Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Advent Wreaths

Ask and you shall receive! Marty, this one's for you. :)

So, in divinity school I had a professor whose specialty was the history of Christian worship. And he told us that the most basic meaning behind the candles on the Advent wreath is ... 1,2,3,4. It started out as simply counting down (up?) to Christmas, marking the time. And of course, the Christ candle for Christmas works very well with all the "Jesus the Light of the World" imagery.

But that professor also liked to talk about how symbols "aren't like stop signs," that is, they are not limited to one single meaning. And meanings get added in layers over time ... this is probably true about most of the things that happen in church (and many things that have nothing to do with church).

When I was growing up, both my dad's Catholic and my mom's Disciples churches had themes for each week of Advent, and included lighting the Advent wreath as part of each Sunday's worship. The themes were, in order: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Joy, the third Sunday, went with the pink candle, and the white Christ candle was in the middle. In my mom's church, a different family lit the Advent Wreath each week, and read some Scripture, a prayer, and a brief reflection on the meaning of the particular week. I remember my mom getting a little stressed about people lighting the candles in the correct order. (You have to start with the purple candle that's across from the pink candle to get to the pink one at the right time.)

We also often had an Advent wreath at home -- subsequent Internet research suggests to me that we were participating in a Catholic movement to integrate the faith into the homes of Catholic families. Another way to say that is that my dad brought a booklet home from his church and my mom liked the idea so she got a wreath, and we lit the candles at dinner during Advent sometimes. This scheme (3 purple candles and one pink on the outside, white in the middle) has roots in the time when Advent was a small fast, a time of reflection and penitence, a sort of echo of Lent -- hence the color purple. The pink candle and Joy, however, represent a disruption of the fast, a celebration. (Not unlike Sundays being little Easters during Lent.)

When I was serving as a pastor at Cleveland Park Congregational UCC, I did some research to put together liturgy for our wreath-lighting that was consistent with the New England Congregational tradition of the four candles representing: Faith, Hope, Love, and Joy. In this scheme, the outer candles would all be the same color. Purple is certainly appropriate, but blue, red, or even white are also possibilities. The aforementioned internet research suggested that most places where this tradition is preserved (insofar as it is discussed online) are Unitarian churches. I also discovered another scheme for the candles that I liked: Prophets, Bethlehem, the Shepherds, and the Angels. There are actually a lot of possibilities.

I think that whatever the significance attributed to each of the candles, it's a challenge to make the themes of Advent fresh in some way each year at the same time as you preserve ancient tradition. Because I have some fond memories of Advent wreaths, and, ahem, have done perhaps too much internet research, and because a few years ago I found an Advent wreath on sale at my favorite fair trade store, we have one, and some years, I have imposed dinner table Advent wreath lighting on my family. The candles are all purple, which I decided, based on, yes, my internet research (as well as that divinity school education!) was theologically sound.

We have the Advent wreath and candles here with us in Nicaragua, and I like the opportunity to celebrate Advent a little, to have a simple ritual that's part of our home life that Quinn can relate to. Her favorite part, of course, is blowing out the candle, probably because of all the recent blowing out of birthday candles (she got to blow out the birthday candles on her cake on 3 occasions this year). My plan is to do it just once a week during Advent (the candles last longer that way :) ), and we actually remembered to on Sunday, when Advent began. It is nice to have a little bit of home and family tradition in the midst of so many changes and differences. So, to sum up: I have spent really a lot of time researching Advent wreaths on the internet, and I like them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What is Advent?

If you want to do a serious research project on this question, you would start with the Wikipedia article on Advent, which is actually a pretty good introduction.

Advent is a season in the church year, a time to spiritually prepare for Christ coming into the world. It varies in length, because there are always four Sundays in Advent, and Christmas, being a fixed date, can be any day of the week. (By my calculations, this year, because December 25th falls on a Saturday, the Advent season is one day less than the longest it could possibly be -- if Christmas fell on a Sunday.)

Advent also marks the beginning of the church year and the lectionary cycle.

The gospel text for Sunday (yesterday) is about the second coming of Christ. The key verses are Matthew 24:42 and 24:44: "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." and "Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." Every year, the beginning of the church year is marked by looking forward to the end (yes, The End), which, in the Biblical story, is the return of Christ. It's always interesting to me the way a very long timeline lines up with a yearly cycle -- in order to prepare our hearts (once again, this year) for the coming of Christ (in the manger), we are encouraged to PREPARE for the Second Coming of Christ. We look forward to the coming of Christ in a unique way at the same time as we prepare to welcome the child in the manger according to the cyclical remembrance.

