Sunday, December 28, 2008

how to grow up big and strong

I preached at our church today so Ginger could take her parents back to Birmingham. What follows is the sermon. First, a quick note to say my brother's surgery appears to have gone well; he is flat on his back in the hospital and not allowed to move until Tuesday, just to make sure. Thanks for all the prayers.


"How to Grow Up Big and Strong"
A Sermon for Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Durham
Sunday, December 28, 2008

When you’re the fill-in preacher the Sunday after Christmas, you have to turn in your sermon title early. Marty sent an email message to me a couple of weeks ago with the outline of today’s service and asked me to give him a title. I read through the gospel passage three or four times and was caught by the final sentence of the paragraph:

And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
For all of the times I have read this story, I hadn’t realized Luke’s use of repetition. You see the final verse of the chapter, Luke 2:52, which comes after Jesus, as a twelve year old, has been holding court in the Temple, was one of the first verses I memorized as a young Baptist boy in Sunday School, which meant I learned it from the King James Version:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.
Once I recognized the emphasis, I realized Luke wanted us to celebrate the baby’s birth alongside of the shepherds and angels, but he didn’t want us to leave him in the manger for long. And so, recalling the title of an old Mark Heard song, I sent the title back to Marty: “How to Grow Up Big and Strong.” As I have continued to study and reflect, my mind went to two scenes, one from a movie and one from a book, that illustrate the point.

The first is from the noted actor and theologian Will Farrell in the far from Oscar nominated movie, Talledega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, which tells the story of a NASCAR driver. He and his family sit down for dinner and he begins to say grace by praying, “Dear Baby Jesus, we thank you for this food.” As he continues, his wife says, “You know he didn’t stay a baby. He grew up to be a man,” to which Ricky Bobby replies, “Well, you can pray to whatever Jesus you want, but I like to think of him as a baby.” And then he continues, “Dear eight pound six ounce baby Jesus . . .”

The second comes in a scene early in Prince Caspian and the Dawn Treader, one of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I know it’s a movie now, but I’ve only read the story. The four children return to the land of Narnia after a long absence. Lucy, the youngest one, sees Aslan the Lion, who is the Christ figure in the tale. She runs to hug him and then steps back. “You’re bigger,” she says. “It’s because you are,” he answers, and then continues, “When you grow, I get bigger.”

Last week, Ginger called us to allow Christmas to bring out the child – the Christ child in all of us. As the story continues to unfold, we are called to let Christ grow up, even as we do the same. We are called to grow up big and strong, by which I mean to be grownups with childlike hearts and spirits. And Luke gives us two great examples of what that looks like in the persons of Simeon and Anna, who met Mary, Joseph, and Jesus when they came into the Temple, as Allen Culpepper reminds us, to fulfill the "deepest awarenesses and commitments" of their faith:

“They saw God at work in events they had experienced. They lived within a covenant community and they sought to fulfill vows they had made as well as to introduce their son into that covenant community."

Anna and Simeon were also ones who lived in that same sense of deep awareness and commitment. When Anna looked at Mary she must have seen herself as a young, newly married woman. Luke goes on to tell us she was widowed only seven years after her wedding and had lived her life in the sanctuary of the Temple fasting and praying, which probably meant she had no family to take care of her. She was eighty-four by the time Mary and Joseph arrived with Jesus. When Anna saw him, she gave thanks, Luke says, and began speaking to everyone waiting for redemption, telling them, as James Howell says, “"God's blessing was not a continual smorgasbord of titanic experiences and shiny baubles. God's blessing was just one thing, and it was eighty years coming."

Mary and Joseph were diligent in doing all of the things called for by the community of faith. Anna nurtured her faith as she waited in the Temple each day with prayer and fasting, which were rituals of the very redemption she was waiting for. One of the ways we grow up big and strong is by practicing our faith in the sense that we keep the rituals of our community: being together, worshipping together, singing together, praying together, working together, and coming to the Communion Table together.

When we do any of these things, we are answering God’s grownup call on our lives. We are not a community of habit; we are a community of faith. We don’t have worship on Sunday morning simply because we are a church and that’s what churches are supposed to do; we are about God’s transforming work here. We gather together to wait and sing and pray, to love one another, and to point ourselves to God, allowing the Holy Spirit to cultivate the grownup feelings of expectancy, hope, and trust in our hearts. Mary and Joseph went to the Temple because they thought it mattered to do so. The rituals of faith passed down by the faithful across generations helped them continue to grow in their understanding of what God was doing in their family. Anna went through the motions of meaning because it was how she learned God could make something of what looked like the ashes of her young existence.

As James Howell writes: "Notice the order. In the world, it's rise and fall. The rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of the business tycoon, the rise and fall of a movie star. But with Jesus it's fall and rise...We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise."

And then there was Simeon, who had also spent his life waiting in expectation because he had been told he would see the Messiah before he died. Each day for decades he had come to the Temple and each day he had gone to bed without the promise fulfilled until one poor couple walked in with their new little baby. Frederich Buechner describes it this way:
Jesus was still in diapers when his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem as the custom was, and that’s when old Simeon spotted him. Years before, he been told he wouldn’t die till he’d seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. When the moment finally came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He asked if it would be all right to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but be careful not to drop it. ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ he said, the baby playing with the fringes of his beard. The parents were pleased as punch, so he blessed them too for good measure. Then something about the mother stopped him, and his expression changed. What he saw in her face was a long way off, but it was there so plainly he couldn’t pretend. ‘A sword will pierce through your soul,’ he said. He would rather have bitten off his own tongue than said it, but in that holy place he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of his waiting.
Part of growing up means learning life hurts. Most any choice we make comes with its own share of pain. There’s a whole side of Christian theology that says Jesus came to free us from pain. I’m not sure what they do with Simeon. He’s pretty clear when he starts talking swords with Mary. Life hurts. Period. There’s enough grief and pain in this room alone to more than prove the point. As we embrace the childlike truth that we can never run outside of God’s love, that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, we must make the grown up move to make meaning out of our suffering, which brings us again to what it means to be together in Christ. We are called to bear one another’s burdens: to voluntarily take on one another’s pain. And it is the regular motions of faith, the daily doings of church life when we do them with awareness and commitment that create the connections that allow love and hope and trust to flow between us.

Even though I’m the substitute this morning, I would like to close by giving us some homework. Next week is Communion Sunday. My assignment for us is to come hungry. Let us come next week ready to partake in a grownup meal. When we line up to come to the front to be served, or when we serve one another as we pass the bread and cup up and down the pews, we are not completing a duty or acting by habit. We are about God’s work, feeding one another and reminding ourselves of Christ’s love that feeds us. We are stepping into the stream of faith that runs all the way back to that first night when Jesus served the meal in the middle of deep suffering and betrayal and said, “Remember me” in as grownup a moment as I know in the gospels.

