Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Few Good Humans

The Gospel stories throughout Advent speak of three main characters that help to prepare the way for Christ. Mary and Joseph, Jesus's biological and earthly parents, respectively, literally prepare for Christ's entrance into the world. John the Baptist, the other main figure over the past four weeks, prepared people for Christ's entry into public ministry. St. John the Baptist gathered believers to himself before pointing them to Jesus. All three set the stage for Christ to come into the world.

All three prepared Him room.

Let every heart follow suit.

Mary's yes and humble obedience is well discussed and documented and even debated. Her central role in bringing Christ into the world is starkly obvious. Christ came into the world as all humans do - through His mother. Beautiful and miraculous, all births take place because of the strength, love and care of women. Mary's importance is undeniable. Her special favor only surpassed in Christ Himself. Her simple "yes" has resoundingly echoed in the world ever since.

"Let it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

Mary's model of saying yes to God, preparing for His coming and nurturing that relationship has no rival. However, Joseph's and John's roles have an incredibly powerful message as well. Radically say "yes" to God. Submit to His will. Decrease so He can increase (John 3:30). Point others to Christ. Be humble and generous of spirit. Defend Him. Protect Him. Trust and accept that accepting, embracing and following Christ can bring joy greater than your heart's most burning desire.

Joy. Singing. Resounding joy! Wonders of His love!

Say yes. Let it be done to us according to His word.

The counter-cultural slant of these messages are not new to the 21st Century. Submit. Obey. Be humble. Put God first, others second and yourself last. Don't worry about ridicule or rumor. Be indifferent - not in a way that doesn't care, but in a way that doesn't care who gets credit. Society's emphasis on power, greed, fame, money, status, sex, and pride did not result at the dawn of the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, printing press, aviation, sliced bread or even the internet. These emphases / ailments have been around for as long as humans have.

But, Jesus, in an earthly sense, hasn't. His birth was a mere 2,000 years ago, about 1% of the total time that humans have been on the planet. His birth was foretold by prophets. His coming was anticipated for centuries. Angels visited good people to tell them about the coming of the Lord. God started a relationship with Abraham and led His people according to His plan. But, even Abraham lived only about 2,000 years before Christ. Undoubtedly, there were good people prior to even God's covenant with Abraham. Undoubtedly, there were good people before the coming of Christ.

There should be even more good people after. Blessed are they who do not see and yet still believe (John 20:29). But, foolish are we who know of Christ and yet still don't believe. As I reflect on the past year, I think of all of the good people that have gone home to the Lord - my dad, my wife's grandmother, my sister's father in-law, my brother's father in-law, a colleague's father, the patriarch of a close family friend, a humanitarian from my hometown, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, and countless other good people that left this world. I think of all of the pain, hurt, violence, war, hunger, illiteracy, and abuse in our world and I think that there aren't enough good people in the world. People who hold the door. People who let you in front of them in traffic. People who give up their seats so that families can sit together on planes. People who want to give more than they want to receive, love more than they want to be loved. Good people.

And then I think of Christmas. I think of the magnitude of God taking on our earthly state. God was a good human. Mary was a good human. Joseph was a good human. John the Baptist was, too. Countless people have been good. Countless people are good. God is doing something about all of the pain, hurt and sadness. He has done something and will continue to do something. All is not lost. Hope comes into the world in the same way that every child comes into the world - by being born. Be good. Be so good that other people want to imitate your good. Be good when you don't have to be. Be good when no one is watching. Do good. Be good. For God. For others. For yourself. Be good for goodness and for Goodness's sake.

Prepare Him room. Sing. Be good.

Be triumphant!

Emmanuel! God is with us!


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lovers of the Light

The days grow shorter; darkness increases. Cold grips the earth with a chilling embrace. Our world swells with violence, hunger, hatred, oppression, suffering, poverty, sickness, and death. Another year inches closer to its end. Reasons for despair abound.

But, the night is darkest right before the dawn. Even the deepest blackness is no match for even the smallest of lights. No matter how strong, no matter how pervasive, no matter how enduring the void, darkness always succumbs to light. Light a match and darkness is no match. It vanishes. Flip a switch and darkness runs away. 

