Friday, December 28, 2007

The Tree We Left Behind-Updated

We are at my dad's house for a couple of days. Tomorrow we go to Disney World! Larry-O, Petra and me!! We are psyched.

Right now Larry and Petra are walking on the beach, "bonding," as Larry said on his way out the door. I have just peeled a whole mess o' potatoes, and a lovely, exotic piece of meat awaits its moment of glory in the oven.

Dad seems good. Better than I expected. I have an ongoing fear that he is shriveling away in my absence. But he was perky when we arrived, nicely dressed and pressed in clean clothes, and looking well. He took us immediately to his favorite Italian restaurant.

We are here less than 48 hours total. I have decided in recent months that I need to see Dad more frequently. He still expresses reservations about moving... I don't think I'll get him to come up to my neck of the woods. But the least I can do is to see him more. 86. He's amazing, really.

After we arrived yesterday he pulled out a bunch of old family photos. I saw some I'd never seen before, of him and my mom when they were first married (late 40's, early 50's). They look so beautiful and hale. My mother looks unexpectedly like her favorite niece, very sweet-faced. One was a shot taken by the staff photographer at a restaurant in Miami, where they lived for a couple of years. It was the Copa Cabana, or some such location, "Home of the Zombie." I had a sudden revelation of my own parents, out partying, drinking, just like I did at that age, or just like Larry is beginning to (nearly a year shy of legality). It's an odd thought, getting a glimpse of your own parents out of "character" (i.e., their entire world revolving around the care and nurture of me, their child!).

Dad has no tree, but his customary enormous poinsettia, through which he has wound tiny white lights. He made some effort with the house... decorations out, things he thought the kids and I would like to see. I spent some time reading through his cards, many of which carried some note about my mother. "Her beautiful spirit."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Getting to Bethlehem: A Christmas Eve Meditation

“Getting to Bethlehem”
Luke 2:1-14
December 24, 2007

It’s about 70 miles as the crow flies from Nazareth to Bethlehem. If Joseph and his pregnant spouse Mary had to make that journey, as it is described in Luke’s gospel, they must have walked close to 90 miles on trails that wound through rugged, hilly countryside; all that, and the lady of the household heavy with child. Getting to Bethlehem was not easy for this first century Jewish couple from the North of what we would now call Palestine. But getting to Bethlehem is what they had to do.

More to the point tonight, in the lovely candlelit glow of our sanctuary, is the question of how we modern-day folk get to Bethlehem. Putting aside notions of boarding an El Al flight at the nearest international airport, I feel compelled to wonder: How do we make the trip, here and now, in our hearts, in our lives? All around the world this night, there is a vast and noisy pilgrimage of seekers and searchers, making this very trip. How do we join them? How do we get to Bethlehem?

For Mary and Joseph, it was a mixed bag of motivations. For one thing, they were caught up in affairs of state… the oppressive Roman government making sure it had up-to-date records on all the peasants so that it could continue to extract crushing taxes from them: that’s one driving force that got our couple to Bethlehem. Obligation. Duty. Some of us find our way here, on this chilly December night, let us be frank, as a result of obligation. One does what one has to do. Duty causes some of us to join in the journey, obligation places us on the road to Bethlehem.

There are other forces at work. Bethlehem is the ancestral home of Joseph; that is why he and Mary must go there. It’s Joseph’s hometown. It’s where his family comes from. Some of us have found our way here tonight because this is our home. It is either our church home or that of our family. Family, with all the richness and complexity, sorrow and joy that can be contained in that little noun: the pull of family causes some of us to join in the journey, the pull of home places some of us on the road to Bethlehem.

Mary finds herself on the road to Bethlehem as a result of an angelic visitation: nine months earlier an intruder into her young life set her heart racing with fear, and asked her an unanswerable question: Will you open yourself to the working of God in an unprecedented, even absurd way? And she answered something like, I am God’s to use. Yes, I’ll do it. Like the shepherds abiding in the fields, Mary had an otherworldly experience, a revelation of God, uncanny, unexplainable, irrational: that is what set both Mary and the shepherds on the road to Bethlehem. And the same can be said for some of us. Some prompting that we can’t explain by biology or psychology or neuroscience causes us to join in the journey; some Presence intuited, some question asked of us, places some of us on the road to Bethlehem.

There are other stories and other paths. The wise men, or “Magi,” not mentioned in tonight’s passage because Luke doesn’t tell their story, Matthew does. They are put on the road to Bethlehem by “their great learning, their ability to interpret the movements of stars and planets in the heavens.” Learning and scholarship cause some of us to join in the journey; fascination with ancient texts and peoples places some of us on the road to Bethlehem.

And let’s not forget Mary and Joseph’s experience once they got there. Theirs was a night of wandering, even of homelessness. It is a puzzle that no one in Joseph’s hometown, no one in the great, extended family he must have had there, was able to offer him and his very pregnant bride anything above the most basic of accommodations: a corner in a stable where the animals sheltered from the cold. Some will come as wanderers and homeless; the desperate search for a place of welcome causes some of us to join the journey, places us on the road to Bethlehem.

What draws them all? All these fellow travelers, the ones with societal obligations, the ones with family ties, the ones with their own experiences of the mysterious sacred, the ones drawn by scholarship and learning, the ones simply searching for a welcome for weary bodies and wearier hearts: what draws them all? What draws us? What causes each of us to join in the journey? What places us on the road to Bethlehem? I wonder.

I can only say this: we join in the journey because God has already joined us. God loves all of wondering and wandering humanity, so God joins us in the barn, all the power of the universe becoming as weak and frail as fragile newborn humanity. If obligation has brought us here—then God joins us in our obligations, big and small. If the pull of home and family have brought us here—then God becomes a part of the family, joining us around the table, even setting the table, to feed us and nurture us. If struggle and hunger and homelessness have brought us here—then God joins with the struggling and the hungry and the homeless, the weak and the wandering. God joins us whether our hunger is metaphorical or literal, whether we have more in common with the learned star-followers or the rough peasant shepherds. God joins us. God joins with us. God makes our road the God’s road. God joins us, so that we need never be alone again.

