Saturday, December 31, 2016

Epiphany Prep: Stars

Tomorrow, my church will celebrate Epiphany.  I'm in charge of the one service.  For weeks now, I've thought I might preach on the flight into Egypt.  But this week, I've changed my mind.

In the past few days, I've seen lots of references to Epiphany stars--and there's still time to do this!

This post is the one that inspired me.  So today, I'll make a bag full of stars.  I've found a template, and I'll cut out stars and write a variety of words, one per star.  Instead of a basket, I'll pass a bag (from the gift shop at Mepkin Abbey!) around the congregation--people can reach in and grab a star.

How will we use our stars?  I will suggest that we use them as a way to focus on what God might be trying to say to us.  The wise men in the story spent years, perhaps decades, staring at the sky.  For those of us who are less patient, maybe the star from the paper bag from Mepkin Abbey will give a direction.

The word Epiphany also means an insight, often a piercing insight, a life-changing insight.  What epiphanies do we need for 2017?

I am guilty of wanting the Holy Spirit to speak in grand gestures, like a full scholarship to a seminary with living expenses covered too, not in gentle whispers.  I worry that if I want a grand gesture, the Holy Spirit will get my attention by way of the grand gesture of unemployment or something horribly negative.  My earthly spirit clearly doesn't fully trust the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps that's why the Holy Spirit tends to work in nudges and whispers.  Most of us are skittish animals, after all, easily spooked.
We've had weeks of stories of people of all sorts may be led by a star or by angel directives or choirs of heavenly hosts appearing in the sky.  But there are other ways.  Wise people year after year are led  by that steady voice that tells them to look where they haven't found success before.  I believe God speaks to us through our yearnings. 

Many people have had great success from having a word that gives focus to the year--the juxtaposition of Epiphany and New Year's Day seems fortuitous this year.  This year, my spiritual resolution/intention/goal will be led by the star that I draw out of a bag from Mepkin Abbey--and I'll let us all know how it goes.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Feast Day of the Holy Family

Today we celebrate the Holy Family.  This feast day is relatively recent; we've only been celebrating the Holy Family for the past 300 years or so.  Our idea of family, especially a family unit separate from multiple generations, after all, is really rather modern.



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. 


I always wonder if these kind of feast days bring pain to people who grew up in dysfunctional families.  I know plenty of people who have been scarred in ways that only family can do.  What do they take away from these feast day?  Despair in all the ways that families can hurt each other?  Hope that families can really be a sacramental rendering of the love of God?




Below you see a huge sculpture, made from a tree that toppled in a storm, of the Holy Family fleeing Herod's murderous intent.  I think of the Holy Family as refugee family, fleeing danger, with only the clothes on their back.  I think of all the families torn apart or torn away from their homeland because of terrible dictators.  I yearn for the day to come when we will not experience these fissures in the family.


Here is a prayer I wrote for this day:

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.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 1, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 63:7-9

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Hebrews 2:10-18

Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

After all the joy and wonder of Christmas Eve, this Gospel returns us to post-manger life with a thud. In this Gospel, we see Herod behaving in a way that's historically believable, if perhaps not historically accurate, as he slaughters all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two. Why would he do such a terrible thing? Partly because he's worried about keeping his power; he's worried about what the wise men have told him, and he doesn't want any challenges. Partly because he can; he has power granted to him by Roman authorities, and that power means that he can slaughter his subjects if he sees fit to do so.

Jesus, however, escapes. A power greater than Rome protects him. Warned by an angel in a dream, Joseph flees with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, to safety. But still, the earthly power of Herod turns them into refugees.

Early in the Gospel, we see that the coming of Jesus disrupts regular life. Even before Jesus tells us that the life of a disciple is not one of material ease and comfort, we get that message. Even before Jesus warns us that following him may mean that we're on the opposite side of earthly powers, we see with our own eyes, in the story of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.

This Gospel reminds us of the potency of power. We shouldn't underestimate the power of the State, particularly the power of a global empire. With the story of Herod, we see the limits of worldly power. Yet even within those limits, a dastardly ruler can unleash all sorts of pain and suffering. Those of us lucky enough to live under benign rulers shouldn't forget how badly life can go wrong for those who don't share our good fortune.

The Gospel reminds us of who has the true power in the story--it's God. The Gospel shows us who deserves our loyalty. And the Gospel also reminds us of the hazards of living in a universe where God is not the puppet master. In a universe that God sets free to be governed by free will, it's up to us to protect the vulnerable. And this story of Herod's slaughter reminds us of what happens when despots are allowed to rule. Sadly, it's a story that we still see playing out across the planet.

If we're not in the mood to see this Gospel in its geopolitical implications, we might take a few moments of introspection in these waning days of the year. Where do we see Herod-like behavior in ourselves? What threatens us so much that we might do treacherous deeds? What innocent goodness might we slaughter so that we can allay our fears and insecurities?

I predict that churches across the nation (and the world) will choose to ignore this difficult text on this morning after Christmas. Far better to enjoy Christmas carols one last time than to wrestle with this difficult text. But Jesus reminds us again and again that he didn't come to make us all comfortable. He didn't come to be our warm, fuzzy savior. He came to overturn the regular order, to redeem creation, to restore us to the life that God intends for us--and Herod stands as a potent symbol for what might happen if we take Jesus seriously.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents

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."

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

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."

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Darkness Did Not Overcome It

With texts that we return to again and again, like the Christmas story, I'm always intrigued by what parts of the readings stay with me, what parts speak to me more in any given year.  Last night, it was this passage:



Around the passage, I put items that are feeling mighty dark to me.  In the upper right hand corner, the word Aleppo is almost strangled by darkness.  Other words/phrases:  democracy sliding away, terror in the Christmas market, refugees, climate chaos, Trump. 

It's an important reminder to me.  The Divine breaks through in all sorts of ways, and often, only those who are on the watch will see it.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Nativity Scenes

I'm thinking of Christmas Eve, the Nativity scene, and how one can make that all new.  I've written on this issue several times already (at least once this week)--let me write some random thoughts and see if I can discover any patterns:

--I've seen several yards that have the old-fashioned manger scene, the kind made out of plastic that lights up--but these yards also have blow-up items close enough that they, too, seem to be part of the scene.  It's both disconcerting and wonderful to see Star Wars figures and penguins and Santa hovering near the plastic Nativity scenes.

