Monday, December 31, 2012

Setting Spiritual Goals: 2013

Today, as the rest of the world plans to lose 10/20/30 pounds in 2013 and exercise more and eat better, let us think about our spiritual goals for 2013.

Some prompts to get you thinking about your spiritual goals for the coming year:


--It's Dec. 31, 2013, and you look back over the past year. What aspect of your spiritual life has brought you the most joy?  What practice has helped you feel closer to God?

--What new spiritual activities do you hope to try during 2013?

--What spiritual activities do you miss? Choose one that you miss the most or one that's easiest for you to do in your current life. How could you do this activity quarterly during 2013?

--It's Dec. 31, 2018. What's your biggest spiritual development since 2012? What's your biggest surprise?

--What small steps can you take that will shift your trajectory towards the life that God wants you to have?

--What are habits that you need to work on changing so that you're not undercutting your efforts?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Feast Day of the Holy Family

Today is the Feast Day of the Holy Family.  A year ago, I created a photo essay with this post.

Here are some highlights from that post:

"It's interesting to take up this feast day after all these days where we've celebrated Mary, and her decision to be the Mother of Jesus.  It's a great counterpoint to remember that fathers have a role in the family too."

Here is a prayer I wrote for this day and posted last year:


Parent God, you know the many ways our families can fail us. Please remind us of the perfection in family that we are called to model. Please give us the strength and fortitude to create the family dynamics you would have us enjoy. Please give us the courage to minister to those who have not had good family experiences. And most of us, please give us the comfort of knowing that the restoration of creation is underway, with families that will be whole, not fractured, when all our members will be accounted for, when no one will go missing.





Friday, December 28, 2012

The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

I first wrote this post last year.  A more reflective piece should be appearing soon at the Living Lutheran site, if it hasn't already posted.

In the meantime, here's last year's post:

Today we remember the slaughter of all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem in the days after the birth of Jesus. Why were they killed? Because of Herod's feelings of inadequacy, because of his fear. Today we might say, "What an idiot that Herod was!" And yet, if you look around, you'll see that we haven't really grown that much as a people.


We are still likely to respond to our feelings of inadequacy with lethal force. Instead of saying, "How interesting," we say, "How stupid!" And then we go to great lengths to prove that we're right, and whatever is making us feel inadequate is wrong.

So often, in my adult life, I feel like I will never escape middle school. I remember middle school as a particular kind of hell, where the boundaries were always fluid. Kids who were acceptable one day were pariahs the next. Middle school bodies are always changing, and middle school children are under assault from their own hormones, from the changing expectations of adults, from their bodies that take up space differently each day, from an increased school work load, from the crisis that comes out of nowhere to undo all the hard work done.

Adult life can sometimes feel the same way. We fight to achieve equilibrium, only to find it all undone. Most of us don't have the power that Herod does, so our fight against powerlessness doesn't end in corpses. But it often results in a world of outcasts and lone victors.

Of course, the paragraphs above are not meant to downplay the physical deaths that can happen when the powerful lash out against the powerless. We live in a world where dictators can efficiently kill their country's population by the thousands or greater. There's never a good reason for genocide. Yet the twentieth century will be remembered for all the genocides that took place, the ones we knew about and the slaughters that we likely didn't.

On this day, we also remember the flight into Egypt, the Holy Family turned into refugees. We remember the Holy Family fleeing in Terror, with only the clothes on their backs. Today is a good day to pray for victims of terror everywhere, the ones that get away, the ones that are slaughtered.

Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime: "We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you , in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Feast Day of St. John

Today, we celebrate the life of the only one of the original 12 disciples die of natural causes in old age. Tradition tells us that John was first a disciple of John the Baptist, and then a disciple of Christ, the one who came to be known as the beloved disciple, the one tasked with looking after Mary, the mother of Jesus.


There is much debate over how much of the Bible was actually written by this disciple. If we had lived 80 years ago, we'd have firmly believed that the disciple wrote the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation. Twentieth century scholars came to dispute this belief, and if you do scholarly comparison, you would have to conclude that the same author could not have written all of those books.

Regardless, most of us remember St. John as the disciple who spent a long life writing and preaching. He's the patron saint of authors, theologians, publishers, and editors. He's also the patron saint of painters.

Today, as many of us may be facing a bit of depression or cabin fever, perhaps we can celebrate the feast of St. John with a creative act. Write a poem about what it means to be the beloved disciple. Write a letter to your descendents to tell them what your faith has meant to you. Paint a picture--even if you can't do realistic art, you could have fun with colors as you depict the joy that Jesus brings to you.

Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime: "Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 30, 2012:


First Reading: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Colossians 3:12-17

Gospel: Luke 2:41-52

How quickly the children grow up! Could this Jesus in Sunday's Gospel really be the same baby we just saw in the manger? Can this boy be the same Jesus we'll be meeting soon? We spend so little time with Jesus as a young boy that it's strange to get these glimpses.

Those of you who live around teenagers will probably find the Jesus in Sunday's Gospel familiar. He's so self-absorbed. He doesn't worry about his parents' feelings and anxieties. And yet, he's mostly obedient, mostly a good kid.

We think of Jesus as a special case. We tend to focus on his divine aspects and overlook the human ones. Yet any child arrives with his or her own agenda. In the end, most children are a bit of a mystery. We wonder where they get that quirky sense of humor, or those interests that are so unlike any others in the family. If we're honest, most of us have moments, maybe quite a lot of them, where we wish those children would just conform, just be the little people we wish they would be.

The relationship that Mary and Joseph had with Jesus was no different. We might protest, "But Mary and Joseph knew that he was special!" Every parent feels exactly the same way: this child is born for greatness. Yet in how many ways our children will break our hearts.

And it often starts with education. Notice that Jesus has ditched his parents to stay behind with teachers and scholars. He has his own business, and Mary has her wishes, and they will likely clash. Read Mark's Gospel (go ahead, it's short, it won't take you long), and you'll get a different view of Mary and her view of the mission of Jesus; she's not always happy, and in several places indicates that Jesus is embarrassing the family.

But in the end, this week's Gospel is also a story of nurture. God comes to be with us in human form, and not just grown-up, self-sufficient form. God becomes the most vulnerable of creatures, a baby, and thus becomes, the second-most vulnerable, a teenager. Those of you who struggle with a teenager may not find comfort from the Good Friday outcome of this story. But maybe you can find comfort from the fact that even Jesus could be a pain-inducing teenager.

And we all can find comfort from this chapter in the Christmas story. Hear the Good News again. God comes to be with us, in all of our brokenness. God loves us in spite of, because of our brokenness. God lives with and mingles in our human messiness. We might even say that God glories in our messiness, that out of our messiness salvation comes.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mary's Sonogram

This time of year often takes me back to the days of my sister's sonogram.  Not the routine holiday memory, I know.

I didn't actually see the sonogram in December of 2005, but we were in the area, and the whole family went out to dinner on the night that she had it.  I think the grandparents were allowed to be in the room during the sonogram too, if they promised to keep the gender a secret.

We travelled to the dinner after the sonogram with my parents.  It was just a few days before Christmas, so we had the Advent narrative ringing in our heads:  the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, her response.  I remember my father saying, "What if sonograms had been invented then?  What if Mary could have had a sonogram to see Jesus before he was born?"

That idea haunted my head for weeks, and I began to fashion it into a poem.  I worried that it might seem irreverent, disrespectful of both Mary and all parents.  But I think that some of the best poems feel dangerous in that way.

On Christmas Eve, my thoughts often return to Mary, that soon-to-be mother, and all parents.  My thoughts return to the wonder of life and how amazing it is that any newborns survive--we start out so fragile and tiny.

Here's my poem, appearing here for the first time:


Mary’s Sonogram


All children appear otherworldly in the womb,
a strange weather system come to disrupt
the world as we have known
it, to rain blessings on unsuspecting souls.

On a sonogram, all children resemble angelic messengers.
They appear in ghostly
shades of green and gray and black.
Complete with fingers and a cosmic
heartbeat, this great mystery, birthed
in passion, sweat and tears,
a bath of body fluids,
and nine months later, a baby
squeezes from the womb, blinking,
staggering us all with wonder.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Inspiration for Advent 4

Long ago, I read Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. Even though some of the book is a bit schmaltzy, overall, it moved me profoundly. Her entry for December 25 included a quote she found on a Michael Podesta print:

"If, as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and again with things, if we consider ourselves so unimportant that we must fill every moment of our lives with action, when will we have time to make the long, slow journey across the desert as did the Magi? Or sit and watch the stars as did the Shepherds? Or brood over the coming of the child as did Mary? For each one of us there is a desert to travel, a star to discover, and a being within ourselves to bring to life."