We are God’s people who have welcomed the Child, who live in suffering, who wait for redemption, and who, together, are the hands and feet of God’s love in our world. With childlike hearts, may we be hopeful and diligent, feeding and loving one another that we may continue to grow up big and strong.



Saturday, December 27, 2008

still waiting

It’s early Saturday morning. Christmas is not even two days gone and already things are changing.

Ginger drove out about an hour ago to take her parents back to Birmingham after their two weeks with us. Since the V. A. is going to provide Rachel with some money to pay for some home healthcare, Lola, our oldest (and least social) Schnauzer is staying here with us so new people can come and go from the house without fear of ankle bites. Gracie went back to Alabama to continue her role as Chief Lover of Reuben, which she does fabulously. Ella will now have to get used to having a sister. Reuben had good days and hard days here, yet all of them reminded us he is slowly slipping away.

My brother, who came home from the hospital last Monday after spinal cord surgery, ended up back in the hospital last night because spinal fluid was leaking from the incision. The last word I had was he will be operated on again this morning; I’m still waiting for further word about what the surgery will involve. His primary surgeon is now on vacation and another doctor is stepping in; what seemed to be going so well a few days ago now feels more complicated.

I’m not sure how long Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem (the stable would not have lent itself to a long term lease, I imagine), from the dawn following the chorus of stars and shepherds, when things had quieted down, the stunning reality of their new little one must have begun to sink in. They were still not married. They were still poor. They were still whatever they were – or weren’t – before the child was born and now they had a little boy. They had been fundamentally changed by the birth. Life could not be as it was, period.

When they got to the Temple with the baby and Anna and Simeon gushed about his being the salvation of the world, I wonder if it crossed the parents’ minds to ask, “Exactly how is that going to come down?” or “Does that mean life will ever be any easier for us?”

When Simeon tells Mary a sword would pierce her heart, Luke leaves her silent.

As the Christmas tide rolls in, I feel the undertow of life as well; both things are real and true. Simeon had waited his whole life to see Jesus. His whole life. And when the child showed up, he responded with unmitigated joy. I can’t find an ounce of “what took you so long” in his words. Anna was no different. Her husband had died young and she had lived, widowed, in the Temple for decades. For both of them, the waiting had nurtured their sense of wonder rather than suffocating it or turning it to bitterness or resentment or despair.

We waited all through Advent for Jesus to be born. He is here and we are still waiting. And we will keep waiting, even as the tide rolls in.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

advent journal: adding to the soundtrack

I missed blogging yesterday because I missed everything yesterday. Sunday night late I started throwing up and realized, as the fun continued through the night and into the morning, that food poisoning. Somewhere in the middle of last night, I realized it was over. For the last two days I have done little more than think about me. Tonight, I turned to some music to turn my thoughts to the bigger picture.

The first is an Emmylou Harris song from her album Light in the Stable. The song is called, “There’s a Light.” The video is not hers and some of the images are a little over the top, but the song is amazing.

There's a light, there's a light in the darkness
And the black of the night cannot harm us
We can trust not to fear for our comfort is near
There's a light, there's a light in the darkness

It will rain it will rain in the desert
In the cracks of the plain there's a treasure
Like the thurst of the seed we will await we believe
It will rain it will rain in the desert

We will fly we will fly we will let go
To this world we will die but our hearts know
We'll see more on that side when the door opens wide
We will fly we will fly we will fly we will fly
We will all go

The second song if from my favorite new album this season, Melissa Etheridge’s A New Thought for Christmas. I’ve been humming it for a couple of weeks now.
Windshields kissed with snow
On this endless interstate
Over the fields we go
Laughing all the way
We sing love, love, love
It's glorious

Friends and family near
No more judgments no more fear
All is calm all is bright
Everyone will hold this light
And sing love, love, love
It's glorious

Sleep in heavenly, in heavenly
Sleep in heavenly, in heavenly
Believe in heavenly, in heavenly peace

I have heard the angels
Sweetly singing o'er the plain
And I've heard the mountains
Echoing their sweet refrain
They sing love, love
Love, love, love
It's glorious

Sleep in heavenly, in heavenly
Sleep in heavenly, in heavenly
Believe in heavenly, in heavenly peace

The last song is one of my favorite renditions of one of my favorite Christmas songs: James Taylor singing “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” You know the words. Sing along.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

advent journal: be the baby

I went to college in Waco, Texas where winter was more of an idea than a reality.

We had snow – significant snow – two or three times in my four years there, as well as a couple of ice storms. The events were such rarities that school was cancelled even though we all lived on campus and could have walked to class. On one of those afternoons I was walking across campus when I realized the person walking in front of me was the president of the university. He was by himself and he didn’t know I was forty or fifty feet behind him. While I watched, he stopped under a tree whose branches were encased in ice and tapped them with his closed umbrella, causing a noisy rain of icicles on the frozen sidewalk. Then he giggled and did it again.

I don’t know how often he let himself feel that kind of joy and wonder, but I loved that I got to see it happen that afternoon. The memory rose to the surface today because of Ginger’s sermon. She started by telling about a recent trip with her mother to see the Biltmore Mansion decorated for Christmas. She gave us a wonderful virtual verbal tour and ended up describing one of the ornaments that held the inscription, “Christmas brings out the child in all of us.”

“What if,” she asked, “we heard that statement as, ‘Christmas brings out the Child – the Christ Child – in all of us.”

And with those words, her sermon became a call to joy. She went on to quote Charles Spurgeon:

Besides, Christian, dost thou not know that it is a good thing for thee to praise thy God? Mourning weakens thee, doubts destroy thy strength; thy groping among the ashes makes thee of the earth, earthy. Arise, for praise is pleasant and profitable to thee. "The joy of the Lord is our strength." "Delight thyself in the Lord and he will give thee the desire of thine heart." Thou growest in grace when thou growest in holy joy; thou art more heavenly, more spiritual, more Godlike, as thou gettest more full of joy and peace in believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. I know some Christians are afraid of gladness, but I read, "Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King." If murmuring were a duty, some saints would never sin, and if mourning were commanded by God they would certainly be saved by works, for they are always sorrowing, and so they would keep his law. Instead thereof the Lord hath said it, "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice;" and he has added, to make it still more strong, "Rejoice evermore."
Listening to the two of them I realized joy is a choice.

I’ve been a part of UCC churches for almost two decades. One of the folks in a previous church described our denomination by saying, “If Christianity were a neighborhood, we would be the last house on the left.” I love our address and (not but – and) I have to admit joy runs thin at our end of the block. We know about courage and resolve, inclusiveness and industriousness, transformation and tenacity. It dawned on me today that we know less about joy. Choosing to let the Christ Child run amok in our hearts chasing the balloons of the Spirit is not our default setting. We aren’t looking to be surprised by joy as much as we are working to live like Jesus. Isn’t it interesting that those could be two different things?

