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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

Poinsettias

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holly Jolly Christmas Edition

PoinsettiasDear Askie,

The holiday season is busy for everyone, but I would guess that it’s especially busy for clergy. I can only imagine how busy and stressed my wonderful pastor must be with so many church events and worship services to manage, on top of all of her family obligations! I’d like to do what I can to make the season easier and merrier for her, but I don’t know where to start. Could you advise all of us church folks about what we can do at Christmas time to care for the pastors and their families who give so much to make Christmas so special for our church?

Merry Christmas,
Puzzled Parishioner

Read more

Unwrapping Grace

8312957837_be66258dfa-1It was her first Christmas, or, perhaps more accurately, it was her sixth Christmas, but the first one we would celebrate as a family. Fifty-one days earlier, she had shown up on my front porch, a piece of pizza in one hand, a very small suitcase in the other and a foster care caseworker standing behind her, ushering her up my steps. She wanted to know where she would sleep, and was easily won over by warm chocolate chips cookies, fresh from the oven.

The fifty days that followed were full – enrolling in a new school, buying a new wardrobe, appointment after appointment, discovering which foods we both liked and which ones we didn’t, meeting her new extended family on Thanksgiving, and generally learning to live together. We both told lots of stories that Advent season – mine about family and traditions and presents under the tree, hers about Santa who left presents for everyone but her, and the family traditions that she watched from the outside.

In those fifty days, she became a well-loved child. My feelings for her rivaled the growing of the Grinch’s heart. She had her new grandfather twisted around her little finger practically before they met. The school and her foster agency ensured that she had Christmas gifts. My church hosted a party for her and gave enough toys and books to fill her entire new play room. Gifts and trinkets and well-wishes with her name on them appeared in my church office daily.

Her first Christmas Eve morning with my family dawned at my parents’ home, where we baked cookies, wrapped gifts and dressed her in her fancy dress with angel wings for the church’s Christmas pageant. Christmas Eve evening brought new pajamas, treats left for Santa, and a bedtime rendition of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, read from the same book I had loved as a child.

My dad is fond of saying that that Santa makes a huge mess when he dumps his sleigh over under the Christmas tree, and judging by the huge pile of presents, Santa must have employed his biggest sleigh to carry all those gifts. From the ripping of wrapping paper and the cries of delight when she found the perfect presents, to the drive to Christmas dinner with my extended family and then back home, she was clearly having a wonderful day. This was the Christmas she always dreamed of having.

Then bedtime arrived. Everything was quiet. We had eaten the last Christmas cookie, she had taken her bath, and it was time to cozy up in warm pajamas. Only then, did the abundance of the day begin to sink in.

In the quiet, it became too much–too much love, too many gifts given in joy, too many treats for her tiny tummy, too many people who embraced her as family, just too much. She cried. For an hour and a half she cried, because she just couldn’t take it all in. She couldn’t comprehend that she was so loved. She didn’t know how to reconcile her own feelings of being unwanted for so long with a family who wanted nothing more than to welcome her home.

It was a hard night, hard to see her tears, hard to hear her declarations that she didn’t deserve this, hard to watch her struggle with her old, unlovable identity when a new identity, rooted in abundant love, was within arm’s reach.

Yet, hers was the perfect response. As we hear that story of the tiny Christ child, who came because we’re not good enough, because we don’t deserve his love, because we don’t know who we are, maybe we, too, should be overwhelmed to the point of sobbing. Maybe we need to stand in the hard gap between the identity we put on ourselves and the love that Jesus offers. Maybe, instead of fearing that there will never be enough for us, we need to open our hands to the abundance of grace that comes on Christmas morning.

 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.                                                                                                                                     John 1:14, 16

 

I do not know what this Christmas will bring. There will be gifts. There will be Christmas dinner and more pie than anyone should eat. There will be grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins with whom to play and to celebrate. How my daughter responds will wait to be seen. But I hope, as we take a moment to gaze at the little Jesus in the manger, she and I will hold onto the lessons of last Christmas, remembering the feeling that we have been given more than we deserve, that grace is bigger than we can imagine, that love is deeper than we can absorb, all because of the incarnation of that small God child, wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying the in manger.

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holiday Drama Edition

Dear Askie,

9698410745_3d45d2389f_zMy daughter is a Pastor and I am so upset that she won’t come home for Christmas. We had wonderful family Christmases but now she’s always missing. She takes off at other times so why can’t she take off for one Christmas! She cares more about her congregation than her family! She knows we can’t afford to fly there so why can’t she come home? I’m so upset that we have to spend another Christmas without her. Daughter, I need you to come home! How can we convince her that we love her and we want to spend Christmas Day with her home?

