Saturday, November 30, 2013

Christmas Rush Meets Advent Hush

The month-long clash of Advent and Kulture Krismas calls for holding in tension these two divergent traditions

"'Tis the season to be jolly."

Technically, that would be the Christmas season. And that season will not arrive for four weeks.

Technically, we begin the season of Advent the first Sunday of December and observe it right up through Christmas Eve. In Advent, we're invited to carefully prepare our hearts, making room for the "arrival." That's what we'll do if we care to observe ancient church and a deeper cultural tradition. 

Commercially, however, it's already "Christmastime in the city." In the stores. With the ads. On TV. Over the radio waves. One cannot avoid or escape it.


You realize there are two primary rhythms for celebrating Christmas, right?  One is what I call Kulture Krismas.  This is the rhythm most of us in America know and practice.  It begins with Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and finishes on Christmas Day.  It's full of frolicking and purchasing and caroling for the month leading up to December 25.  But after the "big day, we're partied out.  We're spent.  Christmas is pretty much over.

Kulture Krismas is a fabrication of 20th century retailers and corporations who realized what a financial bonanza gift-giving at Christmas could become. Trace the ever-earlier sales and decorations and teasing holiday music and holiday extravaganzas from the early 20th-century until now and you find a snowballing cultural evolution driven not by metaphysical meaning or historically-rooted tradition, but by layer upon layer of manufactured hype.

In the rhythm of Kulture Krismas, Christmas Day is the end of the season of purchasing and frolicking. Everything builds toward this orgy of indulgence and gratification. Instead of Christmas Day being the beginning of a season of celebration and meaning, it signals the end of a season of hype. Retailers count their blessings and we settle in for a long, cold, barren slog until spring.


The rhythm fewer know--and still fewer observe--begins with four weeks of soul-searching preparation in Advent, highlights with Christmas Day communion (the Mass of Christ, i.e., Christ-mas), and extends through Epiphany on January 6th (celebrating the arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem). This rhythm gives us the tradition of giving a gift on each of the 12 days of Christmas.

The feeling and mood of Advent is like a home that is anticipating a child to be born to a family.  It's wonderful, hopeful and joyful. But it's primarily a time to prepare, to make room for the child. The gift, the child being born, the birth day, is the beginning of the real celebration.  That's what brings surpassing joy and cause for real revelry.

There are a few simple yet meaning-giving traditions for the four weeks of Advent. Here are a few:

  • The advent wreath, with a candle lit for each week--one symbolizing hope, the next faith, the next love, the last one joy. Some light a fifth candle, called the Christ candle, on Christmas Day.
  • The Jesse Tree is another Advent tool children especially enjoy. 
  • Some households use a Nativity creche with an empty manger and place different characters of the story at the creche as the weeks unfold. 
  • One can readily find online Lectionary readings for each day of Advent (I use an iPhone app for this). 
  • Fasting is also part of the ancient Advent practice--it is a partial fast combined with repentance to "make room" for receiving in Christmas what alone can fill the heart's hunger.


Most of us who observe the ancient practice accommodate the more secular/commercial holiday, but we do so with mixed feelings. The month-long clash of Advent and Kulture Krismas calls for holding in tensions these two divergent traditions. We cross this border daily during the weeks of December. We're attempting and Advent simmer amid a commercial Christmas combustion. We try to live in the rhythm of Advent, attempting to hold off untimely outbursts of "Joy to the World" until Christmas Eve, only to find ourselves indulging the crowd that can't wait for Santa Claus to come to town.

So, if I seem a bit reticent to dive whole-hog into Christmas frolicking in these weeks, please indulge me this small eccentricity.  I'm trying to prepare my heart to make room to fully experience the grace of Incarnation--as if the Child were suddenly, upendingly born in my heart and to our world on Christmas Eve. Then, I'll sing--and keep on singing--with gusto: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill to all!"

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thank Thee, O Giver of Life

This poem captures the breadth of my gratitude

Thanksgiving is such a robust tradition in American culture, both for those of us who are overtly religious and those who are less so. The holiday is bathed in poetry. The following piece by Angela Morgan is simply titled “Thanksgiving.” I found it in a paperback volume I bought for 25 cents at a used book sale several years ago. The Treasury of Religious Verse was compiled by Donald T. Kauffman and published in 1970.