For me, this quote is a perfect bridge from Advent to Christmas. If you're like lots of church folks, you face this third Sunday in Advent with a full to-do list and your Christmas Eve is just one more busy day in the pre-Christmas season. This quote reminds us of the importance of contemplation, of slowing down, of thinking about what we're really celebrating here in the winter darkness.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary Reading

The readings for Sunday, December 23, 2012:

Luke 1:26-49


Optional Reading:  Psalm 113 or 113:9


How interesting to get to the Sunday where the Narrative Lectionary finally begins to dovetail with both the Revised Common Lectionary and some of popular culture.  Today in the Narrative Lectionary, we see and hear (again?) the promises of the angel Gabriel and Mary's response.

Many of us are already preparing for Christmas as we loop back to the beginning of the story.  I read the Narrative Lectionary lessons the morning after I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas.  What a remarkable television show, with Linus reciting, in the language of the King James Bible, the true meaning of Christmas.  Year after year we watch this unabashedly Christian Christmas special that airs into a popular culture that usually wouldn't endorse a pro-Christian stance.  And then there's the larger message of Christmas that drenches the whole story:  that love can redeem us all, from the scrawniest tree to the most ineffective person to the most suffocating/repressive/brutal kinds of culture, whether that culture be a group of elementary school kids to the empires of the world.

The Narrative Lectionary has been reminding us of God's collision with the brutal world.  God always has a better vision for us than we can dream for ourselves.  God always has a need for collaborators to help with the redemption of the world. God can use the most unlikely humans, the ones the world would cast away.  And amazing things often happen when those human outcasts say yes to God.

The story of Mary and Elizabeth is a classic story of God's call and human response.  Here's a story of two women, two women unlikely to conceive, one because she is unmarried, one because she is barren. The angel reminds us, "For with God nothing will be impossible."

That message leaps out to speak to us in our cynical age. We've grown used to tales of those in government or big business who take bribes or steal money. With each new scientific or technological advancement, we wonder how it will be abused or go terribly wrong. A nation or people that commits genocide no longer has the power to shock--after the 20th century, you'd have to kill a lot of people to make it into the record books of murderers. We're a culture drenched in irony and knowing smirks. What we seem to lack is hope.

The angel tells Mary not to be afraid, and that, too, 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:  God will fill the hungry with good things.  The one who is mighty does great things for the lowly.

Listen to Gabriel again.  God has a use for each of us, if we can hear the message through our fears and doom and gloom.  No one is too insignificant.  If God can accomplish great things by means of a young woman, a barren woman, a variety of wandering preachers and prophets, just think what God might accomplish with all of our gifts and resources. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Evening Advent Wreath: Various Approaches

We are most of the way through Advent, and I'm happy to report that my laid back approach to the evening devotional time seems to be working.  Early on, I decided to accept that I wouldn't be able to light the candles on the Advent wreath each and every night.  My goal was to return to the Advent wreath a few nights each week. 

And it's worked.  Usually we've lit the candles, read a Bible passage, and prayed.  This week we've had some variations.

On Tuesday night, we collapsed on the sofa to watch T.V.  I thought this might be a non-devotional night, but then A Charlie Brown Christmas started, which was a surprise, a happy one.  When Linus recited Luke 2:  8-14, I realized we couldn't have had a much better devotional time, although we didn't get the candles lit on the wreath.

I was surprised to realize that I could recite that passage, as could my husband.  That shouldn't surprise me; after all, we're in our late 40's, so that's a lot of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services where we've heard the passage.  Plus, I remember having to memorize it, in all its King James glory, at various times in my childhood. 

In short, it was a real treat--such a treat that we turned the T.V. off right after the show and went off to an early bedtime.  I haven't had such a satisfying sleep in a long time.

Last night, I wanted to make sure we lit the candles.  Time is running out for our Advent practice, after all.  So, I lit the candles and chose a passage from John, where the authorities ask John who he is, and he insists, "I am not the Messiah."  He predicts the coming of Christ, whose sandals he is not worthy to lace.

My spouse had been practicing Christmas music on the violin.  As I read each sentence, I paused, and my spouse played a scrap of violin music that he improvised.  The improvisation matched the tone of the sentence.  It made me pause to consider the words.  And it felt like a very artsy kind of approach.

We've so much enjoyed having the Advent wreath compel us to evening devotions that we plan to experiment with keeping it.  Granted, we'll need to take the evergreens off.  We have pledged to keep the wreath liturgical:  no Valentines wreath, no shamrocks.  And of course, I'll document and make periodic reports here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 23, 2012:


First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

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

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 80:1-7

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]


Finally, we have moved away from John the Baptist--although he's there, in utero, leaping at the sound of Mary's voice.

I love this Gospel vision of improbable salvation: two very different women, yet God has need of them both. I love the way this Gospel shows that even the impossible can be made possible with God: barrenness will come to fruit, youthful inexperience will be seen as a blessing.

Take some Advent time and look at the Magnificat again (verses 46-55). Reflect on how Mary's song of praise sums up most of our Scripture. If we want to know what God is up to in this world, here Mary sings it for us. He has raised up a lowly woman (who would have been a member of one of the lowliest of her society). He has fed the hungry and lifted up the oppressed. He has continued to stay with Abraham's descendants, even when they haven't always deserved it. We can count on our strong God, from generation to generation.

Take some Advent time and think about Mary's call to be greater than she could have ever expected she would be. She could have said no to God--many do. But she said yes. That acceptance didn't mean she would avoid pain and suffering. In fact, by saying yes, she likely exposed herself to more pain and suffering. But in saying yes, she also opened herself up to amazing possibilities.

Think about your own life. Where do you hear God calling your name?

Perhaps I will adopt a different New Year's resolution this year. I usually have resolutions about eating better and exercising more and tending to my writing. Maybe this year, I will resolve to say yes to God.

The very thought makes me a bit terrified. My control freak self doesn't like this idea of saying yes. My control freak self doesn't understand why I would want Mary, mother of Jesus, as a model.

How can we be like Mary? How can we be like Elizabeth, who receives an even more improbable invitation? Where would we be led, if we said yes to God?

God has a greater narrative for us than any we can dream of. Let this be the year that we say yes to God and leave our limited visions behind.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More Interactive Ideas for Advent 4

Yesterday I wrote this blog piece about our writing our own songs of praise, like Mary's song of praise when she and Elizabeth reunite.  I've been corresponding with several people about possibilities for interactive activities for the 4th Sunday in Advent, and I thought I'd list some of them here, in case you're casting about for inspiration.

Do something creative with the empty manger

Travis Kern, the pastor at St. John's Lutheran in Rockville, Maryland, posted the picture below on Facebook.  That's an empty manger, with strips of cloth laid there by the whole congregation.



There's so much you could do with the strips of cloth:  write prayers on them, write hopes on them, write the ways that God has blessed you, write a message for the baby Jesus, write praise for God's great works.  All you would need would be markers; I doubt you'd even need a special fabric marker, since you're not putting the strips through the wash.

If you don't have a manger, you could fashion one out of a box or a trough or a dresser drawer--after all, families who are poor, the way that Joseph and Mary were poor, must improvise.

Make a paper chain

On the strips of paper, again, so much you could write:  hopes, dreams, prayers.  You could talk about Mary's song of praise and how it ties back to prophets, like Isaiah.  You could have people write about events from the past that are important and form a chain that can never be broken.  The paper chain could be added to the tree that you probably have by now in your chancel.

Plant a seed

--There's also the pregnancy aspect, the waiting aspect, the having to be patient at the fulfillment of the promise. It's Advent 4, after all. It's a perfect opportunity to think about what we wait for. What seeds are in us, waiting to come to fruition? You could get some paper cups and put potting soil in each. You could get some seeds and invite people to plant them and to take the cup home. You could encourage them to think about what they'd like to see take root in their own lives. You could invite them to pray as they plant. You could remind them of the importance of watering that seed, both the real one in the cup and the metaphorical seeds that God has planted. Seeds in dirt might appeal to people who don't think of themselves as artsy. Of course, there's also the danger of mess, if that's important to avoid in your church.


