The Presence of Love

A meme winds its way around social media.  A black-and-white illustration reveals animals in a manger, surrounded by trees.  A lone star shines above.  The caption reads: “A nativity scene without Jews, Arabs, Africans or refugees.”

Perhaps it would be poignant, if it weren’t so cutting.  Perhaps it would be comical, if it weren’t so timely.

It reminds me of the ancient teaching from Deuteronomy (See 10:12-19) which invites reflection on how to express God’s love.   We’re instructed to:

. . . revere the Lord your God, to walk in all God’s ways, to love God, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep God’s commandments and decrees.

We’re urged to follow God’s laws.  And in so doing, to open our hearts, not only to God, but to all others, too.  The text continues:

Cut away, then, the barrier around your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.

We’re urged to consider how our hearts may be hardened and whether we’re hanging onto an old prejudice we haven’t completely released.

We’re invited to remember:

God, mighty and awesome, executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves strangers [also translated as immigrants], and provides them food and clothing. You also shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a foreign land.

The truth is: At least once in our lives, we’ve all been strangers somewhere.  As we reflect on how powerful God’s unconditionally loving, infinitely compassionate presence is, we also can remember that once we felt hungry, tired, cold, hurt, lost, afraid or alone.

We also can remember that God’s loving presence appeared — in its own way — with skin on.  When we felt the presence of love in a blanket, a hug, a prayer, a phone call, gas money, a ride to the doctor, help getting up the ladder or down from the cliff.  When someone, sometimes a stranger, changed our flat tire in the rain, paid for our dinner, or gave us a gift we never could purchase ourselves.  With no strings attached.

These days, headlines would have us believe that it’s Us versus Them.  That we better steel ourselves with weapons, behind closed doors, because the world is a dangerous place.  If we believe some of the headlines, any stranger or immigrant in our midst could be a threat.  Though whoever the stranger is, s/he also is a divine child of God.

The child to be born in Bethlehem knew how to open his heart.  He studied God’s law.  He knew how to love unconditionally.  Sometimes, we may struggle to imagine how he did it, when we know the challenges and conflicts he faced.

Still, we can remember: The teachings don’t say we have to understand others.  Or like them.  They tell us to love.

The child to be born in Bethlehem, enfolded in love, will teach his followers (see Luke 10:27):

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

Love like that isn’t for the faint-hearted.  Love like that takes all the heart we have.  And the presence of that love is the greatest gift we can give — no matter what the season.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Habari Gani, and Happy New Year, Blessed Readers.  Thank you for being with me on the journey.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

In the Name of Peace

Advent, a season of preparation and reflection, continues with a focus on peace — within the world and within ourselves.  As we journey toward Christmas, we prepare for the birth of the Christ Presence and anticipate a peaceful future.

Perhaps we also notice: Sometimes, one person or event can inspire another.  As Jesus’s older cousin John the Baptist did when he traveled through the Judean wilderness, proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven was near (see Matthew 3:1-12: “Preparing the Way”).  He declared that another prophet would follow him, and he prepared the people by baptizing them in the River Jordan, offering physical and spiritual purification as they anticipated a new Heaven on Earth.

John, a bombastic, biblical “bad boy,” liked to challenge people and argue about how others chose to follow God’s law.  He concentrated more on the law’s letter than its spirit.  Mystically, John the Baptist can represent that part of us which wants to fight about what’s correct, rather than working to ensure peace.  John within us is a strong intellectual, though seldom a compassionate, peaceful presence.

During Advent, as we consider peace, we can choose whether we want to be more like John or like the one who’ll be called Prince of Peace.  Rather than blaming, finger-pointing and arguing with someone about who’s correct, we can choose to see the situation differently, change our behavior and transform our lives.  We can remember: People change only when they’re ready and some situations are out of our control.  So, we can choose whether we want to be “correct.” Or whether we want to be peaceful.

As we reflect on how the Prince of Peace will live, we may wonder how he remained steadfast and faithful in the face of harsh conflicts and challenges.  We may doubt that we ever could do as he did.  Though perhaps we can be inspired by a modern-day peaceful presence, Noble Peace Prize recipient and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Mandela, who survived in prison for 27 years, from 7 November 1962 to 11 February 1990, chose to focus on what he could transform — himself first.  He said:

. . . the first thing is to be honest with yourself.  You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself.  . . . Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility.

As we consider peace, we can remember that Mandela cherished the ideal of a harmonious, peaceful, democratic and free society with opportunities for all people.  When he was freed, he said:

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

And despite all he experienced, he also said:

I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.

A beautiful dream.  One, I pray, we hold for our nation, too.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.

Uncommon Faith

We’ve entered the season of Advent, a slow, quiet, dark time which prepares us for the birth — or awakening — of the Christ Presence.  Advent, from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival, invites us to prepare for a celebration unlike most others.  And, as with all celebrations, whether grand and glorious or simple and elegant, we can choose to take the calm, careful, diligent, faithful steps necessary to create a delightful experience for ourselves and any others sharing in the festivities.

As we prepare, we’re asked to believe in a divine outcome, to remain faithful that the celebration will be both wondrous and joyous, even when outer appearances suggest that the outcome will be anything but.  In the darkness of the season, we’re invited to look beyond appearances.  To know that in darkness there also is seeing.  To realize that as we adjust our sight, we also expand our vision.

In this season, perhaps more than others, we’re encouraged to remain faithful, even when we feel discouraged and doubtful.  We’re reminded to take another plunge into the depths of our inner well of faith, remembering that all the faith we ever need already is within us.

As we do, we can contemplate the words of Fred Gailey, the attorney who defends Kris Kringle in Valentine Davies’s delightful and uplifting holiday classic, “Miracle on 34th Street”:

Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.

That kind of faith is uncommon in most people: To believe when our five physical senses and our worldly common sense says: “Can’t happen.  No way.  Impossible.”  The true faith, the faith of the one who will be born in a manger, is the kind of uncommon faith so many of us desire.  It is the deep, abiding faith which sees beyond appearances, seizes opportunities, embraces possibilities, plans glorious celebrations on a shoestring and anticipates divine outcome.

Uncommon faith knows and trusts that a magnificent future is unfolding, even without the coming attractions.  Uncommon faith relinquishes control and ceases giving God directions.  Uncommon faith does nothing without putting God first and knowing God as unconditional love, infinite compassion and ever-abiding grace.  Uncommon faith sees clearly in darkness.  Uncommon faith understands that God’s immense power and presence can transform even the smallest things, the most unlikely people, and the most hopeless circumstances.

Especially, during this season, uncommon faith remembers what God has done before and trusts in what God continues doing.  We already know how the story ends: a baby, a messenger of uncommon faith, peace, love and joy is to be born in a manger, surrounded by his parents, shepherds, wise folk, angels, and a shining star.

And, with wonder, awe and uncommon faith, we prepare for the celebration — and we believe.

© 2016 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks.  All rights reserved.