The Paganism of Zikala-Sa

The word “pagan” is used to refer to any religion that is not Abrahamic (Judeo-Christian); yet at various times in history, the word has been used perhaps too hastily, as in the times of the Native American woman Zitkala-Sa.  She led an extraordinary life ahead of her times, and was educated in a strict Quaker school (missionary schools were the only sources of education for the Native Americans at the time; it is where they learned, among other things, English – see quote below).  But I think that the view she had of God as Creator was also ahead of her times:  In an age when the Christian religion was strict, legalistic and heavy-handed, she recognized God and his handiwork in the nature around her.  Below is her treatise, “Why I am a Pagan,” where she makes a compelling case that closely reflects my own perception of God as Creator and loving Father, not the iron-fisted judge that many people seem to still view him as; for me, that is the difference between Christianity (i.e. relationship with God) and Religion.  I do not own the copyrights on this piece; it was written in 1902, and I found it on The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women’s Writings.  The reason I post the entire piece here is that sometimes websites go extinct, and it would be a pity to lose such a valuable historical perspective.

Zitkala-Ša quote 2

WHY I AM A PAGAN

When the spirit swells my breast I love to roam leisurely among the green hills; or sometimes, sitting on the brink of the murmuring Missouri, I marvel at the great blue overhead. With half closed eyes I watch the huge cloud shadows in their noiseless play upon the high bluffs opposite me, while into my ear ripple the sweet, soft cadences of the river’s song. Folded hands lie in my lap, for the time forgot. My heart and I lie small upon the earth like a grain of throbbing sand. Drifting clouds and tinkling waters, together with the warmth of a genial summer day, bespeak with eloquence the loving Mystery round about us. During the idle while I sat upon the sunny river brink, I grew somewhat, though my response be not so clearly manifest as in the green grass fringing the edge of the high bluff back of me.

At length retracing the uncertain footpath scaling the precipitous embankment, I seek the level lands where grow the wild prairie flowers. And they, the lovely little folk, soothe my soul with their perfumed breath.

Their quaint round faces of varied hue convince the heart which leaps with glad surprise that they, too, are living symbols of omnipotent thought. With a child’s eager eye I drink in the myriad star shapes wrought in luxuriant color upon the green. Beautiful is the spiritual essence they embody.

I leave them nodding in the breeze, but take along with me their impress upon my heart. I pause to rest me upon a rock embedded on the side of a foothill facing the low river bottom. Here the Stone-Boy, of whom the American aborigine tells, frolics about, shooting his baby arrows and shouting aloud with glee at the tiny shafts of lightning that flash from the flying arrow-beaks. What an ideal warrior he became, baffling the siege of the pests of all the land till he triumphed over their united attack. And here he lay,–Inyan our great-great-grandfather, older than the hill he rested on, older than the race of men who love to tell of his wonderful career.

Interwoven with the thread of this Indian legend of the rock, I fain would trace a subtle knowledge of the native folk which enabled them to recognize a kinship to any and all parts of this vast universe. By the leading of an ancient trail I move toward the Indian village.

With the strong, happy sense that both great and small are so surely enfolded in His magnitude that, without a miss, each has his allotted individual ground of opportunities, I am buoyant with good nature.

Yellow Breast, swaying upon the slender stem of a wild sunflower, warbles a sweet assurance of this as I pass near by. Breaking off the clear crystal song, he turns his wee head from side to side eyeing me wisely as slowly I plod with moccasined feet. Then again he yields himself to his song of joy. Flit, flit hither and yon, he fills the summer sky with his swift, sweet melody. And truly does it seem his vigorous freedom lies more in his little spirit than in his wing.

With these thoughts I reach the log cabin whither I am strongly drawn by the tie of a child to an aged mother. Out bounds my four-footed friend to meet me, frisking about my path with unmistakable delight. Chän is a black shaggy dog, “a thorough bred little mongrel” of whom I am very fond. Chän seems to understand many words in Sioux, and will go to her mat even when I whisper the word, though generally I think she is guided by the tone of the voice. Often she tries to imitate the sliding inflection and long drawn out voice to the amusement of our guests, but her articulation is quite beyond my ear. In both my hands I hold her shaggy head and gaze into her large brown eyes. At once the dilated pupils contract into tiny black dots, as if the roguish spirit within would evade my questioning.

Finally resuming the chair at my desk I feel in keen sympathy with my fellow creatures, for I seem to see clearly again that all are akin.

The racial lines, which once were bitterly real, now serve nothing more than marking out a living mosaic of human beings. And even here men of the same color are like the ivory keys of one instrument where each resembles all the rest, yet varies from them in pitch and quality of voice. And those creatures who are for a time mere echoes of another’s note are not unlike the fable of the thin sick man whose distorted shadow, dressed like a real creature, came to the old master to make him follow as a shadow. Thus with a compassion for all echoes in human guise, I greet the solemn-faced “native preacher” whom I find awaiting me. I listen with respect for God’s creature, though he mouth most strangely the jangling phrases of a bigoted creed.

