Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Here's to a more grammatically interesting 2009!
January: I am just back from my time in Disney World with Larry-O and Petra... I mean, just back... in the house under three hours, the laundry is spinning, and I'm madly filling out health forms, writing absence notes, and watching the needles fall from the week-neglected tree.
February: I personally would not have said a word about bodily functions.
March: Do you know what it is to be thirsty?
April: It is a peculiar characteristic of my little part of the world that people come, and they never leave.
May: That's right.
June: I'm wondering if any of you have read this article, from last Sunday's New York Times magazine (5/25): "Exposed: What I Gained-- And Lost-- By Writing About My Intimate Life Online," by Emily Gould.
July: I have had several moments in ministry in the past week during which a little part of my psyche whispered "Blog this!"
August: She's home... upstairs, sleeping in her bed, after giving me an hour of the highlights of her 20 days away.
September: "The McCain camp didn't realize how hard it still was to convince voters to vote for a woman."
October: Tuesday night saw Petra, BFF and myself driving more than two hours away to see Teh Girls in concert... my fourth time, Petra's second, BFF's first.
November: There’s nothing like your body ceasing to function the way it normally does to make you to focus all your attention on bodies.
December: I have stumbled into Advent not really prepared.
Monday, December 29, 2008
Our two Christmas Eve Services
We went from one to two services this year, by popular demand. It was a good move. The early service was sung by the Youth Choir, who did those two perennial favorites, "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" with a sophomore accompanying them on snare drum, and his mother playing the triangle. It was fabulous. More than fabulous. It was worshipful! The church was crowded, and the mood was merry and solemn all at once, and the children who came forward for the Children's Message included a family for whom it was the first visit. A three year old essentially narrated the service... "What's happening now? Why did she do that? When do we light the candles? Can I have some of the bread and juice?"
The second service was smaller, but no less lovely, with our Chancel Choir singing. The only difference aside from music was the absence of a Children's Message. But the most holy moment for me, at each service, was that moment following communion, when the lights were dimmed and everyone held a lit taper, and we sang "Silent Night," after which I read:
234In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.I cannot get over it. I get to do this for a living. Was anyone ever so blessed?
I began the day with a friend, Larry and Petra being at their dad's house overnight (since I was working until almost 1 AM, that seemed only fair). They arrived home at 1 PM, and the tearing of paper commenced. From me, Larry got a beautiful mahogany acoustic guitar, and he lovedlovedlovedloved it... literally, didn't put it down except to eat and go to bed late that night. I think Petra loved her big gift as well-- a very good amp for her many musical gigs!
We ate a wonderful meal of homemade pasta and meatballs, a great favorite around my house, and while it was cooking we all watched that quintessential Christmas film, "The Ref." For anyone who's skeptical about the Normal Rockwell view of Christmas and it's attainability... this film's for you. Seriously. Not for kids. Hilarious. And love triumphs. What else do you need?
The Two Days After That
Oh, if you could see my house. It is so beautifully clean and Christmasy! Too bad I'm not there any longer. I cleaned and cleaned, and enlisted the services of my children to clean and clean. I even cleaned out one of those scary hall closets from which things leap out at you. Cleaning for me is always like opening a time capsule. That's sad, but it's the truth. I found dear tiny gloves from when Larry and Petra were little tykes. I found a Razor (one of those scooter-type things that were so popular). I found bags and bags of yarn and materials, convincing me that I must use it all up or give it away SOON. (I am knitting Petra a sweater and Larry a scarf and a dear little hat for a new baby I know).
Friday was spent shopping and cooking.
Saturday there was a disconcerting memorial service... filled with people none of whom, evidently, are convinced of the merits of opening their mouths when in a church. Every hymn? A solo by yours truly. Every responsive reading? Ditto. (I personally thanked the two people whom I did see moving their mouths during hymns).
I then returned home to continue cooking. When my staff arrived with their families beginning at 4 PM they found:
- Chips and Salsa
- Drunken Pot Roast (Recipe: Brown beef. Add Chianti all day long. Enjoy!)
- Vegetarian Lasagne (Recipe: a 1980 issue of Cosmopolitan. The good ones are timeless, I tell you.)
- Green Rice (So-called because of the presence of much parsley. Recipe given to my mother in 1972 by a woman who made her feel incredibly inferior. Recipe signed, "Fondly, Madalyn")
- A Huge Salad
- 3 Dozen Dinner Rolls, Courtesy of that Pudgy Dough Boy
- A Plate of Greek Pastries (A Gift)
- 2 Dozen Brown Sugar Brownies (Recipe: Make brownies. Substitute Brown Sugar for half of White)
- 2 Dozen Chocolate Chip Cooke Bars
- 2 Bottles of Ruffino Chianti
- 2 Bottles of Cavit Pinot Grigio
- 2 Gallons of Local Apple Cider
"There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer."
Well, OK, not quite. But it was lovely.
If I do say so myself.
We are here with my sister-in-law "Sharon" and her and my brother's two children, "Liv" and "Armistead." My brother stayed in Wyoming to tend to the business and the horses and the dogs.
I wish I could say it's always wonderful and joyful to be with my family. But it is more often full of complications and contradictions. Sharon seems well, but she shared with me some anxieties about their business and the economy, and how difficult this trip was for them to manage financially. She also shared that a visit back "home" (she and my brother lived here until five years ago, when they transplanted themselves out west) is always hard for the kids. Liv, who's 13, has really adapted to life in Wyoming. She's a cowgirl, who shows horses and raises pigs and lambs for 4-H competitions each summer, and who, like her dad, is a natural and wonderful athelete, excelling at basketball and baseball as well as rodeo. When she visits here, she's bored, "like a fish out of water." Armistead, on the other hand, is 10 and while he too loves life out west, has maintained friendships here. When he comes for visits he's reminded of how much he misses those friends, and it's wrenching for him to go home to Wyoming at the end of the trip.
Add to all this that two of the three grandparents they've ever known are gone now (Sharon's mother died in February 2008, my mother in February 2006). Visits home are tough and poignant for them.
Then there's my dad. Each time I see him I'm both relieved at how well he's doing and full of dread at the signs I see of his aging. He's 87, living alone in this enormous house by the water, cooking himself pretty good meals and looking out on a beautiful view of bay, marshes, wildlife and distant city lights. He has no major illnesses threatening... he doesn't have congestive heart failure or cancer or any of those "biggies" that often affect people by this age.
But I see, too, the toll that just being 87 has taken. Sharon said this morning she wishes he'd had his knees replaced 10 or 15 years ago, and I agree. He's hobbling around now on a knee that's visibly worse than it was even last month at Thanksgiving. At the point at which he cannot walk... what? He's adamantly against moving, either to my home or to Wyoming. He's adamantly against downsizing to a smaller house (an idea that's doable but somewhat complicated by the fact that his house is in my name). The idea of assisted living facilities... also adamantly opposed. I cannot move here to care for him. I suppose the truth is, I will not. I won't move Petra away from her dad, and I won't move away from a church that is proving so good for me and so rich in possibilities. I also won't move away from the friends and intentional family I have around me. It would be like an amputation. Multiple amputations.
But... what? What will happen? My brother and his family are where they are. I am where I am. It leaves me hoping that my dad can maintain good health indefinitely, and then... what? Be suddenly felled, like a giant maple chopped down? It seems monstrous to wish for something like that. But... what?
