as people. As in architecture, there is a give and take; an interplay between ourselves and our traditions.
Now this is a very important point to consider because in the upcoming weeks we are going to enact a number of traditions. We all carry customs for the season of Christmas, traditions that we bring from our childhood, from our heritage. These customs are an important part of the holidays. But for them to work well, for them to do the job they are intended to do, those traditions need to fit our lives, and the truth is our lives are changing. We are not the same people we were when we were children. We are not even the same people we were last year. Therefore, every so often in the interplay between our traditions and our lives we need to ask the question, “Is there something about our traditions that we need to change? Do we need to reshape our traditions so that they in turn can reshape us?”
Now, to make this kind of shaping and reshaping clear, we have to know what is going on in our lives. We need to read the signs of the time and be in touch with what is really happening around us. This is what the Gospel today addresses. The people of Noah’s time are criticized because they were not in touch with what was going on around them. They did not see the upcoming flood and they continued on with life as usual up until the very day that Noah entered the ark. This is why the Gospel is telling us, “Stay awake. Be ready. Be attentive. Be in touch with what is really happening in your life so that you will be able to sense what needs to change, what needs to stay the same.”
What are some of the changes that might be going on in our life that could impact our holiday traditions? There might have been someone in our life recently who has died: a parent, a grandparent. With that person missing the whole pattern of our family network changes. We might need to replace that person’s role in our holiday traditions by asking someone else to assume it or perhaps sharing that role among a number of people. Children in our life might have married or moved away so that once where there were twelve people around the Christmas table, this year there might be six or two. Our children might be growing older, entering high school or college and there might be issues going on in our life so that we are looking now in our traditions for more than Santa Claus and opening presents. We need to be reading the signs of the times in our life and asking ourselves, “How do our holiday traditions need to be reshaped to fit the people we are?” Now these are questions that you must answer.
But let me this morning offer a few examples of the kind of reshaping that could be useful. If you sense in your family that people are maturing and looking for more from the holidays than simply opening presents, why not take action as the host of the holiday celebration to call ahead and invite one or two people to share what is happening in their lives? Christmas after all is about Emmanuel, God with us. Why not find a space within your traditions for one or two people to say, “How did I know that God was with me this year?” It will deepen and spiritualize your traditions.
If someone has died, then there should be a place in your holiday traditions to remember that person, perhaps including them in the prayer before the meal, or perhaps asking someone to share a story about them that would capture their spirit. If divorce has happened in your family, then perhaps it would be good to find a way in the traditions of the season where you could still maintain some connection with people who used to be part of your lives but will no longer be sitting around the table.
If your children have grown and moved away and you find yourself with less activity and more time on your hands, then perhaps service should become a part of your holiday traditions. You could volunteer in a food bank or perhaps change your work schedule to work on Christmas morning freeing up someone else to be with their family. If there are less people around your table then perhaps you should think of asking someone to join you, another couple whose children have moved away or someone who is living alone. Remember these traditions do not all have to center on Christmas itself. People who are alone are alone on more than just December 25th. You could invite them over the day after Christmas or the Sunday after Christmas. If there are new people as a part of your family, new in-laws or children from a blended family, then it’s important to find a way of including them and welcoming them as part of your traditions.
As long as we are alive, we are changing, and our holiday traditions should change as well so that they reflect the people we are today. Do not put this responsibility aside. You have only a few weeks before the holidays. Do not go blindly into the traditions you did last year without first asking, “Do my celebrations need to be adapted to fit the life I am living now?” God becomes present to us when we gather together and so it is important to gather together well. Make your plans now. Plan to reshape your traditions so that they in turn can reshape you. We have the power to change the way we celebrate and therefore, give to our traditions a greater power to call us closer to one another, to bring us closer to God.
December 2, 2007
Advent is about waiting, waiting for the good things which are to come. But not all waiting is the same. In fact, we can distinguish two specific kinds of waiting. The first kind is waiting for things we are certain will take place. The second kind is waiting without knowing what will happen. The first kind of waiting requires patience. The second kind of waiting requires trust.