--I've also seen some houses with those plastic, lit-up Nativity scenes on the roof.  What's that about?

--We still have not set up our inside nativity scene.  I remember one year, one of our housemates added to it, a purple, plastic monkey from a game where the goal is to scoop up monkeys and make a chain.  I loved that image.

--I have nothing new to say, it seems, but here's a poem that I wrote that uses Nativity scenes:

Nativity Scene
Through the years, the stable attracted
the odds and ends of our childhood toys:
a plastic soldier, his rifle chewed and mangled,
migrated from the war zone;
a horse, which once helped herd
plastic animals, now riderless and alone;
a Magic 8 ball with murky
water, the answers to our questions, obscured;
a nutcracker dressed in festive finery, but missing
its lower jaw, its mission in life undone;
lonely Barbie, hair shorn from too many experiments,
now loveless and forlorn;
a matchbox car, once prized, now missing
a wheel and limping along;
a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle doll with other refugees
from popular shows of past years;
a gingerbread boy gamepiece, knowing he belongs elsewhere,
neglecting his duties in Candyland, so compelling
is the baby in the manger.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Poetry Friday: "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 had just arrived for a holiday visit, 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 ideas feel dangerous in that way, and they're worth pursuing, since they might lead to a new perspective.

On these days that take us to Christmas, 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:


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.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Solstice Turnings

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice.  Today we get the first gift of this next season, a return of light.



But we have had other gifts to raise our spirits.  We have sung with friends.



The season reminds us of the simple joys, which can be ours, if we seize them.  We can find some time to read.



If the weather permits, there can be time for a walk through the austere beauty of this season's landscape.



We have heard the good news.  We do not have to weep in the ruins of our cities.



The manger is cold and empty now, more like a tomb.



But God breaks through--the captives shall be freed!



Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Feast Day of Saint Thomas and the Winter Solstice

Today is the feast day of the man we remember as Doubting Thomas. It is also the Winter Solstice, shortest, and thus, darkest day of the year. It's a juxtaposition that makes sense. This is the time of year when it's tough to hold onto our faith in God's promise that darkness will give way to light.

I've always had a soft spot for St. Thomas. I like the fact that he doubts, and Jesus doesn't hold it against him. It makes sense to me that he would doubt: what a fantastic tale his fellow disciples told him! He must have thought that they'd finally all lost their collective minds. Suffering from spirit-cracking grief himself, he cannot believe in their tale of hope, a tale of hope that defied everything he knew about how life and death worked.

After all, is Thomas so different from any of us? Most of us must wonder if we're dabbling in lunacy ourselves, as we profess our beliefs in a triune God that defies the laws of nature. And most of us have probably had friends who only believe in what their senses tell them, and those friends have likely challenged us a time or two.

The more I read in the field of the Sciences, the more my sense of wonder is reignited. I continue to be so amazed at the way the world works, both the systems we've created and the ones created before we came along. The more I know, the more I want to shout from the rooftops, "Great show, God!" (long ago, when my friend had small children, they would shout this refrain whenever they saw something beautiful in nature, like a gorgeous sunset; I try to remember to shout it too).

So today, as the earth leaves its darkest time and inches towards light, let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to St. Thomas, who showed us that we can have doubts and still persevere. Let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to lunar eclipses and solstice celebrations and the sprigs of new green that many of us will soon be seeing and all the ways that the natural world can point us back to our Creator. Let us pray that our rational selves live in harmony with our sense of wonder.

Here's a prayer from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Winter for this day: "Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant me so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that my faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen."

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 25, 2016:

Choice 1:

First Reading: Isaiah 62:6-12

Psalm: Psalm 97

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7

Gospel: Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20

Choice 2:

First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10

Psalm: Psalm 98

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]

Gospel: John 1:1-14

In my younger years, I'd have guessed that the Christmas story would be one of the easiest to preach.  What could go wrong when you had a story this great?  Now that I'm older, I see many pitfalls to preaching the Christmas story.

First of all, there's the fact that many people only go to church around Christmas.  This may be the only story that they hear.  For many of us, Christmas is our favorite holiday.  But it's a sanitized Christmas that we often love.

Think of the parts of the story that are left out (or not emphasized) most years:  the yoke of empire bearing down on this young couple in many ways, from the trip to Bethlehem to the fleeing Herod when the wise men launch Herod's wrath.  Think about this young couple, with so few resources, pulled into this story of God breaking though into this prison of a world.

Many Christmas sermons will focus on that sweet baby, but that approach, too, is fraught with problems.  In a Facebook post, one of my female minister friends reminded us to "please be aware that the imagery of holding a new born is not comforting to those who have not had those dreams fulfilled this year...or worse, by those who carry the great, but silent, grief of fetal loss."  She reminds us that we might not know of these losses, since often they are not discussed.

Many people I know are having trouble believing the good news that the angels sing.  It's a hard world we live in, and this year, many of us have suffered brutal losses.  It may be the intensely personal loss of horrible health news or the death of one we love.  It may be the larger loss, the suffering that drives people from their homes into perilous journeys.  We may see that we live in a world of dangerous dictators, a world where empires afflict people or refuse to act, and we may wonder where, exactly, God is breaking through.

But it is precisely in these times that we must have fortitude.  We can choose to live as people of God. We do not have to weep in the ruins of our cities. Advent has promised us that help is on the way, and Christmas gives us the Good News that the redeemer has come, and in the most unlikely circumstances.

That’s the way redemption works—not in the ways we would expect, but in surprising ways that take us where we could not dream of going, and sometimes faster than we would expect. If we could travel back in time to tell the people of 1985 that the Soviet Union would soon crumble and South Africa would be free of white rule, the people of 1985 would think we were insane. If we could travel back to the first century of the Roman empire to tell of what the followers of Jesus would accomplish, those people would laugh at us—if they even knew who Jesus was.

