Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's dreaming

"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NIV)

Praying for felicity, prosperity, peace for us all in 2011.


Friday, December 10, 2010

...and Natalie makes four...

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow
Another free slideshow by Smilebox

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Top 12 Reasons I Love the Season: a Christmas guest post, part 2

A delightful litany of Christmas cheer from my friend Macia Gravelding.  See part one of her list here


6.  Christmas Music

“I mean Jingle Bells.  You know, Deck them Halls, and Santa Claus and Ho-Ho-Ho and mistletoe and presents for pretty girls.”


      From the sacred to the secular, from the profound, there is something about Christmas music that moves me deeply.  These are some of the most well known songs, repeated often and with vigor.  They are shared memories and experiences, lulling us away from our busyness and reminding us to enjoy.  Bing singing White Christmas.  Burl Ives wishing us a Holly Jolly Christmas.  Nat King Cole and The Christmas Song. 


      Christmas songs have a strong emotional appeal, the ability to make us wish and hope for the peace and goodwill that they promise.  And sometimes we actually get it.  And when we do, we have the perfect soundtrack heralding the ability of God’s love to set things right in our world.  Whether it’s We Need a Little Christmas rousing us to haul out the holly and get out of our selfish slump or Silent Night by candlelight reminding us to slow down and listen, to take a break in the midst of our zealous merrymaking.   


 “No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.”  O Little Town of Bethlehem  


5. Classic Christmas Shows

I’m not talking about new commercial hogwash like “The Dog that Saved Christmas” (yes that’s a real movie).  I’m talking about tearing up when Linus gives his speech, or when the Grinch realizes that “Maybe Christmas” he thought, “means a little bit more.” Laughing at Buddy the Elf’s innocence or feeling the irony when Santa tells Ralphie, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Or what about Rudolph and Hermey realizing they’re a couple of misfits but that it’s okay, or Kris Kringle teaching the Winter Warlock to put one foot in front of the other?  Or Father Mouse encouraging Albert to give his heart a try, or Frosty exclaiming “Happy Birthday!"


      I admit that I love these movies because of the feel good happy endings, the belief in innocence and the sense of tradition and comfort.  But I also love them for their heartwarming message that while life is rarely perfect, we often find perfection, love, safety and happiness right where and when we need it.  Maybe it’s easier to find these things at Christmastime, but they are always there.   


4.   A Christmas Carol

      Except for the actual story of Jesus, no Christmas movie or story is a better example of God’s mercy and redemption, His relentless pursuit of even the least of these.  Since nothing seems to reach through Scrooge’s selfish, confused, miserable existence, the otherworldly must reach out. I couldn’t possibly say it any better than Dickens.   
“Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
‘I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed.  ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.  Oh Jacob Marley!  Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this.’” 
“Scrooge was better than his word.  He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.  He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.  Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset.” 
 “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”
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(One of my favorite versions of A Christmas Carol) 

3. Christmas lights and Christmas Trees!!!!!

Jim Gaffigan has an interesting take on this one:
“I love our holiday traditions, we chop down a tree and put it in our living room.  Kinda sounds like the behavior of a drunk man. 
‘Honey why is there a pine tree in our living room?’ 
‘I like it, we’re gonna decorate it for Jesus.’
Some people get so into Christmas that they decorate their yards.  That seems completely backwards.  ‘Okay, chop down that tree, bring it in here.  Take all those lights, put them out there.’”   
Okay, so maybe it is a little bit off-kilter to bring a tree in the house, but to me it is the quintessential decoration—the lighted tree.  It’s more than just a decoration; it is Christmas itself.  Alive, unchanging, vibrant, bedecked with all our favorite things, bearing gifts of unselfishness and crowned with a bright star as a reminder.  There are crazier things than that, like the perfect, Almighty God being born in a stable.   


3. The Community “all-in”  Spirit

“Once in a year it is not thought amiss, to visit our neighbors and sing out like this, of friendship of love, good feelings abound, and peace and goodwill the whole year around”  ~Peter, Paul and Mary


      Toys for Tots.  Care packages for Soldiers and their families.  Food drives, coat drives, community dinners.  Adopt-a-family programs and angel trees.  Community Christmas tree lightings, visits from Santa and parades.  Decorations on Main Street and old gaudy garland hung up on parking lot lights. 


