Monday, December 31, 2018

Renovate: 2018 (a progress report)

My sister and I often choose a word for the year.  My word for 2018 was renovate.  Here's what I wrote in this blog post on Jan. 1:  "Some years I try to choose a word that will be a motto or mantra for the coming year. This year's word is either "Remodel" or "Renovation." Readers may remember that finishing the house renovations was my goal for 2017--and it was, but then, life (a huge accreditation project at work primarily) and Hurricane Irma, intervened."

The past year has been one of renovating, not just a remodel.  We've lived with a variety of inconveniences:  floors ripped up and then put back into shining shape, a kitchen ripped out and still not back yet.  Most of the furniture moved out of the main house and lots of thinking about what we want back in the house.  We had the hurricane damaged fence and rolling gate removed and gotten a new fence.  We've gotten a new HVAC system for the cottage.  We've had damaged walls fixed.

It's no wonder I've been tired much of the year.

Sometimes it feels like we're not making any progress, since we're still making our morning coffee in the bathroom, with most of the books and CDs packed away in boxes, on and on this list can go.  But we are making progress.

And it's been interesting to reflect on our possessions.  If I can do without my books for half a year, do I really need them?  If I haven't needed the variety of art supplies I've collected through the years, is it worth keeping them?

This process will be an ongoing one--indeed, in many ways, it's the life work that most of us do at some point.  I would argue that those of us who are most self-aware are always doing a version of this:  what is necessary?  what can be cast away?  what is impeding our progress?

Let me reflect on some other aspects of 2018.

It's the time of year when writers report how many submissions they made.  I did keep submitting poems and short stories to journals, but I didn't do as much with my book length manuscripts.

I did keep writing.  That feels significant.  I also engaged with my creative self in other ways, most notably in the online journaling class that began on Nov. 4 and lasted 7 weeks.

I continued to try to create community at my school where I work.  Some might question whether creating community is part of my job description, but it's the work that undergirds the other work, the keeping of records, the reporting of data, the strategizing about how to improve the chance of student success at all levels.

And I continued to stay engaged with my church, another site of community creating.  I was most pleased with our Pentecost project, where we engaged with the idea of Pentecost through a variety of art projects (see this post, this post, and this post).  I'm grateful to have a group of people willing to participate in these projects.

My sister and I have decided that our word for 2019 will be treasure.  I found this quote that spoke to me in Anne Lamott's Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace: "Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure."  I feel like so much of my life lately has been a rebuilding of life out of the ruins:  hurricane ruins, the closing of a variety of schools including the one I where I used to work, which makes me feel uneasy, and the many ways that midlife reminds us that big changes are underway.  I need this quote to remind me that it won't all result in mourning in the ruins.  There may be treasure in the ruins too.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

A Different Kind of Spiritual Journal

At some point in 2018, I had an Amazon Prime membership that was ending, and I had no plans to pay the price to renew it.  I went a bit crazy ordering things while I still had the free, expedited shipping.  That's how I purchased 2 sketchbooks that were too small.  Here they are beside the size sketchbook I thought I was ordering.

It would cost more to send them back than to keep them, so I kept them.  When it was time for our home remodel, I tossed them in a box.  In the past few weeks, I had an idea for what to do with them, but then I wasn't sure where they were.

So, yesterday I opened some of the boxes that seemed promising.  They weren't in the box marked Blank books or Sketchbooks.  But I was pleased to find my older spiritual sketchbook journaling so I pulled those out.

Finally in a box marked Religious, Bibles, Odds and Ends, I found them.  This morning, I made my first sketch of intentions for the week.

My plan is to make this kind of sketch every Sunday.  I plan to write several goals, most of them artistic, some of them spiritual, some of them pointing me to a different future which is as yet undisclosed.  I will only add the physical stuff (eat more veggies, exercise more, that type stuff)   I will keep the sketch on the windowsill above my writing desk, as the Advent wreath evolves into something else:

My hope is that I will live more intentionally as I write my goals for the week, as I look at them each morning.  I hope that a year from now, when I take the long view back, I'll realize how much more I accomplished by keeping this kind of log:

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Relying on Angels

Many of us have just come through a liturgical season full of stories of angel visitations.  We may have heard of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary.  We likely heard about choirs of angels appearing to shepherds.  Maybe we also heard about the angel visiting Joseph or Zechariah.

In so many ways, our modern times have changed our view of angels.  Most of us probably don't believe that angels exist.  If we believe in angels, we certainly don't expect to see them or get a message from God through them.

I've been intrigued through the years by talking to people about their belief in guardian angels.  For some of them, it's a friendly relative watching out for them from a heavenly perch.  For others, they're not sure of how angels are assigned, but they're certain that they have one.

I have been thinking about angels as I've looked back through my sketchbooks for the recently ended online journaling class.  Angels make appearances, as does my disbelief:

Would angels have made the kind of appearances that they do if we had done the online journaling class in the summer?  Much of the class took place over the season of Advent, so I had angels on the brain.  I was also covering Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" in the literature class that I taught, so I had a different sort of angel on the brain.

When I made this sketch, I had intended to create the figure with wings, but I couldn't quite pull it off:

And then yesterday, this sketch and poem-like thing appeared:

I had planned to draw a backpack spilling open to reveal wings inside, along with a pen and a book and a dry pair of socks. But then I couldn't figure out how to draw an open backpack. And then I thought, a woman with a well-stocked backpack doesn't need a pair of wings: and voila, a sketch and a poem-like thing!

It made me think about angels again--about how my human who probably represents me has progressed from having wings to not needing them.  Would I also say the same thing about angels?

I have always worried about the human propensity for needing an outside force, whether it be to save us or give us a vital message or fix things.  Angels tend to fit into this category.  We may joke about how much easier it would be to believe if we had a sign like angel choirs singing in the skies--but we often neglect the much more regular miracles that might point us to the Divine.  We may wait for our guardian angels to step in while never making the small steps to improve our lives.

Do I really not believe in angels?  I have no idea if they exist in literal life or not.  I do believe in them as very potent symbols.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Love in a Time of Herod

Here we are, just days after the good news delivered by angels in the heavens, returning to regular life with a flood, as 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. In the story that goes with this day of remembrance, we see Herod behaving in a way that's historically believable, if perhaps not historically accurate. 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.

In past years, I've assumed that I lived under a progressive government, that the arc of history had bent towards justice, and our trajectory as a people and a country had moved in the direction of a brighter star.  But lately, it's harder to believe this story we tell ourselves.

I realize that I have been living in a relatively privileged position as a middle class white woman whose ancestors have been in this country for generations.  I realize all the ways it was easy for me to think that our nation's past problems had either been solved or were on their way to being solved.

Now I see a host of problems being created that may take more time to solve than I have on this earth.  I see a world of refugees, and I worry that we may be living in a time where we're all at much greater risk of becoming refugees, whether because a ruthless leader is trying to make a point with our bodies or because the climate has displaced us.

This day 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.

This day also reminds us of the One who offers the ultimate protection.  Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus survive because an angel warns them in a dream, and Joseph flees with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, to safety. But still, the earthly power of Herod turns them into refugees.

We can see this as a story about who has the true power--and yet, it's also a warning about what happens when earthly powers can't be trusted.  In a universe that God sets free to be governed by free will not by God pulling puppet strings, 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.

I predict that Christians across the nation (and the world) will choose to ignore this difficult text just days after Christmas. Far better to enjoy Christmas carols one last time than to wrestle with this difficult story. 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. That cute baby in the manger grows up 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.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Insignificance as Spiritual Gift

In these early morning hours, I often catch up with old NPR programs.  In this episode of On Point, at the end, they aired a Christmas Eve interview with astronaut Bill Anders who took the iconic Earthrise photo:

One caller asked how the experience had changed him spiritually, and Anders said he didn't really want to go into that.  He talked about how small the earth seemed, and it didn't take much in the way of math skills to think about how small it would seem from even further away.

He said, "So one thing that impressed me, even though the earth is physically insignificant, it certainly is important to humanity, but it also is very small . . We go around a rather insignificant star called the sun in a relatively insignificant galaxy; we're not the center of the universe . . .  we definitely are out on the edge of almost nowhere in space."

I thought of all of our recent Advent and Christmas readings and about how God comes to us by way of some of the most insignificant people of the first century:  a first century Jewish woman (so many lower levels of status contained in that description) who lives in Palestine, a distant outpost of the Roman empire.  And now, I'll always think of an even larger perspective:  God comes to us on our tiny planet in an insignificant solar system which is part of an insignificant galaxy.

I'm thinking about the larger message, about insignificance as a spiritual gift. It's the time of the year when many of us start beating ourselves up for what we haven't accomplished in the past year.  It's the time of year when we make resolutions, most of which are designed to make us more significant, not less.

This year, let us embrace our insignificance and let us remember that God often uses insignificance to make major revelations.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 30, 2018:

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, 2018

Christmas Eve 2018: The Recap

When people have asked how we would spend our Christmas, my first thought is always:  in church.  I have no regrets about this fact.  Advent and Christmas have always been my favorite times in church and in the larger world, and I'm happy to hang out in church on Christmas Eve.

Yesterday I made this Facebook post:

"I need that Christmas message. No, not the baby in a manger message--I need the "It's a Wonderful Life" Christmas message, the one that tells us that one life, no matter how seemingly insiginificant, is so important, and that the trajectory of all the adjacent lives would have been much worse without that one light of a life, shining in the darkness. Wait, that's the baby in a manger message too!

It's 1938 in terms of geopolitics. We are in desperate need of that Christmas message, delivered by fierce prophets or angels that we hear on high or a Frank Capra film or Linus, telling the Peanuts gang about the true meaning of Christmas by reciting Luke."

It's interesting to me to return to these Christmas texts and images year after year as I reflect on what has the most meaning.  This year, the idea of a just ruler leapt out of the passages.  In the past, I've been uncomfortable with the idea of God as king.  This year, with incompetent and/or evil governments taking up so much room in the world, the idea of a God who restores a good pattern of order made me weep with fierce longing.

I have been attending this church for over 10 years, so it's been enough time that the children I once knew as babies are now reading the texts--and some of them are standing in the make-up and heels and Christmas finery, which is both joyous and sobering.  I found myself offering up prayers for the safety of all the adolescent girls at the service last night.  And then I broadened my prayer--we can all use safety as we navigate our way in the hostile world.

Here are some other highlights from the evening:

--We had a typo:  Mary aid him in a manger.  It should have been laid, but not every reader figured that out in time.  So there was one odd moment when I thought, wait, Mary ate him in a manger?  

--Our handchime choir, of which I am part, had a ringing success.  When we first began rehearsing two weeks ago, what we chimed bore no resemblance to "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice."  Last night, we got there!  And I didn't make any mistakes.  I usually get a bell mixed up at least once or miss my cue.  Last night, I was as close to perfect as I expect to be.

--My spouse and 2 musician friends sang "In the Deep Midwinter" before the start of the 11:00 service.  I knew that they had only just sung it together once, earlier at the 7:30 service.  And yet, they sounded like they had been rehearsing for weeks. 

--I love the various sensory details:  the candles and other forms of twinkly lights, the decorations, the music, and the stray whiff of pine needles here and there.

--But more than anything else, I love the central message:  God loves us so much that comes to be with us--and the larger message about the various ways that illumination breaks through into all our most resistant places.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Pre-Dawn Christmas Eve

Soon we shall see our hopes realized:

We have burned some of our Advent candles to nubs, but the season of Advent ends just in time:

The manger is empty, but not for long:

A Prayer in the Pre-Dawn of Christmas Eve:

Oh, God, we weep in our chains. So many things hold us captived in our devastations, the ruins of our cities. Fill our hearts with courage. Remind us of the promise of redemption. Come to ransom us from all the things which hold us in fear. Set us free.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent 4, Winter Solstice, and a Full Moon

The fourth Sunday in Advent invites us to light the candle of Love:

The Gospel asks us to consider God's invitation:  new life in unlikely wombs:

The winter solstice reminds us that light begins to leak back into our world:

The full moon shows us the cyclical nature of so many aspects of life.

Now is the time to revisit orphaned dreams, those deferred yearnings.

Your orphanage of a heart has kept them sheltered for a reason.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Genesis Benedictions

When I think of Bible passages that move me to tears, it's usually the Psalms and the prophets.  I've never thought of the first chapter of Genesis as particularly moving--until yesterday.

I heard this story on NPR about the 1968 Apollo 8 mission and the broadcast of the reading of Genesis.  I was driving to work, and the beauty of this passage which contrasted to the social upheaval of 1968 and of our own time:  "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void. And darkness was upon the face of the deep."

The story also discussed this iconic photo:

I was born in 1965, so I don't remember a time before this photo.  I don't remember what it was like not to have this vision of our planet photographed from a distance.  I know that many have theorized that the environmental movements of the 70's were made more likely by this photo that reminded us of our blue and green planet floating above the inhospitable habitat of the moon.

Later, this photo was on my brain as I did my sketch for the day:

I thought of the benediction of the Apollo 8 astronauts, still so suitable for our current time:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas - and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Feast Day of Saint Thomas

Today we celebrate the life of Saint Thomas. It's also the Winter Solstice. It's the time of year for doubting, as it may seem that others are having better lives than we are during the holiday season.  Those of us in the northern hemisphere may feel that the dark will never recede. It's a good day to celebrate the most famous doubter of all.

Who can blame Thomas for doubting? It was a fantastic story, even if you had traveled with Jesus and watched his other miracles. Once you saw the corpse of Jesus taken off the cross, you would have assumed it was all over.

And then, it wasn't. Thomas, late to see the risen Lord, was one of the fiercest believers, legend tells us, Thomas walking all the way to India.

I wonder if Thomas is near and dear to the heart of the more rational believers. We're not all born to be mystics, after all. I worry about our vanishing sense of wonder. We've all become Thomas now. We don't believe anything that we can't measure with our five senses.

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 solstice celebrations 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."

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Christmas Music in the Ruins

This year, many of our Christmas CDs are still packed away in a box, so we've been listening to the radio more to get our soundscape.  I am struck by how many bad versions there are of a variety of holiday songs.

I'm also struck by how annoyed I am with some old favorites.  Yesterday on the way to Christmas lunch, "So this is Christmas" came on the radio.  I said, "I do not need John Lennon asking me what I've done in the past year."

And I'm struck by how sad some of these songs are:  all the songs with the theme of baby please come home.  And the older I get, the more I think of all the people who won't be coming home.

And yet, there are some musical surprises in this season.  In my high school Facebook group, one of my former classmates posted a recording of him singing "Mary Did You Know."  It's not a song I would have expected him to choose, based on his heavy metal preferences that are much more obvious.  It was beautiful.

As I was driving home yesterday, I listened to the Christmas radio station.  I saw the word Sarajevo on my radio display and heard the cello music and thought about holidays in the ruins.  I thought about a novel or a collection of short stories that revolved around post-apocalyptic holidays.  It could be a work that explored life after disaster and also served as an elegy for holiday celebrations of our current time.  In 20 years, when we're being ever more buffeted by climate change, how will our current mode of celebration be remembered?

This morning, I thought about all the ways I've explored this theme in my writing of poems.  Years ago, I was hearing about a Christmas Eve service being held at the ruins of the World Trade Center, and I created this poem:

Christmas Eve at Ground Zero

We are not the first to be incinerated,
our bones and blood blending into ash.
We are not the first to see the flash.
We are not the first to keep our Christmas
haunted by the ghosts of all we’ve lost.

We light the candles under a cold
sky. We long for good news.
We need that angelic message:
“Be Not Afraid!”

But we are so afraid,
afraid of the dark, afraid of the stranger.
We fear the sound of crickets,
the deep blue sky, the scarred skyline.
We fear occupying armies and upstart revolutionaries.

Across town, a woman strains
to give birth to something new.
A brave band of carolers sings
back the darkness. A young girl pokes
seeds into the construction site.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 23, 2018:

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.

The story of Mary and Elizabeth is a classic one of God's call and human response. Here are 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.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

O Antiphons for Advent

Yesterday I saw a flurry of Facebook postings about the O Antiphons, as yesterday was the first day of their use.  Here's how a Wikipedia article lists them:

17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
18 December: O Adonai (O Lord)
19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
23 December: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

You may or may not notice that each of these Antiphons gives us a name of God, and by using these names, we're calling on God to come to us while reminding ourselves of ancient prophecies that reminded us that God will come.

Here's the Antiphon for today, in modern language:

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bushand gave him the law on Sinai:Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

And in more ancient language (from this website):

aAdonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

Root of Jesse, which standest for an ensign of the people, at whom kings shall shut their mouths, to whom the Gentiles shall seek: Come and deliver us, and tarry not.

I confess that I haven't used these antiphons much, and I often forget about them until people start posting.  And though they are often used with evening liturgies, we didn't use them last night when we lit the 3rd candle on our Advent wreath (we were at our atheist friends on Sunday night, so we didn't light our Advent wreath on Sunday).

The Christian church has been using these antiphons for many centuries, and often in monastic traditions more than others, so I feel a tug.  

I like a way of marking the season, especially a season that is long and moving towards a dramatic conclusion.  We often lose sight of it all along the way, especially during a season of hectic pace, like many of us experience in December.

And yet, they don't speak to me in a deeper way.  I wonder if I could create a version of them that would.

Monday, December 17, 2018

New Nativity Scenes

We had a great interactive arts service yesterday.  We created nativity scenes after I read the Christmas passage from Luke

I had set out a variety of supplies from the arts and crafts closet, along with magazines, and construction paper.  I invited people to use what was there or to go outside to see what they could find.  We ended up doing a variety of approaches.

One family worked together.  The mother and daughter went outside to find materials while the older son looked through magazines.  They ended up with an interesting creche:

I love the baby Jesus stuck on a flower pod for a manger.

I put together scenes from a magazine. 

The angels are photos of dancers that I got from a photography magazine. 

I put the clip of Mary and Jesus at the right side of the page over a photo of a hurricane Maria-wrecked landscape in Puerto Rico.

Another worshiping artist put together this collage. 

I found it interesting, the ways we used modern images to revisit the story.  I want to believe that it helped us engage with a very familiar story in new ways. 

And people who came into the fellowship hall later exclaimed their pleasure at the creations.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Advent 3: The Pink Candle

Today is the 3rd Sunday in Advent.  In some churches, the paraments will change to a rose/pink color.  Many more of us will light the 3rd candle on our Advent wreaths; how many of us will have a pink candle.

I didn't plan to have a pink candle for my windowsill Advent wreath:

But last night, I decided to try an experiment with my markers.  The candles are plastic, so I expected that the alcohol based ink would slide right off onto my fingers.  But it didn't!

I have enjoyed having this windowsill Advent wreath.  Each morning, I "light" the candles, and center myself. 

I look forward to seeing how I carry this practice forward.  I will keep the birch lanterns.  What else will I add?

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Short Forms as Essay and Prayer

I have been waiting, sometimes impatiently, for another post on the On Being blog.  They had such thoughtful pieces; I always felt enriched by anything I read there.

This morning, I was rewarded with this essay which weaves together all sorts of strands:  Advent, living with someone with a chronic illness, spirituality of all sorts, and interesting writing ideas.  The author John Paul Lederach references Wittgenstein:  "For a time, I required my students to write a Wittgensteinian essay: Start with one idea. Notice where it goes. Number each idea. Keep them short. Don’t worry if you hop around. Read and play with what emerges. It may take a while to understand what you are trying to say. To yourself."

From there, he moves to the desert fathers:  "I discovered that the Desert Fathers and other ascetics employed this approach. They sought a way to move from contemplative sense to paper. Sometimes they called what they wrote a century: 100 pieces of heart-sourced inklings. Heart to hand to ink. Follow what comes. Only the numbers seem orderly. Like prayer."

Lederach experiments with several varieties of short forms in this essay, including haiku and short poems.  I love seeing how the thoughts shift this way.

But the overall short form is this essay, which delivers such wonderful nuggets of wisdom.  Here, too, one piece informs another piece, and we arrive at a place of unexpected wisdom.

This part is my favorite right now, although my favorite has been shifting all morning:


Rain has this intriguing quality. Droplets fall as individuated little spheres. Once splashed, however, rain spreads, melds, and flows. When mixed with the sudden appearance of the sun, it makes everything shine.


Rain glistens to everything.


Mediators and bridge builders spend a lot of time preparing to listen. To my knowledge, nobody has trained us on how to glisten.


To glisten: To be present with others in ways that help them shine into their deepest color, purpose, and wisdom. As example: Mary and Joseph glistened to the unexpected seed they carried toward the light of day."

May we all glisten in unexpected ways as we move through Advent.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Sketching as Part of Lectio Divina

Since Nov. 4, I have been part of an online journaling class. We're making our way through Joyce Rupp's Open the Door, a book that is organized into a three to five page chapter to read each day. Each chapter ends with a meditation and a prayer.

We were given a list of markers to buy: 4 specific colors and 3 black markers with tips of varying fineness/breadth. Our leader created a secret Facebook site, and each week, those of us who can meet in a Zoom session, which is recorded for those of us who can't be there or who want to go back to watch again.

We post our sketches. Some of us post daily. Some of us have rarely posted. I am posting daily. The Facebook group helps me want to sketch each day and post; I don't know if everyone reacts the same way.

Lately I've been thinking about how the sketching leads to deeper reading. I confess that if I picked up the book on my own, I'd have given it a quick read, skimming over a lot of it. But because I'm looking for entry into a sketch, I often go back. And I'm lucky in terms of my classmates: as with the best classes, someone will notice a nugget which will send me back to the text to see what else I might have missed.

I am often a skimmer of texts, not a deep reader. In some ways, that's a skill I've been proud of, a skill that got me through grad school and other arenas where I needed to get through massive amounts of texts in very little time. But in terms of personal growth/learning, it can be a detriment.

I have often been a note taker, but this is my first time sketching my responses to a text. I wonder which one leads to deeper involvement; it probably depends on many things, like the text itself, my mood, my daily life at the time (it's easier to take notes in many settings than to sketch, which involves markers and a sketchbook and the regular book), and others.

It's been interesting to think about these practices in terms of contemplation and meditation. I've participated in lectio divina, where we hear the text and ponder it and then hear it again. I've done a variation where we write instead of pondering, but I've never done it where we sketched. It makes me curious about the ways into our interior, especially about the ways I haven't tried yet.

I am using the term "sketch" loosely. Some of my sketches have specific elements, which are sometimes recognizable to others:

Some of my sketches have parts that are recognizable, like wings or eyes in a small part of a more abstract expression:

Some sketches are more words than sketches:

Some begin with swirls and go other places; some of that sketching just quiets my mind, but doesn't seem to lead to other insight.

There are other parts of this practice that I haven't done as much with, like experimenting with both sides of the paper.

It will be interesting to see how this practice evolves once the class ends; next week is the last week of class. I intend to keep sketching often through the week; I will carry my markers and sketchbook with me. I will also keep working my way through a book in the way that I've done. I like carrying the sketchbook in the book and keeping it nearby as a reminder of the deeper work that needs to be done.

I will miss my group. I wonder if I could create something similar in my church group. I wonder if I will stay Facebook friends with these online group members.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Feast of Santa Lucia in This Year of Our Lord without a Functioning Kitchen

Today is the feast day of Santa Lucia.  For a more traditional approach to this feast day, go to this post on my theology blog.  

This feast day may have been the first one I ever celebrated, although I wouldn't have thought of it as a feast day back in my early teenage years.  My Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia had some sort of evening event, and I was part of the procession.  As an older girl, I got to wear the crown of candles.  Yes, real candles, lit, with wax running down them.

I often look back and am amazed at all the risks we took in my younger years.  After having a friend lose almost everything to a house fire, I am much more leery of open flame.

A recent Facebook exchange gave me much St. Lucia happiness.  One of my grad school friends posted this invitation:  "Come sing the songs of the winter holidays at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia Saturday the 22nd! (I'm personally hoping someone will show up wearing a St. Lucia crown of burning candles!)"

I responded, "OOOOOOOHHHHHHH! If I lived in Columbia, I would so show up in a Lucia crown with fresh, warm, home made bread!"

My friend replied, "Your golden red hair lit with candles -- that would be a glorious sight!"

If I lived in Columbia, I would likely have a functioning kitchen and could actually show up with bread warm from my oven.  Sigh.

I tell myself that it's O.K. that I'm not baking this holiday season--I tell myself this every holiday season, but most seasons, I could bake if I wanted to.  Even now, I could--we do have a functioning oven in the cottage.  I think it's functioning, but I'm now realizing that we haven't tested it since Hurricane Irma.

Maybe that will be my mission this week-end:  to test the oven by baking some holiday bread.  I also want to reset the air conditioning units to the dehumidify option to see if we could move the dehumidifier to the main house for the winter and not leave the cottage vulnerable to mold.

You won't find these kinds of scenes in holiday movies, but maybe we should.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 16, 2018:

First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20

Psalm: Isaiah 12:2-6

Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7

Gospel: Luke 3:7-18

I find myself growing weary of John the Baptist. I'm tired of this Advent cycle. Why is John the Baptist always here? Can't we have some angels appearing to Mary or Joseph? Can't we have a different part of the story?

I'm also tired of the prophets of this year's lectionary. I yearn for some old-fashioned Isaiah.

I also wonder why we don't have many great Advent hymns. I only really like "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel." O.K., O.K., the candlelighting/watch for Messiah song set to Yiddish sounding music is pretty cool too. But why aren't there more?

Clearly, I'm in a crabby mood. I'm tired of having John the Baptist call me a viper. I know, I know, I have all these faults. Don't threaten me with that ax. I try so hard to bear good fruit, but I'm afraid it isn't enough. I'm surrounded by people who are clearly in a more crabby mood than I am, and I'm trying to be sympathetic, but it's hard. This attempt of mine to transform myself into a compassionate person is taking longer than I thought it would. I see people having meltdowns, and my response is to hide under my desk (metaphorically, although there are days that the thought of literally curling up under my desk is almost irresistible). I don't go to them to say, "What can I do to help you through this painful time?"

Perhaps I'm ready for that ax after all.

Or maybe, I need to pay attention to John the Baptist with a bit more focus. Advent reminds me that I'm not my final, improved version of myself. Advent reminds me that I still have work to do. And I need to hear that message. I'm lazy and inclined to coast, and it's good to know that God has a vision for me that is vaster than any I could dream myself.

I am ready for those angels who tell me not to be afraid. I need that message of fearlessness in my Advent darkness. I am ready for the Christmas miracle of a God who wants to be with humanity so much that God comes to us as the most vulnerable creature: a baby born to parents low on the social ladder of a society that is far from the corridors of power.

Oh come, Emmanuel. Ransom me!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Midway Through Advent

During the weeks of Advent, we reflect on who we once were:

As we light each candle, we contemplate the people we were meant to become:

We hear the scriptures imploring us to repent, but each time we try to turn around, we confront all the ways it is hard to change:

Now is the time to center ourselves, to tune out all the messages our culture blares at us:

Let us remember the good news of the ancient prophets:  God will bring us home (Zephaniah 3: 20).

Monday, December 10, 2018

Saying Yes from the Margins

Two weeks ago, my pastor asked me if I wanted to preach the sermon one of the Sundays in Advent, and he invited me to choose any of the ones I wanted.  I chose yesterday, since our off-lectionary reading would be the story of Mary and Elizabeth.  I knew that if I got in a jam, I already had done a lot of thinking and writing about that story.

But I challenged myself to say something new.  So I talked about how my friends who have struggled with infertility find it a painful story.  I talked about my own discomfort--these women get their starring status in the story because of their wombs, not because they are fabulous on their own.  And I do realize that in Biblical times, that would be the only way they'd get a starring role.  But it's still worrying to me, given the history of women and wombs and how interested everyone has been in these wombs.

I ended by talking about God's expansive vision and how we are cramped in our imaginations.  I talked about the reason why many of us say no to God is because God's vision, while wonderful, can be very disruptive.

I said that the story of Mary and Elizabeth is one of severely marginalized people--and our entire Scripture shows us that God's work often happens through people who are living on the margins of the margins.  In this story we have Mary:  an unwed teenager, a woman living in a distant outpost of the Roman empire.  Elizabeth was even more useless in the currency of her time period:  past her child bearing years, unable to have a child.

But because they said yes to God the history of the world changed.

We, too, get invitations from God, if only we would pay attention to hear.  So, I told my congregation, if you've been feeling too old, too poor, too mired in addictions, too powerless:  God can use you in the remaking of the world to be more of what God has in mind for us.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Advent 2

I don't have much writing time this morning.  I'm preaching the sermon at our 2 traditional services and leading the interactive arts worship in between.  Still, I took time to "light" the second candle on my window sill Advent wreath.  I love the palm trees beyond the window in this picture:

Our pastor said he thought that the Advent texts needed a woman's voice, not just his, and he asked if I'd like to choose a Sunday.  We're off lectionary, as we often are for Advent, and today will be the text where Mary goes to Elizabeth.  I tasked myself with finding something new to say, and I think I have.  I'll report back tomorrow.

Here's the sketch I made last year when we explored this text:

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Saturday Snippets: Haiku and Journaling

It's been a long week:  long hours at work, plus an uptick in work coming in from my online classes that I teach.  But let me capture some notes before I head to downtown Miami for Art Basel and a talk by Judy Chicago.

--"I have a uterus with puppies in it": you can either file this under comments one usually doesn't hear in the halls of academe as I did this week--or you could use it as a line of a poem--or you could create an interesting short story. And for those of you who are wondering, we have a Vet Tech dep't, and I overheard one of the faculty members discussing visual aids that she has to show students.

--I posted this haiku-esque creation on Facebook, but I want to keep it in a place where it will be easier to find:

Write me from the camps.
Be my Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Teach me how to live.

--I am still enjoying my online journaling class immensely.  It's interesting to see how our sketches are informing all of the future sketches--and also interesting to see how I have begun to recognize each person's individual style.

--Here's one of my favorite quotes from this week of the journaling class.  It didn't come from the book we're reading together, but I might not have noticed the Rumi quote if my classmates hadn't been quoting Rumi.  I found it in Anne Lamott's "Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace": "Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure."

--From the book, Joyce Rupp's Open the Door, here's the quote that I chose to sketch:

--All of my tabletop Christmas trees are on the floors.  It's not as desolate as it sounds.

--I keep thinking about where I'd have been 3 weeks ago:  on my way to Columbia, SC, to spend time with grad school friends before going on to Black Mountain to spend time with my mom, dad, and sister before going on to spend Thanksgiving with my larger family.  I wish it was 3 weeks ago so I could experience it all again.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Window Sill Advent Wreath

I had planned to make a small Advent wreath when I got home Wednesday night.  But my spouse had a pot of chili ready, so we spent time together on the front porch, eating dinner and enjoying the cooler weather as dusk settled into darkness.

We have a larger Advent wreath, but I didn't have it ready for Wednesday night.  And given the state of our home repairs, the outside tables are the only places where it's safe to have this kind of wreath with lit candles:

I wanted something I could use indoors, so yesterday morning, I created something different with the small, battery operated candles that I picked up over my Thanksgiving break:

I used some small bits of pine that I cut from my larger outdoor display on the front porch table:

I collected some blue and gold fabric from my stash and added it to my display:

I love how the windows, steamed from our recent cold front, make my display look wintry:

And here's the view as I write (if I sit up straight):

Creating this window display made me so happy.  I love that it's a type of altar space.  I have loved creating mantels and other types of seasonal displays.  Maybe as we move through 2019, I'll look for other ways to have this kind of sacred space above my writing desk.