Monday, December 31, 2012

It Was All Singing -- And Weeping

Just before Christmas, my husband and I went to a theatre production.  At least, I called it a theatre production.  I said it was a play, before we went.  Someone had told us about it, because I had preached Advent 1 and used an illustration from the 1914 Christmas Eve Truce.  She said, "You have to see this."

So two nights before Christmas Eve, we went to the final performance is "All is Calm."

Except that it wasn't a play, really.  It was all music:  all music from the war, and from Christmas, sung by nine men from a well-known local vocal ensemble.

The performance took place in an historic theatre downtown here.  We sat up in the balcony; the theatre was packed.  I wondered if there had ever been vaudeville performances in this place, long ago.  I had a little chat with the woman who sat next to me.  She was a teacher.  The lights went down.

Nine men began singing, Christmas carols at first, and then: songs from the war:  Happy songs, sad songs, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", "Keep the Home Fires Burning," "Pack up your Troubles."  The  songs were interspersed with readings:  Letters home from soldiers, for the most part; the names of the soldiers were read at the end of each reading.

Then the songs shifted, as Christmas neared.  The letters spoke of singing in the trenches, and how the trenches were so close that they could shout across the trenches to one another.

The British soldiers started singing a bawdy Christmas song, with a rousing chorus of "O Tidings of Comfort and Joy."

And then, the strains of "O Tannenbaum."

A french soldier spoke of coming to the front that Christmas eve, hearing the hymn with the sound of gunfire.

"Poor little God of love," he wrote, "Born on this night.  How could you ever have loved mankind?"

The German troops spoke of putting trees in their trenches; the enemy did not know what the lights were.

British soldiers recalled hearing the Germans' singing "Stille Nacht" as the greatest moment of their lives.

They sang.

They read the letters, letters that spoke of singing, and courage, and grief.

They created peace, brief as a candle, but the troops themselves created peace, from the bottom up.

And we wept.

It was holy, holy as church, brief as a candle.

They sang, "Stille Nacht," and we wept.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Best Christmas Presents

I ever gave (I think).

1.  The green scarf I got for my Mom at Walgreen's, because I thought it matched her coat.  I was 10 years old.  It cost $1.50
2.  The red and yellow book light I got for my stepson for Christmas before he was my stepson.  He was 10 years old at the time, and I heard later that he kept saying to his dad, "I've just got to thank her."
3.  The box of chocolates we got for our parents and put under the tree on Christmas morning, with a tag on it that said, "From Santa Claus."  The next year my parents went out and bought themselves Christmas stockings.
4.  The time I made hand-stamped Christmas cards for every family in my parish.  Luckily, I did not count the number of families before I began.
5. The guitar-shaped spatula which was a stocking stuffer for my husband, but which turned out to be fun for the whole family.
6.  The boom box we got for my in-laws one Christmas.  "Oh, it's something big!"  My mother-in-law exclaimed.  I never saw anyone so excited.
7.  hand-knitted scarves for my sister, her husband and my niece.
8.  for my brother, a polo shirt I happened to see which had a small Pokey riding a Gumby figure on it (this is a family joke, but 'Gumby' is one of my brother's nicknames).
9.  old-fashioned ribbon candy for my mom who has a sweet tooth.
10.  a particular cookbook for one of my husband's neices who likes to cook.  I marked some of my favorite recipes.

When I think about it more, sometimes I think that the best presents I ever gave were these:  listening to my dad tell stories, learning and singing a song in Swedish for my grandmother, spending time with my mom over coffee, singing and listening to my stepsons play instruments (although it's hard to say whether that was a gift given or received).

What do you think?  What are the best Christmas presents you ever gave?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


For about a year or so, I've been having problems with my voice.

Not big problems, just little problem, just enough to make me worry neutorically on occasion, as I am wont to do.

Mostly, I've had this off-and-on cough.  When I'm coughing, people will say, "you sound awful!", and think I must be really sick.  I don't have any other symptoms, though.  I just cough sometimes.   But then there are lots of times when I'm not coughing, and even when I am, I don't feel sick in any other way.

But I've noticed that there are times when I just don't have the singing-voice-power that I used to.  I went to a funeral recently, and I just felt sort of squeaky and weak on all of the hymns.  The older lady sitting in front of me said, "why didn't you sing out like you usually do?"  So, I've been wondering.

Maybe I am just getting older and my range is getting lower.  I hear that it happens.

Anyway, we have been singing Holden Evening Prayer during Advent.  I have known this service for a long time, and even taught it to my internship congregation.  I love to lead the singing.  Last week, it was my turn to chant, but I was a little nervous because of the squeak in my voice.

I practiced in the afternoon.  I drank plenty of water, and that tea that is supposed to be good for you.  And when I started singing, I felt pretty good.  But as I went on, I could tell that I was starting to get hoarse.

When I got to the litany, I just squeaked out the high note on the first petition.  I felt sort of in despair, but I kept going, and I did get a couple of the high notes, but others I just squeaked on.  At the end of the service, I left feeling a sort of lostness, wondering if I should just stop singing Holden, if those notes were just gone forever.

So here's the thing:

Some people have mentioned the squeak, and said that they could tell I was still fighting a cold last week.

But others have said that they thought my voice was exceptionally strong.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels....

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent 3: "What do you Really Want for Christmas?"

“What do you really want for Christmas?”

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen

            “What do you really want for Christmas?” 
Truthfully, I’ve been considering this question for the past week or so – and even more so for the past couple of days. 
“What do I really want for Christmas?”  I’ve been asking this question in part because I actually don’t make Christmas lists any more – not like I used to when I was a kid, and I paged through the JC Penney catalog and circled the things I wanted.
 I don’t make Christmas lists any more, not like I did when I was a teenager and made lists of the things I hoped would make me popular.
 I don’t make lists any more, and I would bet that’s the case for a lot of people here.

            But a couple of things have made me think about the question, “What do you really want for Christmas?” 
although, I will be really honest with you – the question sounded much different at the beginning of the week than it does today, with the events of Friday right before me. 
It’s still a good question – but it takes on a whole different meaning for me now, so – I’m still asking it. 
I asked it on Facebook the other day –and got a variety of answers – from “I want a love letter from my husband,” to “Toleration/Peace/Cooperation,” to “A sense of purpose.” 
And that was before Friday, when I heard the horrible news about the shooting at the elementary school in Sandy Hook.

            In light of all I heard, what do I really want for Christmas?  I mean really?  What about you?

I’ll tell you, when I first considered this question, I was reading the
gospel reading – Luke 3 – and not thinking so much about John the Baptist, but thinking about those crowds who came out to hear him. 

            Instead of focusing on John’s words, I was wondering about who those people were – what they were expecting – what they were wondering about – why they came. 
We don’t know much about them, actually.  We know they were “the crowds”  -- and that is in contrast to the important people. 
These were the ordinary people, and even more than ordinary, some of the low-lifes.  Tax-collectors.  Other various sinners. 
Probably some poor people.  And soldiers.
 We know soldiers were there because soldiers also came to be baptized.  And when Luke talks about soldiers he’s talking about some mercenaries, thugs, really, not like the soldiers we know today. 
That’s what we know about the crowds.

            And here’s one more thing we know about the crowds:  they were listening to John’s words with expectation, with hope. 
Even though he was calling them a brood of vipers and filling their ears with words of judgment. 
In fact, when I read this portion of the gospel, I can almost imagine them leaning forward, saying to one another, “what do you think?  Can he be the one we have been waiting for?” 

            What do they really want?  What are they waiting for?  What are they expecting?

            You know – the crowds who gathered – they were living in an occupied country. 
They were living under Roman rule.  They lived with the threat of violence all of the time. 
They were poor and taken advantage of.  They were at odds with one another.  They were hungry. 
They couldn’t get out from under their debts.  That’s the way it was. 
They came out to hear John, full of expectation, knowing that something needed to change, even though they might not have been sure what it was. 
They just knew that something was wrong, that something needed to change, and John told the truth about that. 

