Ah Yes! Christmas Will Come!

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The Nineteenth Day of Advent

December 19, 2019

For those with ears to hear the holy and eyes to see the sacred moment of the coming of the Christ Child, Christmas comes again and again each Advent season. Yet, Christmas also comes for us in the eyes of a child, in the words of a friend, in the music of hymns and carols tucked into our hearts, in the kind spirit of a stranger. If we take time to see! If we take a moment to hear! If we spend a few moments engaging with another person! Then we experience the holy moments of Christmas. Ann Weems writes of the ways Christmas comes.

CHRISTMAS COMES

Christmas comes every time we see God in other persons.
The human and the holy meet in Bethlehem
or in Times Square,
for Christmas comes like a golden storm on its way
to Jerusalem —
determinedly, inevitably . . .

Even now it comes
in the face of hatred and warring —
no atrocity too terrible to stop it,
no Herod strong enough,
no hurt deep enough,
no curse shocking enough,
no disaster shattering enough.

For someone on earth will see the star,
someone will hear the angel voices,
someone will run to Bethlehem,
someone will know peace and goodwill:
the Christ will be born!

— Ann Weems

There is little doubt that our world is filled with “hatred and warring.” There are hurts, atrocities and disasters. We see it on our televisions, every nightly news program describing it in full detail. We are now seeing the rancor of our Congress, one party hopelessly divided from the other, in the impeachment of a president. We mourn the losses of war, natural disasters, wildfires, gun violence and all the harms caused between people.

Yet, someone on earth will indeed see the star. Some of us might just hear angel voices because we live on holy ground. Some of us might repair the world. We might just find that we are anointed by God’s Spirit to bring good news to the poor; to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free! (Paraphrased from Luke 4:18 NRSV) Advent may inspire us to live into our anointing and to embrace the high calling of repairing our world in whatever ways we can. Advent might call us to heal, to free, to proclaim release, to offer good news to the poor and to cause the blind to see.

7EF76C61-3A9F-4808-ABDD-D10C92202890But Advent will also lead us by the light of Bethlehem’s star, guiding us again to Bethlehem. Advent opens our hearts to know peace and goodwill afresh and anew. Christ will be born in us again. Christmas will come — into our lives, into our hearts, lifting our spirits. Ah yes, Christmas will come!

And throughout this Advent, we will again be reminded of what we proclaim from our hearts of faith:

Emmanuel, God with us!

Amen.

“There Is Room and Welcome There for Me.”

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The Eighteenth Day of Advent

December 18, 2019

On the third Sunday in Advent, I was confined to home, unable to make my way to the manger. In every Advent season, I am strengthened in finding my place around the manger of the Christ Child. I find myself there because being near the manger moves me to contemplate the significance of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Being near the manger in spirit is holy ground, sacred space that stirs me to deeper faith. The hymn text writer Jaroslav Vajda also placed himself at the manger, searching for its significance in his life. In drawing close in spirit to the manger, he penned the text of the stirring hymn, Where Shepherds Lately Knelt.

Jaroslav Vajda penned the hymn text in 1986, seeking to place himself in spirit at the humble manger bed and there, review the implications of such a visit for himself and for all human beings. He believed that visiting the manger in order to ponder the significance of Immanuel,”God-with-us” in the flesh.

Being homebound after a kidney transplant, I missed my church’s service of Lessons and Carols. That service is always a time of deep and sacred worship for me, and I very much regretted missing it this year. In missing the service, I also missed the choir’s singing of Where Shepherds Lately Knelt, a hymn that has in the past moved me to tears. I invite you to contemplate the following text and to listen to the Anderson University Men’s Choir singing the hymn.

Where Shepherds Lately Knelt

Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred:
but there is room and welcome there for me,
but there is room and welcome there for me.

In that unlikely place I find Him as they said:
sweet newborn Babe, how frail! and in a manger bed:
a still small Voice to cry one day for me,
a still small Voice to cry one day for me.

How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
his prophecies fulfilled?  With pounding heart, I stare:
a Child, a Son, the Prince of Peace — for me,
a Child, a Son, the Prince of Peace — for me.

Can I, will I forget how Love was born and burned
its way into my heart — unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me,
to die, to live, and not alone for me?

