Advent Lessons from the Saguaro

Dear Friends,

Thirteen years ago, I spent several days in Arizona with my parents. The abrupt change from leading a cluster church conference on Sunday night as a district superintendent to the utter stillness of the desert on Monday afternoon brought deep renewal to my spirit. In the midst of the barrenness of the wilderness, I could see life everywhere: lizards, roadrunners, birds, insects, flowers, scrub brush, and cactuses. This sudden introduction to the wilderness reminded me of Mark’s proclamation:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.”
(CEB)

So begins the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, according to Mark. The Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land by living in the wilderness for forty years. John the Baptist prepared the Hebrews for the coming of Jesus from the wilderness. Jesus himself prepared for his own ministry by retreating to the wilderness. For centuries, Christians have been called to begin Advent in the wilderness.

Why the wilderness? Why are we called to the desert in order to prepare properly for Christ’s coming? And what spiritual practices nurture us along the way to Bethlehem? Here is one reason for me. For many years now, the saguaro cactus has been a symbol for my Advent journey. This unique cactus is only found in the Sonoran Desert of extreme southeastern California, southern Arizona, and adjoining northwestern Mexico. 

Saguaros are tall, stately, solitary cactuses that rise majestically above the desert floor. Some saguaros live for two hundred years, reach a height of fifty feet, and weigh eight tons, making them the largest cactuses in the United States. Saguaros grow very slowly, about an inch a year, but that growth occurs in spurts, most of it taking place in the summer rainy season.

Just as Christmas only arrives after the four-week waiting period of Advent, in the same way, spiritual maturity does not come quickly. It develops over a lifetime of patient faithfulness and learning, especially in the midst of desert dryness, suffering, and emptiness. At the same time, the cultivation of spiritual disciplines during Advent can occasion a growth spurt in our walk with Christ.

  • How are you intentionally preparing your heart for Christmas through acts of piety and discipline such as devotional reading, music, fasting, worship, time spent in retreat, generous giving, journaling, and even yoga?

Many saguaros have arms, the average number being five. However, arms don’t appear until a saguaro reaches sixty-five years of age. The arms grow primarily for balance, to ensure that these tall heavy cactuses don’t fall over as they age.

Certainly, it is just a coincidence that arms develop in a saguaro about the same age as many human beings retire from their jobs. Yet, what do we have to learn from our elders about balance in life? And how are we called to encourage others to tend to their spiritual life? I am reminded that a saguaro’s arms usually point straight to heaven. Advent is a time for rebalancing ourselves, for looking upward to God as well as inward in piety and outward in mission, and for reconnecting with God’s unimaginable gift to us in the Christ child.

  • How will you bring balance to your life this Advent?

Life in the desert is a struggle for the saguaro from its very beginning as a shiny black seed no bigger than a pinhead. Out of tens of thousands of seeds produced every year by one saguaro, only a few will survive to adulthood. Those seeds that do grow are usually sheltered by a nurse tree such as the palo verde or mesquite. These trees protect young saguaros from the intense sun, winter cold, and hungry rodents and birds. In the same way, we are reminded during Advent that the baby Jesus was nurtured by the water of Mary’s womb so that the Word could become flesh and dwell among us.

Mature saguaros return the favor shown to them when they were young by providing protection for woodpeckers and other birds who make holes in the woody ribs of the plant. Saguaros can hold up to twenty gallons of water after a good rain and provide water for thirsty creatures.

  • How are you called to nurture, shelter, and care for all of God’s children in this Advent season through specific acts of mercy?

Unfortunately for saguaros, the most visible symbol of the southwest is a popular target for thieves for use in landscaping. Currently, a six to seven-foot saguaro sells for $500 to $700. Stealing saguaros is illegal in Arizona, and the National Park Service has had to resort to high-tech measures to stop rampant theft. In Saguaro National Park, rangers have been implanting microchip IDs in hundreds of saguaros by the sides of roads to prevent them from being poached.

Today we live in an age of anxiety when many people feel that peace, security, and stability have been stolen from them. The time is ripe for people of faith to boldly proclaim that in the midst of fear, uncertainty, and mistrust, God is good, and no one will ever be able to steal our joy in Christ.

  • How will your Advent worship services invite people into an encounter with Emmanuel, the God who is with us and whose microchip of grace is implanted in all of our hearts?

There’s one last thing about saguaros. Wherever they are located, saguaros bend toward the sun and grow toward the light.

The saguaro: wise one of the wilderness

Always vulnerable, yet forever steady

Needing protection, yet giving back when strong

Attuned to the dance of balance

Growing toward the light, arms lifted up and out

Awake, alert, attentive, joyful.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. How will the power of your presence and love point the way toward that light this Advent?

The Gift of Gratefulness

A cell phone went off in the middle of the Salem and Bradley Indian Missions (West Michigan Conference) church conference that I was leading a number of years ago. Normally, we would just smile and move on, but retired pastor Joe Sprague was inspired to tell a story about a time before cell phones, the Internet, and even landlines. He said that many years ago the Bradley church itself used to be the telephone. 