Sad unhappy Christmas mother

 

Dear Sad Mom,

Oh, I get it. I really do. You didn’t sign up for this strange and wonderful life your daughter has chosen. You have not made any vows to the church. We young clergy women know that it isn’t always fair how our pastoral vocations impact our loved ones, from missing holidays with our extended families to spending too many evenings away from our kids to seldom being able to go away for the weekend with our spouses. Sharing your daughter with her congregation is really hard… and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like sharing. It feels like her congregation gets first dibs on her time and attention, and you get the meager leftovers. Big hugs for you.

If it’s any consolation, you are not the only sad mom out there… and your daughter is probably kind of bummed, as well. Clergy of all ages, genders, and religions sometimes lament the ways our callings change our holiday rituals. It is an indescribable blessing to lead a congregation through a Christmas Eve service, to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, to break bread and light candles, to proclaim that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Yet many of us feel some loss, too. We regret that we can’t make it home to far-away family, that our children are hanging up stockings without us, that helping others celebrate this holy night often means rushing around attending to logistics when we’d rather be drinking in the stories and songs we love most.

Getting down to brass tacks, though, sad mom, the answer is: no, your daughter can’t come home for Christmas. It’s just the nature of our work… Broadway stars have to work Friday and Saturday nights, tax preparers have to work long hours in March and April, pyrotechnicians have to work on Independence Day, and pastors have to work on Christmas and Easter. If you’re a church-goer yourself, try thinking about it from that perspective – what would it be like for you if your pastor was away for some of the most important services of the year? There are some pastors who might be able to get home for Christmas (maybe by leaving right after their last service and traveling through the night… not exactly a recipe for a holly-jolly day!), but it sounds like your daughter isn’t so fortunate as to be able to make it work.

So what’s a sad Christmas mom to do?

I’ve got good news for you, Christmas mom: you get to create some new traditions. Talk with your daughter (and maybe other family members) and come up with a plan that will help you all celebrate the holidays together in a way that makes sense for your particular lives. Maybe you can choose another day to be your family’s holiday celebration… Christmastide has twelve days, you know! Maybe your daughter could visit for New Year’s, or maybe you’d like to hold an annual family “Christmas in July.” Maybe you could start a tradition of Skyping together on Christmas morning. Maybe you could – at least once – visit your daughter for Christmas. Attending her church for Christmas services might be moving for all of you. (Please don’t expect her to prepare an elaborate meal on top of everything else, though. Order in, or follow Askie’s lead and make some Christmas fajitas! The red and green peppers are very festive.)

It’s sad to say goodbye to our old Christmas traditions, but this is a great opportunity for you to re-think your routines. How do you want to spend Christmas? Visiting with other family members or friends? Seeing a movie? Volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter? There are lots of options, so find a way of celebrating that works well for your family.

Will your daughter ever be home for Christmas again? She might be! Not this year, but there might be a Christmas when she is on sabbatical or maternity leave. There might be a Christmas when she is between calls. She might transition to a different kind of ministry that isn’t so demanding around the holidays. She might be called to a church that’s closer to home. Or maybe not.

My hope for you, Christmas mom, is that you will find a tradition that brings you closer to your family and to God. My hope is that you find a way to celebrate both the birth of Christ and your daughter’s calling to Christ’s church, with all the joy and difficulty that entails. And most of all, Christmas mom, I hope you have a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas.

Holiday blessings,

Askie

Wanting the Manger to Stay Empty

Dec 2013 Empty Manger and CrossOn December 19, 2012, I woke up early, went to the bathroom and crawled back into my warm bed in my dark bedroom. Then I realized that I was bleeding. This normally wouldn’t be a shock to a woman of my age – menstrual bleeding is to be expected once every 28 days or so. But several days before that, I had also awakened early and taken a pregnancy test, which showed that coveted “second line.” I was pregnant. Having already suffered a miscarriage two and a half years earlier, I greet a positive pregnancy test with a kind of dread. While it’s exactly what I want, I also know that unlike the commercials I see on TV, I am not bathed in bright lighting sharing the news that we’re going to be new parents in nine months. I am bathed in fear and the real knowledge that I might lose this pregnancy, too. So, on December 19, right before celebrating the birth of Jesus, I was crying in my bed next to my husband wondering why this pregnancy would not result in a joyous birth like Mary’s did.

I am one half of a clergy couple. As I was headed to the doctor later that morning, my husband was traveling to another town over an hour away to conduct a funeral for a couple from his church. My partner did not go to the doctor with me. He wasn’t home in the evening to help get our 19 month old fed and to sleep so that I could cry and curl up with heating pad. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so lonely. I could see Christmas lights twinkling in the house across the street, but didn’t want to turn my own tree on. We celebrate light coming into darkness at Christmas and all I could focus on was the darkness. Read more

The Advent Yoke

origin_11311678723This is the hardest time of the year for me to be a pastor. It’s a disheartening time. We have this incredible gem of truth in the coming of Christ while the rest of the world is spinning in the empty promises of Santa Claus. Culture, economics, and politics all rely on the materialism of the season. We’ve literally bought into it. We spend weeks – months – planning, buying, and baking for Christmas. What for? I shepherd a congregation where the worship attendance for Christmas Eve is lower than the average Sunday worship. That tells me that people don’t care to spend an hour to quiet themselves and revere the truth of the season. In times like this, I need to hold on to the promises of Christ.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29-30

These words from Jesus give me hope in trivial times. They remind me of the depth and wholeness of our faith. They reveal to me the claim that God has on us. They remind me of why I do what I do.

