Saturday, December 31, 2011

might I have a word?



Some of my college friends and I have a tradition where we pick a word to represent the year, as a kind of focus for meditation or reminder of something we need to work on. We don't necessarily have to think about it every day, and we might not even think about it very much, but it's been interesting to see how sometimes the words have defined my years, even if only a little bit. Here are my words for the past few years:

2009: still 
(as in, "be still and know that I am God")

2010: abundance

2011: release 
(as in, "letting go")

2009 was marked by transitions. I went from being a full-time youth and young adult minister in Omaha to a first year seminarian (a.k.a. "junior"). I chose the word still as a reminder that God was with me during this time of change.

2010 saw the end of my first year of seminary, where I had been stuffed with abundant information. The highlight of the year was the birth of Isaac and Evelyn, making me a Godmother once again. Those two bring me (and everyone else) abundant joy. 2010 also was marked by periods of loss. The year began with an Earthquake in Haiti, a tragedy personally affecting three of my friends and fellow students. I spent the summer in Omaha doing CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) working as a hospital chaplain. Being with people during intimate moments of pain and suffering was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and in listening to their stories I realized the abundance that I actually had been blessed with. Finally, in October our school chapel burned. Yet out of the ashes we arose stronger and our relationships with one another and with the Church community deepened. There was an outpouring of love from family and friends all around the country. Abundance, indeed.

2011 began with a month-long immersion in Myanmar. Seven folks from VTS traveled under the guidance of Kitty Babson, an alumna who has traveled there over 50 times since the '90s. We formed new relationships with theological students and reconnected with former VTS classmates in Yangon, were the guests of honor at a dinner in Hpa-an, rode elephants and led a retreat in Toungoo, and watched gorgeous sunsets from temples in Bagan. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with songs and sometimes even dances! Bishop Stylo and Bishop Wilme and people everywhere, stranger or friend, showed us hospitality the likes of which I have never before seen. In fact, we were so moved by the people there that we pledged to help some of our friends with a project. Eleven months later, thanks to the generosity of friends and family all over the country, I am overjoyed to say that we met our goal! I will never forget the kindness of the people of Myanmar; they remain in my thoughts and prayers, and I treasure the memories of my time there.
Came back from the trip exhausted to middler spring semester, arguably the most difficult semester in seminary. Then finally made it to summer, where I traveled some but mostly took it easy; it was a time of renewal, of release (for more on this see earlier post). Then began my senior year, a time of beginning to let go, to say goodbye. This included giving my senior sermon, taking a class with a professor who was retiring, and taking advantage of being so near D.C., with its (free) monuments and museums. Finally, letting go by spending my last Christmas Eve at home with my family, revisiting German traditions of Advent carols, lighting candles on the Christmas tree and baking German cookies. Thanks to the magic that is Skype, we were able to connect with our cousin who couldn't come this year because of work as well as my mom's side of the family (all of whom are in Germany). One highlight this Christmas was watching The Help as a family, which led to Grandma and my aunt and mom sharing their experiences of what life was like in the South for white women. It was interesting to hear their perspectives and to learn of the relationships they had formed over the years.

And now we have come to the end of the year. Four years ago (exactly) I became vegetarian, and am still going strong. I never would have imagined I would be where I am now. I wonder what this next year will bring? Among other things:
  • GOEs (General Ordination Exams), kind of like the Div version of comps for grad students in January. 
  • Spring Break pilgrimage to Taize, France, visiting the Christian community there. 
  • Graduation in May, followed by reentry into The Real World. 
  • Perhaps even ordinations, should God be willing and the people consenting. 
  • And then there's the possibility that the world will end on 12/21/12. You never know...

In thinking about what word would be good for this coming year, I thought of hope, which, as a theological virtue, can be defined as "openness to the future" (this was me proving I've been studying, haha). This would be appropriate for what the Great Unknown that lies ahead. But the more I think about it, a different word feels better, somehow. This past year I've been coming to terms with who I am and how God made me. And in learning to love the version of God's image that is me, I have found a sense of happiness, of contentedness. I thought it would be good for me to continue to cultivate this process. And so, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my word of the year for 2012: joy.

I hope 2012 brings you and your loved ones much joy.

"For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." 
Isaiah 55:12

"This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." 
Psalm 118:24 

[side note: don't know if you noticed, but both of these verses have been put to song...]


Sunday, December 4, 2011

preparation

Here's my sermon for 2 Advent! The reading was Mark 1:1-8.