Sunday, December 28, 2008
“Filled With Wisdom”
December 28, 2008
First Sunday in Christmastide
The Christmas story isn’t over.
As many of you know, we have a Monday afternoon Bible Study. From June to November we read through each and every verse of the book of Genesis, an ambitious, and, in the end, satisfying project. Then, with Advent and Christmas approaching, we decided to read two passages in Luke’s gospel related to the Christmas story. And we discovered something. In a sense, the Christmas story is the whole gospel in miniature: it tells of God’s love for us, a love so overwhelming that Christ leaves the realm of heaven and infinity and chooses to live among us in a finite, earthly body. Jesus is Emmanuel: God-With-Us. This is the gospel. This is the good news! This is Christmas.
But the Christmas story isn’t over, despite the fact that the local TV and radio stations have gone back to their regularly scheduled programming. The Christmas story isn’t over, even though, for many of us, our Christmas celebrations are. The Christmas story isn’t over, because, though we have met the mother of Jesus and the father, and the shepherds and the angels, and even the tiny Messiah himself, we have not met two other crucial players.
Baby Jesus is eight days old. His parents, observant Jews of the house and lineage of David, present him for circumcision. For Jewish baby boys, this is the ritual that, literally, makes them Jews—it binds them to the covenant that their fathers and grandfathers and ancestors have joined before them. Then the story skips over the next several weeks… weeks we might imagine are filled with the usual early childhood firsts: meeting the grandparents, first smile, early efforts to hold his head up… to the visit to the Temple forty days later, when the time has come for the purification offering. This was an offering required for a new mother, and here Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph offered of “a pair of turtledoves” (where have we heard that before, two turtledoves?) or “two young pigeons.” The usual offering for purification of a mother is a lamb. The alternative of turtledoves or pigeons is the offering accepted when the parents are too poor to make the usual offering.
But the Christmas story is still not over. It isn’t over because we haven’t met Simeon and Anna. In many ways, Anna and Simeon might remind us of people we could meet in our own church. Simeon is described as being righteous and devout, and looking forward to “the consolation of Israel,” a phrase that indicates the full restoration of God’s people. In other words, when God will make things better, make things right again. For Simeon, that had to do with living under Roman occupation. For us… perhaps each of us would have our own answers to that. Looking forward to the time when the Holy Land is no longer a war zone, perhaps? When all the world finally beats its swords into plowshares… or perhaps green energy alternatives? I once knew a man who, when you wished him a Merry Christmas, would cheerfully reply, “I hope neither of us is around next Christmas!” That’s because he was hoping with all his heart that Christ would return this year, now. He is now a saint in light.
Simeon encounters the baby, and… it’s love at first sight, only moreso. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he sees the baby, he recognizes the baby. And he takes the baby in his arms, and says something remarkable: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2: 29-32). In other words, “Thank you God. I can die now, happy and knowing you have fulfilled your promise.” But Simeon’s words are all the more remarkable because of that last phrase… “a light for revelation to the Gentile, and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon has been longing for God to restore Israel. But in Jesus he sees something larger, more expansive than that. In Jesus, he sees, not just God’s love for “us,” the in crowd. He sees God’s love for “them,” the outsiders. Jesus awakens in Simeon the awareness that God’s love cannot be limited or restricted. It spills out of the expected categories and spaces.
Simeon is like any man you and I might meet in church. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he is filled with God’s wisdom. Anna is another one… at least 84 years old, she is a widow and a prophet, who literally lives in the Temple, fasting and praying for “the redemption of Jerusalem,” another way of describing the hope for God to come and make things right. You and I have met many “Annas” in churches throughout the years. They are the prophets—the ones who are willing to stand up and say what no one else will say. Or, they are the ones who seem, literally, to live in the church, they live so fully for the church. Anna comes upon the scene and immediately begins to prophesy, to praise God, and to tell of the child to everyone who will listen. She, like Simeon, sees the child Jesus, recognizes him, and it changes everything for her. It fills her with God’s wisdom.
The Christmas story isn’t over, because there are more characters, still, to be introduced. Characters like you, and me. It is our time, it is our turn to see Jesus, to recognize him. Maybe Jesus is the person who has been coming to the church looking for assistance. Have I seen him? Have I recognized him? Maybe Jesus is the really annoying person you are expected to work alongside. Have you seen him? Have you recognized him? Maybe Jesus is one of the little children at our pre-school, or maybe the clerk at Rite-Aid. To paraphrase a really bad Christmas song, Jesus is all around us. Have we seen him? Have we recognized him? Have we allowed ourselves to be filled with wisdom?
A German theologian who lived nearly 800 years ago had this to say about the Christmas story:
We are all meant to be the mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine child takes place unceasingly but doesn’t take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the creator to give birth to holy breath if I do not also give birth to divine breath in my time and my culture? Then, then, is the fullness of time: when the spirit of God is begotten in us. (Meister Eckhart, "When I Give Birth to Christ")
The Christmas story is not over until we become like Anna, prophets who insist on standing up and saying the things that need to be said and doing the things that need to be done. The Christmas story is not over, until we, ordinary church folk, recognize Jesus in and around us and take him in our arms, rejoicing. The Christmas story is not over, unless and until we ourselves become the mothers of God, giving birth to holy breath in our own time and culture. The Christmas story is not over. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
So... when next we meet, remind me to tell you all about:
- Our two services Christmas Eve, with Larry and Petra attending...
- Christmas Day, with Larry not putting down the "Best Christmas Present He Ever Got..."
- The day after Christmas, with me: shopping for and beginning food preparation for the First Ever (not willing to say "Annual!") St. Sociable Staff Shindig Chez Magdalene!
- The extensive housecleaning thereunto...
- The day after the day after Christmas, with the Huge Memorial Service, and more food prep (in the midst of it now) for the Shindig, to take place in... o, crimony, 2 hours and 36 minutes.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Dream with me of the heavenly beings…messengers, angels—but not the sweet-baby angels we like to imagine…not the dear and lovely angels, pre-Raphaelite, long and flowing hair, silky feathered wings, elegant flaxen robes, faces like ours, human, recognizable. Cast these out of your imagination altogether. Imagine something… terrifying. Something like Isaiah’s angel that filled the Temple with its six wings… Something like Ezekiel’s angel, rolling and roiling and covered with eyes… Or perhaps… something whose beauty was terrifying… faces so dazzling they melted the heart with fear… forms so gorgeous they blanked out everything familiar and safe.
Dream with me of the heavenly beings…beings whose natural habitats are stars and galaxies… beings intimately acquainted with Orion and the Pleiades, being who might as easily be found dancing in the Great Andromeda Nebula as visiting a barren hillside on a small satellite circling an undistinguished star in the Milky Way.
Dream with me of heavenly beings, whose days are measured in hundreds of thousands of years, and whose nights are spent, not at rest, but in consultation and communion with the great I AM, God Almighty, Maker of each star and planet, including this one.
These heavenly beings, these angels, had one task and one task only: to announce to the world that heaven had come to earth, that heaven and earth were met together in the birth of a Jewish baby boy to a woodworking artisan and his young wife. And so, off they went, these angels, these terrifying, heavenly beings… off they went, to fulfill their commission. The star-dancing, God-knowing, unimaginable and terrifying beings out of heaven came to earth.
