It’s my favorite time of year… I mean I do love me some Lent and Easter, but I LOVE Advent and Christmas! To celebrate the season and help make Advent a little more meaningful I am creating a daily devotional guide that can be used with prayers, or for any kind of creative exercise from poetry to photography, from sketches to prose. Each Sunday of Advent I’ll post the new week’s seven day guide. You’re invited to use it as you’d like; each day has a reading (some person or piece of the Incarnation narrative), a creative focus (a word or short phrase) and a few words for the day (one or two thoughts or questions). That’s the link to the pdf at the top of the blog. =)
You can resonate right off the text of the day, or just use the Creative Focus of each day as a spring board for some kind of an artist endeavor. You can use the guide to keep a personal Advent journal, fill a 25 page sketch book, or inspire us all with cool Facebook posts. It’s yours to enjoy and put to use however you choose. The devotions will cover every day of December right through Christmas Day!
My prayer is that your Advent and Christmas celebrations are rich with all the best blessings of Life: God’s presence, fun times with family, deep prayer, lots of rest and delicious food! May your body and soul be filled by the best!
Matthew 5:21-24, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus knew all about religious professionals. It was the professionals who were usually questioning him and his disciples about one regulation or the other on ritual purity or his own authority. He knew the game, following certain rules and using the right language could make you very religious, but though he valued those same traditions and valued religiosity, he never let it become elevated over the value of people. So he touched the untouchable. He associated with the social pariah. He told parables like “The Good Samaritan” which seemed to break down ethnic and religious barriers. He repeatedly healed on the sabbath.
Our final passage is a message to the religious professional in each of us. When we begin to value our religion above people, we begin to go through the motions even while our relationships are crumbling all around us. We can go to the altar to leave a gift and bless God, all the while ignoring the lack of blessing happening between us and our sisters and brothers. Jesus says, “Stop! Don’t go to play church when you know you have some rebuilding to do with your brother or your sister. Church just doesn’t work when valued above and outside your relationships.” (That was my paraphrase.)
What is civility to a Christian? Is it the recognition that we speak and act as reconcilers, seeking to break down the barriers and reconnect to one another. Civility is never just an “elective class” we can catch one semester or simply ignore and still graduate without it. It’s not an extracurricular activity. We speak and act to reconcile and remain reconciled. We are not called to be barrier builders. We are not called to giving insults, to humiliating or to tearing others down. We are called to restoration, restoring our broken selves one to another.
This is the way a person of faith goes about civility, recognizing that we’re maintaining some of the most important stuff that Jesus has called us to be and do. Civility is not our religion, but our religion leads us to be civil. God has never called us separate from one another, but together. Let us then see to it that our religion is pure and true to the value of one another. Let us show how people of faith live and breathe a civility that reconciles us to one another, mutually encourages one another, and gives everlasting glory to our great God. We’ll close the month of exploring our Christian scriptures with three final selections from Micah, Jesus and Peter.
From Micah, Micah 6:6-8
“With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
From Jesus, John 13:34&35
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
From Peter, 1 Peter 3:8-11
“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, ‘Whoever among you would love life and see good days must keep your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.’”
Matthew 5:13-16, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
We began this month of exploring Christian scripture to understand civility with Jesus, and we’ll end with Jesus. This is a very familiar passage to most anyone who grew up in church. Jesus loved to teach in symbols, and this is some of his best… it’s simple, we can relate to the content, and it inspires. We are called to be salt, seasoning the world for the better. We are to be light, a source of illumination and joy for those struggling to see. Amen and amen.
Jesus lays it all on the line for us in these simple words: we are salt, and we are light. No matter what you’re cooking, the salt becomes part of the dish, lost for any other purpose other than favoring and then never being seen again. Oh, it’s flavor is there, we know where the salt has gone… but that’s just it, the salt is gone. The dish remains. The dish is so much better for having been salted.
No matter the light source you choose, it burns up, it gives all it has and it’s gone. A lamp burns away it’s oil. A candle melts. A bulb eventually burns away it’s filament or it’s gases, batteries go dead… all lights on this earth end in their using. This is our calling. We are used up in service to this world. We are sent to make the world better for everyone else, and Jesus evens asks what we’re good for if we reject that calling! If we will not salt and we will not light, then what use do we have?