We are all getting to Bethlehem tonight, by our various routes. Wherever you come from, travelers, you are welcome. By whatever road you come, you are welcome at this table by the One who has already joined us here. Glory to God in the highest: on earth, peace. Peace.

The Giraffe, the Orange Juice, and other Christmas Eve Sightings

Well. The Christmas Eve service now a good 16 hours in the past, and myself having slept, had a nice (late) breakfast, and opened presents with my dear ones, I can share some of it here.

It was beautiful. My meditation was OK, I think... perhaps not "everything" I dreamed it would be, but offering, I hope, a real invitation. Larry-O wisely said it was "general." Indeed. (He also said, "There was a rift in the space-time continuum," commenting on my having rolled from the meditation directly into the pastoral prayers without allowing the choir to do a scheduled anthem.)

The congregation was, of course, larger than usual by about a third... which feels just lovely. We had one service, 8 PM, and a number of people have mentioned to me in recent weeks that they miss a later service (haven't had one since the most recent year Christmas was on a Sunday... two years ago?). I love a late service, and hope we will re-institute that next year.

The sanctuary was beautiful, candlelit and glowing. The congregation seemed very engaged, especially, I felt, during the communion portion of the service.

My ex-husband and his girlfriend were there, at my invitation, as well as both Petra and Larry-O. Also, friends from my street, for whom this was a first visit to New Church, and friends from other churches I have served. Lots of happy greetings.

Favorite moment, and the one for which, I believe this service will be remembered: During the children's message my plan was to talk about the animals present at the birth of Jesus, and to sing verses of "The Friendly Beasts," accompanying myself on the guitar. Someone mentioned a cow. Check! Then a donkey, and sheep. Check, check. Then, one lovely little girl (a visiting relative of long time pillars of the church), said, "What about a giraffe?" When I asked what gift the giraffe would bring, she said, "orange juice," and then laughed charmingly, clearly delighted with her own idea. And so I sang,

I, said the giraffe, with my neck so long
I added a verse to this song
I brought to Jesus orange juice,

I, said the giraffe (in Bethlehem, on the loose).

It was a good night.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Unexpected Path: A Monologue of Joseph; Special Bonus Feature: A Liturgy by Little Mary

Posted below is both my sermon for this morning (which, I must confess, I first preached three years ago in an interim position) and a communion liturgy composed by Little Mary, which was inspired by the sermon, and which, frankly, knocks my socks off. ("Put on your socks, because I'm gonna knock 'em off!") At last count, including me, this sermon is being preached in five churches this morning. I am delighted and somewhat overwhelmed. May God bless this word and make it fruitful in every heart that hears it.


“The Unexpected Path”
Matthew 1:18-25
December 23, 2007

This is not where I thought I would be. I don’t mean the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem—of course I knew I would be traveling to fulfill the obligations of the census. No, I mean I never dreamed this path I would be traveling… I, Joseph, son of the law, the righteous man, the just man. I never imagined the path I would be on just now with my wife. That I would find myself taking on marriage, a child not my own, a future I can’t even imagine. Mary is resting now. It has been a grueling day of walking and riding, even more so for a woman as advanced in pregnancy as she is. She looks so young while she’s sleeping—just like a child, a young girl not yet married. But she is not a child. In a week, perhaps even less, she will be a mother. And here we are, on this road neither of us ever dreamed we’d travel.

Ours was an arranged marriage, like nearly all of the marriages of people in our small town, Nazareth. I had seen Mary growing up—a nice girl, nothing remarkable, perhaps a bit too pious for my taste. But she was from a good, hardworking family, and she was a girl of spotless reputation. Never was a word spoken about her that either of her parents couldn’t hear. She was quiet, she was a proper daughter of the law, she attended services in the Synagogue. There was nothing wrong with her.

So when our families arranged the match, I was satisfied. She would make a good carpenter’s wife, a conscientious runner of a home. She was pleasing to look at. My friends teased me: “Joseph, you’ve won a prize. Now go increase her value, build her up.” Always there are such jokes about babies, even before the marriage is finalized. So I went to my shop, and took out my tools, and selected wood, and began to saw and shape and plane and sand. I began work on a table for our home.

As the days and weeks went by, our families allowed us to spend more time together. I began to learn that there was a sly sense of humor behind that demure exterior. I was engaged to a woman who could make me laugh! Let the other men pine after dark eyes and little glimpses of curled hair… I realized as the months passed that a real treasure is found in someone you can carry on a conversation with, someone who takes an interest in your work, someone who eases your burden with the right, light words. My heart began to ache in a peculiar way I was unaccustomed to feeling. I began to look for her at the well, at the market, in the synagogue. I began… to long for her.

The day of our marriage approached. I worked feverishly on the table now, adding an ornamental curve here, sanding it even smoother there. I bought expensive oil at the market, raising the eyebrows of the men purchasing their supplies. I began to imagine meals at that table, fragrant bread just out of the oven, dark red wine, sweet dates. And Mary, leaning across the table toward me, with that quizzical look in her eyes. As the day approached my joy increased. I was going to marry this… jewel.

One day, about a week before the wedding, she appeared at the door of my shop. I was rubbing the expensive oil into the tabletop. I looked up to see her, and broke into a grin at the familiar silhouette. “You’ve come to see your wedding present! Here it is!” I stood back, and waved my hand at the table. I know I had sweat dripping down my face. I couldn’t quite see her face; the sunlight from outside poured in behind her.