Dream with me now of the earth, and the people they found there. Where did these angels go? Did they go to the centers of earthly power? Did they go to the Palatine Hill in Rome, where they might find Caesar Augustus in his winter palace? Did they go to the Temple in Jerusalem where they might find priests of the ancient line of Aaron offering sacrifices to God? Did they go to ancient Gall, where they might find one of the finest legions of the Roman army, six thousand men strong, all trained as deadly warriors? They did not. The heavenly beings, well-acquainted with power, did not go where they might find wealth, or political influence, or religious clout, or military might. Instead, they went to a rocky hillside, to bring their announcement to a group of shepherds.
Dream with me of those shepherds. But, once again, cast out all familiar images. The images of young and handsome David, ruddy, charismatic, singing his enchanting songs while accompanying himself on the lyre… Images of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, dressed in a clean white robe, his golden hair covering his shoulders, a creamy lamb under one arm and a staff in the other. Cast these out of your imagination entirely, and dream instead….
Shepherds: dirty, smelly, living outside… for all intents and purposes, homeless, and about as welcome in polite company as anyone you could find under a city railroad trestle on a frigid December night. Shepherds… living in intimate contact with animals, thus rendering themselves ritually unclean, and unwelcome in the centers of worship and commerce. Shepherds… tough, mean, able to kill an attacking wolf or a poacher with a single stroke of the staff. Shepherds… believed in those ancient times to be shifty, dishonest, always trying to pasture their flocks on land that is not theirs, and so relegated to the worst land, the scrubby, rocky places, with precious little tender grass. Shepherds…producing desirable products, of course: savory mutton, tender lamb, rich goat’s milk and cheese… but themselves… best when invisible, best when unseen by decent folks.
Shepherds: unwanted, unloved, undesirable, unclean, unacceptable. Shepherds: the very least and last of the people of the earth God created. The heavenly beings, the angels, brought their announcement to shepherds.
And this is what they said: Fear not! (See the rough, fighting shepherds now cowering in terror). For behold! I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people! (All the people, mind you shepherds… not just the rich people, not just the powerful people, not just the people with political or military or economic systems at their disposal, but all the people. The little, the lost, the wandering, the wondering. The unclean, the unscrubbed, the undesirable, the unwanted, the unloved… all the people, including you. Yes, you.) Great joy! For unto you (yes, shepherds, you) is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. (Even shepherds knew who David was, and took some consolation, one would think, in sharing an occupation with the greatest of Judah’s Kings, even if that occupation was a despised one.) Christ the Lord! The Anointed One! The Master! The Ruler! But wait… This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And this is where it has happened: the Savior, the Anointed One, the Christ, the subject of an announcement by star-dancing angels from Almighty God… is a baby.
Dream with me of heaven, come to earth: despite all our imaginings, heaven on earth turns out to be a poor baby, so poor he has to sleep where the animals feed… the Savior of the world is “a Man-child needing, like any other, milk and love –but who was God.”[i]
This is where heaven meets earth. This is where it happens… in a stall in an over-crowded city, while the animals nearby are munching on hay or dozing or, perhaps, watching with interest. This is where heaven meets earth … not with a display of fireworks, not with the commander of a mighty army ready to strike, not with an overabundance of material goods or even lovely decorations, but where the poorest and most vulnerable must make their temporary shelter. This is where heaven meets earth: in the place where God tells us, in unmistakable terms: no one is left out. No one is too poor, no one is too dirty, no one is too humble or unkempt or undesirable. Heaven meets earth exactly here: where there is not enough, and where the abundance of God more than makes up the deficit.
Dream with me of a cold December night, when heaven met earth…when unearthly creatures shone with indescribable light, and unexplainable power…when earthly men and beasts quaked with unimaginable terror…when the first cry of a poor couple’s baby pierced the holy silence, and when the least loved were the joyful witnesses, and when all power and holiness joined with humanity forever and ever… when these were brought together, heaven met earth. Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Amen.
[i] “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov.
And some music to get you in the King's College Cambridge mood...
BELOVED IN CHRIST, be it this Christmas Eve our care
and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message
of the angels: in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem
and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying
in a manger.
Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving
purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto
the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child; and
let us make this Chapel, dedicated to Mary, his most blessed
Mother, glad with our carols of praise:
But first let us pray for the needs of his whole world; for
peace and goodwill over all the earth; for unity and
brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and
especially in the dominions of our sovereign lady Queen
Elizabeth, within this University and City of Cambridge,
and in the two royal and religious Foundations of King
Henry VI here and at Eton:
And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us
at this time remember in his name the poor and the
helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in
body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the
unloved; the aged and the little children; all who know not
the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have
grieved his heart of love.
Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with
us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that
multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in
the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we
for evermore are one.
These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the
throne of heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath
taught us: Our Father …
* Read and re-read the meditation so that it doesn't feel like I'm "reading" tonight.
* Write Christmas prayers of the people (cribbing extensively from this morning's Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge, which I listened to, weeping occasionally, as I ran around doing errands).
* Tinker with the Communion service so that it's not so long as it was last year (this is one I wrote... you know, borrowing extensively from here and there. I'll paste it below, just for funsies).
* Wrap presents/ write cards to church staff. Alas, most of them... well, all of them except for yours truly... have gone home. So... I hope they come into the office tonight. We'll see.
Then... go home and, I don't know, maybe bake a cake for Christmas dessert? I'm uncharacteristically ready for Christmas. That's not to say I'm ready for the memorial service on the 27th or church the 28th... but I'll be doing my best!
Larry-O is home, which is wonderful... he looks well and seems to be in a very good mood. And Petra is through the moon because she got a pretty good part in the upcoming school musical, so yay for all that.
I've neglected to blog all sorts of stuff, including...
* Larry-O's play and Petra's and my trip to Big City to see him therein...
* Our Longest Night service (that's Blue Christmas to many of you)...
* And the general state of the world I'm in (good. Complicated and good!)...
A very, very merry and peaceful Christmas to you all, and goodwill reign throughout God's beautiful and broken earth.
Celebration of the Lord’s Supper
for Christmas and Epiphany
The Light of the World has dawned; come, let us adore him.
We have seen the star in the East;
let us bow before the newborn Sovereign.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
The Great Thanksgiving
O Holy God, in Jesus you joined with us to be our brother and savior: with hearts full of joy we give you thanks and praise.
For a time we were a people walking in darkness,
but in Christ we saw the Light of the World.
In Jesus the heavens and the earth are reconciled once again.
From Christ’s fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
Therefore, with the shepherds and the angels, with the children and the Wise Ones, with all people of every age, we lift our hearts to you and sing,
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
O Gracious God, we cannot contain our joy at the gift of your son Jesus Christ.
In Jesus, fully God and fully human, all creation is redeemed and renewed.
Jesus accepted the baptism of John and lived as an observant Son of the Law.
Christ dwelled among us, healing the sick,
blessing and welcoming the children,
eating with the outcast, and
proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.
But in his inclusive welcome, he was a threat to the powers of his day and ours, and so the sin of the world brought him to be tortured and killed.
In the fullness of your time he was raised again,
vanquishing the powers and the principalities.
O Generous God, as we remember your gracious and saving acts in Christ Jesus, we take this bread and this cup, giving you praise and thanksgiving as we proclaim the mystery of our faith.
To us is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
O Mighty God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us, that by your power, this bread and this cup may become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Give us eyes to see your coming Reign, that we may feast with the Prince of Peace for all eternity.
Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit,
All glory and honor are yours, almighty God,
Forever and ever. Amen.
The Words of Institution
We thank you that on the night before he died, Jesus took bread and after giving thanks, gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body that is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Give us grace to live as your people,
people who have received the gift of salvation in the Word made flesh.
In the same way, after supper, Jesus took the cup saying, “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
By the mystery of this cup,
let the love we have been given pour forth in our lives,
bearing witness to the Good News in all we say and do.
Sharing of the Bread and Cup
Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving
Christ is born, and we give him glory. Christ has come down from heaven, and we receive him. Christ is now on earth, and we exalt him. We thank you, Gracious and Loving God, for the gift of the Word made flesh. By the mystery of this joyful feast, strengthen and renew us, Holy God. Let us be like the angels, singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to God’s people on earth.” Let us be like the shepherds, telling abroad the Good News of Christ’s birth. And let us be like the Wise Ones, living each moment in joyful anticipation of the day when Christ will come again. Amen.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
How can this be?
In the name of the God Most High, how is this possible? I know. I know it is impossible.
I am nothing special. I am nothing like our ancestors in faith… I am no Sarah, mother of our people. I am no Rachel and no Leah, mothers of the tribes of Israel. I am no Deborah, wise judge and leader, and I am no Esther, brave queen and savior. I am none of these. I am a girl, only a girl. And yet… when I consider the heavens, the works of God’s fingers, the moon and the stars in their courses: what am I, that God has been mindful of me? Who am I, that God cares for me?
I am a girl. Until the messenger came, I was a girl like every other girl in this village. Living with my parents, and grandparents, and brothers and sisters. Learning the stories of our people: Loyal and steadfast Ruth! Wily Rebecca! Learning that God gives each of us a work to do, and mine was no more taxing than carrying jars of water from the well for my mother, or learning the right measure of leaven to mix with the flour to make a soft and pleasing dough, to be baked into a sweet and fragrant loaf. My accomplishments included learning to write my name in the sand with my finger: Miriam, like the prophet, sister of Moses, guardian of her baby brother by the rushes of the mighty Nile River. One day I could look forward to the accomplishment of being a wife, and, God willing, bringing forth new life, being fruitful, as our mothers were fruitful. God willing. In time, in time.
Let me tell you about Joseph. We have grown up together, side by side. That is the way of life in a small town like Nazareth. Everyone is family, everyone knows everything about everyone. He works with his father and brothers in their woodshop. I never thought much of him, or of any of the boys in this village. Why should I? It was not for me to ponder. I knew when the time came, my father and mother would select someone for me, someone they had weighed and considered and tested. I did not presume to settle my heart on any boy or man. That was their task, and I was just as glad to leave it to them. I was more concerned to learn the psalms by heart. My mother taught me: learn the psalms, and you will not be shy to speak with God Most High. Learn the prayers of our ancestor David, and you will be like a tree planted by a stream of water. In all that you do, you will be nourished.
And so I did. I learned the psalms and carried water and left my future in the hands of my parents and God. And then one day, they presented me to him. Just like that. Miriam, they said, you will be the wife of Joseph the carpenter, son of Heli. I did not object. And, in truth, as the days and weeks went by, and my parents welcomed Joseph and his family into our home more often, and as we were permitted time to speak to one another with some measure of privacy—you understand, someone was always just a few feet away, no more than could be summoned at a moment’s notice—I began to like him.
Joseph shyly showed me some examples of his woodwork. His father wanted him to make tables and trunks, and chairs of the kind the wealthy merchants like to buy. But one day Joseph placed in my hand a small flute, delicately carved with birds and flowers—the flowers…! I spotted a rose, and a lily, and the leaves of a pomegranate tree. It was so beautiful my speech left me for a moment. When I looked at him, he was grinning wildly, as if he had been somehow vindicated. He took the flute back again, and began to play. I never imagined such music. It was both sad and hopeful, the story of our people without any words to weigh it down, the truest story I ever heard. When he finished, and the sound died out in the silence (for even my family were listening in the next room), his eyes looked into mine with an intensity that startled me, and we both were struck silent at the wonder of the moment. It was then I decided that to be Joseph’s wife might just be a wondrous and surprising thing.
We went on like that for some months, and as we passed in the streets, Joseph carrying some item to be delivered to a buyer, and me deftly balancing the jug on top of my head, we conceived and began to communicate with a secret language. A look from him and I knew whether his day had been good or bad, whether his father was in a foul mood or his mother had cooked some wonderful delicacy for him. A look from me and he knew whether my sisters had been overly difficult as I tended them while my mother went to the market. And in our silent language, we both recognized a change in ourselves. We began to feel like what we were: betrothed to one another. Meant for one another.
One evening, just before the Sabbath was about to fall, my mother sent me to the well for water at the last moment. The light was fading and almost no one was on the paths that wound their way through town. It was unusual for my mother to send me so late, but she trusted me, and once the Sabbath came there could be no trips for water until it passed. I came to the stone lip of the great well, and I set down my jar on the edge. I reached down to pull up the rope which held the bucket. As I did, a voice rose towards me, echoing from the water far below.
“Hello Miriam, blessed by God Most High. The Holy One is with you.”
I stumbled back from the well, knocking down the jar; it rolled away noisily. I looked all around me. It was absurd. There could be no one in the well—no one could fall the distance into it and live. I crept tentatively towards the edge, and leaned forward to peer down. What kind of voice was this? It sounded unlike man or woman or child, unlike anything I had ever heard. It was a kind of whisper on the water, yet it was perfectly loud and clear. As I looked down, the voice came again, only it was behind me. I spun around, shaking. I could feel my heart pounding within me.
I was unprepared for what I saw. It looked like a man, but not like a man. It seemed at the same time close enough for me to reach out and touch it, but also somehow at a great distance. It shimmered and moved in the fading light. I wondered whether I was dreaming. Had I fallen at the well and struck my head? Was there anyone nearby to rescue me?
The messenger spoke again, comprehending my thoughts. “Do not be afraid, Miriam, daughter of David. The Lord Most High has blessed you.” And in that instant I knew. I knew what terrible words would issue from his mouth. I knew because I had listened at my mother’s feet, or leaning against her shoulder while she was spinning, or as she whispered in my ear while I kneaded the dough for the bread. I knew what kind of story this was. I knew that I was about to hear the same news that made Sarah and Hannah and Rachel weep for joy. But for me, this was not joyful news. It was the most terrifying thing that could happen to me. And… it was impossible.
The messenger was speaking to me, telling me things about the child—there was to be a child. Of course. I would conceive in my womb, and bear a son. He would be called the Son of God. I nearly laughed when I heard that. Wouldn’t the Emperor Augustus be interested to know that he had lost his title to the illegitimate child of a virgin from a backwater town such as Nazareth. And even as this cruel joke registered with me, I felt in myself a desperate desire to flee, to run, to stop up my ears and make the messenger stop telling me this impossible thing.
“How can this be?” I whispered? How can this be?
And the messenger told me that… God would accomplish it. That was all. God would make a way where there was no way. And in that moment I knew: If this was a messenger of God and no demon, then God would make a way. If this child was of God, and his destiny was to rule over our people, then God would make a way. And no one would stand in God’s way. Not even a girl from Nazareth.
