Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Lives by Imagination

Christmas is an afterthought. But what an afterthought it is!

Maybe it seems crude to say that Advent and Christmas are afterthoughts in the Gospel story—especially to say it this late, with Advent eclipsed by Christmas and as we now count the days from Christmas to Epiphany. But, perhaps pointing out this overlooked reality at this moment may heighten the celebration.

I learned this in Biblical literature studies: only Luke and Matthew write birth narratives and the earliest church did not attach great significance to details of Jesus’ birth. Only in the second century did the church begin to magnify and adorn the birth of Jesus.

Even the little the Gospels tell us of Jesus’ birth is divergent. Luke and Matthew tell two different stories about the birth of Jesus. Luke follows Mary’s lineage; Matthew follow’s Joseph’s. In Luke, an angel appears to Mary; in Matthew, an angel speaks to Joseph. In Luke, shepherds bear witness to the child’s birth; in Matthew, Magi come to Bethlehem to see the child.

Regarding the birth of Jesus, his initial followers missed all that Christians a generation later meticulously tried to reconstruct, document and infuse with meaning. This is not to say that they manufactured the story, but that they relied on passed-along stories (oral tradition is a great and historically important tradition—one largely lost in the West today).

Only long after Jesus’ crucifixion, after resurrection witness, and after Pentecost, amid the dispersion of Christians across the Roman world did the idea of calendaring Jesus’ birth emerge as important in the hearts and minds of the faithful.

Eventually, Christians co-opted a holiday already significant to various “pagan” cultures and baptized it as Christmas. It doesn’t sound very holy, but that’s pretty much how it happened.

However, after a date is fixed, the idea of Jesus’ birth begins to flourish. It doesn’t take long for the imaginations of practitioners, theologians, and musicians to begin to magnify and multiply meaning. One generation adds garnish to the last. Across cultures, stories deepen, traditions broaden, liturgies blossom. The original stories are magnified and morph through riffs that ripple and refract across millennia.

Beyond the church and over time, people have adorned Christmas with explosive imagination. Imagination has given us what is now too much to take in and process in any singularly coherent framework. With only a fraction of Biblical or theologically correct touchstones, Christmas images dazzle, stories morph, traditions multiply, music pours forth. The genie is out of the bottle and no one can contain or control it. Like it or not, Christmas influence is pervasive and continuously extending.

In light of this uncontainable, irreducible reality, I laugh at those who ardently try to convince us that someone is trying to steal Christmas—to drain it of meaning. Hogwash. No one, even if they tried, could curtail the Christmas imagination.

So, however Christmas imagination has come to you—whatever its shape, whatever its feel, whatever its experiences, whatever its traditions—dare to enter into them as fully as possible. Hey, why not contribute a bit of your own imagination to the mix? It is only those who fail to imagine a little who miss the spirit and trajectory of what this season promises.

Have a merry Christmas!

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, December 14, 2015

Seven Relational Wonders

These wonders are not distant and rare, but near and necessary for life transformation

I’ve seen a few of the natural and human-made wonders of the world—and long to see more. I’ve witnessed the magnificence of the Taj Mahal. But I have yet to gaze up upon the sky-filling wonder of Aurora Borealis.

Seeing the Seven Wonders of the World requires costly travel, putting many of them out of reach for most of us. To see the Northern Lights, I will plan to travel far north. Even then, it will be a momentary experience that may soon fade from the realm of wonder to the list of “been there, done that.”

What about wonders that are much nearer and accessible to more of us? What about wonders that are not in the natural order or of human ingenuity? I offer seven relational wonders of the world—wonders which amaze and continue to shape us on a daily basis. Before these, I feel reverence and mystery.

1. Children and parents. Privileged to witness the birth of each of our four children and participate equally in rearing them into young adulthood, they are, to me, a wonder. Their uniqueness, innocence, zest for exploring, and gradual maturing amazes me. Likewise, who is ever adequate to the vocation of parenting? My profession in life pales in comparison to the challenge of parenting.

2. Love and marriage. Do we choose love or does love choose us? We choose life partners and these relationships impact the dailyness and trajectory of our lives. We may yield to love, fully confident that we can manage and max its apparently predictable paces, only to find that love turns us inside out and upside down and, somehow, for better or worse, makes us more fully alive.

3. Grace and forgiveness. Anyone who loves and joins with a companion will, sooner than later, discover the value of grace and forgiveness. Separately and together, both in offering and receiving, they are oil that salve and heal individuals and relationships. Grace is revealed as timely empathy, understanding, and forbearance. Profoundest of wonders, forgiveness births hope for a changed and better future.

4. Reverse mission. Named so by Henri Nouwen, reverse mission is the discovery that those to whom we feel called in mission in the end contribute more to our lives than we ever can give. Those we seek in compassion to change, change us.

5. Border crossing and bridge building. Who knows what compels and propels some people beyond their own kin and kind to cross guarded cultural borders, dwell in notorious DMZs, and build bridges between here and there, inviting all to new common ground?

6. Connectedness of all things. Discovering that all people, animals, lands, and systems are inextricably connected undermines ideologies, humanizes “devils,” extends kinship, cultivates value, changes habits, and creates stewardship.

7. The power of one small light. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overwhelm it.” If one has seen but a single person so shine, one forever salutes this wonder. Moving our light closer to another’s, we become part of the wonder that dispels darkness.