A great deal of waiting in our life is of the first kind. It is the waiting we do as we wait in the checkout line. No matter how slow the people are in front of us, no matter how many thumbs the cashier has, we know that if we are patient, if we hold on, we will eventually get to the head of the line, make our purchase, and be able to go home. This first kind of waiting also applies as we anticipate an important celebration that is soon to occur. It is the waiting that children experience as they anticipate Christmas, or the waiting as we look forward to a get-away trip or an upcoming anniversary. We know that if we are patient, if we hold on, time will pass, the day will come, and we will have the celebration. So this first kind of waiting has as its object a goal that is close to us and is clear.
The second kind of waiting has a goal that is less clear and less certain. It is the waiting of Advent. This kind of waiting occurs when someone we love is diagnosed with a serious sickness. We wait to see what the treatment will be, if the treatment will succeed, if the health problem will be resolved. We wait for a healthy and positive resolution, but how and if that resolution will occur is not always apparent. This second kind of waiting is looking for someone to love, waiting for another with whom to share life and marriage. How and if that person is to be found is less than clear. This second kind of waiting takes place as we look forward in the years ahead and retirement. We look for days in which we no longer have to bear the burden of a regular routine, when we will have our health, when we continue in some new way to be productive. But how and if that retirement will come is uncertain. Some of the most important issues of life are what we wait for in this second kind of waiting. It is certainly more significant than waiting in the checkout line. This second kind of waiting requires more trust than patience. This is the waiting of Advent. It is an act of faith, a belief that our lives are not random or arbitrary, that there is a God who is guiding our life out of love and toward salvation.
Advent waiting is not simply a strategy. It is a way of life. If we enter into this kind of waiting, it changes us. It changes the way that we look at our present and at our future. It leads us to believe that, however our life unfolds, God is a part of that unfolding. However we move towards the good things we are waiting for, God is involved in bringing those good things about. What we are waiting for is God’s own Advent, God’s own coming into our lives. That’s why Paul today says in the second reading that we are closer to our salvation than when we first believed. God is on the move. God is coming. That is why Matthew says today in the gospel that we need to be awake. We need to be ready, because we do not know how and when our God will arrive.
So the waiting of Advent is a waiting of trust, of trust in a God who is with us, in a God who will emerge in our lives. We wait expecting God’s arrival. We do not know when God will come. We are not sure that God will bring the good things we desire as we envision them, and perhaps not even as we prefer. But we believe, as we wait in trust, that we who place our trust in God will not be disappointed.
So then let us entrust ourselves to God in this Advent season. Let us take whatever need we have, whatever good desire we have, whatever hope we have, and entrust it to God’s care. Let us believe that God will take our request and act upon it. Let us try to live this upcoming week in the firm conviction that, however God acts, however our life unfolds, the outcome that God will bring about is well worth waiting for.
Preparing for the Changes to Come
November 28, 2010
Matthew 24: 37-44
Jeff was caught in traffic on his way home from work. He was becoming concerned. His wife Audrey had already asked him very clearly to be home at 6:30 to discuss a family matter. It did not look like he was going to make it. He knew that his two sons, Brett who was ten and Tommy who was eight, would be with their grandparents. This meant that he and Audrey would be home alone together for the first time in months. Jeff looked forward to the evening. He liked being with Audrey. They had been married 16 years and she was a wonderful mother. But she could also be frustrating and demanding—like asking that he be home at 6:30. He knew that Audrey would not understand his being late. He felt that she did not appreciate his work schedule and how little control he had over it. As much time as he tried to find for Audrey and the kids, she never seemed satisfied. She always wanted more.
When Jeff entered the house, Audrey was sitting in the living room on the couch. “That’s a bit strange,” he thought, “Perhaps she’s already upset about me being late.” So he walked over. “Hello honey. I am sorry I am late.” He took a seat on the chair across from her. As he did so, he noticed Tommy’s toys on the floor in the living room. He grumbled to himself, “How many times did I tell her to pick up after Tommy? Those toys lying around really make our house look shabby.”