“Let it be,” I said. “Let it be to me, just as you have said.” And I was alone. Except for the Lord, who the messenger had promised, was with me. The Lord was with me.
The Lord was with me. The Lord has been our dwelling place for all generations, and now the Lord was with me. I picked up my jar, and filled it with water… the Sabbath was at hand, and I would have to run to get back to my mother’s house in time. But the Lord was with me, and I arrived before the candles were lit, before my mother covered her eyes and intoned the ancient prayer: Blessed are you, Lord God, Ruler of the Universe. By your goodness, you give us the gift of our sister the Sabbath.
Many months have passed since that day. The first month was the hardest, as I waited for the words of the messenger to be confirmed, and then went to tell Joseph the hard news. I will never forget the look of anguish in his eyes, and then the way they turned steely and cold. I told him that I would understand if he chose to end our betrothal. I watched as he turned and left, and, to my surprise, came back again in the span of a few hours. “I slept,” was all he would say. And he took my hand, and I recognized again our familiar language, and I knew that he would be my husband.
And still, I ask myself: How can this be? How can this be? And the only answer I have is this: the Lord is with me. God Most High has vindicated me, and will do what he wills with me. And I… I will care tenderly for this child, this unimaginable, impossible child, and I will teach him psalms, so that he will never be shy to speak to his father. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Friday, December 19, 2008
Here I am with my first foray into the Friday Five in Forever. (I honestly have no idea what that was about...)
There are only five full days before Christmas Day, and whether you use them for shopping, wrapping, preaching, worshiping, singing or traveling or even wishing the whole darn thing were over last Tuesday, there's a good chance they will be busy ones.So let's make this easy, if we can: tell us five things you need to accomplish before Christmas Eve.
1. Clean the house. Or, at least, get the bins with the Christmas ornaments to the attic, get the bags of presents upstairs to the "wrapping room" (aka Magdalene's bedroom), get the schoolbooks and papers and dvd's (oh my!) that seem to follow Petra around filed somehow, and then, when Larry-O comes home with his piles-o-stuff, get that incorporated into his room again. Oh, and clean out two closets that are the cartoon-type scary-full, if you open the door stuff leaps out at you. And keep vaccuming up needles (grrrr...)
2. Write the Christmas Eve meditation and the Longest Night (many of you call it "Blue Christmas" meditation) and the bulletin for the 28th and the sermon for the 28th (or, perhaps, decide to have a carol sing on the 28th. That could work!).
3. Buy stocking-stuffers. Also, decide if what I've got for Larry and Petra is "enough." I have a problem in this area. I just can't seem to... you know... figure out this balance. A post divorce thing, perhaps, wanting Christmas to be abundant and not paltry... and not having the nerve to talk to them, perhaps, about money and cutting back... eek, this is turning all psychotherapeutic...
4. Shop for dinner fixings for Christmas day. (Christmas eve I'll be working until midnight; seems a good time for Chinese take-out, don't you think?). I'm thinking: Filet mignon (with bernaise for those who are so inclined), some kind of fabulous potatoes, a lovely green salad, and a dessert I haven't figured out yet. Figgy pudding? Could be fun, except neither of my pumpkins would touch it with a ten foot candy cane. Something chocolate seems more likely to be well-received. Not a traditional feast by any means. I'll take a poll in the next few days and see if that's what people want.
5. Get back to my daily prayer practice of early Advent. Especially crucial since lots of illnesses and diagnoses are happening in the congregation... I'm feeling tapped out in some ways. No real days off for a while, and that's always a problem. When I manage to pray... it makes all the difference. Yesterday my only prayer was at a hospital bedside, and it struck me at the time how hungry I was for it.
Abundant blessings to you, my friends!
Thursday, December 18, 2008
No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, “Come over, friend; sit down here.” And he went over and sat down. 2Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down. 3He then said to the next-of-kin, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. 4So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.” So he said, “I will redeem it.” 5Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” 6At this, the next-of-kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” 7Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal.
Now, the book of Ruth is, among other things, a love story. By this point we are rooting for faithful, hard-working Ruth and older, wealthy Boaz to get together. We don't want this next-of-kin guy messing things up. So, "Now this was the custom...: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other" may be a prettification. Could it be that the exchange of sandals, rather than "confirming a transaction" actually said something like, "You failed to live up to your obligations"? Or, "You fell down on your part of the bargain"? Or, "You dog!"
Remember: feet in scripture are a euphemism for genitals. Taking off the sandal was probably related to the custom of placing the hand "under the thigh" (near the family jewels) when swearing an oath. And the uncovering of the "feet" could be seen as shaming someone.
Any thoughts? Any other scripture passages that have to do with the exchange of shoes?
Or am I just avoiding my Christmas shopping?
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Sunday, December 14, 2008
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Beth sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the 9-foot-tall Douglas fir, a tiny plastic angel in her hand. Actually, the tiny plastic angel was literally in her hand: she was squeezing it so hard, a tiny, pointy wing had stabbed her, just a bit, and she had started to bleed. She sighed and tossed the angel into the bin containing the jumble of ornaments. This was not good. This was not the way it was supposed to be.
Beth knew how it was supposed to be. She had seen the commercials. Even though everyone else fast-forwarded through them now… she kept watching, like those rubber-neckers fascinated by a car crash on the highway. She watched even though, by every possible measure of what the whole world seemed to think was necessary for a perfect and joyful Christmas, she was lacking.
She mentally checked off the list of things she DIDN’T have: a family with two parents. Check. Not in this household. The two-point-seven children. Check. (How could ANYONE have 2.7 children? A blatant impossibility!) The dog! There was no dog. Beth frowned. She was the reason there was no dog. Her dad has asked her, would she like one? He thought it would be good for her, get her outside herself a little bit. No dog, Beth had said. She’d claimed it would be cruel to the animal, that it would be alone all day while she was in school and her dad was working. But the truth was, Beth just didn’t have it in her to worry about one more living thing. Worrying about her dad was pretty much a full-time job.
Since Eric had left, her dad had begun to sink into a depression. Beth knew the symptoms as well as any board certified psychiatrist. Change of appetite—her dad had dropped about twenty pounds, without even trying. Flat affect—that scarily empty look he had in his eyes sometimes, even though she could see he was trying to care. Inability to concentrate—she’d watched him sit with a book in his lap, open to the same page for more than an hour. Change in sleeping patterns—her dad, who used to be up at six to go running, would now sleep in on Saturdays and Sundays until noon, 1 PM, rousing himself occasionally to ask her if she needed anything, and then returning to bed. She’d started getting rides to church from other kids in the youth group, telling them her dad had to work Sundays. That was a less scary thought than her dad not being able to summon the energy to engage with her, with a community he loved, maybe even with God.
Beth had watched her dad’s long, slow slide into the dark pit, and she realized with a feeling that bordered on panic that she was powerless to stop it. With the coming of the Christmas season, suddenly, she had hit on what she needed to do: she needed to make her dad smile. She needed to bring joy back into their house. She needed… to feel like she could have some impact, make something happen. She needed to give her dad the perfect Christmas. She would start on Saturday.