The seasons of Advent and Christmas are my absolute favorite of the year. The Advent traditions at my house include fun things like counting down the days to Christmas with Advent calendars, baking lots of traditional German cookies, lighting candles on the Advent wreath, and singing beloved Advent songs. One not-so-fun tradition in Advent is the process of cleaning the house in preparation for Christmas: picking up, throwing away, rearranging, scrubbing, vacuuming, mopping, and everyone’s least favorite—dusting. Cleaning is hard work, it’s stressful, and it often leads to at least one argument. Every year we go through this same struggle, but it’s worth it; a few days before Christmas, my dad’s side of the family descends upon the mountains of North Carolina, so that there are 13 or more people staying in the Shine household. The best way to describe it is joyful chaos. This happy time with family is well worth the headache of preparation.

In Mark’s Gospel today we hear about another kind of preparation from John the Baptist. John is a man with horrible fashion sense that is on a weird diet and makes speeches from his home…in the middle of the wilderness. He’s not exactly what we would call “normal.” But instead of staying away from this bizarre man, people are drawn to him—he’s even popular! Maybe people initially start going to him out of curiosity, but once they’re there, they get hooked, and more and more start going until virtually everyone in the nearby towns and countryside is gathering to see him. We don’t know exactly what he says, but it has something to do with preparation. You see, the people are hungry for some good news. Israel is under Roman occupation and her people are forced to pay heavy taxes to the Emperor. They are tired, poor, angry, and resentful; they want their freedom and want to be left alone. Well, John is telling the people that there’s someone stronger coming, someone who is going to change everything. But before he comes, they need to get ready; they need to prepare. And the way they are to prepare is by reflecting on their lives, repenting of what they’ve done wrong, and celebrating being forgiven by participating in a symbol of purification—baptism. So they line up to get baptized by him, awaiting Jesus’ coming with hope.

The first hearers of Mark’s Gospel are waiting for Jesus’ coming as well—his second coming. They are in a time of war and political division, of persecution and poverty; they are also hungry for Good News. In listening to this story they recognize that John the Baptist is actually dressed like one of the ancient prophets—persons with messages from God. The first words of the Gospel, “the beginning of the good news,” trigger in the listeners the memory of the loving God who created the world “in the beginning.” The setting of John’s ministry in the wilderness remind them that God brings their ancestors out of Egypt through the wilderness, and it is in the wilderness that God gives them instructions on how to love God and love their neighbors; the 10 Commandments. The mention of Jerusalem foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection, a demonstration of God’s love, reconciliation, and mercy. And in the last verse of the Gospel the mention of the Holy Spirit calls to mind Jesus’ promise of leaving behind an Advocate so that God will remain with them always. To the first listeners, this passage from Mark’s Gospel is very good news.     

In Advent we are still waiting for Jesus and are called to prepare for his coming. To tell the truth, we live in a world that could use some cleaning up. Like Mark’s first audience, we live in a time of war and political division, persecution and poverty. Our economy remains shaky and thousands of people have been taking to the streets and risking violence in order to protest the rising disparity between the rich and the poor. In this time of economic uncertainty it’s easy to get caught up with just taking care of our own, but we can’t deny the fact that there are millions of people around the world who are suffering, some of them in our own neighborhoods. We know that this is not how the world should be. 

“But it’s too big of a problem!” we protest. “How can we possibly make a difference when it’s hard enough to provide for our own families?” 

We can start by taking small steps, like reevaluating how we're spending our income. Maybe we don't need the latest iPhone, or that second coat, or a third pair of skinny jeans. To put things into perspective, according to research done by the National Retail Federation, Americans spent $52 billion on Black Friday this year. $52 billion. Compare that to the cost of providing clean water to the world, which is estimated to be between 9 and 30 billion dollars per year. That means we spent $22-43 billion more in one day than it would cost to provide clean water for the whole world for one year.

The numbers from the study are sobering, but maybe we can reframe it to see that there is also potential here. In this season we are bombarded with advertisements for gifts, pressured to put up decorations, and forced to attend way too many Christmas parties. Just imagine what would happen if everyone in this room decided next year to buy local gifts instead. Or made homemade ones. Or made donations to charities in people’s honor. It could make a big difference! Now imagine if most of the people in Alexandria did this. And then the country. And then the world. This idea may be somewhat na├»ve, but as we wait for Christ’s return we continuously work and hope and strive for a better world, so why not dream big? I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen some amazing things happen when the people of St. Mark’s work together.  

Every day we await Jesus’ return. In this season of Advent we are invited to prepare for his coming by reflecting on our own lives, repenting of what we’ve done wrong, and sharing weekly in a meal that renews us and reminds us of the one who died to forgive our sins. Our Lord Jesus is coming; prepare the way of the Lord!