Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Story of This Nativity Scene

I have a collection of nativities (both freestanding sets and scenes as well as tree ornaments and other representations) in various styles and from all over the world.  I've featured a number of them in the  daily collect posts I've put up here during these days of Christmas.  But this nativity scene is my favorite.  It has an interesting history.  You can't even see all the figures in this photo, and besides that they sometimes change from year to year, but I'll give you the story of those you can see.

First of all, this is a Luke nativity.  Sort of.  There are no Magi (which is part of the Matthew story but not Luke) but there are angels (which are not in Matthew but are in Luke).  There are not any shepherds, however; to be a true, legit Luke scene, there ought to be shepherds, too.  Some of my nativities have shepherds, angels, and wise guys; most have Magi but no shepherds; most have some kind of animals; a few have shepherds and animals, and one or two have a star but no attending people.  But I digress.

This nativity is founded upon the figure of Mary, a white ceramic Madonna which I received as a Christmas gift from either my Sunday school teacher or church children's choir director when I was in elementary school.  We're talking mid-1960's here, so she's old.  For many years, this Madonna was just about my only overtly religious Christmas decoration.

It's good for there to be a baby present in nativity scenes, and this Jesus made his debut in 1993 in the form of Peanut Baby Jesus, which my elder son made in Sunday school when he was three and we had returned to church and were becoming Episcopalians.  Peanut Baby Jesus is, as you might guess, made out of a peanut wrapped in a square of flannel (it has some marker marks on it which I presume are blanket decorations a la the imagination of a three year old who was rather attached to his own blanket at the time), lying in a manger made of popsicle sticks in a bed of shredded paper.  For whatever reason, probably because I was rather emotional about coming back to church with my own firstborn son, I immediately became attached to Peanut Baby Jesus and decided to start a family nativity scene with him and my Old Mary. 

After that, we began to add various angels and animals.  You can see that a number of the animals look similar if not proportional - check out the dog who is larger than an elephant.  They came with a vehicle (it may have even been a shape-sorter truck) which crashed many times and became unsafe, so it seemed good that the freed animals might attend Peanut Baby Jesus in this set.  Other animals include a fabulous brush donkey added just a couple of years ago and two carved wooden llamas that a friend brought me from Peru.   There are also a country pig and sheep duo that were Christmas ornaments too heavy for the tree this year that joined the menagerie.  

Angels range from blown glass from Italy to an abaca (leaf fiber) angel from the Philippines, as well as two rather large ceramic angels that tower over the scene (one of which I had given to my mother but she gave it back when she downsized this year - they have their backs turned to us here), a pottery candle holder praying angel, a Moravian punched tin candle holder angel, two tulle-and-pipecleaner angels the children made at a Christmas craft table,  a ceramic violin-playing angel who has had to be repaired several times and so in the off season sits on a shelf rather than packed away, a paper angel head on a Christmas card, and a sort of fuzzy-featured clay angel I made myself (you can see her behind the fiddling angel here).  

For a long time, we did not have a Joseph.  Marys are not that hard to find by themselves but Josephs are less common.  Plus it seemed that we ought to either make or find a Joseph the way we had done with the other figures.  We thought we might have to resort to a GI-Joseph or something of that nature - neither of my boys were GI-Joe fans, though, and we'd have to buy one and then I'd have to make clothes for it, and somehow I never got around to that.  (I'm not sure what this says about me that Joseph was basically ignored for a good many years.)  My husband (who perhaps felt that Joseph was more necessary that I did) finally ordered the one in the photo from a museum store catalog, I think.  He shares with Mary a ceramic nature, but he has a very colorful glaze.  I believe he came from South Africa.  

A couple of people have commented on the interracial nature of our Holy Family (literally a lily-white Mary, a black Joseph, and a peanut-brown baby Jesus) but we think it's just right.  Jesus' birth is described in various ways, in order to signify the mystery of God-made-human, but the idea in Scripture is that this birth was somehow irregular, possibly scandalous, not the usual pregnancy or marriage or family. (Personally, we don't think interracial relationships are scandalous, but we note the symbolism.  In the tradition, even though it is not in Scripture, Joseph is considered an old man while Mary is a teen.  Not everyone considers May-December relationships scandalous, either.  There just isn't a facile way to say what we want to say about the nature and circumstances of an event in which God becomes human, the Greek and Roman myths about gods notwithstanding.) 