Social Justice Activities

The spectacle of a pregnant, unwed teenager and a pregnant, barren woman might present a good opportunity to talk about the outcast.  You can't get much more outcast than to be a woman in a distant outpost of the Roman empire, unless, perhaps, you were a slave.  Could you create an interactive activity that could be simple and done by people of a wide variety of ages and skill levels?  A skilled quilter could set up a station where people worked on baby blankets for indigent mothers.  Or maybe it's enough to plan activities to be done throughout the coming year to help women in our society who need our care:  the very young, the battered, the homeless, the mentally ill.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Song of Praise: Advent 3 Art Project

Yesterday at our Worship Together service, we focused on the Magnificat.  We learned a song with the words of Mary.  We learned to sign the words.  And then we wrote our own songs of praise.

We used the tune of Jesus Loves Me. It worked so much better than I thought it would. The lyrics were simple and not as specific as my English teacher self would have liked. But it worked well as a group activity. Even people who think of themselves as non-musical could do this.

It was very similar to the Haiku experiment, only with a tune.  Each line needed to have 7 syllables, and ideally to rhyme.  I looked around the room and it seemed that everyone of all ages and linguistic abilities could do this project.  And almost everyone knows the song.  It's good to have a model.

And of course, if you wanted to do something less simple, something with more instruments, that could work too.

Our version didn't take too much time--we were all able to do it in roughly 10 minutes.  It's another experiment that could work well in a variety of settings:  retreat, Confirmation, Sunday School, VBS, worship services of all sorts.  And singing is a great way to internalize the lessons that we want people to remember.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent 3: Of Mary and Gingerbread

Today I read the part of Mary.  It's not a Christmas pageant, but more of a reader's theatre kind of approach.  Still, I'm not sure I've ever read the part of Mary.  Faithful readers of this blog will know that I played the part of an angel in childhood pageants, but always yearned to be Mary.

Today, I shall read the Magnificat, and I imagine that we need to hear those words, even more than we usually do.  We need to be assured that God loves the lowly.  We need to be reminded that justice will be restored.

And then we'll go to the fellowship hall to decorate gingerbread people.  Our church does this every year.  I caught myself saying to a non-church friend, "It's more fun than it sounds."  And then I paused and said, "Actually, it does sound like fun to me."

Indeed, it is.  Everybody brings decorating materials, and we have a great time.  And yes, we can eat them.

What's even better is that we are joined by teenagers from our local shelter, teenagers who can't be with their families for some reason, probably dire.  As much as I love decorating these cookies, those kids love it even more.  I suspect that they don't get to have many moments of holiday brightness.  It's good to be able to be part of that.

It's good to beat back the darkness, in whatever way we can.  For some of us, it's hearing the stirring message of the Advent stories.  For some of us, it's decorating holiday cookies.  It's good to gather in community and to broaden our definition of community, to include those who need a wider community.  It's good to light our candles in whatever way we can.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Comfort on the Day after Shootings at an Elementary School

In the aftermath of a tragedy, like yesterday's shooting at the elementary school, it's hard to know what to say.  Many will ask how God could allow such a thing, and I would remind us that the God I worship doesn't want to see 20 children shot.  The God I worship doesn't want to see anyone shot.

The larger question might be how any of us allow such a thing, and conversations could spiral off into issues of gun control or mental health issues.  But here, on my theology blog, it seems more appropriate to remind us all of God's promise that death will not have the final word and that evil will be overcome.  Even on days when we can't believe the Good News, God assures us that the redemption of the world is underway.

I found it fascinating that I began the day writing this post about Isaiah 61.  At the end of the day, it still seemed an appropriate Bible passage for a day of such bad news.  So my husband and I lit the candles of the Advent wreath and read the passage out loud and prayed that God would bring beauty out of the ruins, new life out of the devastation.

This morning, I found that my post on apocalypse and our response had posted at Her Circle.  Of course, as I wrote it earlier this month, I had no idea that such a tragedy would occur the day before my post would appear. 

Here's a quote from that piece:  "The Protestant reformer Martin Luther says that the proper response to knowing that the world would end the next day is to plant a tree (referenced in N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church p. 209). That advice is as good today as it was 500 years ago. The theologian N. T. Wright would tell us when we need encouragement to do great and/or beautiful things, to remember that it all becomes part of the ultimate redemption of the world."


And here's how I end the piece: 

"In the finale of season 1 of The Walking Dead, a CDC scientist reminds the group that they will lose everything if they go back into the zombie-occupied world. But really, isn’t that what we all face? We know that everything we love will be lost sooner or later, whether that be to something as global as the Holocene Extinction or as mundane as the death that happens to us all or something mystical, like a Mayan curse.


The task we all face is to build a meaningful life in the face of this knowledge of certain doom. We may follow the path of theologians, social reformers, and/or artists—or perhaps we’ll chart a new way unique to us. But attend to the task we must. And in the process, we’ll do the important work of transforming the world from one of apocalypse and doom to one of creativity and new life."

Here's what my pastor (Pastor Keith Spencer at Trinity Lutheran Church in Pembroke Pines, FL) posted on Facebook yesterday afternoon; I found it one of the most moving things posted in the immediate aftermath:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff —
they comfort me.
Psalm 23:4

Friday, December 14, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, December 16, 2012:


Isaiah 61:1-11

optional text: Luke 4:16-21

Today we read the chapter of Isaiah that we'll find echoed throughout the story of Jesus and his ministry. In the optional reading for today, this passage appears as the text that Jesus reads as an adult when he first preaches. He says that the prophecy has been fulfilled.  We also hear echoes of the text in the Magnificat that Mary sings when she and Elizabeth visit each other during their pregnancies.

Unfortunately, the next two thousand years of history show that there's still plenty of work for the people of God to do. The redemption of the world has indeed begun, but in many ways, it's not complete. And much theology tells us that God needs our help.

This chapter of Isaiah tells us what the people of God should be doing. If God had a business plan, we could find it here. If God had a mission statement, we could use one of these verses.

The verbs should not be a surprise to the faithful: bring, proclaim, grant, give. The populations that concern God should be familiar too: the afflicted, the captives, the mourners.

Here, in this chapter, in such inspiring language, once again we hear God's promise: repair of the ruins, new life out of devastation, recompense for wrongs done, and the kind of joys we associate with weddings.

This chapter of Isaiah provides such chapter and hope.  For so many people, 2012 has been a difficult year.  For so many people, every year is a difficult year.  Isaiah tells us that to be human is to suffer.  But Isaiah also gives us the promise that God is at work in the world.  Isaiah reminds us that even when we can't see God moving amongst us, God is there, binding wounds, knitting brokenness back into new life, and planting seeds in the ruins.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Feast Day of Santa Lucia

Today 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.

I first heard about Santa Lucia Day at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was held on a Sunday evening in Advent back in the late 70's.

As the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the Santa 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.

If you'd like to try your hand at baking bread today, see this post on my creativity blog.  It will have links to get you to a photo essay too. 

And this bread is wonderful at any time of the year.  So even if you don't have time to bake today, you can prepare for a special Christmas morning treat. Or midsummer treat for that matter.

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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 16, 2012:


Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6 (Isaiah 12:6)

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18


Today's Gospel shows the fiery side of John the Baptist, who calls his audience a brood of vipers and warns of celestial axes coming to cut down the trees that aren't bearing fruit. Not a very Christmasy message.

But what a contrast to the message of excessive consumerism bleating at us from every portal of communication this time of year. I find it refreshing, this apocalyptic thread of Scripture running parallel to the beat of capitalism.

Go back to that agricultural metaphor of John's: "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3: 9). The New Year approaches, and many people are thinking about how they've failed in their plans for this year, and how they might get on track for next year. Instead of focusing on appearance and weight loss, as so many people do, we might turn some attention to our spiritual lives. If God was a gardener, and we were trees in the orchard, what would God do?

Would we be chopped down, thrown into the fire?

John's message is not this one of despair. He doesn't say, "There's nothing you can do. The messiah is coming, and all is lost."