Thank Thee, O Giver of Life, O God!
For the force that flames in the winter sod;
For the breath of my nostrils, fiercely good,
The sweet of water, the taste of food,
The sun that silvers the pantry floor,
The step of a neighbor at my door;
For dusk that fondles the window pane,
For the beautiful sound of falling rain.

Thank Thee for love and light and air,
For children’s faces, keenly fair,
For the wonderful joy of perfect rest
When the sun’s wick lowers within the West;
For huddling hills in gowns of snow
Warming themselves in the afterglow;
For Thy mighty wings that are never furled,
Bearing onward the rushing world.

Thank Thee, O Giver of Life, O God!
For Thy glory leaping the lightning rod;
For Thy terrible spaces of love and fire
Where sparks from the forge of Thy desire
Storm through the void in floods of suns,
Far as the heat of Thy Presence runs
And where hurricanes of chanting spheres
Swing to the pulse of the flying years.

Thank Thee for human toil that thrills
With the plan of Thine which man fulfills;
For bridges and tunnels, for ships that soar,
For iron and steel and the furnace roar;
For this anguished vortex of blood and pain
Where sweat and struggle are never vain;
For progress, pushing the teeming earth
On and up to a higher birth.
Thank Thee for life, for life, for life,
O Giver of Life, O God!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Toward Thanksgiving

 I’m glad Thanksgiving is a designated holiday, or else I might just charge on presumptively
This holiday is for all that we
Take for granted,
Assume as a given,
Absentmindedly overlook,
Claim as our God-given right.

This holiday is for all those we
Unnecessarily criticize,
Agitate with our demands,
Impatiently rush,
Regularly impose upon.

This holiday is for all that we
By-pass in our drivenness,
Go out of our way to avoid,
Carelessly forget,
Thoughtlessly leave out.

This holiday is for all things we
Receive as gracious gifts,
Share as common ground,
Express as transcendent grace,
Return in praise to God.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Shall Gratitude Fail?

A still-emerging poem of Thanksgiving

Shall gratitude fail,
even as the day that proclaims it draws near?
An age-old grievance surfaces,
rude and unwelcome.
Petty regrets and jealousies dare to rekindle, clouding a
lightening horizon.
Common relational tensions
seem annoyingly magnified
in light of a conscious decision to
accentuate the positive—especially
for this holiday.

Presence or gnawing absence
of estranged or once-endeared loved ones
plays games with a heart intent on
embracing thanksgiving’s spirit.
Unusual or changed circumstances
provide breeding ground for
doubt or guilt or despair,
particularly for souls trained
to calibrate meaning by repetitive, familiar,
nearby things.

Shall gratitude fail
in calculation of debits and credits
of goodness on a balance sheet?
Weighing pleasant occurrences
over against troubles threatens
a tenuous thanksgiving.
Only if gratitude is faux
will it falter in the face of
persistent rationalizations for
justifiable self-pity.

Out of a thousand impressions
and experiences appealing for
complaint or protest, gratitude emerges—
wonder of wonders—as the
response of choice.
Discounting no injustices,
minimizing no contrary feelings,
gratitude simply shines a light
on what is given and good
and declares it so.

Neither a salve for wrongs
nor an obfuscating diversion,
gratitude, instead, invites recognition,
often amid too-obvious wreckage,
of grace and mercy and love—
unearned, undeserved and free.
And in this recognition--this choice,
this declaration--thanksgiving
opens a way to walk toward tomorrow
with confidence, courage, 

and hope.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Heart-felt Thanksgiving

A prayer of Ted Loder in his incredible collection of poems titled Guerrillas of Grace

Praise be to you, O Lord, for life
and for my intense desire to live;
praise be to you for the mystery of love
and for my intense desire to be a lover;
praise be to you for this day
and another chance to live and love.

Thank you, Lord

for friends who stake their claim in my heart,
for enemies who disturb my soul and bump my ego,
for tuba players,
and story tellers,
and trapeze troupes.

Thank you, Lord,

for singers of songs,
for teachers of songs,
who help me sing along the way,
and for listeners.

Thank you, Lord,
for those who attempt beauty
rather than curse ugliness,
for those who take stands
rather than take polls,
for those who risk being right
rather than pandering to be liked,
for those who do something
rather than talking about everything.

Lord, grant me grace, then,
and a portion of your Spirit
that I may so live
as to give others cause
to be thankful for me,
thankful because I have not forgotten
how to hope,
how to laugh,
how to say "I am sorry,"
how to forgive,
how to bind up wounds,
how to dream,
how to cry,
how to pray,
how to love when it is hard,
and how to dare when it is dangerous.