The word civil at the base of the word civility is a very fun study if you ever feel like digging in and chewing on it a while. It denotes both the meaning of responsible/polite behavior, but it also denotes this aspect of being a common member of society, a citizen. The two concepts are united in the word, both being a citizen and acting a citizen. Jesus does this with salt and light, both being and doing. Salt is our identity and our action. Light is both what we are and what we do. Our place in the world hinges on this calling… we exist in this capacity of purpose.
So what does all that mean? It means that I don’t salt the earth one day a week, or two days a week, or only when I choose to be salty. I must reflect on the needs around me and strive to be salt all the time. I must own the call to saltiness and pursue it with all my heart, mind and soul. It’s not just a thing I do on weekends or when there’s a Bible study. It’s in my walk, my talk, my laughter, my weeping, my falling, my failing, my dancing and my singing.
My light doesn’t have a on/off switch for my convenience. I am not choosing to be light for only those I have deemed worthy of the time or the effort. I am shining, shining on my worst day, my best day, in the rain, in the snow, in the pain and in the green of springtime joys. I am being what I am called to be, to the best of my ability and with all the joy of the call I can muster on any given day. And if we have come together to make a community like the one Jesus has described in the verses preceding this passage, in those amazing words we call “The Beatitudes,” then when my savor lessens and my light dims, it will be renewed in my kingdom fellowship with you. Together, we are called to be salt and light, never alone. Never alone.
I am salt with you. I am not salting the earth alone! I am light with you. I am not lighting anything by myself! Civil is not something I am or do alone. Civil exists within the community of the citizens! If we are to find a singular truth of civility in the teaching of scriptures then let it be the truth of our need for one another! I need you! I need you to myself be salt. I need you to myself be light. I need you, and that is why I am striving to be civil, to keep us in the bonds of love, mutual encouragement, sharing and growth.
Never alone. Thank you, God, I am not alone.
Colossians 3:15, “And be thankful.”
And be thankful. I’ve always liked the way that St. Paul would throw that in here and there, and he does it often. He does in his letter the Colossians in chapter 2 as well, speaking of being rooted and grown up in Christ he adds an “and be thankful” for good measure in verse 7.
When our passage ended with those words yesterday I knew I’d have to come back and use them again. I don’t think St. Paul scatters them around without intention and meaning… I think he sows his letters with the seeds of gratefulness hoping for a nice harvest in the lives of his readers!
I believe that thankfulness, or gratefulness, or gratitude, whichever word we choose, is a seriously underrated theme in scripture and a solid foundation for civility. Ingratitude and being unthankful leads to a lot of harshness in our words and missed opportunities to build one another up. St. Ignatius said, “I think that that ingratitude is at the root of all sinfulness.” Amen. I’m declaring him the patron saint of our Thanksgiving this year and including a painting of him I made a couple of years ago. =)
Be grateful! Be joyous! Love with gusto!
Colossians 3:13-15, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”
Bear with each other. What a great twist of language that the word bear gets to be an expression of gracefully putting up with each other and a 400 pound mammal that might pull your head off. Maybe civility can feel that way sometimes, like trying to smile in the face of a raging beast? Maybe.
One of the hardest things about the teaching on forgiveness in scripture is that we are so often told to forgive without any mention of waiting for an apology. It seems that when incivility is done to us, our forgiveness is supposed to kick in without even waiting on that other person’s recognition that they need it. Honestly, that’s tough for me. I’ve managed to rationalize this away at times with arguments about not wanting to “enable” their continued naughtiness, but that wears thin after a while.
Someone might be a real bear towards me, and make it hard for me to bear with them through it, but I have to dig deep and find that needed strength to carry my own responsibility to restoring peace. Let’s be clear, I don’t always want to do that! Sometimes I would much rather respond in kind, making it just as unpleasant for them as it is for me. For a Christian it comes down to relating to Jesus and the way he modeled forgiveness in the biblical narrative. His words “forgive them” from the cross didn’t wait on an apology.
I suppose what I want to say today is that it’s ok to struggle with civility, but not to give up. I wouldn’t want this whole month of blogging to just be a “pie in the sky” dream of what things could be if we were all perfect. Sometimes I’m the bear, and sometimes I’m doing the bearing. Sometimes I fail in the civility realm and move from being a victim of incivility to a co-combatant in a contest of incivility. But I’m trying, and if anything I’ll try harder next time.
I’m going to meditate today what I might call cruciform timing, living a forgiveness that doesn’t wait. If I can do that better, civility has a chance to grow in me. If a peace and thankfulness can be rooted in me, and be bounded by love, as the passage today images for us, then maybe a little more bearishness can be tolerated and forgiven. I’m going to splurge and have two graphics today because I think the passage makes a cool illustration. It’s that mentioned peace and love that can make all this possible. That peace and love are layers that help protect the true me when bears attack.