This Friday we will celebrate the Feast of St. Lucy, patroness of the blind. Lucy literally means "light" and it is fitting that her feast day falls within the sacred season of Advent. We know Christ as the Light of the World. Lucy's own flame is a stirring model and example of letting your light shine for others. 

Lights abound in our homes, our neighborhoods and our Churches during this time of the year. We decorate our houses with lights. We put them on our Christmas trees. We light a series of four candles around our Advent wreaths. We light up our world during this secular season of winter to remind ourselves that Christ's light will conquer all, and that it is coming soon.

Yet, we so easily give into negative thoughts, feelings, emotions and tendencies. We hold onto anger, hurt, and jealousy. We so easily participate in gossip, lies, and deceit. We so easily give into sin. We vindicate ourselves by saying, "I deserve this. I am justified in feeling this way. Someone else deserves the blame. I have such bad luck. Someone up there must be against me. If God truly cared about me, he wouldn't have let this happen. I'm tired. I'm sick. I'm sick and tired. It's his/her fault. I'm right. They're wrong." 

What's more is that we don't keep this negativity to ourselves. Misery truly does love company. It needs it. Being the only person to be down in the dumps makes the dumps even dumpier. Having others wallow in our mud along with us validates our pessimism.

Everyone feels this way. I'm not the only person. Other people are upset, too. Lots of people are upset. A whole lot of them. The entire lot. Upset. The whole lot is very upset. 

Sound familiar? 

Why? Why do we give into negativity? Why do we complain so much (as opposed to venting like I am doing)? Why do we believe the lie that negativity can produce anything productive

In the words of The Christophers, "It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness." Author William Saroyan agrees, "Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed." St. Paul encourages the Philippians, saying, 
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (4:8). 
Be a lover of the light. Encourage each other. Build one another up. Be kinder than you think you should be. Be gentler. Give the benefit of the doubt even when you doubt someone deserves your benefit. Fight against the coming of the night. Rage against it. Light a candle. Share your flame with others. Lift. Elevate. Laugh. Give. Act. Love.  

Invite others up to the top of your mountain and help them ascend to your heights. Together enjoy the view and the fresh air. 

Stay positive. Stay awake. 

It may be dark for now, but soon and very soon...

Monday, December 9, 2013

And With Your Spirit

Peace, surprise, and gifts.

Advent preparation should afford us a sense of peace. Much like the calm of knowing that you have finished getting your house ready for a guest, or that a task was completed well in advance of a deadline or that you were ready to leave for an event before you had intended to depart. 

Usually, though, it doesn’t. We usually limp through to the end of Advent and exhaustedly celebrate Christmas. We do so much during these weeks. Parties. Shopping. Decorating. Wrapping. Cards. Events. Cooking. Cleaning. Worship. 

Advent should provide us with an opportunity to reconnect to our deepest needs and focus on our most fundamental relationships. It should afford us with an equal amount of reflection and activity, prayer and service, much like Lent. We should approach the Incarnation refreshed, ready and excited. We should be at peace with our level of preparation when Christmas finally arrives. Peace should be ours. Jesus tells us, “Peace I leave to you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). Let us accept it!

Many of our readings during Advent focus on not only the birth of Jesus but also the second coming of Christ - the end of times. Our preparation for Christ’s coming should also direct our efforts toward being prepared for the end of the world as well. Advent should be a time when we strive for peace within our relationships and within ourselves, knowing that we do not know the hour or the day when Christ will come again. We should be awake and stay vigilant, but in a way that is filled and overwhelmed by peace. 

Peace He leaves to us; His peace He gives to us. During Advent, at Christmas and always. Let us accept it. 