No, John tells us to repent. It's not too late. The word repent is often associated with seeking forgiveness of sins, but that's a very narrow definition. The larger meaning of that word is to turn. Turn away from what isn't working in our lives. Turn towards God and all the ways our lives could be better.

How are you bearing fruit? One reason God came to be with us, one reason God took on human form--to show us how to live. If living like Jesus is your goal, what kinds of practices can get you there?

What personality traits bear fruit? What needs to be chopped away? What spiritual practices should you think about incorporating in the coming year, to support your plans to be more Christ-like? More prayer? One day of fasting a week? Less spending on yourself? More sharing? More patience? More volunteer time? Cutting back on debt, so that you don't have to work such ridiculous hours? Living more simply, so that you have more to share with others?

I know, you're thinking that you don't have time for this kind of contemplation right now. You're very, very busy: Christmas gatherings to attend, shopping to do, cooking to complete, getting packed for your holiday journeys.

We live in a culture that likes to keep us busy. We are all too busy to heed John's message: "Repent." Turn around. Do it now, before it is too late.

What would our culture look like if we took Jesus as our model of behavior? If we trusted God more? If, instead of listening to the blare of TV and the Internet and the many forms of media, what would happen if we listened for God? What would happen if we structured our lives according to the plan that Jesus reveals? What would happen if we decided that Jesus meant what he said, and we structured our lives accordingly?

As you think about the implications of the answers to those questions, you see why our culture rushes in to fill the voids that most of us don't even perceive in our individual lives and larger communities. For if we lived our lives and made our decisions based on the Kingdom that Jesus reveals, it would be a very different world indeed. John gives us a hint later in the Gospel for today: if you have two coats, share with the person who has none, and likewise with food; don't cheat people; be content with your wages.

Repent. Turn away from the life of bloat and greed that our culture of consumption offers us. Turn towards a vision of Kingdom living. Don't wait until you're dead. Do what you can to create the Kingdom here and now.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Christmas Pageant and Worship

In churches across the nation, it's Christmas pageant season.  In some churches, the pageant is a separate event; in some, it's part of the worship service.  I've even been at churches where the Christmas pageant is presented in the place of a worship service.  I have some problems with that last one, but to mention them in any context feels grinchy, so I'll go in a different direction.

Bookgirl has written a great post on her recent experience.  She worked in interesting ways to get the congregation involved, so that the pageant was more worship, less an audience watching a play.  She concludes, "I was thinking more along the lines of 'Messy Church' or 'Interactive Prayer Stations,' and I will still do that on the 23rd during the church school hour, but this ended up being an intergenerational worship service without even meaning to be."

This comment made me wonder what our Christmas pageants would look like if we designed them to get the whole congregation involved.  Would we enter the story more thoroughly?  Would we discover aspects we had forgotten or never known?

Our church has a pageant-like event as one of the Christmas Eve services, and my pastor is planning ways to involve the congregation more.  It may end up being less like a pageant and more like improv.  I think that would be a very good thing.

I have memories both fond and painful of childhood Christmas pageants.  I wrote a poem about it, which I'll post below, which first appeared in The South Carolina Review, and I included it in my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.  I wonder if my experiences still resonate with 21st century readers/pageant participants.  In some churches, I suspect they do.

I predict, however, that as we move towards the future, we will no longer recognize these Christmas pageants of my youth, where Mary had to be dark and the angels fair, where difficult children wear the animal costumes.

I had a glimpse of this future on Sunday.  We did a short play, where we had a male angel Gabriel, a female narrator, and a male Mary.  How curious to hear the angel say "Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son."  I thought, really?  A womb in our male Mary?

The last line of our play has the angel reminding us that anything is possible with God.  We're so used to the Advent stories that we forget how impossible Gabriel's vision would have seemed to Mary.  Maybe I'll play with that idea in a future poem.

But here's my Christmas pageant poem which looks back to the Christmas pageants of my youth:


Medieval Christmas Pageants




The Sunday School pageant director embraced
the medieval ideals. Mary would have dark
hair and a pure soul. Joseph, a mousy
man who knew how to fade into the background.
Every angel must be haloed with golden
hair, and I, the greatest girl, the head
angel, standing shoulders above the others.

It could have been worse. Ugly and unruly
children had to slide into the heads and tails
of other creatures, subdued by the weight
of their costumes, while I got to lead
the processional. But I, unworldly foolish,
longed to be Mary. I cursed
my blond hair, my Slavic looks which damned
me to the realm of the angels.

I didn’t see Mary’s role for what it was: bit
player, vessel for the holy, keeper of the cosmic.
I didn’t understand the power of my position.
I could have led an angel uprising, although the history
of angel uprisings suggests that though whole new
worlds emerge, so do new tortures with the triumph.
I could have imparted messages of God’s plan,
spoiled all the surprises. I could just appear,
scaring mere mortals into submission.

Instead, I smoldered, smarting
at the indignities of mother-made wings
and long robes to ruin my long legged run.
I internalized the message of the culture
which didn’t offer starring roles for girls,
no head angel power for us.
Instead, the slender, the meek, the submissive
girl got the prize, the spotlight focused
on her kneeling knees, her bowed head.
I tried not to sing too loudly, to shrink
my Teutonic bones into the Mary model.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent Art Report: Advent 2

My spouse was playing special music for the 11 a.m. service, so I didn't attend the whole 10 a.m. service like I usually do.  Happily, I was able to do the art project at the Worship Together (10 a.m. more family-oriented service).

We divided into small groups, the way we do each week.  We did the Faith Five:  talk about our highs and lows, read the Bible passage for the day, talk about how the Bible passage relates to our modern lives, pray, and bless each other.  And then it was on to our art project!

Our Bible passage was Luke 1:  25-38, the visit of Gabriel to Mary.  We talked about what it means to be favored by God.  We stressed that it was not that Mary was the favorite, but that God had showered blessings upon her, the way that God would like to shower all of us.  We talked about finding favor with God in terms of having blessings in our life.  The art project helped us realize how many blessings we have.

We had a large piece of paper, colored glass marbles, and a glass vase that was about 6 inches high with a 2 inch circumference.  We were to write a blessing on the paper and drop a marble in the glass vase.

At first I thought, we'll run out of marbles.  And then we started going round the group, listing blessings and dropping marbles.  The early process was easy:  what to choose to mention?

We talked about the standards:  food, shelter, family, friends, safety, opportunities.  Zip, zip, zip, round the group we went.

But as the process continued, we had to stretch a bit.  If you could see our piece of paper, you might see some of our offerings as strange.  The Internet, for example, was not the first thing that came to mind, but if you think about life without the Internet, you may or may not agree that the Internet has been a blessing.

One of our high school group members put the moon on our sheet of paper.  At first you might think, the moon?  Really?  If it's been awhile since you learned of the importance of the moon to our planet, you might want to go back to review.  Many of us think of the moon as a big hunk of rock that glows in the night sky, but it does so much more than that--like controlling the tides, for example.

As we stretched to come up with new blessings, we realized how truly blessed we are.  The dropping of the marbles provided the perfect pacing device.  If we hadn't been dropping marbles and writing and waiting for our group members to finish writing, we might have not taken the time to really consider the scope of our blessings. 

If we had just talked the list, we might not have gone deeper.  If we hadn't had the colored glass marbles, we might not have felt so eager to have our turn to list a blessing.  And if we had only talked through our list, we wouldn't have had the dramatic evidence, the tube of pretty glass chunks to remind us that even on our worst weeks, we've got a lot of blessings.

This is a project that could be adapted for many settings:  Sunday school, devotional group, congregational arts group, VBS, confirmation.  Even as an individual meditation, it would be an interesting variation on the gratitude journal.  It's a great project in that it's cheap and so easy that anyone can do it.  You don't need artistic talent--no one will be left out.  I'd love to think about it on a much larger scale, an outdoor art installation or a table-top piece.  But that's something for a different day.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"We Have Come This Far, Always Believing,"

We have friends whose house backs up to a shopping center that has a Jewish day care center.  It's actually more than that, as they are often meeting late into the night.  They may be a splinter group--it's hard for me to tell.  Their bus seems to say that they worship a Messiah who has already come, but isn't Jesus Christ.  In some ways, it's not important.  What intrigues me is that my friends have this Jewish whole life center to their back and Orthodox Jewish neighbors across the street. 

