Saturday, December 8, 2012

Making Memories

 Even a silly Protestant girl like me knows enough about Hanukkah to know that the above picture is incorrect for this early on in the holiday.  Notice how far down all the candles are; this is more appropriate for the final night of celebration.  I chose this menorah, though, because of its vintage, old-time look, not for its accuracy.  If you examine the picture closely, you'll see the old rabbit-eared TV in the background, too.  It's a good illustration for a reading that makes me think about how we mark our important memories.

Hanukkah marks an important memory for Jewish believers, that of the Maccabees taking back the temple in Jerusalem.  They found the holy accoutrements of worship vandalized or stolen, but they did receive the miracle of light:  one night's supply of oil lit the lamps for eight nights. The reason why this is important to all 
people whether Jewish or not is a matter of communal hope in our future as well as our common need for enlightenment.  

Equally important is an acknowledgement that all people have the need to mark significant memories as a part of passing their stories along.  But we might underestimate the importance of reminding ourselves of our stories periodically.  How many times, as you were pulling out the old wreath or box of garland, did you wonder how old something is?  My husband has told me each year that a bundle of garland is "a decade" old.  By now the decade is fifteen years long.  But since he marks it from the time his daughter was in the fifth grade, it means time is frozen for her and him.

Family photograph albums and scrapbooks have the same effect.  We laugh at an old picture and say, "that was the summer Jerry and Judy's boat sank" or "that was the Christmas before Uncle Jack passed."  We find touchpoints in these things.  I think of the year I had pneumonia and my long recovery every time I unpack my Advent candle holder.  I still think of the Christmas dinner of scrambled eggs and my 18-year-old son taking me to the doctor.

This reading is one that helps us think about how we place Jesus in history.  The writer gives us a context, which gives us something for our imaginations to hang our story on.  Who was the emperor?  What does it tell us about the world and its conditions at the time? 

For people who had every reason to pay attention to words of prophecy, this writing was like Luke saying, "Remember when Isaiah told us that this, this, and this was going to happen?  Well, this John fellow was the guy in the wilderness.  He came during Herod's administration."  Both Gentiles and Jews were given touchpoints they could relate to in the story.  

So imagine you're sitting around after dinner with some friends, swapping memories.  Picture one of you relating this as if it were a well-loved anecdote of some bit of history that you all share from your formative years, or maybe from your parents' generation.  Read it through and imagine how it would've sounded to hearers of its own era...

Gospel Luke 3:1-6
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" 

Now answer this question:  If this were now, today-who would you pass this along to?  Would you telephone, put it on Facebook, or maybe Tweet it?  Would you have anyone younger that should hear this important story and keep it alive?

I invite you to find a way to share this memory with someone.  And Happy Hanukkah!

Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then

 Today we'll try doing the reading in the form of lectio divina, an ancient Ignatian spiritual practice which concentrates our attention on the passage of scripture.  Latin for "holy reading", lectio has been a part of monastic practice for centuries and is done alone or in groups.

It is very simple.  Sit in a quiet spot where you're unlikely to be disturbed.  Breathe comfortably, slowly and deeply.  When you are ready, read through the scriptural passage aloud at a normal, unhurried rate.  Be intentional about noticing any phrase or word that stands out for you.  Pause and rest.  Read through a second time.  If you are doing these devotions with a friend, you may want to take turns reading, noticing what may sound different to you when the words are read in another person's voice.  Rest and notice whether anything is arising to your notice out out the passage, maybe the same or maybe different from the first time.  

Finally, read the passage a third time.  By now you probably have a good sense of a word or phrase which almost shimmers up from the rest for your notice.  Acknowledge to yourself what it is that you're hearing.

Gospel Luke 21:5-19
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6"As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."
7They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" 8And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.
9"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." 10Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls. 

This is a hard passage to hear, just as it would have been hard to hear in Jesus' day.  When you read it, what came up for you?  Is it hard to hear apocalyptic* messages at this time of year?  Why or why not?

Many times it helps to respond to the passage in some tangible way.  If you have time, jot a few thoughts or even a brief poem about your reaction.  Write a prayer or say one silently to end your time here today.

Remember that just as new beginnings come on the heels of endings, endings are not all sorrowful.