But today had gone all wrong. First, the tree. It was tall, but it was scrawny. Just this side of “Charlie Brown Christmas tree” scrawny. Scrawny and expensive…as she’d dragged it more than a dozen blocks through the snowy streets, Beth calculated what she had left for presents. By the time she’d gotten home, her shoulders were aching, and her hands were cut and bleeding, and she was fretting about the measly amount of money in her pocket. Then there was the matter of the Christmas tree stand…
Three hours later, as the light was fading and her stomach was growling for having missed lunch, she had finally wrestled the monster into a stand and given it some water. She’d run to the attic to get the ornaments, and had begun the slow, painstaking process of sorting them out. She’d put on a CD of Christmas music she’d bought just for the occasion, and begun to untangle several strands of lights. Somewhere in the house her dad slept.
As the sky darkened outside, Beth had become aware of a tension in her neck and shoulders and jaw. The music, instead of soothing her, had jangled her nerves, and she abruptly snapped it off. The first strand of lights she plugged in didn’t work. The second did, but it was all blue. Did she want a tree with all blue lights? Something about it seemed almost too painfully appropriate… blue lights for her dad’s blue Christmas. The third strand of lights didn’t work. That was when she had plopped down on the floor, and absently picked up the tiny plastic angel with the sharp little wings.
O come O come Emmanuel. The lyrics to that melancholy hymn floated into her consciousness.
Beth was aware of a feeling of desperation growing in her. In the kitchen there was a sink full of dishes. In the refrigerator there was nothing for dinner except a couple of dried out pieces of pizza. And the tree was an abject failure. Tears began to sting her eyes.
Beth’s cell phone startled her out of her anxiety. Her ring tone was a song by Linkin Park:
I dreamed I was missing; You were so scared
But no one would listen, ‘Cause no one else cared…
It was Chelsea, one of the girls from church. “Hey Bethy, what are you doing?”
“Hi Chels, I’m, um, decorating a very lame, very unfortunate Christmas tree.” Beth hesitated, then she added, “My dad’s… working, so I was trying to have it done by the time he gets home.”
Chelsea crooned sympathetically. “Well, we were wondering where you were. Did you remember… we were going caroling tonight, to all the homebound people and stuff? We were meeting at the church at 5:30, cookies and hot chocolate later?”
Beth listened, squeezing her eyes shut. She had remembered. But she just couldn’t imagine leaving her dad alone in the house with the tree undone.
“Yeah, Chelsea, I don’t think I’m going to make it.” Her voice carried a ring of finality that anyone who knew her recognized as the signal to back off.
“Alright then. Hey, listen, we’ll see you tomorrow in church. Um… we’re giving you a ride, right?”
Beth got off the phone just as quickly as she could without being rude. She jumped to her feet. This was ridiculous. The only thing to do was get the stupid lights on the stupid tree and make it look halfway decent.
A few minutes later the small blue lights were shining through the fragrant branches of the Douglas fir. Beth wondered: did the lights make the tree smell even better? She thought so, but had no, you know, scientific proof of it. It was just a hunch. Then, for some weird reason, she felt guilty.
A hunger pang reminded her that lunch was now four hours overdue, so she went to the kitchen to grab a protein bar out of the cabinet. She pulled out two empty boxes and threw them in the recycling bin; well, if that’s what her dad was living on, she wasn’t going to have a fit about it. But she was still hungry. She opened the refrigerator and pulled out the least objectionable piece of pizza and threw it into the microwave. She leaned against the counter. Weariness overwhelmed her. Were 16-year-olds supposed to be this tired? She suspected not. But her life was made up of an impossibly long list of demands, most of which she put on herself, none of which she felt were within her power to actually accomplish. Tears started surfacing again, which only made her mad.
O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel; the lyrics kept worrying at her, playing at the back of her mind. “Captive.” Well, that was appropriate. She felt like a captive, a captive of a life she wasn’t sure she knew how to handle, had no idea how to get out of. She immediately felt a surge of guilt. She didn’t want to “get out of” her life. She just wondered… where was the joy? For her or for her dad? What was that next part of the song? Something about exiles, or people dying, Then, the part that confused her: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. So, with things so bad and mournful, how was anyone supposed to rejoice? Beth, frankly, didn’t get it. It made no sense.
She took the pizza back into the living room, and sat under the tree, chewing without tasting. She thought of her dad sleeping somewhere in the house—this had to be a world record of sleeping in, even for him. What was it, 4:30? She heard the strains of “Joy to the World,” and wondered… hadn’t she turned off that CD? Then she looked at the window, and realized… it was coming from outside. A flush began to rise in her cheeks. The caroling. They were here.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her king!
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing…
Beth stood and parted the filmy curtains covering the dining room picture window. There they were… about a dozen, mostly teenagers, some older, some younger, and two youth advisors. As Beth’s face appeared in the window, it was met with the splat of a snowball.
She laughed. She laughed, even though she didn’t really have anything to laugh about. She laughed because, she was, truly, Charlie Brown, and this was, truly, the worst Christmas tree she’d ever seen. And she laughed because she knew exactly what was going to happen next.
Her friends tumbling in the house, tracking muddy snow from their boots and leaving an avalanche of coats, scarves, hats and mittens by the door. Their descending on the box of Christmas ornaments like the proverbial plague of locusts, and finding the absolutely worst, most embarrassing items in there—the one made with a frozen juice can lid and macaroni, from second grade. Check. The one with her picture on it, complete with the haircut she hated and missing front teeth. Check. The one where she misspelled both “Merry” and “Christmas,” but managed to get “Daddy” right. Check. Out they all came, and onto the tree they all went, just like she knew it would happen. The pile of dishes from three days getting done as if by magic. Check. Even the two minute long conversation with Chelsea in which she said some things which kind of made sense:
You know you’re not responsible to make your dad happy, right?
And you know that everybody’s like praying for him and all, and he’s going to be ok, right?
Yeah (through the third bout of tears of the day).
And you know… you’re allowed to have some fun, even when things are hard, right?
Yeah. She knew. Just like she knew that these friends… they told her something about God and Christmas that had nothing to do with getting everything perfect and right, but had everything to do with unexpected love busting down your door and invading your house at just the right moment. Eventually the racket woke her dad—someone had put the CD back on at high volume, and a pizza guy had appeared at the door with two large cheese and one large half-pepperoni, half-sausage. And her dad stood around chatting with the youth group advisors in his sweats and rumpled t-shirt, looking halfway normal, despite all evidence to the contrary. “Thanks,” she breathed to herself, and then realized… it was a prayer. It all happened just like she knew it would, even her, bundling up at last in her own coat and hat and scarf and mittens, kissing her dad on the cheek, and going out into the frigid night to help sing some joy into someone else’s life.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Friday, December 12, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
There are comedic dreams and tragic dreams. Here is an example of the comedic. No matter what the difficulty or intensity of a nightmare, things come 'round right. Restoration after disaster brings laughter.
The prayer of the glass-half-full psalmist is that others who are tearful will find a way to see joy eventuating from their exile into dryness. There is a presumption of life being a comedy, not just because of the importance of timing (and what is Advent about but timing), but because difficulties are wonderfully resolved.
A question we are left with - what to do with a comedic dream in the presence of wide-awake tragedy? Do we step back from our disaster and trust a sweet by-and-by? Do we use the dream as motivation when there is not yet an armload of blessed sheaves to bring home? Do we dismiss the dream as "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato"?
What dream is holding you in the midst of economic uncertainty, political conspiracy, or on-going genocide? Might it hold something as unimaginable in daylight as a manger or a Baptizer John – both of which portend beyond current powers and processes?