I'm thinking of the last time that Christmas fell on a Sunday, in December of 2011, when the world lost many great leaders, among them Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel.  I'm remembering a celebratory essay in The Washington Post by Madeleine Albright, who said of Havel: “He declared himself neither an optimist (‘because I am not sure everything ends well,’) nor a pessimist (‘because I am not sure everything ends badly’) but, instead, ‘a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief that freedom and justice have meaning . . . and that liberty is always worth the trouble.’”

Christians, too, believe that freedom and justice have meaning and that liberty is always worth the trouble. And if we believe in the Good News that surrounds us at Christmas, we can be wild-eyed optimists. We know that things will end well; we have a multitude of promises and plenty of evidence that God will keep those promises of liberty for the captives.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Found Art/Object Creche Scenes

For our interactive, intergenerational service, we often do an arts and crafts project once or twice a month.  When it's my turn, I feel this pressure to come up with great projects.  But this month, I've been thinking of past projects, and I've been recycling them with a twist.

In 2013, we had a make-a-crèche project with materials we found from outside (for more, see this blog post).  We've had very iffy weather, so I decided to take a different approach.

I made baggies with a wine cork, a bottle cap, and a few long pieces of yarn.  I'd been collecting some boxes.  When people arrived, they got these directions:





I also set out various other elements:  pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, markers, colored paper, a bag of marker lids that had no markers, and some other odds and ends.  People went to the closet and got out cups and other supplies.  One girl went outside and collected some leaves.  People took a variety of approaches to the manger (note the baby Jesus as minimarshmellow with wine cork parents):



We cane up with an amazing diversity of scenes.  There were 3 wise men:



There were complete scenes with angels:



There was even a scene with a reindeer (to the right, with popsicle stick antlers):



People gravitated to smaller boxes, the butter boxes, the tea boxes:



Purists might ask, "Well what did you learn?"  As we started the session, I asked people to be thinking about what similarities we saw from what we created to the first Christmas story.



We talked about God's ability to take all sorts of trash and turn it into something treasured.  I even ventured to say that many people might have seen Mary and Joseph as trashy people, completely expendable.  I wanted to press this point, to talk about how we might still be as complicit as seeing people as trash--but I backed off, since we had a shabbily dressed man joining us, and I hesitate to be forceful with children present (I don't censor myself, but I say a few sentences and move on):



We also talked about Mary and Joseph making the best of a bad situation.  We talked about how the straw was dirty, but it could still be used to keep them all warm:




So, in the end, did we learn enough to make it worth all the effort?  I have resigned myself to never knowing the answer to that question, in church, in my English classes, in any aspect of my life.



But it's an interesting approach, nonetheless, and I have hopes that this approach to the story might help us see it in new ways.  The problem with the stories that we're about to hear in all sorts of ways as we move from Advent to Christmas is that we've heard them a lot, and we think we know what's going on.  I like a project like this one, which might short circuit our traditional approaches (especially if we're older).

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fear of Running Out of the Advent Wreath Candles

Last night was the first night that we lit the 3rd candle on the Advent wreath.  I wanted to light it before we moved into the 4th week of Advent, so last night was our last chance.

I see a similar dynamic in my mind that is usual for this time of year.  The first week of Advent, I light the candles several times, perhaps every night.  Then I get alarmed at how the candle has burnt down.  What if we don't have any part of the first candle left by the time we get to fourth week of Advent?  Then I become more and more hesitant to light the candles at all.

I realize that there's an obvious lesson here.  But it's still hard for me to go ahead and light them.

Last night we were watching a Holocaust film, Treblinka's Last Witness.  My spouse brought the Advent wreath over to the coffee table, and we let the candles burn while we watched this story of ghastly inhumanity.  I wish I believe that it couldn't happen again, but it has happened, one genocide or more per decade, since the end of World War II.  At least we haven't seen genocide with the wide geographical reach that Hitler had.

It's grim consolation, as we listen to reports coming out of Aleppo.

Clearly, I need to keep those candles lit, keep those prayers for peace coming, keep watch for signs of the Divine breaking through.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Non-Political Food Pantries

This week at work, we had a planning meeting which wandered into January and February.  It's sobering to realize that we are late in planning for January--specifically for some sort of social justice project or community service approach to Martin Luther King day.

I wasn't planning to evangelize when I opened my mouth; I was thinking about projects that would be easy to put together.  I said, "We could have some sort of food drive.  My church runs a food pantry that gives food to everyone who needs it.  I could get a list from them.  They're in Pembroke Pines, which is part of our community" (my school campus is right on the border of Hollywood and Pembroke Pines). 

I mentioned that an added benefit would be to let our students know about community resources that exist; one of the heartbreaking thing about working in higher ed is realizing how many students are struggling with huge issues, like hunger and homelessness, in addition to going to school.

We talked about other possibilities, like some sort of letter writing campaign, as it will also be Inauguration Day.  I could sense the hesitation in the room.  I said, "That's why I return to the idea of collecting food for a food pantry.  It's the very rare person who objects to feeding the hungry--that's not seen as too political."

We didn't develop specific plans--another advantage of a food drive is that it doesn't take much planning.  But it was a good conversation to have. 

In a week of horrifying news out of Syria (and what week in the past year or two hasn't been full of that kind of news, out of Syria or other places of slaughter), it's good to remember that most of us would really like to help our communities, both the local ones and the larger ones.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Poetry Friday: "Adjunct Professor, Ebenezer Scrooge"

On Sunday, as we flipped through channels, we came across A Christmas Carol, one we hadn't seen before, with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge.  It was so compelling that we kept coming back to it, eventually switching back and forth between it and The Simpsons.  I finally had to call it a night after the Ghost of Christmas Past was done.  At some point, I hope to see the rest because it was so gorgeously done.

I thought it was a film released to movie theatres, that's how beautiful it was. But it was a made for TV movie, done back in 1999.  I'm amazed that it's been around so long, and I haven't stumbled across it before. 

I've spent a few days thinking about my involvement with this text, both the one that Charles Dickens wrote, and the many filmed versions--and the larger pop culture world of texts (I'm using that word in its largest context) influenced by A Christmas Carol.  I have yet to see a filmed version that captures how dirty London would be during Scrooge's time, how claustrophobic it would feel to be on the street.

