Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bye for Now...

Larry-O, Petra and I are leaving in the morning for 6 days in Wyoming with family. We hear the snow is beautiful, the mountains inviting, and the steak unsurpassed... so we're ready to go.

Blessings to all of you for a joyful transition into 2007. See you next week...


PS Thanks to Rob W for the spectacular shot of New Year's fireworks over the Acropolis... nothing more exciting than DVD's of Xena going on here!

God on the Net: Part III

And finally... to Slate. Since September David Plotz, who describes himself as a "proud Jew, but not an observant one," has been "blogging the bible" for Slate Magazine. He brings to the project enthusiasm, a journalist's eye for detail, and no previous exposure to the formal study of scripture, which, in this case, is a good thing. "What happens when an ignoramus reads the Good Book?" he asks, and his blog is the result.

He's in Isaiah at the moment, following the order of the Jewish bible. It has been fascinating for me. As a Christian I carry with me years of the influence of Handel's Messiah when I read Isaiah... "Comfort ye..." "He shall feed his flock..." "For unto us a child is born..." Plotz's first experience of Isaiah is that he is going to be a real drag to read; he compares him to bloviating talk radio hosts.

In his discussion of chapter I he speaks of God's distress at the Israelites' failing to do good in the world:

...God is particularly annoyed at the Israelites' superficial obedience. They continue to make sacrifices to him and burn incense: "Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood."

This is particularly resonant in the holiday season. Here is God not demanding a public display of obedience—in fact, He loathes the Israelites' offerings and festivals. Rather, He is demanding a much more profound reformation. His people must change their hearts and, more importantly, change how they treat others. To regain His love, they must "cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."

As far as I can remember, this is the first time that God has explicitly valued good deeds over professions of faith and obedience to the law. Until now, the Israelites only got in trouble for disobeying God's law—idol-worshipping, Sabbath-scoffing, etc. But now, they're dealing with a Good Works God, who requires righteous behavior toward fellow men, rather than disingenuous prayer. The debate over whether God wants faith or deeds still rages today, but I think this is the first time the Bible alludes to it.

Crudely speaking, there are three sides to in this fight:

1) Those who believe you serve God by obeying the letter of His laws—the position generally staked out today by orthodox Jews;
2) Those who believe you serve God best through personal faith, and salvation comes through that faith—the position taken by most evangelical Protestants;

3) Those who believe you serve God best by acting morally toward your fellow humans—the position held by many liberal Catholics and reform Jews.

Till Isaiah, God has clearly favored Group 1, demanding obedience to His law and smiting for mere misdemeanors. So, as a subscriber to Group 3, I'm surprised and rather thrilled to see God endorsing it here. Let's see if He sticks with it.

This is hardly a nuanced position; I can argue that there are people in each of these groups (Jews, Catholics, Protestants) who could find themselves on any one of the "sides." As a liberal Protestant, there is no neat category for me (though my friends will undoubtedly say "Duh. 3."). But, again, Plotz is not going for nuance. He is responding honestly to a first reading of the bible through secularly educated lenses.

At this time I want to recommend Real Live Preacher's recent videos on "How to Read the Bible." These are great introductory videos that tackle the basics of sitting down with this book (or, as he reminds the viewer, collection of literature) so that the first-timer won't be overwhelmed.

So much great stuff out there friends!


God on the Net: Part II

Much of yesterday afternoon having been devoted to de-mudding Petra (she had a long, muddy fall from a frisky horse at her lesson), I have been slow to find my way back to this topic.

In her discussion of The Great Transformation, Armstrong says some startling things about God (at which some readers and commenters on the Salon site have taken real offense). The thing that is burning most deeply in my heart is her conviction that for most people our understanding of God is so impoverished as to be nearly useless for meaningful dialogue or even as a basis for action. As someone who makes a living on my supposed expertise in this area I find this troubling. I sense there is truth in her assertion: after all, even by my own creeds and confessions, God is infinitely more than anything within my power to conceive.

As many problems as I have with the confession as a whole, there is an honesty and humility to the opening of chapter II of the Westminster catechism that speaks to this ineffability, this unknowability:

1. There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty; most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withalhmost just and terrible in his judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

They lose me near the end there...I have a distinctly un-Presbyterian universalist streak. Armstrong might subscribe to a couple of these descriptors: infinite, invisible, immense, incomprehensible. As for the rest, I think (and I have not read the book, so this is inferring a lot from an interview), I believe she would remain agnostic.

When I come up smack agains the unknowability of God, I find myself in unsettling territory. I believe the life of Jesus tells me something about God. But does it give me a road map, a portrait? I don't know.

More on the Slate piece later...

Saturday, December 30, 2006

God on the Net: Part 1

Two publications where I always at least check in every day are Salon and Slate Magazine. There are two different articles currently posted on these sites that have been stirring the pot for me, metaphorically, where faith and my understanding of God are concerned.

First, Salon. There is currently a piece called "Editors' Picks: Best Books of 2006", which links to reviews of books or interviews with the authors which the Salon editors think are of particular value. There you can find Going Beyond God, an interview with Karen Armstrong. (Salon requires either that you be a member or that you get a site pass by simply looking at an advertisement; it is a good deal, and takes just a few seconds).

Of course the editors in this case give this provocative teaser to the article: "Historian and former nun Karen Armstrong says the afterlife is a 'red herring,' hating religion is a pathology and that many Westerners cling to infantile ideas of God." Fair enough. MoreCows has recently discussed the afterlife and reformed views thereof in this incredibly thoughtful and challenging post: What We Don't Know. Getting past the teaser and into the interview, Armstrong's most recent book, The Great Transformation, is on "the axial age," the moment in history when the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah and the mystics of the Upanishads all came into being/ came into their understandings of the nature of the divine and what that nature requires of us as human beings.

Here is the part of the interview that most riveted me:

Do you consider yourself a religious person?

Yes. It's a constant pursuit for me. It's helped me immeasurably to overcome despair in my own life. But I have no hard and fast answers.

I take it you don't like the question, do you believe in God?

No, because people who ask this question often have a rather simplistic notion of what God is.

What about an afterlife?

It's a red herring as far as I'm concerned.

But you must have thought about that question. Does everything end once we die?

I don't know. I prefer to be agnostic on that matter, as do most of the world's religions. It's really only Christianity and Islam that are obsessed with afterlife in this way. It was not a concern in the Axial Age, not for any of them. I think the old scenarios of heaven and hell can be unreligious. People can perform their good deeds in the spirit of putting their installments in their retirement annuities. And there's nothing religious about that. Religion is supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not about its eternal survival.