Easier said than done? Yes it is, but so is everything worth working hard to obtain. It’s the same love and peace that protects me that will be extended to one who attacks me. It’s a hope of mutual assured survival.
Galatians 5:26, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
Are you one of those folks who must make everything a competition? Is everything a contest for you with a first place, second place and third place, winners and losers? You might want to say no, but think about it. When someone shares something amazing in their life, is your first thought one of comparison to your own life?
I like to think I’m not all that wrapped up competitive ways, but I know that there are certainly areas of my life where I do harbor envy. There are parts of my life where I like to think I’m better than others. Better than most? Maybe. I have to admit it’s there within me, and it threatens my civility. I’ve never been an athlete, so I’m not all that into competitive sports, but I’ve found ways too make most everything else in life into a sport with winners and losers. In those other areas of life it’s the “I’m an expert” syndrome.
My image with this blog is a painting I did a few years ago of St. Francis of Assisi. I painted it intentionally as a picture of St. Francis and a little bit of a self portrait. His eyes are downcast and closed, not because he failed at anything, but because I know I fail so often to live up to the prayer he prayed, “Make me an instrument of your peace.” I’m too often a bit too self-serving to be used on anyone else’s behalf. His prayer makes me feel ashamed. The painting expresses a great paradox of my life: I want to live that prayer, but my conceit keeps me fettered to vanity and pride.
You might think a guy who likes to talk so much about humility wouldn’t be thinking how much better he is at something than you are, but then again that’s why I’m happy you’re not in my head. I hope you don’t mind a little more honesty, today. It’s simple human conceit, and I have it.
Conceit, too much pride in your own worth or goodness
I like to think I keep it well hidden, but I know it shows sometimes. When it does show, well that’s when I’m saying things that make you frustrated. It often shows itself in provocation, sometimes when I’m challenging your ideas and your accomplishments. I do it because I don’t want you as happy with yourself as you are. I do it because I want your success moderated a bit, lowered a bit closer to the level of my own (or just a bit under mine own). It’s not pretty, but it does happen.
A commitment to civility will help impose certain filters on me that not only help me not do this to you unnecessarily in our conversations, but also I hope it will shine a light on the inner conceits that trip me up. St. Paul is expressing this whole idea in the context of a discussion on personal freedom, a choice to serve others or myself. Your accomplishments can become part of my joy. Your wins can become my celebrations. Your joy is not then at my expense, but instead it is my gain. Honestly, I’m trying to love you that much.
Galatians 5:22 & 23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
I have to admit that this passage from St. Paul has been a favorite of mine my whole life. It’s not that I have in some way mastered it or think that I’m a great example of it, but it reminds me to raise my expectations for myself, and even for you. I’ve been accused of having a “thin skin” when someone’s rudeness or naughty behavior will be hurt or disappoint me, but I don’t want to let my expectations slip! I’m a textbook Gen-X in some respects, and I always struggle to keep a high level of pessimism and cynicism at bay.
If you want to go and see the list that St. Paul has of the “sinful fruits” (Galatians 6:13-26) you’ll find many of the things we’ve identified and renounced as incivility throughout our exploration of scripture: rage, discord, selfishness, divisiveness. But I’ve never spent a lot of time on the sinful fruits; I know them too well. My imagination is better fed on the fruit of expecting and identifying God in action in me or in you. I want to dwell on those moments when our goodness shines. I like seeing our patience surprise someone, our kindness meet a need, our self-control end a conflict, our love warm a soul, our joy become infectious, and our peace break down barriers and make us a family.
The fruit are a strong reminder that civility is not just what we don’t say, but what we do say. Our faith and spirituality are the same in respect to renouncing some things and embracing some things. Renouncing and letting go of some things can be seen as a bit passive, simply making sure that some things are absent from our lives. Choosing to embrace other things that we wish to manifest in our lives can be a bit more active, even aggressive.
This morning I’m meditating on these on these things that I can embrace, things against which I will never find a law or an obstacle outside of my own heart. I’m going to include a photo with this blog, a six foot goose that my wife and I hand-made and painted for an arts festival a few summers ago. In Celtic spirituality the Holy Spirit is sometimes pictured as a wild goose, and I want God’s presence today in my life to be a goose, to be flamboyant and noisy, aggressive and loud. I want God’s presence in me to take flight.