This beautiful hymn places me at the manger, near the Christ Child. And in that place —in the presence of God — I begin to understand who I am and what I feel about my faith. 6EB80210-20A6-47B8-BD83-1B6AA6BBAE12I contemplate the shepherds who drew near to the Child following the light of a strange star. I imagine that whatever faith they had, no matter how small, brought them to their knees. Pilgrims who lived on the land, they found their way to the manger and, in adoration, knelt before this Child, in this manger, on this night.

I am but a pilgrim in half-belief on a journey led by a fragile faith. Yet, something within me compels me to keep returning to the manger, again and again. And I find myself in true worship, strangely stirred, in adoration of the Christ Child under the brilliance of Bethlehem’s star. The cry of my spirit as I look at Christ, the Savior, while standing before the manger is so perfectly described by this hymn:

I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
But there is room and welcome there for me…

Can I, will I forget how Love was born,
and burned its way into my heart unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me…”

Near the manger this advent, I discover that, indeed, “there is room and welcome there for me.”

For the Advent stirring of my fragile faith . . .
For newborn Love, born beneath Bethlehem’s star, thanks be to God. Amen.

My Place at the Stable

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In this detail from de la Tour’s moving portrayal of the birth of Jesus, we see Joseph’s hand tenderly guiding the candle’s light to illuminate the Christ-child’s face. 
In the Isaiah passage for this day, the prophet foretells the coming of Christ with the language, “Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In this peaceful painting, Joseph’s first gesture tells of his own fatherly love.
Georges de la Tour, painting in France in the early 17th century, was deeply affected by a religious revival based upon the teachings of the 12th century mystic, Francis of Assisi.  

— Art in the Christian Tradition, Vanderbilt

The Seventeenth Day of Advent
December 17, 2019

I have been thinking throughout this Advent season about my place at the stable. On the idea that many people gathered around the stable took various positions — some in the front or at the back, some directly facing the manger, some viewing the Child from a point farther away, angels hovering above — I wonder where my place might have been or, more importantly, where do I stand around the stable today?

Joseph, it seems, is often seen standing at the back of the stable, non- obtrusive, taking a back seat to Mary and the Christ Child. Ann Weems writes about Joseph standing at the back of the stable:

GETTING TO THE FRONT OF THE STABLE

Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?
Who dressed him in brown, put a staff in his hand,
and told him to stand in the back of the crèche,
background for the magnificent light of the Madonna?

God-chosen, this man, Joseph, was faithful
in spite of the gossip in Nazareth,
in spite of the danger from Herod.

This man, Joseph, listened to angels
and it was he who named the Child
Emmanuel.

Is this a man to be stuck for centuries
in the back of a stable?

Actually, Joseph probably stood in the doorway
guarding the mother and child
or greeting shepherds and kings. . .

Actually, he probably picked the Child up in his arms
and walked him in the night,
patting him lovingly
until he closed his eyes.

This Christmas, let us give thanks to God
for this man of incredible faith
into whose care God placed
the Christ Child.

As a gesture of gratitude,
let’s put Joseph in the front of the stable
where he can guard and greet
and cast an occasional glance
at this Child
who brought us life.

— Ann Weems

Not much more can be said about Joseph’s place at the stable, for indeed, he was the man chosen by God to be the earthly father of Jesus. Joseph managed his own emotions about Mary’s extraordinary and unexpected pregnancy with the help of an angel. He moved beyond his fears, his bewilderment, his concerns, perhaps even his mistrust or anger towards Mary and, certainly, his shattered reputation and his need to maintain his morality and his righteousness.

After pondering the angel’s visit, and his options, a slightly confused Joseph took a God-risk and moved into that bewildering relationship. He did it with courage and because of his trust in God’s word brought by an angel. And then he embraced his relationship with Mary, took her to Bethlehem, created a sheltering place, attended the birth of the Infant Christ and waited by faith for another angel message, or a star, or whatever else might burst into their lives.

Joseph’s story is a bit like ours — our stories of bewilderment, confusion, reluctance and, finally, our holy resolve to accept God’s plan for our lives and follow the journey God lays before us. And isn’t that a picture of Advent’s journey? Where is our place at the stable?Don’t we need to find our place near the Child this Advent and for all Advents to come? Doesn’t this season lead us steadily through the sacred path that leads us to the holy Child of Bethlehem . . .