But he rallied himself and said, “Honey I know you want to talk about something. What is it?” Audrey looked directly at her husband. “I am going to put this straight, Jeff,” she said, “and then give you time to take it in. We have not connected with one another in years. I think I am invisible to you. The counseling has not helped. I saw a lawyer today and filed for divorce.” Jeff held his breath. The first thing he thought was this: “Wow. I am not prepared for this!”
In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us to be prepared because at an hour that we do not expect the Son of Man will come. Now of course Jesus’ words most directly refer to his own coming at the end of time. But they can also apply to all those times in our life when unexpectedly things change: when the boss asks us to step into his office for a minute, when the doctor tells us there’s bad news, when the police are at our door at 2:00 am, when our sister calls to tell us Dad has died. In those moments, life changes. Jesus asks us to be prepared. But how can we prepare when we do not know what to expect? How can we get ready for what is unknown? We cannot see the future.
We will be prepared, if we live with thankfulness. Jesus says, stay awake, be aware, be attentive to the blessings you have received. Be thankful for them, because gratitude will ready you for what is to come. Then you will be able to live without regret.
Jesus asks us to be aware of our marriage, to know its strengths and its weaknesses, to be thankful for the love, to be diligent with the communication so that when our marriage–like all good things–eventually comes to an end, we will be able to say we worked together, we were really partners, we did not take one another for granted.
Jesus asks us to be attentive to the people with whom we work, to notice the way that they support us, the way that we enjoy them, the way that we can accomplish things together. Ultimately things will change and those people will no longer be in our lives. But we will be prepared because we know that we appreciated their goodness while we were with them.
Jesus asks us to be thankful for our health, for our energy, for our ability to do what we need to do. There will be a time when our strength will fade. But we will be prepared, if as long as we were healthy we knew our health was a gift.
Jesus asks us to be thankful for the people we love, for our parents, for our children for our friends. In time we will have to say goodbye to them all. Yet when that day comes, we will be prepared because we loved them now. We took the time to be with them and enjoy them. If we live in that way, when the hour comes, we will have no regrets.
To live is to change and we cannot predict what change will be next. That is why we are called to live with thankfulness for the blessings we have received. Gratitude is the way we ready ourselves for what is to come. If we live our lives in thankfulness, we will live well. And when our life changes, we will be able to say, “Well, I did not expect this. But thank God I am prepared.”
Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ
November 27, 2016
Romans 13: 11-14
A British traveler wanted to make a trip through the jungle of Africa. He hired some local tribesmen to carry his luggage and equipment. The first day they marched rapidly and went far. So the traveler presumed that they would be able to complete their journey in another day. But in the morning the tribesmen refused to leave. They simply milled around the camp talking to one another without any intention of going anywhere. The traveler asked the chief guide to explain this rather unusual behavior. He said, “Well sir, yesterday we traveled too fast. So today the men are waiting for their souls to catch up to their bodies.”
That story is a fitting description of the season of Advent. Advent is the time when we allow our souls to catch up to our bodies. We are busy people. We have many responsibilities: our families, our work, our personal needs. We are always looking for ways to fit everything in. The upcoming holidays will place even more on our plate. With so much that we are trying to do, it is possible that we might miss what is important. With all of our activities we can end up leaving our souls behind.
This is what the season of Advent seeks to prevent. Advent is a time when our souls can catch up with our bodies. But how do we do this? The first inclination is that we should slow down, cut back on what we are doing. But this is not necessarily the best approach. The chaplain at Duke University has written a book on burnout, examining cases of people who found themselves unable to go on. He found that many people burnout not because they have too much to do, but because they are doing too much that is meaningless and unimportant. He found that often the happiest people are the busiest people. People are exhausted not by activity itself, but by activity that is trivial or non-consequential. This insight tells us that if we want our souls to catch up with our bodies, we should find something meaningful to do. The season of Advent invites us to do something that is valuable in the eyes of Christ.