Mary walked forward and lightly rested both her hands on the table. She stooped over it, inhaling the oil. Then she straightened up and looked at me. For the first time I could see her face clearly. Her eyes were swollen and red, and her mouth was strangely tight. “It’s very nice,” she said. “Can you make a cradle?”

It’s hard for me to remember exactly what was said after that. All I know is that pious, irreproachable Mary, my virgin bride, who had only recently allowed me to carry her water for her from the well, told me that she was carrying a child. I know I felt like I did when my brother Ephraim punched me in the stomach. Only it was much, much worse, because the pain came from within rather than from without. I very quietly asked her who had wronged me—for you understand, of course, that the man would have to be dealt with. He had trespassed on my territory, plowed and planted, so to speak, my field. She said there was no man, told me some nonsense about it being God’s will, God’s plan. I told her to go home, that my father and I would be around to make the arrangements after the work day had ended.

When I am angry I become quiet. I cannot say the same about my parents. They raged. My mother cried, all her plans for my building up her house with children in ruins. Then she began to quote from the Torah, about the penalty for this crime, which, of course, is stoning. “We’ll call the rabbis in to make their judgment,” she railed. The rabbis don’t usually enforce it any more, but everyone knows: Engaged couples are as good as married, and adultery is a stoning crime. If Mary had been carrying my child there would have been no harm to anyone. A few raised eyebrows and perhaps some grins at the marketplace, nothing more. But Mary had broken the law, the civil law and the religious law, and she carried the evidence of her crime in her womb. After a moment or two I spoke. My voice was, perhaps, a little louder than usual.

“There will be no rabbis, and there will be no stoning.” My parents took this in, a surprised silence falling over the room. “There will be no rabbis, and there will be no stoning,” I said, a little louder. “Mary has a cousin in Jerusalem, Elizabeth, married to a priest serving in the temple. She can go there, tell people she is a young widow.”

My father burst out, “Joseph, do you know what you are saying? This girl has wronged you, and she and the man must pay. What kind of Jew are you, if you don’t even keep the law?”

What kind of Jew am I, who don’t even want to enforce this law? I couldn’t reconcile my own words with what I myself had been feeling not an hour before—my desire to avenge this terrible, terrible betrayal. If I don’t keep the law, am I a Jew? I wonder. And yet… this girl I no longer was sure I knew. I had loved her, even if her news had crushed that love into something else. Hadn’t I loved her? So, which would it be for Joseph the Just: would it be law or love? Which would I cling to? On which side would I take my stand? Is it possible that the law could meet a new situation it wasn’t equipped to deal with? Is it possible that the law, finally, must be changed?

As I opened my mouth to speak words came out almost before I knew what I was saying. “I have not been wronged. She is frightened. She thinks it’s God’s will. No harm will come to her or the child. I don’t care about the man. There will be no rabbis.” I left the house and walked away, towards the town gates. I came to a stop near the well that stands just beyond. It was dusk, and Sabbath was beginning; the streets were deserted. Most families were gathered around their tables, lighting the candles and saying the blessing. “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-Olam… Blessed are you, Lord our God, the Ruler of all the Universe….” I wondered what the scene was like at Mary’s house; were her parents railing against her as mine had? I sat on the ground with my back to the well. I thought of her small hands on the table I had made. I thought of her leaning across the table towards me with a smile on her face, shadows from the firelight dancing on the walls. I began to cry. As night fell I fell into a deep sleep. I slept, and I began to dream.

In my dreams I wandered in a strange place, where there were great stone buildings with large, terrifying faces on them, and a sinuous river, dark and frightening. “Joseph, Joseph.” I turned at the sound of a voice, and I was standing before a golden throne, with a man seated on it. I could still see the dark river flowing somehow beneath the throne. He couldn’t have been a Jew, because his face was clean-shaven and his eyes were rimmed with black paint. But when he spoke, he spoke the language of my ancestors. “Joseph,” he said again.

“Here am I,” I said. He smiled. “Joseph, son of David, son of my brother Judah.” He paused while I took this in. It is unusual to hear one’s genealogy in a dream. “Here am I,” I repeated.

“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Shekinah, the Holy Spirit of God.” In my dream I had a vague recollection of Mary’s words to me, “It is God’s will, it is God’s plan.” And I remembered, in my dream, with sudden, stunning clarity, something else she had said. “He is God’s child.”

I took a step towards the throne, but the foreigner held up a hand to warn me back. “Mary, your bride, will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. As the prophet wrote: Look, the young woman has conceived, and will bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel: God is with us.” At these words the river began to swirl and rise, and to creep upwards around the throne; I felt myself sinking into the water, and flailed out my arms to stay afloat. I started, and I was awake, leaning against the well by the town gates. The sun was creeping upwards, and the sky was taking on a pink and orange glow. My back was aching from my night spent against the hard stone. Young girls, coming to draw water, whispered together at seeing me. I pulled the bucket up by its rope, and drew a ladle of water for myself, to drink, and then to wash my face. Standing, stretching, I walked back to my father’s house. I roused him and my mother, and had them dress in their Sabbath cloaks. We walked together to the house of Mary’s parents, and I called out through the door the words of our ancestor Solomon: “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride. Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave.” My voice echoed in the house, only for a moment, and then the door opened, and Mary came forth, dressed as a bride.


This is not where I thought I would be. But the Holy One does not reveal the secrets of the Divine heart to carpenters. The Lord reveals what is necessary only, to accomplish the divine purpose. I hope I have done the right thing. My parents still shake their heads, but I can see the excitement in their eyes as the time for the baby approaches. No one knows why I took this pious, pregnant girl to be my bride. The question of whose baby it really is still hangs in the air, largely unspoken. But I don’t care. For six months she has leaned across the table towards me, and for the last month, she has practiced rocking the empty cradle with her foot while she spins. I don’t know how to explain it. I am irrationally happy. But I hope into my past. I hope that it was all for the best. I hope I have done the right thing, even though, strictly speaking, I have not followed the letter of the law. I hope in this dream, which God or the angel revealed to me, I hope in its truth. This is not where I thought I’d be. May Adonai bless my unexpected path, and Mary’s, and the child’s. Amen.


