Friday, December 30, 2011

Let Jesus Occupy Your Heart

This Christmastide, now that Christ is here, I've transitioned from thinking about how to make room for the Christ child in my heart to thinking about what it is to have Jesus in my heart. My first thought was that if Jesus is in my heart, that is, occupying a space (the same space I created during Advent when I made room for him), does that not mean that Jesus is occupying my heart? It's a cute phrase, and it can be used in the sense that internet memes re-use the same material in creative ways for humor. But what if I was serious about using the word "occupy?" What if I wanted to use it in the same sense that the Occupy Together movement uses it? What would that really mean?

Well, when the Occupy Together movement began using the word "occupy," they meant "march aggressively into another's territory by military force for the purposes of occupation." In reality, what those in the camps were doing was more like "be present in; be inside of," "to inhabit," and "to engage... wholly" (definitions found here). By engaging the culture and one another, and by covenanting to live together and be present with one another, the participants of the movement took ordinary actions and made them political.

Likewise, allowing Christ to occupy my heart is also a political action. Now, when I use the word "political," I don't mean modern American partisanship. I'm using it in the classical sense of the word. Bryan P. Stone explains it well in his book, Evangelism After Christendom:
“To speak of the church as a polis or to talk about the politics of evangelism may sound strange at first. Most of us are familiar with the word politics in the context of the public life of a nation, where it refers to options such as Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. As with that usage, politics here refers to the processes, rules, and skills that help us as a people to understand, order and form our involvements and relations. It likewise has everything to do with power, conflict, change, and authority. Politics originally referred to the shape and organization of the polis and thus to the particular grammar of a people’s common story and life together. As [John Howard] Yoder says, “Anything is political which deals with how people live together in organized ways: how decisions are made and how they are implemented; how work is organized and how its products shared; who controls space, land, freedom of movement; how people are ranked; how offenses are handled”... The church then is not called merely to be political but to be a new and unprecedented politics; not merely in public but as a new and alternative public; not merely in society but as a new and distinct society, a new and extraordinary social existence where enemies are loved, sins are forgiven, the poor are valued, and violence is rejected." (pp. 178-179, emphasis mine)
Stone is suggesting that the politic of the Christian community is an alternative politic to the one employed in our modern American society. Rather than retributive justice, we value restorative justice. Rather than hate and retaliate against our enemies, we love and forgive them. In the Christian politic, the poor are cared for, not forgotten, and swords are beaten into plowshares. When we take the Christian politic seriously and strive to live it, we are bringing about the Kingdom of God on Earth.

What does that have to do with Jesus coming into our hearts? Well, A. P Jones wrote that "to occupy is to be concerned about, to pursue with vigor" something that is important to us, and to do so is our Christian duty. If Jesus is in our heart, then should we not be concerned about the things that concern Jesus himself? Should we not pursue the things that he pursued? If my heart is to be a fitting home for the Christ child, I must pursue the Kingdom of God; I must be concerned with the poor, the downtrodden, the grieving, and with becoming a peacemaker (c.f. Matthew 5, 25; Luke 6). When I concern myself with the kinds of people who concerned Jesus, and pursue the Kingdom of God as he did, I become the kind of person Jesus wants me to be.

Allowing Jesus to occupy my heart means I have to give up my agenda. I have to stop living for my own success, comfort, and convenience. It means I will go out of my way to love those who have been forgotten, ask God's forgiveness for my sins and forgive the sins of others, and become a peacemaker in these times of strife. These are all political actions because they are shaping my Christian community and they are shaping the way I live in that community. Ultimately, these actions shape the entire world around me, as Christ's transforming power radiates out from the Christian community into the world. By letting Jesus into my heart, I am participating in a new politic- a new way of doing things- the Christian way of doing things. I'm making a statement to the world: "I'm doing things God's way!"

