Christmas Lessons

Isaiah 9:2-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-20 | Psalm 96

My children asked me earlier this week what my favorite Christmas carol was, and I couldn’t think of which one to choose. There are so many, and each one of them highlights a different aspect of the nativity (except for the ones you hear on the radio’s stream of Christmas music that seems to have nothing to do with Jesus and everything about a different sense of the word “baby”). That’s the thing, isn’t it? Christmas is about the birth of the Christ child and everything that entails. The birth of a child changed our world, and imparted upon us themes that recur not only in the music we share but the stories we tell. These are some of the themes I’m picking up on this season:

    • God’s timing is God’s timing. If Mary had her way, they would not have been traveling to Bethlehem in her final days of pregnancy. If Joseph had his way, Mary would not have been pregnant to begin with. If the powers that be had their way, there would not be a game-changer entering the playing field. But God’s timing is perfect as it is mysterious, and it is beyond our understanding. We realize this when circumstances in our life send us reeling. We won’t always know–we can’t always know how or why things happen the way that they do, but we walk in the way of peace and trust that there is a greater wisdom in our midst.
    • There’s no room at the inn. My modern interpretation of “no room at the inn” is that scene in Forrest Gump when he’s looking for a seat on the bus, and kids repeat “seat’s taken” over and over again. He eventually finds a seat, as Joseph and Mary eventually find a place to stay, having been rejected. No one seems to want to welcome the stranger, the poor, the suspiciously unknown. No one wants the mess of birth to happen in their space. It’s all rather inconvenient, discomforting, and disruptive. How true that making space for Jesus in our lives is all of this.
    • You gotta trust the process. After all the rush, there comes a time to be still and wait, when all we can do is to trust the process. We might rush to make it to Bethlehem for a census only to wait for office hours; rush between inns, pausing for contractions; and finally remain in place while the process overtakes the body for new life to emerge into the world. Such trust requires strength and perseverance, and faith helps to keep us moving forward in the process.
    • We depend upon one another. Mary doesn’t give birth alone. She likely learned a great deal from Elizabeth, maybe even witnessed John’s birth to know what to expect. Joseph remains with her, and hopefully he was able to fetch the local midwives to attend, though we’re not surprised not to hear about them. Someone provided the stable. God doesn’t tell us how to love one another, leaving our specific actions up to us, but we need to love one another, to be in relationship with one another to make manifest God’s love for us.
    • God pays attention to all. The stories from the past are often told by those in power, and often it’s the family lore that sustains the stories of unsung heroes, of everyday miracles that impact our lives directly. Our Christian family birth story tells us that God recognizes the weak and vulnerable: a young woman, an ordinary man, and commonplace shepherds. We have a gracious, loving God who recognizes us all as worthy, even if we’re not worthy: that’s why it’s called grace and mercy. That God works miracles out of the ordinary, our hope knows no bounds.
    • God needs us to witness. Goodness bears telling and sharing! The angels didn’t hesitate in their rejoicing, and the shepherds had to see the miracle for themselves, maybe not quite sure what was going on. We, too, get to share the good news of Jesus’s presence. Like yesterday at the Miracle on 14th Street, when 436 families came through for groceries and gifts. Like on Wednesdays for the past few months when folks have come together to have conversation on difficult topics like racism, prejudice, and sexism–not just to talk but also to listen deeply and respectfully, with compassion for self and other. Like how we are a church with doors open to all, and all truly means all, regardless of any demographic we use to categorize ourselves. We are about being in relationship with one another in Christ, and that doesn’t just happen in church; it happens over coffee, in the prison and jail, in the hospitals, on the street corner,  . . . and everywhere when we realize that Jesus Christ is present in our thoughts, words, and deeds AND we give voice to that presence with thanks to God. It’s not fake. It’s not always out loud. (We Episcopalians might have to work on giving thanks in our out-loud voice.) We can extend a hand to someone in need or promise to pray for a family in distress and recall Christ’s presence in our midst, maybe even offer the peace of the Lord to a stranger.
    • We can only go through. Mary became mother having gone through pregnancy and birth. The shepherds became heralds themselves having journeyed to see for themselves and sharing the glad tidings of the angels. God broke into our earthly abode through the flesh of Jesus, and our way to God remains through Jesus Christ. Truth be told, even dramatic moments of conversion are part of a longer story, as we reflect on our relationships with God and one another throughout our lives and through all time. We don’t shortcut, sidestep, or outsmart God (see “God’s timing” above). If we are being true to ourselves and to God, we allow ourselves to be transformed by going through the process of living a life in the Light of Truth and Love of Christ. It is that Light that shows us the way, guides us, directs us, enlightens us, especially when things start to get dark.