Just so, our nativity scene is unusual, too.  It blends my old childhood Mary with an imported African Joseph and an expensive Murano glass angel with homemade peanut baby Jesus and with children's toy daschund and kitty and Peruvian carved llamas and handmade angels and a paper-mache star and folk art and classical art.   And that's pretty much how life is.  

Even, no - especially - life in the Kingdom.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

O Magnum Mysterium

O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

Merry and Blessed Christmas to you all!

Merry Christmas!

Last Saturday, the first service back in our renovated church building was the children’s Christmas pageant. Still today, maybe in a corner of a pew or on the steps to the chancel, one might see something shiny, an artifact resistant to brooms and mops, proof that the stars and angels glittered here again this year.

I’ve been to more children’s pageants than I can count. There is no better way to experience the joy of Christmas than to gaze with wonder at the exuberance of the littlest angels rearranging their haloes and wings and perhaps their socks too, and hear the sweet voices of children singing impossibly high notes while an angel Gabriel holds sway in the pulpit with a big smile and open arms, waving shyly to her dad. 

Sometimes the pageant looks pretty chaotic, and sometimes someone needs his mommy or needs her costume removed right now. But the pageant also offers a unique doorway into the holy, a place of timeless shimmering stillness. Sometimes there's magic in the mess.

Every year, and this year was no different, there’s at least one angel who, despite the action all around her, creeps quietly ever closer to the baby with radiant joy, who cannot stop looking at the baby with love and awe. Someone suddenly needs to kneel or curtsey with folded hands. There’s always someone, often a few little someones, who I can see are feeling the magic, the mystery, the marvelous love that is at the heart of the beautiful story of the incarnation, of God coming to live among us as a little child, looking out upon us from the lap of his mother.

Indeed, I saw many pairs of shining eyes beneath those cloth headcoverings and tinsel halos and fuzzy animal suits as the children made their way back down the long aisle to their waiting parents.  The pageant is where the story of the incarnation is truly told in all its glory, and the opportunity to take part in it is nearly irresistible, even for the painfully shy.  Acting it out, wearing the costumes, playing the parts, being up close in a holy space - that’s how the children in the pageant experience the joy of Christmas.

And truly, don’t we all want to edge in, to slide forward on our knees inching toward the baby, toward the young mother, toward the tallest most confident shepherd, maybe to touch the hem of a sparkly or soft robe?  Don’t we all want to be part of the story in a tangible way that, sadly, becomes harder and harder as one grows older and the cares of the world threaten to overwhelm us?

How can this be? Mary asked, and so do I. And yet, amid the crying and the bewilderment that may be more obvious among the younger set but is still a big part of my life, Christmas is at its heart a beautiful mystery of love, a time of mutual gazing in adoration, that gives life to hope, that makes my heart sing. 

And so again this year, I want to tap into joy, that sense of wonder and awe, by putting myself in the story despite the distractions that beckon me to burden my heart with worry and grief, by letting myself just fall on my knees and creep forward toward the baby, ready to adore him.

Merry Christmas!

Prayer for Christmas Eve

Welcome Jesus,
our humble and gentle Saviour,
welcome to Bethlehem,
where we have loved and fought
and longed for the peace
the world can never give.
We ask for your peace, your love,
your gentleness,
and the courage to live that way.

(A New Zealand Prayer Book, 556)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Story of a Baby

We are counting down the days until the baby is born to us again in Bethlehem. Soon and very soon, Jesus will be found in the manger with Mary and Joseph, attended by angels and shepherds.

 My own baby, my youngest child, was born twenty-one years ago today.  We brought him home on Christmas Eve.  He jokes that having one's birthday so near Christmas is really hard, because Jesus is pretty hard to compete with.

I would never confuse the two - my son and Jesus - but I have for these last twenty-one Christmases especially identified with Mary during the holiday seasons.  The story of the baby born at Christmas seems more personal to me since I've had my own "Christmas baby."