Advent is a beginning of life with God which, honestly, can be scary. One Advent, I witnessed a baptism of a baby boy where the mother of the child began crying, then sobbing, so uncontrollably it was difficult for the pastor to get through the service.

I was moved by her deep emotion that played out in our liturgy. I was also a bit puzzled. I approached the mother after the service while she looked down with shame. In a hug, I congratulated her, but she quickly apologized for her emotional outburst. I said to her that she had nothing to apologize about because I truly believe that tears are one of the most powerful ways that God gives us peace. If you can’t cry in church, where on earth can you cry?

“But,” I said to her, “I do have a question for you. If your tears could speak, what would they say?” She looked at me with big eyes and said, “Baptism is a mixed bag. It’s such a joyous occasion because this child will learn the wonder of belonging to God and God’s family. But,” she said to me, and her eyes welling up with tears again, her throat choking, “baptism means this child is no longer mine. I will love him and care for him in the way God calls me to do. He is such a blessing to me. I want him to live faithfully, but look at what happened to Jesus when he lived faithfully. He encountered bullies and the most broken people in his world, he was tested and tried and betrayed. He loved so hard. He died on the cross because he lived faithfully. And Momma Mary stood back and watched. Mary had to watch everything her blessed son went through – I am not strong enough. I am glad he’s now in God’s hands, but I am terrified of what that means for him.”

This encounter changed me. It changed my faith. It changed the way I live in Christian community. This mother gets it. She knows that life in faith is difficult. Why would she go through the pain and hardship that following Christ entails?

Because life happens regardless of who we are and whose we are. This Advent, I walk alongside people who have recently learned of scary diagnoses. I watch my community rally around a teenage girl who is dying from an aggressive form of cancer. I drive through neighborhoods that are in burning heaps of bonfires because they have been swept away to piles of rubble by an F4 tornado. I grieve sudden deaths. I learn of broken relationships. I find people struggling with such heavy hearts that they don’t know how to function in a healthy way when everything around them tells them to “suck it up” and deal. This is when I feel that mother’s hug squeeze me even harder. We live this way because it matters. The kingdom of God is near.

No one ever promised life would be easy. Far from it. Life is hard, scary, even dangerous. Jesus promises he will do whatever it takes to lighten the load. Jesus give us hope and peace to make it through. We wait for Christ at Advent, we celebrate God-with-us at Christmas. We mistakenly wrap everything up, put it away, and feel empty because Christmas is over. But it’s not. Advent reminds us that Christ is with us always. If we didn’t have that, what would we have?

Nothing. No gift-wrapped presents, fresh-baked cookies, or indulgent family meals can replace the coming of Christ in our lives. When I go to that dark place in my soul, I feel the squeeze of the mother’s hug from that Advent in years past. Jesus came to walk with us through the joy and the pain. He came to show us how to do it. Rest, ease of burdens, lightness of heart. He came to give us all that we will ever need: compassion as balm for our indifferent souls.

This season begins a journey that does not end when we put away the Christmas trees. It ends with the Pentecostal flaming tongues. There is no Christmas let-down when the season ends with an empty tomb and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whether we are hurting or whether we are so burned out that we don’t care, Christ is there. We are promised the Holy Spirit will do its work.

God promises I will carry on. When I am disheartened, when I wonder if what I do matters, I find someone to hug. And I imagine a post-baptismal hug that brings me home.

Celebrating Without

For the first time this holiday season I’m celebrating without my father.

They say the first year after the loss of a loved one is the worst.  Holidays especially.  The first year after my father died is coming to an end and the holiday season is upon us.

There were, of course, many holidays and times when I was away from my family, yet, always a phone call away from the traditional greetings of my father. There were the phone calls during college where it never failed that the phone would ring at 7 a.m. just to be sure that my father caught me before the busyness of a college day.

“Dad, you can call anytime during the day, you know. I’m not that busy.”

“Well, I just want to make sure I get to talk to you. I never know where you are or who you’re running around with and what homework needs to get done.”

“Okay, dad. It’s good to hear from you.” Even at 7 a.m. it was good to talk to my dad.

