Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Seven Swans a Swimming

A Reflection for the Seventh Day of Christmas

"On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me… seven swans a swimming."

Seven swans a swimming: Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1. prophecy, 2. ministry/serving, 3. teaching, 4. exhortation/encouragement, 5. giving, 6. leading, and 7. compassion

Read: Psalm 133; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31

HALF WAY. We are half way on our spiritual journey to Epiphany. Thus far, using the 16th-century song developed to mimetically teach catechumens core elements of the Christian faith, we have received six precious gifts:
1) Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh.
2) The Old and New Testaments.
3) Faith, hope and love.
4) The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
5) The Pentateuch or Torah, and
6) The six days of creation.

KEEPS ON GIVING. What are we doing with these invaluable gifts? Or, what are these gifts doing in us? These are not the kind of gifts that lose their luster or wear out. We may lose interest in them, but they never lose interest in us. These Christmastide gifts are ones that keep on giving, ever beckoning, ever inviting us to receive them afresh and to be transformed.

GIFT UPON GIFT. Go ahead, open the seventh gift. What is it? Oh, it is a gift! What is inside that gift? Oh, another gift! And what is inside THAT gift? Hey, another gift! And another. And another. And another. And still another. You get the feeling that you could keep opening boxes inside of boxes, gift upon gift. Such is the multiplicity and diversity of spiritual gifts.

EMPOWERING. The specific gifts recalled on the seventh day of Christmas since the sixteenth century are those listed in Romans 12: prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, compassion. Many more could be named. But whatever the gift, it is vital to know this: spiritual gifts are given for the sake of empowering people of faith to join in sharing Good News, bearing grace, and making real—here and now—the anticipated Kingdom of God.

COMMUNITY-BUILDING GIFTS. The spiritual gifts described in Romans 12, as well as in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere throughout the Epistles, are essential gifts for forming, sustaining, and extending community. Spiritual gifts are about community. Not about personal advancement. Not about possessing. A spiritual gift is not a spiritual gift unless it is selflessly shared. A community will thrive when graciously given gifts are freely and strategically shared. What better follow-up to Christmas than for gifts, great and small, to be turned toward serving and building up the community?

USEFUL THOUGH LESS DESIRABLE. It has become an inadvertent tradition in our household to keep a few opened gifts on the skirt around our Christmas tree for days after the 25th. Big gifts get whisked away, played with, put on, plugged in. But to this day a few small ones remain under the tree: a box of fireplace matches, a bottle of cologne, a couple of games, a basket of crafts, a book, a flashlight, a quote-a-day calendar. Not expensive or necessarily the most desirable gifts, but useful ones just the same. They remind me of the diversity and usefulness of spiritual gifts, particularly less desirable ones.

KNOWN IN ACTION. Like the faith, hope, and love received on the third day of Christmas, the gifts we receive today are spiritually perceived, inwardly apprehended, and entirely relational. Perhaps we will never know our gifts--or what impact on a relationship, neighborhood, church, or community we can have--until we start to serve, to give, to lead, to show mercy, to teach, to encourage, and/or to declare what is burning in our hearts. Why not start today?

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Six Geese A Laying

A Reflection for the Sixth Day of Christmas

"On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… six geese a laying."

Six geese a laying = Six days of creation

Scripture: Psalm 139; Genesis 1:1-2:3; Colossians 1:15-23; 1 John 1:1-4

YIELD TO THE MYSTERY. Today’s gifts are as mysterious and wonderful as a goose laying an egg and a live gosling hatching from it. Who can fathom the miracle of life? Four times I have assisted and watched our children be delivered and draw their first breaths. Four times all that is rational and scientific and explainable has been tearfully eclipsed by wonder and mystery and sacredness. I sing with Michael Card: "Give up on your pondering and fall down on your knees."