When we moved to South Florida, I expected to be enriched by Caribbean and Latin American cultures.  In my ignorance, I wasn't aware of the huge Jewish population living here, which has been an ecumenical enrichment too.

Last night we sat outside on the back patio enjoying our friends' new outdoor fireplace structure.  Suddenly, a pop of fireworks!  We looked at each other with quizzical looks.  I said, "It's the first night of Hanukkah!"

Indeed it was.  Until recently, I didn't know as much about this holiday.  I'm much more familiar with Passover, for example.  But I've grown to love the story of the Maccabees, the resistance to the secular king, the cleansing of the temple, the oil that burns long after it should have run out.

I spent this morning listening to this episode of On Being's exploration of Rabbi Heschel.  It's not exactly rooted in Hanukkah, but it does talk about our responsibility to work for social justice.  I love the idea of a God who needs us to make the world better.  I love the idea of a God who can't do it alone.

Some people might protest this idea of a God who is not all powerful.  If God wants a better world, surely God could create that with just a whisper.  Perhaps--but all evidence suggests that God doesn't have that approach.

That pondering led me to remember my favorite Hanukkah song, "Light One Candle," by Peter, Paul, and Mary.  You can see them perform that song as part of their 1988 holiday special here.  It moved me to tears.  It always does.

I love how the song ends:  "We have come this far, always believing, that justice will somehow prevail."  Some days/months/years, that belief is easier than others.

I love this Hanukkah poem by Rachel Barenblat.  I love her concept of restoring the temple and its implications for modern life.

Today is the second Sunday in Advent.  We'll light two candles at church this morning.

Tonight, as I light two candles on my home wreath, I'll think of my Jewish friends who will also be lighting two candles.  Maybe I'll play that Peter, Paul, and Mary CD of their 1988 concert all the way through.  It's a great offering in an ecumenical holiday tradition.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Campus Ministry: Unexpected Joy

Long ago, 30.5 years ago to be precise, I arrived on the campus of my small, liberal arts, Lutheran college.  I knew that the key to college success was to get involved in extracurricular activities, and I had all sorts of plans.  That first week, I went to so many meetings.  I knew that I wanted to be part of the Lutheran Student Movement.  At UVa, the group had met at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville (I was a teenager there), and they always seemed to be having such great fun. 

I'd have met the campus pastor even if I hadn't been a member of LSM.  Our campus pastor also taught classes, which I took.  To this day, I still remember his fabulous class in Religious Phenomenology.  To be fair, I still remember most of the classes that I took as an undergraduate.  That's one of the advantages of a small school, and it's part of my own wiring too.

All those years ago, I had no idea that as a woman at midlife, I'd still be in touch with our campus pastor.  He went on to be a pastor at my grandmother's church, and I'm so happy that she was still mentally sharp when he came to her church.  I always envied her having such a good pastor at her local church, and I was always happy that he was there for her in similar ways that he'd been there for me as a college student.

He's since gone on to retire, and now he travels doing work for some Lutheran camps in the southeast.  His travels took him to South Florida this week, and Thursday he came to our house for dinner.

Years ago, it would have been hard for me to imagine us this many years later dining together.  Years ago, I assumed we'd have been dead by way of nuclear war by now.

But no, here we were, talking about church and national issues.  Our campus pastor has been travelling in ELCA Synods which have been torn apart by the church's sexuality decisions.  I've seen those decisions as somewhat wishy-washy, but our campus pastor was able to explain their theological validity:  if we say that the pastor of a church is called by that church, that community, then that church gets to make the decision about whether or not a homosexual pastor will work in that setting.  I'm simplifying, of course.

But many churches have decided to leave the larger national church, which has not been easy on anyone.  We talked about synodical structures and the structure of the national ELCA.  We talked about how much more administration there used to be.  People who say that local congregations are paying for a bloated bureaucracy are just plain wrong.

We talked about how much the church has been able to do with the support of us all.  There's the international aid aspect, of course.  But lots of U.S. residents have been helped by the church too.  We talked about the social services that the ELCA used to be able to provide:  hospitals, schools, food pantries, workforce support, summer programs, you name it.  At one point, 1 in 5 U.S. residents had been helped by the ELCA--that's a pretty wide range.  At this point, it doesn't look like we'll be able to sustain that rate of assistance, but who knows.

We talked about our weariness with national politics and people's inability to work for the common good.  We talked about how we see this even at the church level.

We also caught up on some news of former classmates.  It's good to remember how many of them are still living the faith that we saw in college. 

Our campus pastor talked about a man he'd met who had served on a candidacy committee for one of the Synods.  He talked about the indicators for people who would go on to become pastors.  The number one thing that so many seminary candidates share is experience at a Lutheran outdoor ministry (mostly church camps).  The second most common predictor is experience in campus ministry.

We talked about the church of our childhoods and teen years, and our pastor shared his concern that so many people are growing up without that experience of a childhood church.  Are we really the last generation of cradle Lutherans?

Our campus pastor and my husband seemed a bit despairing after talk of the political climate that is so unable to accomplish anything and the church issues which are so polarizing.  We talked about how we're likely seeing the past through rosy lenses.  I quipped, "Somebody has to be the church in times of exile."

But sensing their growing despair, I felt it important to say that the Holy Spirit is often working in ways we can't discern until much later.  I said, "I'm hoping that we're living in a time like 1984 or 1985, when all seems impossible, and then we're waking up and Nelson Mandela is walking out of prison.  Maybe we'll look back and say, 'Wow, it was all about to change, and we just didn't see it back in 2012.'"

Our campus pastor said, "On that note, let's light the Advent wreath."  And so we did. 

We lit the candle and read Isaiah 4:2-6, which my spouse had chosen before.  It seemed appropriate, both for our conversation and for Advent, with its talk of cleansing and a new day coming.

Yes, 30 years ago, I'd have never predicted that we'd be having Advent devotions, complete with an Advent wreath, with our campus pastor.  I might have dismissed the Advent wreath as stupid, kid stuff.  I'm glad I'm not that self-righteous adolescent anymore.  To have a meal with my campus pastor and spouse, to light the Advent candle, to pray together--it was profoundly moving. 

I can't imagine a better gift on the feast day of St. Nicholas!


Friday, December 7, 2012

Meditation on This Week's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, December 9, 2012:

Joel 2:12-13, 28-29


optional reading:  Luke 11:13

Last night, my spouse and I had a special guest to our house for dinner.  Our campus pastor, who has moved on to other tasks, was in town, and we were happy to host him.  How amazing that after all these years, we're still in touch and happy to see each other.

We talked of all sorts of things, mainly church related.  His current work has him travelling to various churches across various ELCA Synods, so he's seeing how people are living their faith in real time in various settings.  It was fascinating.

We talked of the challenges for the church (both the ELCA and The Church in a wider context) as we move forward through this century.  We talked of our various wearinesses.

I find the words of the prophet Joel particularly comforting this morning.  Humans have a tendency to look back and to see a golden age which has passed.  Most of us look back with blinders.  We don't remember how life really was when we were living it.

The ancient texts are a helpful counterpoint here.  We see Joel calling on the people to repent.  We get a sense that actions above and beyond the usual repentance are in order:  fasting, weeping, opening of hearts, and making offerings.

Sounds similar to our age, does it not?

The last part of the passage for this Sunday's lectionary gives the promise that God's spirit will be poured out on believers and wonderful events will ensue.  We will be drenched with visions for a better life--and we can assume that God will give us what we need to be able to fulfill those visions.

As we move through the Advent season, we move closer to the Christmas holiday that celebrates the fulfillment of Joel's promise in a spectacular way:  God incarnate in the manger.  But it's important to remember that the Holy Spirit still moves among us.  It wasn't just a one time special event in Bethlehem.  We're still blessed with visions and dreams--and if we have eyes to see, we can see that those visions, dreams, and prophesies lead us to glorious places and experiences.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Feast Day of St. Nicholas

It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.


My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them.  Lack of dowry meant that marriage impossible for the daughters, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

Saint Nicholas is probably most famous for his associations with Christmas. Today, all over Europe, the gift-giving season begins. I had a friend in grad school who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day by having each family member open one present on the night of Dec. 6. It was the first I had heard of the feast day, but I was enchanted.

Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, who used to leave each other by saying "May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller!"