There were the phone calls in Africa, too. My family and I figured out the time change and network problems of living in rural Africa for two years. Nothing stopped me from a phone call with my parents. Not the heat. Not the miles of walking. Not the lack of power. Not the in-and-out network. No. I made sure to have a phone date set each time I hung up the phone with my parents so I had another call to look forward to. And if it meant standing on the root of a baobab tree with village folks passing by wondering about the crazy American. So be it!

The phone calls during seminary and my first call occurred on Sunday afternoon. Holy, Sabbath time. I usually was in the midst of a post-Sunday morning fog and my dad would call. He wanted to know about my sermon and how service went; he was always eager to tell me about his morning and the sermon he heard. He asked me theological questions and wanted to know my thoughts. I heard about his week and who he went out to lunch with, updates on the town and family.  I received the latest movie reviews and which characters he believed best exemplified the Christ figure. He would ask about the congregation.  He wanted to know that I was taking time to myself.  He reveled in hearing about the new restaurants and places I visited.  And of course he always asked about my car.  My dad loved cars and never failed to ask about how my car was driving, whether I needed an oil change or new tires, or if I hit any animals on the road. Holy, Sabbath time.

The phone rings to this day and I still look hoping for a call from my dad.

The shortcut for “dad” is still on my cell phone.

I still hear his voice.

I still feel his love.

And when I need the reminder of his presence I remember his final words to me on the phone almost every phone call: “It was good talking to you. You be good now. And remember I love you.”

Hopeful Signs: An Advent Sermon on John 1:6-28

We expect some of the same things around Christmas: the same message, the same songs, the familiar traditions of it all.  We still have to work to prepare the way of the Lord.  For my family, this Christmas is different.  Advent is different.  Pregnancy has made it so, and I have come to understand that Advent is very much like pregnancy.  Let me explain.

First, Advent is pregnant with hope.  I am a visual representation.  A baby is full of potential and possibilities. There is so much hope for the future, as we dream about what this child will be like and realizing that she may be nothing like what we are thinking she will be. What are you hoping for this Christmas?  If you’re hoping for presents under the tree, it might not be the same as last year?  Hoping for perfection, probably be disappointed?  Hoping for something different?  A Christmas miracle of healing?  Meaning?

Even as we are full of hope this Advent, we have to manage our expectations to know what is realistic so that we are not disappointed.  It did not take too long after we learned about this baby for me to learn that pregnancy is not all fun and games.  It is a painful, annoying, stressful, fun, exciting, awesome, amazing experience.  Some pregnancies are happier than others…too many involve sickness, complications, relationship issues, etc.  People have been overwhelmingly joyful at our news.  Strangers come up and talk to me.  It monopolizes many everyday conversations.  It is a common experience that binds us together.  Pregnancy is a long time, for others not long enough.  It provides a range of emotions:  fear, joy, excitement, nervousness, illness, and tiredness.  Advent offers a range of emotions too.  There’s the joy, excitement, and nervousness about how it will all come together, and tiredness from doing it all.  I think Advent can be summed up by that line in the Christmas carol, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” from O Little Town of Bethlehem.  The waiting gives us time to experience all the hopes and fears of both pregnancy and Advent.

Secondly, Advent, like pregnancy, is not all about you.  This pregnancy seems to be all about me right now.  I have never been asked how I’m feeling so often.  Never have so many strangers been interested in me, and in touching my belly, and sharing their good and bad pregnancy and delivery stories.  But it is not all about me; it is much more about this baby.  Even before we learned our good news, I had started taking folic acid to prevent birth defects and scaled back on caffeine.   Once we found out, I really worked on my diet and eating healthier and started taking prenatal vitamins.  It didn’t take very long for me to realize that I was no longer in charge of my body.  This little baby has a lot to say about when I sleep or not, when I eat, and how much energy I have.  My life, my daily routine, has changed dramatically because it’s no longer all about me. With Advent, it is also easy to think it is all about us.  We have so much to do.  We have so many gifts left to buy and wrap.  We have to write our Christmas cards.  We focus on OUR waiting/preparations rather than on Christ’s coming.  We focus on our hopes rather than on the hope of Christ.

John the Baptist knew that it was not all about him.  He was clear on his identity, who he was and who he wasn’t.  In the Gospel reading, we hear that  John the Baptist did not give the answers that the leaders were hoping for.  They wanted him to be all these things, (Elijah, the Messiah) but all he would admit to being was a voice in the wilderness.  He came to testify to the light, but he was not the light himself.  In other Gospels we can read more about John’s own miraculous birth, what he wore and ate, and more about his ministry.  But here, the main point is John’s identity.   “I AM NOT” the Messiah….what he isn’t.  In Advent, we have to take care to not get a Messiah complex: so busy trying to be all things to all people.  Scurrying in Advent instead of waiting is dangerous.

John the Baptist came to testify to the light: Christmas is not about the tree and presents, but those are just a way to point to the gift of Jesus.  Or, maybe they become distractions so we don’t have to see the homeless, the hurting, the hungry.  We have to remember our identity as Christians, the reason for the season, to restore justice, and release the oppressed this Advent. This season is all about Jesus, and celebrating Jesus’ birthday.  We should be giving Jesus gifts by giving meaning to all his children by sharing the Good News of Christ.

Finally, Advent, like pregnancy, should not be rushed because it happens too quickly anyway.  We can’t skip ahead to Christmas, or we are missing out.  Similarly, those expecting have to enjoy the adventure and not wish it away.  As much as I want to meet this little girl, I also want enjoy the adventure of being pregnant.  It is a miracle, and an awesome experience to think that there is a baby in my tummy.  What a gift from God!  I receive a daily email from a site that gives me an update on the baby’s size, explaining what is going on with my body, and other hints and tips.  I love that email, each day and it reminds me of opening a little window in an Advent calendar.  It’s just another peek into what is coming, a hint at the whole picture.  Every day you get a little closer.

My prayer for all of us this Advent is that we experience it as a joyful journey. May we all keep our eyes open to hopeful signs this Advent season.   In the name of the one whose coming is worth waiting for, Amen.

Tiffany Jo McDonald is an Ordained Elder in the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is currently appointed to family leave, raising the preschool daughter who inspired this sermon and a 5 month old. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, ’04, and resides with her husband and daughters in Excelsior, Minnesota.

Photo by Esparta Palma, http://www.flickr.com/photos/esparta/4482887906/ March 27, 2010. Used by permission of Creative Common License 2.0.

nightscape, winter

Blue Christmas Service: When Christmas Hurts

Editors Note: This service was developed by Heather Hill.  She put this service together from a variety of sources and then made it her own.  It has been used it for 4-5 years now for a variety of sizes of groups and does not require clergy to lead it.  This type of service has many names Blue Christmas/ Longest Night/ When Christmas hurts, and she has found it very helpful in her congregation.  All Scripture comes from the NRSV.  She has given permission for others to use it.

Blue Christmas Service:  When Christmas Hurts

 The service begins in silence so all may participate in a time of reflection: May God help each of us to participate tonight and throughout the season as we are able.

nightscape, winter 

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

THE GATHERING OF THE COMMUNITY

 

Leader:       The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

People:       And also with you.

Leader:       The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow, a light has shone. For the yoke that was weighing upon them, and the burden upon their shoulders, you have broken in pieces, 0 God, our Redeemer.

Let us pray:

People:       God of mercy, hear our prayer in this Advent season for ourselves and for our families who live with painful thoughts and memories. We ask for strength for today, courage for tomorrow and peace for the past. We ask these things in the name of your Christ, who shares our life in joy and sorrow, death and new birth, despair and promise. Amen.

 

THE LITURGY OF THE WORD

A Reading from the book of Isaiah (40:1, 25-31)

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Leader: The Word of the Lord.
People:  Thanks be to God.

  

Psalm 121

Leader:       I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from where is my help to come?

People:       My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth

Leader:       He will not let your foot be moved and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.

People:       Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

Leader:       The Lord himself watches over you; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

People:       So that the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night

Leader:       The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe.

People:       The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for ever more.

Leader:       Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

People:       As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

 

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew (11:28-30 )

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Leader: The Word of the Lord.
People:  Thanks be to God.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Remembrance of the First Christmas

A LITURGY OF REMEMBRANCE

Lighting of Four Advent Candles

First Candle:

Leader:       The first candle we light to remember those persons whom we have loved and lost. We pause to remember their name, their voice, their face, the memory that binds them to us in this season. We hold them before God, giving thanks for their lives in ours.

Please take a moment to remember those who have died. I invite you to name them, aloud or in the silence of your hearts….

 

All:               Lord, each of us takes our loved one by the hand and leads them to you, the God of love, Here we present them to you. Accept our love and thanksgiving as we entrust them to your loving care. We want our loved ones to be free at home with you. We ask that you save a place for us beside them. We ask that you fill us with motivation and energy in the days ahead when we feel like giving up; remind us often of our true homeland when we are caught up in the desolation of the journey. Help us to find joy in the people, events and the beauty of nature which surrounds us.

Thank you for the gift each of these people has been in our lives. We want to believe that we will celebrate the treasure of love with them again, when we are all in your presence forever. May this truth sustain us in the days to come. Take our sad and aching hearts and comfort us. Comfort us, for we only feel hollowness and emptiness. God of sorrowing, draw near!        Amen.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Second Candle:

Leader:       The second candle we light is to redeem the pain of loss; the loss of relationships, the loss of jobs with the security they bring, the loss of health in ourselves or in family members, the loss of joy and peace in our lives from the stresses which surround us, the loss and loneliness we experience when our loved ones do not share our faith. As we gather up the pain of the past we offer it to you, 0 God, asking that into our open hands you will place the gift of peace.

Please take a moment to remember the losses. I invite you to name them, aloud or in the silence of your hearts….

 

All:               God of mystery, we turn our hearts to you. We come before you in need of peace, grateful for the mystery of life and ever keenly aware of your promises of guidance and protection. We want to place our trust in you, but our hearts grow fearful and anxious. We forget so easily that you will be with us in all that we experience. Teach us to be patient with the transformation of our lives and to be open to the changes which we are now going through.   Amen.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

Third Candle:

Leader:       The third candle we light for those who experience a loss of direction in their lives.

God of the Exodus, you led Moses and your people through the wilderness to a new land. Hear our prayer. We want so much to have a sense of direction, to know where we are and where we ought to be headed. But the darkness and the questions stay. You ask us to be full of faith, to believe deep within that you are our signpost, that you are our wisdom and our guide, and to trust in your presence. Your words to us are clear: “Do not fear, I go before you.”

All:               God of our depths, we cry out to you to be our guide. Help us to have a strong sense of inner direction and grant that we may have the reassurance of knowing that we are on the right path. Take our lives and use them according to your will. Take all that is lost in us and bring it home with you.      Amen.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

Fourth Candle:

Leader:       The fourth candle we light as a sign of hope, the hope that the Christmas story offers to us. We remember that God, who shares our life, promises us a place and time of no more pain and suffering.

All:         O God whose spirit is known by those whose hearts are thankful, and who makes cheerfulness a companion of strength, lift up our hearts, we pray, to a joyous confidence in your care. Guide us when we cannot see the way. Teach us to know that a shadow is only a shadow, because the light of eternal goodness shines behind the object of our fears. Where there is love in life, teach us to find it; help us to trust it and enable us to grow in the power of love. So may our lives bring comfort and encouragement to others. We ask it, in the name of Jesus Christ whose life is our light.      Amen.

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
an ensign of thy people be;
before thee rulers silent fall;
all peoples on thy mercy call.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

 

Prayers of the People

Leader:       In the spirit of this season let us now confidently ask our God for all the good things we need: For ourselves as we participate in this Christmas as special people coping with our many different losses. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.

Leader:       For our families and friends, that they may continue to help and support us. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.

Leader:       For any person we have loved who has died, for all the losses we know in our lives, that all may be redeemed by your Easter promise. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.

Leader:       For our family and friends, that you may bless them with love, peace, and joy. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.

Leader:       For peace throughout the world as proclaimed by the Christmas Angels on that faraway hillside. God, hear our prayer

People:       And in your mercy, answer

Leader:       For greater understanding of the lessons of love and acceptance as taught by Jesus your Christ. God, hear our prayer.

People:       And in your mercy, answer.

 

Leader:          God of great compassion and love, listen to the prayers of these your people. Grant to all, especially the bereaved and troubled ones this Christmas, the blessing we ask in the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray

People:          Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy Name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those

who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil,

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever and ever. Amen

Lighting of Individual Candles

Leader:          Each of us comes bearing our own hurts, sorrows, broken places. I want to invite each of you  to offer your personal wound to the God who loves each of us deeply and wants to carry our pain.  God waits patiently, gently calling out: “Give me your pain, come to me… all who labor and are heavy laden, I will refresh you!”

I invite each of you to come forward and light a candle.  As you light the candle, remember that it is God who lights a candle in our darkness and holds us close until we are able to shine.

 

If you wish, you may kneel at the altar rail for the laying on of hands and a blessing, or you may return to your seat

 

Leader: These lights in their brightness are only symbols, but as they burn and finally go out, we remember that suffering passes, though memory remains forever.

 

CLOSING

As we gather this evening, we embrace and claim the darkness that is present both in the world and in our own lives.  As people who are familiar with the darkness, we also know that we gather to be illumined by the light of the Christ Child this Christmas season.  May the Christ Child, born in a lowly stable, himself an outcast and marginale, bring light, comfort, peace, and joy this holiday season. 

Hymn:  O come, O come, Emmanuel,*

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

 

Leader:          May the hope of the Christ Child sustain us through this darkness.

People:          That together we may shine again.  Amen.

You are invited to join us in the Narthex for refreshments or to remain in prayer.

* Note: The hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is a song of people in darkness longing for God’s light.  It is not calling us to rejoice in the worldly form of the word, but calling our spirits and souls to reflect the true hope and joy that only God can give.

Heather Hill is the Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Parma, Ohio.  She has served churches in Pennsylvania and Michigan before moving to Ohio three years ago.  She has a BA from Bucknell University and a MDIV from Harvard University.  She and her husband, Dustin Berg have five month old twins who are wonderful and exhausting!

Photo Credit: Photo by Tord Mattsson, http://www.flickr.com/photos/photos_by_tord/5238955761.  Used by permission of the Creative Common License 2.0.

 

Emmanuel: God is (Still) With Us

Earlier this week, I ran into Jesus on Facebook.

I was scrolling aimlessly through my news feed, and saw that my friend Rev. Tisha Brown, who pastors a UCC church up in Madison, had posted a video with this note: “This is incredible – not only feeding but loving the poor. I wish I was this compassionate and willing to give everything to serve my sisters and brothers like this man does.”

Well, that sounded pretty cool to me, so I decided to click on the video and watch it.

The video opens with an image of a Hindu temple in Madurai, India. A man’s voice can be heard over images of a busy street and close ups of streetpeople lying on the edge of the road.

He says, “I finished my college here. I was working for Taj Group of Hotels Bangalore. I saw a very old man. He was eating his own human waste for hunger.”

The camera focuses on a young man who is speaking directly to me, sitting on the other side of the world. He says, “I thought what is the purpose of my life? What am I going to do? In my star hotel, I feed all my guests, but in my hometown there are people who are living, even without food. I quit my job and I started feeding all these people from 2002.”

The voice of Christ – right there on Facebook. This time of year, we typically are on the lookout for the advent of Christ in our world – but we often expect the Spirit of Christ to hit us in more predictable ways. Perhaps we feel it move among us as the candles are lit and Silent Night is sung at church. Or we see a newborn baby with her parents and realize God is still being born into the world – even today.

I don’t know about you, but I just didn’t expect to see a video of the living Christ on Facebook. Of all places!

I have to admit. It actually took me a few days to realize this was Christ speaking to me through my laptop. I was taken with the video immediately. In it, Narayanan Krishna dices, stirs, and lifts giant pots of food. He drives around town in his truck, delivering food to the destitute, mentally ill, and elderly. Every day, he delivers breakfast, lunch, and dinner to 400 people living on the streets of Madurai.

But he does more than just deliver food. He delivers love.

In the video, Mr. Krishna gets out of his truck and opens his arms wide as a young, shirtless boy walks into him. They share a long embrace. Mr. Krishna has trained himself to offer eight styles of haircuts. He gently washes and dries the faces of the homeless as he offers them a shave. He massages their temples as he shampoos and trims their hair.

Mr. Krishna says, “For them to feel, psychologically, that they are also human beings – that there are people to care for them – they have a hand to hold, hope to live. Food is one part. Love is another part. So the food will give them physical nutrition. The love and affection which you show will give them mental nutrition.”

After watching the video one time, I shared it on my wall so others could see it, and then I temporarily forgot about it. But it just wouldn’t leave me alone. I watched it several more times over the next few days. Then I started hunting for more information about this man – who isn’t named in the original video I saw. From CNN’s website, I learned more about his life.

Turns out that since he’s from a Brahmin family, Mr. Krishna is not supposed to be doing this work. As a part of the Hindu priestly class, he should not be feeding, touching, cleaning these people. His family was initially horrified when he began this work. They were upset that he was wasting the expensive education they had provided for him.

When he quit his full-time job in 2002 he was well on his way to climbing the ladder as a chef. He had recently secured a transfer to a fancy hotel in Switzerland, but when he visited his hometown and saw the poverty there, he couldn’t move to Europe. When he finally convinced his mom to come see the work he was doing, she was transformed. She spent the day working with him and then immediately pledged to do anything in her power to help him live out his dream. Mr. Krishna, who is 29 years old, lives off of a meager allowance provided by his parents so that he can continue his work.

Brahmin or not, Mr. Krishna insists that these streetpeople deserve love. He says, “Everybody has got 5.5 liters of blood. I am just a human being. For me, everybody the same. There are thousands and thousands and lots and lots of people suffering. What is the ultimate purpose of life? It is to give. Start giving. See the joy of giving.”

I saw another video about him on CNN.com and learned that he gets up at 4:00am each day to begin cooking. He doesn’t slow down until after dinner is delivered and cleaned up. He does this every day – no holidays, rain or shine. Mr. Krishna says, “Others find it difficult to do this. I don’t find it difficult. My vision and my ideals are very clear. The happiness in their face keeps me going. I take energy from them. I want to save my people. That is the purpose of my life.”

And it was that phrase – “I want to save my people” – that made me realize why I couldn’t get Mr. Krishna out of my mind. He is the Spirit of the Living Christ.

Jesus came into the word to save his people. That’s what the Gospel of Matthew tells us this morning. And, apparently, Narayanan Krishna came to do the same thing. I’m not saying Jesus of Nazareth and Mr. Krishna are the same person, of course. But they both represent a specific reality – the Spirit of Christ – alive and well in our world.

Let’s get some terms straight before we confuse ourselves any further.

Jesus was the name of a particular baby boy whose birth we celebrate this time of year. It was a common name in his time and place. It was probably pronounced Yeshua and it’s where we get our name, Joshua. It means “YHWH saves” – which is why the angel told Joseph to “name the child Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Christ comes from the Greek Christos, which is a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah. It means “the anointed one.” It can be used to refer to the one person who is more anointed than all others – but it can also be used to refer to anyone who is anointed. In fact, the ruler of Persia, Cyrus, is referred to as Messiah in the book of Isaiah because he had been anointed by God to escort the people of Israel back to their homeland after the Babylonian Exile. Cyrus wasn’t even Jewish and he was called Messiah – anointed one – by the prophet Isaiah.

And then we have Emmanuel – God is with us. We see that name for Jesus in Matthew’s text – “the virgin shall conceive and bear a child and they will name him Emmanuel – God is with us.” Matthew is quoting from a much older text, the one we heard from the book of Isaiah earlier this morning. Traditionally, Christians have believed that the prophet Isaiah was predicting the birth of Jesus Christ, but it is fairly apparent when you read the book of Isaiah that this was not the case. Isaiah was writing to a specific time and people and he was writing about the birth of another baby. Isaiah told King Ahaz that while this child was an infant, the two kingdoms Ahaz feared, Damascus and Syria, would be defeated by Assyria. The child, Immanuel, signified that God was with the people Israel and that all would be well.

Whew! Okay – enough with the vocabulary lesson. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is this – when I say that I ran into Jesus on Facebook in the person of Mr. Krishna, I’m not being totally accurate. Jesus was a particular person who lived a long time ago. But he was called Jesus because he embodied the Spirit of Christ – the anointed one. And he was Emmanuel – God with us.

I believe that part of what it means to be a people of the Resurrection is to recognize that while the person Jesus of Nazareth is not walking around today, the Spirit of Christ and the reality of Emmanuel are still alive and well. Christ cannot die. God is always with us.

Matthew uses the Isaiah text to say, “Hey, folks, pay attention. Because do you remember what God did when that baby Immanuel was born a few hundred years ago? Remember the story about how King Ahaz learned from Isaiah that his people were about to be saved from their foes? Well, that’s what I’m talking about when I’m talking about this baby, Jesus. This baby reminds us that God is with us, just like that one did.”

And, really, don’t we all need to be reminded from time to time that God is with us?

The good news of Christmas is not just that God came in a baby boy wrapped in swaddling clothing and lying in a manger. The good news of Christmas is that God comes again and again.

God is still with us, just as God was with the people of Israel when Ahaz was King, and as God was with the Jews living and struggling to persevere in the Roman Empire. God does not quit.

When you find out your mom has cancer, God is with you. And God does not quit.

When you are staring at a bottle of pills and wondering if you really want to wake up tomorrow, God is with you. And God does not quit.

When you break someone’s heart because of a stupid, selfish choice, God is with you. And God does not quit.

And if you’re lying on the side of a street in Madurai, India – eating your own waste because you are literally starving to death, God is with you. And God does not quit.

God sends people – tiny babies and big grown men and little girls and old grandfatherly types and everyone in between – God sends people to be the presence of God to a broken world.

When Narayanan Krishna wakes up at 4:00 in the morning and begins chopping onions and carrots, when he loads up his truck, and when he hugs those kids on the street – he is doing more than just bringing himself along. He is bringing the very Sprit of Christ into the world day in and day out. He is Emmanuel – God with us. He felt a call to save his people and he is living it out in the streets of Madurai each and every day.

I think the only way to sustain this wild and crazy kind of behavior day in and day out is to truly be called to do this work. I don’t believe that every person sitting here today is called to save their people. But I would be willing to wager that a few folks might be.

This Advent season, as we await the birth of Jesus Christ, we also await the birth of the Spirit of Christ in our own time and place. It’s more than just a story, folks. It’s reality. The shocking and incredulous and simple and real gospel truth is that God is still with us.

God is breaking into our world in every crack and crevice that can be found. And all we have to do is pay attention and say yes.

Thanks be to God.

Editor’s Note:  This sermon, “Emmanuel: God is (Still) With Us” uses Matthew 1:18-25 and was prepared for t First United Church on Sunday, December 19, 2010 (fourth Sunday of Advent). This sermon was previously published on the First United Church website and Caela’s personal sermon blog (revcaela.blogspot.com). More information about Narayanan Krishna’s foundation, The Akshaya Trust, can be found at: www.akshayatrust.org .

Rev. Caela Simmons Wood is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She has served as the Associate Minister at First United Church of Bloomington, Indiana since January 2010. Caela has a Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas and a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Studies in Indianapolis. Caela was raised in Kansas, where she met her future husband, David, in youth group. Since moving to Indiana, they’ve added a beagle and a son to their family. Caela spends too much time on facebook.

 Photo Credit: by The Fluffy Owl, http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/7856630628/ via href=”http://photopin.com”.  Used by Creative Commons License 2.0.