Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What are you doin' New Years....

My mom called me on the phone today, asking about the grocery bag she left at our house on Christmas Day. She wondered if we might stop by tomorrow sometime for crackers and cheese (and oh, by the way, drop off the grocery bag).

I asked her about the Annual New Years' Eve Party they always go to. One of their friends is going to pick them up so they can go tonight.

They have been getting together with the same group of couples for New Years' Eve for around 50 years. They were all member of the same Young Couples Group, called the "Merry Mates", back in the 1950s.

It was a church thing.

Back then, they didn't just have New Years' Eve parties, of course. They got together throughout the year at various times. Some of their get-togethers were just for adults, and some included the whole family. I especially enjoyed the Christmas parties where all of the kids went caroling together. We also went camping with some of the families.

Now they all go to different churches. They don't see each other so very often, although they are still especially good friends with three of the couples.

But they still get together every New Year's Eve.

It's a pretty low-key party: games, food, maybe one glass of champagne at midnight. But they always have someplace to go, and someone to be with on New Year's Eve.

I find myself envying that. I envy the sense of tradition; I would like to have a place to go every New Year's Eve. And low key would really work for me.

But most of all, I envy the friendship. They have friends that they have travelled together with for over 50 years. That's something, in this day and age.

And I can't help thinking that it lends some perspective to ushering out the old year and ushering in the new one.

At the grocery store this morning, my check out person (who knows I am a pastor), asked if we had anything special for the youth on New Year's Eve. I had to admit that we do not, although I think it's a fine idea.

She went on to reminisce about her experiences as a young person. They spent all evening in the church. There was worship and a party and worship again, for all ages. The next day the youth went sledding. I had to admit, it sounded pretty fun to me too.

We are going out to eat this year, just the two of us, and then watching movies at home. Maybe we'll get a party hat for Scout, too.

So, what are you doing? Do you have special plans or traditions?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Reflections on the Year

I can't believe that 2009 is only three days away. 2008 was my first full year of blogging; it was also the year I discovered facebook, something I am ambivalent about. The year held its share of ambivalent moments, as well as memorable times and disappointments. Here are a few:

Memorable:
1. We'll always have Paris. Even though we were there only three days, the trip was worth every moment, from the first-class seating on the trip over, to the little Parisian hotel 5 minutes from the Louvre, to Notre Dame Cathedral, sidewalk cafes and the Seine.
2. This year I embarked on a journey to organize people in my congregation around the issue of education. We organized a community forum in September; we're still working on our next steps. It's challenging, but I believe that we are on the threshold of some good possibilities for becoming a church that really lives the gospel.
3. The Festival of Homiletics in my town in May. I got to meet a lot of Revgals and hear a lot of good preaching. I don't think I can go next year, but I'm sure I'll put it on my regular agenda to go from now on.
4. I took some risks in posts about community organizing, immigration and racism.
5. I started therapy.

Disappointing:
1. I did not read as much as I would have liked to.
2. I haven't gotten anything published yet. Clearly, I need some sort of writing group, and to develop goals.
3. Scout "flunked" agility.
4. I didn't get and implement a creative and/or brilliant new ministry idea this year. I still think I need to take more risks.
5. Two dog-friends died this year. I was very attached to them.
6. I have been having trouble keeping up with the blogs lately.

Ambivalent:
1. facebook. On the one hand, I have gotten in touch with people I haven't seen in years. On the other hand, it is a huge black hole and waste of time sometimes.
2. The financial situation at the church. On the one hand, it's a scary budget deficit. On the other hand, the situation contains possibilities for our congregation to begin to be honest about what it means to be a faithful community of disciples of Jesus at this time and in this place.
3. Though I took risks in my writing, I still think I need to be bolder in what I write -- without compromising others' privacy or anonymity, of course.
4. I have not posted so much about the "big events", whether tragedy or success: Mumbai, flooding in Iowa, the election, housing and economic crisis. I'm not sure what I think about that.

So: what are your high and low points of the year? What are you ambivalent about?

I'm considering linking to what I consider to me my top ten posts of the year....

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Incredible Expanding White Jello, and other tales of Christmas

It seems like no matter how much I plan, some things don't get done until the last minute.

There were still a few Christmas presents to buy even after the 4th Sunday of Advent: one for my neice and one of my stepsons, a couple of stocking stuffers. I even had one last-minute gift for Dear Husband I had to run out and buy on Monday evening while he was gone. There were a few Household Items that we still needed to buy at the Big Store with the Red Circles on Monday. And of course there were culinary items to purchase for the Big Christmas Day Dinner.

I was not responsible for all parts of the Big Christmas Day Dinner. This was a team effort. My mom and mother-in-law would be bringing turkey, stuffing, ham, treats, treats, treats. My offerings? The traditional Lutheran green bean casserole, corn (for those who won't eat the traditional Lutheran green bean casserole), two store-bought pies, and White Jello, my sister-in-law's esteemed recipe. Which I couldn't find. I called her on Tuesday after searching the house. She emailed it to me Tuesday evening.

My husband offered to go to the store so that I could get other things done on Tuesday evening. I made a list.

I left one thing off.

So very early on Christmas eve morning, I was at the store, buying more cream cheese for the white jello. (White jello ingredients: Cream Cheese, Knox Gelatin, sugar, milk, Cool Whip, vanilla).

I still wasn't done with the Christmas eve sermon, not quite. So instead of making the White Jello, the favorite of my husband's boys, I finished the sermons. My plan was to make the jello between the early and the late services on Christmas eve.

But I didn't. I forgot the recipe at church. (Why did I take the recipe to church?)

So, after our incredible late Christmas eve service, I brought out the electric mixer and all of the ingredients and set out to make the estimable white jello. I wanted a lot, because everyone likes it.

So I doubled the recipe.

I forgot that the recipe my sister-in-law sent me was already doubled. I had halved it for mother's day.

Needless to say, at 12:30 a.m., I was overflowing with white jello, all the way to the top of the mixing bowl. It was hard to get all of it adequately beaten, and also hard to find enough jello molds for it. I was also worried that the consistency didn't seem quite right.

I am happy to say that the white jello tasted just fine. However, we still have a lot left.

We also have lefse, cheesecake, two kinds of pie, and lots of cookies. Really. I'm still not sure where ALL of the cookies came from.

Want some?

I would be happy to share the white jello recipe. Just remember to cut it in half.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day Friday Five

Mary Beth over at Revgalblogpals gives us this Friday Five:

It's Boxing Day! Whatever that may mean to you, I invite you on this day to simply share five things that today, December 26th, will bring for you.

Since I am so late to play, I will simply share five things I did today.

1. Slept in. I took the 2nd day of Christmas off. I often plan to take the day after Christmas off, but sadly, we often have a death at Christmas time. This year I really took the whole day off, slept in, and made breakfast.

2. Went shopping. Again, I hardly ever shop on the day after Christmas. We went book-shopping with gift cards. I haven't decided what to get yet. I'm looking at a knitting book called One-Skein Wonders. I'm trying to find some fast, easy projects to perk me up and help me keep going on learning knitting.

3. Took Scout for a walk.

4. Went to see the movie Marley and Me. I cried.

5. Went out for chinese food. We brought home leftovers.

Happy 2nd Day of Christmas!

Scout's Christmas

Scout had a good Christmas this year, I think.

She didn't try to drink the water under the tree, or eat any of the Christmas presents. She did have to stay by herself for awhile on Christmas Eve. but he didn't have to stay in a room by herself while the people came on Christmas Day, like she did when she was a puppy. She was possessive then, and kept stealing things and growling at people. She made friends with my neice, who at first said what she always says, "I don't like big dogs," but by the end of the day said, "I guess she's all right." Scout got a little bit of turkey (just one bite), she got a Scarf from grandma and grandpa, she got a new squeaky toy and a new bed. And she got 1/2 of a small piece of pumpkin pie (that was a mistake.)


She also gave me a present (it is more blessed to give than to receive, you know). She gave me the book Angel Dogs.

For our part, we had a pretty good Christmas too. We are glad she is part of our lives.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Nativity of Our Lord 2008

John 1:1-14

"Love has Found Us"

One of my favorite carols, an unusual one, begins like this:
"Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.
I would my true love did so chance
to see the legend of my play:
To call my true love to my dance."
The chorus continues:
Sing O my love, oh my love, my love
This have I done for my true love.
The singer, in this carol, is the Almighty Word, the Son of God,
the play is the story of his life on earth among us,
and the "dancing day" he refers to is the day of his incarnation: the day "the Word became flesh," according to St. John.
Perhaps, though, the author of this carol had in mind these words from the apocrypha, from the Wisdom of Solomon:
"For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful Word leaped down from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed."
The word leaped down – danced – to the virgin’s womb – to the manger – to our world, and as the carol imagined, it was for love: "this have I done for my true love."

"The word became flesh and lived among us."
With these words John makes his case: the one who was born in a stable and lived among us, the one who healed and forgave, the one who taught the people and held children, the one who died,
was also the one who spoke the heavens and the earth into being, the one who is almighty and all-powerful, the one who Was, and Is, and Is to Come.
The Holy one of God has lived here, among us.
As C.S. Lewis once put it, in his science fiction trilogy, we are the "visited" planet.
But the word, "visited," even the word "lived" does not quite capture it. The real word is "tabernacled" – according to John, God tabernacled with us in Jesus – and the significance of this word goes far back in Israel’s history, back to the time of the Judges.
In those days Israel was a loosely organized group of tribes.
There was not yet a centralized place of worship in Jerusalem, not yet a permanent homo for the Ark of the Covenant, not yet a king to unite the people.
No, the Ark was housed in a tent, and carried where the people went – whether into battle, or to worship, or traveling.
This tent was the "tabernacle" for the presence of God.
In the same way, John believes, Jesus’ flesh was the tabernacle for the presence of God, dwelling among the people again now.

Two things are important to know about this tabnernacle:
First, it was a modest, and a temporary, shelter.
It was, in reality, a tent, and the glory of it, and its strength, was in the Ark of the Covenant inside it.
It was a tent: vulnerable to wind and rain and storms, to fire and water, frail and frayed.
But inside it carried the strength of God.
"And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory."
The Word took on our frail flesh, vulnerable to diseass and disappointment, to hunger and thirst, to fear and to death.
The Almighty Word leaped down from heaven not to sit on a throne but to lie in a manger in a stable.
The Almighty Word leaped down from heaven not to battle Rome, but to battle sin and death.
The Almighty Word leaped down from heaven to be torn and beaten on a cross for us, "and we have beheld his glory."

Perhaps we feel more acutely our own vulnerability these days.
We hear – or have felt ourselves – the impact of our faltering economy.
People are losing their jobs, their homes – wondering about the predictions of hard economic times ahead.
And we are still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan; terrorists attack in other parts of the world, as well.
200 people in Burnsville this Christmas feel the bitterness of being homeless.
And at this time of year, full of tenderness and hope, we are also especially vulnerable to disappointment, dashed hopes and feelings of inadequacy.
People who are not able to muster up a large crowd of family and friends at Christmas-time might feel judged by the expectations of the season.
People who are not able to show their love for their families by giving lavish celebrations feel that somehow they’ve let others – and themselves – down.
We are made of frail flesh – even the winter wind tells us that.

Here is the second thing about tabernacles: not only are they temporary, they are movable.
Once Israel built the temple, then everyone had to goto the temple to worship properly.
Israel went to find God.
But first, and long ago, God went to the people, and God went with the people.
He went before them into battle, he went before them as they wandered and traveled.
He was a movable God – not just for one place, but for every place.
"And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory."

The Word became flesh and came to where we are.
We could not go up to heaven and find him, so he came down from heaven and found us.
He came to the stable and the manger where the poor gathered.
He came to the lepers and where the outcasts lived.
He came to the prisoners and he came to those who couldn’t see or walk, and he came to the ones who had not voice to tell him what they needed.
He came to those who couldn’t make ends meet, and he fed them.
He came to the earth, scarred by war, doomed by hate and indifference.
He came to those who were lost, who were wandering, who didn’t know who they were.
He came to us.

In a children’s story by Katherine Paterson, a father is searching for his runaway son.
Two years ago they thought he was dead, but there is a new story around that his son is alive and somewhere in Washington D.C.
On Christmas eve, the father goes in search of him, with only the name of a minster he thinks can help him.
He ends up at an inner city church and shelter, guided by two other runaway children, a boy and a girl. He ends up driving down streets and through neighborhoods that he had never seen before, and hoped never to see again.
He learns that his son has taken a different name, and "didn’t really want to be found."
But he continues, desperate to find his son, to try to repair the breach between them.
Finally he and the other youth see a sign that the girl recognizes, the blinking light of the White Star Savings and Loan Corporation.
It’s a seeding-looking building, but it’s the boarded-up house across the street that the girl points to.
"I think that’s where they are staying," she says.
The father stays in his car for awhile. The house looks uninhabited.
But they notice a thin line of smoke coming from the building.
Someone must be there after all.
When there is no answer at the door, the three of them break in, using a credit card.

There they discover a young girl and her baby – his son’s baby.
She tells him that his son is dead.
The father looks around the place – cold and dirty, with rats running around the room. "Let’s get another place to stay," he urges.
But she refuses to leave. So the father decides that he will stay the night as well – to protect his grandson and to hope to know the child’s mother.

"The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us."
He lived in whatever bad neighborhoods we live in, broke into the house just to see us, slept on our floors to protect us from danger.
Even though we had changed our names, even though we didn’t want to be found, he came to us, to our world, to heal the breach that was between us , to save us and protet us.
And this he did for his true love – for you and me.

So the father slept on the floor of the old tenement house that Christmas Eve.
In the middle of the night he was awakened by a rat that was attacking his grandson.
He leapt up from the floor and, with a strength he didn’t know he had, attacked and killed the rat.
Little did he know that his son was watching through a crack in the door.
He wasn’t dead.
He had been found.
Love had finally found him.
For so long he had doubted his father’s love, but now he knew.

If ever you have doubted the father’s love, now you know... "for the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son."
The Word was born among us, laid in a manger, vulnerable and helpless as we are.
The Word lived among us, sharing our lives, sharing our fears and our fate. The Word leapt down from heaven to seek and to find us, and continues to seek us even this day, this cold Christmas Day.
The Almighty Word went to the outskirts of town, went to the cross, went to death, seeking us, healing the breach that was between us.

He still goes with us.
He goes with the hungry, those made homeless by fire or fate, the lonely, the wanderers.
And still the minstrel sings, "This have I done for my true love."
AMEN

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

This Little Babe

This is one of my favorite songs -- I found it on you tube. Enjoy and merry Christmas eve. I will possibly post a sermon tomorrow.

In the meantime, have a joyous Christmas.

God is with us.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Broken

One of our Christmas presents the first year after we got married was a 20 piece place setting of some Christmas china. The idea was that every year we would be able to add some pieces to the china.

But, the next year the company discontinued the pattern.

A couple of years ago, I discovered that some of the pieces were available on ebay. But I never was brave enough actually to bid on anything.

This year I did.

Today the pieces came. This is how they looked.

It seems that some other things may be broken this Christmas, too. But, I'm working on them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday Sermon

Advent 4: "The Third Miracle"

"The Lord is with you." That’s what the angel Gabriel told the young woman – Mary – so long ago. "The Lord is with you." To our ears, there might seem nothing exceptional about this greeting. After all, we say something similar to one another every week here at worship. "The Lord be with you/And also with you." That’s the way we greet one another near the opening of our worship services. These are deceptively simple words, words that we say to one another each week, so that perhaps we don’t think much about what they mean. And yet to Mary, hearing "The Lord is with you" from the angel Gabriel, these words are nothing short of a miracle, and they cause her to wonder – just what sort of a greeting this might be.

"The Lord is with you," the angel’s words to Mary – just what sort of greeting is this and what exactly does it mean? To Mary’s ears, this greeting is nothing short of a miracle, something beyond her imagining – and she doesn’t even realize the full implications of what it might mean– and neither do we. To understand a little more the meaning of this phrase, we need only to turn to our first lesson today, the reading from 2nd Samuel. The King is talking to the prophet Nathan about his plans. He is musing about the fact that here he is, living in a fine house, a palace even, and the Lord is living in a tent. That’s what the tabernacle was, really, it was a kind of a tent for the ark of the covenant. And David says to the prophet, I think that I will build a house – a temple – a permanent building – for the Lord. Nathan replies to the king with these words, "The Lord is with you." What he means is: go ahead and build that palace. God will bless this project. God will be with you in this. So what he says is, "The Lord is with you."That’s what the greeting really means. It means: you are blessed, and your work is blessed; God’s will is going to be done through you. "The Lord is with you."

The two things the angel says, "Favored one!" and "The Lord is with you" really mean the same thing – and they are nothing short of a miracle. "The Lord’s will is going to be done through Mary – a young girl, only 12 or 13 years old. That’s even more incredible than Nathan’s word to David, because David was a king and was used to thinking that God worked through his actions. But Mary was a humble and ordinary person, like you and me, and the angel told her, "The Lord is with you." And that’s nothing short of a miracle.But this is the season for miracles, isn’t it?
This is the season for miracles, both sacred and secular. The sacred stories we hear in this season are full of miracles – but in this season we have become used to throwing the word "miracle" around a lot, so that it seems that things as natural as snow on the tree branches andas fantastic as Rudolph’s red nose are all called "miracles." It is the season of miracles, and some of them bring tears to our eyes, and cause lumps in our throats. But maybe that’s because, if we will admit it to ourselves, we need a miracle or two – especially right now — at this season and in this time. We could use a miracle or two right now, when we hear about and see the many kinds of cruelty there are in the world. We could use a miracle or two when we are still reeling from death and terror in India, when we continue to be involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We could use a miracle or two right now, when so many are losing their jobs, and when men like Tom Petters and Bernard Madoff are accused of cheating and using many people who trusted them. The truth is, we could use a miracle or two right now.... if our family is torn and in need of reconciliation, if we are grieving, if we are not sure how to make ends meet, if we are hungry for something we cannot even name. The truth is, we could use a miracle or two right now, maybe even three, and that’s why some of the many stories of the season touch our hearts.
Today’s gospel story is full of miracles, as Martin Luther noted in a sermon he preached long ago, on the Annunciation. I love the way Luther talks about Mary. Here are some of the things he writes: "Quite possibly God might have gone to Jerusalem and picked out Caiaphas’ daughter, who was fair, rich, clad in gold-embroidered raiment, and attended by a retinue of maids in waiting. But God preferred a lowly maid from a mean town. Quite possibly Mary was doing the housework when the Angel Gabriel came to her. Angels prefer to come to people as they are fulfilling their calling..." Later on Luther writes: "To this poor maiden marvelous things were announced: that she should be the mother of the All Highest, whose name should be son of God. He would be a King and of his Kingdom there would be no end. It took a mighty reach of faith to believe that this baby would play such a role." And he goes on later to tell us, "St. Bernard declared there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this Child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her."– The last is not the least of the three.
I agree with Luther. The third miracle is not the least. It is, in fact, the greatest miracle. It is the miracle of faith, of trust – the miracle of Mary’s faith – and ours. As Luther writes, "This is for us the hardest point, not so much to believe that He is the son of the Virgin and God himself, as to believe that this Son of God is ours.""The Lord is with you." – "God’s will is to be accomplished through you." And Mary believes – she trusts that God is going to accomplish God’s will through Mary – just as God accomplished God’s will through King David, so long ago. But not in the way that David thought. David thought that he would be doing God’s will by building a temple, a great and permanent house for God. But it turns out that God had bigger plans. God had plans to dwell in the midst of God’s people – not in a temple or a palace, but in a person – and in people. God had plans to dwell in the midst of God’s people, to be held in a mother’s loving arms, to be fed and clothed and loved – and to hold and feed and heal us, too. God had plans to dwell in the midst of God’s people, to feed and to clothe and to heal and to love the world through Jesus – and through us.
Author Katherine Paterson tells the story of a night watchman working in a warehouse on Christmas eve. He’s also a father with three young children, and he’s almost happy to be working on Christmas eve because he has nothing to bring home. He feels like a failure.
He lost his job, and this was the best one he could find. He sits in the empty warehouse on a cold night, and thinking about his life, and dreads going home. He doesn’t think it will be a merry Christmas at all. The quiet is interrupted by suspicious noises. It’s his job to investigate suspicious noises, but when he goes to check them out, he finds nothing – nothing but a box – a box that wasn’t there before. However, inside the box is a note – and a baby. The note reads, "please take care of my baby. You are my last chance." He doesn’t know what to do.
He doesn’t feel like he can take care of the family he has, and now – this little one has been dropped in his lap. He is nervous to take the baby home with him, knowing what a burden it will be, but he doesn’t know what else to do. So, at the end of his shift, and with nothing else to offer, he heads toward home.His girls greet the baby with joy – the greatest gift they could have asked for. There is some confusion about where the baby came from – but even his wife begins to hope that they can take this child in – that somehow it is a sign that someone has faith in them.
Maybe, the watchman wonders, he is not such a failure after all. Maybe, instead, "the Lord is with him," and has asked him to do this important work, to raise this child. Maybe he can even do it.

"The Lord is with you." Like Mary, we participate in God’s great plan of salvation when we believe, when we trust that God is working in our lives. We participate in God’s great plan of salvation when we take bold risks to heal and restore one another. We participate in God’s plan of salvation when we pick up the burden and blessing of Christ, when we believe what he has told us – and when we tell one another –"The Lord is with you."
I’d like you to turn to the person next to you right now, and say these words to him or her. Look at them and say, "The Lord is with you." The Lord is accomplishing his will through your life. (Give them time to say it.) The third miracle is indeed the greatest one – to trust God’s love for us, to trust God’s call to us.
Here we are, servants of the Lord.
Let it be with us according to God’s word. AMEN
Luther quotes from The Martin Luther Christmas Book, ed Roland Bainton
story from A Midnight Clear, by Katherine Paterson

Friday, December 19, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Friday Five: Countdown to Christmas Edition


I'm hyperventilating because of Songbird's Friday Five, which puts me in a confessional mood (I begin to meditate on all of the things I have "done, and all the things I have left undone.") Today Songbird reminds us that there are only five full days before Christmas Day, and whether you use them for shopping, wrapping, preaching, worshiping, singing or traveling or even wishing the whole darn thing were over last Tuesday, there's a good chance they will be busy ones.

So without further ado: here are five things I need to accomplish before Christmas Eve.

1. I need to write three sermons. (just like Mompriest!) Christmas eve at three can be short, but Christmas Day needs to be "full-size", and my current problem is that I am experiencing writer's block over our theme word for Sunday: "Participate." Fine word. But somehow, it doesn't seem exciting to me. Know what I'd like? "God, interrupted" --- or something like that.

2. I need to buy 2 presents still (I think only two?), and a birthday present for my neice, whose birthday is the 23rd of December. I pretty much still need to wrap everything.

3. I need to get the ingredients for the side dishes and desserts I am making for Christmas Day (my mom is bringing the turkey this year, God bless her.)

4. I need to figure out what "low key" thing we are going to do between the services on Christmas eve. Any suggestions?

5. I need to finish decorating the tree and cleaning the house, as much as possible, anyway.

Which brings me to my very own bonus story: Imagine the scene. It is Christmas Eve. The tree lights are on, the food is cooking, the family is all gathering in the living room. It's beautful and peaceful until I realize that it is 6:00 and the stores are all closed and I HAVEN'T BOUGHT MY CHRISTMAS PRESENTS. There's nothing I can do! It's too late!

Then I wake up. --

Merry Christmas! Ready or not, He comes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Family Service, Christmas Eve

When I first came to this church over ten years ago, our 5:00 Christmas eve service was the most crowded of all of our Christmas services.

This was the worship service where all of the children's choirs sang.

Those first few years we had over 500 people at that service. It was packed.

But then the children's choir director found that she couldn't get very many of the children to sing on Christmas eve. A significant number of them were spending Christmas eve out of town. So we had to figure out what else to do to make the early service special and different than the late, candlelight service.

I came up with the idea of making the early service into a "Family Service," with music, readings and and worship assistants provided by families. The first couple of years we had a "Family Choir", with parents and children of all ages. This year a few children will offer different prelude music. (Aside: at my first church, on the "children's Christmas program Sunday", every child who was taking music lessons of any kind was given the opportunity to play for part of the prelude. It was a mini-recital all skill levels and ages represented.) Also, the senior pastor offered the old tradition of "The Strawing of the Manger." The youngest children are invited up to prepare the manger for the Christ child. We also have a young family dress up as the Holy Family and be a part of the processional.

My favorite part of the service, though, is when six elementary school children read six verses from the prophets about the coming of the messiah. I love this part, but it is very stressful trying to find enough children who are good readers, want to do it, and will come to the service. It is harder than one might think. And of course, at the same time, I am really trying to see all of my shut ins and write a lot of sermons (this year I'm preaching this Sunday, Christmas eve and Christmas Day).

But here's why I do it:

Long ago, at the 4:00 Christmas eve service in my home church, I got the chance to read when the Pastor's daughter got sick at the last minute.

It was my big chance. I had never felt important in the church before. No one had asked me, a child, to do anything.

I got to read part of the Christmas story.

So, I still want to give other children a chance to feel important, too.

Because they are.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bitter

This morning we woke up to temperatures well below zero, and windchills that made it seem even colder. We aren't breaking any records like they are in northern Minnesota, but it's cold enough for the middle of December, thank you.

Yesterday it was well above freezing, and the snow was melting and slushy. I didn't need to button my coat or wear my earmuffs (thank goodness, since I had mislaid them) or even put on my mittens.

Today it is bitter. Which is to say, it is not good to have any area of skin exposed for more than a moment. The cold stings, bites, slaps our faces. Nostrils burn. Fingers and toes are numb. It's like an attack of some kind.

Bitter. It's a funny word, pinched and small. The word bitter doesn't just describe cold and wind like we are having right now. The word bitter can describe a taste as well as a touch. A wind can be bitter, or a medicine. Or a person.

What does it mean to say a person is bitter? That they leave a bad taste in your mouth? Or that their presence stings, bites, slaps our faces? I suspect the latter.

It's funny though. Sitting in here in my warm house, I can look at the snowy streets and trees, the branches glistening, the white blanket covering everything, and believe, in my heart, it's beautiful.

So beautiful, but still dangerous. Bitter.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Big and Small...

Sadly, I didn't get to the Friday Five today, although today's entry did get me thinking (always a dangerous thing, for me at least). Today's Friday Five was all about eyes, and seeing, and it got me thinking about what kind of vision church leaders need to have as they call disciples into God's future.

It seems to me that we need to be able to see both big -- and small.

Sometimes it seems to me that the problem is the church is that we don't dream big enough. We are content with small dreams of a few more children in Sunday School; a few new members every year, a new program implemented every other year or so. But God's hope for us is big: God's hope is that we become more welcoming, more inclusive, that we reflect more and more what God's kingdom really looks like. God sees every person in our community as precious and beautiful and beloved. God sees us respecting each other and forgiving each other and helping each other to live a good life. I want our congregation to reflect that dream.

But sometimes it seems to me that the problem with the church is that we don't see small enough. Sometimes we get discouraged about where we are right now -- some of us don't pray enough, and others of us don't seem to have time to be involved in issues of justice in the community, and few of us have the time to be involved in a formal Bible study. But that's because we don't see the small signs of faith, and the small signs of faithfulness, the small signs of God's movement in the congregation.

They don't see the young woman who is joining the youth mission trip for the first time this year. They don't hear the stories of young families who want to live here because they want their children to live and learn in a diverse, multi-ethnic community. They don't talk to the woman who has cultivated relationships with members of the hispanic congregation that worships here.

There are times I wonder if the church will go on. There are times that I think if it does, it will be totally because of God's grace and love and forgiveness, not because of any special virtuosity of ours. I think of many ways the church is "blowing it" -- we have our fingers in our ears, and we are closing our eyes to the pain of the world, and we are not answering the questions of the world.

There are times I wonder if the church will go on. Will young people in the next generation think that it is important to come to a church, and to sing songs and liturgy and pray together with other people, and see this vision and work for this vision of a holy kingdom of love? It seems so old-fashioned.

But then I see a few pictures in my mind: I see a picture of two young girls, sitting together in the first pew of Small Church, South Dakota. They have the worship book open in front of them, and they are singing at the top of their lungs. I also see a picture of a young couple whose wedding I conducted a few years ago. She was from a church background, but he wasn't. They moved away for graduate school a few years ago. I finally caught up with them and discovered that they now have two small children, and are active members of a city congregation. I also see pictures of the people from India who have started attending our congregation, reminding us of all the places that God is working.

Sometimes I think that the problem with the church is that we don't see big enough. And sometimes I think that the problem is that we don't see small enough -- to see that in the midst of our dreaming, or our lack of dreaming, God is at work in us and among us, to bring peace and grace and love -- finally and forever -- to earth.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Scout and Snow

Just a few seconds of fun recording Scout out in the backyard. She didn't exactly cooperate with the camera, but I hope you enjoy, at least a little, watching her run.

I know I do.

That's her best friend on the other side of the fence.

One of my goals is to get a longer play session sometime this winter.

Scout does like winter better than I do. I have noticed that when we walk on the street, though, sometimes the pads of her feet start to hurt, and she limps a little. I think it might be the salt.

Anyway, wishing you seven seconds of glee sometime today, and the opportunity to visit with YOUR best friend across a fence.

video

Monday, December 8, 2008

Three out of Four Bumpers Agree....

I'm not quite at the point that I can joke about this, but I am beating myself up a little bit less today. I also DO realize that it could have been a lot worse. I was driving to the hospital Saturday after the church service when the traffic on the freeway came to a sudden stop. (There is a lot of road construction around here, and it is winter.) I tried to slow down and stop, discerned that I might not be able to stop in time, and attempted to make a lane change into the right hand lane, which was clear. That's when my car suddenly started to spin. A moment of terror. Two other cars had some damage as well, but nobody was hurt.

I'm still a little down, although after calling my insurance company, and visiting the auto body shop, it appears that they will be able to fix the car. They aren't sure, of course, until they open the hood, which they advised me not to do.

Tonight we are getting our getting our first honest-to-goodness "snow advisory". Three to four inches of snow is falling. It's pretty, but it makes me want to stay in, not go out. I did enjoy watching Scout play in the snow for a little while, which calmed my soul. She also kept me company Saturday evening when I was feeling like a dolt. Dogs are good that way. So are husbands.

I'd like to glean a nice religious lesson from this, but I don't have one yet. Except that for calming the soul, often, just a small miracle will do.



Saturday, December 6, 2008

Sunday Sermon

Preparing in the Wilderness
Isaiah 40:1-11

"How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" That’s the question I’d like to ask today, on this 2nd Sunday of Advent. "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" In fact, I’d like us all to ask this question together, as printed in your bulletin: "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" At first glance this might seem to be a strange question.
It might seem strange to us because this is, after all, the season of singing, or at least listening to music. There’s music everywhere: in the stores, on elevators, in offices, in our homes, in the car. It’s true, generally speaking, that most of the time, we don’t sing together like we used to.
Most of the year we leave it to the experts. It’s just at Christmas that we sing: "Joy to the World! The Lord is come!" "O Little Town of Bethlehem" "What Child is this" or even "Silent Night." We sing and we remember the promise of "peace on earth, good will to all." So, why is it that, now, of all times, I want us to consider the question of singing? "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" That’s going to be our question today. So – let’s say it again.

I want us to consider this question because it was, first and foremost, the Israelites’ question. It was the question that they were asking in the midst of their Babylonian captivity, so many years ago. It was a time of hopelessness and defeat and bondage for them. They had been defeated by the mighty armies of Babylon; Jerusalem had been destroyed. And many of them had been taken captive; they were living in exile in Babylon. They were living in a strange land where the people worshiped strange gods, and where no one knew Yahweh, and where no one respected their traditions or their god. And the question on their lips at that time was, "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" How can we keep God’s commandments? How can we practice our faith? Maybe even – how can we believe it’s still true?

I also want us to consider this question because this was a question that the people were asking when John the Baptist came on the scene, the voice crying in the wilderness in our gospel. In those days the Jewish people were strangers and in exile in their own land. They were occupied by the mighty Roman army. And so they too might have been asking this question, the question we are asking today, "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" But why are we asking this question? After all, we’re not strangers in a stranger land, are we? Their experience is not ours. We are not conquered. We are not displaced people, refugees, living in exile – are we? Or are we? Just what does it mean to be the church, God’s people, in the winter of 2008, in the season of Advent? What does it mean for us to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" What season are we preparing for, and what are we waiting for? What mountains need to be lowered and what valleys raised?

I ask this question after, last weekend hearing the story of the man who was trampled to death by shoppers at a Wal-Mart in Long Island. As I read, people were so eager for bargains, that they did not even want to make way for the ambulance crews that tried to save the man’s life. The "stuff" they were seeking was more important than the stranger dying on the floor. When you hear a story like that, do you ever feel as if you are living in a strange land? Or did you read the story yesterday – closer to home – about the nurses’ aides who taunted, abused and laughed at the residents in a nursing home in Albert Lea? The administrators, when they first heard the story, thought it must be an exaggeration or a lie – it couldn’t be true. When you read a story like that, do you ever feel like you are living in a strange land? And in the mean time, the furor over whether to say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas" is returning. And I have to say that it seems to me more important how we treat each other – at this time or at any time of year – than whether we say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas." What really matters is whether we see the man dying on the floor, the person in front of us in line at the grocery store, struggling to make change, the child born in a homeless shelter rather than a real home.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? How can we live as God’s people at this time and in this place? That’s the question.

There are many kinds of exile, and there are many ways we might feel like strangers in a strange land – especially at this time of year. People who are suffering any kind of loss or grief, people who have heard bad news, people who have gotten laid off from work, also feel a sort of exile in this season and in these times. They walk around hearing the carols and seeing the visions of abundant family celebrations, and abundant presents, but they are living in the foreign land of grief, or loneliness, or hunger, or death, and struggling to find hope. For so many of the messages of this season proclaim that our hope is in presents, our hope is in family, our hope is in good health. And perhaps they are wondering whether they can sing the Lord’s song this year – and when they will again.Perhaps they are wondering how they can live their faith – or even, believe it’s still true.

Just the other day I sat with a woman who is losing her battle with cancer. She and her family tried many different treatments and many different avenues of healing. But now, just recently they have gotten the news that none of those treatments have worked. So now they are learning to adjust their lives, adjust their hopes, and live each day in God’s promise of eternal life. As we sat the other day, we read the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Comfort, comfort my people," the Lord told the prophet. "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem; and cry to her that she has served her term.....A voice cries out....in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.....the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." And as we spoke, tears welled up in her eyes, as if she were saying, "how can I sing the Lord’s song in this foreign land, in this wilderness" ... and as if God were answering her question, right there, in the Scripture. "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, for the Lord is coming to the wilderness."

Just as the prophet came to people living in exile so long ago, so also the prophet’s word comes to us today, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.... every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the rough places will be made a plain." In the wilderness, in the foreign land, in a strange place .... prepare the way of the Lord.... for the Lord is coming to you, wherever you are, in whatever wilderness you find yourself today. If you are grieving, if you have strayed, if you feel like giving up, if you have put your hope in the wrong place, if you hunger and thirst for a righteousness you do not see .... prepare the way of the Lord .... for the Lord is coming to the wilderness.

It was back in 1981. I was living in Tokyo, Japan, although I was living among missionaries, and studying Japanese in a school with other foreigners from all over the world. I met many different people from different parts of the world. Some were in Japan to work, some to study. One of our classmates was a young woman from Germany. I believe she was a student, and I don’t think she had much connection to a faith at all. And though we were all studying Japanese together, we mostly conversed in English. On the last day of our school year in December, all of the students and teachers had a Christmas party. Strange in this place where only about 1% of the people claim to be Christian. But we brought treats and laughed and exchanged presents with one another. And we sang. Christmas carols. In English. And in Japanese. And I remember turning to this German girl, my classmate, as we began to sing "Silent Night," and she was singing in German, and she had tears in her eyes.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? How can we live as God’s people in the world right now, despite injustice, despite our sin, despite our grieving?

We sing because God is coming to us in a foreign land. We sing because God is coming to us in the wilderness. And we sing by working for justice in the places where strangers are trampled on. We sing by offering forgiveness in the places where people are lonely. We sing by learning new languages to share God’s love and by opening our hearts to the children who surround us. We sing by providing a place for the homeless and by working to end homelessness. We sing to prepare the way. And we sing because God is coming to us here, where we are, in the wilderness, where hopes are dashed, where people are broken, where children are homelesss

Prepare in the wilderness.
Sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Sing of God’s mercy and work for God’s justice.
Raise up the valleys and make the hills low.
For the Lord is coming in the wilderness.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
Let every heart prepare him room. AMEN

Friday, December 5, 2008

Simple Advent Friday Five: hopes and longings

Sally over at the Revgalblogpals asks us this very simple, but profound question for our Friday Five this week:

What do you long for this advent? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? What is your prayer today?

In the vein of simplicity I ask you to list five advent longings

1. I will simply state what my friend PS said she longs for (in the comments of my last post): "I'm longing for an America that isn't driven by shopping for more stuff that eventually goes to the thrift shop."

2. I'm longing for a renewed congregational vision: where we see ourselves as disciples of Jesus, giving ourselves away to bring the good news to our family, our community, our world. I'm longing for a congregation that becomes intentionally mult-ethnic, just as our community and our school is becoming. And I'm longing for a renewed congregational vision of us as forgiven sinners, humble and empowered at the same time.

3. I'm longing for schools that value and respect each student, and give each of them the opportunity to succeed. I'm longing for communities that see a vision of each child as a child of God.

4. I'm longing for communities where some people are not trampled on so that other people can have their desires satisfied.

5. I'm longing for the hungry to be fed, wherever they are. I'm longing for the thirsty to be satisfied. And I'm longing for true community, both the depth and the pain when people truly commit themselves to one another and to a mission.

Come, Lord Jesus
Be Our Guest -- and Our Host.
Amen.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What I'm Giving up For Advent

Oh, you don't have to give anything up for Advent?

Well, I'm doing it anyway.

I'm giving up potato chips and french fries for advent.

You can hold me to it.

Perhaps you are wondering: what does this have to do with Advent? Is this some sort of hitherto unheard of new-agey "Advent Discipline"? How is it different from, or better than, say, keeping an advent calendar, lighting an advent wreath and saying a prayer, or making an advent chain?

I'll let you know.

In the meantime, I'm hoping that I won't be in another, even larger, dress size before January. I'm hoping that the cold weather won't want to make me obsessively eat even more calories than I am taking in right now. I'm hoping that I can stay even minimally active for the next month.

That's what advent is all about, isn't it? Hope.

Actually, besides these practical matters, here's what I'm thinking: I'm thinking about Christmas presents. And I'm thinking that I don't really NEED any presents, when you come right down to it. I have plenty of clothes, I have a lot of good books, I have a warm house, I have a nice dog, I have music, and I have shoes. I have a family and friends and meaningful employment. I don't really need anything. But (I'll be honest here) I do want presents. Or, to be even more honest, I want something that presents represent.

I think that the potato chips and the french fries are also kind of like that.

I'll be meditating on that for the next few weeks.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Looking for Mr. Hokusai...

Whenever we go to Chicago, we try to spend some time at the Art Institute. Sometimes we only have an hour or two, sometimes we get the better part of a day to nose around, but we always enjoy stopping in to see the miniatures, American Gothic, or a room or two of the Impressionist paintings.

I've noticed every time we leave, that there are t-shirts, post cards, and coffee mugs stamped with one of my favorite images: The Great Wave off Kanagawa. I've known this print since I lived in Japan many years ago; it's one of Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fuji. Though I've never seen one of the original prints, copies are also ubiquitous in Japan. I figured that they must have a print somewhere in the museum, so we spent part of Friday looking through the Asian art sections of the Institute.

Unfortunately, we didn't find it.

Because of the delicate nature of the many of the prints, they are rotated every three months.

It did get me thinking though: what is it about this image that is so compelling? In Japan, Mount Fuji holds religious and national significance; Mr. Hokusai was not the only artist to give us 36 views (check our Mr. Hiroshige as well). But something about this particular image -- The Great Wave, the Little Boats, and the image of the mountain in the background -- speaks the truth to me.


It's an Advent truth, and this is Advent. It's the truth of the Great Waves: whether they are the Great Waves of the End Times, or the Great Waves of economic uncertainty, or the Great Waves of terrorists in Mumbai, India, or the Great Waves that killed a store worker on Black Friday. Everywhere Great Waves threaten us, rock us, cause us to stumble.


And still, in the background, there is the mountain. Sometimes, you can't even see it. Sometimes we see it only by faith. It seems to disappear in the fog, like Mt. Fuji in certain seasons. But every Japanese knows that the mountain is still there.


On Friday, I didn't find the print of the Great Wave off Kanagawa. But I think I caught a glimpse of the mountain, once or twice, up close or in the background.


The question is, did you? And if you did, perhaps you can point the way for those who are overwhelmed by the Great Waves.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Psst! It's not about the shoes....

I started blogging in April of 2007, just about the same time I turned 50 (give or take a couple of days). I started blogging for a variety of reasons: I wanted to write; I wanted people to read what I write; I heard it was an emerging technology; my stepson blogged; I read the article in the Christian Century.

I thought blogging was about writing, about getting my message out there, about not hiding my light under a bushel.

Turns out I was only about 1/2 right, maybe a little less than that.

In the course of the last almost-two years, I've connected with people from a lot of places: Texas, New York, South Dakota, Corpus Christi and Austin, Texas, Washington, Lousiana, Jackson, Minnesota -- New Mexico, Nebraska. Unlike Hank Snow, I haven't been everywhere, but I feel like I've been more places than I could have imagined, because of you, my dear bloggy friends. I feel that my life, my faith, my perspectives have become enlarged and enriched by the conversations and exchanges that have gone on here.

I've even gotten to meet a few of my blogging friends, starting with RevDrKate of Prairie Light. I now count Jan, Fran, HotCup, Pastor Eric, Auntie Knickers, and Jodi among my friends, as well as quite a few Revgals I met in Minneapolis last May (for example, Singing Owl and Juniper).

Last Friday I got to meet my friend Jennifer from An Orientation of Heart. Turns out she serves a congregation about five minutes away from some of my relatives. We got together over coffee at a local (and quite busy) coffee shop. It was delightful meeting her, and sharing some ministry and music stories (turns out her children are quite musical; so is my husband), dog stories (Scout has an open invitation to visit) and just-plain-life stories.

I would never have guessed that the communion of saints could be glimpsed through a computer screen, shared with coffee, and verified with a picture of shoes.

But it can.