This is VERY good stuff. Found him via The Text This Week (thanks TextWeek!).
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
I discovered Sufjan Stevens about three years ago, when I was trying out web radio stations... literally, I did this once, and the one time I did I heard his stunning song "Casimir Pulaski Day," and proceeded to purchase his entire ouevre on the strength of it.
I've had his Christmas collection (which I believe is made up of a bunch of EP's he made for family and friends) for about two years. It is made up of his eclectic renditions of familiar Christmas carols and hymns, along with many original compositions with titles like "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well You Deserved It)." This is one of my favorite Christmas carols from the collection, which he titles "What Child Is This, Anyway?" I love it because it sounds entirely ominous and threatening, which seems utterly in keeping with the apocalyptic flavor of many of the Advent readings.
The video is oddly compelling. It is simply a series of shots, with very minimal panning, of this house, in all kinds of light and all kinds of weather. I thought it would be boring, but taken together with the music, I find it creates a kind of dramatic tension and draws you in. I found myself assuming all kinds of personality attributes on the part of the house.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Oh, how I love the Christmas pageant! Especially since I am not now responsible for it. Other people with oodles more energy (and intelligence and imagination and love) for it than I step up to the plate to make it happen, and make it gorgeous, and I sit back and bask in the reflected glow of their hard work.
Today we had a pageant called "Away From the Manger." In other words, the excuses of Wise Men, Shepherds, Stars, Animals, and even (Petra in a real star-turn as) the Innkeeper's Wife... all of whom stayed away from the Christ Child, with their various excuses.
Shepherds: They're unionized. It's not in their job description.
Wise Men: They were attending a conference on "Celestial Bodies Signifying the Advent of the Messiah: Theoretical and Practical Applications."
Stars: Too shy. (Best moment: when they covered their faces with their points. Also, when, after taking their costumes off, they waved at their parents, because, you know, they couldn't recognize them in the star costumes.)
Animals: "We're not good enough. We're not good enough," in an eerie and disturbing chant.
Innkeeper's wife: Too busy getting ready for the holiday. She pulled out a rubber chicken (that she supposedly had to stuff and roast). Her best line (to the narrator, who has just expressed how nice it was that she allow that pregnant woman to use her barn): "There's a pregnant woman in my barn?"
(Petra also sang the Bach/ Gounod "Ave Maria," accompanied by a wonderful senior on the piano. Face hurt from beaming.)
All that plus communion! It was a good morning.
(To get your very own star costume, go to here.)
A couple of weeks ago I sent a press release to the woman who covers the feel-good stories in our local paper. The release was about our Longest Night Service, taking place in a couple of weeks (to coincide with that astronomical event, in fact). I suggested that, uh, maybe this would make a good story? Or not. Whatever.
She replied promptly, that she was already doing a story on this type of service, and she'd try to work a mention of St. Sociable into the story.
... To which I replied, "Excellent! Thanks so much! Please feel free to call if you'd like to discuss it further---" And that was it. No further contact, so I figured, maybe we'll be listed among the other services being offered.
Here's the beginning of today's piece:
Snowflakes and carols ramp up the holiday spirit for some people.
For others, such seasonal reminders only add to the weight of sadness.
Maybe they've lost a loved one, a job or a cherished pet. Maybe they have a son, daughter or spouse serving overseas. Maybe they're dealing with serious illness of the body -- or of the soul.
Whatever the reason for their heavy hearts, they're being thought of at this time and invited to services created just for them.
At 7 p.m. on the Sunday before Christmas, St. Sociable Presbyterian Church will host "The Longest Night: A Service for Those Who Are Struggling."
Harpist Brilliant Ethereal Friend, pianist Our Organist and singer Our Choir director will lead those gathered in prayer through music, in addition to scripture and contemporary readings, explains designated pastor Magdalene.
She points out another malady of the season: "It may be that our childhood memories of Christmas are particularly difficult because of family histories of addiction or abuse," she explains. "Or we may simply be overwhelmed by the onslaught of advertising and the constant pressure to spend, do, bake and buy."
Private prayer and anointing will be available, and clinicians from the St. Sociable-Affiliated Counseling Center will be nearby for individual conversation after the service.
Friday, December 05, 2008
Thursday, December 04, 2008
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
I have stumbled into Advent not really prepared.
Can I blame it on my gall bladder surgery?
Didn't think so.
Part of what is going on is lots of illness in the congregation. Illness means visits, and visits mean time not in the office writing sermons and preparing worship. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Being with people in these moments, in these transitions, is absolutely some of the best, holiest stuff I get to do. Still... I had that unsettled feeling on Sunday, that I was not quite on my game. And in addition to planning, you know, church every week (and trying to get a bit ahead of it as well), I am also working with folks to plan things for next year-- training for church officers, nominating committee matters, welcoming the new classes of deacons and elders. And then there are my Presbytery obligations (which are big).
It's a shame. I love this season, perhaps, more than any other in the year. I love how countercultural Advent is, asking us to-- repent, which is to say, turn away from the things that enslave us, bind us, keep us from being awake and fully present. I love Advent music... there are about six different recordings of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" that haunt me, and I play them rather than Christmas carols just as long as I possibly can.
I love the darkness of this time of year. So many people I know complain bitterly about the time change, when it is suddenly dark at 5 pm or even earlier. I love this, coming home in the dark even when it's early, the warmth of the lights inside the houses as I drive by.
I love the longing Advent evokes... the hope for we don't even know what, exactly. You don't have to be a churchy person to get that. We are all longing for something intangible and life-changing.
And I love my own Advent observances. My wreath (which is not yet). Lighting a candle and reading evening prayer (which I've done every night but last).
I suppose Advent is here whether I feel prepared or not, whether I feel "on top of it" or not. (Though, judging by the apocalyptic nature of all the readings, I suspect being "on top of it" is an illusion at best.)
Light the candles. Simmer down. Let it be what it is. That's the best I can do this year.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
1. Started my own blog
2. Slept under the stars
3. Played in a band
4. Visited Hawaii
5. Watched a meteor shower
6. Given more than I can afford to charity
7. Been to Disneyland/world
8. Climbed a mountain
9. Held a praying mantis
10. Sung a solo
11. Bungee jumped
12. Visited Paris
13. Watched lightning at sea
14. Taught myself an art from scratch
15. Adopted a child
16. Had food poisoning
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
18. Grown my own vegetables
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. Slept on an overnight train
21. Had a pillow fight
23. Taken a sick day when you’re not ill
24. Built a snow fort
25. Held a lamb
26. Gone skinny dipping
27. Run a Marathon
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset
31. Hit a home run
32. Been on a cruise
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person
34. Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
35. Seen an Amish community
36. Taught myself a new language
37. Had enough money to be truly satisfied
40. Seen Michelangelo’s David
41. Sung karaoke
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant
44. Visited Africa
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight
46. Been transported in an ambulance-- very recently
47. Had my portrait painted
48. Gone deep sea fishing
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. Kissed in the rain
53. Played in the mud
54. Gone to a drive-in theater
55. Been in a movie
56. Visited the Great Wall of China
57. Started a business
58. Taken a martial arts class
59. Visited Russia
60. Served at a soup kitchen
61. Sold Girl Scout Cookies
62. Gone whale watching
63. Got flowers for no reason
64. Donated blood, platelets or plasma
65. Gone sky diving
66. Visited a Nazi Concentration Camp
67. Bounced a check
68. Flown in a helicopter
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. Eaten Caviar
72. Pieced a quilt
73. Stood in Times Square
74. Toured the Everglades
75. Been fired from a job
76. Seen the Changing of the Guards in London
77. Broken a bone
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person
80. Published a book
81. Visited the Vatican
82. Bought a brand new car
83. Walked in Jerusalem
84. Had my picture in the newspaper
85. Read the entire Bible
86. Visited the White House
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating
88. Had chickenpox
89. Saved someone’s life
90. Sat on a jury
91. Met someone famous
92. Joined a book club
93. Lost a loved one
94. Had a baby
95. Seen the Alamo in person
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake
97. Been involved in a law suit
98. Owned a cell phone
99. Been stung by a bee
100. Ridden an elephant
November 30, 2008
First Sunday in Advent
Listen. Listen to the voice of the prophet. Something’s wrong. Something’s very wrong. Listen to the moan, the cry of distress that calls out from the pages of scripture in this morning’s reading.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence…! ~Isaiah 64:1-2
This is a desperate voice, a voice of one at the end of his rope. This is the voice of someone who is yearning for a change, a rescue, a complete reversal of fortunes. This is the voice of someone in need of a savior.