As our tribe is one large family, where every person is related to all the others, he addressed me:–

“Cousin, I came from the morning church service to talk with you.”

“Yes?” I said interrogatively, as he paused for some word from me.

Shifting uneasily about in the straight-backed chair he sat upon, he began: “Every holy day (Sunday) I look about our little God’s house, and not seeing you there, I am disappointed. This is why I come to-day. Cousin, as I watch you from afar, I see no unbecoming behavior and hear only good reports of you, which all the more burns me with the wish that you were a church member. Cousin, I was taught long years ago by kind missionaries to read the holy book. These godly men taught me also the folly of our old beliefs.

“There is one God who gives reward or punishment to the race of dead men. In the upper region the Christian dead are gathered in unceasing song and prayer. In the deep pit below, the sinful ones dance in torturing flames.

“Think upon these things, my cousin, and choose now to avoid the after-doom of hell fire!” Then followed a long silence in which he clasped tighter and unclasped again his interlocked fingers.

Like instantaneous lightning flashes came pictures of my own mother’s making, for she, too, is now a follower of the new superstition.

“Knocking out the chinking of our log cabin, some evil hand thrust in a burning taper of braided dry grass, but failed of his intent, for the fire died out and the half burned brand fell inward to the floor. Directly above it, on a shelf, lay the holy book. This is what we found after our return from a several days’ visit. Surely some great power is hid in the sacred book!”

Brushing away from my eyes many like pictures, I offered midday meal to the converted Indian sitting wordless and with downcast face. No sooner had he risen from the table with “Cousin, I have relished it,” than the church bell rang.

Thither he hurried forth with his afternoon sermon. I watched him as he hastened along, his eyes bent fast upon the dusty road till he disappeared at the end of a quarter of a mile.

The little incident recalled to mind the copy of a missionary paper brought to my notice a few days ago, in which a “Christian” pugilist commented upon a recent article of mine, grossly perverting the spirit of my pen. Still I would not forget that the pale-faced missionary and the hoodooed aborigine are both God’s creatures, though small indeed their own conceptions of Infinite Love. A wee child toddling in a wonder world, I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.

Zitkala-Sa

For more information about her life, please click here.

Gratitude

Deserve-our-gratitude-grateful-quotesSometimes despite the best of intentions real life takes over.  I’ve been silent in cyberspace for nearly a fortnight as real-world events took precedence over the virtual world.  I try to post only when I find something interesting to share or to write about, and can take the time to make it worth my time and yours; but we all know those times when our energy and concentration power are required by more pressing events or situations, and so I hope you’ll pardon me for having been silent.

With Christmas approaching, perhaps your thoughts are turning toward the season of giving, of slowing down to spend time with friends and family, and perhaps it’s also a time of contemplation about the past year and the future:  What would you change if you could?  How can you move forward and learn from mistakes or challenges, and take positive steps to see things change for the better in the coming year?  I don’t mean New Year’s Resolutions; those rarely hold for more than a week or two, because they are purely decisions of the head, and if our hearts are not in agreement with those choices, it’s only a matter of time before they fall flat.  If it’s a decision of both head and heart, why wait until the New Year?  The old adage holds true:  “We cannot be guided unless we are moving.”  The greatest journey begins with the first step, followed by the next, and the next… eventually we’ll arrive at our goal, but only if we step out first.

I recently watched a TED talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast, of the Gratefulness movement; for him one of the keys to finding moments of gratefulness in everyday life is to “Stop. Look. Go.”:  To pause in our hectic lives and take a moment to smell the roses; to open our senses to the world around us and become grateful for the things we take for granted, such as clean, flowing water on tap (even cold and hot), or for the roof over our heads.  The more we look around, the more we’ll find to be grateful for.  The “Go” part of that equation is to act on that gratefulness – passing it on to those around us.  Positivity and smiles are contagious, and they are magnets that draw people; negativity and scowls are also contagious, but they will repel and isolate us.  We all have times of trials, difficulties and challenges; how we choose to face them decides whether they master us, or serve us.  One example from my own life was this past summer, described in the article, “I got Staffa’d“; I chose to be grateful in the midst of it, and it made it much easier to master it.

Whatever you’ve got planned over the coming weeks, I’d encourage you to take a moment to stop, look and then go; become aware of things in your life to be grateful for, look around and see how you can bless others, and move forward with a fresh awareness of the beauty of life.

My husband and I end each day by reading the “Celtic Wheel of Prayer” together aloud; each day includes this:  “As I end this day in Your (God’s) safe-keeping, I count three blessings before my sleeping.”  Perhaps it is something you could integrate into your own habits – it’s a great way to increase our awareness of daily blessings, and things we have to be grateful for!

Ps.  If you’d like some ideas for advent calendar- and stocking-stuffers, click here.

The Glory of Vocation

VocationToo often society teaches us by example, peer pressure or spotlights that the vocations of doctors, lawyers, teachers and missionaries are better than those of the truck driver, house wife, rubbish collector or construction worker.  But how would the first lot get anywhere without the second?  Martin Luther said, “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.”  If you are a follower of Christ, any job you do to his glory becomes a vocation.  If you’re a bar tender, pour that beer just right, smile and serve with kindness and respect; if you work in a moving company, pack your clients’ furniture and belongings with care and competence.  In fact, anything we do should be a ministry of competence.  Glory can be described as “Honour, admiration, or distinction, accorded by common consent to a person or thing; high reputation; renown“.

A sermon I heard recently was about vocation; one of the quotes was from Eric Liddell:  “I believe God called me for a purpose; but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”  Eric knew that running in the 1924 Olympics was what God had given him to do, and he did so with competence, but also conviction; he is famous for having refused to run one of the races because it was on a Sunday.  He refused to give in to international pressure, and God rewarded him with a gold medal in another race, and the fact that he set a new world record with that race.  He won his greatest medal, however, when he passed from this life and God said to him, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Martin Luther wrote, “All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government – to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things.”  For me, this means that whatever I am doing, when I am doing it for the glory of God, I feel his pleasure.

Because I am called to be a communicator, when I write – whether it’s a devotional for a blog or a published book, or a science fiction novel, I feel God’s pleasure.  When I clean house and take care of my family of two, or cook for guests, I can do so to the glory of God and feel his pleasure.  When someone sweeps the streets, collects rubbish, repairs roads, or drives a truck that delivers groceries, they can do so to the glory of God.  “Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavours, even the best, will come to naught.  Unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavour, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”  – Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor

When we do whatever it is we do with compassion and competency, doing our best, learning to enjoy the simple pleasures and spot the blessings in everyday life, conducting ourselves with honesty and integrity, treating everyone we meet honourably (regardless of their behaviour), we are doing so to God’s glory.  Such a life led is what St. Francis of Assisi meant when he said, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary use words.”

Ephesians 6:7-8 (NIV)

“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do,whether they are slave or free.”

Five Lies We Believe

Lies well-packedScanning through Facebook, I constantly see lies being perpetuated.  They are the kind of pervasive lies that everyone seems to believe, or not even question whether or not they’re true, false, or even have any benefit before they post the tripe.  We need to perpetuate truth and positive thinking, not nonsense and bad attitudes; so I’m sick of seeing the following lies:

Mondays stink. Mondays are no different than Tuesdays through Sundays, folks.  If you’ve used the weekend (if you did not have to work) wisely and had some time-out, you can go into the new work-week refreshed.  But if you believe the lie, you’ll ruin your weekend by dreading a day that will come as surely as the sun rises in the east and has no intrinsically negative value attached.  “Monday Blues” are hogwash, plain and simple!  Morning and mourning have nothing to do with each other.  It’s about attitude – and if you choose to have a negative one about Monday, you’ll have a lousy day; so choose to see it as the blessing it is.  Be thankful that you have a job, and that you live in a country where days off are part of the work philosophy.

The first year of marriage (or the seventh) is really difficult. Who says that besides those who are just repeating tripe, and therefore eventually believing it and fulfilling the self-curse?  If you learn healthy communication, how to address assumptions and misunderstandings, and how to honour your partner in public and private in word and deed, you can not only survive the first year intact, but you will be stronger and more united with your marriage partner than before.  Every marriage has difficulties; but if husband and wife stand together as a team, they can win together – it’s worth every effort.  I’ve been happily married 22 years, and the first year of our marriage was only difficult in that I had come to a foreign culture, language, mentality and lack of local friends, and all that with depression; but it never once came between my husband and myself, or was a strain on our relationship, because of the principles listed above.  We came out the other end of my depression 3 years later, stronger and more united.

Most marriages don’t survive. If marriage partners remain single in their habits, or selfish, demanding instant solutions and fulfilment of childish expectations, then yes, I agree with this.  But I can honestly say that out of the circle of friends I have, which spans the globe, I only have 3 friends who divorced; I know literally hundreds of married couples who’ve been married 10 years or more; so I don’t know where the pseudo statistic originated, but it’s simply not true.

“As the truth about these much lower divorce rates begins to spread, (Shaunti) Feldhahn believes it will give people hope, which is often a key ingredient to making marriage last. She said hopelessness itself can actually lead to divorce.  ‘That sense of futility itself pulls down marriages,’ Feldhahn said. ‘And the problem is we have this (American) culture-wide feeling of futility about marriage. It’s based on all these discouraging beliefs and many of them just aren’t true.’ – Shaunti Feldhahn (quote from this CBN article.)

We will gain weight over the Christmas holidays. There’s truth in that statement, but only if you use that as an excuse to eat more.  If people would simply eat the same amount they usually do, they may even lose a bit depending on their amount of movement through their daily lives compared to the running around people tend to do around the holidays (sitting at work vs. shopping, finding a parking spot farther away than usual and walking to the stores, going from house to house, etc.).  The temptations are greater around the holidays, to be sure; but trust me, you cannot gain weight merely by seeing the cookies, cakes, pies and lavish table displays.  If you eat more than usual, exercise more than usual.  Find out what your body can do, and push it just a wee bit farther.

Take smaller portions than usual; focus on soups, which are filling and leave you satisfied longer than solid foods; consume low-fat dairy products – they will bind to fatty molecules from other foods and help carry the excess out of the body.

Compared to (someone else), I’m not good enough. First of all, it’s nonsense to compare apples to oranges, or bananas to palm trees!  Every single person is unique!  That’s the beauty of life!  So be the best you can be, and if you want to be better at a particular skill then take lessons, practice, or learn more about it, or teach yourself regularly.  But don’t let vagueness handicap you; if it’s a vague “not good enough” feeling, it’s a destructive lie.  If it’s “not good enough at cooking/tennis/playing an instrument,” then it can be a constructive force to drive us to improve ourselves.

Stop believing lies!  If any of these things ring true in your life, then it’s up to you to change your attitudes, habits and mindsets to reflect truth.

Philippians 4:8 (NIV)

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Thoughts from a Wheelchair

WheelchairOn our recent holidays, I was injured to the point that I was out of commission as far as walking for 6 weeks, give or take.  The injury happened at the beginning of our 2½-week holiday; the situation was what it was, and we made the best of it.  The injury could have been far, far worse, so we are grateful for God’s mercy there, as well as sending just the right people along in the moment of need.  But what I want to address today is something that I experienced on the day of our journey home:

We were able to book wheelchair assistance through all airports on our way home; in all three airports, I had widely different experiences.  I have always been aware of the fact that someone in a wheelchair needs special consideration, and has needs different to those of people who are physically independent.  But it was a valuable experience for me being the one in the chair and out in public this time; it’s something I think everyone should experience at least once, whether you’re injured or not – just to become aware of another perspective.

Some people felt free to stare at me; I know that many were merely curious or concerned about how I’d been injured, as my disability was obviously a temporary one with an injured foot bandaged (I dislocated my ankle).  But I’m tempted to ask, since when is staring at a person polite?  Wheelchairs tend to intimidate people – they don’t want to ask personal, intimate or impolite questions, and that’s right.  But I know from friends who are permanently in wheelchairs that they’d rather be asked politely what their disability is than be stared at or ignored.  And that brings me to the other reaction.

This second reaction, and one which was far more frequent, was that of being completely ignored.  Sometimes it was intentional, but more often than not I was simply invisible.  People would rush past me and jerk my foot off in their path with them as they went, without so much as an apology.  They would swing their backpacks into my face, knowing full well a wheelchair stood beside them.  Such blatant insensitivity was a bit of a shock to me, to be honest, and a few of them had better be glad I was unable to rise to the level of their face, because I might have been tempted to get in it…

Another sensation I became aware of, in empathy with those friends who are permanently in wheelchairs, was that of being at the mercy of those assigned to you.  At the first airport I was put into the hands of a completely indifferent, bored young woman who wasn’t interested in the slightest in even friendly chat; she was glad to be rid of the wheelchair duty, and frankly I was glad when my husband took over and sent her on her merry way.  To get me onto the plane (which was on the tarmac with stairs two out of the three airports…), they waited until everyone else was on (I’d been told I’d go on first to enable me to get to my seat safely), and then put me in a freight train-sized mobile lift machine with room for 20 people, raised me to the level of the plane, and rolled me in; the machine brought the analogy to mind of killing a gnat with a shotgun… a bit of an overkill.  Crammed into an economy seat that never has enough leg room at the best of times, I had to endure a short hop flight of 50 minutes to our next airport, my leg propped up across my husband’s knees into the aisle, exposed to everyone who walked by and took it with them in either direction.  I was in tears of pain by the end of that ordeal, but not once did a single person apologize for injuring the wounded, or even wait for me to get my foot out of their way.

The next stop, I was hefted and strapped into what amounted to a manual pallet jack for people, without padding or shock absorbers; three wheels “climbed” (read “jerk-drop”) the stairs to lower or raise me one step at a time.  The two men who were assigned to move me were plainly from the luggage handling department, and they’d never sat in such a contraption; I was jarred and jerked down the stairs like a piece of luggage, then sat in the wheelchair and zipped through the back doors and into the airport security area through the crowds with not a thought to how it might feel to the person sitting in the chair; groups of people were ploughed through using me as the breaker.  All that, to be jerked back up the contraption into the SAME plane.

The third airport, home at last, we had a finger dock, and I was simply able to hobble down the aisle and sit into a chair; the person assigned to me was friendly, genuinely concerned for my safety and well-being through the crowds, defended my personal space from backpacks, elbows and feet, and was personable.  She accompanied us from the gate to the taxi.  She was a balm to a frazzled soul.

If you were seated in the wheelchair, how would you want to be handled?  How would you want to be seen, or taken into consideration?  Do you know anyone who has to go out into the public with a disability of any sort?  Sometimes the invisible disabilities are just as challenging in a very different way, because if a person might be sympathetic to someone with a clear disability like a wheelchair, or cane or seeing eye dog, they won’t realize the person with an invisible disability needs just as much consideration and patience.  Think of things like MS, or chronic fatigue, being deaf, or other disorders that limit the person in various ways.  I have such an invisible disability, called Marfan’s Syndrome; even people who know me and know theoretically that I have limitations tend to overestimate my ability to keep up e.g. on a group hike, or underestimate my disabilities and simply think I’m being difficult or wanting extra attention, or just lazy, none of which is the case.  I know my problems are nothing compared to many friends who struggle with terminal illnesses, or disabilities that limit and have lethal potential; everyone has different struggles; but I’ve found that attitudes help or hinder, enable or disable.  I can learn to rise to (or above) my challenge, but having a supportive environment goes a long way to helping and enabling too.

The next time you see someone in a wheelchair, or with a disability of any kind, put yourself in their seat.  How can you help them?  How should you be more patient with them?  How can you ease their way?  There is a Native American proverb that says, “Never judge another until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins” and I can say without a doubt that it’s wise advice.

If you struggle with a long-term illness, or disability, please take a moment to be encouraged by Grace Quantock.

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The Conundrum of Contemporary Worship

Worship is a private experience, between the individual and God.  But Sundays, or on evenings when you either meet together in a house group or service at church, worship becomes a corporate experience.  I use the word “experience” with some reservations, but for lack of a better term; the goal of corporate worship should never be reduced to an event, or emotional experience, and yet that is often what it comes across as.  A concert with lights, sound, animation and calls to “clap your hands” or “raise your hands” or “shout”.  I detest such calls, which smack of manipulation.  If worship does not flow from the heart, then clapping or raising hands or shouting will do nothing but produce an artifice of adoration, looking “as if” on the outside with no true change or challenge on the inside.  The image I’ve chosen is a random one from Google, but it’s telling:  Since when did flashy lights and concert atmosphere add anything to the contemplative, declarative act of intimate worship?

Hands lifted in worship

Besides the tendency to make a concert of it, another worrisome trend I’ve noted in the past several years is the practice of introducing several new songs a month, if not in a Sunday.  People can become so bombarded with the new that it’s difficult to relax and focus on the heart and on God, rather than the overhead projector for the text.  How many of you sing songs around the house?  The whole song, verses and all?  Chances are, the songs you know that well are a decade old or more.  New songs sometimes catch our hearts, but more often than not we can only remember the melody, or the chorus, or part of a phrase; and that should be a warning signal to worship leaders, and worshippers.  Back in the days before OHP and trends to try and “liven” worship, people used hymnals; they sang the same songs year in, year out.  Those songs were more often than not deeply theological; they challenged the singer to contemplate the meaning of the words, not rush through them to the rhythm of a drum repeating catchy phrases with little depth.  Another point I will add here briefly, though I could go into the whole aspect of psychology, is that the trend with such concert mentalities is to ramp up the volume; when it becomes so loud that people need to shout to hear themselves singing, it leads to an instinctive defence mechanism kicking in, and receptiveness shuts down; inwardly they become mere consumers, rather than active participants.  Artifice then replaces true, heart-changing worship, and we tend to go home untouched and unchanged.

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m a recording artist with 4 albums to date under my belt; I’ve been in worship bands as a singer for most of my life; I very often listen to music when I’m not reading or writing.  Because of all that, I think I have a fairly good ear for what’s going on in the music world.  But the music world should not dictate how worship is presented; if worship or praise is reduced to the emotional, experiential level, we’ve lost the point:  To honour God, to draw closer to him in a loving relationship, to express our heart of gratitude and devotion – from the heart and not only the mind.  I am all for professionalism in worship, as long as it does not become the focus, or a place in which to find identity or “make a name” as a band or singer!

Recently I read a short article that makes excellent observations on the issue of intellectual engagement & theological depth of contemporary vs. traditional songs; to read that article, please click on the image – it will be well worth it.

If you are a worship leader or in a worship band, I would like to challenge you to test the way music is presented in your church; if you are neither, observe yourself and how your church’s current mode of presenting worship affects you, and if necessary make some changes for yourself – set aside time at home to refresh your memory of worship songs that have touched you in the past, memorize their texts, and begin to worship more at home; after all, it’s between you and the Lord, whether you’re at church or not.

The History of the Nativity and Christmas

NativityIn 1223, in Greccio, Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi is accredited with creating the first Nativity Scene.  We tend to think of commercialism and materialism as a modern disease, but in fact Francis created that display to be a visual reminder of what Christmas was all about, and to counter what he felt was a growing emphasis on secular materialism and gift-giving.  It was to be a day of celebration and worship of thanks to God for what he had inaugurated through the birth of the prophesied Messiah, Jesus.

When we think of a modern nativity scene we think of a few elements as standard:  Shepherds, Jesus in a wooden manger of straw, three kings, angels, and cattle and donkeys and sheep.  In fact, the stable was more likely a cave or a small hand-dug dugout, a shelter for animals in cold weather or raids, and perhaps a place to store surplus grains or foodstuffs.  The manger was a feeding trough, much like modern feeding troughs found on small farms.  The shepherds “watching the flocks by night”  tells us that it was likely in spring or summer in that region; the day we celebrate as Christmas was adopted throughout Western Europe in the fourth century.  Imagine the scenario:  Rome had called for a census of the entire region, turning everything on its head as everyone was required to travel to their ancestral homes, including businessmen like Joseph, and innkeepers as well.  Hundreds of people descended en masse onto a sleepy little village unequipped with beds or food to cope with them all.  Perhaps Joseph had tried at several places; perhaps there was only one Bed & Breakfast in the entire village; turned away, they headed back to the stable to get their donkey, and uh, “Wait!  The baby’s coming!”

The kings were actually Magi, likely a caste of scientists and astronomers, from the “east” – i.e. east of Israel, which could have made them Asian, Indian, Caucasian, or African.  There were not three, but rather three gifts:  Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.  In reality their number might have been more like a small army (they would not have travelled far without protection due to the quantities of gifts fitting not only for a great king they wished to pay honour to, but also representing their own importance as well); the Bible records that King Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed by their presence and the reason for their journey (Matthew 2).  The three gifts offered by the Magi were very significant ones:  Gold was a symbol of kingship, the wealth of the earth.  It is one of the only metals that, when heated, loses none of its nature, weight or colour, but still allows impurities to surface.  It is used to symbolize faith and the process of refinement.  Frankincense represents priesthood and divinity.  It was familiar to most people in the ancient world, used in religious ceremonies.  Myrrh, unlike sweet Frankincense, is bitter.  It was used as a resin in a spice mixture used to embalm the dead, and was symbolic of Jesus’ purpose in coming:  His death, burial and resurrection.  It makes an appearance both at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life on earth.  It was used medicinally as a pain killer (often dissolved in wine) which is the reason Jesus refused to drink it on the cross (Mark 15:23).  And note that the Magi did not show up at the manger in Bethlehem, but by the time they’d travelled that far and found Jesus, he was a child up to two years old (which is why the boys up to that age were then slaughtered by Herod), and Mary and Joseph had set up house (Matthew 2:11).  Their timely visit and gifts gave Joseph the financial means to pack up his small family that very night and flee to Egypt, to set up a new life there (see Matthew 2).
IcthusLet’s address one more historical topic:  Xmas.  Many people think it’s a modern attempt to “X” Christ from Christmas; but in fact it is just the opposite, historically-speaking.  The X is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός which comes into English translated as “Christ.” and such abbreviated references date back as far as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1021.  Even further back, ΙΧΘΥΣ (Icthus) was an acronym meaning “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour” used by ancient Christians.  It is often placed within the symbol of a fish, as Jesus called his disciples to become “fishers of men.”  Ichthyology is the study of fish, reflecting the Greek connection for the use of the symbol.

Modern Nativity scenes represent a condensed version of a historical event (there is more historical evidence for Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection than many other events in history people simply accept as fact); so the next time you see one, think about the significance, the reason for its inception by St. Francis of Assisi in the first place, and the Reason for the season.

Merry Christmas!  Or, Merry Xmas!