+ + +

I am off to take Petra to her riding lesson... more later.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas Memories

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. Your builders outdo your destroyers, and those who laid you waste go away from you.

Lift up your eyes all around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, says the Lord, you shall put all of them on like an ornament, and like a bride you shall bind them on.

~ Isaiah 49:13-18

At this time 14 years ago I was the mother of a beautiful and robust baby girl, Petra having been born in September of that year. Five years before that, I was the mother of a slightly younger but also thriving baby boy, Larry-O being just six weeks old at Christmastide. I have vivid memories of taking each of them to church during this season-- showing them off, proud, young mother that I was. And I have specific memories attached to nursing them at this time as well.

Shorty after Larry was born, we had a visit from Mikhail, the priest who married us. He sat in the living room with us for a long time, while we all essentially adored this baby. I would nurse him on and off, and a feeling of nesting, love and coziness permeated all. On Christmas day we took Larry to church, showed him off, and generally glowed and basked in our new parenthood. To our shock, we and Larry formed part of the content of Mike's sermon that morning-- the image of parents, in love with this new life, filled with gratitude for the amazing gift. As we drove home from church, Mr. Mags said, "I guess I really get Christmas now. I get what all the fuss is about. Even if it's about any new baby who is loved-- that's enough."

When Petra was a nursing infant I remember holding her through a service of Lessons and Carols on the Sunday after Christmas. Petra grew fussy and I took her to the back of the church, to a little secluded alcove that had once functioned as a children's chapel. There, beneath a blanket, I nursed her. One choral piece had a glorious organ accompaniment. As the music rose to a climax Petra took her milky mouth from my breast and rooted in the air, as if trying to drink in that sound. I came away from that experience understanding something about myself, and my longing for an experience of the divine, a feeling that was very much like my beautiful girl, trying to nurse at beauty itself.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Delicious Anticipation, Open Invitation

“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

~ Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 21

We think we're celebrating the birth of a baby... and so we are, in many (if not most) quarters. But I fear we focus on the baby because what we really celebrate is so overwhelming as to scare the bejeezus out of us if we dare to approach it with open minds and hearts.

We celebrate the open invitation: "Come."

We celebrate the dawning of a power that should knock us right out of our little partisan squabbles and bring us to our knees.

There are no restrictions on that "come." No "except for..." No one we can look at and say "Not you." Damn.

The one who broke my heart? He's in. The boss who nearly crushed my spirit and ended my pursuit of ministry? Her too. People with different clothing, language, religion? In, in, in. People whose sexual expression makes my skin crawl? They're in. The people who sent human bombs crashing into US targets on September 11? Yes, they're in.

We celebrate an inclusiveness that might turn our stomachs, make us ill, make us not want to take part. So be it. It is not up to us. It is up to the bright morning star, to choose upon whom the divine light will shine. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. Yes. The Spirit and the bride say, come.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Rosetta Sauce

You never know what will resonate with your readers... Stand warned: it is rich and it is addictive. Here. friends, is the recipe for

Angel Hair Pasta with Rosetta Sauce

1 lb. freshly cooked Angel hair pasta
1/4 c. butter
1 c. heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 c. grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 c. prepared tomato sauce (your favorite)
Additional Parmesan or Romano cheese

Melt butter in a large skillet. When butter foams, add cream. Simmer over medium heat about 2 minutes until thickened (don't overboil). Add tomato sauce and stir to blend. Add cooked pasta to the skillet, stirring gently. Add 1/4 c. parmesan cheese and toss gently until sauce coats pasta (20-30 seconds). Serve with more grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Festive Foods Friday Five

Courtesy of our fun friends at RevGalBlogPals...

Well friends, we've covered advent, music, and movies/TV--but we here at F5 HQ would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that quintessential holiday topic... fooooooooood.

1. Favorite cookie/candy/baked good without which, it's just not Christmas.

Well, this year your intrepid blogger is toughing it out sans sugar and flour for health reasons... but in a normal Christmas season there would be two necessary confections: Melting Moments and Rum Balls.

My mother was never much of a baker, so I ferreted out other women to teach me the fine art of cookie-making as a very young woman. When I was in high school I tore out the middle of a December issue of Good Housekeeping, and all my favorite Christmas cookie recipes over the years came from those pages. For those of you who have never had the pleasure, Melting Moments are delicate cookies made with cornstarch and confectioners' sugar, giving them a soft, fine, melt-in-your-mouth texture. In my favorite recipe the cookies are glazed with a mixture of confectioners' sugar and orange juice.

2. Do you do a fancy dinner on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, both, or neither? (Optional: with whom will you gather around the table this year?)

Our family tradition on Christmas Eve is Angel Hair pasta (yes! for the angels!) with Rosetta sauce (a kind of virgin-vodka sauce-- also theologically appropriate!). This is quick for those of us who-- ahem-- have other obligations that night. Christmas Day we used to have a big feast of standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding, food still beloved by my family. However, in view of the busy nature of the week for clergy types, and in honor of the endless loop of "A Christmas Story" on TBS, we began ordering Chinese food about five years ago. We have never gone back.

3. Evaluate one or more of the holiday beverage trifecta: hot chocolate, wassail, egg nog.

Love hot chocolate-- with marshmallows, thank ye kindly-- never had wassail, and adore egg nog, minus the rum.

4. Candy canes: do you like all the new-fangled flavors or are you a peppermint purist?

Peppermint. Otherwise the stupid story falls apart.

5. Have you ever actually had figgy pudding? And is it really so good that people will refuse to leave until they are served it?

Yes! Well, it's an acquired taste, I would say, and after a big dinner it's hard to imagine getting the enthusiasm for this dense, incredibly sweet dessert. But we have obsessed about dense, incredibly sweet desserts before, and so we have empathy for the carolers/ wassailers of yore.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

River: A Meditation for the Longest Night

Last year the church I was serving marked the Longest Night with a pre-Christmas service for those struggling with loss during the holidays. This is one of the meditations I offered at that service.

+ + +

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

~ Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

In the early 70’s Joni Mitchell was known for folksy ballads such as “Both Sides Now” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” as well as for the generational anthem “Woodstock.” But she was also known for the album “Blue.” That album included the song “River,” which has since become a classic along the lines of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” It is a wistful and gentle song whose words speak of sadness and alienation in the face of everybody else’s enjoyment of the Christmas season. She sings,

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
…I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I made my baby cry

…I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh I wish I had a river
I made my baby say goodbye

In these lyrics Mitchell dreams of freedom from her sadness, symbolized by the exhilaration of skating away on a river on a frosty winter’s day. This song is the story of the breakup of a relationship, but of course that is just one of the many kinds of losses we can face. On the same album Mitchell sings, “Little Green,” about the wrenching experience of giving up a baby for adoption, an experience she herself lived through.

