“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” When we are at our best we are hopeful creatures. But it iseasy to lose hope, to get stuck in a difficult and painful present, to feel frustration and fear in the face of theunknown. That is why religions have liturgical calendars – for each faith a reliable series of events that remind people of the stories that call us to our better selves. In the Christian liturgical calendar, the month of December is Advent – a time of expectant waiting for the arrival of the thrill of hope at the heart of the Christmas story.
UU minister Carl Seaburg reminds us that Christmas is simply the latest incarnation of an old and enduring universal religious celebration. “Christmas,” he says, “is older than any one religious tradition. Every cult has adapted itself to the great mid-winter celebration. Way before there were Christians there was ‘Christmas’ by another name. Each temporary faith grafts its customs and meanings onto the celebration that is there and will outlast them.”
Advent, the time of spiritual preparation, is also an expression of universal human need. John Taylor, says, “We human creatures, in spite of all that has happened to us and been done by us, are still hopeful. Something new, something vital, something promising, is always coming, and we are always expecting. Advent is a time of anticipation and as long as we expect, as long as we hope, someone will light a candle against the prevailing darkness – and neither the winds of hate nor the gales of evil will extinguish it.”
As a congregation you have been living through a challenging time of transition that came during a challenging time in the larger culture: an economic crisis that has dragged on far too long, unprecedented political polarization, environmental depredation, fear of handing off to our children a world of intractable and insoluble problems. Yet in spite of all that you continue to be, together, The Unitarian Church in Westport. You continue to worship, to make music, to share your faith with your children. You show up, you pledge and volunteer, you remain faithful stewards of this beloved community. You advocate for sustainability, justice,and peace. So I declare you to be Advent people, no matter your personal theological identity. Listen carefully for the thrill of hope this month, whether in a Christmas carol, a menorah lighting prayer, or a Solstice song.
On a more practical note, I will be taking a month of unpaid leave later this winter. I volunteered to do this; by taking a month off without pay, I am helping to reduce costs and allow the rest of the staff to be stabilized. And I am giving myself something that interim ministers never get: a stretch of time off that, while not as long as a sabbatical, is longer than any other stretch. (Interim ministers often use our ‘vacation’ time to move.) So you get a little bit of budget relief and I get extra rest and rejuvenation time.
Since this time off is completely unpaid, I will be completely off. I will not be on call for emergencies,I will not respond to email or take phone calls. Plans are under way for coverage of all essential aspects of theministry. The Worship and Pastoral Care Associates will play a significant role in covering in my absence, aswill other staff members. There will be more information about these plansas we get closer to my February15th departure. I will return in mid-March.
In the meantime, enjoy this month of December, a month of many religious celebrations. Whatever in the great December cacophony kindles your flame of hope, pay it heed, and pass it on.