Invitation to the Lord’s Table
Joseph no doubt worked his hands
To make a Table for Mary
With visions of family
Gathered around
Fresh bread warm in children’s hands
Simple table wine that brought out the spices
Of the meat.
Jesus and his siblings and neighbors and those
Who weren’t allowed into other people’s homes
Sat around this Table, no doubt
Where Jesus was taught
By his parents who had taken great risks
So that he could take risks himself
Simply by sitting
It was at Table side that our Christ learned
The power of feeding one another.
It was at Table side that our Christ witnessed
The telling of truth.
And so Christ invites us to Table Side.
The Table that has been passed down through the generations
Rubbed with oil
Refinished with care
From family
To family
To us.
Grace is made visible.
Prayers of Consecration and Intercession
Life began around the Table.
And life Ends around the Table.
His life was threatened from the beginning
Held onto by a thread
And holding this thread
Between all of us
Connecting us to one another
Connecting us from the Christ child
To the disciples
And the apostles
And the saints
And the children that will be held together
By this same thread
Jesus turned to his disciples
Not too long after his birth
And holding their hands together
He looked them in the eyes and
Gave thanks for them
For the memories and the fights
For the intentions and the mistakes
For the learnings and the laughter
He gave thanks for it all
And he gave them a gift.
His own self for their future.
He broke the bread
Warm on their hands
Steam rising from center
And gave them an image
This is my body broken for you.
Whenever you experience brokenness
You have my body
In that broken place
And then he took the table wine
That in the past encouraged the
Memories and fights
Intentions and mistakes
Learnings and laughter
And he poured it
And he told them that this was
His life blood.
His life blood that will be shed
This is the remembrance of the covenant
The promises
Of God-always-with-you.
Let us pray.
O God, the psalmist cries out: You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. There is much in our broken world to tear up over. And our tears have flown, sometimes we have thought that our very bread was our grief. The loss that we have felt, the expectations smashed, the families held together by a thread. We bring them all to you, O Christ. We give thanks for the risks of Joseph and Mary. We give thanks for the promise that we cannot feel grief without feeling deep joy. We give thanks for the risks Christ took so that we could begin our life around the Table. We give thanks for the life that Christ took on, a life of understanding, from the very beginning of difference, outcast, meeting in the cracks and crevices everyone who doesn’t feel like they fit. We give thanks for the promises that you made to us so long ago and always, always keep, despite our attempts to push you away. God-with-us. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Emmanuel. A gift. We know there is much more to life than bread of tears and we commit ourselves to the creation of that world. Where justice reigns and each and every one us can see the magic and the mystery of your creation. Where jadedness is in the past and hope is on the tips of our tongues. Where the doors of your world are thrown open in wild celebration of our difference, where we are all really and truly known and at peace and in love with possibility.
And so we pray for your dear world now. The world we take for granted far too frequently, the world we ourselves take part in destroying as much as trying to mend. The world we commit towards mending.
You give us yourself in the form of bread and wine. And we give you back our prayers in the form of the prayer that you gave to us saying….Our Father…
Sharing of the Meal
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Holy God, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your sacrifice. May it be strength to us until we meet again, as we work towards the coming of your kingdom, the time when justice will reign and all of your creation will be equally valued. There aren’t really words to thank you enough for this meal, for all of the elements we need to serve you and your world.

Friday, December 21, 2007


I'm working on my Christmas Eve homily. I know you are, too, many of you. I spent yesterday afternoon waiting for my car to be realigned or my tires to be rotated or something (the car was pulling hard to the right; I'd had a nasty encounter with a pothole in late October, in which I'd damaged a rim and a tire beyond repair; my snows had been put on, and it had been pulling ever since). While I waited, in the spiffy new waiting room at my car dealer's service area, I did my scripture study (I'm preaching from the Luke 2 passage). While I did my scripture study, people around me talked on their cell phones, some loudly, doing business, some quietly, answering calls and then getting off as quickly as possible. I resisted the (admittedly not terribly strong) temptation to say, "Hey, people: working with the Word of God here?"

I think I have a direction... something like, how we get to Bethlehem, playing on the etymology of 'Bethlehem' as Hebrew for 'House of Bread.' How do we get to the place where we are fed? How does this story, so familiar yet endlessly new and deep, feed us?

Thing is, I want to preach a certain kind of sermon. I know you do too, many of you. Christmas, like Easter, bears a burden in the life of a preacher. It carries the load of significance born of the fact that, for one thing, it will have a larger "audience" than any other sermon preached during the year. And because of that, it offers a unique opportunity. It's not coincidence that I find myself wanting to preach on how people are fed by scripture. I have a desire to place in their minds and hearts the seed that scripture might just feed them at other times than Christmas Eve.

New Church has a tradition of celebrating communion on Christmas Eve. I am so glad about this. This is something many Presbyterian Churches don't provide on this occasion. Despite sincere denominational efforts to help Presbies move into a more sacramental way of living (which is more scriptural, by definition), there is resistance. But I have the blessing of the opportunity to draw connections between the story of the birth and the story of the table.

Last Sunday I was very stressed all morning before the service because of those damned high G's. I was really fearful that my voice, which is normally one of my slam-dunk attributes, would not come through for me. I was more nervous about that service than any I had ever led. Then something interesting happened. The service began, and at the Children's time, I found myself reading "The Donkey's Dream" by Barbara Helen Berger. As I read the story, about a donkey carrying a load on a long journey, and dreaming he was carrying a fountain, a ship. a rose, and a "lady full of heaven," I found myself caught up in its spell. By the time it was over, I had entered with the children into the realm of dreams and symbols, an endlessly deep story that still has the capacity to open the heart.