We are reading this morning from the second to last chapter in the book of Isaiah, a passage that dates to the time after the exile, when the people of Israel had returned home to Jerusalem. The whole time they had been in Babylon, all the people had thought and dreamed about was coming home. They imagined returning to their houses and their fields. They prayed about returning to their Temple. They dreamed about returning to life as they remembered it. But when they did come home, their dreams collided with stark reality, and the dissonance between them was heartbreaking. They found their city in a shambles; they found their Temple, the place where the very presence of the Lord God was supposed to dwell, a ruin. They were devastated. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
Looking at the world around us, I think it might be reasonable to come to the same conclusion. Something is very wrong. There is the wrath of nature: there are hurricanes and tsunamis. There are wildfires and earthquakes and floods. There is famine and disease. Hardly a Sunday goes by when one of these isn’t lifted up for our prayer. And then there is the suffering brought on by human behavior: We Americans watched in horror on Thanksgiving day as a terrorist siege unfolded in Mumbai, India. There are wars and rumors of wars. There is corruption and greed, about which the candidates spoke at length during the presidential campaign. There is tremendous fear and anxiety as our nation and the world seem to slip inexorably into recession. There is a grossly unfair allocation of resources that results in a tiny portion of the population hoarding the vast majority of the earth’s resources and wealth, while the vast majority of the population has to stretch and share our leftovers. And the term Black Friday, which normally indicates the hopes of retailers ending the year in black ink and not in red, took on a new, terrible meaning this week, as Christmas shopping turned deadly for at least three people. Something is wrong, very wrong.
And what about our own lives? We struggle every day with difficulties we know and difficulties we don’t know. We struggle with illness, with depression, with grief and loss. We struggle with job insecurity, and the constant battle to make ends meet. We struggle with the loss of friendships and relationships and lovers and spouses. We struggle with addiction. And these are things we know about. We struggle with the unknown too: with that 3 AM fear and anxiety that can’t even define itself. “We all fade like a leaf,” says the prophet, “and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64:6b). A poet put it like this:
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Something is wrong, very wrong. The prophet weeps and wails and wallows in the uncomfortable truth of Israel’s responsibility for the mess it is in. He acknowledges, not only the gap between where the people want to be and where they are, but the chasm between who they are as creatures and who God is as Creator. Given that chasm, the prophet gives voice to our yearning for the presence of a savior, the time when Someone will come in great majesty and splendor, with unmistakable power and force, tearing open the very heavens to set things right.
But listen. Listen, as something turns, something shifts for the prophet. And instead of big, scary, apocalyptic imagery, suddenly the scale is intimate and personal.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
We are the clay, and you are our potter.
We are all the work of your hand. ~Isaiah 64:8
Suddenly, instead of asking God to put on a big fireworks display, the prophet makes an appeal to closeness and intimacy. This voice in distress is talking about presence. He is talking about relationship. The image of God as potter and God’s people as the clay breaks this passage open. It takes us into new territory. No longer are we talking about God bursting in from outside the established order of things. Instead, God is invited in.
What does it mean if God is the potter and we are the clay?
If God is the potter then God touches us. We are not alone, we are not left on our own. It is not the case that God is “up there” and we are “down here.” God is in contact with us. God has God’s hands on us. We are made warm just resting in God’s hands.
If God is the potter, then God wants to shape us. God wants to use the events of our lives—our homes, our upbringing, our work, our relationships, our choices—to shape us, to mold and fashion us.
If God is the potter, then God wants to make something useful and beautiful from us, and it is not entirely up to us to determine just what that is. The potter works with care and precision to make us into exactly who he wants us to be.
If God is the potter then God might need to place us in the fire in order to make us strong and durable. No one wants to be in the fire. It hurts. It burns. There’s a lot of smoke in there, and it’s hard to see. But when we come out of the fire we can be stronger, even more useful, even more beautiful than when we went in.
If God is the potter, then, from time to time, God has to deal with the issue of broken pieces of pottery. This is not a problem for the potter. No vessel is beyond rescue. Once the pottery is broken it can be mixed in with clay that is still soft, it can be molded once again. If God is the potter, then we are never beyond God’s skill to create with us.
What really strikes me about the prophet’s turn from wanting God to tear open the heavens to calling upon God as potter is that it seems to get to the true root of the problem. The problems of the world are the problems of people—individual people. People called upon to join in community, yes. People called into covenant with God, yes. People joined to one another by virtue of their shared humanity as well as by virtue of the One who created them, yes. But individuals nonetheless. And the cataclysmic changes we are yearning for God to make all start with changes of heart, and changes of mind.
There is a song played at the end of a movie I love, a movie in which a sort of hapless guy looks for help from without—big, cosmic help—only to understand at the end that the help he needs is to be found deep within. The song asks,
Did you ever think
There might be another way
To just feel better
Just feel better about today
Ultimately the song concludes,
If you want to be somebody else
If you're tired of fighting battles with yourself
If you want to be somebody else
Change your mind...
This is the wisdom of the ages, from the prophets of ancient Israel to Jesus to Alcoholics Anonymous. We are all looking for the fix from outside—the pill, the job, the diet, the lottery ticket, the person who will make us just feel better about it all, especially about ourselves. But the wisdom of the ages tells us that the God who comes—the savior who is perfectly capable of tearing open heavens, clouds, car doors and all the rest of it—prefers instead to work on us quietly, diligently, hands-on, like the potter at the wheel.
I think we are yearning for the presence of God, not just to tear open the heavens, but to reach into our hearts. Yes, something is wrong. We are homesick in our homes, and strangers under the sun. And no one knows how or when the sun will be darkened, when the stars begin to fall in our eyes and our souls. We might not witness a savior tearing open the heavens. But we will meet God in the still and quiet places within. We, the clay, will meet the potter, to the extent we are willing to entrust ourselves to be held, and to be handled. We will meet God, as we allow ourselves to be molded and to be shaped. We will meet God, who will knead our broken and fragmented selves together again, who will hold and mold us tenderly, who will welcome us home at last. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Gilbert Keith Chesterton, “The House of Christmas.”
 “Change Your Mind” by Sister Hazel, used in the film Bedazzled.