I also thought about a poem I wrote years ago, when I was in the midst of accreditation paperwork and hiring.   This year, I'm also in the midst of accreditation paperwork and hiring, and I went back to the poem. 

I've always delighted in taking fictional characters, and putting them in different situations--this poem is one of those.  I think it holds up well, and here it is, available to the wider world for the first time.  It has a sort of spirituality, but its much more understated than many of the poems I post here.



Adjunct Professor, Ebenezer Scrooge


Ebenezer Scrooge decides he needs
a change of scenery
and so he returns to the university
to teach a class in the Business School.

He’s not really credentialed,
but because he was brought on board
at the last minute, an emergency
hire, the dean overlooks this lack.

Also, he’s never taught.
The department chair argued
that his years as boss
should count, and thus, his entry.

Within weeks, students line
the hallways, waiting to complain
to the department chair, the dean, the president,
anyone who will listen.

Scrooge doesn’t ever return
their papers. He ignores
office hours. He won’t respond
to e-mail. And his imperious attitude!

When questioned, Scrooge complains
about the insistence of the modern student,
the 2:00 a.m. e-mails, the impatience
at 4:00 a.m. when he hasn’t answered.

The chair nods; he’s unbearably familiar
with students who expect him
to discipline their professors
as if lodging a complaint about a bad waitress.

Still, the dean insists on action,
an improvement plan. Scrooge quits.
He returns to his life of keeping tight
reign on costs and his employees.

Only occasionally does he miss
campus life, the walk across the quad,
the shiny labs with the latest technology,
the library, full of unread books.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Snapshots from a mid-December

I feel a bit fragmented, but in a good way, the kind of fragmented that comes from doing a variety of tasks, being interrupted, going back to tasks, and through this weaving accomplishing what must be done.

Let me record some reflections, however fleeting:

--We need to light the third candle on the Advent wreath that sits on our dining room table.  We need to do that before the 4th Sunday in Advent.

--The color blue is invading my sleep.  Last night I dreamed I was sewing by hand, sifting through a variety of beautiful blue cloth.  This morning, I used that image in a poem.  The dream was lovely, but the poem is dark:  an older woman, sewing in a besieged city.  Aleppo is very much on my mind this week.

--The Holocaust is also on my brain because I finished reading Timothy Snyder's Black Earth:  Holocaust as History and Warning.   As a younger woman, I couldn't fathom why people didn't work harder to rescue the Jews and others in danger.  This week, I'm fairly sure that future generations will wonder the same thing about Syria.

--I don't have a good answer.

--In lighter news, I have proposed a soup and sweets supper between the two earliest Christmas Eve services.  I'm willing to provide soup, if others provide the crock pots.   I envision a time of fellowship, especially for those of us who are participating in 2 services and live too far away to go back home in between.  People can come and go as they like.  Even if we find out no one wants soup, I'm willing to spearhead this--it gives me somewhere to hang out between services, after all.

--Hard to believe that we are not that far away from Christmas.  How quickly time is zooming by.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 18, 2016:

First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16

Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25


The Gospel for the Sunday before Christmas Eve gives us an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream. It's interesting to think about our lectionary, which moves in 3 year cycles and leaves out part of the story each year. This year we read about Joseph; other years, we see the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and to Elizabeth before her. This week, on Christmas Eve, we'll hear about angels appearing to shepherds.

Notice the responses of these people. They give themselves to God's will. They don't protest, the way that some of our spiritual ancestors did--think of Moses, who tried and tried to get God to go away.

It's important to note that God always gives us a choice, although God can be notoriously insistent. Joseph could have gone on with his plans to divorce Mary quietly; notice his unwillingness to shame her publicly, as would have been his right in a patriarchal society. But the angel appears to give Joseph a fuller picture, and Joseph submits to God's will. Likewise, Mary could have said, "Mother of the Messiah? Forget it. I just want a normal kid." But she didn't.

During this time of year, I often wonder how many times I've turned down God. Does God call me to a higher purpose? Am I living my life in a way that is most consistent with what God envisions for me?

The readings for this time of year reminds us to stay alert and watchful. This time of year, when the corporate consumer machine is cranked into high gear, when so many of us sink into depression, when the world has so many demands, it's important to remember that God's plan for the world is very different than your average CEO's vision. It's important to remember that we are people of God, and that allegiance should be first.

What does this have to do with Joseph? Consider the story again, and what it means for us modern people. Maybe you're like Joseph, and you're overly worried about what people will think about you and your actions. The Gospel for this Sunday reminds us that following God may require us to abandon the judgments of the world and accept God's judgment.

Notice that Joseph is the only one in the story who receives an angel visitation in a dream. What is the meaning of this fact? Perhaps this route was the only way that God could reach Joseph. Many of us are so used to having our yearnings mocked or unanswered that they go deep underground, only to bubble up in dreams and visions. Convenient for us, since we can discount things more easily when they appear in our dreams.

God will take many routes to remind us of our role in the divine drama. Many of us won't notice God's efforts; we're too busy being so busy. This time of year reminds us to slow down, to contemplate, to pay attention.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Feast Day of Santa Lucia

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

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

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

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

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

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

A picture from that cover story


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sing We Joyous All Together

Yesterday was our church's annual Christmas caroling.  It's not like the caroling of my youth, where we went to church members' houses in the evening--some years, we parked in the neighborhood and walked from house to house.  Some years, did we drive from house to house?

Yesterday we drove from place to place--for part of the afternoon, in driving rain.  It was no Currier and Ives scene.

One of our stops was at a rehab center in Aventura.  I use the term rehab usely--most of those residents have no hope for rehabilitation.

This past summer, the center called to ask if we'd do some sort of service, as they hadn't had anything like it for almost a year.  A group has been going once a month, but I've never been able to go.  So yesterday was also the day we did the service.

I was expecting a more chapel-like atmosphere, even though I wasn't surprised to find that they had no chapel--maybe it's only nursing homes in the U.S. South that do that.  So the rec room atmosphere didn't surprise me, but the TVs did.  Clearly, some of the residents had been parked there.  And some weren't happy that we were there singing.

