Posts

Craft Store in September

Christmas in September

Here it is, September 24. The heat has tapered off, the colors are starting to turn, and pumpkin spice is everywhere. Yet, if you walk in your local craft store, that fact might elude you. I was recently in search of a sketchbook for my son, and as soon as I walked in the door, the sights and sounds of Christmas — with red and green, glitter and bells — overcame me. The aisles were lined with these craft supplies and decorations, and I walked by shopping carts full of greenery and ribbon. I’ve barely breathed since Labor Day, and yet it seems as though Halloween has been completely subsumed by Christmas.

Craft Store in September

Craft Store in September

In fact, if my own social media feeds are any indication, the corporate rush into holidays is one of Americans’ favorite things to collectively complain about. The chorus of “IT ISN’T THANKSGIVING YET! PUT YOUR CHRISTMAS STUFF AWAY!” rings almost as loudly as the passive-aggressive posts counting down the days until Christmas, chiding people to refrain from any songs containing the words “holly” or “jolly” for that number of days.

And it isn’t just Christmas, is it? Easter decor is out by Valentine’s Day, Independence Day by Easter, fall by Independence Day, Christmas by Labor Day… and the cycle continues.

It feels rushed and capitalistic. Like the only thing the stores care about is getting us to buy more, earlier. And… that is true. When you’re out in September and see a Christmas decoration you absolutely love, there’s no way to know if it will still be there in December, so you should buy it NOW, right? Then buy more when the season does roll around! Stores know this, and they are happy to feed that need for more, for better, for newer.

I don’t deny for one minute that that is true; corporations sell what makes money.

But there’s an also true here, another reality that offers a different lens. Without denying capitalistic goals, the also true is that stores are not the only places that blur the lines between seasons and holidays.

This is also true in clergy offices.

Clergy are always one season ahead. At least one season.

Sometimes, that feels a little bizarre.

It’s an odd mark of ministry; cultivating worship experiences and programming to fit the theme of each season requires a lot of advance preparation, so we are never really full present in the season we’re in. We live our lives in this “already but not yet”… one foot planted firmly in the present, leading in worship and programming that meets the needs of our congregations and communities, at that very space and time. And the other foot is always — always — a step ahead.All over the country, on this very day in September, pastors are working on their Advent sermon series, planning seasonal events, and filling newsletters with “Save the Dates” for December. Advent planning has been a regular conversation in my clergy social media groups for weeks, and I‘ve even seen some references to Lent and Easter 2020 popping up. By the time our congregations are actually observing Advent, clergy will be knee-deep planning Lent: preaching on Sunday morning about awaiting the birth of embodied Hope… all the while spending Thursday afternoons planning Lenten Bible Studies that focus on the fallibility of our humanity.

And occupying that space, the ever-present reality of the already but not yet, is holy. It’s like a little sneak peak into what’s ahead, prayerfully seeking where God is leading us and our congregations next. Getting to lead what is with grateful anticipation of what might be.

Embracing that has been helpful for me, laying down my sword in the fight against one-season-at-a-time and living into the messiness of the reality of blurred seasons. So, one recent morning, I breathed deeply, lit an evergreen candle, added peppermint to my coffee, and streamed a Christmas movie in the background while I got to work.

And then, when I walked into this craft store that had exploded in red and green, I let out a sigh of solidarity. It wasn’t just me. I know that we have all of autumn, not to mention four full weeks of Advent, before we get to Christmas. But some days, focusing on that grateful anticipation of what might be is what my soul — and my planner — need.

So the next time you see Christmas decorations out long before Thanksgiving, remember that, as people of faith, Hope is already here. 

 

an ink drawing and watercolor picture on paper of the nativity of Jesus

All This Weary World

an ink drawing and watercolor picture on paper of the nativity of Jesus

A breath of Yuletide

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is one of those hidden-gem Christmas carols that we do not sing as often as other favorites, like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Away in a Manger.” If we know it at all, we might know the first verse by heart and, even then, we might fumble the words at the end.

But the tender heart of this carol lies beyond the first verse. After you sing that first perfectly nice stanza about angels singing at midnight of peace on earth, you enter into a second and third stanza that sing of the burdens of our world and the longings of our hearts:

Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heav’nly music floats o’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hov’ring wing,
and ever o’er its babel sounds the blessed angels sing.