At this time of year the darkness of the natural world, when the days are growing shorter and shorter, can be amplified and intensified by interior darkness for those of us experiencing sadness or loss. The reading from Isaiah tells us that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We Christians understand that light to be the light of God shining through Jesus Christ. But living with depression and grief can obscure even that light.

The mystery of the incarnation is the mystery of a God who comes to be with us in the darkness. If we believe that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, then we profess faith in one who knows every kind of sorrow that we can know. Even if we are still walking in darkness, Jesus is the promise that God walks with us. Even if we choose to skate away into the darkness, we can trust that Jesus too will strap on his skates and follow us out onto that long frozen river.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


The second in a series of meditations on heresies. I was identified as tending Nestorian in my heresy quiz. Wikipedia sez: "Nestorianism is the Christian doctrine that Jesus exists as two persons, the man Jesus and the divine Son of God, or Logos, rather than as a unified person."

Friends, I was shocked! shocked! to be so identified. I am born and bred into the firm conviction that Jesus' natures-- human and divine-- are seamlessly wed in him, and that we try to separate those out at our peril.

I taught a class using Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time at my last church. One very open-minded and good-hearted man got completely hung up on the following hypothetical questions: Did Jesus know the theory of relativity? Did he know that the earth circles the sun and not vice versa? Did he know about the circulatory and nervous systems, how the brain works, what the thyroid gland does? My answers to all these are, No, if Jesus is like the rest of us humans in every respect save sin, then he did not have special knowledge that extended beyond the realm of his contemporaries, except perhaps insofar as his own identity was concerned.

This bothered me about the Anne Rice book, Out of Egypt; the child Jesus figures out who he is at around the age of 7. I can't fathom such a thing. I believe that God limited God's self-expression in Jesus. If not, the incarnation is empty-- it's simply God play-acting. What's saving there?


What She Said

I have discovered a new blog... oh, my goodness. It is a feast for the eyes and the spirit. It is Search the Sea, by Gannet Girl. I refer you to her post today, Advent 17, in which, after sharing family news, she reposts an Advent meditation from last year. It took my breath away.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

God, Needing Milk and Love

A Poem by Denise Levertov...


‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn, Greece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.


Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.


She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.


So... since I scored so high in Pelagius' particular brand of heresy I thought I'd muse on it just a bit.

Here is part of the Wikipedia definition:

Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature (which, being created from God, was divine), and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without Divine aid. Thus, Adam's sin was "to set a bad example" for his progeny, but his actions did not have the other consequences imputed to Original Sin. Pelagianism views the role of Jesus as "setting a good example" for the rest of humanity (thus counteracting Adam's bad example). In short, humanity has full control, and thus full responsibility, for its own salvation in addition to full responsibility for every sin...

I know I signed on to the traditional view of original sin in my quiz answers, though I have some mental reservations (educated by Jesuits: what can I say?). I have come to a personal accomodation with this doctrine in the sense that I see ample evidence, within myself and all around me and in the world at large, that there is a profound brokenness a the heart of human nature. However it arrives, it is there, and if you want to call that original sin I have no problem with that.

I do resonate strongly with Jesus as exemplar; his saving work has always been troubling to me. Like so many people I have a knee-jerk resistance to anything that smacks of total bootstraps Christianity. If Jesus' ability to save us is contingent on our assent, isn't that tantamount to turning faith into a work? The classic example given by those who need everyone to "accept Jesus as their personal savior" is that we are drowning, and Jesus is there to throw us a life preserver, but we have to reach out and hang on. I say, if the incarnation (including Jesus' death on the cross) is the last necessary "work" for salvation, then it is much more comparable to Jesus jumping into the water to rescue us. He carries us out. We may be conscious of this, we may be unconcsious, but we are no less saved.

Humanity has "full control"? I am enough of a Calvinist to see the fallacy in this. Free will is overrated. Ask any addict to learn where free will will get you. Calvin's view is that original sin has hopelessly defaced our free will, and only in Christ is it restored. Which, given my response in the paragraph above, it has been. So... Pelagian? You tell me.

Monday, December 18, 2006

No Heresy Here... How Disappointing

You scored as Chalcedon compliant. You are Chalcedon compliant. Congratulations, you're not a heretic. You believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man and like us in every respect, apart from sin. Officially approved in 451.

Chalcedon compliant




























Are you a heretic?
created with

Belatedly... the O Antiphons

Appointed for the last days of Advent, here is one of the church's most beautiful and ancient prayer formulae, as offered by the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, you order all things with strength and gentleness.

Come now and teach us the way to salvation: Come Lord Jesus!

O Adonai, Ruler of the house of Israel, you appeared in the burning bush to Moses and gave him the law on Sinai.

Come with outstretched arm to save us: Come Lord Jesus!

O Root of Jesse, rising as a sign for all the peoples, before you earthly rulers will keep silent and nations give you honor.

Come quickly to deliver us: Come Lord Jesus!

O Key of David, Scepter over the house of Israel, you open and no one can close; you close and no one can open.

Come to set free the prisoners who live in darkness and the shadow of death:
Come Lord Jesus!

O Ruler of the nations, Monarch for whom the people long, you are the Cornerstone uniting all humanity.

Come save us all, whom you formed out of clay: Come Lord Jesus!

O Immanuel, our Sovereign and Lawgiver, you are the desire of all the nations and Savior of all.

Come and save us, O Lord our God: Come Lord Jesus!

Dream Jesus

I have been reading Lauren Winner's memoir Girl Meets God, which accounts in part for my silence of the past several days. Winner's book chronicles her embrace of Orthodox Judaism during her college years, to be followed by her baptism as an Anglican just a few years later.

I will write more about Girl Meets God after I have finished reading it (it won't be long... the book is strangely addictive). But I think Winner's writing is seeping into my subconscious. She narrates at one point a dream she had about a Daniel Day Lewis-lookalike Jesus, rescuing her from underwater captivity by mermaids. I am always interested in mermaids; in fact, the short, rough novel I wrote during November's National Novel Writing Month has the title Mermaid Prayers.

But under Winner's influence (I suspect), I have had a dream about Jesus. Perhaps it's odd that someone who is professionally religious does not dream about Jesus all the time, but I don't, and I don't know anyone who does (unless they are not mentioning it... are you not mentioning it?).