So, on this day, may we be led by the spirit of generosity, especially generosity to the poor. May Saint Nicholas hold our tillers and guide us to open our purses and wallets and bags of gold.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 9, 2012:



Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9

Luke 1:68-79 (Luke 1:78)

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

In this week's Gospel, we see and hear John the Baptist proclaiming the good news. We'll see him in different contexts throughout the liturgical year. Luke gives a rather tame introduction--no locusts or wild honey. But he is living in the wilderness, which has led me to think of the role of wilderness in the lives of believers.

Again, in this season of relentless festivity, this Gospel (and all the Advent readings) might give us a bit of disconnect. Why is John in the wilderness? What is the nature of this good news? What does it have to do with the fierce consumerism that also calls to us this time of year?

The words of Isaiah could stir even the most emotionally dead of us. This vision that God has for our world is also one that we yearn for--and perhaps it is those yearnings that drive us to spend, spend, spend. Why would we spend, instead of taking our cue from John and proclaiming the Good News? Perhaps because we don't recognize these yearnings for what they are. Perhaps because our capitalist culture isn't committed to showing us the wide range of possible responses to our yearnings for something better.

If we're living in the wilderness, we may feel cut off or otherwise deadened. It's hard to think about wilderness, in this time of overdevelopment. Many of us live in places where there is more concrete than desert (or other forms of wilderness). Perhaps one of these places of relentless "development" is where John the Baptist would come from, if we re-cast the story in modern terms.

Or perhaps it would be useful to think of wilderness in other ways. Perhaps the wilderness is not a geographical place, so much as an emotional one. Many of us approach December with all kinds of dread. We don't have enough money to pay for necessities, much less gifts. We've lost loved ones, and the holidays remind us of those holes left by loss. We remember a time when we liked the holidays and we've lost that person who approached the season with wonder and joy. We have too much caretaking to do and no one taking care of us.

Listen to the words of John the Baptist again. Listen to God, who often calls to us from the wilderness. Let the words fill your heart with hope: "The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3: 5-6). Your salvation is at hand: your grieving heart will be comforted, your anger and irritation will lift, the planet will heal itself as it always does, God will take care of you and everything you need is on its way. Glad tidings of good news indeed.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Simplifying My Advent Discipline

On Sunday, we had our annual Advent wreath making at our church.  What fun! 

Our pastor did the hard work of getting all the pine bough castaways and cuttings.  He went to Home Depot and several other places that sell trees.  They're happy to load up his car, because that's less they'll have to pay to have someone cart it away.  We'll cart it away for free.

As we were creating, we vowed that we would actually use them this year.  I was relieved to find out that I'm not the only one who sets out the Advent wreath and doesn't actually ever use it.

I had an epiphany as we created.  Maybe I'm trying to do too much.  For example, this year, I had thought about adding devotions to my schedule and meditation and prayer.  On Sunday, I thought, what if I plan to simply light the candles and say a prayer?

That's a less intimidating prospect, to be honest.  Surely I can find time a few times a week to light the candles and pray a sentence or two.  If I have time to do more, great.  But I want to do that minimal amount.

Hopefully on the 4th Sunday of Advent, I'll post a picture of my Advent wreath, and the candles will be burned down, thus signifying my keeping of my pledge/hope.

I'm off to a good start.  Last night, my husband and I lit the candles and said a prayer.  I'm fairly sure I wouldn't have done it if I had planned to read a devotion.  But a few minutes with a lit candle at the end of the day?  We can do it!

In case you'd like to adopt a similarly simple pledge, here are some prayers that we'll be using during our Worship Together service.

"Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe.  You call all nations to walk in your light and to seek your ways of justice and peace, for the night is past, and the dawn of your coming is near."

"Bless us as we light the candle(s) of this wreath.  Rouse us from sleep, that we may be ready to greet our Lord when he comes and welcome him into our hearts and homes, for he is our light and our salvation.  Blessed be God forever.  Amen."

Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent 1: Light and Metaphor and Extinction Events

Our Worship Together service tries to provide a variety of ways for people to interact with the Biblical text for the day:  small group discussion, sermon-like presentation, a piece of art for people to consider and discuss, a song, signing some of the song, puppet shows, and small-group discussion.  Some days, we do an additional small group exercise; a few weeks, we did a haiku exercise that I wrote about here.

Our Bible reading for yesterday, the first day of Advent, was John 1:1-3, an excellent introduction to metaphor.  God as word:  certainly I can relate to that.  But if I was a painter, would I want God to be described as paint on a canvas?  We talked about this a bit in our small groups as we completed yesterday's art exercise.

We had a big sheet of paper on which we wrote all the things in our world which give light:  flashlights, the sun, light bulbs, things like that.  We were allowed to write and/or to draw.

Then we had two pieces of paper, one white, one black.  On that paper, we drew an image that represents Christ.  We were allowed to go with something traditional, like a manger or a cross.  Or we could be more metaphorical.

My group was composed of 2 English major types, 1 scientist, and 3 teenagers (actually, one may be in his early 20's).  We had no trouble coming up with a variety of possibilities.  My contribution?  I said that Jesus is like an asteroid.

My group asked me how I came up with that idea.  I talked about Apocalyptic Planet, the book by Craig Childs that I'd been reading which talks about a variety of extinctions that the planet has experienced.  I talked about the asteroid that crashed into the earth and how that asteroid is thought to be responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The extinction of the dinosaurs made it possible for smaller mammals, like humans, to find a foothold and achieve prominence.

We agreed that the violence of that event was problematic.  Jesus wipes out the big animals, like the dinosaurs?  I said, "Jesus comes to wipe out the dinosaurs of hate to make room for the animals of love to take hold."  We had fun discussing it, along with other possibilities.

In the end, our group artist drew a lamb standing on an asteroid.  We cut out the image and did a shadowbox kind of thing with the two colors of paper.

Why white and black?  We talked about colors that reflect light and colors that absorb light and what that has to do with Jesus and the way we respond to him along with the way he responds to us.

I must confess, it's the art exercise in which we participate that I remember most vividly.  Putting together a drama that demonstrates a Bible story (the house built on sand, the house built on rock) or writing a haiku or drawing an image--that stays with me longer than a sermon, longer than a song, longer than the discussions that led up to the finished project. 

My brain is not alone in responding that way, but I'm not going to explore the neuroscience here, simply make the observation.  It's worth thinking about, though, as we craft our worship services, our Sunday Schools, and our Confirmation classes.  Vacation Bible School seems to be already on board with this idea of a text that we learn about from different directions in a given module. 

Why has it taken so long to transfer these lessons to other ways that we hope to shape Christians into better disciples?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

When God Sings Along

Last night, I got to hear my spouse sing with the Broward Chorale.  He's been rehearsing for this Christmas concert for months.  He even sang the music during our long car trips.  As we traveled toward Thanksgiving, he said, "I'm worried that you'll get to the concert and be bored because you've heard this music so much."

"On the contrary, I'll be interested to hear how your part blends with everything else."  I said.

Oh, I was.  What a wonderful experience.

Now, I should confess that I'm happy to hear Christmas music in any venue.  I'd happily go to a Christmas concert in the middle of the summer.  So, last night would have been a delight regardless.  But it was extra special, knowing how much time and care went into this concert.

I am amazed at the talent that I saw.  It's not like the director went out to hand pick everyone.  It was done under the auspices of our local community college, so some students sang as part of a class.  But anyone from the community could show up, and to my knowledge, no one was turned away.  Through months of practice, they became a unified whole.

They sang complicated music, some of it atonal and dissonant, some of it festive and fun.  They ended with a rousing version of "Children Go Where I Send Thee."  As they sang, I felt glimmers of God singing along too.

I invited everyone to come to the concert, but I didn't expect that too many people would come.  It's the holidays, after all, and everyone has demands on their time.  Heck, even a concert in July would face that obstacle.  So much one could do, so little time. 

The familiar members of the audience were church members.  Some of them came because they have family members in the Chorale.  But some of them came because they're friends of the Chorale members who sing in the church choir. 

Let us not neglect to mention the cheap entertainment aspect of the evening.  Colleges and schools offer so many resources to the community, but I'm impressed with the inexpensive aspect of what they offer.  I can see a concert or a play for a nominal fee.  Famous people come through, and I can see them.  Even if I don't have time to take a class, I can benefit.