Perhaps joy is not an easy choice. Or, perhaps, we have to learn how to choose it. A group from church went caroling tonight and one couple was walking with Ginger and talking about the sermon. Claudia said she has reduced the sermon to three words: “Be the Baby.” She went on to tell how Suzanne had been reminding her of the sermon throughout the afternoon when she became judgmental or critical.

Be the Baby.

I worked at the restaurant tonight. I went back to the ice machine to get what I needed for my station and Ramon, one of my coworkers, was there. He works hard as a cook and also works hard on learning English, though, at this point, most of his vocabulary is still restaurant related. When I got to the back, he was filling a small bucket and he looked up, grinned, and said, “Ice, ice, baby,” and we both laughed. Ramon knows about choosing joy.

Towards the end of the evening, Abel, another coworker began singing loudly in Spanish, as he does every Sunday night was we start breaking down the line. He sings well and with gusto. Abel works with me at Duke also. As he began to croon, I called out, “Ramon!”

“Yes, Miton.” (When he says my name there is no “t.”)

“At Faculty Commons I have to put up with this everyday.”

“Everyday, Miton?”

“Everyday.” And we all laughed.

Be the Baby.

We are telling the story of how an unwed teenage girl gave birth to a baby in a barn behind a hotel that had no room – even for a pregnant woman -- in a town faraway from her home and was then visited by all manner of people while she had hardly had a chance to clean up. And when we tell the story, we sing
Joy to the world, the Lord has come.
The entire story is shot through with joy from Elizabeth and Mary singing together to the angels telling the shepherds, “We bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.”

After angels, perhaps knocking ice out of the trees or cracking jokes at the ice machine doesn’t seem like such great joy, but I think both choices created thin places for joy to break through and take hold in our hearts. Our hearts harden gradually as we choose to complain or judge. As Spurgeon said, “If murmuring were a duty, some saints would never sin.” Our calling, however, is not to make the world right but to help make the world whole, which means we must be moving toward wholeness ourselves, moving to be more like Jesus: to be the Baby.

I’m going to finish this post the same way we ended our service this morning, with “Love Came Down at Christmas.” The video I found is by Jars of Clay and shows Mary riding to Bethlehem on a pink unicorn. I think they understand.

Be the Baby.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

advent journal: after word

You know she lived for years, many years
after he left – and she moved from Galilee,
following those who had pledged to care
for her. Maybe it was easier to not live
in the same land where he had parabled
and miracled, healed and helped. After
he was gone, they still came to town
asking to see the house where he was
born and she would have to tell them –
again -- they were in the wrong place.
Maybe it mattered most to be with
friends who knew the stories, who had
lived through the glory and the grief,
and yet, when they knocked on the door
they asked, “What did you do today?”


P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Friday, December 19, 2008

advent journal: change the world for $25

I wish I could remember how I first heard of

It was probably because someone took time to write or send an email telling me about micro loans and what they can do in developing countries. Kiva began because a couple, Jessica and Matt Flannery, listened to the voices that gathered around them. She heard Dr. Muhammad Yunus speak – he was the founder of the Grameen Bank, a pioneer in microfinance, and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. After a visit to Africa, the two began to talk about how they could bring together what they knew about the Internet, what they had seen in Africa, and what they believed could happen to make a difference in the lives of people around the world who live in poverty. You can read their story here. They said they came to three realizations:

  1. We are more connected to the developing world than we realize. Even when he was in San Francisco and she in rural Africa seemingly worlds away, Matt could reach Jessica on her cell phone as though she were one block away. Distance means little in the world of communication today.
  2. The poor are very entrepreneurial. While the profit margins may be very different, the spirit of entrepreneurship is as strong among the poor of the developing world as it is in Silicon Valley.
  3. Stories connect people in a powerful way. As they listened to story after story of a fishmonger who needed enough money to buy directly from the fishermen at the lake, or a farmer who needed to buy a better breed of cow to produce more milk, Matt and Jessica knew that any of their friends back home would want to support these business ventures if they also heard their stories. With each story came a human connection as similarities were identified, making an African entrepreneur someone easier to relate to despite differences in language, culture or levels of wealth.
In March of 2005, they made their first seven loans, for a total of $3500, in Uganda. By September, those loans were repaid. Word began to get out and the organization began to grow exponentially. In March of this year – only three years later – Kiva loaned its 25 millionth dollar. Most of those loans are made $25 at a time.

Ginger and I made our first loan in March of 2007. I wish I could remember how we learned about it. We, along with several others, loaned our twenty-five bucks to Maria Guadalupe Martínez Magdaleno in Mexico to help her buy a cart so she could take the hamburgers and tacos she made at home to the nearby factories and thereby grow her business. She paid us back by September. We took the money and loaned it to Angela Kamenge in Tanzania to expand her poultry business. I’ve also taken some of the money from the sales of A Faraway Christmas to help Sok Nea open a grocery store in Cambodia and the Mastula Kagere Group who sell mattresses in Uganda.

My point is this: you can help. You can become a lender and help people all around the world. Pick the place, pick the kind of business that interests you, but please go pick one or twenty-seven of them and become a banker to the world. You can also give the gift of lending to someone else. Last December Kiva raised over two million dollars in gift certificates.

Change somebody’s world for twenty-five bucks. Where else are you going to get a deal like that?


Thursday, December 18, 2008

advent journal: index of first lines

In the midst of my waiting tonight, I began going through the first lines of songs I love and found this poem.

Index of First Lines

I pulled into Nazareth was feeling ‘bout half past dead
I don’t want to hear a love song
doctor my eyes have seen the years and the slow parade of tears
headlights are flashing down the highway
I wonder if we're gonna ever get home
a look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping
when you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand
keep a fire burning in your eye pay attention to the open sky
you you along the road must have a code that you can live by
you come a-walking with a scar on your soul
taking too much too lightly
you with the sad eyes don’t be discouraged
there’s a river of sorrow in my soul
don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
there are the ones you call friends
there are the ones you call late at night
another turning point a fork stuck in the road
people get ready there’s a train a-comin’
you can play the game and act out the part
baby I’ve been searching like everybody else
in the middle of late last night I was sitting on a curb
where have all my friends gone? they’ve all disappeared
like a bird on a wire like a drunk in a midnight choir
I will remember you will you remember me

when the road gets dark and you can no longer see
in every heart there is a room a sanctuary safe and strong
didn’t say we wouldn’t hurt anymore
people that are sad they wear a frown
it’s coming on Christmas and they’re cutting down trees
I heard was there was a secret chord
that david played and it pleased the Lord
am I young enough to believe in revolution
when it’s dark outside you’ve got to carry the light
the waltzing fool he’s got lights in his fingers
there ain’t nobody asked to be born
shut it down and call this road a day
we’re living in a time of inconvenience
you come home late and you come home early
we are swimming with the snakes at the bottom of the well
all the unsaid words that I might be thinking
the presence of your absence follows me
something in your eyes makes me want to lose myself
here we go again another round of blues
it was all I could do to keep from crying
oh play me a blues song and fade down the lights
so many years so many hardships
just when every ray of hope was gone
tell anybody that ain’t got nobody somebody’s coming
when you start if you exist God believes in you
I can hear her heartbeat from a thousand miles

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

advent journal: keep me in your heart

We were scattered across the sanctuary, twenty-five or so in a room that will hold three hundred, the candles covering the Communion table offering warm light as the day surrendered to the darkness. In front of the altar was a small table with one place setting – plate, glass, coffee cup, napkin, silverware – and a basket full of place cards. Each of us entered and found a seat with room for the sorrow we had brought with us and we sang and prayed and talked about who and what had been lost this year. Tonight we had our Blue Christmas.

After we had prayed and sung “In the Bleak Midwinter” and listened to a stirring version of “It Is Well With My Soul” by our music director and organist, Ginger explained why we had place cards.

Write the names of those people or those things that will not be with you this Christmas and then, when the music starts, bring your card and place it on the table.

I wrote my grandmother’s name (she died this year) and my aunt’s (she’s been gone a long time now), Hannah and Phoebe (Schnauzers I still miss), and then I began to name people who are still living but now are far away since we moved. The last name I wrote was my father-in-law’s because even though he is here he is not. While we were in the service, he slept in Ginger’s office because he can’t sit in church anymore. And he loved going to church.

I put my card on the table first because I was to sing while the others came forward. The song was Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart for Awhile,” from his album The Wind, which he finished recording just weeks before he died of cancer.

Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath
Keep me in your heart for a while
If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less
Keep me in your heart for a while

When you get up in the morning and you see that crazy sun
Keep me in your heart for a while
There’s a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done
Keep me in your heart for a while

Sha-la la-la-la la-la-li li-lo
Keep me in your heart for a while
Sha-la la-la-la la-la-li li-lo
Keep me in your heart for a while

Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house
Maybe you’ll think of me and smile
You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse
Keep me in your heart for a while

Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams
Touch me as I fall into view
When the winter comes keep the fires lit
And I will be right next to you

Engine driver’s headed north to Pleasant Stream
Keep me in your heart for a while
These wheels keep turning but they’re running out of steam
Keep me in your heart for a while

Sha-la la-la-la la-la-li li-lo
Keep me in your heart for a while
Sha-la la-la-la la-la-li li-lo
Keep me in your heart for a while
Keep me in your heart for a while
We prayed together and then sang
O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie
above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by
yet in thy dark streets shineth an everlasting light
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight
The service ended with Ginger’s inviting people to stay as long as they wished and to leave in silence when it was time for them to go. We left still carrying the losses we brought with us (how can a loss be so heavy?), yet our loads were lightened because we were all carrying our losses together. We were keeping each other in our hearts.

My friend Lindsey sent me a Henri Nouwen quote today in response to yesterday’s post:
Prayer for others… is the very beat of a compassionate heart. To pray for a friend who is ill, for a student who is depressed, for a teacher who is in conflict; for people in prisons, in hospitals, on battlefields; for those who are victims of injustice, who are hungry, poor, without shelter; for those who risk their career, their health, and even their life in struggle for social justice; for leaders of church and state, to pray for all these people is not a futile effort to influence God’s will, but a hospitable gesture by which we invite our neighbors into the center of our hearts. When we come before God with the needs of the world, the healing love of the Holy Spirit that touches us touches with the same power all those whom we bring before him.
We have all lost and we are found when we share the sorrow and keep each other close. Tonight felt closer to Christmas than anywhere else I’ve been this season.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

advent journal: healing in his wings

Over most of my adult life in faith, I’ve been fortunate to go to churches small enough to still take one of the Sundays in Advent for the Christmas Pageant, though the word pageant always brings a smile to my face. I can’t help but wonder which of the magi will win the gown competition and if any of the shepherds will do something other than shear a sheep for their talent. Vocabulary aside, something about the parade of bath-robed shepherds helps Jesus to be born anew year after year.

The first year Ginger was in Winchester, she had a number of the young people taking part. One of the girls, who had not grown up in church, asked to be King Herod. As the rehearsal continued and came to her scene, she broke character in the middle of her speech and said, “Wait a minute! Herod’s a bad guy.”

My favorite moment in Marshfield each year came when the angels appeared to the shepherds. The pulpit at the church was a wall of wood across the front, creating a ministerial fortress of solitude behind it. The angels, always some of our youngest and most enthusiastic participants, would jump up from behind the wall holding stars above their heads, their faces beaming, as we all sang, “Joy to the World.”

The pageant here in Durham is an Advent one, which, I’ve learned, means everyone shows up except Jesus. We had shepherds and angels and the star and the wise men who all gathered around Joseph and Mary, but she was still pregnant when we headed out for coffee hour. The days have not yet been accomplished; we still have to wait for Jesus.

I thought about our pageant several times yesterday and today as I have been with my father-in-law who has Alzheimer’s. I thought about it because I feel like one of those little towel-headed kids, all dressed up for the big event and all I’m doing is waiting. Ginger and my mother-in-law spent a couple of days together and I was with Reuben, who is to the core of his being one of the most gentle and hopeful people I know. In other years, we would have spent the drive talking about what he saw on the news, which he watched voraciously, or he would have asked me questions about my job and about Durham. Instead, he wondered if it was going to snow (because he thinks we still live in Boston) and asked about every thirty minutes what time Ginger and Rachel were going to come home. Today, I looked in his face as he sat across from me at lunch and his eyes looked vacant, as though he were fading like a face in an old photograph, except it was happening right in front of me.

As we drove yesterday, I was also waiting for word on my brother’s surgery to remove a tumor from his spinal cord. About ten o’clock last night I got news that was about as good as it could get: they were able to repair the disc, remove the tumor, and all indications were the tumor was benign (we’ll have to wait a couple of days for the official pathology report). More than one person said it was “an answer to prayer. God is good.”

It was and God is. I prayed the tumor would not be cancer, and that it would be as uncomplicated at surgery on one’s spinal cord can be. And I also prayed that Reuben wouldn’t get Alzheimer’s and that he wouldn’t disappear as quickly as he is. My brother is going to get to go on with life relatively unscathed – at least from this and my father-in-law is going to continue to lose his life incrementally. Holding both of them in my heart, I’m hesitant to say God showed up somehow and healed Miller because then I’m left with Reuben not being so fortunate.

When we finally do put a baby in the manger, we will sing

Christ, the highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Light and life to all he brings
Risen with healing in his wings
The last phrase always gets me: with healing in his wings. Both the beauty and mystery stir my heart. I love those words and I’m not sure what they mean; I only know they touch me at a place of deep yearning and hope. Run a Google search for the phrase and you’ll find it means a lot of different things to different people. When I look at the person the baby grew to be, the healing wings he sprouted have as much or more to do with the grace and forgiveness he showed people like Zacchaeus or the adulterous woman as they do with those who were physically healed.

God is good and would still be if Miller had gotten bad news about the tumor or had been left paralyzed by the surgery. God is still good even though Reuben is disappearing before our eyes. It was after Horatio Spafford saw all of his daughters die in a shipwreck that he wrote
When peace like a river attendeth my way
and sorrow like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul
George Matheson was rejected by his fiancée when he told her he was going blind because she didn’t want to spend her life taking care of him. And he wrote
O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be
What these hymn writers know is healing is something more profound than the absence of disease or the release of pain. I’m not talking metaphorically here. My mother-in-law needs healing for her heart learning to live with the husband she is losing. My brother’s healing will go beyond the surgery to include learning how to live in a way other than his gazillion hour-a-week schedule that was killing him long before they found the tumor. Whatever our circumstances, we all need healing.

And together, we wait.


Monday, December 15, 2008

advent journal: don't travel alone

After I got off work last night I drove to Asheville to meet Ginger and her parents who had driven from Birmingham. We met in the mountains because our Christmas present to Rachel, Ginger’s mother, was a couple of days with her daughter to see the Biltmore Mansion at Christmas and to be able to relax and know that Reuben, her husband who has Alzheimer’s, would be taken care of. He and I drove back to Durham today and are hanging out – along with all three of the Schnauzers – while the women wander in the mountains.

As we drove back today, my brother Miller was having surgery to repair a herniated disc and to remove a tumor from his spinal cord. I got word about nine o’clock that the surgery was a success, the doctor is confident the tumor is benign, and Miller is resting comfortably. I thought a lot about both Miller and Reuben as I was driving, one with a tumor that scared us all to death but that could be removed and the other who is slowly disappearing and none of us can stop it.

It was after ten when I walked home from the restaurant to get ready for my late night road trip. I decided to make a quick CD mix of traveling companions. One of the songs I chose I hadn’t heard in awhile, but pulled me somehow. I must have pushed the repeat button six or seven times because the Indigo Girls seemed to be singing my song, “The Wood Song”:

The thin horizon of a plan is almost clear
My friends and I have had a tough time
Bruising our brains hard up against change
All the old dogs and the magician
Now I see were in the boat in two by twos
Only the heart that we have for a tool we could use
And the very close quarters are hard to get used to
Love weighs the hull down with its weight

But the wood is tired and the wood is old
And well make it fine if the weather holds
But if the weather holds we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go

No way construction of this tricky plan
Was built by other than a greater hand
With a love that passes all out understanding
Watching closely over this journey
Yeah but what it takes to cross the great divide
Seems more than all the courage I can muster up inside
Although we get to have some answers when we reach the other side
The prize is always worth the rocky ride

But the wood is tired and the wood is old
And well make it fine if the weather holds
But if the weather holds we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go

Sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look
Skip to the final chapter of the book
And then maybe steer us clear from some of the pain it took
To get us where we are this far yeah
But the question drowns in its futility
And even I have got to laugh at me
No one gets to miss the storm of what will be
Just holding on for the ride

The wood is tired and the wood is old
Well make it fine if the weather holds
But if the weather holds we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go
It’s getting late here and I can’t get Reuben to go to bed because he doesn’t remember Rachel and Ginger are spending the night away and I think he’s waiting for them to come home. Lola, Gracie, and Ella, our little canine carriers of compassion, are snoozing all around him. I’ve tried to get him to go to bed, but I don’t know much else to do but let him stay in the recliner. He feels lost and neither of us have a map; best I can do is to make sure he knows he’s not traveling alone.

And to my best to remember the same thing.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

advent journal: what it means to be family

Tonight after work I'm driving to Asheville to meet Ginger, who is driving from Birmingham with her parents and our other two Schnauzers who have lived in Birmingham since we moved south. Originally, they were only going to stay a month, but they were so helpful to my father-in-law as he lives with Alzheimer's that we have left them there. I will bring Reuben, my father-in-law, and Lola and Gracie back home with me while Ginger gives her mother a few days away as our Christmas present. (I wrote a poem about him here.)

When I get home tomorrow afternoon, I will spend the evening here, with Reuben, waiting for word about my brother's surgery to remove a tumor from his spinal cord. The surgery will not be over until about nine tomorrow night. I can't get to Dallas because I need to be here. Somehow, between Dallas and Asheville and Durham, we are all together, thank God.

This is what it means to be family.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

advent journal: what the heart sees

Here in Brasher-Cunninghamland, birthdays are full of surprises. I never know what the day will hold (or even the night before) until it arrives, and even then it unfolds a few hours at a time. When we pulled up in front of the Playmakers Repertory Company to see The Little Prince, one of my all-time favorite stories. The play was beautifully set, creatively presented, and wonderfully true to the book. I smiled when I heard my favorite line, spoken to the Prince by the fox:

One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My celebration kicked off with an evening of bowling with friends on Thursday night, followed by Mexican food. As though rented shoes and rellenos might not be enough, Friday started with time to relax and then lunch at Mami Nori’s Peruvian Rotisserie Chicken, which continues our tradition of Ginger taking me to eat some sort of ethnic food I’ve not had before. According to the family that runs the restaurant, the pollo a la braza is Peruvian street food, cooked over a wood fire. I had it with tostones (plantain chips) and yucca fries. The meal was made complete by Mami Nora and the fam singing “Happy Birthday” to me and giving me a piece of tres leches cake.

Our evening began by stopping by to help celebrate the sixty-fifth birthday of a friend from church and then we went to the play. After the theater, we went to the Magnolia Grill for desseert (thanks to an old gift certificate) where I had tiramisu waffles with espresso ice cream with chocolate chunks and caramel sauce. I also had a cup of coffee and, since it was my birthday, a glass of bourbon that was old enough to vote. But we weren’t through yet. From there we headed west on I-85, at eleven o’clock and stopped at the Steak n Shake in Burlington, North Carolina, which happened to be peopled with the youth group from Hampton Baptist Church led by our friends Charles and Jennifer Smith, who also parent our godchildren, Ally and Samuel. The last minutes of my birthday passed in the company of friends, even as the day had been spotted with calls and notes from friends all over the place.

I didn’t get much sleep, but my heart sees clearly: I am loved, I am loved, I am really loved. And I am deeply grateful.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

advent journal: the joy book club

Ginger did two things for me today to begin my birthday celebration a day early: she arranged for us to go bowling with friends (isn’t 52 the Rented Shoe Birthday?) and she gave me the afternoon to read. Between cooking and blogging, I haven’t been reading much, so an afternoon with a book was amazing, as was my choice of novel to accompany me.

Earlier this year, my friend Joy Jordan-Lake published Blue Hole Back Home. I’ve written about Joy’s writing before here and here. She is a thoughtful and expressive writer in both style and content. Her book, Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous: Ten Alaming Words of Faith is one I continue to reread because I continue to find new things. Blue Hole is my first experience reading Joy’s fiction. She’s good at novels, too.

The story is narrated by Shelby Lenoir Maynard, or Turtle, who tells the story of her fifteenth year in Pisgah Ridge, North Carolina when a Sri Lankan family moved to the all-white town and became part of her pack of friends. The story pulls in faith, race, hope, courage, cowardice, love, friendship, adolescence, swimming, dogs, Southern culture, and the Boston Red Sox.

Here’s a better description:

When a fifteen-year-old Sri Lankan girl moves to the all-white Pisgah Ridge, Shelby Lenoir Maynard invites her to join Shelby and her brother and her brother's friends for a swim at the Blue Hole-less in a gesture of bold social reform than because it is simply too hot to think straight. Exotic, mysterious and fiercely independent, the new girl throws the entire town into turmoil. When two different members of The Pack, as Shelby and her brother and her brother's friends call themselves, begin exhibiting interest in the new girl and a third hints he may be conspiring with the local Klan, the Pack itself threatens to splinter. Throughout the summer, as the town's hostilities steadily increase along with the heat, the Blue Hole remains the teenagers' only place of real peace-and even that has its limits. Eventually, the tensions outside the Blue Hole erupt in betrayals, cross-burnings and a deadly explosion. Ultimately, though, Blue Hole Back Home is a story not only of the devastating effects of racial hatred and cowardice, but more centrally, a celebration of courage, confrontation, mercy and healing.
The story is powerful and the language is beautiful.

Here’s what I hope you will do. Go here and order the book, or go to your local bookseller and ask them to get it for you if it’s not on the shelf. In a world where Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber are getting big book deals, someone who has poured heart and soul into her prose deserves to be noticed and rewarded for her brilliant effort.

Join the Joy Book Club. Please.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

advent journal: the gift of the magi

On this day in 1906, O. Henry published the short story, "The Gift of the Magi," which is a favorite at our house. In honor of the day and the story, here is the story.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."

The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."

"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.

"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."

Down rippled the brown cascade.

"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

"Give it to me quick," said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation--as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value--the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends--a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

"If Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do--oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?"

At 7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."

"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"

Jim looked about the room curiously.

"You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."

The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

May we both give and receive generously.



Tuesday, December 09, 2008

advent journal: the fullness of time

The company that owns the Chicago Tribune (and the Chicago Cubs) declared bankruptcy yesterday. Much like the domino effect on Wall Street not long ago, I expect some other newspapers will fold before long. (Sorry – I couldn’t resist.) Much of the demise of the dailies has been attributed to our quickly changing technology. With all the instant news available, fewer and fewer take time to sit down and turn the page. By the time tomorrow’s headline is printed, it’s old news. A half century ago, Ben Hecht said,

Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.
The irony is the twenty-four hour news channels and the web outlets as well may be more immediate, but they don’t give any greater a sense of perspective, any idea of context, any sense of memory. We’re still watching the second hand; it just appears to be moving faster – and it’s no longer a the hand of a clock, but a digital counter. We don’t appear to be telling the time anything of great importance.

I’m about two weeks away from this blog’s third birthday and I’m learning that blogging is becoming passé, giving way to Facebook and Twitter, both focusing on the immediate, and the brief, all of it reminiscent of Father Guido Sarducci’s “Five Minute University”:

I read the gospel passage from the lectionary last Sunday: Mark 1:1-8, which begins,
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
I never hear that sentence without recalling a sermon Skip Waterbury preached many years ago now at First Congregational Church in Winchester, Massachusetts. He pointed out that the sentence was not talking about the opening scene with John the Baptist, but was better read as the title for the whole gospel. The story of Jesus’ time on earth was the beginning of the Gospel; the story is still being told these twenty centuries later.

Good stories take time to be told.

As we sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, Ginger asked us to go around the table and say what we were thankful for. What came to my mind first was gratitude that we have been in Durham long enough to begin to forge friendships. Acquaintances may be immediate, but friendships are not; they must, like a good story, have time to develop.

When my friend Billy was putting together a Christmas album with some other artists, also some years ago, they called it Christmas in Our Time, drawing from a Meister Eckhart quote that remains an Advent mainstay for me:
What good is it to me if the son of God was born to Mary 1400 years ago if Christ is not born again in my time and in my culture?
Digging around tonight I found a more expansive Eckhart:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to His Son if I do not also give birth to Him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: when the Son of God is begotten in us.
The fullness of time. I love the phrase. It conjures up the image of something ripening, coming to term, growing into wholeness, in much the same way Luke describes Mary getting to Bethlehem in time for the birth:
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
Mary knew nothing of second hands. She marked time with every step the donkey took on the road to Bethlehem and she kept time as she saw come alive in her arms and those memories in her heart to return when she needed to find time to do so. The seconds have done nothing but tick away between her time and mine. What am I telling my time in order that the days might be accomplished for me to give birth to Christ in my time and in my culture?


Monday, December 08, 2008

advent journal: speaking words of wisdom

A number of years ago, Ginger and I had the chance to go to Israel with a group from our church in Winchester. We rode our bus all through Israel and Palestine seeing the places we had only read about, watching much of the Bible come alive in ways we could not have imagined and also visiting the “traditional” sites for many of the happenings in the gospels, which all had churches built over them that were all asking for money. “This is the traditional site for (fill in miracle),” our guide would say, “but this is not where it happened. Centuries of a very lucrative pilgrim/tourist trade had made it necessary to mark the spot, even if the spot was wrong.

On three occasions I remember our guide saying with certainty that where we were was the real deal. One was in the Garden of Gethsemane where she said the root systems of the olive trees go back to Jesus’ time; we were sitting among the same trees where he prayed. The second was across the Kidron valley, entering the Old City. The steps Jesus climbed on the way to Caiaphas’ house were still in use; we walked that day where Jesus walked. The third was inside the church in Nazareth, which was built over a spring she said had always been there; Mary would have come there to draw water in the dusty little village as her children ran and played at her feet.

The centuries of “biblical” art that stand between us and the afternoon the angel showed up to tell Mary what was happening to her leave us with images of a woman draped in fine linens being told she would give birth to a boy that looks, in the paintings, more like Giuseppe than Jesus, gilding over all of the grit and gruesome that made up her life; ours, too.

Nazareth was a no count little village hardly worth putting on the map, if there had been maps. The angel probably had to clear the dust from his throat before he began the proclamation and you have to wonder how long he had to practice before he could look this poor little girl in the eye and say, “Blessed are you among women.” She had no idea what that blessing meant, other than to respond, “Let it be as you said.”

My brother was the first person I ever heard talk about “the paradox of blessing” offered to Mary. Yes, she would be the one to bring Jesus into the world, to be the deliverer of the Incarnation, and she would watch him grow in ways she did not understand and suffer and die. Such is the paradox of blessing. However Lennon and McCartney brushed up against it, they understood when they wrote,

when I find myself in times of trouble
mother Mary comes to me
speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Yesterday, as Ginger was pouring the cup to serve Communion, she said, “And Jesus took the cup and poured – in a room that was not nearly this quiet.” The downside of our reverence is we sanctify the humanity out of the very events that speak to all that it means to be truly human. Mary had to have had less than the ideal pregnancy ending with giving birth in a barn behind a less-than-five-star inn. However romantic our crèche scenes appear, with the animals gathered round, I can’t imagine it being much help to have the cattle lowing and doing everything else that cows do while she was in labor. For God to choose to enter the world in the person of Jesus was as gritty as it was glorious. The angels may have announced his coming, but Jesus came into the world on the bottom rung, at the place, as Bruce Cockburn says (and my friend Bill reminded me) you have to "kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight.”

On this day that the church decided to calendar as the one when the angel visited Mary, I offer Patty Griffin’s song, “Mary,” because it helps make Christmas a flesh and blood event for me.
Mary you're covered in roses
You're covered in ashes
You're covered in rain
You're covered in babies
You're covered in slashes
You're covered in wilderness
you're covered in stains
You cast aside the sheet,
You cast aside the shroud
Of another man, who served the world proud
You greet another son, you lose another one
On some sunny day and always stay

Jesus says Mother I couldn't stay another day longer
Flys right by me and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singin' his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place

Mary she moves behind me
She leaves her fingerprints everywhere
Everytime the snow drifts,
Everytime the sand shifts
Even when the night lifts,
She's always there

Jesus said Mother I couldn't stay another day longer
Flys right by me and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singin' his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place

Mary you're covered in roses,
You're covered in ruin
You're covered in secrets
Your'e covered in treetops,
You're covered in birds
who can sing a million songs without any words
You cast aside the sheets, you cast aside the shroud
of another man, who served the world proud
You greet another son, you lose another one
on some sunny day and always stay
In my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me . . .


Sunday, December 07, 2008

advent journal: anthem

It’s late and I’ve been staring at the page for a long time.

Nothing has appeared. My mind has wandered from John the Baptist to the Magi (they wander in and out of my thoughts all through Advent) to conversations over cooking at work tonight to who knows what, but none of those thoughts has taken the shape of a story and my mind is as tired from wandering as my body is from working. Yet, it did end up somewhere, recalling the chorus to Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem”:

ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack in everything
that’s how the light gets in
From there I went in search of the lyric and the song, both of which follow. Tonight, this is my lullaby.

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.



P. S. -- There is a new recipe.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

advent journal: I love a parade

Ginger, Ella, and I went downtown for the annual Durham Christmas Parade and Tree Lighting. Here is Ella, up close and personal.

If you needed proof that I live in the South, here it is: a Chik-fil-a float.

We now live in the Bull City, so here are Ginger and Ella next to the Bull statue, which was next to the Christmas tree.

A bit later in the evening, we found someone to take a picture of all three of us.

We had a great time. I already know where I want to stand next year.


Friday, December 05, 2008

advent journal: sentiment and sacrifice

I spent the day running errands, mailing a few A Faraway Christmas CDs, and picking up what we needed to do a couple of things on the house before my in-laws come in a little over a week, which means I drove a lot and had incidental conversations with people I don’t know. My favorite was at Lowes, where I was buying paint.

“Do you want our Signature paint or the Premium?” the paint guy asked me.
“What’s the difference?” I replied.
“The Signature is our best paint,” he answered.
“What’s the difference between them? What makes it better?”
“It’s our best paint,” he said.

I left with my Signature paint and a couple of other things and came home. About six forty-five the phone rang and our friends Carla and Lindsey invited us to meet them at the Regulator, our very cool neighborhood independent bookstore, for a reading. I didn’t know any more than that as I grabbed my coat and hat and walked up to meet them. Turns out the bookstore wanted to do something to “get people in the Christmas spirit,” so they asked Allan Gurganus to come and read his story, “A Fool for Christmas,” which he read on NPR a few years back. He was not promoting a new book – or even the story; they just wanted to get people together for Christmas. They had hot cider, mulled wine (using Clarence’s recipe from It’s a Wonderful Life: “heavy on the cinnamon, easy on the cloves”), and several tins of Danish butter cookies and a roomful of folks who all seemed happy to be there.

The story was told in first person by Vernon Ricketts, the manager of a mall pet store, who notices a runaway girl hanging around the mall and offers her part-time work walking a cocker spaniel puppy, Butterbean, around the shopping center to entice people to come buy a pet for Christmas. The girl is pregnant and the story culminates in a strange nativity scene with him delivering her baby in the pet store surrounded by puppies and kittens and an African parrot.

I loved it.

In his introductory remarks before he began the story, Gurganus commented about the current economic state of things in a refreshing manner. “We are going to have to make some sacrifices,” he said, “and I’m ready,” going on to talk about how we have a chance to dig in and make something great come out of this time of hardship. Two things crossed my mind in quick succession: I resonated with what he was saying and I felt fortunate to be one of the ones for whom sacrifice is a choice.

I’m the only one in my kitchen at Duke who doesn’t work at least six days a week; I’m one of two who only has one job. And, day in and day out, the guys not only show up for work but come with a sense of humor and good spirit. They don’t get to choose to sit down, sip wine, and listen to stories very often. And they are not alone.

I’m a sucker for Christmas movies, Elf and Scrooged being two of my favorites, along with the aforementioned It’s a Wonderful Life. They all build to a call for us to be better, kinder, more compassionate people who understand the power of personal relationships, and to be people who realize the world is not primarily about themselves. They are all about redemption, even if they are sentimental Hollywood movies (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

A real part of the Advent/Christmas season is about looking for the connectedness reflected in those movies. We want to belong. We want to matter. We want to be together. What becomes difficult are the consequences of that connectedness. In the last section of “The Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot writes:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Once the wise men got back home, they realized they had seen too much; redemption came with a price: they had to live and act differently long after the Christmas season had passed. Maybe that ‘s one of the reasons we celebrate it year after year: we need help remembering what it means to be redeemed, to be called to sacrifice.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

advent journal: snap shot

Look at the photograph
and you will see a little
boy standing in the front
yard; he is small and
did not dress himself in
the baggy shorts, the tiny
striped t-shirt or the small
sailor hat, but he's dressed
and he looks a bit puzzled.
The colors of the stripes
are long ago forgotten;
the image is black and
white. Who knows why
he is standing there, or
why the picture was taken.
Freeze any frame of life
and so much is left un-
explained. Then again,
you could have a snap
shot of every second
between then and now
and still not understand
how I got from there to here.


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

advent journal: immanuel

Many summers ago, Ginger and I were leading a youth camp for a group of churches we did not know well. One of the morning classes offered to the young people was massage (not a class I would have chosen to offer to teenagers, but that’s another post). I happened to be walking through the room when I heard the leader say, “Now, grab your partner’s elbow skin.”

