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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.

Christmastide

When candles lifted
for Silent Night
wax-dripped and wick-burned
lie haphazard,
dropped in baskets
forgotten;

When cotton ball sheep masks
tinsel halos
spray-paint gilded gifts of the wise
shepherd staff and wooden trough
find storage corners
to mark time til next December;

When liturgies recited
carols sung
luminaries extinguished
bulletins recycled
sanctuaries draped in cloak of poinsettia red
have held the promise, past tense.

Then the tide of Christmas—
good tidings of great joy
heaven and nature sing,
the ebb of frenzy
the flow of good news
begins.

It is among my favorite words:
Christmastide.

This time that carries us to another shore;
these days that celebrate the one in the manger
who will soon admonish us to go across to the other side.

These moments to reflect and wonder,
to ride the waves of laughter
and the waves of grief that swamp our frail vessels
all the way to the One whose voice the wind and sea obey.

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

“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

What I Really Want: Christmas Letters from Young Clergy Women

Humorous YCW Christmas letters bring comic relief during a time of stress.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my Young Clergy Women colleagues gave to me: laughter and solidarity.

A particular brand of stress befalls those of us who are working for Jesus as the world celebrates his birth. It’s a bit like working the roller coaster line at an amusement park. The folks who climb into the cars and buckle up get to scream and raise their hands as they enjoy the thrill of the ride. But for the person who checks to make sure the safety bars are locked in place (an important job—but a monotonous one), the roller coaster loses some of its luster.

And so it is that for many young clergy women, Advent and Christmas are filled with…wonder? No. Joy? Not exactly. Peace? Not even close. Try: to-do lists. Long to-do lists and longer hours at work fill our ever-shortening days, not to mention the calendar-crowding holiday parties and social events we’re expected to attend in our “official” capacity as clergy. In the midst of the holiday hustle, we struggle to find quality time with our own families even as we are setting the stage for other families to worship together. We yearn to behold the baby in the manger—to rest and reflect and contemplate the one who called us into this life of service—and yet, his coming means that there are liturgies to plan, tinsel angel wings to repair, homilies to write, candles with plastic wax catchers to order.

Most of us wouldn’t trade this holy work. We wouldn’t trade visiting families who are experiencing grief and tragedy that are somehow magnified by the sparkling lights of Christmas. We wouldn’t trade thoughtfully preparing worship services that offer a space for the people in the pews to sing with angels and kneel beside shepherds and wise men.

But while we would not have Advent and Christmas any other way, we need humor to keep going. So for these seasons that come bearing both good tidings and great stress, er, I mean, joy, The Young Clergy Women Project offers a fun (and educational!) list—What I Really Want for Christmas: Christmas Letters from Young Clergy Women. (Names and minor details have been omitted or changed to protect the innocent.) Read more

Not So Silent: Christmas Worship with Children

Dearest church people,

Get ready. In two days it’ll be Christmas Eve. Your congregation will welcome people in for one of the biggest nights of the year. You may be blessed with an overrun of visitors, and I hope some of those visitors will be children and their parents.

In the spirit of preparation (it is Advent, after all), I write to you with my qualifications as both a minister who has specialized in children and youth and, for the last few years, become a pew-sitter; as a minister without a full time clergy position, I have done more pew sitting than worship leading.

And this season, I suspect, is the hardest of my pew sitting: I currently have three lovely children, and we’re doing all the ages and stages right now. The oldest, at 10, is in that phase where she can follow along in church, but sometimes needs a reminder to do so. Sometimes, this nudge results in a little preteen, mother-daughter drama. The five-year-old wants to move. He has the energy of a Pentecostal, which is perhaps a bit more than your average grown up Lutheran. (We currently attend a Lutheran church.) And the two-year-old has recently learned that she has pipes, so she will deliver quite the yelp if someone takes what she believes to be her crayon. She’s also highly attuned to the Holy Spirit, occasionally making a dash for the aisle because she thinks that music is for dancing. And when it’s time to go forward to receive communion, she has a hard time waiting her turn. Sundays in our pew are sort of like wrestling a squirmy pet monkey, all while juggling hymnals and Bibles. Add candles on Christmas Eve (our church has one service, at 7pm, well past the littlest one’s bedtime), and it’s going to be anything but a meditative experience for me. Read more

Erica Schemper and her father, Lugene Schemper, at Christmas Day Vespers in 2005.

‘Tis the Season to be in the Family Business

Erica Schemper and her father, Lugene Schemper, at Christmas Day Vespers in 2005.

Erica Schemper and her father, Lugene Schemper, at Christmas Day Vespers in 2005.

This is my idealized childhood Christmas memory. It’s about 9:00pm, and our church’s Christmas Eve service is over. Everyone has finally left the building, except for my family. We are always the last to leave: we’re the pastor’s family. But tonight, instead of loading up the car and heading home, we go into the church bathroom where all four kids change into warm pajamas, then load into the station wagon, and off we go, beginning the 14-hour drive from upstate New York to my grandparents’ house in suburban Chicago. We’ll be there in time for Christmas dinner, and presents.

I’m a multigenerational pastor’s kid (often referred to as “PKs” in pastoral families). My dad is a pastor. My maternal grandfather is a pastor and a former missionary. And while growing up in a clergy family means you are often more religiously observant than the average Christmas and Easter family, it usually also means that your family’s traditions around the holidays are somewhat malleable. We were all so busy around Christmas, travel had to be arranged around the Christmas worship schedules; and, for the sake of sanity, my parents had to let go of some things that other families might think of as non-negotiable traditions (I was shocked to learn that some families have a huge dinner on Christmas Eve. Who’s got the time to roast a goose when you’ve got to stick 400 candles into their little paper wax-catchers?).

Read more

lonely Christmas stocking

Celebrating Solo

lonely Christmas stockingLike most folks in ministry, I don’t get a lot of holidays off. I’m a hospital chaplain, and the hospital never closes. Someone has to be there to minister to those in crisis even when the crisis happens on Christmas Day. And since my family of origin is several states away, I can’t just pop in for a few hours on Christmas Eve then come back for work. As a single clergywoman, I have had to learn how to do Christmas on my own.

When I first realized that big, “traditional” family holiday celebrations were no longer an option for me, I grieved that loss. But instead of dreading Christmas as a sad, lonely time, I chose to develop my own traditions to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Some of them were carryovers from my childhood. My parents are now retired, and they no longer buy a real tree every year like they did when my brother and I were little. The smell of a Fraser fir is one of the signals for me that Christmas is approaching, so I decided to invest in one every year as part of my holiday celebration. I couldn’t get a tree from the lot to my living room without help, so several of my friends have comical memories of helping me wrestle the tree onto my car and into my home to decorate. I love that we share those stories.

I thought it was a shame that I would be the only one to see my tree in all its final tinseled and lighted glory, so I began the tradition of my annual Christmas party. Read more