As the service progressed my anxiety was gone. I think I had realized that my ministry could not be reduced to successful hitting of high notes in one piece of music on one Sunday. To experience it that way was to do it violence. Similarly, it cannot be reduced to one sermon, even one Christmas Eve sermon. One preacher I know says of Christmas Eve and Easter, "The story will carry the day. Just get out of the way." That's pretty good advice.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Great Day

... at Teh Church yesterday.
  • Got a lot done. A lot. Had a big long list, and kept checkin' things off.
  • Even got done piddly, annoyingly detailed things that I typically put off. Got 'em done!
  • Remember the record-keeping debacle? A former clerk of session called yesterday morning to ask whether I'd be in my office for a while, and was this a good time to stop by. I said, "Sure!" We discussed her very cool recent vacation for a while, and then she said this: "I know there is a huge task to be done, in cleaning up our membership list and putting the register together. I was a high-level administrative assistant for my entire professional life. I'm a very detail-oriented person. This is what I do. Do you think (Current Clerk) would mind if I offered to take this job on?" I immediately had visions of Current Clerk turning handstands and weeping with joy. I said, "Oh, I don't think she'd mind." Current Clerk confirmed my suspicions later in the day, not exactly by turning handstands, but by laughing hysterically, then collapsing on the couch in my office to catch her breath. (Sorry: my "study." Can't get used to the local nomenclature.)
  • Had a session meeting that was wonderful... started with a silly PowerPoint I put together a couple of years ago, The Great American Christmas Quiz (instead of, you know, studying the Book of Order). Moved through lots of business, including approving the budget, increasing the number of Communions (HAAAAAA-LEH-LU-YAH!), signing up people to do home communions for the whole year (has been a tiny little issue with me), purchasing new supplemental hymnals... I mean, a LOT of good work got done. With a lot of laughter and honest conversation. And the three new session members who came brought great energy with them.
Two more bulletins (for the Sunday I'll be gone and the Sunday I return), three newsletter items, one Christmas Eve sermon, and I'm golden...

And shopping.

And cooking.


Still. A Great Day.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I'm It! Seven Random Things Meme

Hipchickmamma tagged me for this festival of randomosity.... here goes!

1. I went to college with the daughter of George Bush Sr., when he was Vice President. Never met Doro, that I know of. I was selected to sing the National Anthem at the commencement ceremony, at which 41 was scheduled to give the commencement address and receive some kind of honor. But being the little radical Democrat in training I was, and convinced as I was that Reagan had us on a sure path to Mutually Assured Destruction, naturally I wore a white armband in protest of the nuclear policies of the administration. (Just as an aside, it has occurred to me in later years that the policies of the Reagan Administration resulted in the crumbling of the Iron Curtain, the dismantling of the Berlin wall. And a lot of other bad stuff, I might add. But one ought to give credit where it's due.)

2. When Larry-O was a year old I took him shopping on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, where we met Arnold Schwarzenegger. He took Larry in his arms and said, "Hey, big guy!" That's all.

3. When I was little my brother and I played "priest" with flattened bits of Wonder Bread as the communion wafers. I also dressed up like the illustrations in the "Lives of the Saints" book my mother gave me. I also dressed up like Nancy Sinatra, and made my mother take pictures of me. These pictures still exist. We will not be discussing this any further. We are finished.

4. My first part in a theatrical performance was as a high school freshman. I played "Sister Sophia" in "The Sound of Music." My math teacher told me he had never seen a more nun-like person-- including the real live nuns who taught at my school. I'm still no sure what he meant.

5. I have passed along the crazy love of "All About Eve" to Petra. She is currently writing a book report on "All About All About Eve." I kid you not.

6. I can ride a horse, sail a small boat and swim a mile in the ocean. Not all at the same time though.

7. When I told my mother I was leaving the Catholic church because I felt a call to ministry, her response was, "Couldn't you wait until I'm dead?" I didn't. She came around.

Tag yourselves, people! Go!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Unexpected Birth: A Meditation on the Magnificat

This is the meditation I wrote for someone else to read before our Magnificat this morning. She did a wonderful job, and I do think it set up the cantata well...

“The Unexpected Birth”
Luke 1:26-38; 47-55
December 16, 2007
Third Sunday in Advent

The work you are about to hear is a meditation on some of the best-known Biblical texts, concerning the miraculous pregnancy of the Virgin Mary. In the passage that was just read, the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she will conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that the child who will be born will be “the Son of the Most High God,” and will sit on the throne of his ancestor, King David. In the passage we read together as the Psalter, from which most of the words of the cantata are drawn, Mary sings a song of praise to God, for God’s marvelous and saving work in her own life and the lives of the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. Mary praises God for the unexpected birth she is awaiting. the birth of the Messiah.

Our hymnal and the radio are filled with sweetly melodic meditations upon the first of these passages, but rarely do we hear Christmas carols based on the Magnificat. This is probably because the Magnificat is so unabashedly political in its content, and we have, for the most part, tamed Christmas, playing down its political implications. We have made Christmas into a celebration that is largely about home and family and beauty and joy. The Magnificat, on the other hand, is about God’s terrifying power, toppling the powerful from their places of privilege, and elevating the poorest, the most powerless, to realms of unimaginable honor.

Vaughan Williams’ music is appropriate to the radical message of Mary’s words. With the flute playing the part of the Holy Spirit, and the women’s chorus proclaiming the words of God’s messengers, the ensemble will not be singing sweet melodies in the Magnificat, but rather soaring and searing proclamations of God’s salvation, which always turns the world upside down.

Several times during the Magnificat you will hear the music strain back and forth between major and minor chords. In the major chords we hear words like, “Hail! Full of grace!” reminding us of the glory of God’s work. In the minor chords we are reminded that grace is costly… the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit is both an experience of ecstasy and one of terror. God’s action in her life is glorious. But it will also pierce her heart with devastating sorrow. Hear now the word of God, proclaimed in word and song, by voice and instrument...