Anywho (as dear nonheretical More Cows would say), here's my dream. Jesus was repairing cars. He had long hair. He was young and good-looking with long hair (really long. Petra long... which is to say, middle of the back). We had a brief conversation about I know not what while he wiped his hands on a rag. In the next scene he and I were tubing down a winding river through what looked like the Delaware Water Gap.

And there you have it. Revelation, Magdalene style.

(For the above image I thank Jesus of the Week 2006, ever providing us with images such as this, also called in some quarters "Handsome Devil" or "Hottie Jesus.")

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

I know not all of that which I contain

A poem by Madeleine L'Engle.

Young Mary

I know not all of that which I contain.
I'm small; I'm young; I fear the pain.
All is surprise; I am to be a mother.
That Holy Thing within me and no other
is Heaven's King whose lovely Love will reign.
My pain, his gaining my eternal gain.
My fragile body holds Creation's Light;
its smallness shelters God's unbounded might.
The angel came and gave, did not explain.
I know not all of that which I contain.

Monday, December 11, 2006

An Installation in Smallville

Last evening I participated in a service of installation for a new pastor in my presbytery (new to the pastorate as well as to our area). I was asked to give the charge to the pastor, words of encouragement with which to begin the new call. Here is what I wrote.

I confess to some melancholy around this. It was poignant for me to see the huge party, the family and friends from far and near, the love just swamping this lovely young man. I hope, someday, to have a call to a church in which, like people getting married, we pledge to live together in covenant relationship. So, like so many sermons preached by so many ministers, these are probably words to myself as much as they are to the new pastor.

+ + +

In the epistle of James, the brother of the Lord encourages us tenderly, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”

As I reflected upon what might be the appropriate charge to you, my friend, on this joyous day, I couldn’t stop thinking of that fact that your installation is taking place during Advent, this beautiful season when we are drawn both to what is brand new and what is the most ancient story of our faith, the season in which we remember something that happened long ago and look ahead to an unknown future that is nevertheless blessed with God’s covenant promise to us. The more I think about it, the more I believe Advent is the perfect and fitting time for a church to receive a new pastor into their embrace, and for a new pastor to take a congregation into his heart.

It is Advent, the season when, as the days grow darker, we kindle greater and greater flames to remind us that the light of Christ has come, the light of Christ is here, and the light of Christ is coming soon.

It is Advent, the season when everyone, from one to 92, learns lessons about waiting.

It is Advent, the season in which we not only prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but in which we actively remind ourselves that God’s reign is still not fully accomplished.

So I charge you, my friend, to keep Advent in your heart and your heart in Advent as you serve the good people of Smallville.

Jesus Christ is the light of the world, a light no darkness can extinguish. I charge you, my friend, to remember and to draw near and to kindle your own love of the light of Christ, in bright and cheery days of halcyon success as well in moments of difficulty, confusion and darkness. I charge you let that light be your comfort, your consolation, your battery recharger and your hope.

The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth. I know that in many ways the waiting is behind you… waiting for graduation, waiting for a call, waiting for ordination, waiting for your installation. Still, I charge you, my friend, to keep an attitude of expectant, joyful waiting. There are few things in life that require an immediate, instantaneous response, and I encourage you to learn what they are and what they are not. You can model faithful waiting as you resist the temptation to respond immediately, to fix immediately, to swoop in and rescue. You can plant seeds, but you have to wait until God gives the growth. You can nourish relationships, but you have to wait until trust blossoms. You can respond to the needs of your people, but you and they can wait to be sure that their pastor has had enough sleep and has spent enough time with his family. I charge you to learn the waiting that knows that God remembers God’s promises, and that God’s promises can be trusted.

Though this service of worship marks a beginning, it is also true that today you join a story already in progress. I charge you, my friend, to know that this new beginning is really somewhere in the middle of God’s story for the people of Smallville. They come to you with their history, their ancestors in faith, their pet peeves, and their hearts filled with longing. I charge you to love them for who they are, to be to with them, fully present to the people they are becoming, and to remember that they will be here in this beautiful little corner of God’s country long after you are gone.

I pray for God to strengthen your heart to do the work to which you have been called, and I ask God to bless you, in the name of the One who has created, redeemed and sustained us all. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Preaching Postscript

This sermon did not feel as good as I anticipated it would in the preaching. I think it's because, in the presence of the congregation, I became very aware of the content seeming to imply that I agree with the notion found in scripture and in the biblical cultural context, that children are a blessing from God, and lack of children are a sign of God's disfavor. In a sermon like this, when you are trying to give the feel of a character (fictional,of course, only based on some bare bones facts found in scripture), you can put words in his mouth that you really don't embrace as part of your belief system. In this case, I certainly don't believe that those who are not able to give birth are in any way "lacking," or are not blessed by God (though I know it might be tempting in that situation to feel that way).

So, as I preached, I fretted over the possibility that there might be childless folks in the congregation who might think that's what I believe, or how I think God works. So I ended up doing some improvising that probably weakened the sermon.

Grrrr. Hate that feeling: what if the words I'm preaching hurt someone?

Zechariah Speaks: God Has Remembered

Friends, here is a sermon in the first person; I will preach this morning in a little rural church.

“God Has Remembered”
Luke 1:5-25, 68-79
Advent II C
December 10, 2006

To speak… to be able to speak after nine long months of silence… this must be what the newborn feels, when it can finally fill its lungs with air and let out a howl! The joy of it! To speak! My tongue is slow and stumbles after its long rest. But the power of God’s Spirit will fill my mouth, and I will give the words to you.

A baby is born. My son is born, John… the most natural thing in the world, a thing that happens to countless young women in Jerusalem every day. Why such wonder? Why such joy? But, you see, we are old, Elizabeth and I … not as old as Abraham and Sarah, but long past our time for bearing children. A year ago you could have asked anyone in Jerusalem and they would have told you: Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous, they are blameless before the Lord. But if you had looked into their eyes, delved into their hearts, they might have told you another story, too shameful to say out loud. Their eyes would have said, “We don’t know. We don’t know if they are blameless and righteous. If they were, wouldn’t the Lord Most High have blessed them with a child?” I saw it daily, beneath the courtesy they showed me as a priest of the temple, stepping aside when I walked by in my ornate robes. Elizabeth saw it in the whispers behind the veils at the marketplace. They were not sure. God had not blessed us, Elizabeth the daughter of priests, and I a priest, God had not blessed us with a child, and they wondered. They doubted.