So that we can, once again, experience the joy of his birth?

So that we can feel more deeply the emotions of Mary and Joseph?

So that we can, once again, hear angel voices?

So that Bethlehem’s star seems so near that we can almost touch it?B3E09502-8AB9-46F0-BB97-2C135F651B24

And so that our destinies will be fulfilled and our lives will be highly favored by God?

For all of these graces of Advent,
thanks be to God. Amen.

Mary’s Spirit Song

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The Thirteenth Day of Advent
December 14, 2019

*MARY’S SPIRIT SONG

Mary did you know,
that your ancient words
would still leap off our pages?

Mary did you know,
that your spirit song
would echo through the ages?

Did you know that your holy cry
would be subversive word,
that the tyrants would be trembling
when they know your truth is heard?

Mary did you know,
that your lullaby
would stir your own Child’s passion?

Mary did you know,
that your song inspires
the work of liberation?

Did you know that your Jubilee
is hope within the heart
of all who dream of justice,
who yearn for it to start?

The truth will teach, the drum will sound, healing for the pain;
The poor will rise, the rich will fall. Hope will live again.

Mary did you know,
that we hear your voice
for the healing of the nations?

Mary did you know,
your unsettling cry
can help renew creation?

Do you know, that we need your faith,
the confidence of you,
May the God that you believe in,
be so true.

— Lyrics by Jennifer Henry (inspired by the song “Mary, Did You Know?”)

On the eve of Advent’s third Sunday, the Sunday of joy, we reflect on Mary. On other Advents, we have been inspired by the angel’s visit to Mary, by her willingness to say, “I am the Lord’s servant,” by her confession of faith in God’s divine plan, by her song that we have loved and know as The Magnificat . . .

My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me —
holy is his name.

— Luke 1:46-49 NIV

But on this Advent, I hope to reflect on other truths about Mary and perhaps see another view of her. Perhaps her song was not merely a song of surrender, a willingness to be the handmaiden of God. Perhaps it was not just a song declaring that she would now be called “blessed” for generations.

This Advent, I invite you to ponder the song lyrics of “Mary’s Spirit Song” written by Jennifer Henry. The words reveal another side of Mary. The song leads us to look at all of Mary and discover some of the things she very likely held in her heart.

Perhaps this Advent we will recognize her as one with the courage to proclaim her society’s truth. Perhaps we will notice that she is singing about God scattering the proud, removing rulers from their thrones and lifting up those who are humble. Mary will sing to us of feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty.

Is this the subversive Mary proclaiming justice, that “the poor will rise, the rich will fall. hope will live again?” The last part of Mary’s song reveals a Mary who is wise beyond her years, who knows the political climate around her, who is compassionate enough to proclaim mercy for those who hunger, who is strong enough to proclaim her Jubilee of justice and liberation, who is brave enough to say that tyrants will tremble.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.

— Luke 1:50-55 NIV

If we dare to understand the whole of Mary, we can more fully emulate her courage that called for justice and liberation. We will remember the words the angel proclaimed to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”

We will remember Mary’s fear and the angel who calmed her. We will remember her confession of faith in the God who sent the Holy Spirit to “overshadow” her. And, yes, we will always let Mary lead us to the wondrous gift of the Christ Child as she gently cradles him in her arms — with Bethlehem’s star shining over him, and the joyous song of the angels . . .04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward all!”

 
*Many thanks to Darlene Flaming for sharing “Mary’s Spirit Song” with me.

 

 

“I Am Not a Stranger to the Rain”

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The Eleventh Day of Advent

December 12, 2019

THE CHILD IS BORN AGAIN

Each year the Child is born again

Each year some new heart
finally hears
finally sees
finally knows love.

And in heaven
there is great rejoicing!
There is a festival of stars!
There is celebration among the angels!

For in the finding of one lost sheep,
the heart of the Shepherd is glad, and
Christmas has happened once more.

The Child is born anew
and one more knee is bowed!

Ann Weems

Advent promises us angels and stars. And a Child — an extraordinary Child —who is the incarnation of God born into our world. How glorious this is adventure of Advent, year after year, a journey that brings us to angel celebrations and “a festival of stars.” We can count on it. We wait for it with great anticipation. We delight in the season. Advent candles flicker, gently illuminating the darkness until we light the Christ candle. Indeed the Child is born anew! And oh, how we love the songs of the angels, the festival of stars and the brightest star of all that shines on a stable!

But there are nights, even during Advent, when stars are hidden from our sight. Clouds begin to gather and the stars dim. The clouds thicken and the stars, even the brilliant Bethlehem star, disappear. The rains come, gentle at first, and then come down upon us with an unsettling force.

Rains do fall on the lives of all of us. Stars are hidden during seasons of rain and there may even be a startling clap of thunder here and there. Rainy seasons can be times of mourning the loss of a loved one, grieving the end of a relationship, lamenting the reality of a health crisis, worrying about your children or your aging parents. Rain falls on all of us, “the just and the unjust, those who do good and those who do evil.” (Matthew 5:44)

I am reminded of a beautiful song from the Stephen Schwartz musical, “Children of Eden.” The song offers wisdom that reminds us that we are not strangers to the rain: “I won’t say I’ve never felt the pain, but I am not a stranger to the rain.” The song goes on to say something profound that we might take to heart:

I’ve learned not to tremble
When I hear the thunder roar,
I don’t curse what I can’t change . . .

Here are the lyrics to the song followed by a video.

Shed no tears for me
There’ll be rain enough today
I’m wishing you godspeed
As I wave you on your way
This won’t be the first time
I’ve stayed behind to face
The bitter consequences
Of an ancient fall from grace
I’m a daughter of the race of Cain
I am not a stranger to the rain

Orphan in the storm
That’s a role I’ve played before
I’ve learned not to tremble
When I hear the thunder roar
I don’t curse what I can’t change
I just play the hand I’m dealt
When they lighten up the rations
I tighten up my belt
I won’t say I’ve never felt the pain
But I am not a stranger to the rain

And for the boy who’s given me the sweetest love I’ve known
I wish for him another love so he won’t be alone
Because I am bound to walk among the wounded and the slain
And when the storm comes crashing on the plain
I will dance before the lightning to music sacred and profane

Oh, shed no tears for me
Light no candle for my sake
This journey I’ll be making
Is one we all must make
Shoulder to the wind
I’ll turn my face into the spray
And when the heavens open
Let the drops fall where they may
If they finally wash away the stain
From a daughter of the race of Cain
I am not a stranger to the rain

Let it rain.

 

 

If we get to a point in our lives where we can say, “let it rain,” we will have found the strength to refuse to curse the things we cannot change. Then we can truly live, free from our need to control the things in life we simply cannot control. As the song says, “when the storm comes crashing on the plain, I will dance before the lightning to music sacred and profane.”

So let it rain and let us dance! And let us delight in Advent’s festival of stars, in the celebration of the angels, in the brilliance of the star of Bethlehem!

Amen.

 

 

In Believing There Is Hope!

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The Seventh Day of Advent

Transplant Day Twenty-six
December 7, 2019

CHRISTMAS MIRACLE 

There are those who scoff at miracles.
I don’t know what they make of the birth of the Child.
For that matter,
I don’t know what they make of the birth of any child.

There are those who laugh at dreams.
so they’ve never heard an angel’s voice,
nor seen any unusual light in the night’s sky,
nor felt the yearning to set out in search
of new life.

There are those who do not see the Star.
I wonder where it is they go
when everyone else sets out for Bethlehem.

To those of us who believe,
into every night is born a Star.

— Ann Weems

I do not want to be one of the ones who miss seeing the Star. It’s important, especially when I am so focused on transplant recovery, that I make my way to Bethlehem this Advent. In her poem, Ann Weems writes that some people have never heard an angel’s voice nor seen any unusual light in the night sky. She laments that some people have never felt the yearning to set out in search of new life.

Advent 2019 finds me feeling at least a small yearning to set out in search of new life. Circumstances have left me no choice, really, because ahead of me, a new life is all there is. The old life is over and, with a new kidney to protect, I am facing a new life head-on, like it or not. It won’t be an easy life, but embracing new life seldom is. It is always a change and a challenge, asking for my best effort.