This is what Paul tells the Romans in today’s second reading. He says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” When we put on the Lord Jesus Christ we remember how important the people are in our lives. Advent invites us to spend quality time with them, to take a walk or a fun ride with our children, to take our spouse out for a dinner to talk and reconnect. Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ means that we approach work focusing not simply on the work we have to do, but on the people with whom we work. We can pay a compliment that is well earned or offer a compassionate question to someone who is carrying a burden. When we put on the Lord Jesus Christ we recognize the people around us who are in need. Then we are called to reach out to a neighbor, a family member, or someone in our community—not simply to write a check, but to connect with that person face to face.
When we put on the Lord Jesus Christ we make time for that which is most important. In doing that we find energy for everything else. So, this Advent, find something that is meaningful and do it. We might not be able to do less, but if we can do one thing of true value we will deepen our lives, and we will be able to celebrate the birth of Christ and every other day with body and soul together.
Awake from Sleep
December 1, 2019
“You know the time. It is now the hour to for you to wake from sleep.” These are the words that Paul addresses to the Romans in today’s second reading. But what does he mean? In what way are we asleep, and what is that from which Paul wishes to awaken us?
There was a small iron-working town in Pennsylvania that kept its mills running day and night. Huge metal hammers, each weighing several tons, were constantly beating out masses of molten metal. The sound of this activity echoed all night through the town, but the people in that place had become accustomed to the noise and were easily able to sleep through it. Then one night, the machinery broke, and the hammers stopped. Within minutes, the entire town was up. They had been awakened by the silence.
Perhaps when Paul talks about sleep, he is talking about the constant drone of the machinery of our lives, the patterns of work and responsibility that never stop, the ongoing activity with which we fill up each day can often exhaust us. What Paul is telling us is that we need some silence to wake us up from this continual noise.
The season of Advent provides that silence, a quiet break from all our busyness, a pause from which we can take stock in the quality of our lives. And if we were to avail ourselves of the silence of Advent, what would it tell us to do? An easy answer is that Advent would tell us to do less, to take out our calendars and strike off a few things so that we would have more time for reflection and prayer. There’s nothing wrong with that answer, but it is not the only possibility. Advent might not be telling us to do less. It might be calling us to do differently.
Duke University finished a study of burn-out among professionals. What they found is that burn-out was not caused by people doing too much. It was caused by people doing too much of what was meaningless and unimportant. Burn-out occurred when people constantly encountered the trivial and the inconsequential. So perhaps Advent is not directing us to do less but inviting us to do more to bring meaning into our lives.
As we gear up for the holidays, instead of just throwing ourselves into the continual patterns and customs that we have done in the past, Advent might ask how we can increase the meaning of our celebrations. Could we ask people who are coming for dinner to bring with them a small donation to a charity of their choice, and encourage them to share why they chose that particular contribution? Could we ask people seated around our Christmas dinner to share what was the best Christmas gift they ever received and did that gift make them a better person? If we could add such conversations to our holidays, would we not increase the meaning of the season and make our dinners more than simply getting together and passing the potatoes?
We have a lot to do at work. Our plate is always full. But what if we added to our day a conversation with a co-worker who is struggling. Would not the listening and the affirmation of that meeting deepen the significance of our day, making it more important than simply attending meetings and answering e-mails? We all have gifts to buy, cards to write, but what if we added to our list a visit to our neighbor who just lost her husband or some time with a friend who just came out of the hospital? Would not that addition deepen our experience of the holidays and bring us closer to the true meaning of what we celebrate in Jesus’ birth?
If we let ourselves simply run along through all the routines and customs of these upcoming days, our lives might become shallow and empty. This is why Advent provides us with a silence that can change those hollow patterns. It might be the choice to do less or to do more of what is meaningful. The choice is ours. And it is important, because you know the time. It is now the hour for us to wake from sleep.