We wondered. We doubted. What had we done? What had we not done? What sin had so defaced our souls that God Most High should withhold this simple, ordinary blessing from us? What crime lay deep in our hearts—hers, mine—that the Lord should not allow us to participate in perpetuating the covenant with Israel? For a time we even began to doubt one another… a poison entered our home, and we questioned each other like village elders cross-examining witnesses of murder. But then… we prayed. And in answer to our prayer, God spoke a quiet word in each of our hearts, saying, “Remember Abraham and Sarah. Remember Isaac and Rebecca. Remember Elkanah and Hannah. Remember, remember.” And so the poison left our home and our hearts, and we loved and consoled one another with God’s reminder to us: remember.

But still the years passed, and our hair turned grey and our faces became lined. And the years passed for me in another particular and painful way as well. I am a priest of the temple, and I came to believe that God withheld blessing from my work as from my home. There are many, many of us—all descendants of the priests of David. I am descended from his priest, Abijah. Here is how we go about our work. We are divided into twenty-four groups, and each group is responsible for worship in the temple for two weeks of the year. During those two weeks, a list is made, a list of those of us who have never before entered the sanctuary. Lots are cast to see who will be given the honor. Can you imagine? There are so many of us… we can expect to do this just once in a lifetime, to have the honor to enter into the holy of holies, the very presence of the Lord. And I, at my great age, had never been chosen. God had not blessed us with a child. And God had not blessed me with the honor of serving in the temple sanctuary.

But hear my story: let me tell you how it happened. It was just over nine months ago…and my group, the sons of Abijah, was scheduled to serve in the Lord’s temple. I rose one morning, and kissed my wife, and we blessed one another at the doorway of my home, and I walked through the city and approached the temple. I climbed the steps, as I have done for more than thirty years, now with the knees and back of an old man. And my name went on the list as it had more than thirty times before. I had given up hoping. All I sought was to receive the disappointment with dignity, and to not reveal my bitterness to anyone.

We stood at the steps outside the sanctuary, dozens of my brother priests and I, surrounded by the people murmuring their prayers, prayers they wanted us to bring into God’s presence, as part of our holy offering. The murmuring quieted as the high priest read just two names: first, carrier of the firepan: Josiah, a man of 42 years, a distant kinsman. And then: carrier of the incense: Zechariah. I saw a ripple go through the crowd. The lot had fallen to me! Zechariah! The oldest among my brothers who had never served. I saw the faces of friends, men with whom I had served all these years. One or two were moved to tears on my behalf. I who had stopped hoping to see the promise of the Lord fulfilled. I was to offer the incense in the holy of holies.

I took the bowl, filled with incense, into my trembling hands, and waited as the other one took his implement. His job was to prepare the altar for my offering. So even at this moment when my life’s work was to reach its pinnacle, I had to wait. I had to wait patiently while Josiah entered the holy of holies to clear away the ashes into the silver firepan. Wait while he then emptied them into a gold firepan. Wait, while he prostrated himself before the altar, lying full on the floor of the holy of holies, in the presence of God Most High. I could not begrudge him this time. Finally, he came out and it was my turn to go in. I parted the veil, and entered the holy space. To my left, as I entered, was the gold lamp stand, flowers and almond blossoms fashioned out of gold, holding the flaming oil by which I was able to see. To my right was the golden table on which twelve loaves of presence were always kept, bread serving as a reminder of the twelve tribes of my people dwelling forever in the sight of God. In front of me was the golden altar of incense.

I have been a priest my whole life, and before I was a priest, I was being trained to be a priest. But no one knows how he will react when in the presence of God, in this holiest place. Almost unbidden, words of David came to my mouth:

“O Lord, I call to you: come to me quickly; hear my voice when I cry to you.
Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice…” (Psalm 141)

In God’s presence, the deepest prayer of my heart came forth like the wail of a child… that God should remember God’s covenant with us, with Elizabeth and Zechariah, God’s humble and willing servants.

The moment the words of the psalm left my lips I saw that I was not alone. My first thought was fear of embarrassment—fear that I, perhaps a confused old man, had entered the holy of holies too soon, while Josiah still ministered with the firepan. But this was no brother priest I saw before me. This was like nothing I had ever seen. Soon my fear grew and grew, and I trembled in terror. What was this I saw? Just to the right of the altar of incense was a brightness like nothing I had ever witnessed. Was it the Lord God? But no, if I looked at the brightness I could see a face. Even Moses himself had not been permitted to see the face of God, so I knew this must be a messenger. But the beauty and brightness of this messenger! Every sunrise and sunset, ever fire in every stove, every flame of sacrifice, or bonfire to burn brush… this was more beautiful than all of them together, and brighter than the sun in the height of the sky at midday.

The creature spoke: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah…” They always say this, messengers from God Most High, Do not be afraid! “…For your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” I nearly dropped the bowl of incense, and I remembered Sarah at the opening to the tent, hearing the prophecy of the visitors and laughing aloud. I was careful not to laugh, but I was suddenly filled with giddiness. God had heard my prayer? God had heard my prayer!

It was hard to follow all that the messenger said next. A few words remain… “joy, gladness,” “filled with the Holy Spirit,” “He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord…” Finally I could contain my giddiness no more. I started to laugh, and said “But how…?”

I don’t remember what the messenger said next, but the terrible brightness dimmed and darkened, and I fell to my knees, for I knew he was angry. I looked down, shaking, afraid to gaze upon the bright beauty any longer. And then, I could see that all that remained was the flickering of the lamp stand. It took a long time to stand up. I gathered the incense together, and approached the altar. Lighting it, I prayed again, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense…” Then I lay face down on the floor, until I could feel the coolness of the earth enter my skin, and settle in my bones. At last, after a very long time I stood.

The crowds outside were waiting for me. I had taken even longer than Josiah. It was customary to give a blessing, and I opened my mouth to give the assurance that I had conveyed the prayers of the people to God Most High. But nothing came forth from my mouth. I stood there for a long time, opening and closing my mouth, and I could see fear spreading among the gathered crowd. What did it mean? Was it a bad oracle? Finally, I turned and went into the temple. I offered the incense for the rest of my time of service without incident, another 13 days. Then I returned home to my wife.

Elizabeth knew what to expect when she saw me. She had heard, through the gossips at the market and the visitors who came to see what her reaction would be to this latest misfortune. When I walked into my house she stood ready to receive me into her arms. She whispered into my ear, “You don’t need to speak. I remember.”