We persevered, and at the end, the few residents who remained clapped.  Then we were off to the next stop.

At the end of the day, I reflected how our caroling is so different from how I envision it--for one thing, we were competing with the Dolphins game at most stops.  I asked my spouse, "Do you really think we brought joy to anyone?  Or did we just interfere with their watching of the game?"

It's hard to know.  Do the carolers bring each other joy?  Yes, in a way, although it leaves me exhausted in a way that many other church activities don't.  I have to confront my fear of mortality and bodily betrayals with every stop, since we're going to those who are shut in, often at rehab centers or hospitals.

But I will go--it's good for me to face my fears, for one thing.  It's good to go out with church members, most of whom I'd like to know better.  And if there's any chance that it brings joy to those we visit, then it's worth it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

History's Warnings and Reminders

Yesterday, we had quite a rain event, which I blogged about in this post.  Later, I made a Facebook post with this picture of our neighbor taking some of the neighborhood children for a ride in his kayak:



That's the middle of the street, mind you, with an hour of rain yet to come. 



By early afternoon, the waters had receded.  I feel lucky--we had some water intrusion into our backyard cottage, in the usual spots, and water on the front windowsill of the main house in the usual spot, but it would have been much worse if we had had another few hours of rain.  We were home, so we could move the cars into the driveway--if not, the car parked in the street might have been ruined.

After a nap, I spent the afternoon reading--and reading a big book of nonfiction, Timothy Snyder's Black Earth:  Holocaust as History and Warning.   How long has it been since I've read something this big, this important?  I looked at my book list, and earlier this year, I read a big biography about The Inklings and a book about the FBI and radical groups in the 70's.

I ordered the book because I read Snyder's Facebook post on twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.  I read it before Thanksgiving and found it such an interesting approach that I saved it to the hard drive of my computer.  It was still on my brain when I made an Amazon order last week, so I added it.

I had hoped that the book would focus more on the warning, less on the history--it doesn't, but the history is fascinating.  About huge subjects, like the Holocaust, I often think I have nothing left to learn, but that's not true.  I read half the book yesterday, in part because it was riveting and in part because my spouse was grading, I was caught up on my grading, and a window of time opened up for reading.

So, what am I learning/remembering?  It's scary to be in Hitler's brain.  His view of humanity was dark, and he took ideas about survival of the fittest to dangerous extremes.  He saw us in a race for scarce resources, and the only approach was to fight viciously to win.  His view of the place of the Jews is almost incomprehensible to me.

And here's what's scary--he knew that he needed to keep those views hidden, even as he was preparing the country for a huge war where Germans could prove themselves.  I don't seen anyone quite like Hitler in our current landscape.  Of course, go back in time and only a few of Hitler's contemporaries understood his mindset.

Here's what seems most relevant to our current day:  the importance of the nation-state in protecting minorities.  Snyder points out that the worst atrocities happened after Hitler destroyed the various institutions of the state.  Jews and other minorities weren't killed in huge numbers in Germany.  They were shipped east, where Hitler had created space for anarchy and bloodshed by destroying the state.

I realize that for every example of atrocities happening because of the absence of the nation-state, we could give an example of the nation-state making atrocities happen that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

I am finding this book both oddly comforting and disconcerting.  It's good to remember that the world is more stable right now than it was in the 30's, when fascists rose to take power.  It's also sobering to realize how quickly that can change, as Jews in Austria in 1938 would remind us.

It's also good to remember that we have some power, although we may feel like we don't.  And those of us who have privilege because of our race, our class, our gender, our citizenship--we have a duty and a serious responsibility in times like these.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Advent Weariness

In some years, the angels speak to us, with their news that we need not be afraid, that something wonderful bursts forth for those who have eyes to see.




Some years, it's the prophet crying in the wilderness about pathways made straight, the need to repent.



Some years, we tire of that locust-tinted breath always beating down on us.  Some years, the angels come too close.




Some years we scan the skies, looking for the unusual, a far-away star to tell us something new.



Maybe we just need a walk with a friend to do what the prophet and angels cannot do, to get us back on track and restore our sense of wonder.


Friday, December 9, 2016

Christmas Music and the Ukulele

Last night, I heard a woman say, "We can do Christmas music on the ukulele without singing 'Mele Kalikimaka' you know."

But we did sing that song, among many others.  Last night was the monthly ukulele meet-up at 2&, an interesting spot that's both a bar and a performance space and a bike repair shop (bike racks inside!).  It's in the trendy part of Ft. Lauderdale, on Las Olas, and the summer days of easy parking are over--but because we had to hunt more, we found free parking on a back street.

It was a drizzly night--not the wintry drizzle that you would expect in December, but the kind when humid air finally starts to weep a bit.  Still, it was great to see the lights, to arrive at the bar, and to spend a few hours working our way through Christmas music.

One member of the group brings a projector, and the rest of us pluck along to the chords beamed on the wall.  One woman said, "We should turn off the projector and see how many people can sing the second verse."

We didn't, but if we had, I'd have won that prize.  The sacred songs I've sung my whole life, and they were probably the first songs I memorized.  I have spent every December of my life with Christmas albums, tapes, and CDs on endless loops, so I know the secular music too.

As we played, I watched the people wander by.  I wondered if they recognized the music.  Did they say, "Hey, where's that ukulele music coming from?"  Or do they even know what kind of instrument we're playing?

Last night, as we sang "Silent Night" at the top of our lungs (incongruous, I know), a pair of young guys came in. One had long dreadlocks.  One had a shirt that declared "Drink Wisconsibly."  They had that baffled look, as if to say, "Who has invaded my bar?"  I wanted to know if they knew the hymn.  That baffled look could have also been, "I almost know this song.  It's so familiar.  What is it?"

I thought about the fact that very few people these days are growing up going to church every week.  How will we know these songs?  Will there come a day when very few people know them?  Are we already there and I don't know it because I hang out in Churchland?