And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;
look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!

I am struck by the compassion that these heavenly angels have for the weary world; for its sad, exhausted, lowly places; for those whose forms are bending low beneath the crushing load of life; for those who seek rest, those who are tired.

The Christmas story, from the plodding donkey making his way to Bethlehem to shepherds on the night watch, is first and foremost a story told by tired people for the sake of tired people.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like a donkey. You carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. You do holy and essential work, but work that is tiring nevertheless. Your back is tired. You walk a long road shouldering other people’s expectations and dreams. You are weary from the journey. You plod through this life as a beast of burden. Even as you are loved and appreciated for your work, your body and your soul yet long for deep rest, for restoration.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like a shepherd. You sit awake at night, keeping watch over what is precious or helpless. You work nights while others sleep. You keep mental lists. The tasks of the day run through your head, even in deepest dark. You watch the clock. You watch the stars. You try to balance your own rest and well-being with the needs of those who depend on you. You crave one, good, uninterrupted night of sleep where you are free to rest, to dream, to leave the lists and the anxieties behind.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like an innkeeper. Your routine and your sleep cycle keep getting interrupted. You feel tired of crowds, of the bustle, of the stuff, of the “too much-ness” going on about you. You live your vocation. You provide for others. But your inn is full and your resources are depleted. You want a nap. You want the city to rest. You want all creation to take a deep, cleansing breath. You want everything to slow down.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like Joseph. You care for those whom you love, even when it is hard. You keep up with the demands of work and family and empire. You find yourself on difficult journeys that were not of your own choosing. You long for a safe place to rest. You seek a temporary release from the obligations put upon you, the good ones and the hard ones and the oppressive ones alike.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Maybe you are tired like Mary. You bear hope, even when it is exhausting. You say, “Here am I” as you offer your whole self to the call of love and service and sacrifice. You sing for justice and your voice is wearing out. You know what it is to be both weary and expectant. You know the pain of bringing new life into the world. You are summoned awake by crying in the middle of the night. You know the needs and hungers of the world. You want the world to hush, to cease its strife. You want a world at rest, a cosmos at peace with itself.

Are you feeling tired this season?

Then come to the manger. Follow the star. Hear the song of the angels. Cuddle up in the straw with the barn cats and the watchful sheep and the restless goats.

For here, in the manger, is a baby, new-born, opening his sleepy eyes to the world.

There is no weariness, no exhaustion of body or spirit that this baby will not experience in his lifetime; there is no weakness or despair that this baby will not ultimately redeem and refresh.

This is the point of Christmas. Read more

white bokeh lights

My body is heavy this Advent

white bokeh lights

My body is heavy this Advent.

 

Mary of Nazareth’s body was heavy

too, or so we imagine in Advent.

She is often shown so

young and beautiful, demure and obedient,

glowing

though that may be the halo more than the pregnancy.

If we have ever met a real live pregnant woman, we might more realistically imagine

the lumbered steps,

swollen ankles,

short fuses

In the spring, this is how I imagined my Advent: the glowing, the beauty,

and too

the weight,

the exhaustion.

 

but with my hand to my belly

I feel no movement, no kicking or dancing or shifting

I am empty

 

not empty like the tired tropes of Mary the empty vessel waiting to be filled by God

I am empty of life

so empty of the baby that was due this month but

was lost

early

 

still I am heavy,

and instead of a

baby,

the grief kicks at me

 

All around me parishioners and family go get Christmas trees, listen to Christmas music

            A few lone voices cry out for waiting, for settling into Advent,

            slowing down.

 

I resist

Avoid

 

except

to set up an outdoor light machine in our living room just to say we decorated.

The world prepares for a baby

the way Mary herself could not on the road to Bethlehem:

scurrying, nesting, cooking, sharing glimpses of new life, celebrating with loved ones.

 

My baby would be coming this month.

I would be singing her Christmas carols and arguing with my spouse about

if we will teach her about Santa Claus,

but instead I am empty

 

my baby is dead.

 

I should have been heavy with something besides grief;

I should have been nesting and celebrating

or maybe binge watching Netflix with my ankles propped up

but instead I am out of touch with time

instead I sit on the floor

crying

these stupid lights playing across my skin

I wonder how I can preach good news on Christmas Eve

how I can treasure words of scripture and ponder them in my heart

when my baby isn’t laying even in some makeshift crib like Jesus did

my baby is dead

and I am so empty

 

Comfort, oh comfort, my people, says your God.

Every valley shall be lifted up…

 

I may not spend this Advent or Christmas as Mary did.

I may not be able to gaze into a manger or read of wise men bringing gifts,

But there is

still

still

something in this time of waiting for me still

Hope.

 

Maybe not hope for a baby.

But hope that God interrupts our pain to speak tenderly to us,

sit on the floor with us without even turning off the outdoor light display that shouldn’t be on indoors

that when God put on flesh,  

God felt grief kicking inside, God was weighed down by the heaviness of grief

too

 

If God is in a body like mine, a failed body,

 

maybe God is in me too.

Hero

Everyone imagines themselves as the hero of their own story. Especially every child — and I was a child. They all imagine themselves as heroes. That’s not a new thing; it’s like that here in your twenty-first century American lives, but it was like that where I lived, in Nazareth two thousand years ago, as well. Your boys and girls have the heroes that they imagine: Wonder Woman, Iron Man, PJ Masks, Moana, GI Joe, Harry Potter. They’re inundated with them: hundreds of heroes, on television screens and in movie theaters, in newspaper comics and novels. Watch the children sometime, and see how they play: averting global disasters at the playground, setting up elaborate Lego battlefields, going on daring adventures through their back yards, covering themselves with temporary tattoos. They all want to be heroes.

So did I, but our heroes were a little bit different.

You have to understand that those Roman soldiers could do anything. There was no due process, no body cameras, no professional code of ethics — not that those things always make a difference for you, but even those flawed safeguards were not there for us. Rome had conquered my town and those soldiers could do anything they wanted.

So we would go to our religious services, passed off to the authorities as innocuous. They respected things that were ancient, and our faith was as ancient as they come: ancient stories, ancient scrolls, ancient traditions. They thought our religion kept us busy, kept us industrious, kept us docile. But every little child, boy or girl, wants to be a hero, and that’s what I was. So I learned the stories of our heroes. Moses, who led the people out of slavery in Egypt, who stood in the presence of God on Sinai. David, who as a boy stood fearless with his slingshot and felled the giant Goliath. Jeremiah, who heard the voice of God in his boyhood and fearlessly reprimanded the wicked and faithless. And there were other heroes, too: Ruth and Naomi, left widowed and making their way in the world. Jael, deceiving and impaling Siserah, Esther, risking everything to advocate for her people to the king.

Those were the stories that shaped me and formed me as a child. Read more

Zechariah: In Which God Redeems a Mansplainer

A painting by artist Alexandr Andreyevich Ivanov (1806-1858)

Holy One, we come with many things on our hearts and minds. We come with grief and with joy, with heavy hearts and busy schedules. We come with certainty and with doubts. Bless the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, that each of us might hear your word for us today. Amen.

The silence changed everything. Everything. At first I tried to talk, I tried to hum, I tried to rasp, scream, whisper, grunt, whistle, anything I could think of. I lay in bed at night trying everything, my tongue working against my speechless lips, worrying at my teeth, begging in vain for my disobedient vocal chords to comply. Nothing worked – I was completely mute, every attempt to vocalize utterly noiseless. I might as well have been trying to fly.

It was so frustrating to be silent. I’d always been a big talker anyway. I loved to shoot the breeze on a quiet afternoon, to tell stories around the table, to debate about scripture in the synagogue. To be mute now, after this, was unbearable. I had so much to say!

It had been a lifetime of waiting for my wife Elizabeth and me. We’d waited for a child, waiting and waiting and waiting until slowly we accepted that it was too late. We’d waited faithfully for the Messiah, suffering year after year under the Roman imperial occupation, enduring the centurions and governors and their tyrannical puppet kings, praying for the day when God would save us and free us. And we’d waited years for my turn to offer incense in the sanctuary. Each group of priests served for a week twice a year, and each day one of us would be chosen by lots for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to approach the Holy of Holies. I had waited, time after time, for my lot to be drawn. The priests God chose for the task seemed to get younger and younger. Sometimes I wondered if God had forgotten us. But not anymore.

It had seemed like a normal morning as I set off to the Jerusalem temple, joining along the way with the other priests from the order of Abijah. I had pretty much resigned myself by that time, but that day my name was chosen to enter the inner sanctuary and offer the incense. I had entered the chamber prepared to experience the silent, perfect peace of the presence of the Lord. As I lit the incense, there was a rush of wind, and a breath-taking, awe-inducing something stood before me, all wings and eyes and sound. I was terrified; my memory is fuzzy, all flashes and snippets. Elizabeth. A son. Name him John. Something about Elijah. Prepare the way of the Lord. Read more

Sometimes I Really Hate This Time of Year

pregnancy test – negative

We are in the thick of Advent. Inside the church, we are quick to turn our focus to Elizabeth, to Mary, to drawing parallels between the waiting time of pregnancy and the waiting time of Advent. Outside the church, Christmas cards show up in our mailboxes each day with pictures of smiling families dressed to the nines for Christmas portraits, or religious cards with silhouettes of pregnant Mary riding on the donkey, led by Joseph, down the road toward Bethlehem. Singers on the radio remind us that it is “the most wonderful time of year.”

Except when it isn’t.

“Sometimes I hate this time of year,” one colleague admits.

Because for those who long for children that they cannot conceive, for those who know the loss of a pregnancy or the loss of a child, for those who are childless beyond their choice or power, this intensely child-focused time of year is anything but wonderful. Hear the voices of young clergy women colleagues as they reflect on the tension of this season: Read more

The Divine Waggle

The author’s son having chosen a front row seat for the Lord’s Supper.

At 20 months and 2 days old, my son extended his hand towards his sister, and waggled his fingers back and forth. It was his first ever unprompted wave. As all three of us stood there in the haphazard transition between car and door of childcare, I whooped and clapped and started an awkward mom-version of the running man, complete with child in arms. My son was confused and my daughter even more so, at this unusual burst of awkward energy so early in the morning. But this was a touchdown for him, for me. It was a WAGGLE deserving of end zone celebration.

There is a mantra in the world of kids with Down syndrome that I have come to learn in the last two years: ‘Celebrate, Don’t Compare.’ Children with Down syndrome are late developers, hence the usage of the word ‘retarded.’ The milestone calendars so carefully laid out in baby books and emailed to your inbox are of no use to a family with a child with Trisomy 21. Those are more of a GPS—which will lay out when you will arrive at the place you desire to be. Families with Down syndrome are given only a wide open paper map. There are places to go, but arrival time is entirely independent of your carefully laid plans.

The crunchier among us might see this as a good thing—‘Hey, my kid will get there when he gets there,’ laissez-faire approach to parenting. I was similar with my daughter. But for a parent who is constantly asked how old her child is when they exhibit no signs of development appropriate to their age, a lack of a timeline is disheartening. Laissez-faire is a beautiful, intentional, approach. When involuntarily taken out of one’s hands, laissez-faire or no, the waiting, as Daniel Tiger might say, is hard.

Hence the mantra. It was gently given to us by the first of our neonatologists. It was quietly repeated by our four therapists. Seasoned parents of children with DS lived it out in front of us again and again. Celebrate, don’t compare. Have joy in what is happening, rather than lining the present up with your neighbor’s children or your own former expectations.

As a follower of Jesus, a priest and generally sunny kind of lady, I wanted to love the mantra. Read more

The Pastor’s Advent

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

As I write this, I’m sitting on my living room couch. I showered this morning, but I’m wearing what my husband’s aunt calls “soft clothes” – a sweatshirt, and lounge pants, and slippers.

I haven’t worn mascara in more than a week.

“What are you going to do today?” my husband asked me, this morning, while he packed lunches and I spread cream cheese on bagels for our daughters, who are 7 and 3.

“I have some writing to do,” I said. “Maybe I’ll return those Christmas lights that are too short, and buy some candles for the Advent wreath.” That was the entirety of my to-do list, at least as of 6:30am. I tried not to feel like it was inadequate.