So it’s appropriate that the birth story of our Lord starts in the dark, that we might notice the Light more clearly. May we ponder on these things in our hearts, as Mary treasured and pondered the words of the shepherds. Her story and their story are our story, shared in the songs we sing this holy season. But the light of the Son of God is not limited to one night alone. When we leave tonight, may you leave touched by the light of Christ. May you carry that light into the world, witnessing to the good news of love and peace we know because the Christ child is born.

 

P.S. My favorite carol is “O Holy Night”. . . at least for this year.

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Risking a Different Narrative

Judges 4:1-7 | Psalm 123 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 | Matthew 25:14-30

This Sunday is the only time in our Sunday Eucharistic lectionary that we get to look at the book of Judges. This provides a great plug for Bible study, thanks in part to our prompting from the collect to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. We’ll talk more about doing this in Christian Education after the 9:15, but let me point just a few things out for you, especially why I prompted you to read at least all of Chapter 4.

After Joshua died, Israel got a series of judges, of which 12 are presented in the namesake book. This is important because the Israelites don’t have a good track record when left to their own devices. (Even with judges, they’re not perfect.) The Israelites had a tendency to go along . . . and then pull a little like a car out of alignment, drifting out of line. They do wrong, anger God (expressed by oppression by enemies), then plea for repentance for which the LORD sends deliverers, or judges. This is a pretty predictable pattern that plays out time and again.

With Deborah, the fourth judge we’re given, we hear that the Israelites have displeased God. They’re being given over, sold to an enemy. Defeat is certain, what with the fancy iron-clad chariots and all. But Deborah, prophetess and judge, gives then an alternative, their hope for repentance and for getting back on the right road. She offers a teaser to their victory, that Sisera, the opposing military general, will fall at the hand of a woman.

Will it be Deborah? We’re mindful, of course, that Deborah may be judge and prophet, but she’s not the military commander; that’s Barak’s role, the one she’s directing. We could be left with the mystery, but I think it’s worthwhile to know that we get a more complicated, detailed story. There’s the basic pattern, but we have more (which is why I encouraged you to at least read all of Chapter 4).

Looking at what follows Deborah’s outrageous command, Barak basically says, “Deborah if you’re not going with me, I’m not going.” It sounds almost endearing, like President Obama saying he wouldn’t take the Oval Office without Michelle (like I’m sure he did!). Or like Moses not leading the people without Aaron to speak for him. Or like Jacob not letting go of the angel he wrestled with until he had the angel’s name. When we’re heading into battle, into stormy territory or rough water, we want to know we go with God’s assurance and blessing, especially when the prospects look grim.

So of course Deborah goes with him, and they’re victorious over the army, and they sing a song like Miriam did after they crossed the Red Sea (because we so often repeat our stories). But Sisera fled, commander as he was, and he hid in a tent where he happened to find the smith’s wife–the smith who had likely forged the iron for Sisera’s chariots. Surely at this tent, Sisera would be safe, Jael the wife providing him refuge. But she doesn’t. She gives him milk, not water (which would have indicated true hospitality–maybe like our coffee?), and when he sleeps, Jael drives a tent peg through his head–a graphic scene of violence (of which Judges has many) our lectionary opts to omit from our comfortable Sunday mornings.

Except maybe our Sunday mornings aren’t as comfortable anymore. There’s nothing that says our churches are a guaranteed, promised violence-free sanctuary. Another pattern has emerged. A headline appears. Multiple fatalities. Details about the town, the place, the victims, and the perpetrator. An investigation that lingers longer than our attention span, not bloody enough to lead the news anymore. We wring our hands and lament the loss of life, the senselessness of it all, hug our babies close and send them back to school, go back to work, go back to church, and lock our doors at night. All this in an effort to keep safe.

I spent three hours at a seminar on Thursday, a Safe Worship workshop aimed toward clergy to get us to see how or why our church might be vulnerable. They offered practical steps to keep ourselves safer, and at vestry this next week, we’ll talk about which things we’ll implement: some are simple, while others will require your help, too. We’ll keep you posted.

But I wonder what Deborah would say. When violent crimes at churches have increased about 870% from 2004-2017, where would she lead us? What would she tell us to do?

Let me offer one more insight I shared at the Continuing the Conversations on Wednesday. Tuesday night I attended a lecture at the UofA. Professor Carol Anderson, who teaches African American Studies at Emory University, shared with us the story of how in 2014 all the news stations were showing Ferguson on fire. All the anchors were saying that the African Americans were burning their home. She repeated this, as she heard it repeated over and over again. In the midst of this narrative, perpetuating that there’s something wrong with the black folk–obviously–because they’re destroying their home, she stopped.

Wait a minute. Folks don’t just burn up their homes.

She said that we were so focused or maybe even distracted by the flames that we forgot to look at the kindling that sent the flames sky-high. She talked about patterns of systemic oppressions, where profiling, incarceration, and voter suppression–thus lack of representation–were destroying the fabric of their society. Finally a match was struck, and the flames revealed the rage that was already in the offensive position. Only the narrative was focused on the reactive. And if we only ever respond to the reactive, does anything ever change? If we only get the homeless a hotel room every once in a while . . . or only treat those without insurance in the ER when they’re very sick . . . or only look at mental health or gun reform when people are gunned down . . . what will change?

When we’ve gotten off track, what do we do?

Deborah would say we’ve got to listen to and follow God.

Dr. Anderson would say we’ve got to wake up to the facts and imagine a different narrative than the one we’ve bought into.

And the Gospel? The Gospel tells us it’s complicated.

The Gospel is complicated because we want to think and believe that if we just listen to our master, our commander, the voice of justice, then we’ll be rewarded justly. But we’re given instructions, and then we’re left to our own devices. What do we do?

The parable today rewards those who took risks, and the one who thought he knew the master’s nature and did what was safe, was cast out. This surprises us because the master apparently isn’t the best of guys. But the servants are getting a lot of money–a bag of gold, 15 years’ wages, or $1.25 million are descriptions I’ve read of what a talent is. The third guy played it safe and didn’t do anything but hide his treasure. He had a choice. Barak had a choice. He could have disobeyed Deborah or tried to hide, but then as in Matthew, there’s an inevitable accountability to God. And we just don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. It’s complicated. We won’t always get it right, and we won’t always know how it’s going to end.

But a good combination of listening to God and taking risks for the sake and love of God, that’s worth our all. Stopping in our tracks to ask questions, standing at the brink of disaster and asking, “What’s going on here?”–that’s a hard and scare place to be . . . but so worth it. We know it’s worthwhile because we’re not the same person afterward. We have new knowledge about the world, our community, and ourselves. This knowledge fills our vision with awareness and clarity we didn’t have before, as if we’ve woken up to see another dimension. We see a way we can take all our talents and use them to make a difference in the world around us.

What we realize is that listening to God and taking risks transforms us into the people God needs us to be so that the world God imagined, redeemed by the Son, could be made manifest.

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Stories Not Yet Written

Having just finished The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, I find myself re-introduced into contemporary fiction and, consequently, how little I know about the swelling tide of book-dom.  This was a chance encounter at the library; I didn’t know there were at least four others in the “Thursday Next” novels, though after reading one, I can see the cause of popularity.  It was intelligent, crafty, and, as it says on the cover praise, “filled with clever wordplay, literary allusion and bibliowit.”  I didn’t even know there was such a word as “bibliowit,” but it makes perfect sense.

. . . Maybe I’ll pretend I didn’t spend half an hour reading the community.penguin blog . . . or signing up for GoodReads.  Before I continue down that rabbit hole . . .

One of the premises in Fforde’s novel is that the stories in the novel are relatively real.  The written stories play out repeatedly, always, and concurrently in their parallel universe.  (You have to read it first hand to understand.  That’s his genius, not mine.)  While the characters are human, they are sentenced to the role they’ve been given by the writer.  Their fate and destiny is very much determined.  It takes no small miracle to change the course of the stories, but it’s not impossible (in this fiction story, mind you).