As the New Year fast approaches, it's time to evaluate whether we have been doing things my way or God's way. What can we do to let God's Spirit transform us into the kinds of people Jesus wants me to be? How can we let Jesus Occupy our hearts this Christmastide, now, and forever?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Peace on Earth

This Advent, I have spent a lot more time and energy being joyful than being peaceful. Each weekend, I have had parties with friends, church events, and/or caroling with my beloved fellow choristers. I learned of a dear friend's pregnancy, shared chocolate with co-workers, and celebrated the presence of family in my life. But I must confess that all of this activity has left me little time for contemplating peace on earth.

My husband gave me a Christmas gift early- a DVD of Kung Fu Panda 2- and we watched it last night with his parents. In the movie, Po is troubled by his family origin while his master, Shifu, tries to teach him to find inner peace.

Master Shifu demonstrates inner peace.
Photo credit:

Even though an evil peacock is trying to conquer China and chaos is all around him, Po manages to find peace anyway, with the help of his friends and mentors. Unfortunately, I am usually a lot more like Po than Shifu when it comes to peace.

I realized last night that I have not been a peaceful person recently. While I have the "peace that passes all understanding," a gift of the Holy Spirit to all Christians, I have not really been acting like it. I have been stressed, and at times, troubled. I wonder if my friends' experience of my Christmas cheer has been tainted by this stress. I wonder how they might find Christ in Christmas better if I were a more peaceful person to be with. When they listen to my life, do they hear, "Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled"? Yet how do I let the peace of Christ shine through all of the other "stuff" in my heart?

For me, I don't think the answer is a special revelation from my past like Po had. It's a decision on my part to let go of the things that stress me out, don't let my problems bother me so much, and let these things roll of my shoulders rather than dwell on them.  My own mental focus becomes what I project to others, and my witness will improve if my attitude improves.

Peace on earth is God's promise to us, and it is also something in which we participate and which we bring about in in our own lives. Part of living the Christian life is learning to focus on God's blessings, and to let our worries and negative thoughts float away like leaves on a river.  This is a lot easier to write about than it is do, but with God's help, I know I can do it.

How have you experienced God's peace in your life this holiday season?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The End of Occupy Boston... Or Is It?

I know this post is really late, but from the time I heard last Wednesday that the judge had lifted the restraining order against evicting the Occupy Boston encampment, I knew I needed to wait. Good things come to those who wait, because I can now report to you the things I witnessed at Occupy Boston last week. Since the eviction of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston has been the longest-running Occupy Together protest in the nation.

Following the lifting of the restraining order, Mayor Menino notified the OB community last Thursday morning that their deadline to leave would be midnight on Friday morning. Expecting a police raid at midnight, OB called an emergency General Assembly at 7 PM on Thursday to discuss their plan for how to defend the camp and learn more about non-violent resistance (e.g., what to do when pepper-sprayed, how not to appear to be resisting arrest, ect.). Realizing that it may be some folks' last hot meal before being carted off to jail, I decided to bake an apple pie and bring it down to Dewey Square. Get it? Occu-pie? Har.

Anyway, it's my mother's secret recipe which I made from scratch, so by the time I brought it downtown, it was about 9:30 PM. The General Assembly was still going and people were still hungry. They devoured my pie in a matter of minutes, and I prayed that my small act of mercy of giving warm pie "to the least of these" was giving pie to Christ as well. The GA decided not to pass anything, which really disappointed me, and then they started the non-violence training. The Protest Chaplains/ clergy gathered at the time decided to have their own meeting to decide what to do. Expecting violence on the part of police, they decided to stand in between the police and the OB participants and ask the police, "In the name of God, will you put down your weapon? Please will you consider not arresting these people?" They knew the police might not listen and decided to bless the police as they passed by, and they decided they would say a benediction for the whole camp after the police began arrests. As this plan was being made, a woman from Channel 5 News came to take a statement from the Protest Chaplains. They said, "We are the Protest Chaplains and we have been shepherding and encouraging all along." Now I know how to give statements to the press! Even though the chaplains had a designated area for those who were not able to be arrested that night (myself included), I decided this plan was not a good one for avoiding arrest, due to standing in the way of police, and went home to prepare for work on Friday.