One week ago the midwife placed into my arms my red-faced, squalling firstborn child, and this morning I returned to the Temple, still carrying him, still a discontented bundle of noise. When they asked his name, Elizabeth told them “John.” There was hesitation. Would I agree? Would I accept this name, my own child, and not named after me? I was given a tablet, and I wrote these words: “His name is John.” And at that moment, God opened my mouth.

Have I told you yet what my name means? Zechariah: “God has remembered.”

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. God has remembered.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. God has remembered.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham: God has remembered.

To grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days: God has remembered.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. God has remembered.

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. God has remembered.

The promises from long ago, God has remembered.

Your pain and mine, God has remembered. And so must we. Amen.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Caution: Rant

On that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. ~ Isaiah 4:2-6

Reading this passage from the daily lectionary was like feeling my heart swell with the kind of tender beauty that Isaiah evokes so well, only to have it ripped out and stomped on by that dreadful phrase, "the filth of the daughters of Zion."

How shall I count the ways it offends me?

~ by equating idolatry with women's "uncleanness"

~ by assuming women's "uncleanness" in the first place

~ by laying the woes of unfaithful people at women's feet

~ by doing all this in a societal context in which women are powerless relative to men to begin with: they can't hold property, they can't decide whom to marry, they can't charge a man with rape without male witnesses, they have no parental rights separate from the husband's, they are regarded as property... and guess what, folks, there are plenty of places in the world where what I have just written exists today.

So, I who long for that glorious day on which the branch of the Lord flowers, when the glory of the Lord will serve as our shade and our canopy and all is reconciled... I long for the eradication of this kind of language and thinking to go along with all that. Can I hear an Amen???

Friday, December 08, 2006

Fa-la-la-la-la, La Friday Five

From our heroines at RevGalBlogPals:

Reverendmother here... those of you who read my blog know I have a love-hate relationship with the 24/7 Christmas music we're (subjected) treated to in stores and radio (in the U.S. at least). It gets too sentimentally sticky-sweet sometimes, yet I find myself unable to resist it. Nothing says "it's Christmas" to me like John Denver and Rolf the Dog singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." So...

1. A favorite 'secular' Christmas song.

I do have fond memories of hearing Silver Bells in the car on a rainy New Jersey night when we were driving to Christmas Glitter City, the one Christmas of my childhood that we had a tree or any decorations. Not that I'm bitter.

But I think this nod must go to Holly Cole's rendition of "Christmas Blues." It makes you feel part of a hipster club even if it's the worst Christmas of your life (learned first-hand), like if you could just have a nice Cosmopolitan, things would be looking up.

2. Christmas song that chokes you up (maybe even in spite of yourself--the cheesier the better)

"Once in Royal David's City." No matter how many Christmas Eve services I hear it-- whether on the sublime BBC Broadcast from King's College Cambridge or in the church I'm serving with the chorister mean age of 79-- I never, ever fail to tear up on the verse "And our eyes at last shall see him..."

3. Christmas song that makes you want to stuff your ears with chestnuts roasted on an open fire.

Paul McCartney's God-awful "Wonderful Christmastime." Was there ever such a sell out, in all the history of crassly commercial ventures? I think not.

4. The Twelve Days of Christmas: is there *any* redeeming value to that song? Discuss.

When my children were wee the pre-school they attended figured out that I A. had a guitar and B. knew a bunch of Christmas songs and C. would be willing to come, year after year, to lead a big ol' singalong for the whole darned school (about 120 kids across six classrooms). So I did. My memory of this song is of laughing until my stomach ached as 120 children and 15 teachers and 3 administrators and a whole slew of parents sang the whole song with actions. Oh my. Still makes me smile.

5. A favorite Christmas album

Just one???

Tradition by the Burns Sisters

Wonderful local group, singing folk arrangements with angelic three-part harmonies. Includes two fantastic original songs, "Songs that We Love" and "This Christmas," as well as gorgeous versions of "Shaloo Shalom Yerushalayim" and "Come, Come" (poetry by Rumi).

A Renaissance Christmas Celebration
with the Waverly Consort-- which is, scandalously, no longer available. Harrumph! Location of definitive versions of some all-time renaissance favorites, such as "Riu, Riu, Chiu" and "Es Ist Ein Rose Entsprungen" (I know I spelled something wrong in there...).

Wassail! Wassail! with John Langstaff and the Cambridge Christmas Revels, which has just been reissued (God is good!). Christmas Americana from the 18th and 19th centuries, including shape-note, Billings and "The Cherry Tree Carol."

Jazz to the World (various artists), location of the delectable above-mentioned Holly Cole number, as well as the best ever version of "Baby It's Cold Outside" with Dianne Reeves and (swoon) Lou Rawls!

Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens, my brand newest favorite. Odd. Indy. Cool as all get-out. I mean, who doesn't want to hear a song called "Did I make you cry on Christmas day? (Well you deserved it.)"

A Presbyterian Celebrates the Immaculate Conception

This prayer, adapted from an old invocation, is from "Carmina Gadelica", a collection of prayers and invocations from the Scottish Highlands. It was posted to a listserve to which I subscribe. Offered here for lovers of Mary, on this the feast of her conception in her mother's womb.


God over me,
God before me,
God behind me.
I on thy path, oh God,
Thou, oh God, in my steps.

The augury made of Mary to her son,
The offering made of Bride through her palm.

Sawest thou it, oh King of Life?
Said the King of Life that he saw.

Son of beauteous Mary
King of Life,
Give thou me eyes to see all my quest,
With grace that shall never fail,
Before me.

The augury made by Mary for her own offspring
When he was for a space missing...

Knowledge of truth,
Not knowledge of falsehood,
That I shall truly see all my quest.

Son of beauteous Mary
King of Life,
give thou my eyes to see all my quest,
With grace that shall never fail,
before me,
That shall never quench or dim.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An Advent Message from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

New Songs

Psalm 33:1-22
Isaiah 1:21-31
1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Luke 20:9-18

Each of the daily lectionary readings is speaking to me today, so that I could blog 'em all. With Isaiah I am afraid I would become almost hopelessly politically partisan...

She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow's cause does not come before them.

Isaiah 1:21b-23

This sounds to me like the current US administraion, leaving justice behind for personal enrichment by doling out portions of Iraq to Bush cronies, leaving "the least of these" behind while holding out hands for bribes. (((shudder)))

1 Thessalonians is so tender and pulls me to the story of Jesus' birth prematurely, with all the mother/ milk imagery.

But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

I Thess. 2: 7b-8

Luke's parable of the vineyard strikes me in this way this morning: it sounds like a challenge to the "he came to die" theology in which most of us have been schooled. This theology seems to say, "He came to teach us, to claim the harvest for God." That he died was not inevitable. Pondering...

