Saturday, December 20, 2014

Zen/Lutheran Kristin Tries to Stay in the Christmas/Advent Moment

I find myself fighting back the blues this time of year.  It should be the happiest time of the year, as the Christmas season is my favorite time.  I should be honest--it's the time leading up to Christmas that I like best.  But already, I'm thinking of all I will be missing in January.  And I'm haunted by Christmases Yet to Come, when loved ones won't be here.

I summon my best Zen Kristin, trying to live in the present moment and not get swamped by the past or sunk by the future.  I am not talented at being Zen Kristin.

This year, when I feel pangs ("Oh no, by this time two weeks from now, all the Christmas lights will be gone!"), I use those feelings as a reminder to appreciate Christmas elements now, while they're here.

So, I've been making a concentrated effort to go out on a walk every night.  We choose a different street and go out to enjoy the lights. 

Instead of trying to bake every Christmas treat I've ever loved, I've relished the Christmas cookies I made for the cookie exchange and the bet I lost.  Will I make more before the season is over?  Maybe.  But if I don't, that's OK.  I can always make them in March, for an out-of-season treat.

I've accepted that I won't play every Christmas CD that we own.  That's OK.  It will be a future Christmas season before we know it, and I'll play them then.  I've been trying to remember to play them when we're home.

We don't really have space for a big tree, so this year, I bought several smaller trees.  Wherever I turn, a tree twinkles at me.  The lights are what I like best.

However, last year I really missed seeing our collection of ornaments.  So this year, they're displayed in a different way.  I have a big bowl of glass ornaments.  I have some ornaments that my grandmother made out of yarn and plastic canvas--I put them on the ledge of the non-functioning aquarium that's built into a wall.  For a time, I tried to buy a Christmas ornament during every trip.  Now I've hung them over knobs and put them on shelves.  Every time I turn around, I see evidence of a good life, both mine and others.

When it's time to put these things away, I'll miss them--but part of what makes them so special is that they're not on display year round. 

And because I'm a Lutheran, I try to stay cognizant of the fact that we're actually in the season of Advent, while I'm enjoying the Christmas elements.  And so, we light the Advent wreath and keep it on display in the center of the dining room table to remind us that we're in the season of Advent.  I read the Advent texts, which keeps me centered.  I light the candles to watch for the Messiah--or in my case, I plug in the lights for the little Christmas trees that I have while singing an Advent song.

In a few days, it will be time to shift into high gear in terms of Christmas season.  And when it's over, I'll try to come down gently.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

One Week Until Christmas, Thinking About Joseph


 I have done some thinking of Joseph, as many of us do, in the Advent season.  He thinks of quietly unweaving himself from Mary, who is pregnant.  This behavior is our first indication of his character.  Under ancient law, he could have had Mary stoned to death, but he takes a gentler path.

And then, he follows the instructions of the angel who tells him of God's plan.  He could have turned away.  He could have said, "I did not sign up for this!"  He could have said, "No thanks.  I want a normal wife and a regular life."

Instead, he turned towards Mary and accepted God's vision.  He's there when the family needs to flee to Egypt.  He's there when the older Jesus is lost and found in the temple.  We assume that he has died by the time Christ is crucified, since he's not at the cross.

When I was a teenager, our discussions of Joseph, if they happened at all, revolved around how it must have felt to have raised a child that wasn't his.  As I look back, I think about how many of the fathers around us were doing just that, as it was the 1970's and early 80's, that time when so many families split apart and reconfigured into different families.  But none of us grew up saying, "I hope I'm a really good stepparent some day."

Many of us grow up internalizing the message that if we're not changing the world in some sort of spectacular way, we're failures.  Those of us who are Christians may have those early disciples as our role models, those hard-core believers who brought the Good News to the ancient world by going out in pairs. 

But Joseph shows us a different reality.  It's quite enough to be a good parent.  It's quite enough to have an ordinary job.  It's quite enough to show up, day after day, dealing with both the crises and the opportunities.

Joseph reminds us that even the ones born into the spotlight need people in the background who are tending to the details.  When we think about those early disciples and apostles, we often forget that they stayed in people's houses, people who fed them and arranged speaking opportunities for them, people who gave them encouragement when their task seemed too huge, people who gave money.

I imagine Joseph doing much the same thing, as he helped Jesus become a man.  I imagine the life lessons that Joseph administered as he gave Jesus carpentry lessons.  I imagine that he helped Jesus understand human nature, in all the ways that parents have helped their offspring understand human nature throughout history.

Let us not be so quick to discount this kind of work.  Let us praise the support teams that make the way possible for the people who will change the world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, December 21, 2014:

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

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

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Today we get to one of the more familiar Advent stories, one of the ones we expect to be hearing. We may say, “Thank goodness! I’m tired of John the Baptist. I can relate to Mary.”

Can we relate to Mary? Two thousand years of Church tradition tend to paint her in terms that serve whatever purpose society needed at the time. So in some decades we see Mary a perfect woman, sinless and blameless, the kind of woman who transcends humanity and gives birth to the Lord. Some decades write Mary out of the picture once the work in the stable is done, while other decades depict her as an interfering mother—the first helicopter parent!

We’ve heard the story of Mary so many times that we forget how remarkable it really is. We forget how bizarre the story told by the angel Gabriel must seem. A young girl growing God in her womb? A post-menopausal woman conceiving? It’s all too much to fathom.

I always wonder if there were women who sent Gabriel away: "I'm going to be the mother of who? It will happen how? Go away. I don't have time for this nonsense. If God wants to perform a miracle, let God teach my children not to track so much dirt into this house."

We won't ever hear about those women, because they decided that they didn't want to be part of God's glorious vision.

It’s important, too, to notice that God’s glorious vision doesn’t always match the way we would expect God to act. We see a history of God choosing the lowly, the meek, the outcast. Moses the stutterer, David the cheater, Peter the doubter. What business school would endorse this approach to brand building?

But our Scriptures remind us again and again that God works in mystical ways that our rational brains can’t always comprehend. If God can accomplish great things by means of a young woman, a barren woman, a variety of wandering preachers and prophets, tax collectors and fisherman, just think what God might accomplish with all of our gifts and resources.

Of course, first we have to hear that message, that invitation from God. It’s hard for this message to make its way through all the fear-based messages beamed to us from our culture. The angel tells Mary not to be afraid, and that is a message we need to hear. Don't dance with your dread. Don't keep company with your fears, your worst case scenarios. Dream big. Think of the world God promises (read further in Luke): God will fill the hungry with good things. The one who is mighty does great things for the lowly.

 We have much to fear, but we’re not that different from past cultures. The ancient prophets move me to tears with the promise of the building up of the ancient ruins, the raising up the former devastations, the repair the ruined cities (last week’s Isaiah reading) and the establishment of a throne established forever for a God who wants to dwell with us (this week’s reading from 2 Samuel).

Our culture gives us stories of terrorists and falling currencies and agents of the government who torture in all sorts of ways. Our Scriptures tell us of a God that breaks into our normal lives to remind us that God is redeeming creation even if we aren’t aware of that process. Our prophets remind us that ruin doesn’t have to last forever. Gabriel gives the promise that nothing is impossible with God.

Now, that is Good News indeed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Main Dish Recipe for Busy December Days

Perhaps you are like me, a tad exhausted from all the grading you've been doing at the same time you've been fighting off a cold at the same time you've had an uptick in delightful activities.

Perhaps you have an event to attend, a potluck, and you know that everyone will be bringing cookies and someone should bring something with nutritive value.  Maybe your household needs something for dinner with nutritive value, something that will provide sturdy leftovers to take with you for lunch the next day.

But maybe you don't feel like cooking--yet you also don't feel like having one more restaurant meal or one more assemblage of take out food or one more chicken from the deli.  You need a recipe that doesn't involve much more effort than opening jars and packages and dumping them together.

I have just the recipe.  I first discovered it in Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu Cookbook, which my mom and dad gave me for Christmas in 1988 or 1989.  It's infinitely adaptable:   if you have a different size jar, that will work; if you don't have an ingredient, no problem; if you only have 12 oz. of pasta or if you don't have time to marinate, that's cool.

Pasta with Marinated Vegetables

Feel free to adapt the following list to your own tastes and what you can find/afford.  Combine the following in a bowl and marinate several hours or overnight or not at all:

1-2 jars or cans of artichoke hearts
1 pound of sliced mushrooms
1-2 packages of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced if large
1-2 jars of roasted red peppers (or roast your own, if you have time)
1 C. (or more or less) sliced black olives (any type works, from gourmet to regular)
1 tsp. (or more or less) of the following:  oregano, basil,
several cloves minced garlic or a sprinkle of garlic powder/salt
1/3 C. olive oil
2-4 T. balsamic or red wine vinegar

When you're ready to assemble, boil a pound of pasta, something smallish, like shells or penne.  Drain when done and mix with the veggies.  You can top with grated parmesan cheese if you wish and if you're serving hot.

Tastes great at room temperature and straight out of the refrigerator.  In terms of food safety, it's perfectly safe to leave it on a buffet table for hours at a time or to take it for lunch and to leave it at room temperature for the day.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Prayers for the Broken

On Friday night, on the way back from the Broward Chorale concert, my spouse rolled down his window to talk to one of the homeless men with a cardboard sign asking for money at an intersection.  He said, "I don't have any cash.  But if you tell me your name, I'll pray for you."

The homeless man said, "Really?  You would do that?"

My spouse said yes, the man gave his name, and then the light changed.  We've prayed for that man, and the woman and her kids about to lose their house that my spouse met at a different intersection, all week-end.

I wish I could do more to change the social structures that lead to homelessness, more than just supporting Habitat for Humanity. I wish I could magically provide more mental health counseling and job training and cheaper housing--where did I put that magic wand?

Of course, I don't have a magic wand.  And prayer is not a magic wand, not in the way I'd like it to be:  wave it and problems disappear.

So, I make contributions to Habitat and donations of other things and I pray and I watch and I make eye contact and I give granola bars to the people on the street corners. And I pray some more.

Our Advent messages remind us to stay alert.  The texts from Isaiah give us the prophet's vision of a world where the brokenhearted will be healed, where the crooked pathways will be made straight.  It's a prophecy that seems especially visionary in the dark days of December.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Lights 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. 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.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Angel Gabriel in Miami

Last night at a gallery show (see this post for details about the show), a colleague friend asked me about the writing that I was doing.  I told her about the short story I wrote and the poem I was working on.  I said, "The angel Gabriel goes to Miami . . ."

Her eyes lit up, and we had a great conversation about where we expect to find God and where the Bible tells us we'll find God.  She has a more traditional approach to the idea of sin than I do, and we talked about Miami as a place of sin.

My poem has Gabriel skeptical about finding a virgin in Miami.  I had been thinking about Mary as the mother of Jesus, and how God finds a mother in the most unlikely place:  not the power centers of the time, but a rural outpost of the empire.  What would be an unlikely place to find a means of grace in our modern culture?  A strip club?  A group of drug runners?

But maybe those are too traditional.  Maybe the angel Gabriel would find Mary in a real estate developer's office.  Maybe at the school board.  I'll keep playing with this idea.

When it's been awhile since I've written a poem, or when I feel like I have no ideas, I return to the stories of the Bible or mythology or literature.  I update them or take the characters and insert them elsewhere.

Here's an example, which was published in Chiron Review. Those of you who have been following my poems will see a familiar theme--the answer to that old Sunday School question of how the world would react if Jesus returned again and what would Jesus do and how would we recognize him?

Here's the poem:


New Kid

If Jesus came to your high school,
he'd be that boy with the untuned guitar,
which most days was missing a string.
Could he not afford a packet of guitar strings?
Did he not know how to tune the thing?
Hadn't he heard of an electronic tuner?
Jesus would smile that half smile and keep playing,
but offer no answers.

If Jesus came to your high school,
he'd hang out with the strange and demented.
He'd sneak smokes with the drug addled.
He'd join Chorus, where the otherworldly
quality of his voice wouldn’t quite blend.
He'd play flute in Band.
He'd spend his lunch hour in the library, reading and reshelving.

You would hear his songs echoing
in your head, down the hallways, across the years.
They'd shimmer at you and just when you thought you grasped
their meaning, your analytical processes would collapse.
Instead, you write strange poems
to delight your children who draw mystical
pictures to illustrate your poems inspired
by Jesus, who sang the songs of angels,
that year he came to your high school.