When there was important information to share, someone would ring the church bell at Bradley Indian Mission. Hearing the bell, people dropped whatever they were doing and began a journey from all directions — from Shelbyville, Gun Lake, Bradley, and Hopkins. Because there were few roads, they would make their way to the church, creating paths through woods, fields, and meadows. Even after the fields had been plowed, new paths would continually appear as the people of God walked. After reaching the church, they not only heard the information but were fed with spiritual food as well. It was that food that nourished them to return by the same paths to spread both the news they heard and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

As people of faith, we have a bell to ring and important information to share this week as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because gratefulness lies at the very core of my being. Perhaps it’s because I was born on Thanksgiving Day, and gratefulness is literally in my DNA.

Over the past few weeks, I have been pondering the difference between thanksgiving and gratefulness. On Thanksgiving Day our family has a tradition of going around the table before we eat and sharing those things for which we are thankful. Every year we give thanks for specific blessings such as family, good health, a job, leads on jobs, COBRA health insurance, a car that still runs, supportive friends, a wonderful church family, and opportunities to serve.

Gratefulness, on the other hand, is a state of being that springs from deep in the heart. I am grateful. Gratefulness is a disposition to express gratitude by giving thanks. What is gratefulness? I am standing outside in the driveway at 5:30 a.m., about to go for a run. It’s pitch black except for a sky dotted with bright, glittering stars. I can’t tear my eyes away from the wonder of the universe. Or, I am taking an evening walk and am mesmerized by the swirl of intricate cloud patterns, an Iowa sunset palette of red, orange, and yellow, and the jet streams of two planes forming a perfect cross in the sky. Or, I am scrambling up a steep mountain trail and am awestruck by the breathtaking beauty of the view on the other side. Or, a cardinal sits quietly in the backyard and stares at me as I work at the kitchen table. I am grateful.

“If my Ode to Gratitude is always on my lips, I will enjoy new graces,

for God loves and blesses grateful hearts.”

– St. Mary Euphrasia

Gratefulness is the bell calling us to a deeper awareness of God’s presence in our heart. Just as a bell summons us and then sends us back home transformed, so the heart gives life by taking in and then pumping out blood. In the silence of our hearts, we breathe in the gift of life: gratefulness. Then we breathe out hope for our world: thankfulness. Whereas gratefulness has to do with being fully alive and attentive, thankfulness has to do with cultivating gratitude in a social context.

Gratefulness without thanksgiving is incomplete and empty. Conversely, thanksgiving without gratefulness is disconnected from the Giver. Because I am grateful, I can be thankful. How ironic. At the very time when our nation is called to gratefulness by expressing thankfulness to God and others, we are poised to respond the very next day to the bell of Black Friday. The insidious message that gratefulness is best expressed through the rituals of purchasing and giving things often crowds out the rituals of spiritual practices, family time, and the cultivating of relationships.

What is it that inhibits gratefulness?

  • We have too much stuff and too few life-giving friendships.
  • We have too many distractions and too little silence.
  • We are over-committed (too much doing) and under-rested (not enough being).
  • We believe that we can only be grateful when we are happy.
  • We’d rather ask God for what we want than thank God for what we have.
  • We obsess over the small stuff rather than look to the stars.
  • We overeat at the Thanksgiving feast while starving ourselves of the Bread of Life.

Joanna Macy has written, “Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art…It is a privilege to be alive in this time when we can choose to take part in the self-healing of our world.” I encourage you to participate in the self-healing of our world, which is nothing more than doing our part to bring in God’s reign on this earth.

 

Consider these grateful possibilities:

  • Nurture mystic gratefulness in the depths of your heart.
  • Believe in, support, walk with, show grace to, forgive, and invest your energy in others.
  • Give tender care to the world and its creatures by changing some of your habits.
  • Right-size Christmas this year by giving gifts to those who least expect and most need them.
  • Shuffle through a pile of leaves, make a pot of turkey noodle soup, and read a book to your grandchild.
  • Breathe in the goodness of God, breathe out light and love, and be open to the possibility of transformation.
  • Share a word of comfort and courage with someone living in despair or fear.
  • Ring the bell – walk the path – share the good news.

The bell is ringing. Can you hear it? If Thanksgiving is, indeed, in our DNA, then walk, skip, hop, and run to the bell! Become one with the steady pumping of God’s grace into your heart and the rhythmic pumping out of acts of justice and mercy. We cannot be too grateful.

“A single grateful thought toward heaven is the most complete prayer.”

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

For the Times We Cause the World Harm

Only recently have I become aware of the Conference of Parties, known as the COP. This is the decision-making body responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The COP brings together the 197 nations and territories – called Parties – that have signed on to be a part of the Framework Convention.

In the midst of our current concern about the effect of climate change in our world, the Conference of Parties has met annually since 1995 (hence COP-26), with the first international climate agreement to decrease greenhouse gas emissions approved in December 2015. This agreement urged the Parties to the Convention to decrease greenhouse gas emissions with an agreed-upon goal of staying below a global average temperature increase of 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

My attention was particularly drawn to the COP this year because Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, was invited to be the preacher for the COP-26 gathering. The worship service was designed to remind all of us of the times when we cause our world harm.