On my way back from dropping our youngest at daycare, I decided to make a lasagna. And then I decided that I would sit my butt down and actually read the two long-form articles that have been open in my browser for days, one of them maybe even for weeks.

The very idea of sitting down, uninterrupted, to read an entire long-form article – without feeling the whole time like I was supposed to be doing something else – was almost unfathomable. The possibility that I could just sit and read the entire thing, from beginning to end, rather than to read it piecemeal – a few minutes here while my kids are playing in the tub, and a few minutes there while I scarf down my lunch – made me happier than I’d like to admit.

I took the week off, you see. Read more

“I Believe the Women”

With great understanding,
Wisdom is calling out
as she stands at the crossroads
and on every hill.
She stands by the city gate
where everyone enters the city,
and she shouts:
“I am calling out
to each one of you!
Good sense and sound judgment
can be yours.
Listen, because what I say
is worthwhile and right.
I always speak the truth
and refuse to tell a lie.
Every word I speak is honest,
not one is misleading
or deceptive.
-Proverbs 8:1-8 (CEB)

detail from Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on canvas, 1609

The allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct continue to mount in every sector of society. In response to the allegations against Senate candidate Roy Moore, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I believe the women.” These four words hold extraordinary power, and the fact that they are so extraordinary points to how necessary they are.

The word of a woman is often questioned – including by women themselves. In the wake of #metoo, one thing we’ve seen is just how much women have internalized our victim blaming culture. Many have been reluctant to name sexual misconduct for what it is, or have felt partially responsible for it because they had been flirting, too, or they had enjoyed a drink with a friend. There is an inner voice asking, “Was this somehow my fault?”

In a culture that prizes women who are nice, sweet, and submissive, calling out harassment is strongly discouraged. For many women, speaking out would be detrimental to their careers or advancement. There is a pressure in many industries for women to be able to keep up with the men, to prove that they aren’t too emotional, too difficult, or any number of negative stereotypes that would prevent them from fitting in to the dominant culture. Louis CK’s sexual misconduct opened up dialogue among female comedians, who find that “not being able to take a joke” when it comes to sexual misconduct is a real career killer. Where men continue overwhelmingly to dominate certain industries, where “locker room talk” is actually the talk in whatever rooms of power – board room, green room, Senate chamber – women are under pressure to prove that we can take it, that we can hang with the best of them, while allowing the dominant rape culture to define the “best.”

Certainly, there have been, at times, false accusations made. But the vast majority of allegations of abuse and harassment are not false. Women have very little to gain in accusing men – particularly the rich and powerful – of misconduct. When women do speak out, our word is doubted, our character maligned, or worse. Women who have spoken out against powerful men have received death threats and lawsuits. It’s no wonder so many keep silent. Read more

Candles lit for Advent

Lighting the Candles without Fitting the Mold

Candles lit for Advent

Candles lit for Advent

A few years ago, I inherited the task of assigning Advent candle lighters for our church. For as long as anyone could remember, nuclear family units had been assigned each week’s readings and scriptures. Parents would help children to light the matches and teenagers would read the apocalyptic texts with gusto.

But there had been a pastoral transition, and the Advent wreath liturgy suddenly fell to me. I remembered my own small hurt the year before when I realized with a certain start that I, a single woman in my thirties, wouldn’t qualify for this particular liturgical responsibility in our community. Then I started thinking about all the other people in our congregation who might be feeling that particular sting of being left out.

I thought about the handful of elderly widowers, so desperate for human touch that they doled out bone-crushing hugs to anyone who’d let them. I thought about the divorced man with partial custody of his young son, a schedule that made committing to anything at church together nearly impossible. I thought of the recently retired school teacher, never married, and the ways her depths of wit and wisdom filled a dozen important roles and relationships but who was never asked to light a candle in anticipation of Christ’s coming.

And then, after I thought about these particular people who might be sharing the twinges of alienation like I was, I started thinking about all the people in scripture that we’d be leaving out of our Advent liturgy if they happened to show up here in church some twenty-first-century Sunday morning.

The list of single people who get enlisted for world-shaking roles in scripture is long and fascinating: Read more