Friday, December 15, 2017

Poetry Friday: "Advent Alienation"

Writing time is short this morning.  I was looking for an Advent poem to post, and I found one that I forgot writing.  The properties function tells me that I wrote it in 2011.  The details in the poem remind me of the times when my suburban church went to the inner city church to help serve meals, so 2011 seems about the right time.

I think it holds up well.  It's published for the first time here:

Advent Alienation

We prepare the royal highway
by going to the inner city
church to serve dinner to the homeless.

I serve pie with whipped cream,
coffee for a cold night. I pass
out scarves crocheted by comfortable women.

A voice cries out to the concrete canyons
of the city, “God knew
you before he created the Cosmos.”

Then the man slips back into slurry
speech, muttering incoherently about marriage
and wanting a glass of wine.

He says that the angels
will kiss his cheeks in Paradise,
and I’ll be present.

Not fully present now, I think
of my children safe at home,
my husband there to tuck them into bed.

I think of our roof with its leak
which seems insolvable,
but now I’m grateful for a roof of any kind.

I think of presents left to wrap,
a tree to decorate, a few last hectic
days at work, and a trip home.

I bless us all, gathered
in the chapel for Vespers, resident
aliens in this land of gaudy wealth.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Elizabeth's Song

She knows the angel Gabriel would never appear to her. 

She is the one peering through the window, seeing others receive miraculous news.

No longer is she clay, waiting to be shaped:

She is in the autumn of her life, as the season begins the shift to winter.

Her body swells with the weight gain from medication, with arthritis in joints she never thought about as a younger woman.

She will plant the bulbs, as she has done every autumn.

In the Spring, she will stay alert for the first blooms.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Feast Day of Santa Lucia

December 13 is the day that Scandinavian countries celebrate Santa Lucia day, or St. Lucy's day. There will be special breads and hot coffee and perhaps a candle wreath, for the head or for the table.

 The feast day of Santa Lucia is one that’s becoming more widely celebrated. Is it because more Midwestern Scandinavian descendents are moving to other climates? Are we seeing a move towards celebrating saints in Protestant churches? Or is it simply a neat holiday which gives us a chance to do something different with our Sunday School programming and Christmas pageant impulses?

I first heard about St. Lucia Day at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia day procession when I was in my early teen years. The grown ups placed a wreath with candles on my head and lit the candles. The younger children carried their candles. I walked up the church aisle and held my head very still.

I still remember the exhilarating feeling of having burning candles near my hair. I remember hot wax dripping onto my shoulders--I was wearing clothes and a white robe over them, so it didn't hurt.

It felt both pagan and sacred, that darkened church, our glowing candles. I remember nothing about the service that followed.

A year or two later, Bon Appetit ran a cover story on holiday breads, and Santa Lucia bread was the first one that I tried.

A picture from that cover story

What a treat. For years, I told myself that baking holiday breads was a healthy alternative to baking Christmas cookies--but then I took a long, hard look at the butterfat content of each, and decided that I was likely wrong. I also decided that I didn’t care.

 I still bake that bread every year, and if you’d like to try, this blog post will guide you through it. If you’re the type who needs pictures, it’s got a link to a blog post with pictures.

As a feminist scholar and theologian, I’ve grown a bit uncomfortable with virgin saints, like Santa Lucia. Most sources say we don’t know much about her, which means that all sorts of traditions have come to be associated with her. Did she really gouge out her eyes because a suitor commented on their beauty? Did she die because she had promised her virginity to Christ? Was she killed because the evil emperor had ordered her to be taken to a brothel because she was giving away the family wealth? We don’t really know.

 The lives of these virgin saints show us how difficult life is in a patriarchal regime. It’s worth remembering that many women in many countries don’t have any more control over their bodies or their destinies than these long-ago virgin saints did. In this time of Advent waiting, we can remember that God chose to come to a virgin mother who lived in a culture that wasn’t much different than Santa Lucia’s culture.

 Or we can simply enjoy a festival that celebrates light in a time of shadows.