It reminded me that sometimes I live my life as if my story has already been written.  I submit to my stereotype, conform to society, and maintain the appearance that is most convenient to others and often to myself.  When I have the potential to take an alternate route, I defer to what is known and comfortable, even laziness.  “What ifs” are unsettling at best when one strives to maintain a sense of stability and security, regardless of whether the potential is success or failure.

My story is not yet written, though.  I’m still alive.  I still have choices to make.  While that within me wants to stick to what has been done all these many generations, it feels as though I also have within me ties to that which is deviant.  If I can step off the well-trodden path, if I can greet each day as a page upon which I determine the destiny of the heroine, then perhaps a new cycle can begin.  It doesn’t have to garner the popular vote.

Most of the heroes in our world are unsung, virtually unknown.  Each of us, however, are the authors of our lives, the heroes/heroines of our own stories.  Each day is an adventure, each moment filled with choice and possibility.  The protagonist, of course, is anyone or anything that draws us away from creation, away from compassion.  What can I say?  I’m an optimist and a romantic.

“How strange is the lot of us mortals!  Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people.” ~Albert Einstein

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My Heritage. My Past. My Story.

This Labor Day weekend also happens to be the Cherokee National Holiday in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. 

My great-grandmother, who died just a couple of months before I was born, was Cherokee and spoke the language (which you can hear in the intro to the site above).  She spoke little English and was fond of calling my mother “cookie.”  The only Cherokee I ever learned was a curse word or two.  My grandmother didn’t want my mother speaking the tribal language so didn’t teach her.  Once my grandmother took me to visit her aunt.  For the entire visit they spoke in Cherokee.  The only word I understood was my name.  It was like listening to music.  From the tone of their voices you could gather the sentiments.  I have a sense now that maybe she wanted to teach me a bit of the language but still refrained. 

Being white was so ingrained in her.  I have no idea the prejudices she tolerated, the injustices she experienced.  She was one of those bussed to an Indian school.  She became a nurse.  She married a very tall, white man.  But she had a Bible in Cherokee.  She had high cheekbones, beautiful salt and pepper hair and a beautiful, tan complexion (which my mother and brother were blessed with — not I).  She had untold stories that I believe you could see if you looked deeply into the darkness of her eyes.  She was sassy and funny, but is there a deeper sadness I sense, even if it’s been over a decade since she passed?

Her story is my mother’s story, my story.  At the cellular, emotional and physiological level, we are intimately connected.  And as we go this weekend to experience a celebration of culture and life, even if it’s one we don’t participate fully in, we know it is a part of our being, and I’m sure our souls will rejoice.

My mother wonders if the hospital she was born in and her grandmother’s house are still there.  My mother was born by c-section and my grandmother sterilized, supposedly because of Rh incompatibility.  I wonder how many stories I can absorb.  I wonder what my brother will feel.  I remember on the bus one time that he was crying.  I asked him why.  Another child was calling him “black.”  Our identities are so fragile.  If we were African-American, maybe it wouldn’t have been a big deal; I think the issue was that he was different.  Would he have cried had he been called “red” and I explained to him that’s what inconsiderate folks called Indians?

When pregnant with my second child, I started reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”  About a third of the way into it, I had to put it down.  The images were too clear to me.  My dreams were living them.  I was one of the women tortured, corralled.  They say in pregnancy the veil is thin, so maybe it just wasn’t the time.  I’ll try again soon — to read, not to be pregnant!

I’ll share my experience next week.  Today, I’m just sharing a part of my story.  I’d be glad to hear yours.

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Share a Story . . . Yours

These past few weeks I’ve spent more time thinking . . . and reading . . . rather than writing.  I wouldn’t say that my well was dry or that I’ve spent time filling it.  I’d say I’ve been listening, which is the largest component in discernment.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be working on a new site design, or branding, if you will.  I’m going to come up with a more consistent schedule of topics to reflect what is most dear to our hearts.  And probably most importantly, I want to work on building our community, sharing our stories so that we encourage each other along our journey, provide a little direction, maybe, if we need assistance.  Whether you’re a maid, matron or crone, you are welcome here, and I’m sure you have inspiring stories to share.  Contact me, and we’ll see how and if it fits.  Communication is what it’s all about.  Either leave comments or e-mail me — sara at everydaysimple dot org.  (trying to prevent spam!)

Together our stories weave a beautiful tapestry.  Collectively our creativity fluorishes.  Journeying together, the Divine is ever-present.  That is what being a woman is all about.

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