On the Question of Temporal Being

Cardinal 2, Kindle DimensionsI’ve recently published The Cardinal, Parts One and Two; it’s hard to describe the feeling of a project that you’ve lived so intensively in time, energy, research, editing, plotting, creating and going through the entire process of graphics, layout, formatting and publication, and once it is finally finished and released into the world; it’s probably not all that dissimilar to giving birth, except this pregnancy was several years in the formation, and once it’s born it immediately takes on a life of its own out in the big, wide world (and just like teenagers, it calls home once in a while and asks for money – that would be investing time into marketing and promotion, in the books’ cases!).  It becomes a separate entity to myself, and the book it had been so long in my own mind might not match what readers perceive or envision for the characters I know so well, but that’s part of letting go and allowing it to grow.  I thought I’d share a brief excerpt from the Cardinal, Part Two:

“How did you do that?” Jon asked after they’d returned to Aradan’s room and closed the door.
“It is not something explainable in human terms,” Aradan replied.
“Is it…? Was Jesus…?”
“One of us? No. He truly was the Creator embodied on earth… in the form of a man, much like this vessel I am in now, like the one you are in. He came to Aquillis as well, but we responded very differently than Man-Kind. My giftings are merely evidence of God’s infinite character just as you and your giftings are. Intelligence, creativity, talents or giftings… they are all expressions of his being… the supernatural fingerprints of our Designer, if you will, just as a potter leaves his fingerprints in the clay of a vessel he forms.”
“So… you don’t look like this,” Jon gestured from head to toe, “on your planet?”
“We have no need of this vessel there… it would be incompatible with our environment.  But we do not look all that different; it is as if this human vessel is an outer layer, a suit, with the perfect form of who we truly are just beneath the surface. It will be the same for you once you’ve passed through the veil of mortality to immortality … when this vessel,” he pinched Jon’s arm lightly, “is shed, releasing your essence – your spirit – to journey to your chosen destination.”
“You mean heaven… or hell?”
“Precisely.”
“So… you believe they exist?”
Aradan laughed. “You humans… you’re so fixated on this temporal journey called Life that you fail to realize… this is just laying the foundations for reality beyond this material existence! The choices you make while in this mortal time frame determine your destination and home beyond it. And yes, they both exist: Just as time is one dimension and space another, so heaven and hell both exist; other dimensions altogether, perceivable only once you’ve left your mortal frame behind.”

Huesler, Stephanie (2014-11-12). The Cardinal, Part Two (Kindle Locations 3003-3020). Stephanie Huesler. Kindle Edition.

Practicing Hospitality

Hebrews 13:2  – “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

Romans 12:13 – “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.”

For me, one of the key components of hospitality is honour:  Honour is shown in the obvious things such as the way you speak with someone; but it is shown through the subtle things – and because they are subtle, they are probably far more numerous and carry a greater impact on the overall effect on the guest’s perception of your hospitality.

Hospitality is much more than making a guest bed and letting someone in; it’s an attitude that makes someone feel sincerely welcomed into your home and your life; it’s an ease of speaking with a stranger as if they were a friend.  Your home doesn’t have to be perfectly neat and clean – but it does have to be inviting.

 Guest CardHere are a few practical examples of showing honour to an overnight guest (though some of these apply to people invited into our home for dinner or other occasion just as much):

1) Make the guest bed – make it comfortable, and depending on the season I put out an extra blanket in case they need it.

2) Make sure the guest room is clean; I tend toward the “mis en place” principle in my home, and that applies here especially:  It means “everything in its place.”

3) I put a welcome basket* somewhere prominent in the room; in the basket I include sweet and savoury snacks, and a note card (see images – feel free to copy and save, to use yourself!).  Snacks might be something like an apple, a small bag of mixed nuts, a bar of Swiss chocolate, individually wrapped things like amaretto pralines, etc. [*a “basket” can be a plastic box lined with a piece of tissue paper (I have a supply of shredded paper on hand that I fill it with), or a wicker basket, or even an origami basket (patterns can be found online – find one that is large enough for your needs) – Be creative!]  If your guests are missionaries, consider putting a monetary gift in the basket as well.

4) I set out a set of towels either on their bed, or hang them in the guest bathroom, and let them know which are theirs to use.

5) When they arrive, I show them to their room, and then take them on a tour of the house; this gives them orientation, Guest Card 3and lets them know that they are free to go anywhere I’ve taken them.  That tour includes a detailed tour of the kitchen – I show them where the glasses, etc. are so that they can help themselves to a drink whenever they would like to.  I show them how to use the coffee machine.  Then I let them get settled in, and emerge from their room when they’re ready to.

6) Give them space.  We have guests ranging from friends who’ve travelled to Switzerland explicitly to see us and spend time with us, to strangers who are part of a conference team teaching at seminars all day and ready to crash when they come back.  Let them know (communication is key to making someone feel comfortable) that they are free to set the pace – that you don’t expect them to entertain you with their ministry tales until 1 a.m.!  It may sound funny, but I was in a travelling street theatre troupe for a year, and some hosts would keep us up chatting until literally 1 or 2 in the morning, knowing full well we had to be up at 5 a.m. to start the next day… At the same time, when they return I will ask if they would like something to drink, or if they’d like a light snack before heading toward bed.  They might be hungry but too embarrassed to ask, so an invitation lets them know that it’s okay to ask for something.

Part of giving them space is dependent on how long they will be with you; we’ve had guests ranging from 1 night to 7 months.  Obviously, some ground rules needed to be laid for the longer living arrangement; and there are things with which I have to exercise patience and grace with an overnight guest or weekend guest that I would not leave un-addressed with someone staying longer.  Every household runs differently, some more efficiently than others!

I’ve also learned to go into their room while they are away and air it out if they haven’t thought of it, but otherwise the room is theirs for the duration, and I leave it as-is (unless I happen to see something permanently damaging, e.g. a wet towel on my wooden bed frame!  Then it is moved to a better place, and I let them know I simply moved it and why – in a gracious tone, of course!)

7) Pay attention to little details when preparing your home for guests; and I do mean little details:  Is there hair in the sink? Clean it.  Is there enough loo roll (toilet paper) in the bathroom?  Is there cat hair on the chair in the guest room?  Roll it.  Those little details go a long way making the difference between making someone feel like they are an intrusion or they are welcome.

My husband and I have the privilege of exercising the gift of hospitality; even though I’m the one who usually ends up making the beds, cleaning, preparing dinner and making sure everything is ready, it takes both of us to create an inviting atmosphere that makes a guest feel welcomed in our home.  When my husband is able (from his work schedule) to be involved, he is elbow-deep in it!  But it takes both of us to cultivate an atmosphere of peace and rest and refreshment, and that’s what hospitality is all about – that your guests leave more refreshed than when they came!

 

The Art of Listening

Listen - ChineseI think it goes without saying that we are a generation on information overload; the warning bell has been ringing so long and so loud that we don’t even hear it any more.  We are constantly bombarded by ads, information, misinformation, propaganda, television, magazines, news, entertainment, videos, photos, and cell phones that invade even our holidays.  The true danger in it all is that we stop listening.  That we lose the ability to hear with our heart.  We build up a crust of numbness, a de-sensitizing of our emotions to protect ourselves from the onslaught, and rightly so; but when that protection shields us from loved ones or situations that truly matter to us, or even simply human connection with those around us, something has gone wrong.

Another consequence of the onslaught is the fear that arises of not being heard ourselves; and so we trumpet our news from the rooftop to be heard above the nonsensical din; it seems that quality is no longer a goal, but quantity.  I am a writer; I have 5 blogs that I aim to write on a weekly basis;  I read a lot as well, and many tip-lists on how to run successful blogs recommend that one writes daily.  But I’ve seen the quality of many daily blogs, and most (certainly not all, but most) suffer by sheer quantity – there’s no way of maintaining integrity in writing, researching and investing yourself into an article when the main goal is to crank it out daily… and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be signed up to receive updates of a blog (or a Facebook page) that’s going to flood my inbox with gibberish.  Nor do I want to follow suit, even if it means my “success” in gaining followers of my blogs is limited – I’d rather deliver quality to the few than dribble to the masses.  Not only that, but writing a daily blog would be a tremendous pressure that I simply won’t submit myself to; I’m busy enough working on the manuscript for my next novel!

For me, whether verbal or written, listening is involved – I may listen with my ears, or my eyes – listen to the heart of the writer, to the crux of the matter. Deliberate listening facilitates understanding.  So how can we practice listening?  I recently listened to a TED talk by Julian Treasure on five exercises to improve listening; I share them with you here; click here if you’d like to watch the talk yourself:

1)  Silence:  For at least three minutes a day, try to find a place of complete silence (if not possible, at least aim for very quiet).  It helps to recalibrate your ears, so that you can actually hear the quieter things once again.

2) Mixer:  In a noisy environment, practice focusing your ears on one sound, then another (like the mixing board of a sound system);  It will improve the quality of your listening.

3)  Savouring:  There’s a “hidden choir” all around you; focusing on such mundane sounds as the dish washer or a babbling stream can reveal rhythms and build an appreciation for the simpler things in life.

4)  Listening Positions:  This is the idea that you can shift your position (or “level” of listening) according to what you’re listening to:  active/passive, reductive/expansive, critical/empathetic.  These adjust certain filters that we all have, such as culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations and intentions, which increasingly focus our listening from all “sounds” down to things we specifically listen to.

5) RASA:  An acronym for Receive (i.e. paying attention to the person), Appreciate (giving verbal feedback such as small sounds of agreement or interest), Summarize (feedback of what you’ve understood), and Ask (ask questions afterward).  Practicing RASA will improve not only how we listen, but our retention of information.

James 1:19 urges us to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” – wise advice in this day and age.