All in all, it was a fun night--not the meditative Advent night I'd have had at home, but a good practice for our Christmas Eve ukulele service.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Keeping a Calm Space

Last month, as I caught up on e-mails, I listened to this wonderful Fresh Air interview with hospice chaplain Kerry Egan. 

Interviewer Terry Gross says, "You write about how about one of the things you want to do is hold open a space of prayer or meditation or reflection when someone doesn't have the energy or strength to keep the walls from collapsing."

It occurs to me that many of our jobs require much the same thing, but of course, in a very different way than that of the hospice chaplain.  In other settings, we hold open this space much more silently.

A bit later, Egan says, "And what it really means is to model a sense of in the midst of this storm of emotion, you can stay calm, right? It does not have to overtake you. And you would be surprised at how powerful that is for someone else, just to be with someone who is maintaining a sense of presence, of not being in the past, of not being in the future, of literally being present, you know, in the presence. But that has a way of calming people down."

Yes, modeling calm behavior--another way of keeping the walls from collapsing. 

Each time I have dealt with an upset person (often a student), I have tried to model this calm behavior--while at the same time wondering how people get through life with such a hair-trigger outrage response.  I have wondered if people have changed, if I'm just coming in contact with more stressed out people, if once I hung out with a more laid-back bunch.

But it's also clear to me that we have more people ready to express their rage much more quickly than they once did.  Yesterday I heard the news stories about the guy who drove from North Carolina with his shotgun, thinking (because of a false news story) that he was going to liberate children being held in a sex ring at a DC pizza place.  I thought, who does these things?

Most of us won't be moved to that kind of action, but more of us these days seem to be suffering from extreme moods.  And those of us who are Christians can help to bring peace to the world by some of the hospice chaplain actions that Egan describes.

I look forward to reading the book--and I see a window of time approaching where I might do it.  Perhaps in time for the new year, and some resolutions of a different sort!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 11, 2016:


First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 146:4-9 (Psalm 146:5-10 NRSV)

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

Second Reading: James 5:7-10

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11


Here again, in this week's Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the new social order--the first will be last, the last will be first. Since many of us in first world churches would be categorized as "the first," this edict bears some contemplation. What do we do if we find ourselves in positions of power? Are we supposed to walk away from that?

Well, yes, in a sense, we are. Again and again, the Bible reminds us that we find God on the margins of respectable society. Again and again, we see that God lives with the poor and the oppressed. Nowhere is that message more visible to Christians than in the story of the birth of Jesus.

We get so dazzled by the angels and the wise men that we forget some of the basic elements of the story. In the time of great Roman power, God doesn't appear in Rome. No, God chooses to take on human form in a remote Roman outpost. In our current day, it would be as if the baby Jesus was born on Guam or the Maldives. Most of us couldn't locate those islands on a globe; we'd be surprised to hear that the Messiah came again and chose to be born so far away from the most important world capitals, like Washington D.C. or London, Beijing or Moscow.

God came to live amongst one of the most marginalized groups in the Roman empire--the only people lower on the social totem pole would have been captives of certain wars and slaves. Most Romans would have seen Palestinian Jews as weird and warped, those people who limited themselves to one god. Not sophisticated at all.

God couldn't even get a room at the inn. From years of Christmas pageants, we may have sanitized that manger. We may forget about the smelliness of real hay, the scratchiness, the bugs, the ways that animals stink up a barn.

God chose a marginalized young couple as parents. Did God choose to be born in the palace of Herod? No. We don't hear about Joseph as a landowner, which means that his family couldn't have been much lower on the totem pole, unless they were the Palestinian equivalent of sharecroppers. God does not choose the way of comfort.

Again and again, Jesus tells us to keep watch. God appears in forms that we don't always recognize. God appears in places where we wouldn't expect to find the Divine. Jesus reminds us again and again that there's always hope in a broken world. God might perform the kind of miracles that don't interest us at first. The Palestinian Jews wanted a warrior Messiah to liberate them from Rome. Instead they got someone who healed the sick and told them to be mindful of their spiritual lives so that they didn't lose their souls.

Many of us experience something similar today. We want something different from God. God has different desires for us than our desires for our lives. We ask for signs and miracles, and when we get them, we sigh and say, "That's not what I meant. I wanted them in a different form." We turn away.

The John the Baptists of the world remind us to turn back again. Repent. Turn back. Forswear our foolish ways. Go out to meet God. Your salvation is at hand.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Feast Day of Saint Nicholas

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.

Still, I don't do much with this feast day--if I had children or gift-giving friends, I might, but most years, I simply pause to remember the historical origins of the saint and the day.

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.  No dowry meant no marriage, 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.

How did we get from these stories to our current Santa Clause?  The question that interests me more is how we got from these stories to Santa Clause to the current buying frenzies that consume many of our Christmases.

Would we have a different approach to gift giving if we gave presents throughout the season instead of a mad rush on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?  Would we feel differently if we only gave and got one gift? 

What if we started our gift giving today and gave our last gift on Epiphany?  What if we gave a gift to a charity for every gift we gave to a loved one?

Let me end with another little-known fact:  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.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Preaching Report: Gabriel and Mary and Good News Delivery Systems

Yesterday's preaching went well.  My church is off-lectionary, so we heard the story of Gabriel appearing to Mary.  I talked about Mary as an unlikely vessel for the holy, which my spouse worried offended some.

And yet, my larger point was true:  if you were God and going to make yourself completely vulnerable, would you choose Mary?  Of course not.  You'd choose someone with more and better resources.  Mary had so little.

Of course, throughout the Scriptures, we see God choosing the most unlikely ways to break into the world and to make changes.  It's become one of the things I treasure most about God.

I had worried more about what I said about the journey to Bethlehem because of taxation purposes was likely not a fact.  I first came across this idea in Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:   "Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family I order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and possessions, which in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous" (p. 30).

I don't read the Bible as history--what folly that would be--but I know so many people who do.  They are astounded and disbelieving when told that there is no historical record of this census of the Romans.   My spouse reminded me of how many people at the late service are considerably older and not used to thinking of the Bible as true but not factual.

I used to wonder how many people complained to the pastor when he returned, but probably no one does.  They probably shrug and feel happy that I'm not preaching all the time.

My spouse also points out that most people are with me by the end of any sermon I give, that I bring it around to material we can all agree on.  Yesterday was no different.  At the end, I talked about remembering how much God wants to be with us so much that God will put up with the indignities of being trapped in human form.

Good news indeed.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Meditation on Mary

Today my church, which is off-lectionary, will be exploring Mary.  Beyond Advent, Protestants traditionally don't spend much time thinking about Mary, which is a shame, because she has much to teach us.



I think of Mary and her need to wait.  She's not Moses, called to leading people out of slavery.  She waits through pregnancy and then through the childhood of Jesus. 



Her role is vital, but it's often a background role.  It's only later that we realize that it's really a starring role.



I think of Mary, who occupied one of the lowest rungs in her society:  a woman who lived in a distant outpost of the Roman empire. 



Only a slave might have been lower.  Two things leap out at me:  one is that God can use any of us, from the highest to the most powerless.




And from this place of displacement, Mary gains understanding.  Perhaps that is why so many feel comfortable praying to her.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Poetry Saturday: "Exercising Freedom"

I've been looking at poems from past years that I wrote during Advent, about Advent, poems that explore holiday themes of all sorts.

This year, I wrote a different kind of Advent poem.  I had all sorts of imagery in my head:  thoughts of the recent election, refugees fleeing all sorts of horror, news of wildfires in the mountains of the U.S. south, this Adrienne Rich poem, and a variety of poems posted in mid-November on the Via Negativa site.

I wrestled with the title, as I often do.  Part of my problem is that I couldn't decide if I thought the poem was hopeful or not--it's both hopeful and doomed, and I like the fact that it can occupy both spaces at once--as is so often the case with so many of us and so many events.

This week, as I've been reading Isaiah along with other Advent texts, I've thought about this poem, which I actually wrote the week before Thanksgiving, although Advent was already on my brain.  Are the voices of the ancestors these ancient prophets?  Perhaps.  Or maybe they are the apocalyptic novelists I've always loved.  Or maybe they are the social activists who have always inspired me.

Or maybe all of it.

So, a poem to enjoy on your first Saturday of Advent!



Exercising Freedom

"We were always
Trying to run toward each other."
                        Luisa A. Igloria, “Landscape in an afterlife
Once again, you find yourself
on the old revolutionary road
with the houses that once hid
the asylum seekers.

The long road stretches
before you, overgrown
with brambles and struggling seedlings.
You see the fires
ahead, burning cities
or perhaps the lights
of fellow travelers.
Smoke hides the mountains.

The road is lined
with the suitcases of immigrants
who abandoned all the essentials
they once lugged to a new country.

You have kept your treasures
sewn into your hemlines, heirloom
seeds and the small computer chip
that holds your freedom papers.
Your grandmother’s gold hoops dance
in your earlobes and twinkle
around your fingers.

You hear the voices of the ancestors,
colored with both reason and panic.
Go faster, they urge.
You are needed up ahead.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Administrator Week: Letters, Prayers

This week, in the midst of many visions and revisions of accreditation documents, I took a minute to catch up on other administrator paperwork.  Some of it, like transfer credits from other schools, I'm familiar with.  But yesterday came a never-done-before task.

I signed acceptance letters.

I took a minute to remember my own acceptance letters along the way--the ones that admitted me to schools and programs where I yearned to be.  I thought about my spouse's acceptance into the MPA program in 1995--a letter that might have changed our lives more than any other letter, as it was just the start of a half decade of many changes, including selling much of what we owned and moving to South Florida.

I took a minute as I signed each letter to imagine the potential student receiving it.  What life-changing news was my signature part of?  I wondered if my letter would be one of several, leading the student to have to make decisions.  I also know that for some students, this letter will be a last chance at higher education.

I took a minute to say a prayer for each of these possible students.  It was a nebulous prayer, more along the lines of something I borrowed from Julian of Norwich:  "May all be well."  But it was a prayer without words, a luminous moment.  The words have come later, as I've thought about this moment during my work week.

As I move into administrator duties at my new job that are both familiar and new, I also offer a prayer for myself, that I remember to pray for all these lives that are now so linked together in this setting that is new to me.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Eyes on the Prize, Hands on the Plow

In these days of so many of us fretting over the future of the nation, let us take a pause to remember what ordinary citizens can do.  Today, December 1, gives us 2 movements to celebrate.

On this day in in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. This act is often given credit for launching the Civil Rights Movement, but what many forget is that various communities had begun planning for the launch, even before they could see or know what it would look like.  This liberation work had been going on since the end of the Civil War, and before, during the times of slavery.

For generations, people had prepared for just such a moment that Rosa Parks gave them. They had gotten training in nonviolent resistance. They had come together in community in a variety of ways. They were prepared.

And in this way, a group of ordinary people made the arc of history bend towards justice.  We should take heart from their example.  Those Civil Rights workers faced much steeper odds than we face.

In these days of dead dictators (I'm thinking of Fidel Castro) and the distress that so many of us feel over the current state of politics--and the temptation to romanticize past decades--let us also remember that  today is also World Aids Day, a somber day that recognizes that this plague has been one of the most destructive diseases in human history. Let us remember another band of activists who worked hard to make sure that humanity vanquished this disease--I'm thinking of ACT UP, but AIDS united many groups that might not have otherwise found a common cause.

Many people idolize Ronald Reagan, but I will never be able to forget how he refused to take leadership as this disease emerged.  I am haunted by all the lives lost, and perhaps needlessly--if only . . . but history is so full of this needless loss.

It's easy to get bogged down in despair; we have survived earlier dark days, and we will survive any darkness coming our way too.

We can't know how long the struggle might be. Those of us who work towards social justice and human dignity for all are similar to those medieval builders of cathedral: we may not be around to see the magnificent completion of our vision, but it's important to play our part. In the words of that old Gospel song, we keep our eyes on the prize, our hands on the plow, and hold on.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 4, 2016:


First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12


Today's Gospel continues with the Advent theme of watching, waiting, and listening for the call. Today it's John the Baptist who tells us of what's to come.

The real, living Jesus was not who John's listeners expected. Many of them probably thought that John was talking about himself; after all, first century Palestine was full of self-proclaimed Messiahs, and I expect many of them spoke of themselves in the third person telling (or warning) of the deeds they would do. Many of John's listeners probably had no idea what he was talking about; humans seem incapable of thinking in terms of metaphor and symbol for very long. Many of them probably expected a Messiah that would come in a form they'd recognize: a warrior to save them from the Romans, a temple reformer to get rid of corrupt priests, or maybe someone who would lead them into the wilderness to set up a new community.

Are we not the same way? How many of us read the Bible literally, expecting specific answers to social or political issues that would have been unheard of thousands of years ago when the Scriptures were written? How many of us would welcome salvation when it comes? We go to church, we sit in our pews, we wait for God to appear. We wonder why we don’t feel the presence of God, as we go home to take a nap and gear up for our secular week ahead. We scurry through the rat race of our lives, substituting other things for God. We worship at the churches of Capitalism, buying things at the mall or on the Internet, which means we have to work overtime to pay for those things. We wonder why we feel unfulfilled. To try to fill that emptiness, we do more of the activities that leave us with gaping holes in our Spirit. We hear that voice, the voice of the Spirit--maybe it cries or maybe it whispers. It scares us, so we eat some more or flip through ever more cable stations or go to bed early--because we can't deal with the implications.

John warns what happens to those of us who don't listen: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (verse 12). Some of us don't like this vision of a God with a winnowing fork in hand. How does this mesh with a God of grace and love?

 I think of parents, like my cousins and my sister, and this past Thanksgiving when I heard much discussion of bad choices.  I was rooting for the next generation to buckle down and eat a slice of pizza so that we could move on to watching a movie--but one of them had to go to bed early because he refused to eat something that had contained pepperoni.

I think of John's fiery language and the idea of winnowing.  I think of God as a loving parent, wishing we would do what's good for us.  God doesn't have to do much winnowing. Our lifestyles are already punishing us. Many of us are already feeling that unquenchable fire.

The good news is that there is time to change our ways. There is still time to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." (verse 3). Advent, traditionally a time for getting ready, is a good time to think ahead. How could we make the next year to be our best spiritual year ever?

Choose just one simple action, whether it be keeping a prayer journal or making gratitude lists or learning to play or sing sacred music. Choose just one action and attend to it faithfully.

In this way, you will be in a much stronger spiritual place a year from now. You will be bearing fruit. God will call, and you will hear. God won't have to go to such great lengths to get your attention. Your deepest yearnings, the ones you didn't even know you had, will be filled, as you move towards God--and God moves towards you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Creating a Contemplative Corner for Advent

I spent yesterday mired in accreditation documents--I say mired, but I was making progress.  By the end of the day, I just had a few pieces of information to add, information that will come from someone else, so I couldn't make much more progress.

I got home, and we had a simple supper of potatoes and fish.  We lit the first candle on the Advent wreath and sang the first verse of "Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah."  Later, we sat on the porch, in a true candlelit time.  By flashlight, I read a Henri Nouwen piece ("Waiting for God") about Mary, Elizabeth, and all the other Advent characters who wait.

Here's a Nouwen quote for your Advent reflection today:

"The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen.  Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us.  In this way, we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness."

While I have not yet created much new art, aside from blog posts, with Advent themes, last night felt important:  the second night of Advent, a time out of regular time, even as we did normal activities like eating dinner and sitting on the porch.

On the Sunday before Advent, I ignored the Christ the King element of the lectionary, and looked forward to Advent:



So far, so good!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Down from the Mountain Top, Back to Regular Life

Yesterday, although we'd been home less than 12 hours, I went to church.  I wanted to help decorate Advent wreaths, including one of my own that I hope to use regularly over the next 4 weeks:




As I drove to church, I felt vaguely irritable and as I stopped at red light after red light, I wondered why I was pushing myself to get to church.  But once I was there, I was glad I did.  It was good to catch up with everyone, and good to get ready for Advent.  I got home and finished unpacking and setting up for Advent.



I love that we have a small tree of Chrismon ornaments.  My step-mom-in-law made us a set long ago.  I like that this tree gives us a different focus--and it goes well with the Advent wreath.



In the evening, we went back across town to the parsonage for the monthly ukulele meet-up.  We are playing for one of the Christmas Eve services, so I wanted to get the music.  Hopefully, I will practice.



There's a reason that we push ourselves so hard to make the drive back on Saturday.  It's good to have a day to get caught up after being away.  I wouldn't want to be going back to work today without yesterday to get organized.  Of course, it would be good to have another day or two--but one must go back to work, back to "regular life," sooner or later.

Most religious traditions separate regular life from "mountain top" experiences.  I am lucky to have had a week with several mountain top experiences.  There's the time on the literal mountain, my beloved mountains that surround Lutheridge.  There's the mountain top experience of being with my family.  And then there are the mountain top experiences of yesterday:  Advent wreath making at church, a restorative afternoon at home, and the joy of creating music together in the evening.  I am glad to have had them.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent Begins

Even though I spent over 12 hours yesterday, making my way back to South Florida from our family celebration in the mountains of North Carolina, I am still not feeling like I've made the transition from Thanksgiving to Advent.

But life teaches us that these shifts come to us, ready or not.  Here we are at the first Sunday of Advent.

Today at church we will make Advent wreaths.  Every year I take my straw form to church and wrap it with something different in terms of ribbons--I tend to stick to an Advent blue, although not everyone does.

Some years we light our wreath so regularly that we have no candle left to represent the first week of Advent by the time we get to Christmas.  Some years we can use last year's candles.

Each year, I have a fervent wish to have a more mindful Advent--some devotions in the evening or morning, a lighting of the candles.  I find myself missing the Advent calendars of my childhood--open a door and find a treat. 

Here's a calendar that my parents picked up in the early years of their marriage when they travelled Europe while stationed in France. 



The hearts are outlines, and thus, they link together--one for each day of Advent.

Perhaps this year, I'll create something each day of Advent and link it together.  Or maybe I will resolve to sketch more with my wonderful markers.  Let me see what happens.