Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
The lyrics of our final hymn at the Christmas Eve service rang in my ears as I peered into the cold silent night outside the church doors. After closing the doors to this holy night, I blew out the candles that had lit our way to the birth of peace. I gazed out the window to wonder about this tender and mild child that tore open the heavens and came down incarnated in Corinth.
It had happened again. Jesus Christ was born again this day. The mysterious wonder of the incarnate had torn through the heavens as the prophets had hoped. And yet, as I blew out the candles, I couldn’t help but wonder what had changed. We have been waiting for this for the past four weeks. We’ve been preparing for this miracle of birth as Jesus came through the birth canal. We’ve gotten ready for this moment when he was named King over the powers that be, this helpless child over the State, over the ones who loved to oppress. We have been waiting these days for justice to reign. And yet, as I settle into my new home and see this world with new eyes, I wonder about this silent night.
As I blew out the last few candles, my breath mingled with the lyrics of the familiar hymn.
One Thursday evening several months ago, I met with a mothers’ group at the church. We call ourselves the Night Owls because we meet in the evening to accommodate mothers who work outside the home, although we have plenty of stay-at-home moms in the group as well. The conversation turned, as it often does, to the exhausting work of parenting, regardless of how one does it.
In a moment of candor, I said to the group, “You know, with both my husband and me working full-time, plus two kids, our life just barely works. As long as no one is sick, and all the cars and household appliances are operational, we really get along quite well, and I love our life. But there’s no buffer. So when a monkey wrench gets thrown into our lives, things just go to pieces for a while.”
The very next day, I stood in our bathroom, not breathing, and watched a thin pink line turn darker and darker—and said hello to the mother of all monkey wrenches.
Today we feature two poems.
“Last December I decided to write a series of poems inspired by beloved Advent and Christmas hymns. It was a great spiritual discipline for me in the midst of the busyness of the season. I remember sitting with a cup of cocoa and the Presbyterian Hymnal, reading carefully the hymns that we (ok, I) often sing without absorbing the words. The images are a rich treasure for the spiritual and poetic imagination.”
May Christ be born anew in you
inspired by “The First Noel”
they looked up,
and saw a star shining
in the east
it hung fat in the
and taunted them
when they moved,
it slid alongside,
when they stopped
and turned, it halted too
and winked like an
in its message: approach.
in their response:
but a few sighed:
we’ll go that way,
just to get you
off our backs.
so they turned,
faced off with the light,
and walked a
lingering day and night,
but the further
they traveled, the more the beckoning star
far beyond them.
My husband is ambi-pet-trous, but I am a dog person. He can admire and enjoy a cat’s company, but I remain suspect that cats are secretly judging me and planning to overthrow my domestic rule at any moment. Also, they make me sneeze. I want a pet that will be slavishly loyal, that will greet me with wild enthusiasm when I come home and will gaze at me sympathetically when pastoral weights hang from my limbs. I want a dog. And, because my husband likes dogs as much as I do, to celebrate six months of marriage, we began earnestly searching for “the one.”
And, in the year 2007, it turns out that searching for the dog of your heart’s desire is not so different from online dating. Rather than trolling the aisles of Match.com for a man who seemed intellectual, but capable of intimacy, we were trolling Petfinder.com for a dog with an open, sweet face who would not bite children or defecate on the floor. Rather than speed dating, we traveled to local shelters, walked up and down the aisles between kennels and rapidly dismissed dogs that did not appeal to us (not housebroken, barks too much, jumps too high, seems scared, seems aggressive).
When we finally narrowed down candidates, we went on dates. Read more
Lord God, God of beginnings, and endings,
God of the past, God of the future,
God of judgment, and God of grace,
God of waiting, and God of fulfillment:
Fulfill in us the coming of Christ.
May we, O God,
Like Mary, treasure and guard the coming of your kingdom deep within us
Nourishing it as it grows,
Delighting in its first flutterings,
cradling its growing weight in our hands,
until it is ready to come and call out to the world. Amen.
If your path involves motherhood, the odds are pretty good that you will be in some way waiting for motherhood to begin during an Advent season. This year, I know pastor-moms who are in a variety of states of waiting: trying, waiting to announce, announcing, waiting for paperwork, waiting for a referral, and ready to deliver.
Two Advents ago, I realized I was pregnant during a sermon on the annunciation. For a variety of reasons, the timing of this baby was horrible. As my head pastor explained all of the reasons the angel might tell Mary “Do not be afraid” I knew three things for sure: I was pregnant; I was very afraid; and I had better come up with a good explanation in case anyone in the congregation noticed that I was turning a shade of green in front of their eyes.
Our waiting in Advent is informed by many versions of waiting for the coming of Christ. Mary’s waiting for his birth might be the most distilled version. Women waiting for motherhood have incredible access to that experience.
I wrote this prayer as a way of exploring that version of waiting.
For the last couple Decembers, I’ve watched the ordinarily light traffic to my blog skyrocket. It isn’t that I get more interesting during Advent – one of my most recent posts was a humdrum complaint about insurance costs in my adopted state of California. I’m a run-of-the-mill blogger, writing for myself and for the small community of family and friends who at least pretend they like updates about my dog. But in 2005, two sermons I’d posted on any day a beautiful change were linked on Textweek, my favorite clearinghouse of materials for worship and preaching preparation. As the Advent and Christmas season rolls around, hundreds of preachers, teachers, and students-of-the-Word click over to read my words (or, as the case may be, scan and summarily dismiss them).
I admit that I love the feeling I get when I consider that the results of my prayer and study might help other preachers bear gospel fruit in the pulpit. I know how grateful I am for the insights and wisdom I discover through my weekly visits to Textweek. Reading commentaries, reflections, and sermons is an invaluable part of my preparation. I find my own voice in part by listening to the voices of others. During my first year of ministry, I didn’t always trust my voice – so young and so female—so adding it to the chorus challenged me to a new level of confidence.
Then things got interesting.
The December 2006 quotations column in Christianity Today included an excerpt from one of the linked sermons – my first Christmas Eve homily. It was completely surreal to see my words on that page; all the other quotes were from theologically orthodox men, and there I was. Well, there “Katherine Perchey” was—my name was misspelled, but whatever. The typo helped me keep my humility when I saw my words alongside such luminaries as Augustine of Hippo and John Piper.
A few months later, I read Thomas Long’s article about sermon plagiarism in the Christian Century. In “Stolen Goods,” Long addresses the rampant plagiarism among contemporary clergy. The advent of the Internet has made it easier than ever to “borrow” the sermons of other preachers – and it has also made it easier to discover such indiscretions. The article piqued my interest in how the quote from my Christmas Eve homily was credited by the preachers who used it in their own work. Though I had ego-googled “Perchey” when Christianity Today came out, I hadn’t googled the actual quote.
I typed in a few words from the quote. A handful of church websites and sermon blogs came up. A few preachers had used it in conjunction with variations of that honest trick, “As another preacher has said.” I’ve used that trick; sometimes it’s just unwieldy and overly academic to attach a name to a quote, and anonymous attributions are better than none at all.
And then, after clicking on one of the search results, I froze. There was the quote, surrounded not by quotation marks, but by the entire text of my sermon. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was not merely heavily inspired by my manuscript; this was my manuscript. I scrolled down to find the footnote indicating that this was not the original work of the preacher whose name was proudly listed on the sidebar; the footnote wasn’t there. As I scanned the words, I noted with more than a little bitterness that the only altered sentence was the one in which I had mentioned how much I love my friend Rosamond’s sweet potato casserole. The Reverend Plagiarist at least had the decency to insert his own favorite Christmas treat. Read more
The town was all a-twitter. The gossip network was running full force. The new pastor, they said, had a man staying in the parsonage.
He had been there over a week, visited the church, and met many of my parishioners before the rumors got back to me, of course. I had only been ministering there a couple of months, and no one wanted to actually ask me about my “mysterious” guest. I probably should’ve expected that there would be talk, but it just didn’t occur to me that my life was considered so scandal-worthy! I’m a member of the coed dorm generation. I also forgot that certain key factors wouldn’t be as obvious to everyone as they were to me. “I don’t know if this will make it any better,” I sighed, when I finally caught wind of the gossip, “but he’s gay.”
I was telling the truth about that, and I think it assuaged some fears (although it may well have heightened others). One might wonder, however: what if he hadn’t been gay? Would that have negated my freedom to host a friend in my home? Would a female guest have been less suspect? Probably, but since no one has ever asked about my orientation, why would that be so? It’s been suggested to me many times, in a variety of ways, that I ought to get married. How on earth would I ever get to that point if I’m not supposed to have prospective partners (or those assumed to be such) in my house?
The conundrum is not lessened by the fact that most people simply have no idea how awkward and difficult the fish bowl syndrome makes life for their single clergy. I’ve heard it said that pandas rarely mate in captivity and, similarly, we’re not as fruitful (ahem) personally or professionally when we’re constantly dealing with invasion of our privacy and resulting attacks on our character.
The average person doesn’t think of it as an attack, though. Some people think of it as concern for the integrity of the pastoral office. Others think of it as genuine care for their minister. Many of them don’t really think of it at all; maybe they were just bored that day and needed something to discuss to occupy their time. Most people aren’t actually trying to be malicious or suspicious; the human thing to do, it seems, is to talk about other humans.
I know, that doesn’t make it easier if you’re the one who can’t have an unidentified car in your driveway for two hours without hearing about it for the next two weeks. If you’re anything like me, you still want to post a parsonage-sized “MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS” sign in your front yard. That approach being not entirely practical, there are a few alternative possibilities that can ease some of the frustration of finding your life subject to so much scrutiny. Read more
As the below true-life examples illustrate, I’ve been known to let faux curse words slip in my sermons on more than one occasion:
“The disciples had been fishing all day, and they hadn’t caught anything whatsoever. They probably felt like crap.”
“You’re going to break your wedding vows. It might not be in a big, dramatic Grey’s Anatomy kind of way, but you will break them. I mean, I love my husband Jeff, but when I’m pissed at him for eating the leftovers I wanted for my own dinner, I’m pretty sure I’m not cherishing him.”
“So if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, ‘Well, great, I’m screwed,’ don’t worry; you’re not alone.”
These words started making appearances on the smaller, more informal Wednesday night service, when I was preaching without notes. I soon found myself saying these kinds of things in my Sunday morning sermons to hundreds of people. I started to ask myself why recently.
Part of the “problem” is that I’ve always loved words. My poor mother had to carry around this ridiculously small chatterbox of a child (I was in the first percentile, meaning 99% of the kids my age were bigger than I) who spoke in complete sentences but who couldn’t walk yet. When I did (finally) learn to walk, I used my newfound motor skills to make my way over to any available lap, book in tow, chanting, “Read the book; read the book.”
Soon I was sitting by the back door on my older sister’s “liberry” day, waiting to relieve her of her latest acquisition. A few years later, when most of my friends’ parents had rules about how long they had to read before being allowed to play or watch television, my mom had to make an entirely different set of rules: no reading until I was ready to leave; no reading after lights out; no reading at the dinner table.
Ironically, I had a speech impediment. Words that began with “r” or “l” came out sounding like they started with a “w.” My mispronunciations as a toddler were age-appropriate and thus somewhat cute. In second grade, I went to speech therapy to find my lost consonants. Talking became a chore; communicating orally was hard work and, quite literally, homework. I gradually became less and less talkative. My interest shifted even more to the written word. After years and years of reading others’ words, I began shaping words myself as a priest in the Episcopal Church.
To be honest, I sometimes wonder if my life might be just a little bit easier if I didn’t care about words so much. I still haven’t completely overcome my reluctance to speak. If someone else is willing to talk, I’ll generally let her, unless I think I have something to say worth hearing. If I weren’t so caught up in wanting to express myself well, I’d probably be less hesitant to speak. With the written word, there are built-in opportunities, even expectations, around editing that don’t exist with language in its oral form. If words didn’t matter to me, I’d change my words in my sermons to be less questionable. Read more
Another Wednesday night meant another class to teach. Diving into the texts with the enthusiasm of a young child going for the baby in a King’s cake was how I wanted to spend my Wednesday nights. When I arrived in Corinth, I wanted more than anything to share my find with others. I wanted to see what treasures they had found. I loved the rich conversations emerging from shared moments of clarity. And now, it was Wednesday again and last week’s “ah-ha” moments were not as comforting.
Last week had been filled with blank stares. The last few weeks had not been the stuff of comfort. We had been studying the Pastoral Epistles with a companion study guide chosen before my arrival to Corinth. Wednesday night came to mean studying some of my least favorite parts of the Bible with study material that had never heard of different learning styles or this new fangled thing called “inclusive language.” My all-around lack of excitement had been contagious even to the most dedicated churchgoers (in other words, our older and more stalwart folks).