Thursday, December 27, 2012

Chistmas Sounds

Some sounds easily spook Baxter.  The sound of the vacuum cleaner drives him nuts.  He runs and hides as soon as the motor is turned on.  Loud sounds usually startle him.  His head and ears go up.  His eyes open wide.  He is ready to run if the sound continues.  Baxter also gets spooked by the sound of crackling plastic from water bottles being smashed or from packaging on various products being torn open.  Generally, it must be the frequency at which the sound travels that sets him off, because some noises don’t raise any reaction.  The fire siren, thunder, car horns--he sleeps right through all of these.  For Baxter, some sounds, because they are unusual, are threatening even when there is no danger, and others, which are meant to signal danger, fit into the frequencies of his familiar world.

We are more discriminating when it comes to sounds that set us off.  Nails on a chalk board can create an automatic reaction, but usually we hear in a certain context that tells us what the sound might mean.  A siren going off in a parade signals fun and celebration.  A siren in the dead of night marks an emergency.  Car horns sounding can be a friendly “hello” or draw attention to our annoyance at another driver.  A clap of thunder can be fascinating over the Grand Canyon but startling and frightful over the roof of our house.  We hear more than frequencies.  We hear meanings and intentions in the sounds of our world.  As believers, we are called to hear God.

Our faith tradition throughout its long history has always held that God speaks to human beings.  From the Word that brought forth creation, to the Word of the prophets that called for repentance and renewal, to the Word that became flesh in Jesus, God is sending a message to us in various ways.  These are not just random sounds, but purposeful ones, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony whose movements carry through a theme to a triumphant “Ode to Joy”.  God sounds a theme throughout history that reaches its crescendo in Christ and is heard in the song of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”  This is the rich and full sound of the climax of human salvation that continues to be proclaimed until the end of time.

There are no scary noises in the sounds of Christmas, but the carols, greetings and bells have deeper meanings than a nostalgic melody or pleasant sound.  They signal God’s closeness to our human condition, His power to overcome its darkness, and His promise never to abandon us to our sin and death.  The sounds of Christmas speak a deep mystery of divine love so profound and intimate that it sounds like the human heart beating with the life-blood of divine grace, like a baby’s cooing over God’s delight with His creatures, like a cat’s purring for the perfect harmony of the creature and the Creator in the redemption of the universe.

At first, these deeper Christmas sounds may seem strange, but don’t be afraid.  LISTEN!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Christmas Promise: A Purr

Only cats purr.  No one is quite sure where it came from in the evolutionary line of development, but everyone agrees that this distinctive sound and vibration marks feline happiness and contentment.  Baxter purrs at the drop of a hat since he has grown older.  Scratch his neck, his chin, his chest or his belly, and he immediately starts to reverberate with the familiar sound of pleasure.  He starts to purr as soon as he jumps on my lap and begins pummeling my belly with his front paws to find his comfortable spot.  He purrs more than he meows and hisses, so I presume he is a happy cat.

Purring has a contagious effect.  When I pet my purring friend, I begin to feel relaxed and comfortable.  Something about that spontaneous vibration and its soothing sound calms anyone who comes into contact with it.  Studies have shown that a cat’s purr can lower the blood pressure of those in contact with it.  It exudes peace and contentment, and it spreads these qualities in the atmosphere around it.  Happiness is infectious, even across species.

 Jesus’ birth touches us in a similar way, but with a more profound impact.  When God chose to become one with us in His Son, He did so not reluctantly or grudgingly but with delight and spontaneous joy.  Such a divine intervention cannot contain itself.  It overflows.  The Christmas blessing generates a human condition marked by peace, genuine joy and relief from the drudgery and toil that are the effects of sin.  These are the signs of grace incarnate.  These are the hallmarks of the messianic age, and all of us who are citizens of God’s Kingdom are invited to share in these fruits.  Taste the sweetness of the Lord up close and personal.  An intimate God shouldn’t frighten us, any more than a purring cat does.  Rather, the God born on Christmas spreads His delight and peace to those who welcome Him into the lap of their lives to rest content there.

But we have to listen carefully to catch the divine purr.  At this time of the year it’s hidden in a child’s giggle, in the words of a familiar carol, in the warm wishes shared in cards and greetings, in the “ah” we hear when someone opens a surprise present.  God is happy to be with us, and we benefit from His happiness in the deep joy and peace we find when we live in His grace.  Like cats, we’re not sure how it works or why it happens this way, but we know we are blessed when we hear it.  Have a “Purrfect Christmas!”

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent Reflections: The Stretch

Baxter makes a point of stretching after a long nap.  He gets up and first curls his back with his legs pushed straight up.  Then he steps out extending one back paw and then the other away from his body in a three legged stance.  Lastly, he reaches his front paws in front of him and sticks his butt in the air and pushes against the floor.  All of these maneuvers are to stretch his body back into alignment after a lengthy period of twisted relaxation.