*It may be helpful to note that apocalypse in one of the more biblical senses means "to reveal".  Unfortunately we've given it a more destructive connotation in our culture.  It does not literally mean the end of the world, but a time when all would be set to rights and the true realm of the Creator would be made whole.  If anybody is waiting for all this to happen in accordance with the Mayan calendar, I hope you don't give away all your belongings or anything.  Best bets are that nothing's going to happen.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Fallen

 Be ready, be ready as the trees
New is now promised
Be ready, be ready as the trees
Abandoned they are.

Deserted by their leaves
Daughters of Jerusalem's old ways
Did they not hear the prophecy
Or did they flee.

 Bracelets cast upon the ground
Gold earrings and gewgaws
Gimcrackedly useless
Race to be dust.

City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana

In various parts of the country we are feeling the warming effects of climate change.  A niece in Chicago the other day was sitting in her living room with her balcony window open to an unseasonable afternoon in the high 60's-low 70's.   A stepsister downstate prays for snow.  My friend, Jenny, the ballerina-cocktail server-writer who lives in NOLA shared the above picture from City Park saying, "It doesn't feel like fall, but it's finally looking like it."

Here in Davis, California, we have been living with the incommodious storms triggered by the Pineapple Express last week and which have lasted pestiferously throughout the present week as well.  They have driven the leaves to abandon their branches and clog gutters and storm drains.  They blanket gardens, smothering winter greens into the mud.  Sidewalks shimmer with slick, slimy, slip-and-slide sheets of them. 

Yet behind each storm we catch a glimpse of sky.  Enough, perhaps, to run out and push the detritus into piles, to get it out of the streets so drains can run, or mound it up off the garden so the plants don't smother.  And in the sky beyond the fog sometimes the clouds tease with glorious bursts of sunshine. 

"Be ready for the next one," the clouds taunt. "It will be glorious."

Morning Psalm 102
1   Hear my prayer, O LORD;
          let my cry come to you.
2   Do not hide your face from me
          in the day of my distress.
     Incline your ear to me;
          answer me speedily in the day when I call.

3   For my days pass away like smoke,
          and my bones burn like a furnace.
4   My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
          I am too wasted to eat my bread.
5   Because of my loud groaning
          my bones cling to my skin.
6   I am like an owl of the wilderness,
          like a little owl of the waste places.
7   I lie awake;
          I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
8   All day long my enemies taunt me;
          those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9   For I eat ashes like bread,
          and mingle tears with my drink,
10  because of your indignation and anger;
          for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
11  My days are like an evening shadow;
          I wither away like grass.

Reflection:  There's an old joke that goes, "Well, things could be worse.  It could be raining!"  And then, if it's in a funny movie, you usually see a flash of lightning followed by a clap of thunder and, of course, the rain comes pouring down.  This time of year can seem a lot like that, and we wonder vaguely when all will be right again.  Plastic decorations and Christmas carols playing over the loudspeaker in the supermarket or the drug store aren't enough to reassure us. 

The Psalmist who wrote these words knew seemingly endless dark days, days that seemed like night.  Relief seemed so far away, yet the other side of that shadow held hope and comfort, as the writer was to recall:

12  But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever;
          your name endures to all generations.
13  You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
          for it is time to favor it;
          the appointed time has come.
14  For your servants hold its stones dear,
          and have pity on its dust.
15  The nations will fear the name of the LORD,
          and all the kings of the earth your glory.
16  For the LORD will build up Zion;
          he will appear in his glory.
17  He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
          and will not despise their prayer.
18  Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
          so that a people yet unborn may praise the LORD:
19  that he looked down from his holy height,
          from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,
20  to hear the groans of the prisoners,
          to set free those who were doomed to die;
21  so that the name of the LORD may be declared in Zion,
          and his praise in Jerusalem,
22  when peoples gather together,
          and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.

23  He has broken my strength in midcourse;
          he has shortened my days.
24  “O my God,” I say, “do not take me away
          at the mid-point of my life,
     you whose years endure
          throughout all generations.”

25  Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
          and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26  They will perish, but you endure;
          they will all wear out like a garment.
     You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
27       but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28  The children of your servants shall live secure;
          their offspring shall be established in your presence.

Words of reassurance, even during the uncertain days when the leaves flee from the trees, dive-bombing the ground, to abandon their very source of life.  The new thing is a-making, and we don't yet know how to name it, for we don't yet know what it will be, nor how we will be in it.  Maybe our fear is that we will be the leaf, having been so intent on making our kamikaze plunge to the wet earth that it is impossible to find our bearings.  My belief is that we are the tree, meant to stand waiting, and watchful, while the new thing comes.

Then we shall see how we endure.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Down for the Count and Up Again

This hibernal time finds many of us in conflict between our natural inclination in winter to slow down as all creatures do and the external expectations of accelerating  to holiday speed.  This conflict crosses lines of faith as the stresses don't come merely from Christmas, although as a civil holiday folks of all faiths or no faith are affected just the same.

The stresses created by these social factors should not be overlooked.  Christmas coincides with the end of school terms.  Workplaces close for days, a week, or more.  Family visits are paid and returned.  Childrens programs, whether they be in the performing arts or sports or charity-driven, abound.  Performances must be rehearsed and costumes sewn, parts practiced and lines memorized.  Remember how jarring the piano practice in "It's a Wonderful Life" was to George Bailey while he was trying to talk to his wife, Mary?

One of the best mothers in the business, a woman I know who probably secretly has an invisible plane and a golden lasso, reported recently that in taking her four boys to school on a Monday morning, they had forgotten a total of one lunch, one teachers gift, and two backpacks.  Sounds like some Mondays I can remember from when my kids were growing up, and I only had two.

It's no wonder this is the ideal time for colds and flu; we're smack up against each other and smack up against all that stress, too.

So that's kind of a long way round to say thank you for bearing with me while I was taking my turn in forced hibernation.  The stomach flu is a high price to pay to grab some extra rest, but I'm a lot luckier than many and way better off than Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.  I can't feature spending nine months going through what she's going through.

Tune in tomorrow for scripture and reflections.  Peace.  And remember your flu shot.

Photo Credit: Roger Scaglia

Saturday, December 1, 2012


  The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Jeremiah 33:14-16
14The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness." 
Annunciation by Raphael Soyer, 1980
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Psalm 25:1-10
1To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
2O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
3Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
5Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
6Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
7Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness' sake, O LORD!
8Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
10All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

The illustrations today are from two very different painters who had very different life experiences.  Both deal with the news from Gabriel to Mary in very different ways, and in extremely nontraditional ways.  Read both the Hebrew passage from Jeremiah, and the Psalm.  Take a few minutes to look into the two pictures.  

What character appeals the most to you?  Why?

When you concentrate on the top one, what feeling do you identify with in the painting?

How is it different from the feeling you get in the bottom one?

What if anything, surprises you in either picture?

The pools lie on the slopes and valleys
Cool promise
Earth is sleeping
What does until look like?

Stay with the images, the readings, and the poem as long as you like and as long as it's helpful.  Breathe and relax, and thanks for being here today. 

Advent Devotions

The Advent devotion I am beginning tomorrow seeks to help us journey from darkness into light.

There is so much sadness in the world right now.  Just when we hope it is safe to plan for the holidays:  Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years, well any holiday (HOLY DAY) really, sadness comes upon us in so many different forms.  A beloved family member is diagnosed with cancer.  An old school friend's child dies unexpectedly.  A contemporary is in a terrible accident and leaves your friend a widow.  A grown child without health insurance becomes ill or needs surgery.  A grandchild is in crisis.

Sadness doesn't stop at holidays because it never stops at anything or for any time. Sad events come when they come and evoke the response they evoke.  Cancer makes people we love sick and sometimes kills them.  People drive well but make a single mistake and have an accident.  People struggle.  We are sad.

I am writing throughout this Advent for any number of reasons.  One is that I am sad, too, but sadness isn't the whole story and it doesn't win.  If you have ever read a very sad story and irrationally hoped for a happy ending, then you know this sadness.  I want it not to win in your life, either.

Another reason I write is to rest during the busy-ness of planning for Christmas, which is a holiday, a HOLY DAY, for me as a Christian.  When I say "rest", what I mean is the deep soul-rest that people of faith (any faith-pick your favorite flavor) need in order to connect with the source of divine love they believe in.  It is that divinity, that wellspring that allows us victory when the world tries to convince us that it has no meaning.

It is when our soul taps into divine love that refreshment and joy replace the sadness of the world, but let no one tell you it's easy.  It isn't.  It's a journey.  Journeys are sometimes hard.

I am approaching these writings from the standpoint of Reformed Christianity seasoned with a little ancient spiritual practice, some monasticism, and a little bit of Eastern religion as well.  I am culturally a Southern Californian living in Northern California by way of Salt Lake City.  I am not a Biblical literalist although I do take the Bible seriously and I will be using daily Bible readings in these writings. 

I hope that even if you are not a practicing Christian, you will consider sharing these writings with me when you can.  There is wisdom in all scripture, and something to be gained by doing the daily practices I'll suggest.  I will also share visual art as we go, which I hope you will enjoy.

Just Don't Slug Me

Christ is come!  Christ is Risen!  Christ will come again!  If you're not immediately turned off, I hope you read on.

The above statements, in a time long gone by, were commonly used as salutations among early Christians.  In fact, it's easy to imagine the very earliest of early Christians offering them to one another in hushed, nearly whispered tones, after sidelong looks over their shoulders to ascertain that no Roman authority overheard them.

Once the Roman Empire was under the rule of Constantine the Great, Christianity became the official religion of state.  Not only did this have the effect of eliminating the hole-and-corner nature of Christian recognition, it had the effect of wholesale conversion to Christianity among those previous pagan citizens and leaders who found it a)expedient, b)desirable, or c)politic to share the same beliefs as the fellow in charge. After all, it was a place and time when pleasing the fellow in charge meant survival.

Now, despite the fact that we live in a place and time of religious plurality here in the United States, and by constitution have no state religion and no constraints on the freedom to practice or not practice as we see fit, in some ways we operate as if there were almost a social religion, a quasi-Christianity that we must embrace in order to be "good" Americans.  Let's sort this idea out a bit.

To help us, let's go back to the language of greetings. Let's pretend.

If, during the pre-Constantinian times of the Empire, I had met you in the street I might very well offer you a surreptitious "Christ is come!" and you might have reasonably been expected to respond "Christ is Risen!" and we may have reassured each other "Christ will come again!". 

Assuming we escaped being fed to lions and survived the intervening centuries to find ourselves in the New World, we might have wished each other a "Merry Christmas!" or "Happy Christmas!" instead.

In a very divided red and blue, post-presidential election environment, many Christians have noticed, some with a sense of loss, and some with outrage, the use of greetings like "Happy Holidays!" or "Season's Greetings!" has all but replaced "Merry Christmas" in recent years as the United States' commonly used salutation.  Some have grumbled that we've taken the concept of politically correct language too far.  Others mount strident social media campaigns to "Keep the Christ in Christmas", taking umbrage at the most innocently wished "Season's Greetings." On the other hand atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and all the rest are subjected to acknowledgement rooted only in the social religion of the land. 

Perhaps some folks haven't noticed, but Christmas was conscripted by culture a long, long time ago and has been as it is now a whole red and green season much larger, grander, and more filled with marshmallow and electronic toys than ever before.  Consider this example of how it's manifest in the world:  a couple of years ago a graduate student from Japan stayed with Sean and me while doing research at UCD.  His wife and two children came to visit during the Christmas holiday, and the children were worried that Santa Claus wouldn't find them in America on Christmas Eve.  He had me write them a letter (unknown handwriting, USA postmark) to reassure the kids that their Christmas would happen wherever their family was together.

Neither the man nor his wife are Christian.

People all over the world also put up trees, hang lights, visit family and friends, and do charitable works at this time of year in the name of Christmas even though they are not practicing Christians. I concede the argument could be made that if they're not into the whole "religion" thing, then why should they be celebrating the at all?  Why should they share in the warm sentiment, the feasting, the bonhomie?

The same might be asked of those who want to keep Christ in Christmas but never darken the door of a church on any other day of the year. But that's another day's blog.

So if your hair isn't on fire by now, here's one more question:  why should anyone want to miss an opportunity to convey goodwill and sincere well-wishes no matter what that other person practices or believes?  As I hope we learned from this election, there is an amazing, beautiful diversity of people in the United States.

Can we not use this season, by whatever name it has become known, to share with our fellow humans the joy, peace, and overwhelming love that our Creator has for us all?  It seems evident that in a world that suffers as much as ours does, where folks all across religious lines suffer the same deaths, the same wars, the same disease, the same defeats, the same alienation, we don't have the luxury to parse words.  The gift of Christmas is far bigger than that.

So if someone meets you in the street and says "Happy Holidays", take it with a measure of grace.  Know that the eternal divine is in both of you, and say whatever is real.  Convey goodwill and sincere well-wishes if you mean them; you'll find the words.