 Somebody rigged up a projector and trained it on the building behind the GA meeting area. 
Photo from OB Facebook page.

When I returned home and turned on the TV coverage, I found that the police were not making arrests. Instead of linking arms at the core of the encampment, people streamed into Atlantic Avenue and had a massive dance party! Folks on the ground estimated about 2,000 people were there that night. I could hear the makeshift band in the background playing- a tuba, trombone, and bass drum. The party dissipated at 2 AM and the camp remained on Friday.

On Saturday morning, I awoke to the news on Facebook: OB had been raided at 5 AM, a few hours earlier. According to eyewitness accounts, there was a spirit of joviality, laughing, and wisecracking in the camp that morning. The policemen who had patrolled the area regularly addressed the protesters by name when arresting them, and the protesters greeted the Chief of Police on a first name basis. The Boston Globe reported that this was the most peaceful police raid on any Occupy camp. But not all was well that morning. One of the Protest Chaplains reported on FB that those who were not arrested included the homeless (re-named "houseless" by OB participants) people who had been taken in by the the tent owners. She said that they were wandering around the empty square and crying, telling her, "What am I going to do now?" An account on the OB main FB page said they were even crying as they watched the police arrest those who linked arms and sat in the center of the camp. I tried to imagine what it must be like to be taken in by new friends, and accepted despite the problems developed while living on the street, only to have my new home and new friends suddenly taken away. Devastating. Their loss and despair must be profound.

As I reflect on this movement that has given hope and voice to so many, I rejoice at the peaceful dissolution of the camp but grieve for my "houseless" neighbors who are now tentless also. It's back to the shelters for them, and the shelters can be rough places to be. Last week in church, we read that "every valley shall be exalted, and the rough places made plain." Who will make these rough places plain for the houseless among us? Especially now that Occupy Boston the encampment is gone?

But OB continues in a less permanent physical form. Certainly it still exists online, and the working groups (such as the Faith and Spirituality Group, which includes the Protest Chaplains) are still working. General Assemblies take place on the Boston Common now, or in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, an Episcopal cathedral across from the Common. Occupy Boston has not ceased to exist, and its voice for economic justice will continue to be heard locally and around the world.

And what does this have to do with God? Well, the Bible tells us clearly that when people are oppressed and treated with injustice, this angers God. Isaiah 10:1-4 says:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans  your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come...? To who will you flee for help...? For all this [God's] anger has not turned away.
Amos 8:4, 9-10 says,
Hear this you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land... I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.
Micah 2:1-3 is very relevant to those bankers who profit from selling mortgages on houses that have now been foreclosed:
Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. Therefor thus says the Lord: Now, I am devising against [you] an evil from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time.
Clearly, God is concerned for the poor, those who have lost their homes, and those ensnared in the usury of mortgage and credit card debt. To watch the rich people of our country do this to the rest of us makes God angry. The Occupy Boston participants, while they did not all agree on political philosophy and social issues, stood on Atlantic Avenue and decried foreclosures, usury, greed, inequality, and oppression. Every day, they did something to tell the world, "Hey, this isn't right! We need to make things right!"

Even if protesters are not all Christians, the Occupy Together movement is doing something very Christian: it is calling our nation to repentance for the sins named in Amos, Isaiah, and Micah.. As Christians, we ought to cheer them on, and— dare I say it?— join them in protest. While the Occupy Boston encampment is gone, OB is continuing to help bring about God's Kingdom of peace and justice in the world today. And we can too. 

I hope and pray that one day, through our efforts and the efforts of our children, all people will have homes, fairness can be restored in our lending practices, and no one will have to use food stamps or go hungry. God, give us the strength and wisdom to make it so. Amen and amen.

Friday, December 9, 2011

I'm Too Busy for Advent!

