Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What's your Name?

I remember finding the baby name book that my parents used when they were trying to decide what our names would be.  It was, to me, a little like finding the "I Ching" or a pack of Tarot cards, like peering, ever so slightly, into my parents' brains.  Why did my parents give me the names that they gave me, my sister and my brother?  We aren't named after anybody else in our families.  There are no other Dianes, Janets, or Davids in my family.  When grilled about it, the only response my mother could come up with was, "We just liked those names."  No deep mysterious reasons. 

Perhaps, I thought, it had a little to do with the fact that the Lennon sisters were popular on one of my parents' favorite television shows, Lawrence Welk.  Two of the four sisters were named Diane and Janet.  Couldn't that be a little suspicious? 

Later on, I discovered that my name was of latin origin, that there was a goddess Diana, the goddess of the moon, and of the hunt.  She was the twin sister of Apollo (in Greek, her name was Artemis).  I really enjoyed learning about the goddess Diana, although I felt much more ordinary, less lunar, with no hunting instincts that I could put my finger on.

Names are important.  In some mysterious way, our names tell us who we are, but in other ways, they do not.  We remain a mystery:  to one another, even to ourselves, sometimes.  Don't we?  Maybe that's why, as a child, I was so interested in my name.  I was a mystery to myself, and I was trying to figure it out.  Perhaps the name was a clue.

So Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple when he is 8 days old.  There he is circumsized, and there he receives his name, the name the angel gave him.  His name tells us who he is in some ways, but not in others.  Jesus is a form of the name "Joshua", and his name means "the Lord rescues".    That is a clue, but it is really just scraping the surface of the mystery of who Jesus is.

So Sunday, January 1st is called "the Name of Jesus."  It is an odd thing to celebrate, in a way.  Everyone has to have a name.  And what Mary and Joseph do is what every parent does:  they bring Jesus to the temple at the time designated by their faith tradition, and they give him a name.  Jesus.  An ordinary name, but the name that will someday before every other name, according to Paul.  It is a mystery.  Jesus.  The Lord rescues. 

It's not just the meaning of the name, though -- it's more than that -- it's that now, somehow, his life and our lives are inextricably linked, and we know ourselves better in the mystery of his life, and in the mystery of his name.  I suspect that we'll never get to the bottom of who he is, any more than we will get to the bottom of who we are.

All we can do is hold him, and let him hold us.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Notes

....some melody notes, some harmony notes....

1.  At the late service, I was part of a small group of women who sang Selections from Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols."  Six of us, just two on each part.   Singing "This Little Babe" is kind of like going down the rabbit hole in "Alice in Wonderland."  

2.  Preaching at the late service for the first time felt odd and disorienting.   

3.  This morning got up early to start cleaning the house for company before going to church to preside at Christmas day early.  Got tablecloth washed. 

4.  This morning, I also saw a smile on our worship coordinator's face this morning when she said she was going to spend Christmas with her 4 1/2 year old granddaughter.  I gave a brief introduction to the gospel procession to two new worship assistants.  "Always follow the cross," I said.  "Just like we do in our whole life."

5.  At the beginning of the service this morning, I read the Christmas Proclamation, while our bell ringers stood in the aisles and rang softly.  Then, at the beginning of "O Come, all Ye Faithful" they broke out!

6.  After the service, a man asked about "The Christmas Proclamation."  I gave him my copy.  I downloaded it once; I can download it again.

7.  I got my house clean-er for Christmas.  Did not get it totally clean.  Somehow we muddled through in my small kitchen, reheating the Christmas turkey and accompaniments from local upscale grocery store. Everyone liked the mashed potatoes.  We forgot all about the cranberry sauce.

8.  Scout wore her new red Christmas bandana, and was a Good Dog, mostly.

9.  We opened a few more presents.  The hit?  A melodica. 

10. I had this dream of everyone going to the nursing home to visit my dad together, bringing guitars and mandolins and voices and having a little mini-concert with him.  Between the dinner (a little later than I thought it would be), and opening a few presents) and waiting until we could eat again before eating the pie, the dream didn't happen.  We visited my dad in shifts, without instruments, just before and while he was eating his dinner.  I did sing a few Christmas carols with him.  When I said, "I have to go home now," he said, "Take me with you."  I said I couldn't do that and he said, "You could if you really wanted to."

Today is the Nativity of our Lord.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Snow at Christmas

Just a few minutes ago I looked out my window here at the office and got very excited.  "It's snowing!" I called out, to no one in particular.  It looks like it will just be a few snow flurries, but it did my heart good to see it. 

There is no snow here, to speak of.  It is December 21st, and this is Minnesota, and by all rights, there should be snow.  When people from my neck of the woods do a word association about Christmas, one of the top five words would be "snow."  Most of us are dreaming of a white Christmas here.  Though a few of us are happy that we don't have the slippery roads and shovelling associated with a white Christmas, there does seem as well to be a certain sense of disclocation.  Where are we?  What time is it? 

A Christmas tree salesman told us once that when the snow is late in coming the tree sales are slow, too.  We have labelled "snow" as one of the 'signs of the times' and there is some lack of urgency, perhaps.  Some people say they have a hard time getting into the 'Christmas spirit' without snow. 

But why is that?  In a real sense, Christmas doesn't have anything to do with snow.  It's not mentioned once in Luke, Chapter 2, nor in John, chapter 1.  There are lots of places where Christmas comes without snow. 

Maybe it's just a look I've gotten really used to, in my many years living up here.  On this darkest and longest of nights, I have gotten used to looking out into the darkness and seeing something white.  It's not the glow of a candle, but it sparkles and glistens.  The light shines in the darkness. 

Snow is one of the places I have come to look for light.  But there are plenty of other places to look for light, maybe truer places ( who can say?)  I just read the story of the local food drive that three Lutheran churches held.  Three truckloads of food were donated, but one of the truck drivers turned out to be a thief, driving off with 1,500 pounds of food which was meant to give away.  This happened on Monday.

Today I heard that these three churches have received more than enough food to make up for their loss.

The light shines in the darkness.

On Wednesdays in Advent, people from our congregation have been coming together for a short evening service.  At the close of each worship service, we sing a version of the table prayer to the tune of "Tallis Canon."  We have been singing it in canon, a capella.  Last Wednesday there were four parts.  It was beautiful, those bare voices singing.

The light shines in the darkness.

After the church service last Sunday, one man came up to me and pushed a few bills into my hand.  "I didn't get a bonus this year," he said, "but I still want to help someone in our congregation."  A little while later, I heard a woman telling a young African-American girl that she was beautiful.  A little while later, I looked into the sanctuary and saw several people working together decorating the church for Christmas eve.   One word, "Emmanuel" hangs above the pulpit in glittery letters.

The light shines in the darkness. 

Even when there is no snow.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Sweeter Music

It's been unseasonably warm this week, and all the snow is gone.  There wasn't a lot to begin with, really.  Not like last year when we had about 34 inches of snow by this time and had already run out of places to put it. 

There are good things about the weather (especially when you consider 34 inches of snow last year).  It's not bitter cold, and right now driving around for those last-minute Christmas gifts and obligations does not carry additional stress.  But last night the wind came up, and there was no snow, and it just seemed cold, and barren and dark.

We went Christmas shopping, just a little.  We were at a large neighborhood mall, where they were playing particularly taste-less non-Christmas Holiday songs, songs that made my husband want to buy something quick and get back out of there, songs that tempted me, just for a moment, to think there really might be a war on Christmas.  Yes, the music was that bad.  The clerk, however, was friendly and helpful.

We wandered around the mall a little bit, to get some exercise and to look around, maybe to get some Christmas spirit.  Christmas is slow coming this year.  The tree is not up yet, there just a few decorations put up so far.  The creche is missing a wise man.  I am working on a knitting project which will be a gift, and have noticed a couple of mistakes that I can't fix, and get depressed by that.  I wanted it to be perfect. 

We wandered around the mall a little bit, and I heard live music coming from the mall.  It was a small brass band, a community band, I think.  They were playing Christmas carols.  They weren't perfect, but there weren't too many bad notes, actually.  Shortly after I started listening, they began a new song, one that sounded vaguely familiar, but I wasn't sure why.  I stood and listened as the theme returned again and again, and a lump formed in my throat and tears formed at the bottoms of my eyes.

I asked my husband later, and he said that the song was, "What Sweeter Music," by John Rutter.

What sweeter music can we bring,

Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!
Heart, ear, and eye, and everything.
Awake! the while the active finger
Runs division with the singer.

Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honor to this day,
That sees December turned to May.

Dark and dull night, fly away, sing the sweeter music
and the imperfect will be perfect
or at least will be sufficient
and the dark will be light
and the house will be bright with God's presence.

It is not ordinary time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reflections on Life and Ministry

It is late on the evening of a day off.  It's been dark for a few hours now.  Actually, it's been dark since shortly before 5:00 p.m., I think.  There's a moon, still, big and round. 

It was an unseasonably warm winter day.  Most of the snow is gone.  When we walk outside, it doesn't hurt.

Inside, it is not so Christmas-y either, at least in our house.  We do not yet have the tree up, but we do have a plan.  We have a couple of Christmas wall-hangings up, and I have begun to set out the Christmas books.

We got up early this morning and went to breakfast in St. Paul, at a great diner near the college where my husband works.  He had music juries today, and I went with him so that I could work on a Christmas present while he listened to music students. 

I also did a little reading.  I have started reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I know, I should have read this book about 20 years ago.  I know I've had it sitting on my shelf for a long time, probably since seminary which is not quite 20 years ago, but close enough.  I don't know why I haven't read it, but I'm reading it now.  I am reading the chapter about being pro-active, which means choosing how you will respond in any situation.

After my husband was done with his juries, we stopped in at a used book store in the neighborhood.  The owners of this particular bookstore are a married couple.  He seems to have libertarian political views, but I prefer talking to his wife, who likes to collect children's and illustrated books.  We talk about Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Wanda Gag, Maude and Miska Petersham.  I can't afford to collect much, but I have a handful of treasures: a copy of A Christmas Carol illustrated by Arthur Rackham (no dust jacket, though), The Tall Book of Make-Believe, illustrated by Garth Williams, a book of hymns illustrated by Gustav Tenggren. 

After returning home, my husband prepared for his evening church service.  I prepared to meet with a young couple getting married in May.  We let the dog out, just as it was getting dark, which we do every day, but appears to have been a mistake.

She did not want to come in.  At first, it seemed normal.  Sometimes she doesn't want to come in right away.  She still has a little playing to do, someone to bark at, something to sniff in the yard.  But usually, a couple of minutes later, she's at the back door, making pathetic whining and yodeling noises, which we interpret as "Let me iiiiiiin!" 

Not tonight.  We tempted her with food.  We cried and cajoled.  We left her in the back yard and went to do our respective ministries.  I met with my young couple.  We talked about the Strengths and Growth Areas they perceived in their relationship. 

I came home and our dog would still not come in.  I wondered if I was being pro-active or re-active.  I wondered if I was a bad dog-mom.  What does it mean if your dog is running in circles around you in the dark back yard, dragging an enormous stick her mouth, trying to jump over the back fence?  An hour ago, I was a wise counselor, asking just the right questions to a young couple who were sitting in my well-appointed office.  Now I am anything but wise, trying to figure out just the right strategy to make my dog come in for the evening. 

Well, she did come in, but I will spare you the details.  It involve my finding the big stick, not for violence, but for a short game of tug-of-war.  For some reason, afterwards the dog sat on command and I grabbed her collar and dragged her indoors.  Her paws were filthy.

Now, I am going to go back to reading about what it means to be Pro-Active, which I think is a Good Idea.  I think it is a good idea for Life, and for Ministry, and Even for Dogs.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I Am So Over John the Baptist

So I am going to preach on 2nd Peter, instead.  You know, "we await a new heaven and a new earth"?  Waiting.  I get that. 

Where does this John the Baptist come from anyway?  I end up preaching John the Baptist every year, because if you're in a lectionary tradition, like I am, he just shows up.  On the 2nd Sunday of Advent.  (And on the third Sunday, too, usually.)  And even to people who are used to John the Baptist, because they've been coming to church for YEARS, I still feel like I have to explain, a little.  Because if you are anywhere else than in church, he seems a little out of place.  Even in some churches, he seems a little out of place, actually.

I was in a different church last weekend, where it was the 1st Sunday in Advent, and they were introducing their advent theme, during which John the Baptist would not make an appearance.  The theme for the four weeks of Advent would be the Beatitudes, and the main characters would be the Usual Suspects:  Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, the Wise Men.   This makes sense.  These are the people we are expecting, waiting for.  Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men fill the story of Christmas.  I'm sure there is plenty to learn from them, as well.

But for me, John the Baptist just bursts in, sort of rudely, without even giving me time to pick up the mess in my house.  There's not a spot for the Christmas tree yet, though I know where it will go.  John the Baptist bursts in, even more abruptly than usual, because this year we have Mark's version of the story, where there is no Christmas story, and Jesus and John the Baptist both seem to come out of nowhere.

They are adults already, with no hint of where they came from, or what special credentials they have.  They are just here, with words from God on their lips, if we have a mind to listen.  And one of the things they remind us of is that Christmas is just the prologue, just the beginning of the story.  God being a baby is just glimpse of what is to come.  Maybe we want to hang out with the baby Jesus for a long time, maybe we want to make Christmas the whole show, but it's just the beginning, just the beginning of the gospel, just the beginning of what God will do.

Already, on the 2nd Sunday in Advent, we have this weird guy wearing weird clothes and eating weird food, saying, "Prepare the Way of the Lord," and it's a grown man who will come and be baptized.  And people are coming, flocking out to the wilderness to hear him, because they know that their lives aren't just all sunshine and light the way they are, and they want something to change, they want something to be different.  So, they're ready for a weird guy wearing weird clothes.

Yet -- can I say?  Like us, they have no idea.  They may want change, but they don't really know what kind of change they want.  Some of them want to go back to the old days, when David was King and everything was good.  Some of them just want to get Rome off their backs.  Some of them want a little less poverty, a little more peace. 

While we are waiting, we're waiting for a baby.  But he will grow up fast.  John the Baptist reminds us that Christmas is not the end point, just the beginning.  John the Baptist reminds us that some things have been fulfilled, but that there are some things we are still waiting for.  We are waiting for peace in our hearts, and peace in our world.  We are waiting for the new heavens and the new earth.  We are waiting for the dead to rise.  We are waiting for bread.  Some things have been fulfilled, and for some things we still wait.

And you know, though this waiting is hard (all waiting is hard), it is good, I think.  I don't know if this is exactly what Peter has in mind, but one reason I think the waiting is good is because we think we know what is coming, and really, we have no idea.  The future will not be like the past, and the good old days will not return, because God is doing a new thing.  God is doing a new thing in the world, and God is doing a new thing in us. 

And God is saying, "It will not be what you expect.  But it will be good.  Trust me.  Be patient with me.  Because after all, I am being patient with you."