We were surrounded by college students, many of whom had clearly never gone to a concert.  At Intermission, when the lights came up, I heard one student say, "So, is that it?"  The other student told him it was Intermission, which baffled the student who asked the question.

"Like halftime in football."

But at the end of the night, even the students who had never been to a concert were leaving in a pumped-up mood, elevated by the good singing and the Gospel message.  And as they sang while they were heading out into the night, once again, I heard God singing.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Making an Advent Wreath

Last night we met at the parsonage to talk about our Worship Together service and to make an Advent wreath for the service.  This Sunday will also be the annual Advent wreath making event at our church, so our pastor had lots of supplies.  We ended up not only making a wreath for the worship service, but also for our homes.

At first, I thought, no, I won't do this, no need for this.  And then, I was curious.  And then, I really enjoyed it. 

I've had some trouble coming to terms with the fact that Thanksgiving is over.  I'm still wishing I had taken more time to enjoy the time that led us to Halloween.  It was wonderful to slow down enough to make a wreath that can help us focus on the coming of Christmas.

We used wreath forms made of straw, so it wasn't as hard as the wreaths I've made in the past, which involved twisting evergreen branches into a wire form.  We put the candle holders in, which was the hardest part.  And then we arranged bits of pine branches around the wreath.  We plunged wire hook-like devices into the form to hold it all together.

I didn't think to bring my camera, but really, the process isn't hard, and most of us live in places where the supplies are readily available.  Why not make a wreath?

We had a few ribbons, so we did some decorating.  I tied ribbons around the candles because I really liked the look of the unadorned greens.

My spouse tied a red, wiry ribbon around the bottom of the wreath.  He talked about its prickeriness and likened it to a crown of thorns.

We've grown weary of the "Put Christ back in Christmas" campaigns.  I have said our slogan should be "Put the cross back in Christmas."  I've been partly kidding, partly not. 

On our way home, we thought about creating Advent wreaths that are both wreath and crown of thorns.  We thought about a Lent wreath.  We thought about an Advent wreath that transitions to a Lent wreath.

If I was a visual artist, I'd have all kinds of inspirations.  Maybe I'll play with it some more at a future point.

But for now, I have a lovely Advent wreath.  Of course, last year I had a lovely Advent wreath; see this post for pictures of my tropical Advent wreath.  And I never lit the candles.

I'd like to light the candles of my Advent wreath at least several times a week this year.  I'd like to add some special Advent meditations.  My schedule is already starting to get a bit fuller than usual.  I'd like to fight back with these bits of Advent put into my week.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Feast Day of St. Andrew

Today is the feast day of St. Andrew.  I've written a post at the Living Lutheran site that ponders the first disciple.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"It’s important to remember that we wouldn’t even know about Simon Peter if not for Andrew. Andrew followed John the Baptist, and John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the true Messiah. Andrew believed, and Andrew brought his brother to see what he had seen. Andrew is remembered as the first disciple."


"We see stories that show that Andrew is the kind of disciple who is working for the glory of Christ, not for other reasons. In John’s Gospel, Andrew is the one who tells Jesus about the boy with five barley loaves and two fish and thus helps make possible the miraculous feeding."


"On this day when we celebrate the life of the first disciple, let us consider our own discipleship. Are we focused on the right tasks or are we hoping that our Christian faith brings us non-Christian glory? How can we help usher in the miracles that come with the presence of Christ? Who needs to hear the good news as only we can tell it?"

Go here to read the whole essay.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, December 2, 2012:

Daniel 6:6-27


optional reading:  Luke 23:1-5  

Today we get the story of Daniel in the lions' den; yes, it's the same Daniel as the friend of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown in the fiery furnace.  Here we see another Biblical figure, like Joseph centuries earlier, a figure held captive by an alien empire, a figure with the power to interpret dreams.

We also see the story of a faithful man, like so many other Biblical stories.  When the powerful leaders of the alien empire decree the religious practices of the Jews to be illegal, Daniel continues to pray several times a day.  He's obvious about it.  Like Jesus, he's on a collision course with the empire.

As with the Old Testament story of Esther, we see a king manipulated by those who surround him.  He doesn't want to put Daniel in the lions' den, but the law is the law, and so, Daniel is walled up.

But God protects him because he is faithful.  God finds Daniel blameless.  Chastened, the king has the manipulative advisers walled up with the lions, where they are not so fortunate:  the lions rip apart their limbs.

I can now hear my atheist friends snorting in scorn:  "We're expected to believe that God swooped down and saved Daniel from hungry lions?"

Focusing on whether or not the story could actually happen isn't very useful here.  As with the story of Jonah a few weeks ago, we lose the point of the story if we focus on whether or not a man could live in the stomach of a whale for 3 days or if a man could survive overnight when walled in a chamber with hungry lions or survive a fiery furnace.

We shouldn't focus on the literal truth, but that shouldn't prevent us from thinking about the other truths of these stories.  Above all, again and again we see stories of God who can make a way out of no way.  We see stories of a God who will not be stopped by events that hold humans back.

I see this story of Daniel as one that reminds us of the importance of our religious practices.  But I also see it as a story about the problems of law and strict adherence to the law.  Because of the interpretation of the law, the king had no choice but to condemn Daniel.  The main focus of the story is that God rewards faithfulness, but an important undergirding of the story is the message that the law, with all its strictures, will not lead us to freedom.

Many of us may feel like Daniel, strangers in a strange land, an alien empire, full of practices that we don't fully understand.  Many of us find ourselves in workplaces and other cultures where we don't find many other Christians, if we find any at all.  We may find ourselves struggling to stay true to our Christian values in a world that doesn't reward us for that and may in fact actively punish us.

The stories in the book of Daniel are designed to comfort those of us who labor under an alien empire.  These stories remind us that although the larger culture may not reward us, God watches and God is the one who is ultimately in charge.

We may not escape from all of our lions' dens, but we can be sure that God will reward our faithfulness.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, December 2, 2012:


Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10 (Ps. 25:1)

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Some years, the apocalyptic tone of the Advent texts feel more appropriate than other years. This is one of those years when the words of Luke resonate with me.

The other day I was praying for people I know who are in some amount of distress. I was struck by how many people whom I know personally are dealing with very serious events. My friend lost her brother who was only 60 years old, and I know several people who have lost a parent in the past year. I know plenty of people who are dealing with serious health issues. And then there’s the issue of job loss and threat of job loss, even in this economy which we’re told is recovering, but most of us don’t see it on the ground.

Yes, we live in a time where we see “men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaking” (Luke 22:26).

Maybe it’s the health of the planet that concerns you. As I write this morning, I’m hearing reports of sea level rise happening 60% faster than projected. Will that swamp my house that’s 3 miles inland? Or will we simply see more grim storm impacts like those we saw during Hurricane Sandy? The outlook doesn’t look good for any of us.

I’ve been reading Craig Childs’ Apocalyptic Planet, which talks about past die-offs and the current die-off that we’re experiencing as the Holocene Age comes to an end. The planet has been through grim times before, but often even though the planet survives, individual species do not. The words of Luke resonate: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the eath distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and waves” (Luke 22: 25).

If you're in a festive mood, the readings for Advent must often seem jarring. You’re probably wondering why we can't sing Christmas carols like the rest of the world.

It's important to remember that for Christians, the season of Advent should be a time of watching and waiting, not decorating and shopping. We remember the stories of others who watched and waited (famously, Mary; not so famously, the legions of people who have felt the yoke of oppression and yearned for a savior).

One of the messages of Advent is that God breaks into our dreary world in all sorts of ways, some scary, some comforting, some magnificent, and some hardly noticed. The story of Jesus is one of the more spectacular stories, but God tries to get our attention all the time. We are called to watch and wait and always be on the alert.

The message of Advent is truly exciting. God wants us to participate in Kingdom living now, not just in some distant future when we go to Heaven. What good news for people who are suffering from all the sorrows that our world can dish out.

Christ’s story promises us that destruction and death are not the final answers. We worship a God that finds a way to freedom, even when human minds can’t figure out how God can accomplish that freedom.

