Tag Archives: christmas

Have Yourself a Justice Little Christmas

 

img_9085The Word of God became flesh.

John 1: the Logos got a body and moved into town with a specific agenda.

Okay, it’s not as romantic as the nativity creche and singing Silent Night. Not as fun as family around the fireplace, or as click-bait as retail sales. But give it a chance:

What’s crystallized in Jesus Christ is justice.

Throughout the Older Testament, the prophets and psalmists sing of God’s primary concern for the world: setting things right for those most vulnerable in society. These particular groups are named: orphans, widows, immigrants, the poor– those of us suffering because of institutional systems (including ways of thinking) that others of us benefit from.

Advent enacts our longing for God’s justice and compassion.
Christmas celebrates this dream embodied on earth in Jesus Christ.
Epiphany calls for the church’s enactment of this holy agenda.

The Word of God Fleshed: new song! Watch lyric video now.

Fast forward to Simeon. In a few weeks we’ll catch him at Jesus’ dedication. Holding baby Jesus in his arms, Simeon beholds him and whispers with a smile too deep for a face to hold, “I can die now.” The text tells that he had been waiting for the consolation of Israel.

Some of us are longing for such consolation– a sign or signal that things are going to be okay. That the long, heartbreaking arc is bending.

Among the trees and lights and nativity scenes, it might be good to ask God and one another: How’s that Peace on Earth, Good Will To All thing going?


New Year’s, The Point of the Church, and Johnny Depp

After the Twelve Days of Christmas is Epiphany. It kicks off the most important season of the church year– better than Christmas, stronger than Easter, able to leap Pentecost in a single liturgical bound.

At this point in the post, I pause for a number of you to scoot to the edge of your seat in fascination, and the rest to politely excuse yourselves to do anything else you can think of.

Bob Webber called Advent-Christmas-Epiphany “The Cycle of Light,” (unrelated to Tron). If Advent is about longing and preparing for Christ’s presence and Christmas rejoices in the eternal breakthrough of God-With-Us, then Epiphany is about manifesting the Christ.

Which, in my humbly-justified, sinner-saintly opinion, is the Point of the church.

It’s too bad only 11 percent of church-goers know what Epiphany is about. (Okay, I actually made that stat up. But shocking, right?)

The church exists to reveal, proclaim and embody the Christ. If that seems like a funky new theology, note that the New Testament people of God are collectively called the Body of Christ (Romans 12; I Corinthians 12). That’s a metaphor for the physical manifestation of presence.

It’s the Incarnation kicked up a notch.

We hear some strong stories in the Epiphany season, among them:

  • The Magi pilgrimage with gifts: devotion made manifest.
  • Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine! Your light has come… and nations shall come to your light.” We occupy with our lives what’s otherwise 99% invisible.
  • Jesus is baptized by his cousin John, J’s anointing revealed publicly. (The Baptizer played by Johnny Depp.)
  • At the Cana wedding party J does water to wine, saying something about “his time” coming, the first of seven signs of transformation in John.
  • J calls and trains the disciples– gathering, equipping, sending.
  • The Transfiguration. Glory in the ordinary leaves us sputtering in awe.

To me, all these stories are images of transformation, inviting us to imagine what’s possible in a life. What a great way to begin a new calendar year.

In these Epiphany stories, God is up to something brilliantly earthy and mystically intuitive: Christ is to be found in the ordinary, even enacted in you and me with all our uniqueness, embodied in us together.

Look up “Christ, Body of” in the dictionary, and you see a family picture of all of us (that’s all) with J. Our Celtic brothers and sisters would not leave out the earth itself, insisting we honor God ‘s presence in all of creation.

Of course, there are other ways to put it:

  • My “conservative” Christian friends speak in terms of evangelism, proclaiming God’s love to all the world. Yes, that’s it.
  • For my “liberal” Christian friends it’s the call to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, making a difference in creation. Absolutely.
  • My Buddhist friends work with radical compassion, recognizing that everything is impermanent– the world can change, and we can be part of it. Amen and gassho to that.
  • My New Age friends speak about manifesting divinity in our lives. Sure, that’s it, too.
  • My Muslim friends are clear about his call to serve the world, enriching human fitrah.
  • I don’t have any close Jewish friends these days, but I am thinking how beautifully Hebrew Covenant is embodied in family, politics, religion, meal, prayer, story and song. Yes!
  • My pagan friends are committed to actively honoring the holy in each and every piece of creation.
  • For my atheist-leaning friends, there’s transcendent purpose in doing good on behalf of ourselves and the world.
  • Mr. Rogers taught me it’s good to share who you are and what you have. Our eleven-year-old knows it.

As the New Year turns, we take stock of last year and let it go. Then we turn, taking a deep breath with some hope and some trembling as we face another year. Our call as humanity has never been clearer: we are important to one another. We are designed– mind, body, soul and strength– to be of influence and to work/play together to be of even greater influence. This is the metaphoric Light of Isaiah and of the gospels. Didn’t J say not only, “I am the light of the world” but also, “You are the light of the world?”

In Epiphany, this is a moment to celebrate this is how the universe works. We might also meditate on the poignancy of just how connected we all are.

How might this Epiphany be a time of renewal for your local church? Time to celebrate your light that naturally shines, to consider how you are embodying the Christ, and how God is leading you more deeply in and in some cases farther out.

Here’s a short but juicy song for you and your community this Epiphany: “Your Light Has Come” crystallized from a great discussion with Marcia McFee‘s Worship Design Studio a couple of years ago.

The lyrics reflect a post-modern paraphrase of Isaiah 60:

Lift your head, raise your eyes, look around:
       Your light has come! your light has come!
Light the world, heal the earth, bear the Christ:
       Your light has come! your light has come!

Here’s to the New Year with a Eucharistic toast all together.

Download Your Light Has Come music resources from Worldmaking.net.


The Dark Party

A decade ago, Trish and I gathered some of our favorite people on earth to our house. We invited them to wear dark clothes, bring dark-coloured food to share, and be prepared to share a real-life story of the past year.

It was our first Dark Party.

Though guests may have looked prepared for a goth rave, the occasion was Winter Solstice, one of our favorite moments of the year. It’s the longest night (or shortest day, if you like) of the year, when the sun hits our planet at 23° 26′, the steepest it’s gonna get.

And Winter officially begins.

If you’re like me, you have mixed feelings about the season’s turning.

I grew up in Minnesota, so the contrast of seasons is a vital experience for my soul. Boiling-hot and humid summers, butt-clenching cold winters, planting and harvest in between. Exhilarating!  On the other hand, winter calls me to pay careful attention to my mood, making sure I’m taking my anti-depressant, getting good light and getting exercise (snow shoveling often does the trick).

It is indeed a season of contrasts. My faith heritage celebrates Christmas as the breakthrough of God’s presence. Advent builds to it, Epiphany cools down from it. Most Christ-traditions welcome the light of the world as the highest festival day of the liturgical year. Excepting maybe Easter, depending on if your theology runs more incarnational or resurrectional.

Our first Dark Party came about because our friends and we had a damn rough year, and we wanted to recognize the gifts of the dark. Not desperately wait for the light, not avoid the dark, but to honor the rich stuff that happens when things are bleak, veiled and mysterious.

We sat in a circle and listened carefully to one another speak about the past year. There was a lot of rich silence. There were stories of cancer, divorce, exile, grief and wonder. There was weeping and some laughter, too. There was dancing. On this quiet night, we witnessed for one another the description of deep humanity with all its brokenness and hope-fullness.

At the end of our story-sharing, people were invited to light a candle. Some did, trusting that change was on their horizon; some did not, honoring the mystery of the present moment.

And there was food. (Did I mention the food?) Trish’s famous Edgar Allen Bean Dip, my “fear not the valley of the shadow ” fudge, big blackberries, pumpernickel bread… you get the picture. As a Lutheran, fellowship just can’t happen without a potluck.

Deep breath now.

That gathering remains one of the deepest, wonder-filled, most intimate, truly human and unforgettable moments of my life. As I bring up the faces of those who have joined us over the years, I am touched at the honesty and the open-hearted listening.

How is it with your soul here at the end of this year?

You may have had a hell of a year.

Maybe you have sadness, terror or deep grief. Maybe there are loose ends where resolution is unknown. What you may need is a kind of Dark Party, a moment to be in awe of your life, as crazy as it may be.

May I invite you to call someone to share your story? Or ask your friends to pray with you?  Or maybe solitude in darkness would be a true companion for you. Not because gloominess suits you, but because harmony can happen in shadows.

To close, a benediction for you from David Whyte:

Sweet Darkness
When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
tonight.
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
Our family celebrates Solstice because we are citizens of the planet. And because we desire honesty with and from our friends, especially when life is hard and a lot of our culture is about denial. (Lest you think me morbidly dismal, I also enjoy the celebration of light in its time.)
May you receive all the gifts of this season you can bear, whether they be excavated in the mystery of darkness or placed in your hand with the sunrise. Both are the realm of Holy.
And you are right in it.

Where Else Would God Be?

I heard him say, “The scandal of the Christian story is not that God became incarnate as a human. It’s that God is incarnate in every particle of creation. I mean… [dramatic pause] where else would God be?”

My Constructive Theology professor Dr. Eleazar Fernandez may never know how that woke me up.

“Where else would God be?”

The name Emmanuel means God With Us. The Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is a recognition of God’s presence spun through creation. Now when church people talk about a particular day or season, it doesn’t mean it’s not real all the time. In this case, the Story of Christmas is that Holy breaks into our lives all the time, not just in late December.

But it’s good we have liturgical seasons to help us practice these kinds of things. Otherwise– for me, at least– all the rich bewilderment and awe of life would be hard to take in.

Most of us resist mystery to some extent. We gravitate toward literalism to help us bear the complexities of everyday life. Thank God for the artists, intuitives and mystics in our midst! If we’re not paying attention, our pet names for God tend to crystalize into an actual shape of God. Which most traditions call idolatry. (Sorry about that). In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes how the demons delight when their human patients come to revere an object representing the Holy-Beyond-Words instead of the Holy One.

A rich variety of language to describe the Divine Mystery primes our imagination for our own experience. Reminds us that G-d is greater than we can imagine, and will not be pigeon-holed. Poetry, art, music keeps us guessing, hungering, prying us away from literalism.

In the Biblical tradition, there are dozens of metaphors, images and models for G-d. Holding Scripture as revelation, we might notice the Holy One is likened to a Shepherd carefully guiding and protecting sheep. And also the breath and wind of the earth. A perfectly righteous judge. A nasty, crooked judge. Bread. Light. A wrestler who might take you down. A dread champion fighting for your life. A bird, a farmer, a song.

Jesus Christ!* There are tons of metaphors!  [*I enjoy a good non-blasphemous invocation, don’t you?]

It’s amazing to me that in all my years as a church-goer, I seldom have been invited into the wildly creative range we have access to.

I wonder why that is.

Sallie McFague suggests this model of God: the world.

Like a holy nest holding everything. Where nothing is left out and everything is sacred.

Take a moment to try that one on: G-d is the world, nothing more or less. A full incarnation here and now, nowhere where the Holy is not at work and at play.

– How would we treat the earth of we knew it to be Of God?

– How would we speak to one another if we considered each person a part of God’s very body?

– What if we knew God to have a full and universal presence, a continual and intimate influence?

– In this light, what would Christmas mean?

Fun to think about, huh? This brushes against what some theologians call Process Theology– God present in our seasons over time, God in the midst of change, God evolving and emerging as creation comes into our own.

Each icon has its limitations, but I offer you this one for this season of Advent when we know the Holy close. God in the manger. God in the cows. God within your wonderings and choices. God With Us here and now.

Where else would God be?

A song to celebrate and reflect:

The Body of God (click to listen with the lyrics)
From the CD Behold by The River’s Voice

i
God breaking through to our lives, but this is no great surprise
Babies and barns, green fields and farms
This is the body of God

A star in the dark sky we share, straw underfoot as we look up and stare
Each part of creation a perfect formation that lives as the body of God

Where else would God be but right here?
Inwithandthrough all we sense and we feel
God in the manger, God in the cows, God in the innkeeper’s mother’s eyebrows

ii
Sure was a marvelous night, the story of birth and new life
And the dreams and the fears of the new parents’ prayers were felt in the body of God

Just one more beautiful way God’s body blooms its array
Our Christmas story: one image of glory as we move in the body of God

Where else would God be but right here?
Transcendent and cosmic and at home in our tears
God in the common, God in the strange, God in Jesus’ very first diaper change

iii
These are unsettling times, and as I put my son down for the night
I can’t help but think how much kinder we’d be if we knew all of life, the world’s every plight
To be part of the body of God

Where else would God be but right here?
Under our noses and in the midst of our fears
God in our stories, God in the world, God in the pain and the Good News we’ve heard


Richard’s Christmas Fudge

It’s that time of year again. Oh, the goodness.

Fudge is one of the first things I learned to make well, and my recipe has evolved for two decades.

It requires patience, so cooking a batch each Advent for me is a spiritual practice of the season.

Share and enjoy, share and enjoy.

__________________________________________

Richard’s Christmas Fudge

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 12 oz evaporated milk
  • 1 cup butter
  • 12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 8 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 1 7-oz. container marshmallow creme
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Slather up a 13x9x2 pan with butter and set aside. Reflect a moment at the wonder of butter.

Butter sides of a 3-quart saucepan, humming as you do so. In it, combine sugar, butter and milk.

Cook and stir over med-high heat to boiling. Stir more, changing now from humming to singing. Stir, my friend. Stir like the wind. Stir until cows actually come home. Cook and stir to 236 degrees, soft-ball stage (about 14 minutes).

Remove pan from heat. Add chocolate, marshmallow creme and vanilla. Stir until it all melts. Feel your tricep and bicep muscles and nod at your buffosity.

Spread the chocolatey goodness into the pan. (Optional: If you like peanut butter cup flavor, sprinkle peanut butter chips in the bottom of the pan before adding the fudge. Sprinkle more on top and run a spoon through it a few times to spread as you desire). When finished, lick spoon like a 6-year-old, allowing some chocolate to remain on your nose and chin all day.

Cool in fridge or on that shelf on the porch. Do not neatly slice into cubes. Instead, chisel generous odd-sized slabs to serve in a big pile on a platter.

Makes 3.5 pounds or so. Just enough.

__________________________________________


On Men, Pregnancy and Advent

~ Act One ~

In Advent we track the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, divine Possibility ripening within their very bodies.

As a spiritual director, one of my favorite images for the spiritual life is being pregnant with Holy.

Meister Eckhart wrote that we are always pregnant with God, because God always wants to be born. I feel a Yes in me with that. Yet as imaginative as I might be, pregnancy– a basic mammalian fact of life–is something my XY-brothers and I will never fully understand.

That’s why men in particular need and long for the stories of women.

That’s one reason my favorite liturgical season is Advent.

The stereotype of men is that we are interested in fixing things (maybe because we break a lot of things), that we think we know it all (well, don’t we?), and that men don’t understand emotional intimacy (whatever).

Advent stories open up to men the validity and vitality of mystery, process and patient hope. These are central to any meaningful spiritual life, men and women alike. But maybe men need more practice.

Now, I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to gender differences. As different as men and women seem to be, we have common human experiences of life, just packaged and described in different ways. We grow in true humanity if we are ready to learn from one another instead of  treating the other gender as an interplanetary adversary.

So our ten-year-old son Sam knows exactly what happens in his mother’s body once a month. We’ve taught him– Trish and I together– because we want him to know what it means to be fully human. Trish’s moon cycle is a moment we acknowledge sensitivity and power that resonates with all gender identities. In the world-making endeavor that any parenting is, Trish and I are bent on creating a world where humans have respect for the feminine and masculine and everything else, too.

Men and boys are paying attention in Advent.

~ Act Two ~

There are literally dozens of models and metaphors for Divine Presence in what we call scripture. Yet in worship G-d is almost always portrayed in one way: a powerful, human, male authority figure. You’ve noticed this, right? The very premise of worship is built around this model. We may hear different kinds of texts on a Sunday morning and get the occasional gee-whiz non-“traditional” poetic, but on the whole, G-d is imagined as masculine (say, King, Lord, Father, Warrior or Judge). And the appropriate response to this kind of authority would naturally be worship and submissive obedience.

Now there are good and faithful reasons for this, most dear to me as a Psalmist being the ancient Hebrew reverence for G-d. If YHWH has a  name too sacred to be spoken, you get creative real fast about how to describe the mystery of covenant. You draw on the most accessible relationships of corporate goodness and power in current society, which for the most part, at least publicly, were male. That understanding is part of our heritage that some would say is inherently sexist. Either way, it’s here for us to work with.

For many American 21st-century Christians, in terms of God-talk, we eat what’s served. And what’s on our plate most every meal, even after all these years, is Big Man In The Sky. For many of us, though, even within the tight quarters of anthropomorphic images, that god is too small.

So I love Advent. Finally we get to hear about women, and the men who love them take a back seat. In these stories G-d has feminine patience and weaves stories of relationship like an auntie, like a matriarch. One that has no qualms about shutting a man up or sending an angel to open a can on him.

We are reminded in these four weeks that the essence of the Holy One of Israel is to seed, nurture, deliver, name, entrust, call and bless.

~ Act Three ~

Attention, worship leaders! Preachers, musicians, lectors, youth leaders!

This Advent, I implore you to deliver the feminine stories that are in our collective face. Be direct. In this season of the feminine, give the women the microphone.

  • As a call to worship, invite women who have been pregnant to describe what it’s like.
  • Show images of bodies bulging with child.
  • Invite your congregation to touch their own bellies during prayer, asking “What holy wonder is my life pregnant with?” and “How are we preparing for the Christ to be born in us today?”
  • Invite silent moments to watch and listen to a baby among you. Yep, right in worship.
  • Show ultrasound pics of a growing embryo on the screens each Sunday in Advent. How are we growing? Is our church Showing?
  • Invite moms and grandmothers to blog about their experiences of pregnancy and childbirth.
  • Initiate service projects serving women and babies
  • Living with the metaphor of pregnancy and birthing the Holy, invite the community to name the “baby: how do we describe what God is doing with our congregation, in our neighborhood, in our families, in our hearts. How would we name our calling?

You’re wondering if it’s too sexy.

Well, the Incarnation is about Emmanuel— God With Us–the scandalous Story that the divine would tabernacle among us.

So give it to us straight and real, and as human-body-earthy as it comes. The alternative would be to continue the strand of Christianity that is stoic and gnostic, separating heaven and earth, prying apart spirit and body, divorcing the Christ from creation. I say go with the disruption that pregnancy offers us in Advent. Let’s see what emerges at the end of term.

Penultimately, listen to a song for the season: Trish’s rendition of Amy Grant and Chris Eaton’s Breath of Heaven.

In closing, a seed of a song for you men and you women. I think it’ll be a waltz. Maybe the music will be married to it by next Advent.

chorus
Pregnant with Holy, pregnant with Holy

Some wonderful thing soon emerging
Pregnant with Holy, pregnant with Holy
Now all of the world hopes in waiting

verse i
Wave upon wave of some kind of promise
I stand in awe of this Life
Like the last seed on a desolate planet
A promise inside that has its own light

chorus
Pregnant with Holy, pregnant with Holy

Some wonderful thing soon emerging
Pregnant with Holy, pregnant with Holy
Now all of the world hopes in waiting

verse ii
So let it be with me just like all time
I give myself to this Life
Yes, I am here to give birth to the new Christ
Like everything else, bearing the Light

chorus
Pregnant with Holy, pregnant with Holy

Some wonderful thing soon emerging
Pregnant with Holy, pregnant with Holy
Now all of the world hopes in waiting

bridge
Bending so low to usher the hungry to the fantastic banquet of Life
This whole world is a mother in labor, her darkness relieved by one baby light

chorus
Pregnant with Holy, pregnant with Holy

Some wonderful thing soon emerging
Pregnant with Holy, pregnant with Holy
Now all of the world hopes in waiting


Legos and Losing My Religion

My young son opens the box and giggles with delight. This! This is what it’s all about. The familiar little plastic envelopes fly as each is emptied into a gladware cup awaiting assembly. The color glossy booklet, folded by robots at the Worldwide Lego HQ, is opened and spread out on the floor.

We’ve had the Mars Mission phase. We’ve done Power Miners. Now it’s all Star Wars.

Lego, from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well.”

If my son had a flowchart for the creative lego-playing process he has arrived at, it would be:

  1. Follow assembly instructions carefully with bomb squad precision.
  2. Enjoy this lego creation for a period of 2 hours to 2 weeks.
  3. Mutate lego creation. With the imagination of gods, add, subtract, demolish and rebuild to heart’s content.
  4. Ditch original assembly instructions forever.

Kids and legos. Grown-ups and spirituality.

When you grow up immersed in any spiritual tradition (or no tradition), that’s your reality. The language, symbols and culture of your tradition is the truth your family offered you.

What else could there possibly be?

In a very real sense, every moment of your life is mapped in relation to the elements of this Reality Story. That’s a good thing, the first seeds of trust in a friendly universe, as Howard Thurman put it.

At some point, we each come to the edge of that given map.

That Story of Life, the Universe and Everything as we understood it begins to be tested. For some of us, it’s an intentional intellectual curiosity– like a scientist examines her hypotheses and allows the scientific method to show the Truth. For others, it’s some real-life experience– a break-up, cancer, a bad pastor– that does not comfortably fit that reality. Or sometimes the Story just starts to feel old and it kinda. Just. Fades form our consciousness. Maybe sleep in on Sunday mornings, or decide to change your Bible study to bowling night.

Holiday TV ads have begun.

So much of the Christmas pomp is geared to kids, that if you are around kids, you may find yourself pleasantly regressing to the old, old story that you have loved so long. At the same time you may notice that faith wants to grow up. You may feel the contrast.

That original instruction book is in a drawer somewhere. It’s not what’s important now.

In the gospels, Rabbi Jesus is irritatingly consistent in his teaching: “You’ve heard it said…” (insert a bit about murder, adultery, sin, hatred, etc.) he spoke, serious as a heart attack. And then- was that a wink?- he’d continue, “But I tell you…” (insert a disturbingly different theology about integrity of the heart). He unwaveringly claimed was not destroying his beloved Jewish tradition but fulfilling it, evolving it.

What can I make of my life now that the letter-of-the-law instructions are no longer the important thing?

What evolution is possible now that our obedience to  human-crafted institutional structure is wrecked, and we are now paying attention to the holy Spirit-wind-breath hidden in every cell of creation?

It’s a terrifying and wonder-full thing.

But my lego-fanatic son knows now all things are possible, and the fun is just beginning.