Image: "Annunciation II" by Linda Sutton

Happy Bullets of Sunday Morning

Happy! Happy!! Happy!!!

I've said to Petra, "I'm SOOOOO happy!!!" about three kajillion times since the end of church at about 11:45 this morning.

  • The Cantata went better than it had any right to (what with my unreliable high G, which kicked in sheerly due to divine intervention: I didn't suck. The choir was downright good.).
  • The congregation showed up, despite icy roads (not a huge turnout, but respectable and well above the feared "10").
  • So far, no news of any mishaps driving in either direction.
  • A fabulous holiday bazaar, at which Petra and I scooped up some (a bunch of) cookies for the imminent (tomorrow) return of Larry-O.
  • A wonderful showing for "white gift Sunday" (read: lots of food for folks in diminished circumstances this holiday season.... anyone out there ever heard of "white" gifts? The name makes me a little uneasy...
All in all, a good morning, relief about my decision to go forward with everything, and happy to be home in the presence of our untrimmed, fragrant tree while the snow falls gently.

A Sleepless Night

... worrying about this storm, and whether we should A. postpone the cantata, or even B. cancel church. We are doing neither. We are going forward, at the risk that we may be singing the Vaughan Williams Magnificat for 10 people.

Does anyone else fret about this stuff?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Christmas Three Meme

I self- tagged from this meme found at Wyld's place....

What are your three favorite Christmas songs and who sings them?
  • "Songs We Love" by the Burns Sisters
  • "I Wonder as I Wander" sung by Linda Ronstadt
  • "Christmas Blues" sung by Holly Cole
What are your three favorite Christmas foods?
  • Cookies, Cookies, Cookies
  • Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding
  • My own homemade Cranberry Coffee Cake (made once a year, for Christmas)
What are three Christmas Secrets?
  • Christmas is a holiday that started with pagan cults (the festival of the unquenchable sun), which was then "Christianized" for various political reasons, and which has returned, finally, to its pagan roots (the worship of inanimate objects). Despite all of which, I love it, all out of proportion to rationality.
  • The Christmas before my husband fell in love with someone else, our tree fell over and the only ornament that broke was a Lenox angel with his name on it. (My parents had given us four, all personalized).
  • This Christmas I am buying myself something I've wanted a long time, a digital camera.
What are your three favorite Christmas movies?
  • "The Ref" starring Dennis Leary
  • "The Santa Clause" starring Tim Allen... makes me cry every time.
  • "It's A Wonderful Life" starring Jimmy Stewart

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Unexpected Companions: A Meditation on Isaiah 11:1-10

“The Unexpected Companions”
Isaiah 11:1-10
December 9, 2007
Second Sunday in Advent

Week by week, as we light our candles and the light grows in the darkness, we are hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah. The prophet speaks to us from perhaps 800 years prior to the birth of Jesus, words almost 2800 years old. Isaiah is the prophet of this season for Christians. Handel’s “Messiah” has emblazoned his words on our hearts. Isaiah is probably the prophet most familiar to us, perhaps the most beloved. If there is one danger with Isaiah, it might just be its beauty: we can get lost in the gorgeous language, find ourselves entranced by the imagery, and fail to hear the extraordinary, surprising challenge in his words.

Today’s passage is a wonderful example.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. ~Isaiah 11:1-2

When Christians hear this passage, we know it refers to the Messiah… the one who is born from Jesse’s lineage, Jesse the father of King David. We know that he is the one with the Spirit of God resting upon him, wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. If the words are familiar, it’s because these are all the things we pray for those whom we baptize and receive into the church as members. These words tug at our hearts. Their beauty fills us with joy.

But there is a price that goes along with the coming of the Messiah, a necessary prerequisite to his reigning in power: the clear-cutting of all that comes before. The “stump” of Jesse refers to a tree that has been cut down because it was diseased, not bearing fruit, not flowering forth God’s justice. This is a highly political passage… God cuts away the deadwood of the earthly powers and principalities. Scary as that sounds, it’s a useful reminder: our salvation is not in them. A fresh beginning: that’s the first attribute of the Spirited One who is coming.

The next attribute is righteousness. The Messiah will judge the poor and the meek and the wicked, all with the same Spirit-breathed justice. Righteousness is described as the belt around his waist and loins, which means that it’s as close to him as his undergarments. Nothing gets between the Messiah and his righteousness.

It’s this next part that is most likely to catch my breath with wonder; it never fails to make me mist up with tears: the poetic vision that has been called the “Peaceable Kingdom”:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. ~ Isaiah 10:6-9

There is hardly a scene more beautiful anywhere, in or out of scripture. I have been looking at a painting of the Peaceable Kingdom this week, in the naïf style. The colorful coats of the animals have a backdrop of mountains and a moonlit night. The animals are paired with their natural enemies. There, almost at the center, is a child, holding a candle, a light in the darkness. Isaiah mentions children three separate times in this passage… two of them are playing in a carefree way where asps and adders live… remember in Genesis, when God predicted that serpents will be the natural enemies of humans? And a little child will lead them.

It is a beautiful image. But think for a moment, not like a churchgoer or an art lover. Think like, let’s say, a parent. Do I want my child playing where poisonous snakes can have at him? Of course not. Do I want my beloved offspring to be vulnerable to her natural predators? God forbid! No! Last week I came across a cynical rejoinder to Isaiah’s words, courtesy of Woody Allen. “The leopard may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” It’s a funny one-liner, meant to get us dreamers to come down out of the clouds. It’s a reminder of the conventional wisdom, that our own safety and security are paramount. We can’t afford high-minded notions that might cause us to let down our guard.