In celebration, and as become a tradition here to post on Jeffrey's birthday, here's a really wonderful and heartwarming (without being schmaltzy and precious) and my very favorite narration/dramatization of the Christmas Story told by the children of St Paul's Church in Auckland, New Zealand. I've watched and posted this several years in a row now, and it never gets old.

P.S. Happy Birthday, Jeffrey! Here he is now:

Monday, December 21, 2015

Psalm for Monday in the Fourth Week of Advent

Psalm 25:1-14

1    To you, O LORD, I live up my soul;
         my God, I put my trust in you;*
             let me now be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

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

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

4     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.

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

6     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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Caturday! Around the Tree

We are having fun with our Christmas decorations on this last weekend before Christmas! So far, the tree is still upright, nothing has been broken, and no one has gotten an electric shock.

May your days be merry and bright!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Music for Advent: Savior of the Nations, Come

A repost from last year:

An unusual pairing of the traditional chanted Advent hymn "Savior of the Nations, Come" (Veni redemptor gentium) accompanied by a jazz soprano saxophone played by Gints Paberzs.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Caturday! (Advent Edition)

I've been away on an Advent retreat, which has been wonderful. I'm still enjoying being away, visiting our son in Boston to hear him play a couple of concerts. Meanwhile, Sally and Bella are (hopefully) behaving at home. We will see when we get back tomorrow night.

Sally has been obsessed with the Advent wreath this year. She has bitten in two a couple of the faux berries and chewed on the (unlit) candles. The other day, she kept jumping on the table to check out the lit candles. Fortunately, she didn't actually burn anything (like her whiskers) but she really was cutting it close.

I guess Sally is really into Advent.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Monday Poem

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Making the Road Straight

This is the time of year when we hear about John the Baptizer coming on the scene, quoting Isaiah, saying "Make way for the Lord! Make the rough places smooth and crooked places straight and the valleys raised up and the hills brought low." Sort of like the kind of bike path I like to ride on - straight, no hills, no bumps. We get to sing the hymn "There's a voice in the wilderness crying." It's a good day for church, Advent II.

As much as I love the story from today's Gospel from Luke, I've always also been fascinated with the original story, the one from Isaiah. There, the highway for our God is in the wilderness (there's a punctuation difference in the NT) or, better yet, through the wilderness. And that wilderness is the place between Babylon and Jerusalem.

God's people had been in exile in Babylon for seventy years. But it was time to go back to Israel - the Persian ruler Cyrus, who built a great empire that overtook the Neo-Babylonian empire, decreed that the Jews could go home in the 6th Century B.C.E. The problem was, the people had gotten used to living in exile. Babylon was home now. So what if they were in captivity? It was the kind of captivity they were now comfortable with.

And so, many of them did not heed the call to return to Jerusalem. Maybe they'd just stay where they were and keep doing what they were used to doing. It would probably be hard, going back to Israel. Who knew what they might find there? It might be too hard. It might be scary.

So finally the prophet Isaiah (not the original one but the one we call Second - or Deutero - Isaiah) somewhat in exasperation called to the people: Look!  It's time to go back to Jerusalem! God is going to go with you! It won't be scary! It won't be hard! The road will be smooth and it will be just like the Exodus from Egypt except there aren't even any Egyptians to chase us! So let's go, and God will be with us all the way.

I love this story because I understand how the people felt. They'd rather live in the captivity they've gotten used to than make the journey to their true home. Because things will change, and they will have to deal with the change, and so better the captivity I know than risk the scariness of being truly free to be what God intended for me.

I, too, am more comfortable living in the captivity I've gotten used to. What about you?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Caturday! Hiding!

Sally thinks I can't see her plotting back there. But I can.

Meanwhile, Bella has become an extension of the blanket. She thinks I can't see her, either.

Happy Caturday!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Monday, November 30, 2015


Advent begins not with fuzzy sheep and sleepy babies but with talk of destruction, of wars and rumors of wars; of nation against nation and kingdom against kingdom and brother against brother; of earthquakes and things that light up the sky. These are things that make us afraid, which is why we prefer the sheep and the babies, the gentle cows and kneeling shepherds, the beautiful star shimmering in an otherwise silent night. What are we to do with such dire predictions?

But one look at our world today tells us that indeed, these are not predictions nor rumors but reality. What we are seeing now is destruction and war, kingdom against kingdom and brother against brother. The earth shakes, and explosions flash.

On the streets of cities all over the globe, ambulances rush the casualties to hospitals and people leave flowers in doorways and on street corners, and other people cry out openly, their grief raw and exposed. Rachel is weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more, said the prophet Jeremiah. Rachel still weeps, in every country, every day.

Thus we begin Advent with these scenes of destruction, but if we can look deeply inside ourselves in the face of such fearsome scenes, we may discover an intense longing. Longing for peace. Longing for forgiveness. Longing to be made whole, to be released from fear. We are longing for love and connection in the face of hatred and brokenness. We are longing for the world to be transformed, and ourselves with it. This is our work now, to pay attention to this longing and to make room within ourselves for new life that God will bring even the rubble of brokenness.

So Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Stand Up and Raise Your Heads, for Your Redemption is Drawing Near

My husband’s friend Eric is an emergency medical technician (an EMT), and for the last several weeks, he has been with a Christian aid group working on the Greek island of Lesbos, the place where as many as 10,000 refugees each week are landing after crossing a treacherous five mile stretch of the Aegean Sea from Turkey. 

The people on the boats, which are just rubber rafts, most with motors but some without, left home with only a backpack and maybe a cell phone. Home is Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, and even the Sudan and Somalia, which are a long way from Turkey. There are 50 to 70 people on a boat: men, women, children. Babies even. There’s no room for luggage. When the wind is up, the sea is rough, and sometimes the boats sink. Eric and his team attend to the medical needs of the refugees as they get off the boats.

The other day Eric posted a picture he called Tears from the Sun. It was a watercolor painted on wrinkled paper by a child refugee who survived the ocean crossing. At the bottom of the drawing is the blue sea, and on top of the sea is the outline of a black rubber raft, and in the raft are many circles with reddish blobs holding the circles up - people wearing those orange life vests. Some of the reddish blobs are on the bottom of the raft - they are the children who are put there so they won’t fall out. 
Overhead, a big yellow sun has rows of blue tears flowing out of its eyes as it looks down on the boat taking the refugees away from home.

It is like a sign in the sun.

Eric also posted videos of the boats arriving. Some of them arrive at night, while others are drifting and someone goes out to help bring them in before they land in the wrong place. 

Many of them land in the wrong place anyway, a place near a lighthouse, which of course is a treacherous place - that’s why the lighthouse is there, to warn them away - but this is where they come because they can see the light and they can see the huge pile of lifejackets on the beach, which are there because it’s too hard to take them away. 

Some days, he said, they’d be watching the horizon intently and see nothing for hours and then, suddenly, a boat will appear, and then another and sometimes a whole flotilla of boats, and they get ready to get to work.

And what I notice when I watch the videos is how the people are all looking out so expectantly. They are not bent over, cowering, but straining forward, looking up. Some of them jump out of the boat before it lands, arms outstretched, saying, Thank you! Thank you! I am so happy to see you! 

Some of them are crying, in fear no doubt, but also in gratitude that they made it across the sea, that their family is still together, that they have escaped the hell they came from. The way ahead for them is still very uncertain, but they have made a significant landing.

“Stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near.”

Jesus is not describing the future in this apocalyptic text. He is describing the world now. All hell is breaking loose, the signs of which are unmistakable. And people everywhere feel faint with fear and foreboding. But this doesn’t mean that the end times are here. The world is like this every year. 

What Jesus is saying is that when we see so clearly the world’s brokenness, that’s when we must stand up and raise our heads, looking for redemption in the midst of it. We must be alert, keep awake, to see it amid the chaos. 
My first year in seminary was the year that we invaded Iraq. And someone put up a poster outside the chapel that asked: What is God doing in Iraq? 