The opening worship service was held on November 7 in Glasgow, Scotland, and was introduced by a bell. These words were in the bulletin, “Before the service the Cathedral bell is rung. To ring a bell is to abandon detachment. The clanky bells of the Celtic Saints expressed their confrontation of injustice and evil, in their vulnerable dependence on the strength of God. A bell disturbs the easy peace of injustice. Sounds an alarm. Calls for action. Gathers friends for urgent help. A bell makes the connections. When we ring bells, we know the sleeping dogs will lie no more and we call on God to sustain us in our commitments, come what may.

“We gather to worship God as friends of Jesus and fellow creatures on the earth which God made and loves. We gather to listen for God’s Word in Scripture and to own our responsibility as guardians of Creation. We rely on God’s grace to enable us to witness, in Jesus’ name, for global justice as we worship with gratitude, hope and joy. Amen.”

Prayers for the world preceded Dr. Henry-Crowe’s sermon:

“For the times we cause the world harm; for the times our way of life affects our neighbours.

(all sing) Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison. (Lord, have mercy)

“Inspire us to care for the environment; to help rebuild lives and communities;

(all sing) Christe eleison, Christe eleison, Christe eleison. (Christ, have mercy)

“To share in the griefs and anxieties, joys and hopes of all your people, so that all your creation may flourish.

(all sing) Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison. (Lord, have mercy)”

Referencing Psalm 23, Dr. Henry-Crowe cited wandering and homecoming as the substance of life. Psalm 23 is our heart song for transformation, as we pray for the world to turn from selfishness, greed, and corruption that destroys oceans, first lands, and indigenous peoples who have already been abused because of our domination. We mourn together ravaged forests and desolation caused by the sun; hurricanes and typhoons wreaking havoc; oil spills and garbage killing ocean life; and fishermen and farmers suffering as they live along coastlines.

We also recognize that communities living in poverty are most vulnerable, with the Pandemic magnifying the effect of climate change. Indeed, we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, as our hearts break for the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit, a world where the people with the fewest resources are the most devastated.

Dr. Crowe said, “This Psalm reminds us that God has already prepared this table in the very presence of our enemies. The enemies of life/shared power/creation/ justice and equity. Jesus is always at the table reaching out to those at the far end or under the table. Jesus invites and privileges those on the margins, the most vulnerable. There is always a place for everyone. Those walking in the way of faith which leads to justice and equity for all to be heard at the table of negotiation – for remembering – Creator, creation returned (transformed) and the future. The COP is a great table – for listening – attending – arguing – negotiating – not for ourselves but for creation. For the way it once was. When God said – It was good.”

In a November 13 press release, COP-26 announced consensus on three critical Adaption, Finance, and Mitigation.

Adaption was the object of particular emphasis during the deliberations. Parties established a work programme to define the global goal on adaptation, which will identify collective needs and solutions to the climate crisis already affecting many countries.”

Finance was extensively discussed throughout the session and there was consensus in the need to continue increasing support to developing countries. The call to at least double finance for adaptation was welcomed by the Parties. The duty to fulfill the pledge of providing 100 billion dollars annually from developed to developing countries was also reaffirmed. And a process to define the new global goal in finance was launched.”

“On mitigation, the persistent gap in emissions has been clearly identified and Parties collectively agreed to work to reduce that gap and to ensure that the world continues to advance during the present decade, so that the rise in the average temperature is limited to 1.5 degrees. Parties are encouraged to strengthen their emissions reductions and to align their national climate action pledges with the Paris Agreement.”

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released in August 2021, we are in the midst of a CODE RED for humanity. The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said, “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is ‘irrefutable’”. He also issued words of hope. “Inclusive and green economies, prosperity, cleaner air and better health are possible for all, if we respond to this crisis with solidarity and courage.”

Can creation show us the way? Might animals, birds, and fish be our guides? At the end of her sermon Dr. Henry-Crowe issued a challenge, “Disruption and surprise are integral to transformation… Our song does not die in the valley of the shadow of death but beckons, calls, teases, and cajoles us onward. To do better – to do the very best we can for creation and to continuously promise to care for it. And then we return to our dwelling place….

“As a Christian, I believe – God is preparing a table – hovering and welcoming us into new life. It may be 11:59 and we gather to prepare, negotiate and make promises for the new day that is dawning. And we do return and into your arms – to dwell in the home of God forever.”

May the blessing sung at the end of the worship service strengthen and encourage you to recognize when you are causing the world harm and seek climate justice for all.

A Gaelic Blessing by John Rutter

Deep peace of the running wave to you

Deep peace of the flowing air to you

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you

Deep peace of the shining stars to you

Deep peace of the gentle night to you

Moon and stars pour their healing light on you

Deep peace of Christ the light of the world to you

Deep peace of Christ to you