But the reading that sings in my heart is the Psalm, itself loaded with singing and breath images.

Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous.
Praise befits the upright.
Praise the LORD with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
For the word of the LORD is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth.

Psalm 32:1-6

We are invited to breathe together... me with my new song (which arises out of nowhere, this day's blessing that night's loneliness met with the consolation of prayer), and God with the breath that similarly creates. We are invited to breathe with God, our song and God's song, a literal con/spiracy, as my dear friend Brigid of Walden has put it. Blessed conspiring, breathing together.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Peace, Peace, Peace

I was glad when they said to me,
"Let us go to the house of the LORD!"
Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
"May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers."
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, "Peace be within you."
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.

~Psalm 122:1-9

Saturday night Petra and I heard a wonderful concert by our local symphony orchestra (whose executive director just happens to be the ex-Mr. Magdalene). It was a holiday program that featured, among other more standard fare, the music of the Burns Sisters. These local luminaries have been singing together since they were little girls, three sisters in a family of twelve. They have a really phenomenal Christmas album, Tradition, from which they played a number of selections.

One of the particular joys of this concert was the fact that it was Petra, who adores the Burns sisters (especially Annie), who urged her dad to bring them to play this concert. Her role in it was even mentioned in Press coverage. Though she tends towards shyness (except when on stage), I think this pleased her. Another joy was that my attendance at this concert marked a milestone. I have not been to a concert of this orchestra since my marriage ended, and I had gone into it with some anxiety... fears about old hurts and sadness, you know the drill. Anyway, I can say with deep joy and gratitude that my experience was one of real enjoyment and pride-- pride over my daughter and her love of music, pride in my ex and all that he has accomplished in his life's calling, and even pride in myself for the long, long way I have come in three years.

Also, I ran into someone who told me I look twenty years younger.

One of the songs on the program was taken from a fragment of this psalm. "Shaloo Shalom Y'rushalayim," or "pray for the peace of Jerusalem." The music was gorgeous, and I reveled in the fact that my life is tending towards greater peace within the walls of my home and my heart.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sermon: Concerning the Season of Advent and Apocalyptic Texts

“Waiting and Watching”
“Concerning the Season of Advent and Apocalyptic Texts”
Luke 21:25-36
December 3, 2006

Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois

When the revenant came down
We couldn't imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon
Oh, God
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
Oh, history involved itself
Mysterious shade that took its form
Or what it was, incarnation
Three stars
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes

~Sufjan Stevens

I clicked onto my son’s My Space page not too long ago, and was promptly swamped in a maelstrom of memory. This is because Ned had this particular Sufjan Stevens song queued up to play, and you know how songs are… how they can absolutely plunge you into another time and place before you have a chance to question or resist. The memories the song evoked for me were of a particular time of waiting and watching, the time when my mother was dying last winter. I had just found Stevens’ album, “Come Feel the Illinoise,” and I must have listened to it in the car a lot driving back and forth to New Jersey, because when I heard those opening piano chords, it felt like a great gong went off in my heart, and I was immediately immersed in my memories of that time, a time of watching someone I loved suffer terribly, both physically and mentally, and a time when I felt inadequate to do anything much at all to ease that suffering.

Oddly enough, I wasn’t really aware of the words of the song back then. All I knew was that somewhere in the middle of the song, Stevens sings out the word “incarnation.” Incarnation, that concept that is so central to Christianity, the taking on of flesh by One who in the natural state is all Spirit; the coming of Jesus Christ. Incarnation. Listening more closely to the song, and looking at the lyrics, I learned a new word—revenant—meaning, one who returns.

It has always intrigued me that we Christians start at the beginning by pondering the ending. Advent, the season that begins today in Christian churches the world over, is the season of waiting and watching in anticipation of the celebration of a birth, the birth of Jesus—the feast of the Incarnation. It’s a season geared toward a beginning, the beginning for Christians, of the solitary human life from which we take our name, our identity, our comfort, and our hope. And what readings do we share to prepare for this beginning? We read, today, a selection from Luke’s gospel that seems to be all about the end—end times, signs of end times, and how we Christians should be waiting and watching for Jesus, the revenant, the one who returns.

I don’t know about you, but I find texts like this a little frightening. All this talk of a time when there are signs in the heavens, and distress on earth among the nations. All this talk about confusion and roaring sea and waves. All this talk of a time when people have fear and foreboding about the world and the absolute mess it’s in. If I had backed up the reading a bit, and read verses 20-24 of this same chapter, we would have heard talk of a time with armies in and around Jerusalem, people fleeing cities for the safety of the countryside because the desolation of war is so great. It is easy to look at the world around us, when it’s not exactly demonstrating a lot of peace on earth and goodwill towards men and women, and when the loudest brand of Christianity out there seems to be encouraging this interpretation, and say, “Yep. This must be it. It can’t get any worse than this.”

There have been a couple times in my life when I awakened in the morning—or, more likely, in the middle of the night—with the thought, “It can’t get any worse than this.” During my divorce. When my mother was dying. There are some people in our lives for whom we experience their death as a kind of apocalypse, an event in which the sky that is our brain opens up, for whom we have to wake up every morning for a long time and relearn all over again the bad news, that they are gone. I wonder if any of you have had the experience of saying to yourself, “It can’t get any worse than this.” Experiences of loss… we’ve just marked another World Aids Day, and 40 million people all over this planet living with (not “dying from”) this disease. Experiences of alienation… times when loneliness and misery are our two closest friends. Experiences of illness, our bodies failing us, turning on us. Experiences of persecution… of being told, whether by word or by action or even by the slightest turn of the head, that we are not wanted, not welcome, not OK. Experiences of addiction, the demon that waits for us in the bottle, the drug, the substance or activity or person who is so very bad for us. It can’t get any worse than this.

Well, this is the gospel, so there is by definition good news for us, even in this text. The first piece of good news I’d like to give you is that fact that, in every single generation since Jesus walked the earth, people have read scripture and believed that the end was near. That’s no exaggeration. In the year 999, noblemen and women all over Europe drove cartsful of their gold, jewels and deeds to their property to the doors of churches and monasteries in exchange for prayers for their immortal souls, in the firm belief that the millennium would mark the return of “the Son of Man in the clouds” and the end of the world as they knew it. On January 1, 1000, the Church had become the wealthiest organization in the world, as well as the largest landholder.