I was completely flummoxed by this question. What on earth WAS God doing in Iraq? I was deeply conflicted and uncomfortable with the whole thing - both the situation and the question. And then a few days later, someone attached to the bottom of the poster a picture of a soldier carrying a child to safety. And I saw. That’s what God was doing in Iraq. 

Asking what God is doing gives me a lens through which to see redemption, to see salvation in the midst of so much destruction and brokenness.

But all of this is scary. I don’t know what’s scarier to me - the thought of fleeing my home, crossing a rough sea in a rubber boat with only what I can carry on my back, or being the one to help desperate strangers get out of a boat not knowing what comes next. 

When the world seems so scary we risk losing our way, being overcome by fear, if we cannot keep our grounding in God’s promise of redemption. And we cannot see it if we are either cowering, or looking away. 

So we hold our heads up, even in the midst of our anxiety, and look out, to see arms reaching out for us and to reach our arms out, too.

This is how we begin Advent, naming this chaos and destruction, naming our anxiety and our fear. Come thou long expected Jesus and fix all this mess, we plead. 

But Jesus is always coming, being born anew and always with us, giving us strength to be love in the world. 
Just last week, a new baby was born - which is the kind of sign the Bible tells the shepherds to look for at Christmas. A new baby born to the family of refugees from Afghanistan, and many St. Stephen’s folks have come together to help them settle into new life here. 

One doesn’t have to be a trained professional like Eric or a combat soldier to take a chance on doing God’s sometimes scary work in the world. 

Thanks to you, they have carseats for both their toddler and the new baby, and beds to sleep in, and rides to the doctor. They don’t just have things, they have friends, they have a connection with people whose names and stories they are learning. 

Advent is often described as a time during which we make room in our hearts for the coming of our Lord. And this is true. Advent is the fast before the feast of Christmas, and we must intentionally prepare. 

But what are we preparing for? Who is Jesus bringing to reside with him in our hearts this year? And if  having Jesus in our hearts means doing Jesus’ work in the world, then we must look up and look out, even though we are besieged with noise and images that make us afraid. God is at work in the disasters out there and Jesus is asking us to recognize that work so that we can join God in bringing good out of brokenness. 

This is what we are making room for - room for our own capacity more and more to be love in the world, making room for God’s love to not only live in us but to work through us to bring life to the world. 

To see God reaching out for us and we reaching back in return. Reaching out and making room - that is our redemption.
We ourselves need to be saved from the fear that makes us turn away from the needs of the world. We need to make room for the question: what is God doing over there, and over here, and in all the places of suffering.

And so look up, even though it seems like all hell is breaking loose. Hold your heads up, for your redemption is drawing near.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Caturday Afternoon

We're not fat. We're fluffy.

Let us know when you get the Advent wreath up so we can chew on it.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday Music: Fire and Rain, Updated! Now with calzone!

Having a little fun with Stephen Colbert and James Taylor, who has updated "Fire and Rain" with all the stuff he's seen since 1970.

Enjoy your Friday!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Pied-Billed Grebe

The pied-billed grebe sinks straight down when it wants to hide or hunt for food. Other water birds dive, but this one is more like a submarine. You have to sneak up on it, or it will disappear - the pied-billed grebe is easily frightened. So it's a real treat to be able to see one.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Time to Play!

The holidays are coming. Family is on the way. Time to play a little!

What are you up to for Thanksgiving?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Monday Poem: Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
Feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out of the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorry.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes senses anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye from The Words Under the Words: Selected Poems 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Psalm

Psalm 93     

Dominus regnavit

The LORD is King;
he has put on splendid apparel; *
the LORD has put on his apparel
and girded himself with strength.

He has made the whole world so sure *
that it cannot be moved;

Ever since the world began, your throne has been established; *
you are from everlasting.

The waters have lifted up, O LORD,
the waters have lifted up their voice; *
the waters have lifted up their pounding waves.

Mightier than the sound of many waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea, *
mightier is the LORD who dwells on high.

Your testimonies are very sure, *
and holiness adorns your house, O LORD,
for ever and for evermore.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Caturday Chores

On Saturday, we do our chores.

Bella washes,
and Sally irons.
Or tenderizes.
Or sheds.

Hope you get all your chores done today!


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