Undamn me, Lord,
that praise may flow more easily from me
than wants,
thanks more readily
than complaints.

Praise be to you, Lord, for life;
praise be to you for another chance to live.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Veterans, War, and Dreams of Peace

The line between honoring those who served in war and glorifying war is fine but critical.  

ARMISTICE DAY - 96 YEARS LATER. Today is the 96th anniversary of Armistice Day, the day Germany surrendered, ending "The Great War." We now observe November 11 as Veterans Day. At least 8,538,315 soldiers died in World War I; there were 37,508,686 total casualties, or 57.6% of all troops deployed by allied and axis forces.

FOR REMEMBRANCE. I've found numerous poems in tribute to those fallen in World War I, but choose the following, called "For Remembrance" by Basil Ebers, to post:

What is it, O dear Country of our pride,
We pledge anew that we will not forget?
To keep on Freedom's altar burning yet
The fires for which a myriad heroes died
Known and unknown, beyond the far sea's tide
That their great gift be no futility.

Faith with the Dead kept through our living faith;
In this alone the true remembrance lies,
The unfading garland for the sacrifice,
To prove their dream of Brotherhood no wraith,
No moment's hope--its birth-pang one with death--
but the fixed goal of our humanity.

HONOR THE WAR DEAD, NOT WAR. A fine line it is, but oh so critical that it be observed and guarded. The line--almost imperceptible when inflamed with hatred toward enemies, drunk with hard-fought victory, or intoxicated with exaggerated nationalism--will glorify or condemn us. It is the line between honoring the war dead, along with those who serve in the military today, and glorifying war itself.

NEVER DREAM OF ITS VIOLENCE. Honor with reverence those men and women who serve and die in harm's way. Weep and mourn for civilians cruelly caught in the strife. Give honor for Veterans who have served in harm's way in the name of freedom. But never glory in war. Never embrace its horrors. Never savor its torments. Never dream of its violence. Never drink to its return. Never gaze upon its power, lest its illusion seduce us. Lest war lust obsess us. Lest its siren sound lure us into its labyrinthine bowels and we swear allegiance to it, live for it, and our souls die even as we breathe.

NOT ALL WARS ARE EQUAL. Not all wars are equal. A vast majority are not really necessary. This is not a reflection on the troops who fought them as it is on those who chose and directed them. The war in Iraq was an example of a war begun with highly suspect justifications (now completely debunked) and carried along with ranging political rationalizations.

VETERAN DREAMS. I know some Veterans and they are people of integrity. Some fought in World War II, some in Korea, some served during the Vietnam conflict, and some in Iraq and Afghanistan. They tell different stories. All are glad to be alive. All grieve their lost comrades. All are relieved that their service is ended. None I know wish for their sons or daughters the opportunity to fight another war.

A NEW CROP OF HOMELESS VETERANS. I've worked with homeless vets for years. Just when we were getting most of the Vietnam-era Vets connected with counseling, housing, and the costly, life-long resources that are necessary for ones whose minds, emotions, bodies, and souls have been ravaged by war, America starts breeding a new crop soon-to-be homeless Vets. It doesn't take years for Vets returning from doing our government's dirty work to show up in soup lines and shelters; think in terms of months. It takes many years--and often a lifetime--however, to overcome what a few months in front-line action can do.

WAR FINDS A WAY. Militarism always seems to find some twisted way to justify the necessity and perpetuation of war. Each generation seems to have its share of blood lust. Military training, heavy investment in weaponry and the "defense industry," and constant  rehearsal for conflict seeks self-validation, self-justification. It doesn't take much of a provocation by one of the world's many tyrants or rogue regimes to pop the cork.  Once engaged, militarism plants its gruesome seed then argues for its rebirth in every generation. War is self-perpetuating; few generations can resist it.

ART'S PROMISE AND POWER. It has occurred to me (or at least resurfaced within me) that a way to reveal the hollow way of mammon and violence, and to simultaneously bring light to grace and peace, is through arts and literature. Case in point: the Czech Republic and the nonviolent Velvet Revolution. Political partisanship gets us nowhere. The evangelical church has largely lost its witness amid partisanship. But art--the written word, the dramatized situation, the lifted song, and the vision graphically cast--has more power to delegitimate war and cumber, and to bring the possibility of grace and peace into our lives than the currently prevailing methods of choice.

Photo: I snapped this photo during an early-morning visit to the Korean War Memorial