DARE TO PERCEIVE THE WORLD AS GOD'S. If you want to argue for or against evolution or scientific creationism, you’ve lost my interest. If you need to try to reduce the incomprehensible and grand process of the formation of life into an argument for six literal days, you’ve missed the point. If you need to try to prove that what we know as life just happened by chance, my heart goes out to you.The invitation today is not about proving or arguing or convincing or taking sides. The invitation today is to receive all life as sacred, to dare to perceive the world as a gift, to join in the awe of the Apostle John: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim."

ROOTED IN GOD AS SOURCE OF LIFE. Light. Sky and atmosphere. Land and seas, plants and trees. Sun by day and moon by night. Living creatures in the seas and sky. Living creatures on the land and humans in the image of God. The summation of each day or epoch of creation is this: "And God saw that it was good." Whether Genesis 1 is poetry or pattern of life’s progress, above these it is rooting us all in an infinitely creative, life-giving, beauty-loving, relation-building, grace-bearing God. Creation speaks both of God’s infinite greatness and God’s intimate interest in the smallest detail. And like God, in God’s image, we are created to be.

CREATION AND CHRIST. The Gospel writers and Apostles did not miss the connection between creation and Christ. Paul describes Jesus as the "firstborn over all creation" and that "by him all things were created." John writes: "That which was from the beginning…our hands have touched." Michael Card captures something of this mystery: "A mother made by her own child!" In receiving the six days of creation as Christmas gifts, and embracing creation as a mysterious grace, we join with Jesus Christ in bearing life and grace in our world in our generation.

CREATION...FROZEN. We have arrived near the end of the earth’s 2014th cycle around the sun since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. These are the shortest, darkest days of the year in the northern hemisphere. Plant life is latent in frozen land and water. Many animals hibernate or have migrated to warmer climes. In Indiana, we are living the carol:

In the bleak midwinter,
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood cold as iron,
Water like a stone.

What a time to receive our True Love’s sixth round of Christmas gifts: six days of creation and the hope for its renewal in which we all participate.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, December 29, 2014

Restorative Justice

"Jesus’ ministry is not to gather the so-called good into a private country club and punish the outsiders, but to reach out to those on the edge and on the bottom, those who are 'last,' to tell them they might just be first! . . . . God’s . . .'restorative justice.' God justifies things by restoring them to their true . . . identity in Himself, as opposed to 'retributive justice' which seeks only reward and punishment.”

from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Three French Hens

A Reflection for the Third Day of Christmas

"On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens…"

Three French hens = the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. French hens were considered valuable poultry in the 16th century, something only the rich could afford--like the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scriptures to read: Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

BEYOND THE BIG DAY. Two days past Christmas Day, the realization of this journey to Epiphany begins to set in. It is a different rhythm than the usual post-holiday let down. At the same time we are usually beginning to put away Christmas decorations, this way of living Christmastime keeps the gifts coming and the celebration building. If you put everything into the Big Day, you may find yourself letting down emotionally and spiritually this week as you get back to routine matters. May this simple spiritual journey and the gifts you are receiving sustain and steady you.

ESSENTIAL GIFTS. Open today’s gifts—faith, hope, and love. The Apostle Paul distills these three gifts, or graces, as the most essential of all Spirit-given gifts. Strip away everything else that seems so necessary, all those "must-have" gifts, the ones so desirable to possess, the ones that make us feel good about ourselves and others feel good about us, the ones that make us feel needed or rewarded. What’s at the heart of this Christian journey? What is irreducible for discipleship? Faith. Hope. Love.

NOW RECEIVE. For those who observed Advent, you know that faith, hope, and love, together with joy, are at the center of the Christmas story – HOPE for a Messiah sustained longingly over many generations; the FAITH of Zechariah, of Mary and Joseph; the LOVE of God for the world expressed in Jesus; the response of JOY by all who drew near to "see this thing that has come to pass." In Advent, we learned about these gifts. But now--in the fulfillment of Christmas--receive the faith of Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph. Now receive hope for the in-between times (which is most of the time!). Now receive love enough to eclipse all hurts, forgive all sins, and forge the deepest commitments.

EXERCISE TO LIVE. What would it mean for us to move from teaching our children or loved ones about faith to offering them the gift of faith? How do we move from talking about hope to living and modeling hope? Why not quit trying to teach love; let yourself be loved and express unequivocal and unqualified regard? The reality of these core gifts is that we will never realize them unless we exercise them. Faith is not faith until you’ve trusted. Hope is not hope until I’ve lived from here to there in unflagging anticipation that what was promised shall be. Love is not love until we’ve opened our heart to risk forgiving or extending ourselves when reciprocity is not guaranteed.

FROM NOUNS TO VERBS. And it isn’t until we dare to move these gifts from being nouns to verbs that we realize that faith itself is more grace than effort, hope is more grace than will, and love is more grace than feeling. In the decision to act in faith, we receive it afresh. In the decision to hope instead of living down to lowered expectations, hope is born anew in us. In the decision to love, the love of God is unleashed in us all over again. No wonder these "French hens" are so valuable, so prized as gifts.
John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Friday, December 26, 2014

Two Turtle Doves

A Reflection for the Second Day of Christmas

"On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves…"

Scriptures to read: Psalm 119:33-40; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Galatians 3:1-25; 4:4-7

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW. Today’s Christmas gifts -- the Old and New Testaments -- are foundational. 
Together, they weave the connected and continuing story of "salvation history." It begins with the people of Israel and continues in the Church of Jesus Christ. The contents of the Old and New Testament are authoritative in that we believe no other documents or sources are needed to lead us to faith in God and life in fellowship with God. In fact, most Christians hold that no other sources are, indeed, revelation.

TRANSITION POINT. Christmas is the transition point from Old Testament to New Testament. The ancient anticipations, expectations, and interpretations of the Law and prophecies of a Messiah (Christ) are challengingly fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Many good people were so deeply entrenched in their traditions that they simply could not make Jesus fit into their worldview. Many others -- hungry for grace, liberation, and restoration – in faith opened their hearts to Jesus, in whom they found the embodiment of God’s promises.

ANCIENT ROOTS & REVELATION. The Old Testament was all the early followers of Jesus had. It was the Old Testament to which the Apostle Paul was referring when he said "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16) So, don’t leave the Old Testament out of your study. Read it for all it’s worth, for all you can possibly learn and glean from it. At the same time know that, according to many Christian scholars, much of what the OT points to has been or is being fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

WHAT'S A TESTAMENT? Like "covenant," the word "testament" is pretty heavy. It certainly has binding promises and obligations for the parties who enter into its terms. So, when Jesus says to the disciples, as they share the Passover meal together, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (2 Corinthians 11:25), it must have been rather mind-boggling. We are still exploring and living the full implications of the new covenant. Reading and seeking to understand the New Testament, we learn and appropriate the terms of the "new covenant."

LITERAL, NOT LITERLISTIC. One of the things I find most helpful as I read both Old and New Testaments is to try to grasp and apply the appropriate genre (or form) of literature that is being used. We read legal documents differently than we do songs. We understand letters differently than we do histories. We appreciate the difference between a matter-of-fact statement and hyperbole (intended exaggeration). Noting this helps us interpret and apply the Bible more effectively in our lives and world. The fact that we believe the books of the Bible are inspired and useful for "teaching, etc." doesn’t mean we read flatly. To take the Bible literally does not mean we take it more literally than it takes itself.

REIGN OF PEACE. The dramatic diversity of the books of the Bible makes it difficult to find a common thread running throughout. But both Old and New Testaments speak pointedly of the Kingdom of God -- the reign of God as Lord in the lives of people and communities who embrace grace. God’s reign is depicted in the Old and New Testaments as a kingdom of peace. So it is fitting that today’s gifts are depicted as "turtle doves," the dove being the ancient and contemporary symbol of peace, or shalom. The dove is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who brings the Word of God alive in our lives. Embrace God’s gift peace expressed in the new covenant mediated and sustained by Jesus Christ (the "partridge in a pear tree").

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, December 22, 2014

Terms of Christmas Endearment

What does it take to draw people together at Christmastime?

My daughter, Abby, and my mom, Janet,
at Christmas in 2010.
CHRISTMAS EVE OPPOSITES.  Childhood Christmases with my extended Hay and Sheffield clans were dramatically different.  Christmas Eve would be spent in New Castle, Indiana--home to both family clans.  First, my dad, mom, sister, and I would go to Grandpa and Grandma Hay’s for dinner and a gift exchange.  Then, we would drive across town to Aunt Willie Mae’s for the Sheffield gathering.  The Sheffields--my mother’s side--were warm, affectionate and readily endearing.  The Hays--my dad’s side--were guarded, stand-offish and halting in their familial exchanges.  I would experience both on the same evening each year.

WISHING THE EVENING WOULD NEVER END.  I loved the Sheffield Christmas.  There were hugs and laughter and joviality and a great sense of belonging from the moment we walked in Aunt Mae's door.  It was like picking up on an engaging, ongoing conversation, no matter how long we had been apart. The Sheffields were easy to be with, even with 40 aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws crammed into a little house.  I remember wishing the Sheffield Christmas evening would never end.

CHRISTMAS-EVE STAND-OFF.  As much as I enjoyed the Sheffield Christmas, I endured the Hay gathering.  The Hay event was made all the more awkward by the opposite poles at which different households lived.  At one end were the religiously ultra-conservative households.  Each year, I would be freshly surprised and relieved that there were people more restrictive than my dad.  These reserved folk carried an air of spiritual pride and judgment.  The women and girls wore long dresses and no jewelry. These families kept their distance from the Hays who lived at the other end of the spiritual spectrum.  Suffice it to say that two of my fifty-ish uncles trafficked marijuana grown in Kentucky up to New Castle and exhibited most common forms of carelessness and irresponsibility.  In the middle of this was our bewildered family.  All these people crammed into a little house for several hours each Christmas Eve.  Awkward!

WRAPPING PAPER MELEE.  One year, we realized the terms of endearment.  Amid long faces and feigned smiles and strained laughter, my dad wadded up the wrapping paper of the gift he’d just opened and playfully threw it at his alcoholic brother across the room.  His brother picked it up and sailed it back.  But dad ducked and the wrapping paper wad hit Grandma Hay in the side of the head.  She, in turn heaved the wad at another family member.  Within minutes, the room was snowing wrapping paper wads.  And, along with them, genuine laughter.  Heaviness dissipated, suspicion ebbed, judgment was temporarily suspended, and the evening ended in hugs and kind words.

DON’T STOP THE CHAOS.  In the years that followed, the evening at Grandma and Grandpa Hay’s would begin with typical awkwardness.  There would have been little, if any, contact with each other between Christmases.  I would try to figure out the increasingly complex puzzle of who were my real cousins and who was related via divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, etc.  But during the gift exchange, the wrapping paper would eventually fly. Even though Grandma Hay may have disliked the melee, she made little attempt to curb the chaos.  Perhaps she knew that it was one thing--perhaps the only thing--that this disparate group of people with a common tie to her and Grandpa Hay would ever enjoy together.

GRACE IN A PAPER WAD.  I hope it doesn’t take a wrapping-paper-wad battle to bring your household or extended family together--however momentarily.  I pray it doesn’t come down to that.  But if it does, so be it.  I only wish I could have followed up that evening with some more frequent contact with my Hay relatives.  That little opening, that endearing moment, might have led to real relationship, might have led to understanding, might have provided an opening to a future of grace.  Grandma and Grandpa Hay are gone and the Hays no longer gather as family at Christmas.  It’s been years since I’ve seen any of them.  And yet I pray that, somehow, those moments of delightful Hay melee will not be completely lost for the grace they conveyed.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA