maternal longing…

I cannot escape pregnancy these days.
As blogger Traci Bianchi reminds us: The Christmas story is dripping with estrogen.
And not only that… but the Advent story as well.  As we wait for the coming of Christ once again, we are pregnant with hope and anticipation… we hear rumors of wars and feel the earth shaking and everything in turmoil and yet we are reminded in Mark 13:8 that all of these troubles are but the birth pangs of the new creation.
Pregnant, waiting, in pain, fleshy, joyful, anxious.
In our Wednesday evening Advent services we have been using a number of materials from The Work of the People.  The first two video reflections have both reminded us of just how incarnate God became.  As we heard the announcement to Mary of the child in her womb… we watched a woman in delivery, having contractions.  We watched her heavy breathing and her labored movements.  We saw the pained look on her face as the angel’s words came through… “Do not be afraid, Mary.”  “I am your servant” was her response .
I have seen sonogram images of friends who are newly expecting.  I received with immense joy the news that I would get to be an aunt again next summer.  As the holiday season has progressed I have held babies and changed diapers and comforted those who were crying.
And inside of me is stirred up a deep, deep longing.  The longing to be a mother, myself.
Sometimes Advent and Christmas come and go and we don’t feel any different, but I have found this year that my experience of the season has been deep and holy this year.  I have found that this longing to be a mother parallels my waiting for the coming Christ.
Maybe it brings the season into a sharper view, because I feel it so intensely.  So personally.  We’ve been waiting forever for the Messiah to come again and sometimes we let it slip into the background.  We get busy with our day to day lives and figure it will come when it comes.
But when another longing takes hold… we are reminded of what it feels like to truly wait.  To desire something so much. We are reminded that there are some things that we seek so much that it does consume our thoughts… it takes over those day to day activities.  It changes how we see the world.

I see babies everywhere these days.  I cannot help it.  My entire perspective has shifted.  I notice the glow on an expecting mothers face.  I watched those images of the woman in labor and heard the words of the angel speaking to Mary and I began to tear up.

But in the midst of my very personal, very selfish, biological clock going haywire… I also have looked around with eyes that see the pain in this world.  The hurt that so many experience.  And my inward longing has turned outward as I want so much for this whole creation to be set right, to be restored, to be made new.
On Twitter, the hashtag #waiting2010 has helped me to share those longings.  I join others in prayer as we waiting for the day when violence will end and disease will be no more.  We wait for the day when understanding will be the norm and when the Prince of Peace will rule.

My husband is not yet ready for kids.  He may never be. And if I am honest with myself, perhaps I’m not yet ready for the dramatic ways my life will be different when/if we bring someone into this world.  The simple fact is: for us, right now, the answer to the children question is, “no.”  That answer brings me great sadness.

And yet, in this season of longing and emptiness, in this season of waiting… I am turning towards those things that I can say yes to.  I can say yes to hope.  I can say yes to peace.  I can say yes to joy.  I can say yes to love.  I can reach out to others with my life and my actions and give all I have to them.

Maybe God has something in store for us.  Maybe being childless will help me minister in different ways.  Maybe my hopes and longings will be fulfilled.  All I know is that I wait. And I trust that God will be with me.  I am not afraid.

Why we are singing Christmas carols this Advent…

There have been a number of interesting conversations going on around how we keep Advent and Christmas.

Taylor Burton-Edwards has suggested that what we actually experience is something more like Admastime… leaving the “vent” and the “Christ” out of it completely.

In the time that I have known what Advent was… and I have to be honest that it wasn’t really until seminary days that I started keeping Advent… I have been a stickler about waiting.  I like the build-up of the moment.  I think that the liturgical seasons and the calendar create a sense of movement and energy and emotion that is captured in this quote by Frederick Buechner:

The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart…The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.— Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, pp. 2,3

While we are always, and every moment waiting for the coming of Christ… we forget.  We forget the longing.  We forget the tension.  Advent reminds us.  It reminds us that time is of the essence.  It reminds us to wake up and to be ready.  It reminds us that any moment might be the moment.

That is a hard state-of-mind to embody for our whole lives.  It sure seems like the Thessalonians tried.  They stopped everything to wait for Christ to come, and Paul had to gently remind them that they still had to work and eat and go to school.  Life must go on… and yet the waiting is still in the background.
So I relish the minor keys of Advent.  I find peace in the longing.  I find hope in the reminders that soon and very soon Emmanuel will come.  It is such a contrast to everything that skids out of control around us. And then, since I made everyone wait… we have a grand old hymn sing the Sundays after Christmas and into Epiphany.

But this year, I caved.  I gave in.  We are singing Christmas carols this Advent.

It was something I struggled with… but in the end, this year it felt right.
We are using the “Life-Giving Christmas” materials from the UMC & Rethink Church.  And as contrived as “Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love” might be… I think the materials are really helping us to move to a different place this year as a congregation.

Advent for me has two tasks:  to prepare us for the birth of Christ (which we celebrate as Christmas) and to prepare us for the second coming of Christ… the end/beginning of it all.

What I have found is that quite a few of our Christmas carols actually do allow us to take both of those things seriously.  Sunday, we sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and really focused on the last verse:

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;

cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmauel!  (UMH #230)

That longing for the Savior to come is the same today as it was in the days of Mary and Joseph. The child has been born and still we wait.  And now that we have used that song in church… now that we have talked about waiting for THE hope of the world… perhaps when the song comes on the radio, or begins playing in the mall… the gears will shift just a little bit, the chaos will be jarred, the spirit will speak, and we will pause to wait.

Epiphany through the eyes of a servant girl

I have come here today to tell you a story. It’s a story that you think you know… but you don’t. You have only caught a glimpse of the truth. You have a version that has been changed and adapted and sanitized through time. But it’s not the real story…

I have come here today to tell you the story, because I was there. Sure, it was many years ago and I was just a child, but I was there nonetheless.

When I was just a little girl, I lived in a small city with my mom and dad. My father worked with metals and my mother worked in the palace.

Oh, Not for the king though… no, she worked for this crazy band of astronomers who the king had invited to live in the palace. The king wanted to make sure that he paid attention to what was happening in the world around him… so he brought in these seers and astrologers from all over the place to work for him and interpret the stars and other signs.

And my mother worked for them. Well, she cooked for them. They had very strange appetites, since they came from all sorts of different places and so it was a lot of work! Sometimes she had to prepare three different meals all in one night, just so they would each be happy!
Well, one afternoon, my mother came home flushed and hurried and anxious. My father had been hired away and was working far from home on a new temple that was being built. So it was just my mother and I. Only, she came home and started throwing clothes and our bedroll and whatever else she could find into a bag. She cursed the whole time. I didn’t know whether to laugh at her or to cry or to run away because I had no idea what was happening. But in a rush of flurry, she finished her packing and took my hand and off we went.

Evidently, these magoi… the astrologers… magi, is what you call them I think, well, anyways, these magoi had seen a new star rising. They had conferred with one another for many days and weeks until they finally decided the star was the rising of a new king far off to the West.

They marched into the throne room of the palace and demanded an audience with our King. They told him what they had seen and our King was so excited that he wanted them to personally go and seek out this new King and to bring him gifts.

The magoi were up for the adventure and began making plans for their trip. First, and most important, they spent a full week figuring out what the best gifts to take were. Then they hired camels and bought provisions for a very long trip. They hired people to ride with them to protect them from whatever dangers they might find on the road. And, they demanded that all of their servants come along.

These magoi had gotten quite used to their life in the palace. And the King probably wouldn’t have let them make this grand excursion without sending a full entourage anyways… they were going to greet a King after all!

And so, whether she liked it or not, my mother had to go too. And since she couldn’t just leave me home alone and since we had idea when my father would be returning…. I got to go too.

Since I was just a child, there was a lot of excitement about heading out on this journey. I had no idea where we were going – only that it was far from our home. The first day was a blast… by the third day, I was tired of the smell of the camels. By the end of the first week, I was cranky and wanted to go home.

My mother knew this would be a long trip, but there was nothing she could do to ease my homesickness. Until one afternoon she came up with a game for me to play. She knew that the magoi had packed with them precious gifts and so she gave me the task of finding out what each of the gifts were.

The first gift was easy. There was this rather quiet servant name Tajit who always rode in the middle of a caravan on his camel. He was always looking around nervously, as if someone was about to jump out of the bushes and rob them all. And I suppose he had good reason to be nervous because he was carrying one of the gifts. You know how I could tell? He jingled!

Tajit must not have packed his gift very well, because every time his camel took a step there was a small quiet clanking in his packs. I knew something was in there, so I made a point of following him closely, watching every time he opened his packs to check for something.

One afternoon, I walked right up to him and introduced myself. And you know what? It turns out he was pretty nice! Tajit had a little daughter back home who was just my age and so each and every question I had, he was happy to answer. It took me a few days, but I finally worked up the courage to ask what the gift was he was carrying. He motioned me over to his camel, and opened up one of the packs on the side and let me peek in. There inside were brilliant and shiny gold nuggets! Tajit took one out and let me hold it. It glimmered in the sunlight. I was surprised at how heavy they were and immediately felt sorry for the poor camel who had to carry them.

Even as a little girl, I understood the importance of what was in my hand. My father worked with metals after all! He had taken me once to the palace and showed me where his father had helped to form gold into the heads of rams and oxen on the palace walls. This was a precious gift for a mighty king and someday this very gold might be formed and shaped by someone like my own father in a beautiful palace.

Tajit leaned over and whispered… “some of the magi think that we are going to visit a mighty and powerful king… this gold is a gift for one who will rule the nations!”

Gift one down…. Two more to go.

I told my friend Tajit about my quest to discover all three of the gifts, so he gave me my next clue. There was a large woman who always sang songs at our evening campfire who was carrying the second gift.

I made it a point to sit next to this woman – Sari – that night. I had made such quick friends with Tajit, I thought this would be easy. But it turned out, Sari didn’t like little children. She ignored me for a whole week.

But after a whole week of sitting next to her and listening to her sing at night – I started to learn some of the songs she was singing. And I began to sing along. I remember the first time I sang with her she turned and stared at me with a cold and mean glare – but I kept right on singing… and she hrumphfed and went back to making her music. After another week had passed – we could be found at the campfire together every night singing and making harmony.

I could sing with Sari – but I wasn’t quite sure she would let me talk to her yet. I started out by telling her different things that I had seen on the journey that day – a lone eagle flying high above us, a beautiful purple flower… and gradually, Sari started to tell me about her life.

Sari was a priestess in the local temple. She offered sacrifices to the gods and prayed on behalf of the people. She was on this journey because of the gift that she carried.

Without having to ask, one day Sari brought with her to the campfire a small package and opened it before me. Inside was a hard substance, that I had never seen before. It was shaped into a long narrow cylinder. Sari took a coal from the fire and touched it to this rod and after a few moments, it started to smolder. Rich, amazing smells began to arise with the smoke and they were carried up to the heavens.

I looked at Sari speechless with wide eyes and she told me what it was for. When we pray, she said, “we light this incense and our prayers rise up to heaven.” Then she told me that in the place we are going, this incense is used outside of the tents and temple where their God resides. She said that this frankincense was the gift for a priestly ruler – one who would have a close connection to the God of his people.

The next week, I found the third gift… but it wasn’t on purpose. A man had died in our caravan and as we were trying to what to do, Melchid, another servant, demanded that we use some of the gifts we had brought to give the man a proper burial.

He pulled out a jar of myrrh and as we laid the servant to rest – there on the side of the road, some of the costly myrrh was gently placed between the layers of linen wrappings.

Sari helped to lead prayer and the servant’s body was placed in a hollow on the side of the mountain and covered with stones.

I wondered what kind of a gift this must be – why would such a thing be given to a king? I listened among the people that night as we ate and heard tell that some of the magoi thought that we were going to worship a healer – someone who would save his people from great tragedy. But others had a strange feeling about this star and this new king… they sensed some kind of sorrow in the future of this ruler.

Having completed my quest, the journey became much duller. Day after day we traveled. The road was very, very, very long.

Finally, we arrived outside of the city of Jerusalem and came to the palace of King Herod. A few of the magoi were chosen as ambassadors and made the climb up the steps of the palace… and the rest of us anxiously waited outside.

And we waited, and waited, and waited. I wondered if I would get to see this new king myself! How exciting would that be?!

After what seemed like an eternity, the magoi came back outside with news. There was no new king here in Jerusalem. Our magoi consulted with the Jewish scribes and they came back with word that we should try to look for the king in Bethlehem. Silly Magoi – they never really knew where they were going all along.

We arrived just outside of Bethlehem at dark. How in a town full of people would we find a king? And why was he here and not in Jerusalem. There were whispers that the king was a newly born child who would one day rule this country. The mystery of it all was very exciting and I could hardly wait with anticipation.

Suddenly everyone was looking up and in the skies I could finally see what we had been following all along. There shining faintly above us was a star. I could see it with my own eyes.

It appeared to rest above one of the houses.

We quiety trodded through the streets with our caravan. Boy were we a sight. I could see little faces peering out of windows at the camels and our wonderfully dressed Magoi.

Stopped in front of a house… it was small, tiny really. A few of the Magoi thought they should go in and see what was going on.

They came back out and were speechless… a few others rushed in and then a few more and they all came back out and had a pow-wow there in the street. I snuck up to the front of the caravan where I could hear better.

This king that they had discovered was only a baby – not more than two years old. But there was something about him – something that amazed them. They finally decided to take in a portion of each of the gifts. They wanted to see what kind of a ruler this child would be, so they decided to let him choose. If he chose the gold – he would be a mighty ruler… king of all nations. If he chose the frankincense – he would be a priestly ruler… a servant of God. If he chose the mhyrr – he would be a healer who restored his nation.

They were nervous and went in quietly. They came out stunned and empty handed.

The child had chosen all three gifts. He was a king… but he was a priest… and he would save his people.

The journey home was long – but the entire way I pondered what would happen to this child… how would he accomplish all of these things? What would his future be?

For many years I thought about that boy child in Bethlehem. The Romans continued to rule in Judea and there was no word of a new king arising… but then again – word didn’t travel very fast in those days.

Then one day, I heard word of a young man named, Jesus, who some said was the Son of God. He spoke and people listened. They came out in droves to hear him and some were healed with his touch. But he made others anxious and they had him killed by the Romans. That should have been the end of the story… but there were whispers and rumors that he lived again… that he still lives… and that he truly is a king… and a priest… and came to save his people.

Amen and Amen.

The valley of the shadow of death…

Holy God,

You sure do have a sense of humor.

The week that was supposed to be quiet so that I could procrastinate and finish editing my ordination paperwork has turned into chaos.

This season of birth and life has become a time of remembrance and mourning for many families as they say goodbye to loved ones.

And you bless me with the honor of walking with them through that valley of the shadow of death.

I hold that task sacred and pray that you will help me lead them faithfully… despite my distracted spirit.

On this day when I thought I would have the quiet of a warm office to write in, you have graced me with an elevator that rings constantly at a high pitched frequency… and service calls that need to be made.

When I want to bask in the still, small light of the advent wreath ablaze and the Christ Candle shining brightly in its midst, the wicks seem to have a mind of their own and I’m sure to set off fire alarms with their foot high flames.

The quiet innocence of our children’s pageant on Christmas Eve, turned into a chorus of wild angels as they ran and leaped and jumped and sang all throughout the sanctuary.

The family that I have held so close all of these years now brings tears to my eyes and pain in my heart… and yet you bring me other family members as well, some blood related, others chosen, to see me through the darkness.  And you bring my own family closer together as we care for one another’s spirits and try to be honest and faithful.

I am not at all where I want to be emotionally or spiritually right now.  And yet, I am constantly reminded that you are right there with me.

And I thank you.

Amen.

Quiet Christmas Morning

This has been a really difficult Advent and Christmas season for me.  It is the time of light and hope and joy and peace, but I’m not quite there yet.

I want to be there.  I long for the coming of true light and true hope-filled promises and true joy and true peace.  I guess I did much better in the Advent time of waiting and preparation than I am on this Christmas morning.   It’s quiet here, except for the wind rushing through the trees.  And it seems a little lonely and sad.  But for some reason, that suits how my spirit is.  I am immensely grateful that I’m not surrounded at this moment by the chaos of presents being opened and sqeals of joy.  That doesn’t exactly fit with my picture of the first Christmas anyways.

No, on that first Christmas… that first time that we celebrated the birth of this holy child… the first time God was worshipped in human form… was (to translate a little)… was in a dirty barn.  At least that’s how the story goes in Luke.  And it was just Mary and Joseph and the sheep and goats and cattle and birds in the rafters.  It probably smelled like shit… not evergreen. 

In the middle of the night, some shepherds rushed in.  They came from the fields and were dusty – but hey they fit right in.  And they walked in with their lanterns and sat down and told their story.  I imagine Mary and Joseph were terrified at first and though they were about to be robbed…. and then were amazed… and comforted that they weren’t crazy… that God really did have a purpose for this special child. 

And then the shepherds left. And it was quiet again.  Just Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child…. and the sheep and goats and cattle.

We don’t hear about angels visiting the holy family that first night.  We don’t hear about any other guests.  The wisemen probably didn’t appear until a year or two later.  It was on this night that the star appeared and they first started their quest. 

No, it was quiet, and dark, and probably cold and still.  Worship was a story of glorious revelation and quiet adoration of an infant.  Maybe some bread was shared. And when morning came – when the hustle and bustle of the world began again and that village woke up… I bet no one had any idea what had taken place. 

Mary and Joseph started over in Bethlehem… found a place to stay… and after some time had passed and the child started crawling and then teetering around some crazy dudes from the east showed up…. but that’s a story for another day.

My prayers are with all of you who are busy and chaotic this morning.  My prayers are with all of you who are alone for the first time in many years.  My prayers are with you who are always alone on this morning.  May we each find peace and joy and hope and love and light in some quiet corner of this morning.  And may we remember that first Christmas.

Payne Family Christmas

I don’t normally watch “the House of Payne.”  It isn’t something that crosses my radar and when I see it in the guide, I never think to stop and watch.  In fact, I never just flip through the channels, I look at the guide on our dish and chose my television shows accordingly.

But this particular episode caught my eye.  It was the House of Payne retelling of the Christmas Story – and this I HAD to see.
What I thought was really interesting is that the whole family was gathered around the living room and were trying to tell the Christmas story to the youngest girl.  And as the story began to be told, each person was transported to Israel and took on various characters in the story.  One was the innkeeper, there was Mary and Jospeh, and shepherds and wise men.  And as one person finished telling the story, the next would jump in and say… that’s not what happened and they would retell the story from the perspective of their character. 
Now, some of these accounts were more humerous than anything… in one Joseph was ready to karate chop the innkeeper for not letting them have a place to sleep…  but there is something to the idea that each person who witnesses the birth of Christ has a story to tell.  Our own accounts of Christmas are more myth than fact – we often have the shepherds and the wise men all showing up at the same time, when there probably would have been at least a year between their visits. 

When it comes down to it, the Christmas story is something that we are invited to live in and experience for ourselves.  And whether we feel like shepherds who are outcast and dirty and smelly and we get to come to the manger and witness the miracle… or if we feel more like the privledged who humble ourselves before the manger… we are all invited to come and we all have a story to tell.

There is a really neat moment in the episode where the matriarch of the family (I wish I knew it well enough to know her name) really puts everyone in their place and reminds them that this story isn’t something to be made fun of… because we are talking about one of the most important events in human history – this is the birth of our Savior…. if you head over to tbs you can watch the full episode – I think it’s worth it!

calls for justice in the midst of advent joy

This coming Sunday we will light the third candle on the Advent wreath – the candle for JOY.

We hear in the midst of this call to rejoice, however, a very startling message. John the baptist calls out to the crowds: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  (Luke 3:7-8).
He tells people to share their coats and their food, to not take advantage of others, to be satisfied with their wages. 

In many ways, that is the spirit of the season that we find ourselves in.  At Christmas we collect canned goods for the local food pantry, collect coats and mittens for children who need them, we remember the blessings of this year, we look out for our neighbors.  We take on a whole new attitude toward life in the month of December…

If only it would last.  Before the holiday lights on the town square are taken back down, our hearts begin to grumble.  Our spirits of generosity are suddenly overwhelmed by the credit card bills that come in the mail.  It seems impossible to sustain that good will towards all into the new year.

But that is exactly what John the Baptist is calling for – Repent, believe the Good News – you can live differently. You can bear fruit that lasts.  You can be changed.

I know I’m on a Susan Werner kick lately – only because I recently discovered her and I can’t put down the album.  One song in particular has just absolutely stuck with me.  It’s called “Help Somebody.”

When I hear this song, absolute joy floods my heart.  It helps me to realize just how much I have been blessed.  I have plenty.  I have a roof over my head.  I have supper on the table.  I have a sense of God’s salvation working in my life.  And if I have it to give – I should…. JOYFULLY. 

There are a lot of places in the world where some have too much and others have not enough.  We are having a huge debate over health care nationally for exactly that reason.  I think all (most) of us would agree that everyone should have affordable access to care.  We just don’t agree on how that happens.  But if we let this song and John’s call fill our ears and eyes and hearts then the question that comes to my mind is how can I help others get what I have. 

It’s not a question of whether they deserve it or not.  Perhaps it’s not even a question as to whether it is right.  It’s a question as to whether we want to give.  It’s actually a question of joy… what kind of joy and peace and wholeness can I create in the life of another person?  What kind of joy can I create in my own life through giving a little bit extra?

We could apply this same formula to anything.  It’s not about what we can get, but what we can give.  It’s about the joy that comes through recieving the good news of God and then not hoarding it, but changing our lives and giving it freely away.  It’s the spark of life that we have to pass on. 

We are going to be looking at the “Enough” stewardship/money series in January – and I think that this song is going to be our theme for the whole thing.  I’m looking forward to the ways that our congregation finds joy in the good things that we have – enough joy to take responsibility for how we use our resources and enough joy that we overflow from that abundance and help others in our community and in the world.

kitchen sitting

One of my favorite holiday activities is sitting in the kitchen and hearing stories. I’m at my grandpas right now – our christmas house – and already the warm and familiar smells of coffee and bacon are filling the air.

Slowly people will start to emerge from all of the various places they crashed. The grandkids from the basement floor, the adults from the bedrooms. Slowly the decibel level will begin to rise and there will be laughter and teasing and guffawing. But for now its fairly quiet. Just the coffee pot percolating and the bacon sizzling and two little ones desperately trying to keep quiet with a deck of cards