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Peg Duthie on miracles

We don't do sermons at my shul; High Holidays aside, we opt for Torah study instead. But I do enjoy a good sermon, and this morning I had the pleasure of reading What is Believed, and What is Received, a sermon delivered by Peg Duthie at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville, TN a few days ago.

She begins by talking about sports fandom, and its relation to religious involvement and faith. (I'll bet that got a laugh from the sports fans in the room. If you doubt that sports fandom can engender nigh-religious fervor, you probably aren't a Sox fan, of either stripe.) From there -- appropriately enough, for Thanksgiving Sunday and the first Sunday of Advent, the start of the winter holiday season by many reckonings -- she moves into talking about the season to come:

One of the challenges of December is that its major holidays force many of us to grapple with who or what we call God, and what our obligations are to him, her, or it, and to those who see God in a different light or incarnation.

Those of us living in a mainstream-Christian culture necessarily wrestle at this time of year with the ubiquity of Christmas. For some Jews, that's difficult, maybe because it reinforces our awareness of ourselves as outsiders. For some Christians, it's difficult, maybe because the consumerism splashed across catalogues and television screens doesn't match the holiday they want to be celebrating. Chanukah, too, can be tricky -- it's not a major Jewish holiday, but it's hard to relinquish the impulse to bulk it up in order that it might match Christmas' splendor, even though that flies in the face of the holiday's anti-assimilationist narrative.

In the midst of all of this pomp and circumstance, the piles of tangled ribbons and conflicted feelings, it's easy to lose sight of the important questions Peg asks: what are our obligations to God at this time of year? What are our obligations to each other -- to those who relish the first Christmas carols, and those who want to hide under the bed until January? Those who lovingly polish the chanukiyyah waiting for the chance to kindle its lights, and those who wish the whole month of December would just go away?

I'm a non-Christian, non-Jewish theist, and what this means in plain English is none of the upcoming holidays feel like they quite belong to me. I do sing Christmas carols, and I also light Hanukkah candles, but as I write cards and wrap presents and reread Charles Dickens, I usually find myself composing a couple of mental apologies to God --something along the lines of "I am thinking of you, but probably not as much or as reverently as I should."

Though I don't share Peg's sense that neither of the upcoming holidays is mine, her mental apology to God resonates for me. Even when I'm trying my hardest to invest the season with meaning, to see God in both the darkness and the lights, my attention wanders and my kavvanah flags. Real religious practice, for me, is about noticing when my attention drifts and gently but firmly tugging it back to where it needs to be.

Peg speaks eloquently about miracles -- and about their apparent inverse, the times when things go wrong, when tragedies happen, when our suffering weighs us down:

[W]hen we are confronted with suffering and grief, many of us instinctively agonize over the wouldas, couldas, and shouldas, no matter which belief system we subscribe to. For some people, not being able to make sense of their unhappiness leads to anger and even hatred toward God. It's not a pretty concept, God being unfair, and the season that's now upon us has a way of emphasizing the distance between prayers uttered and prayers granted that can be hard to take if the gap is wide.

This put me immediately in mind of the pastoral care work I'm doing at Albany Medical Center, and of the challenges all pastoral caregivers and chaplains face in manifesting the presence of God to people who are suffering in ways we may not be able to imagine. But Peg doesn't stop there; she draws on Rabbi Harold Kushner in articulating a different way of understanding what it means for a prayer to be answered, and that takes her to the real heart of the sermon, a revisioning of the December holiday season:

Framed another way, the spiritual core of our holidays ultimately resides in what we bring to them, not what happened in a Bethlehem inn or a temple in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago. The celebration is not only of miracles then, but of possibilities now. The gift from God is that we are alive and able to celebrate the here and now.

The full sermon is here, and it's worth a read. Thanks for sharing it with us, Peg.

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