I fear it, as folks most always do when embracing a new life. And I am going to need some help — from my friends, my family and my faith community. I am going to need the singing of angels and the light from Bethlehem’s Star. I am going to need to believe —  really believe — because not believing may leave me stalled on the path to Bethlehem. In believing, there is hope, hope that embraces the longing for new life. Hope that hears the singing of angels. Hope that looks up into the night sky and sees the Star.

There is no doubt about it — in believing, there is hope.

Ann Weems offers the grace of one last promise:
              “To those of us who believe, into every night is born a Star.”C9B596AE-76F4-4215-AF87-B5ED84B119E3

Holding Hope

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The Sixth Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-five
December 6, 2019


HOLDING

The Day is here
and we made it to Bethlehem!

The time has come for kneeling
and we’ve seen the Child!

There is singing in the stable
and we want desperately to hold on to it . . .
hold on to the Star!
and the angels!
and the spirit of love!

How do we hold on
to the Christmas spirit?
Why can’t every day be Christmas?

The world mutters “Be realistic,”
and sometimes we church people mutter too.

On our way back from Bethlehem
sometimes we forget
what we’ve been warned about in a dream:
to return another way.

Once we’ve seen the Child,
we’re left holding hearts
wherein angels dance
and stars sing!

Once we’ve been to Bethlehem,
every day is Christmas!

— Ann Weems

I am holding, grasping tightly “the Star and the angels and the spirit of love.” My journey to Bethlehem is Advent’s gift. I walk the path with expectation and hope (even just a wee bit of hope some days), and I imagine the glory of the promised Child.

This year during Advent’s pilgrimage, I also walk the rocky path I call my transplant journey. I do hold on to hope as I travel the rough transplant path, and along the way I see tiny glimpses of hope. But not every day. Minute by minute I navigate symptoms and side effects and, on the worse days, my community holds hope for me when I can’t hold it for myself.

On the path — the path of both Bethlehem and transplant journeys — I see graces along the way: stars, angels, Bethlehem’s brightest star, the Child in a simple manger! It’s enough for me, the images that cry out “Hope!” It is holy ground, sacred space. Hope will get me there, sustaining me along the way, as God’s grace carries me.

And the poet’s words are true:

Once I’ve seen the Child, I’m left holding my heart wherein 04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9angels dance and stars sing!

Thanks be to God!

 

 

Today I Believe

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This season is a tender time. And oh, this darkness of mine. December brings it every year — that feeling of tenderness, of darkness. That is, if I stop to notice. Stop decorating the house. Stop shopping. Stop planning a lavish Christmas dinner. Stop baking dozens of cookies. Stop going to Christmas events — parties, pageants, gatherings, light displays . . . Just stop!

If we do stop in these advent days, we might just feel this tender time. It’s not Christmas yet, you know. It’s Advent, a time of waiting, hoping, believing. If ever there was a time to practice mindfulness, this is the season. As I move through Advent’s days, I want to move slowly and with the awareness of the tiny miracles all around me.

I want to remember past years and people I have loved. I want to linger beside the Chrismon tree that holds decades of white and gold ornaments and decades of memories. I want to be mindful of my own darkness and the tenderness that is nested in my heart.

Advent is most surely a tender time, and a time of darkness, a time when people of faith wait for the light to come to earth again. Advent causes me to wait for the light that always comes to come into my heart again. Until the light shines, though, through a little baby born in Bethlehem, days will be dark and tender.

I am remembering my youngest brother who would have had a birthday this month. The loss of him far too soon will always leave a lump in my throat. December, his birth month, is a tender time.

In these days, I miss the joy and laughter of my grandchildren. For them Christmas is all joy.  They are such a gift to me, and being separated from them by so many miles makes this a tender time.

My friend’s fourteen-year-old grandson lost his battle with cancer this week, and I cannot help thinking about what a dark and tender time this family is feeling because of this deep loss.

So many losses surround us. So much grieving. So much darkness waiting for the light of Bethlehem’s star and the infant that comes to bring light to our hearts.

I love this tiny prayer:

Lord, you have always lightened this darkness of mine; 
and though night is here, today I believe.

— Evening Office by Northumbria Community