Perhaps the most important part of this text and the larger Advent focus is the repetition of admonitions -- Keep Awake, Be Ready, Prepare. Because Light, Love, Redemption and Salvation both came in a unique way, on a long timeline, and reappear in our lives in a cyclical way. So we need to be awake, ready, prepared for Christ to appear -- in the face of a stranger, the love of a friend, a transformational glimpse of beauty, a new challenge that brings us life, or an ordinary miracle, like the birth of a new baby.

I hope that I am ready, and can prepare my heart this Advent and beyond, to receive the Light wherever it appears.

In La Misión Cristiana, the church we are working with here, as far as I know, Advent is not an important season in their church year. They don't follow the traditional Western liturgical calendar (and I hope to learn more about the theological, historical, and cultural reasons behind that). I do, however, see them as open, awake, prepared, ready to see and respond to the ways that God enters the world. Some of those ways are familiar to me, and others less so. I expect that this will be just one of many ways that we will learn more from these brothers and sisters than we could ever hope to teach.

Just Do It

I think I am resolving to try to blog every day this Advent. The idea came to me when I couldn't sleep last night, and in the clear light of day, it still seems like it could be a good idea. Let me see if I can try to explain why I feel moved to do this.

1) We are having an amazing experience here in Nicaragua. But the way I see our role as missionaries, our experience becomes much more worthwhile when we are able to share it with all our friends and family back home, especially those in our "families of faith," the Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ. People in the pews of those denominations have been supporting the work of Global Ministries in building relationships with this church and other partners around the world for a very long time. Just as important as getting to know the people of La Misión Cristiana (Christian Mission Church of Nicaragua) is allowing church members in the United States to get to know them, too. By this logic, the more we blog, the better, so any reason is a good one. :)

2) I've been inspired my two really impressive women bloggers, both mothers. One is my cousin (okay, technically cousin-in-law, but I claim her), who despite having not only one child the same age as mine, and at least as rowdy, but also a baby whose age is still counted in months, and having spent a lot of time caring for both these children all by herself when her husband is on deployment, still manages to blog every day. The other person is someone I've never met, but I found her blog, Momastery, through a link posted by a friend on Facebook, and found her writing and the comments very inspiring. Both of these blogs have seemed to me like "places" where a real sense of community exists online.

3) It doesn't feel like Advent to me! Yes, there are Christmas lights and decorations up everywhere here in Managua, but the temperature is still liable to hit 90 on any given day, most schools just let out for summer vacation, and although our partner church here has many wonderful characteristics, they do not celebrate the liturgical calendar to which I am accustomed, and definitely don't light the candles on the Advent wreath each week to count up to Christmas. So, I want to try in my blogging to pay attention to the lectionary texts (the Bible passages that many churches read in worship each week) to get myself ready for Christmas, spiritually, together with many churches and Christians all over the world and through history.

4) I'm finding myself really pulled into the materialistic aspect of Christmas preparations, i.e. presents! -- that is, making lists of things I want and think Quinn might want and doing online shopping... so I'm seeking a little balance.

5) I love the lectionary, and I miss preaching. So, I want to write more. Don't worry, folks -- it won't be all Bible, all the time, but I would like to devote some attention to the Bible texts that lead us into Christmas.

6) Tim said last night, as we lit the first candle on the Advent wreath "I know it's the first Sunday of Advent, but I don't really know what that means." And I realize that I have more to learn about it as well. So, I would like to address that a bit as well.

I'm also posting this on my personal blog, and I may end up posting over there some days, if I run out of ideas that are directly connected to our life and ministry here in Nicaragua. My ideas I wrote down last night while not sleeping include: Quinn's theological inquiries (aka "doozies"), a slightly overdue report on our trip to a church-owned farm near Waslala, the history of Advent, stuff I want for Christmas and the Nicaraguan cultural celebrations that lead up to La Purisima on December 8th. So, stay tuned!

Saturday, November 27, 2010


The tourist visas we received when we arrived in Nicaragua only gave us 90 days and until we apply for residency we'll have to cross the border into Costa Rica to get another 90 days when we cross back. This time we decided to take a few days and see some of Costa Rica's famed natural parks -- specifically the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve.

It took us about a day to cross the border and make our way up to Monteverde. The park is super-touristed (at least during the dry season) but somewhat difficult to reach on public transportation. Supposedly this is to protect the reserve by making it harder for tourists to day-trip up from the beach. Anyway, the cloud forest is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, and since we came in the off-season we mostly had the trails to ourselves.

Here's Quinn setting off down the trails.

Capuchin monkeys visited us at our hotel.