      In the midst of this sea of goodwill, it is tempting to be pessimistic and say that people should be like this all year.  It shouldn’t take a holiday to make people be kind to their neighbors or help those who are less fortunate.  AND YOU’RE RIGHT.  But in this increasingly selfish world, it takes something powerful to jolt people out of their own unawareness.  And I think it’s a miracle that people behave this way at all, even if it’s only at Christmas. While I wish that more people behaved this way all year long, I’m not depressed by it.  I see it as steps in the right direction, a Christmas miracle that we can work to carry into the other 11 months. 

"My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?" Bob Hope 


2. Anticipation

      Maybe you guessed it. I love the Christmas Season even more than Christmas itself.  *GASP* (now let’s not get carried away, of course I love Christmas and all that it means).  However, I love the anticipation of the Christmas season.  The wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ and plannin’ and dreamin’ is the magic of Christmas.  Realists, or cynics as I call them, might say that the anticipation is dangerous because Christmas may not live up to your high expectations.  Maybe you won’t get the present that you really wanted.  Maybe it won’t snow.  Maybe the lights won’t be bright enough.  Maybe your family won’t be as perfect as you remember or maybe they’ll be exactly as you remember them. 


      And maybe they’re right.  Maybe Christmas won’t be everything you hoped it would be, although I find that the glow of Christmas lights can cast an optimistic glow over the most dismal holiday.  But even if it doesn’t live up, we still have hope.  We know that the true anticipation is not for the presents or the food or the snow, but for the little baby in the manger who never disappoints, never fades and is never anything but exactly what we want and need.  


And it goes without saying that my favorite thing about Christmas is...


1. Jesus

That’s really what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.  Nothing can drown it out. 
You can’t sing Jingle Bells loud enough to drown out the angels singing Glory to God in the Highest.  You can’t get a tree big enough, lights bright enough or garland gaudy enough to outshine the simple manger.  You can’t watch enough Christmas shows and movies to forget about it.  You can’t bake enough or eat enough to satisfy yourself without it.  It couldn’t snow enough to cover it up.  Nothing can outshine His star or His message of hope, peace on earth and goodwill to men.   I can’t drown it out and I don’t want to drown it out.   
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew.  "Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!" Fred, A Christmas Carol

Monday, December 06, 2010

Top 12 Reasons I Love the Season: a Christmas guest post

I'm not sure I know anyone else in the world who "honors Christmas in her heart and tries to keep it all year" as well as my friend Macia. She should be given honorary elf status wherever that magical place is that elves live. Really, she sprinkles glitter and fairy dust everywhere she goes (and I'm so glad she's captured my brother's heart, too!) The next two posts are written from her heart about the magical, beautiful, sacred season of Christmas.
Prepare yourself to fall under her spell...

“Haven’t you ever heard of the Christmas Queen?”
Lucy Van Pelt, you ain’t got nothin’ on me.   

Each year I go through the same dilemma.  I bide my time, secretly dreaming about crackling fires, snow covered lawns, heaps of decorations and twinkling lights.  I slyly listen to Christmas music all year long, enduring eye rolls and judgments from the steadfast “we-can’t-celebrate-until-the-day-after-Thanksgiving” types.  
Despite all that, I’m not the only one who is just waiting for Black Friday when the diehards finally catch up and jump on the merriment bandwagon.  Stores roll out their holiday wonderment earlier each year.   And while the cynics see this as unbridled commercialism and greed, a chance to start preying on the anticipatory glee of the childlike shoppers like me, a part of me wants to see this as recognition that things are simply better at Christmastime. 
 Therefore, we’d like to start that “better” part of the year as soon as possible. 
  
And finally, in the words of the Grinch, “Tomorrow is Christmas—it’s Practically HERE!!!!!”  And so, in honor of the truly most wonderful time of the year, I’ve put together a Top 12 Reasons I Love the Season.  It’s like the 12 Days of Christmas, only better, because let’s face it, we’d all be pretty upset if we got a partridge in a pear tree on Christmas.  


12.  “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”

If you’ve never read this editorial, do so right now. Read it hereWe’ll wait for you.
I absolutely love the guts of this man to respond to this little girl’s question.  He sensed her deeper question when she perhaps didn’t even know what she was really asking.  She was asking about the importance and existence of childlike faith, the question of whether belief in goodness made her na├»ve, whether one could know something in your heart without any scientific facts and not be foolish.  
And thankfully, he got the right answer.  “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.”  


This song says it all.

11.  Traditions

I’m not even talking about “universal” traditions.  I love that at Christmas, traditions are upheld and they are meaningful.  They aren’t stupid.  They aren’t rote.  They aren’t boring.  To label a Christmas tradition, no matter what it is, as humdrum or burdensome would negate the heart of Christmas.  The sense that this season is important enough to warrant “out of the ordinary” behavior.  
Finish this sentence:  In my family, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without _________________.  For me, it’s Chinese food on Christmas Eve, a tradition that started after a long day at church and the early closing time of the American food service industry.  It also wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas Rolls, which are really just sugar coated marshmallows baked inside of crescent rolls.  Are either of these things particularly festive?  Do they point to the birth of the Savior?  No.  But traditions tell us that certain things, no matter how trivial they might seem, are never going to change.  Even if everything comes crashing down around us, if we don’t have the money for gifts, or a great big Christmas tree, we’ll always have Chinese food.  And of course, we’ll always have Jesus, and he’s not trivial at all.  


(We’re in good company with the Chinese food thing)

On the subject of food, let’s talk about 

10.  Christmas Cookies!  

Let’s face it.  You could bake cut-outs, kolatchis, snowballs, thumbprints, peppermint cookies and all those other holiday goodies at other times in the year, but they just wouldn’t taste as good.  I think it’s the holiday goodness, the Christmas magic that is the secret ingredient that makes them so tasty.  And Christmas cookies are the most laborious of all.  No plain old chocolate chip cookies here.  Oh no.  We’re busting out all the cookie cutters, making dough that needs to freeze, gathering armloads of sprinkles and dedicating whole days to the kitchen.  And why?  For calories we don’t need, and cookies that will be consumed long before Christmas even gets here!  But these are important.  They remind us to go out of our way for others, for our families, for our neighbors.  And maybe, we could go a little out of our way for the Savior that went way out of his way.  


9. Decorations

No decoration is too gaudy, too broken, to silly to put out.  I love them all.   Whether it’s homemade decorations that are covered with so much hot glue and glitter that they’re barely recognizable, or the racially insensitive nativity set, or the chipped glass angel, or light up ornaments that no longer light up—there is nothing that I won’t take out of the box and proudly display.  

I love the garland, the tinsel, the singing and dancing decorations, and they are an explosion of love and joy, of childlike wonderment, a reflection of self-consciousness-less.  But no decoration evokes more wonder than a gleaming star over a humble nativity.
“ And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”


8. The way that Christmas decorations inconvenience our normal routine.


I don’t know if this is true at your house, but Christmas decorations really hamper our business as usual.  Our seasonal summer room becomes both a walk-in cooler and a space to hide all of our regular “decorations.” Our rearranging flowchart would go something like this…put the armchair in the dining room so that we can move the front table to make room for the tree which is so big that we have to move the couch about a foot and move the rocking chair and various lamps up to my parents’ bedroom which is already cluttered with all the wrapped presents.  Whew!  
Trying to get a tissue?  Look out for those low-hanging decorative towels.  Want to dry your hands?  Not on THOSE towels!!!  As you walk from room to room, look out for mistletoe, garland and icicle decorations.  
What would possess Americans, who are famous for not wanting to be inconvenienced, to do this all for some cheap decorations?  
Maybe it’s easier to deal with the minor inconveniences when we remember a pregnant Mary riding on a donkey, Joseph helping to deliver a baby in a freezing stable.  Or when we remember the great inconvenience it was to leave the glory, warmth and splendor of Heaven to lay in a straw filled trough for people who were too busy celebrating their own holiday to even notice.  Which leads us to…


7.  The Invasion of the Sacred


If you reread the last paragraph, you will have the most obvious, and most important implication of the invasion of the Sacred. And because of this momentous and glorious interruption, we see the sacred world and themes invading into the hustle and bustle, the presents and all the noise, noise, noise, noise of Christmas.  A big, wooden manger graces the front square of my town at Christmas.  Radio stations that usually blare poorly edited versions of trashy hip-hop songs suddenly proclaim Joy to the world, the Lord is come.  TV networks interrupt their sexually questionable, agenda-ed programming to let Linus read from the Bible and tell everyone “That’s what Christmas is all about.”  Ordinary people use Latin phrases and go to see Handel’s Messiah, perhaps the longest all-Biblical entertainment, excepting The Ten Commandments.    
Christmas reminds me that the sacred is never too far or too quiet.  It is always there if I am willing to look and listen.

to be continued....

Friday, December 03, 2010

Advent gifts from the church, ancient and contemporary

El Greco
The Annunciation
This morning, I share with you from the gifts of others: music, words, art.

Advent playlist from Amy at Splendor in the Ordinary.  Especially O Magnum Mysterium -- killing me with beauty while I write this morning.

Words from Walter Wangerin. This is from his preface in the Advent devotional book, Preparing for Jesus.  I find them a perfectly postive complement to my last post.

"Throughout my life it has been my good fortune to experience the story of Jesus with every turning of every  year. The number of the years of my unfolding age is also the number of times I've traveled with my Lord from his birth to his death to his triumphant rising again.
And because the story has been more than told to me; because it has surrounded me like a weather; because it comprehends me as a house does it inhabitants or a mother does her child, the life of Christ has shaped mine. My very being has been molded in him. 
And because my response to this story has been more than an act of mind, more than study and scrutiny; because the story invites my entering in and my personal participation; because I have experienced the life of Christ with deeper intensity than I have my own daily affairs, the Gospel story now interprets for me the world's story. It is through the Gospel narrative, as through a window or a template, that I see all things that I relate to them and come to know them.
In every sense of the phrase: I find myself in Jesus.
As I enter his story, I enter him. As his life embraces mine, he embraces me, and I am his.
But how has this story come to me with such size and force these fifty-five years?
No single person has been responsible, nor only the people of this present age. Rather, it is the gift of a vast communion of worshiping Christians, saints of many ages, many lands, and many tongues, countless talents all expressing the one faith founded upon the life of Christ.
It is the gift of the church, ancient and contemporary.
Annunciation
Matthew Whitney
For the church past has bequeathed to the church present a grand theatric - a drama, as it were - which takes six months to enact, December into May. There is no audience. All are actors. And this play, rather than representing something different from itself, actually contains and communicates the truth, for its protagonist is the Lord Jesus, and the Lord is always present in his Word -- and the Lord is truth.... 
Each Sunday's service, as I've said, involves the people in a new episode; but altogether all the Sundays weave the entire drama of Jesus into something like five acts.
I have been one of those people so fiercely involved. This is the way that I've been shaped. And these are acts that have driven my whole person so dramatically close to Jesus:

Annunciation
Nicolas Poussin
Act 1: Advent
Before the hero enters, people anticipate his coming. Old promises are remembered. New promises are made. Excitement sparks and burns in the hearts of all the players: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, you, me, the children. Daily the excitement blazes hotter and hotter until we can scarcely stand it.
Who's coming? What's his name? What'll he be like? What's he going to do?
People prepare. Christians examine themselves. They clean up their lives, interior and exterior,  making themselves ready to meet the hero at his coming. So kindled are many emotions that good hearts break into song both in heaven and on earth, waiting, waiting for ...
Annunciation Post
Phaedra Taylor
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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

uneasy Advent

familly altar. Advent 2009

Four days in to my second year of paying attention to the rhythm of Advent, I'm getting an epiphany (a little liturgy humor for you, there).  

I like the idea of Advent far more than its invitation to discipline.  

This thought occurred right about the moment today's rowdy rainstorm stopped slapping windows and gutters along the backside of the house.  The moment that I became aware of the quiet. That's when light began to dawn on my darkness.  

In the quiet, my first reflex was not to wonder what marvel had muffled the storm, not run to the window to discover snowflakes swallowing raindrops.  My first reflex was to be bothered by the quiet, to instinctively consider a variety of noise-making options at my disposal. Music?  Television?

This was not a conscious thought-process, mind you. Eventually, reason caught up with reflex and begged to question: Wait just a minute....why do I feel the need for noise?  

Because without it, I get cranky.  My minds fills up full of thoughts that pester my brain and dent my sense of security in my place in this world.  I think noise is kind of like the fluffy socks I wear all winter to keep my feet and legs from aching with cold air seeping up through the floors.  Noise distracts me from the insecurity of silence.

The paper Christmas angel on our mantel is the only decoration we saved after our 2002 New Year's Eve house fire.  If you could see her in person you'd notice all the black singing her gown.

In the context of my attempt to notice Advent, I've concluded that maybe I've learned some of this aversion to silence in my low-Church, non-denominational tradition.  After all, we all but form cheers to ourselves for our independence from the ancient bonds of liturgy and structure.  Maybe occasionally we nod in the spiritual father's general direction during our high seasons of Christmas and Easter.  But, let's face it, during the quiet seasons of Advent, Lent -- even Pentecost -- we basically thumb our noses at them.

So, today I decided that, possibly, it all boils down to the fact that we really just don't like to wait.  And we certainly don't like to wait in silence.  After all, we've got bible studies to read and ministry needs to fix and, anyway, who needs silence, now that we've been liberated to rock out our worship services?  We're so free!  Free to pray whatever we want, whenever we want; to sing whatever we want, however we want. Really, why would anyone who's tasted this kind of uninhibited freedom in worship want to go backwards into structure, form, and - gasp!- repetition?

And today,  like almost every day, I sort of wished that I didn't care.  Caring about liturgy of our church family makes me feel lonely most of the time.  Sometimes, even a little crazy. And I'd like to just not care anymore. But then I get a flier in the mail like the one I received today from our local "Christian bookstore".  Right about page two, a beautifully-bound book touting the benefits of liturgy.  Should have made me glad, yes?  

Well, no.  Not really.  In fact, everything about the sales-pitch -- the well-placed stock photo, the carefully-selected blurb of text, even the all-new sale price -- felt like an almost-too-perfect example of what is most wrong with all of us free-wheeling non-denominational types. In the absence of a historical framework, we end up waiting for some publishing (or music industry) trend-setter to market our spiritual disciplines to us.   We take  our cues from packaging and promotion, from the advertising sound-bites features and benefit to our latest felt need.  And without noticing, we play the role of consumer in the practice of the spiritual disciplines. Worst of all, we are lulled into believing that we were the ones smart enough to come up with the latest idea in the first place.

You're educated about that most harmful of marketing strategies, right? The part where mass-marketing cultivates and reinforces the mindset that the consumers are the ones in charge.  That we the consumers are forming the world around us instead of it forming us. And playing our role, we tirelessly consider our purchasing options, select them as accessories to our desired image, then shell out the cash necessary for that particular lifestyle.  But we conveniently forget how little control we have of the messages coming to us from the marketing gurus in the first place. Wait a minute, why do we need [fill in the blank]??

In other words, what I'm trying to say is that you can't purchase your spiritual discipline off the pages of a glossy catalog -- as if you ingeniously stumbled across an idea that no one else had thought of yet.  To put it bluntly: there's no such thing as a liturgical trend-setter which is a problem since the mother's milk of marketing, "Christian" or otherwise, is trend-setting.  

That, friends, is why I was dis-couraged instead of en - couraged when I opened the catalog from the Christian bookstore today.  I'm not distraught that someone is making a profit off a prayer book.  I'm distraught that a prayer book is being sold with no historical, educational, familial context, leaving the consumer to believe: Do I have an eye for a good find, or what?!

The liturgical rhythms of the ancient Church calendar resist our marketing-crazed, top-40 worship hits-listening, I'm-a-happy-hip-liberated-Christian, goshdarnit! mindset.  And, today, I realized that if I'm really going to live in the reality that I did not make it, but it is making me, I've got to be willing to sit in the uncomfortable insecurity of the quiet seasons of the liturgy.

The waiting.  The pregnant pauses between festal muchness and cleansing simplicity.  Awkward and achy with hope as a nine-month-stretched uterus creaking along a donkey's back. 

Quiet and uneasy, waiting for the unknown moment of birth.  



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