Conventional wisdom is one thing. God’s will for us is quite another. This passage pushes us to an uncomfortable place. Isaiah presses us to consider the possibility that God’s vision of the peaceable kingdom is one in which we are willing to be vulnerable. We are willing to let righteousness be our guide, and not safety and security. We are willing to let the real hope for peace determine our actions, and not simply to experience “peace” as a word in a song we sing at a certain time of the year.

When peace comes, when God’s reign comes, we find ourselves among unexpected companions. We look around the table, and can’t figure out for the life of us how we got there. There are people all around who are not like us. They don’t look like us, they don’t live like us, they probably don’t worship like us. It’s like the old joke about the newcomer to heaven being told to tiptoe and whisper as they go by the area where the Southern Baptists live, because “They think they’re the only ones here!” That’s not God’s vision for us. God’s vision is always more inclusive than ours. God’s inclusiveness makes us uncomfortable.

And this is where our children lead us, isn’t it? The young people I’ve been privileged to know through my children and through my ministry are unwilling to exclude whole categories of people from possible friendships… they are more likely to make friends across barriers of race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, socio-economic class than any previous generation. In this way, I firmly believe they are closer to the peaceable kingdom than we are. Our children and youth led us so beautifully this morning in worship, their pageant encouraging us to recognize that there is one gift God calls us to give at this and every time of year: love. We give you God’s love, they said. May you give unto others as God gave his greatest gift to you. The God who welcomes us and loves us and accepts us casts a vision for us of a world in which we are every bit as welcoming, loving and accepting of one another. May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Image: The Peaceable Kingdom by John August Swanson

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Girl Who Couldn't Say No: Holiday Edition

  • Lunch for pastors in temporary relationships at which I'm doing a presentation on Asset Mapping. (This link works for Alban Institute members.)
  • Pageant Rehearsal at which I'm accompanying the children on the guitar.
  • Rehearsal of Pick-up choir, organized by me, for a local Art Walk; we'll be learning/ practicing about 20 carols for Friday night and Saturday afternoon, when we'll be driven around town on a big cart pulled by Clydesdales!
  • Write sermon (meditation, really... see above, Pageant).
  • Learn solo part for cantata (taking place the 16th).
  • Get daughter to audition for school musical.
  • Get daughter to mall to buy a white dress shirt for school choir concert.
  • Meet singers and Clydesdales and ride around town singing, 6-9 PM.
  • Morning: rehearse cantata with choir.
  • Afternoon, 1-4 PM: More Clydesdale Caroling.
  • Evening: Get daughter to regional choir auditions.
  • Sometime: Sermon? Meditation? Ya think?
  • Prepare for Bible study Sunday and Monday.
And everyday: those wonderful Advent practices I preach and write about in my newsletter articles...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Quote of the Day: On the Loose

[On Mark 1:9 – 11] What does it mean that the heavens are “being torn open” and the curtain of the temple “was torn in two, from top to bottom”?...It may mean that God is no longer one to be feared, that we have “access” to God. The Gospel story could then be construed as an account of how that access has been opened, with an implied invitation to enter. ... I still recall the occasion when a young student protested that interpretation as I explained it. “That isn’t what it means,” he said vehemently. “It means that the protection is gone and now God is among us, on the loose.” The imagery may as well suggest the removal of protection. The young man experienced the passage as dangerous. I have come to believe his experience is the more appropriate.

— Don Juel

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Unexpected Hour: A Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44

“The Unexpected Hour”
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
December 2, 2007

Imagine another time, another era in humanity’s sojourn upon this earth. In ancient days, before the dawn of Jesus Christ, people noted, as we do, the turning of the seasons. As winter came on, and the days grew shorter, a fear and dread fell upon the ancients that the sun was going away, never to return. They determined to woo the gods by turning all their attention to the shortening days and slowing down, ceasing their 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 solstice passed and days began to grow longer again, they held festivals, celebrations to mark the triumph of the sun over the threatening darkness.[i]

No one knows: neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Keep awake: you don’t know on what day the Lord is coming. Be ready: the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. No one knows. Keep awake. Be ready.

We can hear the anxiety in these words. The writer of this gospel, the gospel of Matthew, has Jesus speaking words of urgency, dire warnings. He might be one of those ancients, warning us about the departing sun. Matthew—of all the New Testament writers, the one most concerned to connect the story of Jesus to its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures—tells us again the story of Noah… by his lights, a story of inattention, carelessness, misplaced priorities. We can almost see Matthew shaking his head. We can almost hear him murmuring, “They should have been ready.”

In a season in which the populace of the United States is in a veritable maelstrom of preparation for Christmas, we can be reasonably sure Matthew isn’t worried about our decorations, our baking, our gift purchasing or wrapping. Christmas paraphernalia having been evident in retail establishments for upwards of two months, we can’t say we weren’t warned. We are comfortably sure: this can’t be what Matthew is warning us about.

Despite the classic explanation of Advent as a time to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we can also be reasonably sure that Matthew is probably not referring to that observance, either. Matthew is not one for the picture-postcard view of Christmas; he’s not the angels and shepherds and glowing babe type. Matthew’s the one whose Christmas story includes Joseph giving serious consideration to the idea of bailing out before it’s too late. He’s the gospel writer who caps the whole thing off with a dreadful mass killing, and the Holy Family turned into undocumented immigrants in Egypt. We can be comfortably sure: this can’t be what Matthew is warning us about.

“Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left…” Now that rings a bell. Most anyone who reads these phrases recognizes that something else is going on here. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters have staked a claim to a very specific meaning in these verses. The “Left Behind” juggernaut, through the canny marketing of novels, DVD’s, video games, audio books and comic books, has brought its creators a figure in excess of $1 billion. They’ve successfully planted a particular belief in popular consciousness, so successful that many believe it’s THE Christian belief. It’s tempting to say, “Ah. The rapture! That’s what Matthew wants us to be ready for.” There’s a problem with that reading, however: this whole concept wasn’t even born until about 160 years ago. The idea that Christ would return at the head of an army, ushering in Armageddon, and that true believers would be spared the final tribulations by being whisked off to heaven, was the brainstorm of a 19th century English curate, John Nelson Darby. In the 1800 years of Christian theology before that, no one had ever held that position. Presbyterians don’t hold that position today.