I stopped in the middle of the young massagers and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have to mark this moment. Never in my life did I ever expect to hear the sentence, ‘Now, grab your partner’s elbow skin.’” And I kept going.

Last night my phone rang while I was in the middle of the dinner rush and it was my brother. I called him back on my way home and he uttered another sentence I never expected to hear: “I have a tumor on my spinal cord.” It’s not quite as easy to just keep going after that one.

In the process of preparing for knee surgery that’s been on the books for some time, his wonderfully attentive doctors found the tumor. The knee will have to wait; the tumor will be removed on the same day he had set aside for the knee repair. And now we all must wait to learn more. The tests have not told us much more than it is a tumor a couple of inches long and about an inch and a half in diameter. The surgery will let us know if it is benign or malignant; the surgery also means a substantial risk, since they will have to open the spinal column to remove the tumor. My brother has both an internist and a surgeon he trusts and is ready to do what needs to be done to not have a tumor on his spine. We are hopeful and prayerful and, well, frightened. (OK – I’m those things.)

The person in the story of Jesus’ birth that most pulls at me is Joseph, partly because he had to deal with an unexpected sentence of his own. He dreamt an angel came to him and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The situation was no less problematic when he awoke, but he had a different way of seeing: they would call the child Immanuel: God with us.

Our extended family has a full plate right now. My brother and sister-in-law lost one of their sister-in-laws to cancer last year and just found out another one has weeks to live. My father is living with bladder cancer and my mother is recuperating from extensive surgery. In a little over a week, Ginger will go to Birmingham and drive her parents back to spend the holidays with us because her dad’s Alzheimer’s is progressing and we don’t’ know how many more Christmases he will be able to remember. Each of these situations had a phone call or a conversation that contained one of those heretofore unspoken sentences that create a marker that delineates life before that sentence and life after it. Nobody gets to go back; nobody knows what happens next.

What we can trust is God is with us.

I’m not one who sees illness as metaphor for evil; I don’t think our family has been besieged by Satan. I’ve been praying since my phone rang last night that the tumor is benign and removable and everything will go well. I know I have only begun to work through the layers of life to get to how I really feel about what is happening to my brother. I talked to my oldest nephew today and he said, “I’m just hanging on anything positive the doctor says.” I’m right there with him.

My brother, at one point in our conversation tonight, tried to put it in a larger perspective, saying what he’s facing pales by comparison to suffering around the world or even what his in-laws are going through. He’s right, I suppose, yet part of what matters most about the Incarnation, about Jesus being born in a small stable behind a small inn in an insignificant little village is the larger perspective only makes sense when we let ourselves truly feel the pain and grief and loss that makes up our little lives just like Joseph, for then we can hear the angel say, “Don’t be afraid.”

The words I turned to tonight were written by the same nephew I talked to this afternoon in a song he wrote in response to his aunt’s death last spring.

I think about these things
I don’t know what they mean
is there joy in suffering
I think about these things

it’s gonna be alright
it’s gonna be alright
though the darkness holds tight
we’re locked into the light
Immanuel: God with us.


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

advent journal: someday face to face

I was a little over halfway through my first semester of seminary when a college friend called to say he was passing through town and wanted to take me to lunch. About halfway through the meal, I found out he was selling insurance and was hoping I would become a customer. I wasn’t really in the market, so we finished our food let it go at that. Eight or nine months later, I got another call from him and another invitation to eat. This time, I found out he had changed companies and had another sales pitch to make. I still wasn’t swinging. Another year passed before I heard from him again, with an invitation to play out the scene yet once more. Instead of going to lunch, I said, “If you want to get together for lunch because you want to get together, I’m glad to do it; if you want to sell me something, I’m going to pass. I want to be your friend, not your customer.”

I never heard from him again.

I thought about him today, though, as I read Mary Ward Brown’s story, “A New Life,” in God: stories on my coffee break. She tells the story of Elizabeth, a woman just a year beyond her husband’s death, and her encounter with an old friend and his wife that leads to them befriending her to try and get her to come to their church. Their concern feels honest, but they show their hand when Elizabeth finally tells them she’s not going to be a part of their church and they leave. For good.

My brief summation doesn’t do the story justice at all, but it’s enough to get me to the thought that hung in my mind for much of the afternoon: friendship suffers when there’s an agenda. So does faith. And art. If any of them becomes a means to an end, they become, as Paul said, “a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” What I mean by agenda is the artist intends you to do something specific or respond in a particular way to what he or she has created. All of a sudden, both The and Truth are capitalized. It’s one of the reasons I’ve struggled to connect with much of what is marketed as Christian music. I don’t want someone telling me The Truth, even if the melody is catchy.

In my songwriting days, when the songs I wrote with my friend Billy circulated in that same Christian market, I learned again and again how hard it is to write and sing about what matters without using a sledgehammer for the percussion. I also had occasion to know a good story when we wrote one and let it speak for itself. One of those was a song called “Someday Face to Face” on Billy’s record, Watermarks. We were talking about Paul’s words, “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face.” The words we put to Billy’s melody were story, not explanation.

he woke alone in bed
the lights were on downstairs
she was sitting by the window
in her grandma’s rocking chair
he stood and watched her from the doorway
and never made a sound
and the rain was coming down

little move so she would hear him
she glanced across the room
he said baby what you doing
she stared back at the moon
when he tried to say I love you
he hardly made a sound
the rain kept coming down

someday we all shall see and
someday we shall be known
but now it’s trough a mirror
a cloudy pane of glass
someday we all shall see and
someday we shall be known
when love and understanding
bring us to each other face to face

he climbed back into bed
she followed him up the stairs
she would not let the silence
speak for all her fears
and they held each other all that night
and listened to the sound
as the rain kept coming down

someday we all shall see and
someday we shall be known
but now it’s trough a mirror
a cloudy pane of glass
someday we all shall see and
someday we shall be known
when love and understanding
bring us to each other face to face
In any conversation I’ve ever had about the songs I was a part of, I’ve never had anyone say, “’Someday Face to Face’ is my favorite song.” I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to anyone about it other than in a conversation I started. Yet it came back to me today after I read about Elizabeth and thought about my college friend and wondered aloud to myself how much good faith and good art seem alike to me because they are both invitations rather than impositions. It came back to me, not because I’m staking my claim to great art or faith, but because it’s one of those moments where I brushed up against the art and faith I want to live out.

Because I saw myself in the well-meaning friends in the story as much as I did in Elizabeth. As much as I want to see myself as progressive and inclusive, I’m quite comfortable being right. My opinions are as strong as my voice is powerful. Each time I opt to be the Strong One, I learn again that power and force can’t carry love the way a story can. The mirror will not be unclouded by force or will, correct theology or righteous indignation, but by love.

As I try to figure out how to end this post, I’m working hard to do something other than write a do-you-get-the-point-there-Chuckie final paragraph. I’m going to lean into an old literary friend for help. In her poem, “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver writes:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
And we are another day closer to the Manger.