May we open our hearts and eyes anew to the possibility of wonder. May some wonder disrupt our dis-ease, interrupt our foregone conclusions, rattle our settled presumptions, and challenge our criticisms. Perhaps some small relational wonder will begin in and through us a movement that changes the outcome of the future.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Monday, December 7, 2015

Moving Toward Winter Cycling

The glory of autumn cycling yields to the tougher temps and extreme conditions of winter cycling. Winter cycling is not for the faint of heart and body. But, for those who dare, cycling through winter can be a thrill. Certainly grounds for bragging rights come spring.

Here are a few things I do to prepare for and keep active cycling through winter:

1. I get my bike ready. Tune it up. Lube it often. Put on treaded tires. Fenders required. Lights in front and back because you WILL ride much more in the dark of winter's shorter days.

2. I pull out my cold-weather gear. Heavy gloves. Neoprene shoe covers. Merino wool socks. I dress in layers, starting with a long-johns base layer. I like lightweight but warm fabrics. I wear a windbreaker or jacket over whatever else I'm wearing. I wear a head cap under my helmet. Keeping my ears, fingers, and toes uncold is critical for me. I carry a neoprene face mask, just in case.

3. I make sure my lights are in good working order and batteries are charged. I now have a USB-charged headlamp and taillight, so fewer batteries are needed. But I carry extra lights and batteries, just in case. I also carry a reflective vest and wear it when it is dark outside. I want drivers to see me clearly.

4. I now have waterproof bags and panniers and use them liberally. In this photo, I'm using a medium-size Sackville trunk bag and a small front bag. Both are well-made and have proven waterproof through a few rainy-day commutes.

5. One of the mistakes in winter riding is to over dress. If I'm sweating during a ride, I'm over dressed. It's self-defeating because I get cold from the sweat. So, I find it's better to feel somewhat cold on the first third or half of my commute than to be sweating half way through the 14-mile trek into downtown Indy. Again, embrace the wonder of layering.

6. Did I mention lights and reflective gear? I did. Let me reiterate: you not only want to see, you want to be seen--clearly, unmistakably, boldly. There's really not enough you can do, even to the point of looking silly out there on the road. Why? Because while most drivers are conscientious, they are not necessarily completely alert at all times to bicycles along the roadways. Some are quite distracted. I want to attract their attention. If they see me, they usually give me space. Usually.

7. Get ready for rain, sleet, and snow. My commute via bicycle is optional, but it is choice I like to make as frequently as possible. To the gear I've mentioned, I add rain gear. Nothing is more miserable to me than being cold AND wet. One or the other, I can handle; the combination is, to me, miserable. So, get rain gear that keeps you dry.

8. Snow calls for studded tires. They're expensive. So, unless cycling is your ONLY commute option, consider this carefully. I have friends who swear by them, but they're also kinda nuts. There are some clip-on or strap-on treading options for tires for snow, but I haven't tried them.

There you go. A few things to think about and get ready for to make it through winter without abandoning the joy of cycling. Have fun and be careful out there.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent and Anticipation of our Daughter's Wedding

I'm used to the discipline of anticipation each Advent season. Dutifully and for the sake of the payoff and fun that happens when Advent yields to Christmastide, I annually put myself in the mindset and disciplines of hopeful expectation--the primary mood of Advent. The onset of December finds me resetting my mind and heart to an empathy for all who yearn for fulfillment of a promise long awaited.

This Advent, however, anticipation is not something I have to imaginatively work at or mindfully develop. During this Advent season, on December 19, to be exact, our daughter Molly will be married. We've got boatloads of anticipation. Our hands are full of preparations. Everyone in the Hay clan is getting ready for the big day and the joy it will bring.

What a combination: preparation for Molly's wedding and preparing for Christmas. Both call for lots of external activity. Making lists, checking them twice. But both, just as much, call for a preparation of the heart. While I am working down the checklists and activities for the wedding and Christmas, I am very much aware that I need to be preparing my heart, too.

I remember my lack of internal preparation for our oldest child Abby's wedding and marriage six years ago. I thought I was ready. I waltzed through all the arrangements quite readily. Everything was falling into place just fine. But when the week of the wedding came, I experienced feelings I'd never experienced before--feelings that perhaps only fathers of the bride of a firstborn can know. While I was full of anticipation and prepared externally, a knot developed in my throat and heart that I couldn't quite shake and still can't quite describe. I was both joyful and sorrowful, both happy and sad. When people asked me what was wrong, all I could muster was: "Nothing's wrong. It's all wonderful. But this must be what it feels like to let go of your child." I walked through my part in Abby and Alex's beautiful wedding in a bit of a daze. I feel its surreal emotions even as I reflect on it and write this.

Whatever it was that hit me that week faded. I guess I got over it. But not quite. It left me with a profound reverence for the marriage Abby and Alex have entered into. It left me with an awe that these things go much deeper and higher than our mere outward preparations. It left me with an appreciation for the sacredness of passages and relationships and life. Truly, none of these things--nothing in life, really--is to be "entered into lightly, but reverently, discreetly, and in the fear of God" (from a wedding ceremony statement I have frequently used).

So, Molly and Jacob's wedding rapidly approaches. We busy ourselves with what we need to do to make it the wedding they have imagined and we all can celebrate together. In the midst of these preparations, I must check my heart. I must take time to be still. To reflect. To Listen. To try to share thoughtful conversations. To be honest with myself and faithful to the emotions that sweep through me. To shape my worries into prayers. To envision the future of blessing that lies before Molly and Jacob and all of us who have a part in their life together. To envision this whole thing as bigger than me, than our family, than Molly and Jacob, than what any of us can think or imagine--to conceive of it as a critical part of a Kingdom and Intention of which we are invited to be a part.

If I do that, or even part of that, or attempt to do part of that, I may be ready come December 19. We'll see. And then...then I can think about getting ready for Christmas.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA