Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Seventh Day of Christmas: Riu Riu Chiu

The lighting's too harsh and you'll want to turn up the sound a bit, but otherwise this is an excellent rendition of the Spanish carol Riu Riu Chiu performed by the Blacksburg (not sure what state!) High School Madrigals.  Great singing and accompaniment and costumes.  Enjoy.

Visual Morning Prayer for the Seventh Day of Christmas: Nativity

(Olive wood from Jerusalem)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas!

I am a collector of sacred Christmas music, which I have accumulated over many, many years.  The vinyl LPs of Tennessee Ernie Ford and Handel’s Messiah gave way to cassette tapes featuring Johnny Mathis and the Vienna Boys Choir, only to be replaced by CDs of medieval dances and Spanish carols and Celtic harp melodies and Mahalia Jackson singing “Poor Little Jesus Boy, We Didn’t Know Who You Was.”

I’ve got Christmas jazz from Lincoln Center and King’s College choirs singing Cathedral hymns.  I downloaded from iTunes a rockin’ Cajun version of “He is born, the Holy Child” sung by the Veggie Tales French Peas in which Philippe and Jean Claude remind us to respond to the news of the birth of Jesus by playing the oboe and bagpipes merrily.   

A few years ago I came across a recording of “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” that included a verse I’d never heard before.  

The version I know, the one in our hymnal, has four verses. 

It begins deep in the night, once long ago, when angels came near the earth with their golden harps and the world stopped for a moment of solemn stillness to hear the angels sing God's message of peace.  

The second one tells us that angels still come to fill the sky with unfurled, peaceful wings, still singing heavenly music over a world no longer listening.  The third verse notes that the world has suffered for two thousand years, and humans, who are always at war, are not able anymore to hear the love-song and admonishes us to hush our noise and hear the angels sing.  

The last verse looks forward to the time when peace will reign over all the earth and everyone and everything will finally sing back to God the song that the angels sang and still sing to us on Christmas night. 

The missing stanza, between the verse about war and and the verse about peace, goes like this:  "And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow - look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.  O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing."

I’ve always loved this evocative hymn, with its angels and their unfurled wings coming to us through a mysterious door from heaven to bring God’s news to us in splendid celestial song.  I appreciate its recognition of our weariness and the sad fact of the constancy of war and strife that drowns out the angels’ love song.  It poignantly reminds us just how much we need a savior.

But it speaks to me even more urgently now, now that I know this verse.  Those of us who do not soar and sing but are ourselves bent, not curled over in caring but bent out of shape - distorted - beneath life’s crushing load of fear or sadness or anxiety or loneliness, or lack of every kind - we are bidden on this night to just rest beside our path and listen God’s messengers singing heavenly music.  

That’s all.  Just stop, and rest, and hear the good news that comes even now on whispering wings, good news that sounds like angels singing over the din of the stock exchange trading floor and domestic disturbances and ear-piercing sirens about this disaster or another, and radios and televisions blaring the voices of angry commentators and advertisements designed to make us feel so bad about ourselves that we will spend our money on things that will surely never buy us peace or happiness.  The sounds the whole world now proclaims are the sounds of fear-mongering and strife and constant, incessant hype.

That verse about people bent over under crushing loads speaks to me; I know people like that.  I recognize that posture. Perhaps you do, too.

On this night, Jesus, the savior is born in Bethlehem.  Nomadic shepherds are taking care of their sheep in the country as they always do, and a huge crowd assembles in the town in obedience to the powers that be, taking up all the available space, as crowds always do.  Humble people squeeze into humble quarters, as they always must.  All while the Empire moves people around on its political chessboard like pawns, as Empires always do.  

And, oh what a great mystery! while people are just going about their business, out of pure love God unobtrusively slips into humanity in a back room somewhere simply to be with us, to be among us as one of us.  

And those to whom this message was brought, just some poor guys working the night shift out in a field far away from the glitter of the Emperor’s palace and the din of the marketplace, stop what they are doing to listen to the angels sing, which spurs them to go to see for themselves what God has done.  

And then they go back to their regular lives, but they are changed forever; they go back in joyful gladness that God has shown them both the beautiful brilliance of the glorious angels and the simple fact that God is trustworthy.

And so on this night, in the midst of everything, there is good news that can change us forever.  That not only do babies (even Baby Jesus!) do what they always do - arrive on their own schedule, convenient or not - and angels do what angels always do - deliver messages from God.  

But most wonderfully, that God does what God always does:  As God has promised through the prophets of old, God comes to us wherever we are in our lives and abides with us, to be our companion in the way and to give us strength and courage and comfort as we trudge along in ordinary times and extraordinary times, both when life is good and when life seems to be crushing us.  

God is not afraid of the Empire or the dark or blaring sirens or shouting people or being born in a stable and sleeping in an animal trough or even dying a humiliating and painful death.  

God is with us and God will be with us so that we can be free from fear - fear that makes us bent and distorted and keeps us from being what God created us to be:  caring and loving and kind and just and free.  

The Empire may make its demands, but tonight the Gospel invites us to simply lay down our burdens for a while and listen to this incredible, joyful news:  As God has promised, God has come to us.  And God is with us, now and always.

And so, believe it! And be changed forever. And do not be afraid any more.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Afternoon Advent Angel Break

Ceramic angels,
rear view.

Morning Psalm for Friday in the Fourth Week of Advent

Psalm 25:1-14

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

Gracious and upright is the LORD; therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

For your Name's sake, O LORD, forgive my sin, for it is great.

Who are they who fear the LORD? he will teach them the way that they should choose.

They shall dwell in prosperity, and their offspring shall inherit the land.

The LORD is a friend to those who fear him and will show them his covenant.

My eyes are ever looking to the LORD, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Music for Advent: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

This is a compelling, percussive version of this Advent favorite combined with wonderful art. The art moves through the Annunciation to the Nativity to the Adoration of the Magi and beyond, pushing Advent into Christmas and Epiphany, but it's quite a feast for the eyes and ears. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Annunciation

Morning Psalm for Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Advent

Psalm 33:1-5; 20-22

Rejoice in the LORD, you righteous; it is good for the just to sing praises.

Praise the LORD with the harp; play to him upon the psaltery and lyre.

Sing for him a new song; sound a fanfare with all your skill upon the trumpet.

For the word of the LORD is right, and all his works are sure.

He loves righteousness and justice; the loving-kindness of the LORD fills the whole earth.

Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.

Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, for in his holy Name we put our trust.

Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us, as we have put our trust in you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Almost! But not yet.

Every year, the period between the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve is one that tempts even the most strict observer of the liturgical seasons to begin to cheat just a bit.

We get the Christmas tree up and decorated; we begin to openly listen to Christmas carols (instead of doing so privately and somewhat secretly); we mail out those Christmas cards and begin to say "Merry Christmas!"  Especially since some of the people we see this week we may not actually see during Christmas.  Or so we say.

But it is, of course, still Advent until the evening of December 24.  Even if little bits of Christmas are leaking in, it's still Advent.

The thing is, all this waiting is hard. We are feeling the strain of all this expectation.  We want it to be Christmas already!

When I was young, I, like most children, got so very excited about Christmas that I had trouble sleeping.  I was often up at 4:30 on Christmas morning.  I remember one year I just couldn't take pressure any more. As soon as we finished dinner, about 7:30 I guess, I put on my pajamas and got ready for bed.  I didn't care if it was 7:30, I couldn't wait another minute.  (We didn't attend Christmas Eve services in those days in my family.)

I was under the covers and just turning out the light about 8:00 p.m. when the doorbell rang.  Surprise guests were arriving, a family of five who lived in the house we used to live in down the road; the adults were friends of my parents and the children were friends of mine.

Well, what an embarrassment!  I could turn on my bedroom light quickly enough, but there I was in my nightgown at 8:00 in the evening when my friends were out and about in the neighborhood, visiting folks.  I grabbed some clothes and rushed into the bathroom to re-dress and come out casually - but with my heart pounding in fear that I'd be found out.  The truth would come out, I feared, that I was so excited about Christmas that I couldn't stand the waiting.

And then we went into the basement (my winter playroom) and played together until close to midnight! I remember how much we enjoyed our games of "house" and "school" and "olden days" during those magical oh-so-close-to-Christmas hours while our parents played cards and laughed together upstairs.

There is an end to this waiting, and it is coming soon.  There are still preparations to be made, both inward and outward, but it is truly almost time to celebrate.  Perhaps our waiting now is best done in company with others to keep us grounded in love and joy and to savor that company and that love and that joy.

For me, that means going to church a lot.  What better way to spend these last few days before the Feast of the Nativity than standing before God with gratitude, in community.

Morning Psalm for Tuesday in the Fourth Week of Advent

Psalm 24

The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.

For it is he who founded it upon the seas and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep.

"Who can ascend the hill of the LORD? and who can stand in his holy place?"

"Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who have not pledged themselves to falsehood, nor sworn by what is a fraud.

They shall receive a blessing from the LORD and a just reward from the God of their salvation."

Such is the generation of those who seek him, of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.

Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

"Who is this King of glory?"  "The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle."

Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

"Who is he, this King of glory?" "The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory."

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bunny and Kitty Tales

Some of you are aware that I was not able to bring either of my pets with me to Williamsburg.  My landlord deemed my bunny to be much too dangerous and destructive an animal to be tolerated in my rental unit (see him here eating our Christmas tree last year), and my family deemed our kitty to be too well ensconced in our Atlanta neighborhood to move without undue distress.  Truth be told, I am away from home so much, it's probably for the best right now, but I do miss my furry family members almost as much as I miss the people family members.

For awhile, I enjoyed the ducks on our property, but they up and flew south for the winter (yes, all of them - the lone male has departed, too).  And of course we have squirrels and birds aplenty, and I've seen a few deer when I'm out very early in the mornings.  Not the same, though.

Recently, though, a grey cat has taken up residence on the parish house grounds.  He is a beautiful animal, and very friendly; he may have been left behind by a neighbor who moved as he is a neutered adult cat.  With all the restaurants near by, he seems to be eating pretty well.  When not otherwise occupied stalking squirrels, he sits on one of our benches in the sun or snuggles in a leaf pile in the garden.   He clearly is used to being around people, and various folks stop to pet him -- he happily hops in one's lap, purring and kneading paws, if one takes a seat on a bench or the parish house steps.

Even more recently, I discovered bunny pellets in my yard and driveway. I'd seen a bunny or two on my walks around the duck pond but not around the residences.  Friday morning as I was pulling out of the driveway, I saw him in my yard, feasting on the grass.  He looks just like my bunny at home, if a little thinner.  So on Saturday, I left him a carrot under the shrubbery.

And on Sunday the carrot was gone.

Yesterday I heard again, at our Advent Service of Lessons & Carols, the story of how God created all of the animals to be companions of Adam in the Garden.  As it turned out, none of them was quite what Adam was looking for until the woman (whom he would later name Eve) was formed, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.  The Bible doesn't have much in it about pets or animal friends, but even a cursory look back through the history of humankind shows that as long as there have been people, they have had animal companions of various sorts.

And so, while my own Bunny and Kitty are enjoying life at home in Atlanta, I know some animals here now, too.

Music for Advent: The Angel Gabriel (another version)

This is the hymn The Angel Gabriel sung by a group called All Angels.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Music for Advent: The Angel Gabriel

A beautiful rendition of The Angel Gabriel, sung by Sting in concert at Durham Cathedral in 2009.

Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saturday Morning Advent Movie: Good News of Great Joy!

The kids from St Paul's, Aukland NZ, are at it again! Here is the latest from St Paul's Arts & Media: Good News of Great Joy!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Afternoon Advent Angel Break: RIP Joseph

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Friday afternoon angel break series to take a moment to say a prayer of repose for this Joseph figure, who unhappily and unexpectedly exploded after being assaulted by a much-too-big-for-the-job dusting wand.

Rest in Peace, white porcelain Joseph!  (See day before yesterday's Wordless Wednesday post to see the Mary of this set.)

Morning Psalm for Friday in the Third Week of Advent

Psalm 67  Deus misereatur

May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us.

Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide all the nations upon the earth.

Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has brought forth her increase; may God, our own God, give us his blessing.

May God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What are we expecting?

Luke 7:19-23
John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"  When the men had come to him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, 'are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'"  Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
In a way, this is a sad scene. John the Baptist, who has heralded Jesus as the Christ, the "one who is to come" now wonders if he was wrong.  
Jesus has been hanging out with the lowest of the low, not bringing the nation of Israel back into power.  He has been preaching peace.  He has been telling people to love their enemies and to be merciful and not to judge.  So John wonders, is this really the One?
Jesus's answer is simple.  What has come out of my work here?  
He doesn't ask what John was expecting.  
He just says, What did you see and hear?  The blind, the lame, the deaf, the ill are healed, are made whole, are restored to the community, no longer outcast.  The dead have been raised through the power of God. 
Don't be upset that I am not what you thought I ought to be. I am about God's kingdom, in which the community is restored to wholeness by having all of its members returned to it.  I am about God's work of healing and restoration.
In Advent, we have the opportunity to consider who this God is who is coming to us again.  There's a lot of focus on the baby, on the way that God comes, on the human aspect, the helpless baby born to a lowly mother, on the event of incarnation; there's a little focus, too, on the part about Jesus coming again in glory, about judgment.  We are encouraged to make room in our hearts for this coming.
But our reading today takes us further - it asks us to consider what it is that happens on earth, in our lives, because of the incarnation. We are encouraged to stop to think about how it is we know that God is present, that God's work is being done.  
Since we don't have Jesus with us as a human, and yet we believe that the Spirit empowers us to continue his work in this world, we do actually have to look to see God's hand at work around us.
This encounter with John's disciples, after John has wondered himself, “Is this really the One?” encourages us to consider for ourselves: What are we expecting?  What do we expect God's work to look like?
Jesus tells us plainly. It's about healing - all sorts of healing. Physical, emotional, communal, cosmic even. It's about things being made right. It's about the work of restoration.
And so another thing we do in Advent is consider this question: What do we expect God to be like? What do we expect God's work to look like?
Jesus says God's work looks like restoration to wholeness and health.  
So how and where do we need to focus our eyes? Through what lens do we need to look upon the world so that we can see that work and prepare to join in it?  

Music for Advent: Creator of the Stars of Night

Creator of the Stars of Night (Conditor alme siderum), a Gregorian chant.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord

Psalm for Wednesday in the Third Week of Advent

Psalm 85:8-13

I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him.

Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Advent Photo of the Day: Gabriel

Morning Psalm for Tuesday in the Third Week of Advent

Psalm 34

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth.

I will glory in the Lord; let the humble hear and rejoice.

Proclaim with me the greatness of the Lord.  Let us exalt his Name forever.

I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror.

Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed.

I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me and saved me from all my troubles.

The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him, and he will deliver them.

Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Children in Church

After church today I met a young lady (about 5 or 6 years old, I would estimate) after church who was visiting the area. (Our church is in a tourist area and people come in to tour the building.)

She was disappointed that there was one of those velvet ropes keeping people (i.e., visitors) from going up to the altar. I was just coming out and let myself out through the rope. As I walked away, I heard her say rather loudly to her parents, "Why does she get to go in there?!?"

So I turned back and approached her. I think her parents were worried that I was going to scold her. I knelt down and said to her, "I'll tell you why I get to go in there: because I work here. I come to this church every day."

"You get to come in here every day?" she asked, wide-eyed.  Her father said, "She gets to come here every day and pray, you see."

I nodded. "Yes," I said, "I get to come here every day and pray. And I am glad that you got to come here to visit today."

She went on to tell me where she lives and to show me all the buttons on her coat (while her parents apologized for the syrup stains that ran between all the buttons) and to engage in some general conversation. When I stood up to go, her mother said, "Thank you for talking with our daughter."

"Thank you for bringing your daughter to our church," I replied.

Oh let the little children come unto me, said Jesus, for the Kingdom belongs to such as these. And please don't scold them.

Collect for the Third Sunday 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.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saturday Morning Music Video: Seven Rejoices

The Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday - rejoice in the Lord always - and many people will light a pink candle for Mary on this Sunday.  Some folks "name" their candles, too, and this one is the "joy" candle.

At any rate, it seems like a good day to listen to Canadian singer/harpist/musician Loreena McKinnett sing The Seven Rejoices of Mary today.

Enjoy and Rejoice!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Afternoon Advent Angel Break

A homemade angel, courtesy of the Daughters of the King,
St Simon's Episcopal Church in Conyers, GA

Morning Psalm for Friday in the Second Week of Advent

Psalm 1

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in good season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicket shall not stand upright when judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

More thoughts about prophets

I continue to think this week about prophets.  During seminary, no small number of classmates wanted to style themselves as prophets.  Prophets were the ones to speak truth to power, to stand on the outside and thus avoid the temptation to be a "company man."  Being a company man or woman was never something to which to aspire publicly.  Being a prophet was seen as being true to the Gospel.

Of course, without "companies" and "company people," there would be no need for prophets.  And without prophets, institutions would be subject to nothing but temptation to sell out and lose their souls.  The truth is that we're all in this together.  Companies and institutions can governments can do great good, and they can also end up focusing on holding on to their power.  The prophetic voice and the prophetic action is absolutely necessary for an organization's health and vitality.  Change simply may not happen without some prophet's squawking.  Sometimes one person's voice can truly change the world.

And yet, there is a place for organizations, who can deliver goods, information, hands and feet to  deliver great good to many people  I would argue there's still a place for church buildings - a need for sacred space - as well.

A few years ago, James Taylor was one of the speakers at Williams College's commencement.  He did a great job showing how complicated this deal is.  He made a name for himself being something of a prophet, and then got famous, and maybe didn't like it and maybe did like it, and wrote some songs about not being a company man which made him richer and more famous.  (Watch the video on YouTube here.)  There was an issue for him about identity and also about the reality of his life and work.

And so I wonder if rather than styling oneself as a prophet, one might always be open to being a prophetic voice from wherever one finds oneself and in whatever situation.  After all, the Spirit blows where it will. The important thing for us to to keep ourselves open to that Spirit.

It's still Advent. Let us keep awake.

Music for Advent: Comfort, Comfort Ye My People

Here's a improvised piano version of the hymn Comfort, Comfort Ye My People, which has such wonderful harmony. This was the reading from Isaiah on the Second Sunday of Advent.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Your messengers the prophets

Morning Psalm for Wednesday in the Second Week of Advent

Psalm 103:1-10

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities;

He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;

He satisfies you with good things, and your youth is renewed like an eagle's.

The LORD executes righteousness and judgment for all who are oppressed.

He made his ways known to Moses and his works to the children of Israel.

The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.

He will not always accuse us, nor will he keep his anger for ever.

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Feast of St Nicholas - not just for the kids, please

It's the feast day of St Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra and patron saint of children.  I am sure you already know all the stories, which are lovely, especially the ones featuring a donkey and chimney sweep and a chocolate boat called "The Congo."  But I won't reiterate any of them here.  (That's what Google is for.)

Instead, you get my St Nicholas Day Rant.

I have a complaint about how we separate children from their families.  We want to do things for children, especially at the holidays.  Forget those lazy, undeserving, guilty parents.  We just want to help the children.

At any children's hospital, however, the staff will tell you that there is no such thing as a solitary child.  Children come embedded in families.  Treatment for children must include their families - for the families are the ones who care for the children, who give them medicine (or not) and make sure they are safe.  The families are helped so that they can care for their children.

Further, educational studies show that children's test scores are directly related to the educational level of the mother.  Other studies show that if you want to help a child in any way, you need to do so by helping the parents care for the child, by helping them with the resources they need so that they can care for their own children themselves.  It takes a village to raise child, as the African proverb says.

But when it comes to Christmas, we just want to help the children.  Not their families.

There is a shameful period in our country's history (not that long ago, either) when Native American children were taken away from their families and put in boarding schools so that they could be "regularized."  Christian missionaries of various denominations propagated this program, following the European missionary pattern from the age of exploration in which the spread of the Gospel was thought to be best done by spreading Western European Culture.  Conversion was not just to Christ but to European style Christendom.  So, the Native American children were removed from their cultures and expected to adopt another, "white" culture. They were removed from their parents, who apparently were deemed not to be able to raise them correctly, given Anglo names and haircuts, and forbidden to speak their native languages.  Some of them were adopted by Anglo couples, who told the children that they loved the children more than their biological parents loved them.

Because they just wanted to help the children.

My plea on this St Nicholas Day is that we be mindful that children are not solitary individuals but part of a family, part of a community, and that we repent of our misguided ideas that we can help them by separating them from their parents in any way. If we want to help a child, let us remember that the way to do so is to help and support the child's parents.

Thank you, and I hope you found some chocolate in your shoes this morning.

Morning Psalm for Tuesday in the Second Week of Advent

Psalm 50:7-15

Hear, O my people, and I will speak: "O Israel, I will bear witness against you; for I am God, your God.

I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; your offerings are always before me.

I will take no bull-calf from your stalls, nor he-goats out of your pens;

For all the beasts of the forest are mine, the herds in their thousands upon the hills.

I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures of the fields are in my sight.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it.

Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High.

Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me.

Monday, December 5, 2011

More thoughts about fire

Many of us tend to associate fire with something negative.  If one were to ask a random sample of people about putting "fire" and "God," in the same sentence, I'm guessing that more often than not, the association would be about destruction.   Like, the fires of Hell, the unquenchable lake of fire, or the destruction of Sodom, or unworthy trees being chopped down (no doubt by John the Baptiser himself) and thrown into the fire, or chaff separated from the wheat and thrown into the fire.

Biblical fire is actually more varied and interesting - and frequently positive.

Moses encounters God in the burning bush - a phenomenon that causes Moses to turn aside from his hike to marvel at the sight of a flaming shrub that isn't being destroyed.

God hangs out with and leads the Israelites out of Egypt as a pillar of fire.  It isn't a fire that is consuming anything but one that gives light and direction to the people as they head out into the unknown.

Sacrifices on the altar are given to God through fire.  Sometimes the priests (who are supposed to keep the fire burning on the altar at all times) initiate the sacrifice, and other times God sends down the fire to accept the offering (see Judges 6:21, when Gideon is instructed to make a sacrifice and fire comes up out of the rock to consume, and therefore accept, the sacrifice).

Much of the fire that happens in the Bible is in fact the fire of purification.  Even things that are underperforming and thrown into the fire may not be destined for destruction, but for purification.  To burn off the dross.  Why else does John the Baptizer say (in Matthew and Luke) that while he baptizes with water, the one who will come after him, the Son of God, will "baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire?"

The fire burns away what is not necessary, the things that are hindrances and blemishes and weaknesses, leaving behind the essence of what God created in the first place.  So perhaps we need not immediately assume that a baptism by fire is a negative thing.  It may well be the spark that lights our own holy fire.

Music for Advent: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Sufjan Stevens sings Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing on his Hark! Christmas album. Note the bells at the end. This is my favorite version of this hymn. The video is pretty much a blank, so you can project your own Advent images onto the screen.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The beginning of the Good News...

The Gospel of Mark, the first of the four Gospels to be written down, hasn’t always gotten a lot of respect.  It’s short, it has an ambiguous ending, it doesn’t feature people’s favorite parables like the Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan.  Its vocabulary is fairly limited and it uses the word “immediately” over and over - immediately Jesus went here and did this and then immediately, quickly, breathlessly, Jesus went there and said that.  Most of the sentences start with “and.”  And this, and that, and another.  The pace is relentless. 

And Mark doesn’t have a sweet birth narrative to ease us into the story of the savior.  No shepherds, no magi, no angels. For centuries, Biblical scholars pretty much ignored Mark, calling it rough, primitive, obscure, not understanding its power and purpose.

But, oh, Mark is my favorite of the Gospels.  Because it doesn’t want us to get distracted from the message. It doesn’t want us to loll around in a scene too long lest we lose the point, lest we think the story is about anything other than the shocking, urgent, mysterious revelation of God Almighty in the human person of Jesus Christ and how hard that is for any of us to grasp.  

Mark gets right to the point.  The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God reaches back to the prophets.  This may be a shocking story, but it’s not without a familiar context.  The Old Testament (at least the Christian arrangement of it) ends with the prophet Malachi, who says that before the awesome day of the Lord’s return, God will send the great prophet Elijah (that wild hairy man who wore a leather belt and called down fire from heaven) to reconcile the people to one another in preparation for God’s mighty return.  Add to that the potent and poignant story of the people of God as told by the prophet Isaiah, who assures a people languishing long in exile - after the destruction of the Temple and the land and the whole nation of Israel - that God will break through all barriers, will make a safe and straight way through the wilderness, and bring God’s people home.

And so in the beginning but out of the history of God’s people now comes John the Baptizer, hairy and leather-belted, a new Elijah, to continue the prophetic witness, to prepare the way for us.  God is still speaking through the prophets, and this prophet proclaims that something is about to happen, that someone greater than all the prophets, someone powerful and mighty, comes this way.  Someone who will break through all barriers to get to us, we who are bent under heavy loads, and who will comfort us and lead us safely home.

No need to linger over any pretty scenes or literary build up.  That’s our Mark.

Do you see how urgent this is? Do you see how awe-some this is, that God Almighty comes to us in our brokenness, busting through the chaos of this world and heralded by a wild man who talks about holy fire?  No wonder we surround the story with lowing cattle and angels and fir trees and candle lights. It’s almost too raw to bear on its own.

In Advent we are given the time and space to stop and pay attention to something that for most of us is actually kind of unbelievable and yet we remember, somewhere, somehow that it is true.  That God bends towards us, that God’s move is always towards us, even when we are looking the other way or have lost sight of the strength of God’s mighty arm and the goodness of God’s gentle embrace.  

But we are most likely remember that it is true if we have had some kind of experience of it ourselves.

Ah, experience of God. Experience of this awesome one who is heralded by a wild man talking about holy fire. Some of us may not be so sure about that. We’re respectable people.  Sometimes people tell me they don’t think they’ve had any kind of experience of God, really.  But I wonder if maybe they haven’t learned how to recognize it yet.

Paradoxically, mysteriously, God is both wild and gentle, both present and absent, both intensely personal and warmly communal.  

Not all of us have experienced the relentless fierceness of God’s power - I think of stories of whole communities transformed by forgiveness in the wake of violence like work of the the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa or the behavior of the Amish people after the school shooting in Pennsylvania or people keeping vigil on death row. I think that some of us individually worry we might not be able to withstand that fierceness - but most of us have experienced God in some way.

For myself, I think about the times I trudge along a beach, pouring out my frustrations and worries in half-formed sighs that pass for prayer, and then a single, perfectly formed shell washing up just in front of me, out of the blue, like a gift, a calling card saying, “I’m here, I hear you, I’m with you.” I remember the fingers of my newborn baby curling over mine and the rush of love that went out of me and took my breath away.  I think about that stirring impulse inside me that makes me want to give and love and connect to others, in both their pain and joy, and gives me the strength to do so.  I think about a time in the hospital when people came to visit me and a deep sense of well-being flooded over me as I knew I was loved and cared for.  I remember feeling somewhat mysteriously accompanied on the road through a snowstorm by a little red truck clearing the way ahead.  I think about the rays of light coming out of the clouds after a storm and the stirring birdsong and the fragrance of roses and I marvel at the raw power of the love and delight that flows all around the universe and flows through me if I will but stop and know it.  

These experiences of mine may seem small and sentimental, but I know that they are connected to that same power that transforms the world on a much larger scale.  And that power is ultimately about breaking through the things that keep us from loving God and loving one another so that we can be healed.  As we read through the Gospel of Mark this year, we will see for ourselves how much emphasis this Gospel puts on Jesus’ power of healing and restoration.

And so I’m here today to invite you to marvel with me about this God who bulldozes through all obstacles and tenderly gathers together all of God’s people and leads them safely home.  I’m here to suggest that we take some time today to communally and intentionally stand together in the presence of God and hear God’s promise.  And then to take time in the coming weeks to slow down, to stop even, to be still and seek - look for - the experience of God and God’s promise.  To not let the parties and events and even the beauty and good cheer of the season take up all of our time and energy and so distract us from that real experience of God.

And I would also like to invite you to share in the prophet’s work yourself.  God is still speaking through prophets of all sorts, not just the ones who call fire down from heaven, and God commands us today to comfort God’s people today.  Therefore I invite you to seek to experience God not just for your own well-being but for the well-being of the world - because you cannot offer love and hope to others until you know love and hope yourself.  

You don’t have to look far to see how many people have lost hope. Who don’t know love. Who are exhausted and bent over in pain or hunger or fear or shame.  Whose relentless grief is overwhelming them now.

We can share God’s love when we know it ourselves; we can bind up others’ wounds when we know our own wounds have been bound up; we can open our hearts to others with generosity when we have experienced God’s generosity toward us. 

And so, immediately, today, listen to the prophet’s urgent command - to us as a community and each of you individually - to break through whatever barriers you need to break through with your own holy fire to offer hope, to offer love, to offer God’s comfort to God’s people through your own hands.

For this is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Afternoon Advent Angel Break

Morning Psalm for Friday in the First Week of Advent

Psalm 27 1-6; 17-18 
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? *
    the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?
When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, *
    it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who stumbled and fell.
Though an army should encamp against me, *
    yet my heart shall not be afraid; 
And though war should rise up against me, *
    yet will I put my trust in him.
One thing have I asked of the LORD; one thing I seek; *
    that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life;
To behold the fair beauty of the LORD *
    and to seek him in his temple.
What if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of the LORD *
    in the land of the living!
O tarry and await the LORD'S pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; *
    wait patiently for the LORD.


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