I want my Christmas Presence!

Yes, I meant to write presence and not presents. This month’s Soul Matters theme asks, “What does it mean to be a community of Presence?” As a Soul Matters congregation, each month we ask ourselves to look at our relationship to a different spiritual theme.

The idea of “presence” is an apt one for the holiday season. We may idealize the time of Advent, for example, into a pastoral scene of quiet nights and sheep covered hills. Not even close. It reminds me of a trip I took one Christmas to the beach in Texas, where a “White Christmas” means heading to the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast. Cindy and I had peaceful images in our minds of walking along chilly winter sandscapes, skipping stones on waves, and watching pelicans hunt for fish and crabs. As we walked down to the waves, we asked, “now what’s that smell?” We began to see a few dead fish, not that unusual, until the single fishes turned into piles, then mounds, then literally small hills of dead fish. Some large fish were half embedded in the sand, just their fins exposed or tails protruding. Others were just heaps of bones. It turns out we had arrived just after the largest red-tide fish kill in known to the region: some 8 million fish were estimated by the Fish and Game Department to be taking their final rest on our beach.

Well, I thought, at least there was to be a starry night. We returned to the campground, but everyone in the campground was coughing. It sounded like some kind of outdoor tuberculosis ward. The winds had shifted, the campground host told us as he noticed me now doubled over next to the picnic table, and the wind was bringing in the red tide, specifically, the neurotoxin produced by a phytoplankton called Karenia brevis. It was one of those “you’ve got to be kidding” moments. The best bet, he said, was to retreat into our camper, close all the windows tight, and stay under the blankets until the morning. There was toxicity, literally, in the air.

In the ancient Near East of the Christian birth story, it was also a messy time. Political upheaval in and around Jerusalem made both the city’s inhabitants and its Roman overlords anxious and edgy. Perhaps it was something like today, with our political tensions and uncertainties. Many of us feel anxious and edgy. There is certainly a toxicity in the air.

The word “presence” in this context might take on two meanings: How do we feel a holy presence in our lives that might calm us; How do we remain present to those most vulnerable to the political outcomes we see arising in xenophobic and racist rhetoric and action. Just this week, in Evanston, an African American candidate for City Clerk was arrested while gathering names for his petition to run for office. His offense? After providing the officer his name and stating his intentions, he refused to provide his birthdate, which was his right to refuse in the absence of any suspicion of illegal activity. After he had been slapped in cuffs and hauled down to the police station, he lodged a complaint with the sergeant on duty. The sergeant asked why he hadn’t complied with the unlawful request.

We are not immune to institutional racism in Evanston.

We must cultivate ways both to find “spiritual presence” and “to stay present” in these times. To stay present to those most vulnerable we must keep showing up and doing the justice work to which we are called. To invite the holy presence that renews and soothes, we must return to the spiritual practices that sustain us, such as prayer, meditation, connection, and contemplative activities.

May you have both this holiday season: the presence of Spirit in your life and the ability to stay present to suffering of our times.

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