Mysticism, Mission, and Malevolence

Meditating on the mood and symbol of Christmas, African American mystic Howard Thurman reflected, "It is a quickening of the presence of other human beings into whose lives a precious part of one's own has been released.  It is a memory of other days when into one's path an angel appeared spreading a halo over an ordinary moment or commonplace event.  It is an iridescence of sheer delight that bathed one's whole being with something more wonderful than words can ever tell. . . . It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding.  It is the cry of life in the new born babe when, forced from its mother's breast, it claims its right to live. . . . It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil" (The Growing Edge, pp. 117-118).

The Christmas season in scripture and daily life is ambiguous for the preacher and congregation alike.  "It's the most wonderful time of the year" as we, like magi of old, come presenting gifts to those we love.  Around every corner, "there's a song in the air, there's a star in the sky," as we like the shepherds behold glory in the commonplace.  For a moment, our hearts are lifted and softened, as we notice the holiness of spouses, partners, children, congregants, and checkers at the store.

We pastors need these feelings of wonder, beauty, and holiness.  We need a "halo over an ordinary moment."  This is the surprising wonder of incarnation that makes all of us mystics.

And, we need to be mystics -- Mary encountered an angel, Joseph had a dream, and the magi followed a star.   We can find Christ as we check our e-mail or make hospital visits.  In the midst of the darkening days and the equally darkening prognostications about the church and the world, we need to be "surprised by joy" as we go about our daily tasks and come home to our families and friends.

Without the mysticism of incarnation, life loses its zest and ministry loses its inspiration.  But, the mysticism of Christmas is both inspiring and sobering.  Mary's angelic visitor calls her to go beyond her -- and anyone else's -- comfort zone; Joseph's dreams emerge in times of anxiety, first for himself and Mary's reputation and then for the safety of his family; and the magi's dream takes them off course to buy some time for Joseph and his family.  Mysticism calls us to mission, and, in the spirit of the Christmas stories, the mission of protection and safety-making and advocacy for the vulnerable.  In the rhythm of contemplation and action, mysticism finds embodiment and relevance in care for the marginalized and at-risk; mission finds its energy and perspective in recognizing God's love hidden in "the least of these" and also the most powerful.

The mountaintops of joy -- the spirit of the season -- are incomplete without remembering that our joy is for the world, and not just for ourselves. 

Amid the cacophony of advertisements and Christmas carols, there is an undercurrent of malevolence in the air.  There is threat: a businessman's greed threatens to undermine the generosity of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.  Something about the incarnation, about Christmas, deep down reminds us that all is not well in our community, nation, and world.  Movement forward is almost always met by resistance; threat of new creation brings out the Herods for whom injustice is profitable whether on Wall Street, in the boardroom, in national policymaking, or in armament sales. Visions of community bring out those who see diversity and reconciliation as evils to be marginalized, if not eliminated altogether.  As pastors, we feel this ambivalence ourselves, for even at Christmas, we preachers can become naysayers and stand in the way of spiritual transformation.

The birth of a child always occurs in the context of threat.  No doubt the child traversing the birth canal wonders if she will survive the journey to the outside world.  Those who would be spiritual guides in their preaching and ministry need to live with the contrasts of Christmas -- the wondrous star and the massacre of infants; the innocent child and the cunning political leaders; the generosity of the magi and the Roman oppression; a place called home and a family on the run.

Like Advent, Christmas calls us to practices of the season.  Again, while there are many ways to deepen your spiritual life as a preacher, let me suggest a few:

  • Pause awhile amid the rush. The days of Advent and Christmas are "fast forward" and we need to stop, look, and listen -- to breathe deeply, notice how we're feeling right now, notice the overall quality of our spiritual lives, and listen for deeper voices around us and within us.
  • Keep your senses open. After pausing, notice the holiness in those with whom you work, play, and live. Notice surprising places of incarnation, where God's light shines forth.
  • Breathe the fragrances of Christmas -- not just the smell of cooking, but the evergreen and cider, the candles and coffee.  Breathe deeply, taking the time simply to bathe your senses in the present moment.
  • Remember the child that was and still is within you.  Life is too serious not to play. And, let that remembrance enliven your relationship with the children at home and church.
  • In the spirit of O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," be abundantly generous -- in hospitality, in love, in forgiveness.
  • Open your senses to vulnerable persons and be willing to advocate on their behalf.
  • Take your dreams seriously: guiding dreams and perplexing dreams along with the revelation of synchronous encounters and nagging inclinations that just won't go away.  Perhaps, these are inviting us to look out for others, honor a hidden part of ourselves, or take another life path.
  • Awaken to the angelic -- to messengers of God challenging, inspiring, protecting, and guiding.

As Thurman notes, Christmas calls us to see more, be more, love more, and hope more.  "Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels" (The Growing Edge, p.119).

Return next Wednesday for more Spiritual Practices for Preaching, from the Patheos Preachers Portal.

12/15/2010 5:00:00 AM
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  • Bruce Epperly
    About Bruce Epperly
    Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.