Stretching is important for Baxter and for us.  After Baster’s routine, I can see him come alive again.  He’s alert and agile and ready for another meal.  Doctors and exercise gurus tell us that stretching before and after vigorous exertion helps prevent injuries and keeps muscles limber.  Stretching should begin the warm up and close the cool down to any extended exercise routine.  It not only completes the toning of our muscles, but it also keeps the ligaments and tendons that tie them to our skeleton supple and strong.  Physically, stretching helps to tie our body together well.

The same holds true for stretching our spirit.  We need regularly to move our spirits in ways that extend their normal reach and direction.  We all have our comfort zones where we can move through life almost asleep.  We know what to say, how to respond, whom and what we like and dislike when we’re in these places.  We are curled up, comfortable and content in this state, and we don’t usually appreciate anyone disturbing our positions.  Let me be, and I won’t bother anyone.  But left in this attitude for too long, our spirits grow soft and weak, and we are vulnerable to injuries we never saw coming.

Advent stretches our spirits as the Spirit of God stirs in our midst.  We see this in Mary when the Spirit overshadows her and asks her to take on a role in salvation history she never foresaw.  Her mind had to think outside the box about God’s ways with humankind.  Her heart had to trust in the goodness and integrity of what she could not fully understand.  She had to continue to care for others—her cousin, Elizabeth; her betrothed, Joseph—even while she was uncertain and confused about her own situation.  Her spirit was stretched in mind, heart and action by what happened to her with the angel’s announcement, but because of this extension of her life into the very history of God’s life with us all, she “magnified the Lord” and “found joy in God,” her Savior.  Because God stretched her life beyond the boundaries set by conventional religious wisdom and she followed the divine exercises well, Mary stands before us now as a great and strong example of faithful discipleship.

So don’t just jog through Advent to get to another Christmas.  Do some stretching exercises with your thoughts about this season, with your attitude toward it, and with the kind of generosity you offer during it.  Your faith will grow stronger for it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Advent Thoughts: A Calmer Christmas

Preparing for Christmas is a lot calmer these days.  When Baxter was a kitten, it was a contest of wills, and I usually lost.  The first Christmas Baxter and I shared, I was decorating the tree and suddenly discovered a pair of eyes staring back at me from the inside of the tree. Yes, it was Baxter.  Tree decorations, nativity figures, garland, even Christmas pillows he considered his personal toys to chew, bat about, hide and sleep with. Christmas was a season of taking, not giving, for Baxter. He took whatever he wanted from the tree, shelves, wreaths, etc., and he used it for his pleasure and whim. They were all toys to entertain him and discard when something better came along.

Baxter is calmer about Christmas now. He may take a casual swipe at a tree ornament, but it ends there. He enjoys lying in front of the lit tree and staring at the twinkling lights.  He seems to like the music. But, for the most part, he can’t be bothered with the rest of the paraphernalia of the season.  Baxter has grown up.

Our faith calls us to grow up at Christmas. We can easily miss this invitation, because so many fancy, cute and romantic creations distract us during this season. The popular message is, “Make Christmas beautiful, tasty, sparkling, and spend what you must to get it that way.” Christmas gets reduced to toys not just for our children, but for us. We play with the “decorations” for the season to brighten our lives and satisfy our pleasures. The presents, the parties, the goodies and the packaging occupy our time and interest, and their meaning gets lost in the preparations. This meaning is the full story of Christ’s life.

Too often we limit the message of Christmas to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. But that’s just the beginning.  The full message is what Jesus said and did throughout the course of His life to His death and resurrection. He brought hope to the hopeless.  He spoke of God’s love in ways that broke down the barriers preventing that love from touching various human conditions.  He reversed the order of privileges in the world, lifting up the lowly and sending the rich away empty. He touched the untouchable; healed the incurable; ate with the riff-raff; forgave the condemned; was generous to the undeserving.  Finally, He died unfairly, apart from most of His followers, an apparent failure.  All of this pointed to what was to follow:  the transformation of the human condition by the power of God raising Jesus to new life after physical death.  This is the complete Christmas scene that the stable only hints at.  An adult Christmas looks for more than the trappings of this season.  It looks for the whole story of how God saved us from sin and death.  It is not always a sweet and delightful tale, but it is a profoundly meaningful one, one that can sustain us long after the decorations are put away.

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, made even more wonderful by those who understand the full meaning of this season. We celebrate the birth of a divine love so deep that it embraced the whole gamut of human life, even dying to give new life to all. When we grow up to Christmas, we stop making toys for ourselves from the decorations of the season and start living seriously in the wonder of God’s love.

After a while, Baxter learned to celebrate Christmas differently; maybe we can as well.