Ironically, it’s probably a similar movement—folks with a particular, specific theology that could predict the date and circumstances of Jesus’ return—that’s probably exactly Matthew is trying to combat in this passage. How many times does he say, “No one knows? Not even Jesus? Not even the angels?” In every generation there have been folks who managed to profit from trying to play prophet in this regard. Matthew is sternly warning against it. He reminds me of the old country preacher who said, “Beware of anyone who claims to be able to tell you the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.”

No one knows. Keep awake. Be ready. But for what? What vigilance is Matthew summoning us to?

One writer I read this week, commenting on this passage, said this:

This is not the second coming of Christ. We call that one "Easter." It's not the third coming we're looking for either. Wherever two or three have gathered in Jesus' name since Easter, Jesus has come among them, so we must be on about the umpteen kajillionth coming. The coming, or "advent," we look forward to in this season is, in a sense, as mundane and as special as all of those other "advents" have been. It's all of those other "advents," all comings of Christ from the Incarnation up to this Sunday morning, that inform us about what the final Advent…really means. [ii]

So, we look forward, with Matthew, to the umpteen kajillionth coming of Christ. We look forward, with the entire church, the cloud of witnesses past, present and future, to his reign of justice and peace. And we are back with those ancients, gazing anxiously at the darkening skies and wondering, worrying, asking: Has peace gone for good? Is justice a thing of the past, or a thing of the imagination? We kindle our wheels of fire and find ourselves longing for an Advent unlike any other. We wonder when the Lord will be coming to set things right. We wonder how we can be ready, what exactly we need to be ready for. We wonder if we dare to hope.

What we might not even dare to hope in the silence of our hearts rings out loudly in Isaiah’s passage. In his description of the coming of God to judge the nations, he speaks of the time when people, at last, lay down their arms. He speaks of people doing outlandish things, like the musician in Colombia who turns AK-47 assault rifles into guitars[iii], or the artist in Seattle who creates a peace installation from the fins of decommissioned nuclear submarines.[iv] He speaks of people like the inventor from Ethiopia who takes burnt out mortar shells and creates, of all things, coffee makers: swords into plowshares becoming mortars into Frappuccinos.[v] In the unexpected hour all manner of men and women and children have the capacity to envision the reign of Christ in ways that that kindle real hope for the return of the departed Son. In the unexpected hour, we meet Christ in all this creativity and radical, unreasonable hopefulness.

No one knows. Keep awake. Be ready. Christ may just turn up in a church like ours, on a morning like this. He may turn up on Notorious Street with the drug dealers and the gangbangers No one knows, this may be the hour, when our great Judge and Redeemer decides to pull up a chair to this, our table, to roll up his sleeves and dine with us. No one knows. Keep awake. No dulling our senses with our addictive substances, no numbing out through shopping, no sleepwalking by staying busy. Keep awake. We need to be ready. We need to be ready to see Christ in the least of our sisters and brothers… in the homeless person asking for change, in the skateboarder who almost knocked us down, in the prisoner for whom we might buy a toothbrush. We need to be ready to see the face of Jesus in the one person in the world who drives us the most crazy, makes us the most angry, has hurt us the most deeply. We need to be ready to greet him in a tense committee meeting or at the bedside of a beloved friend or peering at us over the morning paper. We need to be ready. This is the unexpected hour. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance With God.
[ii] Sarah Dylan Breuer, “First Sunday of Advent, Year A,”

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Here it Comes!

Advent. From the time I was a teenager, this season grabbed me. I grew up with Christmas-hating folks. One parent was the pre-spirit Ebeneezer Scrooge and the other was Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life". This had something to do with owning a retail establishment, I believe. Many exhausting hours and much energy and spirit went into decorating the stores, while in the apartment upstairs, we had no Christmas tree after I was in about the third grade.

Don't misunderstand. My parents were incredibly generous and loving people. They just didn't have it in them to do Christmas for the public and also Christmas for the family. After third grade we started going to Florida every year. My mother would take us kids down a few days before Christmas, and my dad would muscle through until he could join us on New Year's. We were usually there for two weeks, somewhere in the Fort Lauderdale/ Pompano area. I realize I was an incredibly privileged kid in this regard. For about ten years I celebrated the New Year by diving into a pool at midnight... my idea of heaven. Still, I missed some of what other people seemed to have and enjoy.

(When I went away to college I had roommates whose parents did up Christmas in the magazine spread, old-fashioned way. I was invited to one of their homes, and told my mother on the phone. There was a short silence, then, "We're getting a tree this year." Mmmhmmm.)

Sometime in high school I discovered the books I blogged about here. "Bless the Lord" was my introduction to the prayer of the church in the Daily Office way, and through it I learned the language of Advent. I learned to love the readings from Isaiah and James, and because of my life as a churchgoer, I also learned to associate these readings with various pieces of music. I still cannot hear some of these readings without certain melodies blooming in my mind.

My love of Advent seemed to fit in with my family's offbeat way of not exactly celebrating Christmas. At a time when the rest of the world was hanging up the glitter and holly, my house was conspicuously dark and the readings were too, but they were full of intimations of light, delicious, highly anticipatory images that made me start to long for the coming Christ as a long lost lover.

As I write this the scent of pine is wafting towards me, courtesy of the fresh wreath I use for my Advent candles. (I know. I'm careful.) I take a wreath, crowd four fat pillars in the middle, and light it, doing my part to woo back the faraway sun/ Son.