That’s not to be flip about this. There is no doubt in my mind that human beings are now in a position to bring about an apocalypse, whether we do so by melting the polar ice caps or by detonating nuclear weapons or by some yet-unimagined means. But, unlike some, I personally don’t see the end as something we need to rush towards. I also take with a very large grain of salt anyone who claims to look at the newspaper and see a direct correlation with what’s in a passage like this. People have been making those interpretations for two millennia. Sure: one day they’ll be right. But scripture is very clear: only God knows God’s timing; even Jesus is in the dark about this particular event.

The other piece of good news is this: there is a way of waiting and watching that is not a trap, that is part of the path to wholeness and holiness marked out for us by our Savior, the one who returns. This is what Advent is about: holy (wholly) waiting and holy (wholly) watching. I know for most of us, the word “holy” is the surest way to bring on hives. So I am going to propose that we substitute the word that means “fully”—that is, “wholly.” What does it mean to wait and watch wholeheartedly?

This is one of the hardest things to do, when the world around us is giving us an entirely different message, one about buying and decorating and engaging in the busyness of propping up the American consumer culture. It’s amazing, isn’t it? For the world being in such a sorry state, there is one area in which it is fully organized and efficient. That is what some have called the “Christmas Machine,” or even “Christmaszilla.” I’m as indoctrinated as anyone else, and so I am getting nervous, folks, because guess how many Christmas presents I have purchased? Zero. Guess how many lights I have put up on my house? Again, zero! Guess how many Christmas cards I have addressed? Again, the answer is zero! And The Powers That Be—i.e., the guys who run Wall Street and CitiCards and Wegman’s and Target—have been trying to get me to do all these things since before Halloween. There is tremendous pressure on us to celebrate something that actually has very little to do with the Incarnation, with the startling breaking in of the presence of God among us. In fact, I would submit that, if we do everything the culture around us is pressuring us to do, it is highly unlikely we will even begin to have the opportunity to experience that presence. We’ll simply find ourselves collapsed in a heap on December 25th, watching the endless loop of “A Christmas Story” on TBS, worrying that that kid might not get his official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle.

There must be another way. There simply must be. And if we look back—even before the time of Jesus—we may be able to get some helpful hints in finding that other way.

In ancient times, before the dawn of Jesus Christ, people marked the coming of winter by making a circle of fire. Each year, as the days grew shorter, a dread fell upon the people that the sun was going away, never to return. They were reading signs in the sun, the moon and the stars that seemed to be forecasting the end of the world. They determined that they would woo the gods to bring the sun back by turning all their attention to this terrifying problem. And they focused their attention by slowing down, ceasing to work, and allowing daily activities to come to a standstill. They took the wheels off their carts and adorned them with greenery and candles, and brought them indoors. As the winter solstice passed and days began to grow longer again, they held joyous festival to mark the triumph of the sun over the threatening darkness.

Now, as many of you know, we don’t really know when the birth of Jesus was, whether it was December 25 or July 4. But when Christians began to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they saw the wisdom of this particular pre-Christian observance. The wheel of fire was adapted into the Advent wreath, bearing four candles to mark the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Some folks have ascribed different meanings to each candle—one week is hope, one is faith, etc. I have heard the pink candle explained in every way from “It’s for Mary” to “It’s for Joy” to “God was hoping for a girl.” But the truth is much simpler than that: the candles are markers for time. They are objects to help us to define and note our waiting. They are reminders to us that we are powerless over so many people and places and things, and that sometimes the way we can be most wholeheartedly present in life is by quiet, watchful waiting.

So I invite you to do something countercultural and subversive this Advent. I invite you to do nothing. Absolutely nothing, for five minutes a day, or 30, or whatever you can carve out of your schedule that doesn’t make you nuts. Wait out the situations you are fretting over with quiet attentiveness, looking at and inhaling the fragrance of a candle. Wait out the sense that “This is as bad as it gets” by meditating upon the lace of a snowflake, should one become available. Wait out the test results, or the painful moment in your relationship, or even the figgy pudding with breathing, in and out, in and out. And through it all, know this: God is waiting and watching too, for precisely the right moment to burst into your life with something completely unforeseen, something completely blessed, and something completely new. Amen.

A Song for Advent

Song of Hope (to the tune of Spered Hollvedel)

We’ve walked in the darkness so long
We’ve made our home in the night
We’ve sung our laments and our songs
We’ve pined away for the light
And slowly a candle flickers
Into a burning flame
And the hope of the world returns
Immanuel is his name

A sorrow has burdened our hearts
A yoke has weighed us down
We’ve felt our oppressors’ rod
We’ve lived beneath his frown
But now the boots of warriors
All will be burned in fire
Now rises the peace beyond words
Now rises our hearts’ desire

O Wisdom, come visit again
O Flower of Jesse bloom
O Key that opens all doors
Come make in our hearts a room
O Dawn that is ever radiant
Kindle in us your flame
O Ruler of all come in
And bind us all in your name


Friday, December 01, 2006

Friday Five, Adventually

Although it comes as late as it can this year, Advent is upon us. Some of us grew up observing it, while to others it was even more foreign than Lent!

Here are five questions about Advent for this first of December:

1) Do you observe Advent in your church?

I don't have a church home at present, but the last church I served observed Advent with a wreath and the appropriate liturgical colors. Music was a much, much harder sell-- generally, the folks wanted Carols from December 1 on... but I just couldn't bring myself to go along wholeheartedly. I included one carol week 2, one week 3, and 2 week four.

2) How about at home?

Yes: every year we break every conceivable fire regulation by getting a fresh balsam wreath that we put at the center of our dining room table, with four fat pillars in it. It is beautifully evocative of the season for me (and I promise, I never leave it unattended).

3) Do you have a favorite Advent text or hymn?

The "O" Antiphons, including "O Come O Come Emmanuel." Hate to sound like a broken record, but do check out the Sufjan Stevens version. Just beautiful-- spare and hard and invitational at the same time.

4) Why is one of the candles in the Advent wreath pink? (You may tell the truth, but I'll like your answer better if it's funny.)

Why, it's for the missed menstrual periods of pregnancy, of course. Sheesh! Doesn't everyone know that?

5) What's the funniest/kitschiest Advent calendar you've ever seen?

Hands down, "Precious Moments." No, wait!! One in which the holy family were depicted as TEDDY BEARS!!!!!! AAAUUURRRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!

Ending, Beginning: a Sermon Fragment

When the revenant came down
We couldn't imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon
Oh, God
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
Oh, history involved itself
Mysterious shade that took its form
Or what it was, incarnation
Three stars
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes

Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois, Sufjan Stevens

For the Full and Final Text of this sermon, please see December 3, 2006.