Let us also have the courage to be surprised. We undoubtedly think that doing more will somehow make us feel fulfilled and happy. We fear that scaling back on the gifts or cards or decorations or food or guests or events will somehow leave us empty. If anything, doing less will allow more room for Christ to come and enter our lives this Christmas. Start with worship. Think of the Magi and how they brought gifts, wise gifts, to the Christ child out of love, homage and an understanding of Christ’s future status. They didn’t come to Jesus expecting presents, but came to Him expecting to be amazed by His presence. The “Little Drummer Boy” from the famous song approaches the Lord afraid that he doesn’t have a gift to give to his Savior. It is then that he decides to offer the only thing that he has, all that he has, his gift of playing the drum. Mary nods. Jesus smiles. And it was good. 

Slow down, focus on being a wise gift giver and be surprised by Jesus’s approval of your actions. Stay awake and present to noticing His message in the midst of all of our secular ones. Frosty doesn’t have a place at the Nativity. Avoid the snowball effect of getting so wrapped up in your to-do list and spend some time offering your gift to Jesus. Spend some time really connecting with family and friends. 

Advent is a time of preparation. It is a time of excitement. It is a time of expectant hope. My you feel abundant peace as you journey through Advent. May you be surprised at the wonders of His love as you spend time in reflection. 

Accept these gifts; accept Him. 

Find Christ. 

Find Peace.  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

AMAZING Training Pillar #1: Improvement

Never stop improving.


The Japanese call it "kaizen". Visualize a never-ending staircase and this concept may take on greater meaning (or more of a sense of despair!):

From a Christian perspective, St. Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in God." While perfection is never completely attainable, one must continue to pursue it as if it were. We can always love more, help more, listen more, do more, be more. Life constantly throws twists and turns at us that stretch our character. With all of its ups and downs, triumphs and failures, challenges and successes, we can very easily get caught up in our human desires of greed, shame, vengeance, vanity, righteousness, lust, despair, and hopelessness. Even Bl. Pope John Paul II went to confession every day!

We must never stop improving...and there is always room for improvement. No matter the level of excellence, no matter how much compassion fills our hearts, no matter how high we ascend in any single area, there is always room for improvement.

People who are AMAZING understand this idea of the necessity of improvement and embrace it. People who are AMAZING recognize that being complacent with stagnancy is a road to perpetual mediocrity. In fact, the only way to be AMAZING at something is to push beyond the plateau of good enough by focusing on continuous improvement. AMAZINGness is only achieved through constant improvement.

Therefore, it should make sense that IMPROVEMENT is the first and most important of the AMAZING Training Pillars. There can be no AMAZING without improvement. Small, incremental, purposeful steps that enable one to breakthrough good enough into the realm of AMAZING.

The expert in how to become an expert at anything, K. Anders Ericsson, argues that improvement is the key to excellence in any area. Innate ability only plays a small part in excellence. Focused practice, the use of a mentor, heightened awareness and small, incremental steps are the hallmarks of becoming AMAZING at something. Practice is the key component - 10 years worth of practice is necessary to become an expert. But, also important is having a mentor who will push you beyond the stumbling blocks of being "good enough". This mentor can help to design training programs that are incremental in their progressive steps. This person must also supply feedback at each step of the way. Finally, once must move beyond arrested development of doing something with automaticity. One must arrive at a heightened awareness of what is happening in order to be AMAZING.

Follow these four steps, according to Ericsson, and work your tail off and you can be AMAZING.

This concept is incredibly liberating for educators. Scaffold lessons so that information and skills are chunked in progressive sequences and sections. Challenge students to improve on areas in which they struggle instead of just allowing them to enhance their strengths. Provide opportunities for students to practice and then provide them with lots of formative feedback feedback. Embolden them by giving them not only the power of how but also the magic of why - get students to think about their thinking (metacognition) and become aware of the steps of a skill.

Do this and your students can be AMAZING.

This also applies to our walk as Christians. Never stop improving. Fight against the danger of thinking that our good enough is actually good enough. Find a spiritual mentor who can help to challenge you to move past who you are and toward who you need to be. Become aware of and be present to every area of your life. Stop just going through the motions and start to move with purpose. And never stop trying. No matter how hard the fall, no matter how dirty the landing get back up. Today. Tomorrow. Always.

Do this and you can be AMAZING.

Oscar Wilde claims, "The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past while every sinner has a future."

Never stop improving. Ever.

Do this and you will be AMAZING.