I love our various festivals to get us through the dark of winter. When I lived in colder, darker places, I wished that the early church fathers had put Christmas further into winter, when I needed a break. Christmas in February makes more sense to me, even though I understand how Christmas ended up near the Winter Solstice.

 So, happy Santa Lucia day! Have some special bread, drink a bracing hot beverage, and light the candles against the darkness.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 17, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Psalm: Psalm 126

Psalm (Alt.): Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Today's Gospel returns us to John the Baptist. John proves to be such a compelling figure that the religious people in charge try to determine who he is. This interchange between John and the priests and Levites fascinates me. I love that John knows who he is, but he's not interested in explaining himself to institutional figures. Still he'll answer their questions.

One answer in particular keeps banging around my brain: "I am not the Christ" (verse 20). Some interpretations have him say, "I am not the Messiah." He's also not Elijah, not the prophet. When asked to explain himself more fully, he refers to Isaiah: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' . . ." (verse23).

The first lesson from Isaiah seems more appropriate as a mission for the modern Christian, with its language of binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and comforting those who mourn. We are to be a garland, instead of ashes, to be the oil of gladness.

And yet, some days I feel it might be easier to be one of those old-fashioned Christians, who have the mission of telling everyone that Jesus loves them. And of course, the next question from many people would be, "Yeah? How does that change anything?"

And during times when I feel despair, either because of the brokenness that I witness all around me or the larger evils that I see in society, I see their point.  It's easy to get bogged down in that despair.

The message of today's Gospel is that we must be careful to remember that we are not the Christ. There are days when I shake my head and think, "I've been working on hunger issues most of my whole life: writing letters to legislators, giving away money, working in food banks. Why isn't this issue solved yet? How long will it take?"

I must practice saying, "I am not the Messiah." That doesn't mean I'm off the hook in terms of my behavior. I can't say, "I am not the Messiah," and stay home and watch reruns of The Simpsons and do nothing about injustice in the world.

But I am not the Messiah. We struggle against a huge domination system, as Walter Wink termed it. The lives of John the Baptist and Jesus serve as cautionary tales to me, when I get too impatient with how long it takes for the arc of history to bend towards justice (Martin Luther King's wording). They struggled against injustice and died in the maw of the system they worked to dismantle.

This week I shall practice a John the Baptist approach. I will recognize the importance of making the pathways straight, while continuing to insist, "I am not the Christ."

Monday, December 11, 2017

Can We All Have a Benedict Option?

I've spent the last week and a half reading Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option.  It's strange to read a book where I agree with the basic premise, but I disagree with lots of the reasoning that Dreher takes to get there.

Dreher summarizes the recent status of Christians (right at the turn of the 20th to the 21st century):  "We seemed to be content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing its sense of what it means to be Christian" (p. 2).  Dreher claims that the culture has now become toxic for Christians--for all of us really--and that the only option is to strategically withdraw.

Some of us will physically withdraw by choosing to live in intentional community with others.  Some of us will withdraw by not participating--either widely or at all.  Some of us will withdraw periodically.

So far, so good.  But he comes at all of this from a conservative, orthodox position.  I suspect that some of our peace and justice ideas would intersect, but he's got a much more extreme view of gender issues and sexual identity issues than I'm comfortable with.  Many of our views on the education system sound similar, but I suspect that he and I would design very different curriculums.  I didn't find much to disagree with on the topic of technology:  he says that we must be very careful not to let our plastic brains be shaped by our smartphones.

Even though I disagreed with some of his points, he wasn't dreadful in making them.  He wasn't hateful, for example, in his rejection of homosexuality--but he was firm about the idea of sexual fidelity, and that sexuality must be limited to a one man/one woman option.

It was a good exercise for me--I do realize how seldom I read deeply when the author and I are in substantial disagreement.  And this book was interesting:  to see how the idea of monasticism could shape Christians in such different ways.  Dreher gives a solid summary of monastic movements, so even those who aren't familiar with monasticism will be able to navigate this book.

