Thursday, December 30, 2010

Between Visits

Well, the shepherds have left and the Magi haven't arrived yet.  So it's just Mary, baby, cows and other assorted animals.  I hope someone brought a casserole during this in-between time, the twelve days of Christmas, and maybe stayed for a nice visit.  Helped rearrange the hay or wash diapers.  

In the church calendar, we fill these nearly two weeks with various saints' days - St Stephen, St John, the Holy Innocents, Thomas a Becket, Anna the Prophet.  And we fill our days at home either milling around, trying to figure out where to put the new Christmas things or maybe dipping into that new gift book, or exchanging things that didn't fit, or getting back to work, or, in my case, cleaning out closets and drawers and medicine cabinets and the like.  What we don't do is a round of parties to celebrate Christmas - we did that before Christmas or maybe during the first couple of days, which is too bad, really.  The world doesn't operate on liturgical time, and so few workplaces are closed, except for the small businesses that take the opportunity to close between Christmas and New Years'.

I like this in-between time.  Except for the almost constant home improvement projects that are happening next door, things seem fairly quiet.  The kids are out of school (which will make their return to school all the more joyful, at least for the parents) and the usual extra-curricular activities (especially basketball practice) are suspended for now. There's time to talk on the phone and play with my new iPad.  I am not feeling the pressure to be here and there and everywhere all at the same time, although that will happen soon enough.  I actually have some work-work (in addition to the ever present house and yard work) I need to do, but I am not feeling anxious about it yet.  That will come tomorrow or the next day, or by next week for sure.  

Thoughts of the future flit in and out of my consciousness.  As it must have done for Mary.  What does the future hold?  What should I be doing next?  What needs doing now to prepare for that?  Who will help me?  How will I care for this baby, this new thing that has come into my life, this responsibility, this object of devotion?  Where will God lead me next?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas Joys

The holidays have been very busy (mostly in a good way) so I have hardly had time to sit and reflect until now.  This morning I'm having a "quiet" morning.  It's enforced.... the oven repair person came first thing and nobody else is up and around.  The garbage, yard waste, and recycling trucks are making their way down the street (having ignored, again, the bags of fall leaves we put out two weeks ago).   So life is getting back to normal for at least some folks, if not me.

I take time every day to sit and reflect, if I can - during Christmas it usually means sitting near my tree to read or staring into the fire or listening to Christmas music (and no, I'm not sick of it - I manage to tune it out during most of Advent).  But when things are busy, time to sit are few and far between.

I think it's important to take time to sit, especially during busy and stressful times.  Christmas is usually busy, and for many people it is stressful as well.  Even if it's in a good way.  But of course there are other stresses that are not so good; my lack of an oven during all the time we were having big meals with extended family was as it turns out a small stress, thank God.  Yesterday I saw one of the regular homeless guys who hangs around a local fast food joint and thought about how cold it's been these last days and nights, not to mention the snow and ice, and wondered where he's been sleeping.  He never seems to have a coat.

And actually, that sighting was one of my joys this holiday.  The man came in, as he usually does, and sat down and stated, not very loudly and to nobody in particular, that he wanted something to eat.  Then he sidled up to a couple of guys eating their lunch, but they quickly turned him away.  (He never comes to me - he prefers to ask men for help.)  He again mumbled something about being hungry and moved to another group of tables where there was another couple of men eating.

Here he had more luck.  One of the patrons noticed his Army-green hat, upon which someone had written with a Sharpie:  USA and POW.  He asked the homeless guy where he had served (I didn't get the response - I was supposed to be attending to my own conversation with my son) and then said, "What, you want some lunch?  Sure, I'll buy you some lunch."  The homeless man assured him he was going to order it and eat it right then, that he wanted the money for lunch, that's all, and he got into the line.  As he carried his potato and burger over to a corner table, the patron called out to him and mentioned his own military service and the two of them compared notes and had a few words and even a laugh about something.  Then the homeless man went to his own table and tucked into his well-buttered potato with relish and the patrons left to go back to work.  The exchange was heartfelt on both sides, which is unusual in these cases, where money may be handed over but done so grudgingly and with no real conversation or connection.

Of course the fast food joints are no longer playing Christmas music; for them, Christmas is over.  But for me, the scene was a Christmas scene.  A hungry one not only received something to eat, but also was recognized as a fellow human being and even as a kind of brother.

So I only have a few minutes to reflect this morning, but then again, that scene at the fast food place took all of five minutes itself.  Encounters are often brief, but meaningful.

Collect for the Fifth Day of Christmas

Almighty God,
you have poured upon us the new light
of your incarnate Word:
Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts,
may shine forth in our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God,
now and for ever.  Amen.

(BCP 213)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Save to Share: an effort to alleviate hunger in the community

Dear Readers,

My friend Laura has decided to do something to address hunger in her community by making a concerted effort to save on her own food expenditures and donate the savings to the local food bank this year.  She was inspired after reading this article at CNN.

See her blog post "Save to Share" here to read about it and do consider joining her in this meaningful effort.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Sermon

Once again we come to Bethlehem, that land which, in the Christmas story at least, seems to stand outside of time and place.  As soon as we hear the beginning words from Luke's gospel - in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be registered, and Joseph went with Mary, who was great with child - we are transported into another almost magical world where there are sheep-dotted fields tended by simple shepherd boys, where it's not unusual for the dark night skies to open suddenly, allowing streams of angels to descend, their wings gracefully unfurling as they come down to surround placid sheep with glorious music.   Where friendly beasts gather around their feeding trough in which a sweet baby has been laid by a lovely teenaged mother and more angels hover nearby, gazing upon the scene with serene satisfaction.
Hearing the Christmas story is almost like entering into Narnia through the wardrobe, like going out of time into another world.  We've heard it enough times to burnish it, to smooth it, to gild the rough edges so that we forget that sheep are smelly, that shepherds were despised, that unwed teenage mothers do not find having babies out in the animal quarters to be romantic, that God Almighty coming to live among us as a helpless infant is preposterous.   
And we forget that Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was known as a Prince of Peace because of his Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, which was kept by installing legions of troops in every province of the Empire.  That Augustus was considered a god, the savior of the people, because of his accomplishments in political, economic and social reform and in bringing the known world together under one governor (himself).
It is against the backdrop of Empire, of the Pax Romana, of the great socio-political and economic system overseen by the mighty Caesar Augustus - formerly known as Octavian, the warrior who defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium to create for himself the most powerful throne on earth - it is against that backdrop that this Christmas story takes place.  All the world was busily engaged in commerce and politics and cultural activities, while outside in a barn, the true prince of peace is born, the true savior comes, and no one takes any notice except for some rough shepherds who are the equivalent of migrant workers in the Empire.  And they only know because of the mysterious appearance to them by this mob of bright, rejoicing angels.  
So there is this tension within us.  We want and love the beautiful story and its once-upon-a-time quality:  the gentle animals, the serene angels, the still night sky suddenly full of heavenly music, the sheep-dotted countryside, the magical world outside of time and place.  And yet the power of the story becomes intensified through understanding the contrast of this birth and this life and this peace and this savior and this salvation over against the life and rule of the warrior turned emperor Caesar Augustus, creator of the Pax Romana but not the creator of the stars of night.  My ways are not your ways, says our God.  "My kingdom is not of this world," says Jesus of Nazareth as he stands before Pilate, Caesar's servant.  "Otherwise my troops would be battling yours for the victory."  
And yet if we stay with the otherworldly aspect of the story, if we limit Christmas either to an event occurring in a corner of the real but now ancient historical Roman Empire or to once-upon-a-time-in-Bethlehem, the land of dreamy angels and fluffy sheep and friendly cows, as interesting and even meaningful as both of those are, we miss out on Incarnation.  Which is what we say Christmas is in the Church - the feast of the Incarnation.  The nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ is not just about his birth but about how and why God chose to come and live among us and what that means to us and for us.
Of course, we say every week that we know what this is about.  We recite in the Creed:  For us and for our salvation, Jesus came down from Heaven.  By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.  
But theology and doctrine and information about God is difficult stuff for us ordinary mortals.  Mountains of words have been written to explore and explain the theology of the incarnation and to talk about salvation.  And yet sometimes the way we best can understand something so awesome and complex as God and God's ways is to approach the subject by way of stories.  
This is, in fact, the heart of our tradition.   The Scriptures contain many parts - letters, poetry, laws - but the incarnation is at its heart a story.  A story with skin on it, the story of a person sent from God who shows us what God is like, the story of the man from heaven who became human so that we humans, God's creation, might become divine, might become what we were created to be.
And through story, through this particular story, we come to understand with more than reason or logic or intellectual power.  Through this story we understand that busy empires are not concerned with teenaged mothers who give birth in the equivalent of alleys or concerned with their babies and their care.  We understand that busy empires do not have the time or inclination to receive the songs of angels, much less notice God's appearance.  We understand that God chose to come among us as a helpless infant born in irregular circumstances and resting in a feeding trough instead of as a powerful emperor resting on a throne.  We understand that the good news of this coming among us was announced to the poor, not to the powerful.  We understand that the real prince of peace does not employ troops or issue decrees that demonize or marginalize the non-powerful.  We understand that the story of God is not just something that happens in an alternate universe but in real people's lives every day.  We understand that we may live under the rules of whatever Empire we are born into but that those rules are not the ones under which God prefers to operate.
Incarnation is God's story with skin on it, having to do with not only the life of Jesus of Nazareth, God made man, but also the lives of all humans.  The incarnation means that we are offered salvation just by the fact of Jesus.  The incarnation means that God cares for those whom the world despises or pushes aside.  The incarnation means that somehow there is a connection between heaven and earth, between mystery and not just the ordinary but the grubby earthy realities of human existence.  That connection is in the person of Jesus, the one who stands between heaven and earth, not as a barrier but as the one who lifts us from the mire and brings all of humanity into the realm of dancing stars and singing angels with peaceful wings unfurled, into the very heart of God our creator.
And so we find ourselves looking into the manger and finding not just a baby but a pathway into the mystery itself.  No wonder the story seems otherworldly.
But let us not forget the grubby earthy part, for this is where our own skin comes into the story.  We are not simply recipients of this bounteous grace but also charged to be God's hands and feet who lift others out of the mire.  The story shows us a vulnerable baby born to a powerless mother on the edge of society and challenges us to see Christ in all vulnerable, powerless, marginalized people - people who are cast out or cast aside by the powers that be, by society, and, God help us, even by the church.  And not only to make that connection in our imaginations but to put our hands and feet to work for their good, for their dignity, for their physical care, not simply as the recipients of our largesse but as our own brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom we seek not to exchange transactions but to be in relationship.   The story of the incarnation is supposed to teach us to care, not only for Baby Jesus and his beautiful mother, but for all those for whom Jesus came.
Children have a great way of getting into the Christmas story through the venerable tradition of the Christmas pageant.  They literally inhabit the story, they put on costumes and play out the parts and the story gets into their memories and even into their bones.  From year to year they play the roles of the ones who say, No Room!, and the ones who seek shelter, and the ones to whom the angels speak; and they get to be the angels themselves.  They learn the story from the inside out, with their own bodies, another way of thinking about incarnation.
Through the Christmas story they learn to care, too, not just by wrapping their heads in towels or tinsel but by knowing what it is like to say No Room! to their own friends.  Knowing what it is like to hear No Room! said to them by their classmates.  Knowing what it is like to tell good news and to have good news told to them.  They learn by playing all the parts and imagining themselves to be their characters, by putting themselves in the shoes of others, not by trying to understand doctrine or grasp concepts.  They just step into the mystery.  
After every children's pageant I watch, I see a few young people come away from the manger with shining eyes and I know that they were living in the story and not simply playing at it.  Their inching toward the baby on their knees in their animal suits, their standing in awe beside a tinsel-haired angel or donning a pillowcase shepherd's outfit took them into that other world and gave them their own stories to bring back and to tell, about the time they held their breath as a real baby was brought to the arms of a young girl waiting at the altar.
Luke's Christmas story is a beautiful story, and we can either leave it at that or we can find a way to put skin on it and live into it, to embrace both the unfurling angel wings and the earthy grubbiness.  To know that not only did God come to us in the person of Jesus in first century Palestine, but that God comes to us again and again in this world and in this life, even at this very altar.  And that it is our calling to put flesh on God's love for all humanity through our caring for God's people ourselves, not in the ways of Caesar and Empire, but in the ways of the God.  To care for them as if they were that vulnerable and helpless infant lying in an animal's trough, surrounded by glorious angel song.
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Another Wonderful Christmas Story: from New York

Maybe you can't fix all the world's problems, but you can do something.  See what these two wonderful elves did for Christmas this year in response to a deluge of letters to Santa that mysteriously came to their Chelsea apartment....

What I Like About Christmas: Hope

There are many things I like about Christmas, actually, as many people do.  The joyful atmosphere, Christmas trees, Christmas music, decorations, extra church services (ok, I know plenty of people do not enjoy the extra church services, but I am a nerdy priest and church is what I do), our own family holiday traditions (which of course change over time, but still).

But psychologically what I like about Christmas is the idea of getting the chance to start again, to start over, to see if I can do better in my life with Jesus this time around.  This is different from New Year's - it's a theological fresh start rather than a calendrical clean slate/fresh start.  There's a baby involved, the life of Jesus begins again, our lives in Christ begin again (and yes, I know that our life in Christ begins with baptism but work with me here).  I just have this sense that even though I know we will always mess up, and the poor will always be with us, and we will always be imperfect and fall short of the mark (the definition of sinfulness), there's something about the connection with the baby that gives me hope of doing better, of getting the chance to start afresh with caring for that baby.  The baby makes things different - we're talking about incarnation, not just turning over the page on the calendar.  The baby will stay with us and not leave us to our own devices - as the baby grows, so will we.  We know that we are going to grow.  But we don't have to reinvent the wheel, just pay better attention to what has already been given to us.

This sounds like the movie Groundhog Day, in a way, except that the cycle is longer with Jesus.  But in the sense that we get to try again and again until we get it right and that at some point in our lives we will try to get it right, really and truly - yes, same idea.  Maybe without the Ferrari and the bank-truck-robbery - but maybe not.

In the busy run up to Christmas (the last days of Advent never feel very Advent-y), I don't have as much time to reflect on this as I would like, but my prayer this year is as it always is:  Keep being a beacon of hope, Lord Jesus, by coming to us as a helpless baby to whom we owe our lives in the way that babies depend upon their parents.  We have fallen short, despite our efforts otherwise.  Walk with us, guide us, inspire us to grow into the faithful and loving servants we are meant to be.  Help us to be better, to do better, to reflect hope to others in new ways this year, with joy and with thanksgiving.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday Afternoon Extra: Wexford Carol by Alison Krauss and Yo Yo Ma

With the wonderful Natalie McMaster on fiddle, a hint of bagpipes and the bodhran.  Beautiful!

All is quiet.... somewhere

I'm supposed to be writing a sermon today.  During a week like this one, everything has to be planned out just so - not only is Christmas Eve on Friday, but tomorrow is my son's birthday and our grandchild and his parents arrive on Thursday.  So there are other things to do on other days and today is sermon writing day.

Except that because I don't have an office anywhere, as I am sort of a freelance priest at the moment, and I am working at home, and there are constant distractions.  My sons are downstairs, for one thing, playing music, chatting, watching TV, doing laundry; but more importantly, my neighbor is again engaged in an outdoor project that includes the employment of loud equipment - hydraulic drills and shouting men and clanging things.  My neighbor, who is a wonderful person, likes to do outdoor projects like this, particularly on weekends and during holiday times.  He has a lovely home and yard and he likes to build and redo fences and walkways and walls and other things that depend on lots of noise to accomplish.

I ought to be able to focus, to tune noises out, in order to read and write and study and meditate.  And occasionally I can, but generally I can't.   And particularly when attempting to write a sermon for Christmas Eve as a guest preacher and I have all kinds of things swirling in my head already, waiting to organize themselves into coherent thought.

Jesus was, of course, born in the middle of all kinds of hubbub right there in the thick of the Roman Empire and all its doings.  And hardly anyone noticed, because they were busy with other things.  So I know that somewhere the Spirit will reach me, even among the bangs and clangs.  But not for nothing do our Christmas carols and traditions say that he was born at night, at midnight even, when all was quiet and calm.

So I shall take a deep breath and perhaps go to the local coffee shop where it will be busy but maybe there won't be any jackhammering.

(Update:  I found the loudest Starbucks in town.  Back home.  Finding headphones and remembering my new wordprocessing program called Ommwriter.  It is sort of like being plugged into Buddhist music in a forlorn Russian white landscape .....  Let's see if this works.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

They Sounded Like Angels....

Yesterday I took my mom to a service of Lessons and Carols at our Cathedral.  Mom really loves choral music - she sang alto in her church choir for fifty years, and before that sang as a girl and young woman with her sisters in churches all around their community.  She has always enjoyed attending all sorts of musical events (in addition to watching Lawrence Welk).

She can no longer see well enough to read music and sing with a choir, but she still loves to hear choral church music.  I figured she would enjoy hearing the Cathedral Schola there at the Cathedral, which is better than going to Symphony Hall.   Really great music, easier parking, and beautiful atmosphere.  Plus, they don't have incense at Symphony Hall.

It was a lovely service, with readers of all ages, and both congregational singing and anthems by the choir.  There were anthems new and old, mostly on the new side, including a gorgeous piece by Eric Whitacre, he of the virtual choir - people of all ages all over the world singing Lux Arumque via their computers on YouTube (see that here).  There were candles at the end of each pew, and a thurible full of incense came down the aisle at both the procession in and the procession out.  Just enough to bring a whiff of fragrance into the sensory feast.  The altar was decorated with greens and branches with red cardinals (the birds, not the guys) placed here and there among them.  Unfortunately, Mom couldn't see them, but she loves being in the Cathedral anyway.  It feels like a fairy-tale church to her and even without seeing the details, she gets the sense of the space as we all do.

Most of the music was sung a capella, which impressed Mom to no end.  (Me, too, but I'm more used to hearing it at church events.)  It truly was beautiful.  John Rutter's Sans Day Carol and There is a flower sprung of a tree; Herbert Howells' Sing lullaby; Stephen Jackson's etherial arrangement of Noel nouvelet; Pearsall's In dulci jubilo, among others.  The congregation sang The Angel Gabriel, Of the Father's Love Begotten, Prepare the Way O Zion, On this Day Earth Shall Ring (definitely all on my list of favorites to sing) as well as more familiar carols such as God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and Angels We Have Heard on High (which Mom could sing from memory).  It was very satisfying and the congregation sang well.

But the Schola - well, they were just perfectly beautiful.  I sometimes just listened with my eyes closed, and my mom was so still, I knew she was taking it in as completely as she could, to remember it as well as she could.  We didn't say much to each other at the end - it didn't seem necessary, really.

As the choir processed out, we were amazed.  They looked like regular people.  We had thought, there for a while as their voices soared into the vaulted ceiling, that they must have been angels.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Christmas Pageant

I'd forgotten how crowded church is on the day of the children's Christmas pageant if you are not already guaranteed a seat by virtue of being one of the clergy on staff.  So this year, we sat in the chapel for the pageant.  It was like being backstage at the ballet.  We never saw (until the pictures were up some hours later on Facebook) the action out front, but instead were privy to the equally special goings-on behind the scenes.

Many churches are going to the "no-rehearsal, non-anxious pageant" model, by which they mean that there are no rehearsals except for the three or four key players who have been chosen for their parts:  Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, and the Star (in this case, an angel carrying a fishing pole with a large star dangling from it).  All the other children of all ages are invited to either avail themselves of costumes from the church closet or wear home-grown ones and to step into the pageant at the correct time during the narration.  Hoards of angels wearing tinsel-garland halos (along with the occasional Blue Fairie or Disney Princess) crowd into the choir stalls.  Lots of shepherds wearing cloths on their heads, and either plaid shirts and Gap khakis or wrapped in tunics with a rope belts, carrying crooks (which double backstage as fighting instruments or props for the game of two children clasping the staff hand over hand until one gets to the top) stream forth at the time when shepherds come into the story.  Many friendly beasts come forward to kneel around the straw bales - sheep, cows, tigers, Winnie-the-Pooh, ladybugs, etc.  And wise persons wearing crowns and capes or white tights with black patent leather shoes and ruffly dresses process along behind the star.

I was quite pleased to see how varied the groups were in terms of gender.  It used to be that girls were angels and boys were shepherds, but today I saw several male angels and female shepherds, and of course wise people of every age and height, not just old wise men, followed the star (as is always the case in real life as well as pageants). 

What this looks like backstage is not exactly chaos - although it's not a calm or quiet or particularly organized scene.  It's more like what a child's view of most things turns out to be:  the main action is not really in view and it is not terribly clear where the boundaries are or where the proper paths forward start or end.  The vast crowd of parents and parishioners sees the story from the front view, told by happy actors - the "hams," the well-coached rule-following achievers, the eager and enthusiastic.  But from the back, one gets to see the shy ones, the less confident ones, the hopeful but slightly fearful not-so-sure ones, the ones who want to take part but don't want to stand out.  The ones who don't want to walk all the way up the long aisle in the nave and so slip forward and sideways through the chapel.  The tiny ones that are happy to stand in the shadow of the more experienced angels and wise people, who may become mesmerized by the altar or the choir chairs or the priest's vestments or the neighbor's rope belt rather than the action out front (which they may not be able to see anyway).

I saw many pair of shining eyes beneath those cloth headcoverings and tinsel halos and crowns and furry spotted cow-cowls as they made their way back to their parents at the peace.  The pageant is where the story of the Baby Jesus is truly told in all its glory, and the opportunity to take part in it (in the part of the church that is already rather mysterious) is nearly irresistible, even for the painfully shy.  We all want to edge in, to slide forward on our knees just another inch or so toward the baby, toward the mother, toward the tallest most confident angel, maybe to touch the hem of a sparkly or soft robe.  To be part of the story in a way that, sadly, becomes harder and harder as one grows older.

During the Eucharist, I did help distribute the bread, and I blessed a young pillow-case wearing shepherd and an angel in arms, which was lovely.   But what I also noticed were the shining eyes and the eagerly outstretched hands of the grownups and even a few teens and young adults who were inching forward to also be part of the story again, to receive the Lord amid the music and the crowd and the slight chaos that always accompanies communion distribution in the chapel where there's really not enough room and many traffic patterns working, both planned and unplanned.  Maybe it's because I knew so many of the people who came to receive communion - they are the ones who raised me to to become a priest - but there was great joy in the giving and receiving of the bread and the wine.

I love the "come as you are" pageant.  Why not a Disney Princess, or Superman, or Winnie-the-Pooh mixed in with the traditionally attired folk who are all coming to adore Him?  And the view from backstage allows for a glimpse into the inner workings not only of the play but also of the players as they enter into the story as best they can this year - who knows what next year will bring! - and then return to their seats with shining eyes and their own stories to tell.

O come, let us adore Him!

(Nativity:  wood and clay, from Haiti)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

And so it begins...

It is the eve of Advent IV.  I went to the ordination of seven transitional deacons today at the Cathedral.  It was lovely, as always.  The music was great, there was incense, I saw lots of colleagues and friends, I remembered my own ordination and the confusing swirl of emotions - excitement, nervousness, pride followed quickly by anxiety (is this the right thing to do?), pleasure, a sudden wondering if I were up to the task.  It was a beautiful day, that day and to-day.

Tomorrow is Adent IV, with the children's pageant in the morning and Lessons and Carols (again at the Cathedral) in the afternoon.  And in between and after all of that, comes unpacking and decorating - we have our tree up (still naked), and I am beginning to get the Christmas things out. 

And then there is a birthday, and then the arrival of our grandchild (and his parents), and then it's Christmas Eve with multiple churches and services.  And, yikes, a sermon to write somewhere in there.  And then grandboy's first birthday!

I feel the swirl of emotions again.  Christmases past, ordinations (how many have I been to now?), family, traditions, music, decorations, lights, birthday cake (my baby turns 16!), a new pattern this year with Mom living in town and a new child in the family.  Old and new (now I have Mom's Christmas linens) together as always - familiar and yet different every time.

It becomes hard to focus on Advent for much longer once this chain of events begins.  I keep it at bay as long as I can.  But now the quiet will give way to the hectic that has been tugging at the edges of Advent for a couple of weeks already.   I guess I am ready - as ready as I'll ever be!

Morning Collect for Saturday in the Third Week of Advent

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(BCP 99)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday afternoon fountain break

This is part of the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.  My father was stationed in the Aleutian Islands, at the airfield on Amchitka, and Attu was the only land battle in the Pacific fought on U.S. territory soil.  So we took a picture of the engraving of the word "Attu" on the Pacific area of the monument when I took my mom to visit the memorial a couple of months after my dad died.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Through a Dark Wood

Holidays can be dark times for people, for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes one simply feels put upon to feel happy or have fun just because the calendar says so.  (This happens to me pretty much every New Year's Eve.  I get quite grouchy about it.)  Sometimes one is grieving a loss.  Sometimes one is down in the mouth about a job, or a family situation, or an illness or other personal issue.  Sometimes one is exhausted (perhaps about the job or issue or family).

In the last few years, some churches have been putting on "Blue Christmas" services some time during Advent, including on the winter solstice (these are called "The Longest Night").  At first the Blue Christmas services seemed geared toward those who are grieving a loved one (and so, for instance, the prayers specifically address that loss and grief) but apparently some liturgies are more generalized and speak to not only grief, but other pain, unhappiness, and depression.  I have not attended a Blue Christmas liturgy but I would like to, both to see how it is done and to have a go at addressing my own feelings about being in a dark place during the holidays.

I think it is true to say that many people feel exhausted and anxious this year.  It's important to own those feelings and also to try to make choices that will address (if not alleviate) them:  eat healthily, get enough sleep, cut back on anything not necessary and/or life-giving, get some exercise, enjoy time with friends, hang out with the pets.  It's just so easy around the holidays to get burned out even in the best of times, and this year with so many suffering from unemployment or underemployment, reduced income, getting the bills paid - the worry that those kinds of issues generate added to the already hectic and overscheduled full-of-probably-unrealistic-expectations holiday season can send one right down into the depths.

But know, too, that one is not obligated to be cheerful just because it's a holiday season.  And doing "all the right things" doesn't necessarily get one out of that dark place.  It just may make it all a little more bearable or manageable.  Find a friend or confidante with whom to let it all out - you're not alone.  Many people are sad during the holidays.  You'd probably be surprised just how many are.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Interesting Facts to Learn While Waiting for Jesus to Come

I am normally a cheerful, upbeat person.  But I have my days, like anyone else, when I get stuck in a bleak place.  Today is one of those days.  Even though it's daytime, I'm having one of those dark night of the soul days.  (Maybe this is leftover from yesterday, which was the feast of John of the Cross.   You can read my post about him here.)

I had a hard time finding something cheerful on the interwebs to lift my spirits today.  It seems that lots of things are going wrong for lots of people on this dreary and cold day.

But then I found out a wonderful thing.  Frankincense comes from the beach!  Yes!!!  This just shows that I have been right all along about how the beach is truly a holy place.

You can read about it at Slate (click on the slideshow to see the beach).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

St John of the Cross

My blog-friend Padre Mickey mentioned that one might find a nice reflection about St John of the Cross here at the Large Party.  This is a rather sneaky way to get me to do some research about said St John, but it worked, sort of, I guess.

In my limited experience, St John of the Cross is often linked with St Teresa of Avila.  These two are in the mystical tradition.  I always thought that "mystical" seemed like a really neat word and sometimes I use it myself, but I have always been somewhat mystified about mystical experience, in truth.  I have an uneasy relationship with "the contemplative life."  I often feel that it must be a superior way of being a Christian.... and that I fail miserably and utterly at stuff like "contemplative prayer."  I have something a complex about it, I guess. 

As I get older, I have found that in fact I do have a certain way of developing and nurturing my "inner life" and I know in my mind that it's perfectly ok that I am not able to do silent retreats and twenty-minute silences, and that lectio divina is lovely but I get restless trying to do it, but my heart still shields itself against potential disdain that "real contemplatives" might have for people like me.  Maybe I will lower that shield some day.

But back to John of the Cross.  He wrote "The Dark Night of the Soul" and whether or not you have read it, you no doubt have heard or even used the term for a particularly tough time in your life when you have had to wrestle mightily with your faith (in something).  (And for the record, it has to do with "negative" or "apophatic" theology - that speaks of God only in terms of what God is not - as opposed to "cataphatic" or posive theology that seeks to say what God is.)   John was a Spanish monk, and he was an associate of Teresa of Avila.  (I like to quote her about how we are the only hands and feet Christ has in this world, but I had a real hard time getting through her most famous writing "The Interior Castle.")

Apparently john tried to bring reforms to his monastery (he and Teresa were Carmelites, and she, too, was a reformer), and for this he was imprisoned and regularly beaten.  And so from his experience, here's what for me are the two money quotes from John of the Cross:

“Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?” and

“Where there is no love, put love – and you will find love.” 

Lovely.  Words we can all live by.

Morning Collect for Tuesday in the Third Week of Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us;
and because we are sorely hindered by our sins,
let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory, now and for ever.  Amen.

(BCP 212)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Shopping

My brother once told me that he loved Christmas shopping because that was when he found all the things he actually wanted to buy for himself.  After he told me that, I noticed that it was true.  And today I took my mom Christmas shopping.  But first we looked at women's clothes.  Not surprisingly, we found the things we wanted for ourselves!  So she bought me something I wanted and I bought her something she wanted.  (Plus, when we discovered the ridiculous discounts we were going to get between the sale prices and the extra 20% off for using the store credit card, we bought some more things that we wanted.)

This is a tough year financially for so many people, us included.  I've only worked weekends for almost the whole year, for which I am grateful since weekends are the times priests especially like to work, but my income didn't even cover our insurance premiums.  But I'm also grateful to have insurance.  Life goes on and we figure out how to make things work.

But the mall was nearly deserted, and many stores had closed.  Even the Taco Bell in the food court.  It was depressing.  Seeing all those closed stores made the unemployment numbers so much more real to me.  All the people that used to work in all those stores and at the Taco Bell and the Chick Fil-A and two other closed restaurants.... where are they now?  Did they get jobs at other stores or restaurants, or are they out of work altogether?

Even the stores that were open were hardly staffed.  The same woman checked us out in three different departments!  But she was grateful to have a job, she said.  You all have a happy holiday season, she said.

And we will.  We will go to church and hear and sing beautiful music and we will drive through the neighborhood and look at the lights and we will get out the Christmas china on which we will eat our traditional Christmas dinner of spaghetti with meat sauce, and we will remember that Jesus was born in an animal barn or a cave without a layette from Macy's, not even one that was an extra 20% off.  And we will hope for better days for everyone who is hurting and feeling the lack now.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday at Church

Today was not a work day for me, and I went to church with my family at our home parish.  It is always a treat to do this, first of all because it means I didn't spend the last two days writing a sermon and I didn't have to get up at 6 a.m.  But mostly because I become aware all over again what a rich soil my faith was nurtured in.  Not only is it a beautiful place physically, but the music is always wonderful, and it is always busy and full of life, and I know that the liturgy is planned and done with care - and the programs and ministries are as well.  And it is always a joy to see people I've known for a long time there.  Plus my teenage son loves to be there and we got to sing plainchant together today (he got the hang of it pretty quickly).  Even though I love being behind the altar on Sundays, it was nourishing to be in the pew today.

It was a dreary and cold day today, so it was darker than normal Sunday morning in the nave.  During the Gospel procession (which is complete with crucifer/cross and torchbearers/torches) the candle flames were flickering brightly and their light glinted off the cross and the beautiful golden Bible cover and the teenage acolytes' faces as the procession came down the aisle and stopped for a few minutes and then went back up to the altar again.

I saw a couple of young children standing in their pews, watching intently, perhaps thinking that someday they will be the ones to carry those bright flames down the aisle in that beautiful place.  Everyone, both the acolytes and the kids watching them, stood so still, and there was an alertness in the eyes of those who turned to face the Gospel.  Perhaps it was the way the light played on the scene.  It made me think about how much ritual and a certain amount of solemnity and reverence feeds the soul of folks of every age.

I'll bet those images stay with the watching children, even if it backs into the recesses of their memories, and some day they will see another procession and remember this day and how the light looked as it traveled down and back up the aisle, warm and bright and moving mysteriously, journeying deliberately into the distance.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Talk about the passion

This week there is a series of articles in the British (online) newspaper The Guardian UK in its blog known as "Comment is free: belief" section about the future of preaching.  The premise is that the traditional form of preaching seems to be dying.  I'm not sure that is true, but at any rate different people are posting articles in response.  Simon Jenkins, the editor of Ship of Fools, wrote an interesting response, calling attention to the online communities as well as the Ship's Mystery Worshipper crew, and Church of England's Area Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson (I regularly read his blog, which you can find here), wrote another.  You can read the question and responses here.  It's an interesting question and the responses are interesting as well.

I was particularly taken by something Bishop Alan said about the passion of the people who listen to a sermon and that sermons are significant when the preacher encapsulates and reflects back something people actually care about.

Now immediately I want to say that the downside of this idea is "preaching to the choir" or living in the bubble.  People like to hear what they already think, they like their own ideas to be validated.  And even in this age of unprecedented information sharing and availability, people choose to live in the echo chamber, to align themselves with like-minded groups and individuals and shut out all other voices.  This is true in the political arena as well as the religious world.  And it's not a good thing.

But what I also want to say is that one thing that seems to be going wrong with both politics and the church discussions is that the idea of dealing with what people actually care about, what is happening in real people's real lives, is being greatly overshadowed by other things, mostly theoretical/ideological/doctrinal kinds of things.  Theories, positions, doctrine trump experience and real people.  (I had a rant about that once or twice.  Particularly here.)

Meanwhile, the church is worried.  There are many articles and workshops and programs and discussions about The Decline In Church Attendance.  Giving is down, attendance is down, some pundits are either crowing or agonizing:  the church is dying!  It's just drying up!  The decline is irreversible!  The sky is falling!  or Ha! (depending on whether you are a church supporter or an antagonist).

And I'm thinking, especially after reading Bishop Alan's Guardian piece today and some other British and American church-y bloggers (see this one at Thinking Anglicans, particularly), how much of the phenomenon of the falling numbers at church has to do with the church not being about what people care about?

Probably another post is needed to flesh this thought out, but it seems to me that some of this may also have to do with the fact that some folks at church really care about their own salvation and a sense that they must stand against things and people they see as potential threats to their own salvation while other folks at church really care about being in service to the poor and vulnerable in this life as the church's work.  And the fact that so much of the public discourse by and about the church is about stuff that looks like intolerance and worse (which speaks to the salvation of the "just" who want to stay "justified") is quite off-putting to those who care about what Glenn Beck and others sneer at as "social justice."  I realize that the way I wrote that exposes me as a "social justice" type, and I think that is true, but I understand the salvation/taint/threat "side" well.  Such is my own background, I have found it an area of interesting study, and I know and love people who are still on that "side."  And so I don't mean to belittle such an orientation, nor do I want to dismiss it out of hand.

I'm still thinking about this, and will post more about it, but the kernel remains.  If church is about something that most people just don't care about (or are repelled by), no wonder the numbers are down.

Morning Prayer for Saturday in the Second Week of Advent

Canticle G:  A Song of Ezekiel

I will take you from among all nations;
            and gather you from all lands to bring you home.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you.
            and purify you from false gods and uncleanness.
A new heart I will give you
            and a new spirit put within you.
I will take the stone heart from your chest
            and give you a heart of flesh.
I will help you walk in my laws
             and cherish my commandments and do them.
You shall be my people,
             and I will be your God.

(Enriching Our Worship I: 34)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday afternoon fountain break

Here is a fountain at the entrance to the wonderful Irish Heritage Site at Newgrange.

Newgrange is a megalithic era passage tomb surrounded by many stones with all sorts of what we recognize as "Celtic" symbols, particularly knots and circles, carved into the rocks.  The tomb itself is a passage tomb in which a central stone receives a few minutes of light once a year at the winter solstice.  You can read about Newgrange here and here.

The fountain is in the visitor's center.  It's all rocky and rough.  So if you are writing about John the Baptizer again this week, perhaps this fountain will inspire you.

Friday Advent Music/Sufjan Stevens

This is a compelling arrangement of the beautiful Advent hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel as recorded by Sufjan Stevens on his 5-disc set Songs for Christmas.  The video is by Cara Nicole Parker featuring scenes from Guatemala and Nicaragua.  She also includes the words to the verses Stevens omits.


Friday in the Second Week of Advent: Confession

God of all mercy,
we confess that we have sinned against you,
opposing your will in our lives.
We have denied your goodness in each other,
         in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
         the evil we have done,
         and the evil done on our behalf.
Forgive, restore, and strengthen us
through our Savior Jesus Christ,
that we may abide in your love
and serve only your will.

(Enriching Our Worship I, 56)

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Somehow I managed to get my Tuesday and Thursday mixed up this week, and so it turns out that I missed the Feast of St Ambrose on Tuesday, thinking it was today.  You can read all about St Ambrose at my blog-buddy Padre Mickey's Dance Party here.  Many of us know him best as the man who influenced Augustine of Hippo and as a writer of some wonderful ancient office hymns.  Given Augustine's considerable intellect, he must have been an awfully (awe-fully) persuasive rhetorician to have influenced him to turn his back on his Manichean philosophy and become, finally, a Christian.

Here is a snippet of Ambrose's fourth century sermonizing:

The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame.  They are big enough to hold crowds - and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor.... There is your sister or brother, naked, crying!  And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.

Things have not really changed in 1650 years.  Let us add this to our Advent pondering.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Angels in Oslo

Last night I watched another Erik Poppe movie called Hawaii, Oslo, the second of three movies he made that take place in Oslo, Norway (I wrote about the third movie, Troubled Waters, here).  Although I enjoyed watching Troubled Waters more, this one was certainly thought provoking and one I will continue to ponder.

Hawaii, Oslo is in the stream of those Robert Altman ensemble movies in which several stories are being played out simultaneously, with some rather slight links between and among them.  The links between the stories in Hawaii, Oslo seem to be the presence of two people, a 30-ish male mental hospital worker and a young newspaper delivery girl, who meet only in one scene near the end of the movie in which their conversation in its entirety is something like "neither one of us is what we seem to be, are we?"  Perhaps they are guardian angels; perhaps the young man is even a Jesus figure.

At any rate, as the stories slowly unfold (a mental patient who nervously awaits the arrival of a young woman who saved his life as a child and who promised to marry him in ten years; two young delinquent brothers whose father has died; a woman who tries to commit suicide; an ambulance driver who saves the woman; a young couple who find out that their baby - born in the ambulance - has an inoperable heart defect that may or may not be able to be treated if they can find the money to go to the U.S.; a prisoner who is the brother of the mental patient and is planning a jailbreak), we become aware of the links between some of them (the delinquents steal the purse of the fiancee, two characters plan to rob the same bank, the suicidal woman is related to the delinquents).  The pieces begin to fit together, slowly.

Meanwhile the two "angels" work in different ways to intervene in the lives of the people they seem to be "assigned to." The girl finds the dying woman and calls the ambulance, sings "like an angel" at the funeral of the father, delivers a hug that finally calms the out-of-control delinquent; while the man tries to avert an accident he has dreamed about and makes a disciple of the ambulance driver, who then himself becomes a link to several of the characters after the Jesus/angel exhorts him to make and keep contact with the suicidal woman.

I don't want to give away the ending, but let me say that nearly all of the characters are brought together in the wake of a sacrificial death and that restorations occur and second chances are found and that undeserved and unexpected gifts come from seemingly random actions (including the trash).  And that two hugs play important parts in the story.  And, finally, that "I love you" is the last word.

All of this sounds complicated, and it is, and the movie sometimes taxes the viewer with frustration at not being able to make sense of the scenes as they are happening or to see the connections until much later.  And yet it boldly (remember, this is a Norwegian movie) proposes the idea that there is some force for good, a force perhaps even present among us in the form of angels, that weaves around within our desperate and sorry stories of loss and degradation in this life to bring life out of death.  And that that force becomes a web that links people together through the actions of those who are willing to literally touch others, to be for others in relationship.  And sometimes that force, those relationships, spin off positive consequences that land in the laps of others.  The web does good, even to those who do not seem to be part of it.  And it plays out in this incredibly messy, complicated world in which for the most part nobody is really looking.  (Which is why urban Oslo makes a great location for the movie.)

Is this not what we proclaim as Christians?  That it is in relationship, in literally touching others who are suffering, that we give hope to a world that is desperate with despair?  And that God brings good out of sorrow and evil and that somehow we receive gifts from unexpected places just when we are at our lowest point?  That somehow Jesus' sacrificial death drew all people to himself and brought about healing and restoration and life to others? That the world will be transformed by this love in this life?  This is all a mystery, and I guess if any movie that tries to get at this message is going to be shrouded in mystery, too.

You can watch the movie on Netflix (streaming).  If you decide to see it, come back and let me know what you thought.

Morning Collect for Wednesday in the Second Week of Advent

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved,
in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength:
By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee,
to thy presence,
where we may be still and know that thou art God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(BCP 832)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Be Thou My (Institutional) Vision

I read an article recently about the problem of institutions.  The crux of the matter is that once an institution (or a vision or a mission statement etc) is formed, then great energy is expended in upholding and maintaining that institution.  Energy that is taken away from other things, like flexibility, nimbleness, the capacity to change and grow, actual work in the community.  These observations are true.

On the other hand, having a mission statement or a vision rein in the scattershot approach and general wheel-spinning.  A group that has a vision or mission statement holds everything it approaches, from its current practices to its potential activities, up to that vision and asks, is this in line with what we have set out for ourselves?  Is this something we can and should do?  Is this an effective use of our time and resources?  Does it represent who we say we are?  (And is that different from who we really are?)  Presumably, the vision or mission has not been arrived at hurriedly or lightly.  And so checking in with the vision whenever a new idea comes forth is helpful.  It allows the institution or group to put boundaries around its activities in order to be more effective and sometimes to keep itself on track.

I think the problem comes when the vision takes on a life of its own, when it becomes too sacred to handle.  When it becomes a memory of who we used to be, when it preserves a notion of ourselves that is not longer true but we are not willing to face.  The vision has to be subject to adjustment, change, and even to be thrown away when it no longer works for the health of the group - when it becomes an unhealthy limiting factor instead of a clarifying one.  Then the mission or vision becomes like any other sacred cow and begins to control the group rather than to be a useful tool the group uses to be effective and to thrive.

It is difficult to strike the right balance.  The vision needs to be strong and not changed willy-nilly.  But it also needs to be subject to challenge when needed.  The skirmishes come in the ground in between those two places.  When is the mission helpful, when is it stifling?

Many of us of a certain age perhaps have a vestige of the sixties' notion of not trusting any institutions.  Such is a healthy notion but it too is subject to becoming a sacred cow.  Truthfully, institutions can and do good in the world and can give life both to those it serves and those who serve within it.  But institutions, like love, must be living breathing things.  They too have life cycles.  They become subject to change and even death.  And they can, like love, be revived and revitalized.

And what does this have to do with Advent?  There is often talk in the church about going back to the "pure" days before the church became an institution.  How Jesus was born outside of the institution (although I think this is not the case - did not Luke describe the faithful observance of Jewish custom by Jesus' family in the story of his circumcision, and did Jesus not teach in the synagogues?), how the early church was free from institutional life (but this is also not the case, as there were rules about how to meet and what to say during the Eucharist and fairly elaborate baptismal rites very early in the church's life).  Jesus was a reformer, but I think not an anarchist.  He preached Torah observance.  And so, as we wait for the one who will come and has come and will come again, we need to check our own vision and wonder if we are serving a vision that does not give us life.  A vision that our own salvation after our deaths is what matters rather than living life for others in this life.  A vision that relies on the casting out of those of whom we disapprove.  A vision that confuses God with Santa Claus on the one hand, or the Grinch on the other.

What are we waiting for?  A new heaven and a new earth, and perhaps in the meantime, a new church.

Morning Collect for Tuesday in the Second Week of Advent

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning:  Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(BCP 99)

Monday, December 6, 2010


About this time in Advent, once a couple of weeks have been celebrated, most folks I know get pretty antsy about the whole waiting thing.  Even adults.  We're ready to get on with it, even if "it" is fairly unspecified.  We don't wait comfortably.  This is true for all times and seasons, not just Advent.

Think about the things you have waited for:  the phone to ring; the movie to start; the 16th or 21st or 65th birthday; to be a grown up; the baby to be born; are we there yet?; for the rebate check to arrive.  (Remember sending in your cereal box tops plus $1 for a toy?  Those six to eight weeks lasted forever.)  Many things we wait for with great anticipation.

Of course there are things we wait for that we are dreading, too.  The biopsy results, the pathology report, the news about Dad, the news about the fire or the wreck or the tornado or the hurricane or the news that someone checked "no" on the love note (Dear XXX, I like you.  Do you like me?  Yes or No).

Sometimes there is just waiting.  Waiting for things to change, for the economy to pick up, for the companies to start hiring, for people to understand and care, waiting for a sign.  Waiting in line.  Boy are we bad at that one.... I sometimes think that hand-held devices were really invented so that we would have something to do while we are waiting.  We are antsy when we are called upon to wait.

Advent is a time of waiting in all of these ways.  It's supposed to be productive (and absolutely can be but, let's face it, it may not be every year).  There may be some dread - sometimes people even dread Christmas, when it's the first one without one's beloved perhaps.  This year I feel that last element - just waiting for things to be different somehow - more acutely.  But as always, Advent is a time when all of these things are true for me.  I'm not sure what I'm dreading, but I know mixed in with anticipation and excitement there is something darker and sadder.

But always things are happening, even when we cannot see or measure them.  We are learning, we are resting, we are gathering wisdom, we are learning how to look, we are getting experience with living in an in-between time.  We need a lot of that experience.  There's lots of waiting to do in this life and spending it being antsy is not, on the whole, enriching and life-giving. 

I wish that I could always connect "waiting" with "looking for."  Because I think this is true - we are looking for signs, looking for affirmation, looking for love and joy and companionship and sometimes looking for a fight or disappointment.  And the Advent message is that we are looking for God. 

Blessings on your continued waiting time this Advent.  Believe me, I know how hard it is.

New Look

Well, it got pretty cold here all of a sudden (it is December after all)
and so it seems time to redecorate the blog for winter.
Hope you like the new look!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A sermon about John and Jesus (Advent II Year A)

 Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist, who appeared in the wilderness dressed in hairy clothes, is not our favorite Advent character.  We'd much rather hear about the Angel Gabriel, or Mary, or Joseph, or shepherds or just about anybody except John the Baptist who preaches fire and brimstone.  I'll bet none of you have a John the Baptist figure as part of your Christmas Nativity Scenes - he doesn't belong there, does he? 

And yet, John was a very important figure in the story of Jesus.  The ancient historian Josephus writes about him in his history book.  And all four Gospels start off with him - you can't even get to the beginning of the Jesus story without going through John the Baptist first.

While Luke gives us a story of connection to explain this oddity, claiming that John and Jesus were really cousins, none of the other Gospels mention such a connection.  In the other Gospels, just as the curtain rises to begin the story of Jesus, the first person we see is the wild man John, standing in the wilderness, calling people names.

The fact that the Gospels all feature John and go to some pains to distinguish between him and Jesus tells us that there was confusion, or maybe even a rivalry, between the two.  After all, they were both in the same region, gathering disciples, both apparently itinerant preachers, and their messages seemed to be identical:  Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.

But John says that he is nothing compared to the one who will come after him.  He appears as the forerunner, the voice in the wilderness who prepares the way for the Lord.

So what is this all about?  Well, for us Christians, our Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi, who says that God will send Elijah the prophet (who himself was described in Second Kings as a hairy man who always wore a leather belt around his waist) to turn the people back toward God before the great Day of the Lord.  And then the New Testament begins with Matthew, whose first scene features the sudden appearance of a guy who dresses like Elijah, announcing that people need to repent because the one who is coming after him is near and will come with fire and wind.


Repent, of course, means turn back, turn away.  It means to reorient yourself toward God.  And this is what John calls for, repentance, for the Lord is near.  Reorient yourself wholly toward God.

So you can see why John is so important a figure for us during Advent, the time when we are to prepare ourselves for the Lord's coming.  Because we know that God does new things, does surprising things, we make the connection that Malachi's prophecy is realized in this scene, and yet it is not Elijah but John and not God but God-with-Us, Emmanuel, Jesus of Nazareth called The Christ, whose day is near.

But we have to go through John to get to Jesus.   And as I said, their message seems very similar:  repent, for the kingdom is near.  But while John simply exhorts repentance, his star will fade as we will see next week, and Jesus will carry the message much further.  He will preach healing and forgiveness.  John baptizes for repentance, he says here today; but Jesus will say at the last supper that his blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.  This is where the story ultimately goes.  We may start with repentance, but we end up with forgiveness.

There is no doubt that we are called to reorient ourselves toward God, and there is good reason why we do this every year, over and over, because just like cars and everything else that goes, we need adjustment and realignment after a certain amount of wear and tear.  However you may think of conversion, the truth is that we have to be converted over and over again.  The church year gives us this opportunity during Advent, and John comes on the scene just as we are getting going with the season to remind us again.  Turn yourself toward God, wholly, not just sort of, for the stakes are high.

It seems to me, however, that many of us never much get past the message of John.  Back in the olden days, the hellfire and brimstone preachers like Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was required reading back in the day, or my day at least - those preachers made sure that everyone heard the message of John.  Back in the olden days when people in the colonies were required by law to attend church, they were treated to a couple of hours' worth of drubbing every Sunday by the disciples of John:  repent, or be thrown into the fire.  God is coming with fire and is planning to throw most of us in it.  People were made to come to church and when they got there were made to listen to someone berating them and telling them they were destined for everlasting fire unless they repented.  And frankly, the actual steps to repentance, other than complete public shaming, were not very well spelled out and never really achieved.  Because as we all know, there is always something something to repent.

But John is only the beginning of the story of Jesus.  We start with him, but we don't stay with him - we are supposed to move on to Jesus.  John testified to the light, but he was not the light.  It is Jesus who shows us God, not John.  And Jesus spends much of his time healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind and making the lame walk.  Jesus brings about transformation from suffering into the fullness of life.  Jesus exhorts us to care for the poor and vulnerable, to welcome the stranger and the alien, to visit the sick and imprisoned - to bring life to others because God has brought life to us.

People apparently flocked to hear John in the wilderness.  And people flock today to hear preachers expound on just how hot the fire will be, about how we are all still sinners in the hands of an angry God. 

But God is not sitting up there on a cloud just waiting to pull the rug out from under us when we slip, as we inevitably will.  Our story is this:  God is coming to be among us as a little child, a healer, an instrument of forgiveness, who would rather die for us than have us die for him.

Our Bishop once said in an ordination sermon that someone once asked him what the hardest part of being a bishop is.  He said that it was the same as the hardest part about being a priest and a deacon and a layperson, which is trying to convince people that God is really that good.   We believe the worst.  If someone is preaching love and forgiveness and someone else is preaching fire and brimstone, which one do you think gets the crowd?  What is it with our attraction to the message that we are all doomed?  Are we all masochists?   Don't we say every week in the Nicene Creed that we believe in the forgiveness of sins? And yet I guess those hellfire and brimstone sermons from back in the day continue to lurk in our unconscious.  Any other version of God sounds too good to be true.

But what about that fire?  Yes, there is fire.  It's what burns up the trash.  Chaff is the husk on the wheat, the dry, scaly part, sort of like peanut hulls, that protects the part that's good for eating.   

We all have chaff, too.  Our protective outer layers.  We can't really approach God with our protective outer layer on, that part of us that's cynical and distrustful and hoarding and self-centered.  We can't bring our genuine, honest, real selves before God or before any humans with whom we want to form real relationships.  That outer layer has to be gotten rid of, first, just as the chaff has to be discarded before the wheat can be made into flour. 

Sometimes we read in the Bible about the refiner's fire that burns away the dross from pure silver or gold.  I like that image even better.  We carry around a lot of junky stuff with us, and it has to be burned away before our true selves become free.  The fire burns off the dross, the junky stuff.  But it does not destroy us, our true selves. 

We are not the junky stuff, the trash.  We are the wheat, the silver, the gold.  John says, Jesus separates the wheat from the chaff, and the wheat goes into the granary, God's great gathering barn, while the chaff is thrown into the fire.

And so, perhaps, we can see why it is we need to encounter John in that wilderness before we get to Jesus.  We need to know that our outer husk, our dross, our junky stuff, has got to go.  We need to remember that we must over and over again realign ourselves with God, with God's purpose for us, God's plan to bring us to health and wholeness, God's desire for us to be for others' health and wholeness too, so that we can bring our best selves, our core selves, our real selves before God and one another.  This is God's plan for us, our transformation into who our loving creator made us to be.  It happens again and again as we make our choices about how to be, how to live day by day.

The little child comes soon to lead us again toward that vision of a world in which peace reigns instead of fear.  A world in which love is preached, forgiveness is practiced, and resurrection is lived out.   Don't fall for the fire and brimstone and angry God stuff.  The fire is there to burn away the junky dross, and many of us have been through it here in this life.  And it makes us available again to experience peace, to experience forgiveness, to experience the love of God that we have feared was simply too good to be true. 

But it is true.  God is love, and God will come to us in love again and again, over and over, to take away our sins, to bring us to wholeness, to give us life.   Let us all turn toward that life with blessed relief, and with joyous thanksgiving.


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