The cloud forest felt to me like a cross between a low-land tropical rainforest (like in the Amazon) and the misty coastal redwoods of California. Although we didn't see many mega-fauna, every tree was covered in moss and epiphytes and every plant seemed like it could be its own species. Everywhere you turned your head your eyes took in tremendous levels of visual detail and living abundance. A one point we actually disturbed a rabble (or some other collective noun) of giant butterflies. Photos just don't do it justice.
Also, it turns out that its pretty wet in the cloud forest. We got soaked, which was kind of cool since it was the first time we had felt cold in months. Unfortunately, the rain finally finished off our poor, abused camera, so we don't have pictures after the first day. In addition to hiking we also did a canopy tour, although the kind where you walk along bridges through the treetops, not the kind with zip cords and helmets and adrenaline. (For an example, check out this photo from flickr.)

The three days we spent there seemed far too few to really appreciate how beautiful it is. Monteverde is also home to a group of American Quakers who settled there in the 1950s to avoid the Korean War draft, and who were also instrumental in the far-sighted plan to protect the forest in a nature reserve.

Thanksgiving in Managua

Happy Thanksgiving all! It was a little strange to be in a foreign culture for the American-est of holidays (our Nicaraguan friends were a little bemused by our descriptions of the holiday) and I think we were a little homesick and missing family and friends back home. But we definitely have a lot to be thankful for, not the least being the delicious feast that Amy and Laura Jean prepared (I did the shopping and chopped some stuff!).

¡Felíz Día de Acción de Gracias a todos! Fue un poco extraño estar en una cultura extranjera por esta más norteamericano de las fiestas (nuestras amigos nicaraguenses estaban un poco divertidos por nuestras descripciónes del día) y creo que estabamos nostálgico y les extrañamos a la familia y nuestros amigos. Pero definitivamente tenemos mucho que agradecer, no menos importante es el banquete delicioso que Amy y Laura Jean se prepararon (hice lo compras y corté algunas cosas!).

Complete with pecan pie. PIIIIIIEE! / Completo con pastel de pecanas.

Anyway, we're back in Managua after 3 very busy weeks of travel and guests and parties and work (followed immediately by getting sick... of course). So I'm going to try to post a bunch of pictures of what we've been up to. Enjoy!

De todos modos, hemos regresado a Managua despúes de 3 semanas de viajes y huespedes y fiestas y trabajos (despúes de cual, nos enfermamos... por supuesto). Así voy a postar muchos fotos de nuestros aventuras.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Todo Cambia

This past week we traveled to Costa Rica to renew our visas; this coming week my sister is coming to visit and then we're traveling again. So much to do, so little time to blog! In lieu of words and pictures, I'll just post this song -- "Todo Cambia" -- by the late Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa. I first heard it at a presentation about the impacts of climate change in Nicaragua (such a good idea to include music in technical presentations!), and I thought it was lovely. Enjoy!

Cambia lo superficial, cambia también lo profundo,
cambia el modo de pensar, cambia todo en este mundo;
cambia el clima con los años, cambia el pastor, su rebaño
y así como todo cambia que yo cambie no es extraño.

Cambia el más fino brillante de mano en mano su brillo.
Cambia el nido, el pajarillo. Cambia el sentir un amante.
Cambia el rumbo el caminante, aunque esto le cause daño.
Y así como todo cambia, que yo cambie no es extraño.

Cambia, todo cambia, cambia, todo cambia.

Cambia el sol en su carrera, cuando la noche subsiste,
Cambia la planta y se viste de verde en la primavera.
Cambia el pelaje la fiera. Cambia el cabello del anciano.
y así como todo cambia, que yo cambie no es extraño.

Pero no cambia mi amor por más lejos que me encuentre.
Ni el recuerdo, ni el dolor, de mi pueblo, de mi gente.
Y lo que cambió ayer tendrá que cambiar mañana,
así como cambio yo en esta tierra lejana.


The superficial changes, and also the profound changes.
The way of thinking changes, everything in this world changes.
The climate changes with the years, the pastor changes and her flock.
And as everything changes, it is not strange that I change.

The finest diamond changes its brightness from hand to hand.
The nest changes, the bird. A lover changes his feelings.
The walker changes direction, even if it causes her harm.
And as everything changes, it is not strange that I change.

Change, everything changes. Change, everything changes.

The sun in its course changes, when the night remains.
The plant changes and wears green in the springtime.
The wild beast changes its fur. The old one changes his hair.
And as everything changes, it is not strange that I change.

But my love doesn't change no matter how far away I am.
Nor the memory nor the pain, of my village, of my people.
And what changed yesterday will have to change tomorrow
As I change in this far off land.