So, if you’re having trouble feeling festive, take heart in the good news that’s about to be brought to us. If you’re not in a holiday mood, let yourself sink into the meditative mood that Advent could deliver. We are surrounded by all sorts of futures that are only gestational right now. The alert watchers will begin to see the fulfillment of the promise.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Anti-Abortion Nativity Scene

We are back from our great Southeast, Thanksgiving driving tour.  We've seen a variety of landscapes, which is always a treat for me.  We usually spend the Sunday of Thanksgiving week-end at the home of an old college friend.  It's great to see him and his wife, and it keep us off of I95, which turns into a parking lot for most of the week-end.

On Sunday, we drove out to Ponte Vedro Beach, just south of Jacksonville.  On our way back from our lunch on the Intracoastal, I spotted an odd Nativity scene.  The large-size scene itself was fairly standard:  a small shed, to represent the stable, Joseph, Mary, and a manger.

But over this Nativity scene was a huge sign that read "What if THEY had believed in abortion?"

It just seemed wrong on so many levels.  There's the faulty theology, for one thing.  If Mary hadn't wanted to have a baby, she could have said no to God.  She didn't find herself with an accidental pregnancy, after all.

Was the Nativity scene suggesting the divinity of all children?  Doubtful, although that might have been an interesting approach.

I wondered about the passion of the creator of this creche.  There are very few issues that would move me to create such a project.  Part of me feels like a passionless stick to realize this.

Part of me wants to believe in installation art as agent of social change.  Part of me believes that very few people's minds will be changed that way.

And yet . . . and yet.  I think of friends of mine in college, friends who created shantytowns on the lawns of their universities to protest investment in South Africa.  I didn't do that myself, for a variety of reasons.  My own little liberal arts college was almost bankrupt, so no need to demand divestment; they had no investments of any kind that hadn't already been liquidated.

I've heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu give college kids of my generation credit for bringing apartheid to an end--not all by ourselves, of course, but he mentions those protests.  I protested, but I didn't build a shantytown.  I wrote letters, but I didn't create art.  I supported other artists' efforts when I bought Sun City, the anti-apartheid record album.

It's an interesting question, what activities do the most to bring social justice to the beleaguered world, and the range of activities is as varied as humans themselves.  I wouldn't create a creche or a shantytown, but that doesn't mean they're not valid.

I want to believe in the power of the pen, my medium of choice.  I want to believe in non-violence, although I grow weary all too often of the patience that non-violence takes. 

Above all, I want to cling to the vision of the better world that God offers us.  I want to be part of that vision.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Apocalyptic Planet, Apocalyptic Advent

Now that we have put Thanksgiving behind us, let us begin to shift our focus to Advent.  You might say, "Yup, we already put up the tree, and we have our shopping all done."

I don't mean that kind of Advent.  I mean the old-fashioned kind, where we let the words of the prophets ring in our ears.  I mean the kind of Advent that seems on a collision course with apocalypse.

Now my reading tastes run towards the apocalyptic anyway, but if you need some help getting into that apocalyptic mood, then I have just the book for you.  I've been reading Craig Childs:  what a poetic science writer!


In his latest book, Apocalyptic Planet, he visits places on the globe that are already experiencing the kind of events that could wipe out life on our planet. For example, the first chapter has him making his way through an intense desert landscape. Then he explores an iceberg.

Even when he's writing about impending loss, he's got such a beautiful style. He talks of his surprise at touching a melting iceberg and finding it cold. He considers the iceberg: "Was this some poor, dying wastrel, or was it getting what the ice always wanted, turned back into liquid after thousands of years of being chained into a molecular solid, now freed drip by drip?" (p. 42).

The book is also chock full of scientific facts, all sorts of information I didn't know about deserts, about the history of the earth, about the planet. Fascinating!

Childs has been here before. He has led the kind of life that makes me both envious and anxious. He's the type of guy who sets out on foot, without the latest equipment, with just his knowledge and a walking stick to get him where he needs to go. I remember reading The Secret Knowledge of Water, which explores the idea of water in the desert.

The earth has been here before too. The planet has survived die-offs even greater than the Holocene Extinction we're experiencing now. Of course, that's little comfort when we consider all the species gone forever.

I wonder what kind of poems will come from reading Childs' latest book. After I read The Secret Knowledge of Water, I wrote the poem below, which was published in The Ledge.  In many ways, it's a love poem.  But if you read it with baptism on the brain, you'll come away with something different.  If you read it as you think about the desert fathers and mothers, maybe you'll get something yet again.  Or could it be John the Baptist talking to God/Jesus?  Or a more modern believer, talking to God?


Floods and Desert Canyons

My friends assume I’m dry
and barren. They do not know of my secret
spots, a cup of water here, a pool
collected there. An occasional visit
from you keeps me hydrated.

I boil away with my own dreams and ideas.
I blaze with words, my surfaces
too hot to touch. My pitiless gaze
burns as I survey my culture,
dream of new life forms.

You surge through my carefully constructed canyons.
In a matter of minutes, you change the landscape,
sweep away the detritus.
You carve me into intricate
forms, unconsidered before I met your force.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Budgeting for Black Friday and Beyond

The weeks before Christmas pose challenges to most of us, no matter what beliefs we hold. Even the most balanced of us can lose our way during this time of frantic busyness and hectic schedules and our culture beaming messages at us that we must spend more. How can we as Christians best use our gift giving dollars?


Our first impulse might be to give our gift giving dollars to various charitable organizations. I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy all the material stuff I need. I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way. Then the hard part comes in choosing the charity.

Philosophers like Peter Singer would encourage us to send our charitable dollars to charities who serve the developing world, where our dollars go further. Organizations like Lutheran World Relief have long histories of delivering our donations efficiently to areas of the globe with great need. But we know that there’s plenty of need here in our home countries.

Some people who give money to charities in lieu of gifts have fun matching the charity to the personality of the gift recipient. Some families choose one charity and give all their gift budgets to the one charity. Some families support local churches.

But what about the people on our list who aren’t as charitably minded?

Maybe instead of a gift, we could give an experience. Why not give your loved ones a retreat at a church camp? Many church camps have shorter week-end retreats that are affordably priced. Why not give theatre tickets?

We could give the gift of time together. You could take your gift recipients out for dinner. Make a date for a museum or a movie.—in February, when life calms down, and we need a treat to make it through the rest of winter.

We could give magazine subscriptions, the gift that gives throughout the year. A book of devotions could do the same thing, while nourishing our gift recipients on a daily basis.

This year, we might want to give gifts that help support local businesses so that they survive. We could give any number of gift cards to local businesses: car mechanics, gym memberships, hair stylists, boutiques, bookstores, restaurants, move theatres. We could broaden our approach and choose gift cards that support our Christian vision. Instead of an Amazon gift card, we could support Augsburg Fortress. We could buy fair trade products from organizations that support people in developing nations.

But what about the people on our list who don’t want a gift card? What about the people who want an object specially chosen for them?

One year, my family had a lot of fun by giving handmade gifts. But most of us don’t have time between now and Christmas to give handmade gifts.

Luckily, other people have been preparing. Why not support a church craft fair? There we’ll find beautiful objects to suit all sorts of budgets—and we’ll support church ministries. We could support local artists. Even if you think you can’t afford art, you will likely find something in your budget, like a set of note cards or a beautiful pottery mug. We could buy our gifts from SERVV or other groups who support artisans in the developing world. We could buy books from local authors.

However we choose to approach our gift giving, we should create a budget before we begin shopping. It’s easy to get caught up in the good feelings that spending money can produce for many of us. It’s easy to whip out our credit cards and worry about how we’ll pay for it later. Unfortunately, when we do that, many of us will still be paying for those Christmas presents next summer. And when we do that, we don’t have that money available for other worthy causes.

And there are so many other worthy causes.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Getting Centered on Black Friday

Today many people in the U.S. will be celebrating Black Friday by shopping.  For a different approach, to to the Living Lutheran site, where a piece of mine will appear; in it, I suggest that we use this time to plan for how to have a more meaningful Advent.  Tomorrow, I'll repost a piece that I wrote last year about holiday spending.

But for today, let's preserve the contemplative mood, while it's still possible to have it.  Here are some pictures to keep us focused on Advent.  It's not about shopping, decorating, entertaining, and all those other frantic activities that can keep us distracted.

For today, let's keep our attention on the true gift, the God who so yearns to be with us, the God who will take on human form and become incarnate in the form of a tiny, vulnerable baby.














It's also good to remember that it's really not about Christmas at all.  That baby in the manger, he's cute.  But he's got a larger purpose: