November 26, 2017 / Christmas [Present] 1: Present to the Presence / Sara Wolbrecht / Mark 13:33-17 (The Message)
My friends, we’re here. Who is still hanging on to their turkey hangover? Still got that top button undone on your pants, because, stuffing? We’re on the other side of Thanksgiving, we made it through the highs and lows of being with family and/or friends. We’ve engaged in the thrill of another Black Friday and some of us a perched and waiting for Cyber Monday to hit. Christmas decorations are going up in our homes (and have been up for a month in stores) – I’m into my third week of pouring egg nog into my morning coffee, and today, TODAY is the first Sunday of Advent. We have arrived. It’s officially here: It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
We’re here! Yes? Can you believe it? We’re here!
Or, are we here? Here’s the thing I wonder: are you really here? Here in this room, not only physically but mentally. Are you present? Have you arrived in this holiday season – shown up mentally and emotionally – at the Thanksgiving table, now here as we begin Advent together?
You see this most wonderful time of the year in a beautiful way, makes it really hard to actually be here. To be present. This season pulls us in two directions – it pulls us into the past, into Christmases past, right? I love remembering and reliving the memories of Christmas I have. Growing up – the smell of the tree in our house, our tradition of driving around to look at Christmas lights, playing Mary in the church nativity play – because nothing says middle-eastern 16yo like a white haired, fair skinned 2nd grader. The songs we’d sing and listen to – ain’t no music like Christmas music. And listening for Santa and the magic of peeking down the hall in the morning to see that our stockings were no longer hanging from the fireplace but were now on the floor because they were too full and heavy to be held in place by masking tape.
This is what we do during the holidays, yes? We remember the magic, the wonder, the candle-lit memories of Christmases past – those long ago and those just last year. And not just the good stuff – we are mindful of those who are no longer here from those Christmases past, as well as carrying the grief and hard things of the past, too. This most wonderful time of the year pulls our thoughts, our hearts, our memories into the past.
And yet this most wonderful time of the year also pulls us into thinking about the future. Thinking about what gifts to buy for who, and where to buy them and when. Planning photo shoots and holiday cards and thinking about whose addresses we need to update. Thinking about FOOD – what food to eat when and the lists and lists of what to buy (and planning when to buy it). Then the gatherings and events and school activities and what to wear and who did we forget to shop for this year?
It’s the most wonderful time, of the year… And it is! Especially: if we could actually be present enough to experience it. Have you ever, like me, thought in the midst of so many good holiday things, thought that you could do a better job of that? A better job of not being short-wicked and cranky, or just absent, at times when we could actually be enjoying the magic and creating new candle-lit memories to cherish? It is a struggle to be here, during the holidays.
Well, you may not be surprised to hear, maybe you already realize, that Advent, this most wonderful time of the year, is not the only time that we struggle to be here. To be in the now. To be present where we are. Advent is an intense microcosm of the larger reality of our lives, in that any time of the year, on any day, any moment, we’re almost ALWAYS somewhere else. Our minds are almost always living in the past or worrying about the future.
I have been immersing myself in the writings of Richard Rohr – a great spiritual teacher of our time – and he talks about this a lot. He says the mind can only do two things – it can replay the past over and over and over. Or we worry about the future over and over and over again. And we do need to spend time thinking about both the past and the future, right? But it’s that we unconsciously nearly always slip away. That makes us obsessive-compulsive people – which most of us are – we just keep thinking the same thoughts over and over again. If left to their own devises, our minds actually have very few original thoughts – they just run down the same, familiar neural pathways. And most of those thoughts are not thoughts that engage us in the present moment.
But here’s the thing – even though our minds have a hard time staying present, we deeply long for the kinds of things we experience when we are present in the moment. Playing with kids, savoring good food (any food), being heard and understood, feeling something deeply – to the point of tears (whether tears of gratitude, laughter, or deep sorrow). We long for what can happen when we’re present in the moment.
And for all the reasons we show up in a community like Salt House, seeking connection, growth, to learn how to love and be loved, to explore a life that matters, to work together for impact and justice in our neighborhood and our world – for all the reasons that motivated us to show up here on Sundays, that growth is dependent on our ability to actually show up. To be people who are present to experience the things we long for.
There are layers to this that we see revealed throughout the Jesus-story in the bible –how life happens in the moment, when we’re present, and the story of God has the potential to draw us into the moment when we let it.
We’ll turn now to one of those places – on this first Sunday of Advent, to a place that shows us WHY it is important to be present. We’re turning to Mark’s gospel, one of the four biographies of Jesus. We jump in mid-conversation to what Jesus has been saying for most of the chapter. Jesus is describing what it will be like when he comes back again – a very dramatic moment. And then he finishes with this section, he tells this brief story illustration which highlights that we don’t know when that will be, and what we should do in light of that.
Mark 13:33-37 (The Message)
Jesus continued: “…So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable. It’s like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job. I say it to you, and I’m saying it to all: Stay at your post. Keep watch.”
So Jesus uses this story, this image of a man who leaves on a trip with his servants left behind in charge – and names how they don’t know when he’ll be back – it could be anytime, unannounced. In the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, or in the morning. So lookout! This is a passage read every first Sunday of Advent every three years, in most churches around the world. And it makes sense that it would be read – we’re starting this season that anticipates the birth of Jesus on Christmas, this celebrating once again that God came into the world. And that from what we understand, Jesus will come again in flesh on this earth again someday.
We also hear in this text a certain Christian perspective that leans heavily into the “watch your back because Jesus is coming back again, we don’t know when and you better look busy.”
That’s how we can hear this – as if it’s a threat. Like Jesus coming is going to get us, trap us in some way. …In fact, the point is the opposite.
The point actually, is also the point to why living in the present moment matters. Because as this text says: when is the time when Jesus arrives? Every moment. All the time. In the evening, and at midnight, and at cockcrow, and in the morning. The presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always and forever. It’s not something that will come later and we better watch out. It is here now, always, so do keep watch, knowing that we cannot not be in the presence of God. There is no other place to be.
My friends, I wonder if we know this? Really know that we cannot not be in the presence of God? Richard Rohr says that all spiritual traditions – at their best – are simply teaching us how to be present to the moment. And there are many ways in which faith communities miss that target. But being present as what faith traditions are trying to teach – that makes sense to me. Because that is where God is. As Jesus-followers living in the present moment matters. We cannot not be in the presence of God – God is always there. The only change that is possible is on our side. God is present but we are often not present to the presence.
So – in light of all of this. As we considered how to craft our Advent experience together, we thought one of the best ways to shape our Advent would be one of talking about and experiencing being present. To build those practices like muscles. We’re calling our Advent and Christmas journey here at Salt House: Christmas [Present] Logo. Practicing being present, being here, wherever we are. Because this season will be filled with all kinds of gifts for us to receive. And you know what? So many of those gifts don’t come in pretty packages tied up with string, but the real gifts are the moments of connection, of wonder, of joy that we will miss unless we choose to be present. So we’ll work to train our brains to stop running backward and forward, so that we can receive Christmas Present.
So – there are a few simple practices I want to invite us into for the next four weeks. I know, I know, it’s a crazy few weeks we’re staring down, so I’m not asking you to DO a lot, but to find ways to BE in the midst of all the doing that is happening. And here they are.
To do Christmas, Present: First, an observation: no one in the history of human kind has ever had the obstacles we have to being present. We willingly carry our obstacles in our pockets now. Our phones. So first, I invite us to 1. Power Down. We all have different habits regarding our phones and tech, some of us hardly have them with us, but many of us have them on us constantly. Regardless of where we fall on that spectrum, when it comes to being present, our phones are an obstacle as we end up using them as any excuse to be somewhere else rather than right here. The invitation is to let right now, right here be enough.
There are all kinds of strategies for disconnecting from our phones, here are a few thoughts: don’t carry it with us all the time. Do a digital Sabbath for 24 hours on the weekend. Leave it in a cupboard or basket by the front door when you come home and only check it at certain times. When you go to sleep, actually use a real alarm clock and let your phone sleep in the other room. Don’t look at your phone when you’re waiting at the post office or for a friend to show up. Try ‘phone stacking’ – have you heard of this? When you sit down at a table for a meal, stack all the phones in the middle – and whoever grabs theirs first during the meal has to pay for it – or do the dishes. I love that. Jason?
At the very least – if you’re not willing to change your habits with your phone, I invite you to pay attention to your phone habits. To notice when you’re on it, why, where. So that’s the first invitation.
Second, I invite us to 2. Light Candles. (add to list and keep all four up) Advent this season – as we named at the beginning of our worship – is marked by the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Eve. And each Sunday, we light one more candle, letting the light grow in this dark, dreary time of year, as we hope towards Christmas. We want you, at home, to be able to mark that for yourself. On your own or with family members, as a way to become present through the ritual of lighting the Advent wreath. So today! After worship we’re having our Deck the Halls party – a chance to get the SH Christmas tree up and even more twinkly lights and decorations. And you are also invited to make an Advent wreath log. Attaching greenery, a few ornaments and ribbons, and then take the log home. One per household, and parents, do help your child decorate today, as it involves a staple gun.
You may have your own Advent Wreath with candles already – which is great, use that. So whether you make a wreath today or not, be sure to leave today with our Advent booklet. In this booklet is information on Advent, on how to use your Advent Log (if new to it). Also in the booklet is a piece that will help you do what I’m calling, our third practice of presence: 3. Savor the Story. Each day, there are 2-3 verses to read (only 2-3 verses, people) that will slowly inch us through the Christmas story, Jesus’ birth, as told in Luke’s gospel. Just a few sentences, every day, for us to hold this Advent, to let this story seep into our present moment, to be present holding how the story of God becoming human and showing up here among us informs our experience of the now, now. To remember that we can be present to the presence. Simple, meaningful, letting the story be present with us.
Then as we get to those Sundays, and light another candle, there’ll be a simple reflection question and prayer to mark the lighting of the candles – the same reflection and prayer that we’ll be doing here on Sunday mornings, too. Great to revisit and share with your family, with friends you may be eating with on Sunday evenings, as we walk through the four Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. This Sunday of course, is the candle of Hope.
And to be clear, even though we add another candle each Sunday, we also light the candles every day of the week, so this week, we can light one candle every time we sit down for dinner, or hanging in the living room. So again: we pray and reflect on Sundays, and then we read a few verses each day. And even if we miss a few days – they are such short passages that you can catch up on any that we miss when we get the chance. Make sense? We’re adding a bit of ritual to our days to help us stop, and be present.
Fourth and finally. This one is the real work, the real practice that I invite us into, together for Advent. If you do none of the other things: try this one. Do number four. And that is to 4. Meditation. Have you ever practiced mindfulness or meditation? This summer while I was on sabbatical, I started practicing meditation. Now I do it most mornings. It has been a transformative form of prayer for me. There’s a phone app I use (I know ironic when we talk about putting down our phones, and then I’m using it to help me meditate – so good). There are so many tools out there to help with meditation, and I have not done research or compared what’s best but I do like this one. It is an app called Headspace, which is also accessible online at headspace.com. You may find something else – awesome.
I’ve learned a lot about what meditation actually is (and what it is not). Meditation is about training our awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective. We’re not trying to turn off our thoughts or feelings. We can’t – our minds just keep going. But we’re learning to observe our thoughts and feelings and our bodies without judgment. To be curious about what we’re feeling, the things that come to mind, and to hold it all with compassion. And eventually, we may start to better understand them as well. In a moment, we’ll get into more of the practice of mediation. But I do really mean this invitation – what would it look like for you to take 10, 5, or even 2 minutes to meditate daily this Advent season? How much more present to yourself, to the magic of this season, to the moment might you become if you do? I can’t make you do it, but man, I sure do recommend it.
All four of these Advent practices are laid out in the reading guide we have for you – which you can grab on your way out today.
Friends, bring to mind again this text from Mark that we have read, which almost feels like a threat that says: keep watch! We hear it as a beautiful reminder that Advent is not these four weeks before Christmas – I mean, it is – but Advent is always. Advent means “coming” – the arrival of God. And the arrival of God, the presence of God will happen whenever we’re now here. We begin these four practices as Advent practices, knowing that these practices, just like Advent, are for always.
Friends, we do want this Advent to be one of becoming more present, and so we plan to set aside time to practice being more present, knowing that God meets us in our showing up in the moment. Today, we’re going to meditate using the audio from the Headspace App. This is day one of the 10 days they have available for free. (They try to get you to subscribe, but I just keep doing the free 10 days over and over for now – the goal with meditation is to get a sense of how to do it so you don’t actually have to listen to someone telling you what to do – but this is a good way to start). Each day you can choose 2, 5, or 10 minutes of meditation. We’ll do 2, but I highly recommend doing 10 when you can. I wanted us to try this together, so you can see how accessible it is and hopefully jump start your own meditation practice for the month. You can start with day one again tomorrow. What I love is that if you’ve never mediated before, Headspace leads you through each step. They have a short video to help us learn the basics, as we get started...
Headspace Video: “Getting Started”
Again, there are so many ways to meditate, and as Jesus followers, the point of it is to become more present to the presence of God. And here is just one way to do it, using a tool I have enjoyed. So let’s try it – and become more present to the presence – together. After, we’ll keep holding the space of being present and flow right into a song to listen to what God is saying to us.
Headspace Audio, Day One. www.headspace.com