I'm glad that I didn't buy the book, but I'm glad to have read it.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The House of the Tabletop Christmas Trees

A Jew, a Hindu and a Wiccan all come to the House of Tabletop Christmas Trees.  It sounds like the set up for a joke, but it's what happened yesterday when I hosted my quilt group.  I thought I might be the only one who celebrates Christmas, but while I am the only practicing Christian, we all observe Christmas to some extent.

I even got out my small collection of Christmas dishes.  Long, long ago, I had a group of grad school friends who gathered each Saturday to stitch.  One year we went to a house where we had cappuccino served in glass Christmas mugs, which I thought was the epitome of festiveness.  Years later, when I saw a similar set at an after-Christmas sale at Williams-Sonoma, I snatched it right up.  I have a set of 4 dessert plates, and 2 non-matching larger plates with a Christmas tree.

Now that I'm in a much smaller house, I question the wisdom of having stuff designed for just one season--but for now, I still have them, and it makes me happy to use them. 

While we were gathered, a cold front came through--with rain and gloominess, so it was great to be inside.  Last night, it was too chilly to linger long on the front porch.

It is hard to believe that two weeks from now will be Christmas Eve.  I always say that my favorite time of year is mid-September until late December:  so many great holidays, so many reasons to feel festive, such a welcome changes of weather (back and forth, from summer to winter and points in between), and so many memories.

Only yesterday have I found time to sit and listen to a whole Christmas CD.  It was great to have time to sit and catch up with friends, while listening to Christmas music.  While others feel sad that I don't have a traditional tree, like past years, I am happy that in every direction I look, a tree twinkles at me.

In past years, I've made use of Christmas greenery, and often ended the Christmas season with an oozy, goopy eye.  I'm allergic to pine, and last year, we spent every evening on the porch, surrounded by pine boughs.  By Christmas, I could hardly see out of my eye, my allergic reaction was so bad.

This year, I bought small rosemary bushes cut in a Christmas tree shape for the front porch.  So far this season, my eye is fine.

I can't say the same for my eating healthy goals.  On Friday, at our Holiday Open House Meet and Greet, I ate far too many cookies from Trader Joe's.  I bought them because I am usually not interested in mass produced cookies, but they were surprisingly delicious.

Ah well, far too soon it will be time to get back to more sensible ways.  Still let me look for ways to insert some sanity into my work days this week--we don't have any festive events at work this week.

Let us take some time today, before the holidays' hectic schedule completely overtakes us, to sit and contemplate the beauty and the mystery of the season.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Virgin Mary and the Discount Store

I saw the Virgin Mary outside of Marshalls last night.  She was feeding a bottle to a baby in a carriage.  In broken English, she asked for help for her baby.  I guessed that her native language was Italian, but it might have easily been Spanish or a language from the countries near the Holy Land.

No, I haven't lost my mind.  I am working on an idea for a poem.  But the above incident did happen--I did see a young woman in the shadows beside the entrance of Marshalls.  I smiled at her, even though I knew I might be inviting further interaction.  I would likely have smiled anyway, but in the season of Advent, with the Advent texts in my head, there was this strange moment when I thought about the Virgin Mary and angel messengers.

But of course, my encounter was more mundane.

She did ask me for money.  I don't often give away money (in fact, I rarely have cash), but there's something about a person with a child that can move me to give--and yes, I know that's easy to manipulate.  I know that there might be a man somewhere who drops the woman and baby off at a shopping center and says, "Don't come back until you get x amount of money."
But last night, I had a 10 dollar bill in my purse, which I gave her.  She said, in broken English, "But diapers cost $25 a box."
I said, "That's all the cash I have.  At least you now have more than you had."
Do I regret giving her the money?  No.  I suspect it will go to something for the baby, not for drugs or alcohol, the usual reason I don't give when I have cash.  But it did make me feel incredibly sad, this woman begging outside a discount store that has tons of deeply discounted clothes from past seasons.  It makes me feel sad knowing that harder times are surely coming for people in poverty.
And my brain immediately started crafting a poem.