Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve 2013: On vulnerabilty, holiness, and human statues

 “Do not be afraid.”
This is what the angels always say. They said it to the shepherds, overwhelmed by flashes of lightning. They said it to Joseph, telling him to still get married, even though his wife was pregnant. They said it to Mary herself, to whom the invitation for the Holy Spirit to come upon her certainly could not have been an easy choice.

Do not be afraid. Everyone in our story has been told not to be afraid.

The world that Mary and Joseph and those shepherds lived in was pretty different from our own.  They were all on the margins, Jewish people living in an occupied land. For the shepherds, even more so, they were viewed as being particularly untrustworthy, living as they did outside the bounds of polite society, instead keeping the company of sheep. There is not a lot of cleanliness or polite society to be had spending your days with a flock of wooly animals out in the field.  None of our protagonists tonight would have fit in very well in a world like our own. They didn’t even fit in in their own.

And that’s exactly the point.
There’s a universalism that is implied in these texts—if God could be born of a girl like Mary, if a guy like Joseph could go against his culture and his family and marry someone who would waddle, rather than glide smoothly down the aisle—if the shepherds were the ones who would declare that there is peace on earth now, who would say that God’s goodwill extends to everyone—then certainly, certainly, there will be room in that manger for us. In my sermon on Sunday, I talked about all the questionable people in Jesus’ lineage through Joseph—he was related to prostitutes, liars, and adulterers—and those are the ones that the Gospel of Matthew included!

Theologically, we can probably get on board with the idea that the core message of Christmas is that this miraculous child of God and child of humanity is born for all of us. If I asked each of you, you’d probably say, “Yes, Christmas is for everyone.” Yes, of course, it doesn’t matter who you are. Salvation for all. Sure.”

What is in question, I suspect, in many of our own hearts, is whether this child is actually born for us.  Do we believe Titus—I mean, who ever reads Titus—do we believe him that the we are heirs of the hope of eternal life, do we believe that it’s not because of our righteousness but only because of God’s good nature that we are reconciled, saved, treasured, beloved—is that really for us?

I don’t always behave as though it were, and I wonder if you don’t, either.

There is a lot about our culture that’s different from that of the shepherds and Mary and Jesus.  But what we all have in common, I’m guessing, is fear. What we fear might be different, but we still fear.

I think one of the scariest things for all of us is our vulnerability. As a parent, I feel vulnerable on behalf of my children. As a priest, I feel vulnerable on behalf of Christ Church. I’m vulnerable as a spouse, as a daughter, as a friend.   I’m vulnerable standing right here.

The common denominator for each of these is the simplest, hardest thing: it’s love.  I love my children and I fear for them. I love this church and I worry about the leaking roof and the pledge income. I love my parents as they are a little greyer and a little slower with every visit. I love my husband and trust him with everything I have, but I also know that he is human and we will both disappoint each other. Love is about vulnerability.  It’s being willing to show up, to be judged, to admit your need.

This week, I heard an incredibly moving TED talk by the performer Amanda Palmer. She’s become controversial over the last year for beginning to just give away her music; she invites people to pay, but they don’t have to.  She says that we need to stop talking about how to “make” people pay. Instead, we need to let them.  It can be up to each individual to offer their gifts, whether a couch for the band to sleep on or ten dollars for a music download. Let the artist do their art, and let the people give from their gratitude. Let them be in relationship with each other. Whether, as she says it is, this is a way to run a music business, I don’t know—it does sound a lot like church, this relation of trust and love, creativity and hope.

She says that some of her courage for this came from her work as a street artist, when she spent time in Harvard Square as the Eight Foot Bride. So she stood there, and people would drive by and say, “Get a job!” and, despite that that was her job, she said that she had the most amazing interactions with people, standing there on a crate, painted white in a long dress. She said that when someone came by, they’d put their dollar or whatever in the hat, and she’d give them a flower and look at them. She’d really, really look at them. And she says that sometimes, someone would look back, and there would be this astonishing moment of gratitude: thank you for seeing me. Thank you. No one ever sees me.

This shared vulnerability, of her standing there, being seen, of the passersby seeing her and engaging with her, I think, that’s what holiness is. Palmer talks about the art of asking—how terrifying and wonderful it is to admit that you need something.  You want to be seen. You want to see. You want to acknowledge the other.

That vulnerability of love is the core of what this day is about.  It’s about us seeing each other. It’s about God seeing us. And it’s about us seeing God. Every place where love happens, every place where we trust each other with who we are, it’s holy.

At point of Christmas isn’t just God becoming human. It isn’t just all of us coming together with those shepherds for a night of wonder and awe.  What happens at Christmas is all of this, and more. At Christmas, God—God Godself, offers us an example of the vulnerability of love. God offers God’s very self to us, in this soft, needy, human form, and shows us. This is what love looks like. Love looks like trust. It looks like need. It looks like hope. 

Joseph and Mary ask for a place to stay.  It’s holy.
The shepherds are amazed at what they’ve seen. It’s holy.
Mary ponders in her heart. It’s holy.
The angels say “Don’t be afraid.” It’s holy.

This day, this day when the power of God becomes vulnerable, this day, the power of God comes in this tiny child. This day, we open ourselves to each other.  This day, we refuse to be separated. This day, we won’t be afraid.  This day, we, too, will be holy.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Purple elves and blue virgins

This week, my facebook feed has been roughly divided evenly among two hot topics in church geekery: pronouncements on the Elf on a Shelf and pronouncements on the eternal war between blue and purple for Advent colors. You will be forgiven if you did not realize these debates were a thing.