Hey folks, this is a little bit late, but there is a lot going on right now with Occupy Boston. They are facing eviction and I don't have enough time to write the full account of what I am seeing when I go and what I am reading in the Boston Globe, the OB blog, and other sites. In the meantime, I think I'll post a prayer that my pastor found this week. Up until the OB excitement, this is exactly how I have been feeling. Over at Unfolding Light, Pastor Steve wrote a prayer for what he calls the Advent Blahs:

Dear God,
I just don't feel like Advent today. I don't have time to sit in the velvet darkness and contemplate some wonderful silence. I don't feel Jesus coming. I'm not in touch with any promise or vision. I have absolutely no idea what Isaiah means by “preparing a way,” and even less idea about that crazy John the Baptist jumping around in the desert with grass in his hair. I don't know what it means to “make of my heart an open manger.” I'm just not there. I'm busy, tired and distracted. I haven't set up my stupid little Advent wreath; the candles lie in their stupid little box in the closet, under a lot of stuff. You're starting to bug me. All the spiritual hype about repentance and transformation sounds to me just like the crap from Macy's about how I need to buy their stuff. I've done Christmas before. I know what to expect. I bet I'm going to be just fine in January like I am now. So I'm just going to go right on with my ordinary little life here, OK? Whatever is in my soul, I'm not handing it over. It's nothing special, anyway, nothing devout and holy. It's clenched inside, plain and undeserving, and fine with that.  I'm fine. I just want nice presents and a good dinner with the kids. That's all. So if you're going to break in on my world, it's up to you. If you're going to do some wacky Gabriel thing with me, knock yourself out. Go ahead and make flesh turn into heaven, and a plain human life divine. If you're going to come into my life, don't wait for me. Just do what you do, you know, behind our backs and unasked for and all that.  Go right ahead. Just do your thing. OK? Please? Amen.

Do you ever feel this way about Advent? That you are just too busy to stop and prepare the way for the Christ child? And you have no time for any spiritual, even reading Barb's quick devotionals on the CUMC Facebook page? I feel that way many times this Advent- especially when I scroll past Barb's posts in my FB notifications. What does it mean to prepare a way for Jesus in my heart when I am on the bus going somewhere, or doing laundry?

For me, what helps with the Advent Blahs is singing Christmas carols (or if I'm on the bus, listening to them on my iPhone YouTube app). Perhaps I have a million things to do after I have pre-treated this load of laundry or put away these groceries. Yet as I do these small, mundane tasks, the act of singing about Christ's birth helps keep me in the Advent frame of mine. OK, so perhaps singing carols is liturgically incorrect, since technically the Christ child hasn't arrived yet. But it works for me, and that's what's important.

What might you do to help you prepare the way for Jesus in your heart, even in the midst of this hectic season?

Photo credit: Martin Stockley

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Advent is Waiting... For What?

Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, and I must admit that a was a little crabby about it. I didn't take Pastor Lisa's message very well. Stop and listen? Limit my stress? But I am too busy for that! Ah, yes. My attitude is precisely why I need a little Advent- right this very minute.

In case you haven't heard much about Advent yet, this blogger posted an awesome picture of a liturgical calendar and explains the part Advent plays in the liturgical year. (For more on the liturgical year, go here.) Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year and it is a season of anticipation. We are waiting for Christ to make a quiet, unassuming entrance into our lives.

For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, this can feel a bit strange. "But Jesus came into my life ____ years ago!" we object. And during this season of crazy schedules, holiday parties, and shopping for gifts, it can be hard to remember to be stop and be quiet. We become aware Christ's presence in our lives in the quiet moments and the small, unexpected changes in our routine that make us think twice. Just as Mary noticed the small, unexpected changes of pregnancy in the quiet moments of life, we are witness Jesus' birth into our world and our lives all over again.

In reality, Jesus is coming into our lives every day. The Holy Spirit is constantly beckoning to stop and notice our attitude and our surroundings. Every time we catch ourselves being grumpy toward a family member or treating a favor as a hassle, we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Our old selves are constantly rediscovering Jesus and his work in our lives. That is precisely the point of Advent. In what ways have you noticed God's work in your life this year? How are you anticipating Jesus' coming in these four weeks of Advent?