As 3 year old Henry pointed out in church on Sunday during my children’s sermon when I asked what was different and he exclaimed, "You should be wearing green!" my parish has mostly noticed that the colors have changed for church. Advent is purple, after such a long season of green since Pentecost last June it's no wonder Henry thought it was Just Wrong.  He's not the only one who would say that, though, as the partisans in the Blue vs Purple war are all aflutter. Remember what other season is purple? LENT! Do you immediately think of Lent's solemnity and penitence when you think about Advent? You probably don't. Enter: blue. The tradition of using blue for Advent is a medieval tradition that goes back to a knot of ritual practices from the Salisbury Cathedral in the eleventh century that were distinctly English as opposed to Roman.  They were Anglican before Anglicanism was cool but also still really "Catholic," pre Reformation as it was. And so in the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century enjoyed quite a revival, today revealing itself in the use of "Sarum blue" in Advent.

The idea with blue is that it visually shifts the emphasis to expectation, not penitence; Lent is when we thing about amending our lives, not Advent. It reminds us of Mary, too.   So why don't we use blue at Christ Church? Because in defining Advent against a too-sin-focused Lent, we miss the boat on both Advent and Lent. It's not that our usual understanding of Advent needs less Lent. It's that our usual understanding of Lent needs more Advent (and, of course, we're not going out to spend a bunch of money on new altar hangings).

Here's the thing. What Lent and Advent both have in common more than penitence is grace: the joining of human and divine at Christmas happens for everyone and for all time. You don't earn it. You don't prove yourself. Nobody's reporting back to tattle. Whether you read the Gospel of Matthew (magi) or Luke (shepherds) the birth is heralded by some pretty sketchy characters. Like the resurrection we prepare for in Lent, it's an act of crushing generosity and love that flattens any of our own pretensions to earning our way in.  It's a pure gift. Here's where the elf on the shelf comes in: that sucker is supposed to be watching, reporting back to Santa every night. Elf on the shelf is old-style Ash Wednesday, when we catalogue our failures and focus on all the ways we don't measure up. But we only do that for one day-we don't spend a whole season on it, and it's always grounded in the love of God that makes it even possible for us to withstand that honesty.

As a parent of young children I don't hold anything against anyone for trying to extract some better behavior for a time. I also love the idea of an enchanted world where the humdrum stuff that surrounds us come to life.  Have you seen Dinovember?    You probably want to give your kids Christmas presents, right? Because it's fun.  You don't love them any less when they're behaving badly. I mean, the elf probably makes them happy too, but I just wonder if it could seem a bit less failure oriented?  Christmas is about so much more. And so is Advent, and Easter, and Lent.  Now I have to go find my coffee cup because I think St Peter climbed out of his icon and hid it again.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Now that it's October:

Here comes the summer...finally some poems I wrote from our cross country trip--I caught up with the family in Minnesota after they'd been on the road for a week, and then to South Dakota to visit our dear friends Rob and Jeanne Schwarz, who work on the Standing Rock Reservation (Rob as a priest, Jeanne as...everything...).  You will note that the South Dakota poem comes with reference and photographic evidence of target practice, though it's hard to call it "practice" when I've never shot a gun before and am not eager to do so again. Kids were heroic, husband drove our hopelessly out-of-its-league-with-trailer Subaru wagon brilliantly. There was about 90 minutes in Montana when I drove it and I am not proud of the outcome so I'll leave it at that.

Some numbers:

Over 10,000 miles driven
Visited 8 National Parks, (or 7?) 
Purchased  8 new tires (five for the car, two plus a spare for the tent trailer), one clutch, one back windshield
One song on constant repeat: This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie (thanks, 3 1/2 year old A.)
And one best quote: “Your’uns problem is y’uns ain’t from here” (Gary W., Hot Springs, NC, charitably observing that the choices that lead to the lost trailer in the woods were "misguided" rather than "[expletive deleted] stupid."). 

Washington State

July 22: Washington State.
(10:30 pm)

Having now
crossed this country,
Massachusetts to Washington,
exchanged sea for desert and back again.

Today we fell apart.
Two hours became six,
all of us wanting 
to fall asleep in the backseat,
to be awoken
when it was all over,
prying sticky fingers from our seatbelts
washing our hands before falling
into bed.

really, when?
When does memory become nostalgia?
When is the relief
that a child fastens her own shoes
replaced with longing
for the time everything
could be
so easily repaired 
with an absently offered breast.

When does that happen, when—
when does it become
that sweet-sour ache
bittersweet familiarity of how
it will never be again.


July 17, 2013: Montana, Route 90

Checotah, OK

August 4: Checotah, OK.

again too close to the highway.
It’s loud.
Grasshoppers as big as my thumb compete with
semi trucks in the near distance.

This darkness, this humid night carrying
sound and the past across miles, years.

Route 611,
Eastern Pennsylvania.
Four years old at the stove, my
Grandmother's vague wheeze, her antique curling iron in
the flame of the stove.

"I tell you, that child looks
just like Shirley Temple!"

Enjoy the fuss for a while
run for the hills,
The flat rock where the garter snakes hid,
salamanders and toads.

Fall asleep in these sounds,
at the mercy of another
night, another
time, another
passing by.

 Photo July 11: Wall Drug, Wall, SD

Santa Fe

August 2: Santa Fe

Santa Fe, Flat Tire
Drive north, the Bobcat on your left.
No, south. 
Find the blinking light and continue a mile.
Race against the sunset.

None of these.
Do nothing. 
Wait at the side of the road.
Watch for lightning in the distance,
throw sugary snacks to the back seat, grateful for
patience, forgiveness,
someone on the way.
 July 22, 2013: Wallace, ID

August 1, 2013: Santa Fe