            We know that too, don’t we?  Something needs to change. 
All is not well, even just a little more than a week before Christmas. 
We want to hear the joyful songs of “peace on earth, good will to all, but we know that it’s not just "all joy, all the time” out there. 
And we don’t know what to do about it.  It seems too big, too overwhelming.

            So what John has to say has two parts. 
To the people who come to him, questioning, “what then should we do?”  He tells them. 
He tells them that there is something they can do. 
Maybe they can’t save the world, but they can do something, they can practice kindness and justice, and their actions can make a difference.  In a world where evil seems overwhelming, what you do still means something. 
I know it doesn’t seem like it, but it’s true.  You can share your coat.
 You can give to someone who is hungry.  You can sing a song, sit with someone who is lonely. 
You can shield a child.

            And here’s the other thing John does:  he paints a picture of the one who is coming after him, the one who can do what we cannot:  change us from the inside out. 
Because that’s the hardest thing to believe, isn’t it?  That anyone, and anything can change.  Even us. 
Because when we look into our own hearts, truth be told, sometimes it’s pretty dark in there.
 We know that it’s not just about the darkness in the world, although that is pretty hard to take especially today. 
It’s also about the darkness in us.

            So we are feeling many things to day – I know I am – I’m feeling deep sadness and anger and lamenting. 
But one of the things that is most painful to me is that whenever something like this happens, we can’t seem to get past pointing fingers at each other  -- and we can’t actually talk about how to make it better, how to make it safer for children. 
That’s the darkness in all of us – each of us – not having enough courage to figure it out.

And yet -- Jesus Christ is still the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.  
Jesus Christ is still the light of the world, and the darkness did not overcome him.
In a little while -- at 10:00, actually -- the children will preach
better than I have
they will share the light
and they will be the light
as they remind of of the baby, the God who came into our dark world

            Good people – what do you want for Christmas this year?  Really? 

I think I know what I want – I want a world where our children can have a future with hope, a world where there is a safe place for them to learn, to speak, to play – and where they can preach the gospel of Jesus’ love, and we can truly listen, and believe.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Children Preach

I am preaching this weekend, but only at the small chapel service tonight, and the early traditional service in the morning.  The 10:00 service (the largest of the three) will be almost entirely taken up with our annual Children's Christmas Program.  They are having their dress rehearsal this afternoon.  All the pastors have to do is welcome people, pray and read a short lesson (I chose Philippians earlier in the week).  All the adults have to do is sing.  And listen.

After hearing the news yesterday, about the murders at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, I found myself wishing that the children were preaching at all of the services.  There are a lot of reasons it's going to be difficult to preach this weekend.  Our congregation is far away from Newtown, Connecticut, but I think that the horror of it can't be ignored.  I wrestle with my own despair and my hope in God.  I know that we can't prevent every tragedy in this broken world, but I can't help thinking we can do better.  We are given the responsibility to protect the children, and we fail them again and again.

But the biggest reason I wish the children were preaching:  I really do think the adult world has lost its moral authority to proclaim hope, to tell good news.  We need to hear it from the children, their unadulterated joy even in the midst of horror.  In our church, maybe some of them will not even have heard the news.  So they will tell us about God's coming into the world in the manger, and tell us to take joy, when we cannot.  And we will look at them and realize what a gift they are, in so many ways:   how they show us the world again, for the first time, when we see it through their eyes; how they are honest in their faith, and in their doubt, and in their questions, when we have learned to hide all three; how they still sing, even when our voices are silenced.

And yet, I know that it is we who are adults who have the responsibility in this world.  We have the responsibility to teach the children about the kind of God we have, about grace and love and the value of all living things.  We have the responsibility to tell them that there is still hope, that God is coming, and God is among us, even when our hearts are breaking, even when their hearts are breaking.  We hare the responsibility to tell them that God is love, and that this love means something both for heavens' sake, but even more, for life right now.

For tomorrow, what I most want to say is this:  "Listen to the children." And then ask yourselves, "What then shall we do?"

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent Anecdote

So, the other day I was getting ready for my noon Bible study, which entails going over to the local grocery store and buying lunch (usually soup and an orange).  I got to the check-out counter, where they know me almost too-well, and the older gentleman who was bagging my lunch remembered to put it in a small bag, instead of a grocery-shopping sized one.

"Well," I said, making small talk, "I considered buying a few more things besides lunch, but I changed my mind."

"You can change your mind," he said.  "It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind."

"It's anyone's prerogative," I replied.  "You can change you mind, too, is you want to."

He smiled.  "Yes I could...... but it would be painful."

Then I drove back to the church to consider John the Baptist, and Advent.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Advent Bookends

We spend a fair amount of time with John the Baptist during Advent.  Two Sundays are devoted to his teaching, and I am heading, with John, into the third Sunday of Advent.  In liturgical circles, this is called "Gaudete" Sunday, devoted to Joy rather than repentance.  The first reading, from Zephaniah, begins "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion!"  and we hear, briefly from the apostle Paul, "Rejoice in the Lord, always."  John the Baptist, however, appears not to have received the memo.  Luke 3, verse 7 begins on this cheery note:  "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

All righty then.

This reading reminds me of the story I heard a long time ago, about a woman who got up to read the lessons at her church.  A good reader, apparently, she hadn't checked the pericopes ahead of time, and was startled to read, from Ephesians 5, "Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord."  She closed by looking up from the page and saying, "This is the word of the Lord?"

Don't get me wrong.  John the Baptist is a necessary corrective to the often advent-less Christmas celebration in our culture, the sentimental good news that is shallow often because it doesn't admit that there is any bad news out there.  What difference does it make that the light is coming into the world if it's pretty light out already?

Still, we have a hard time, sometimes, hearing John the Baptist, and I, for one, wince at being called a "brood of vipers."  Sometimes I think we would fare better in Advent by paying some attention to two elderly forebears:  Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Luke himself prepares us for the birth of Jesus by telling their story.   Their faith, their hope, their doubts, their failings, and especially their expectant waiting:  all of these preface the story of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, in Luke 2.  Not only that, Elizabeth and Zechariah's story is a sort of a womb that carries within it the story of the Angel's announcement to Mary and her song.

Maybe it is because I serve a congregation with more than its fair share of elderly people, maybe it's because I understand just a little of what it means to be barren, maybe it's because I can feel the interplay of patient hoping and waiting with painful stabs of doubt:  but I think that the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah has much to say to the church and the world today, at least as much as John's warning.

Zechariah has prayed for a child, and for a Messiah, for many years.  His prayers have seemed to go unheard, and at least, unanswered.  And then, after all seemed lost, he receives the too-good-to-be true message from the Angel that his wife is going to have a baby.  And it's hard to blame him for asking, "How will I know?", even though this question is considered by many to be a lack of faith.  He is unable to speak for the duration of Elizabeth's pregnancy.  But when his son is born, he writes down, "His name is John," and then becomes able to speak, and even to prophecy about the new thing that God is doing.

I can relate to this elderly, barren couple, hanging on to faith, but harboring doubts.  They want God to do a new thing in their lives, and in their community, but they are past expecting, past hoping.  They don't want to say it, probably, but they have given up.  And after they are past hoping, past expecting, then God tells them they will be parents.  Probably they are wondering if they have the energy for this, at the same time that they are rejoicing.

If we can't take John's judgment, at least, during Advent, we can take Elizabeth and Zechariah's barrenness, and understand the complicated and wonderful promise that God is giving to them, and to us.  Into a world where we have given up, God comes and plants new life.  Into a world barren of hope, God sends the gift of expectancy.  It is enough, for right now, anyway.

Now that I think of it, that's as common thread in John the Baptist's message as well.  Read between his harsh lines of judgment, and you can almost see the people leaning forward, "Is this the one?  I mean, even tax collectors are coming to be baptized!  It could be...."

Advent bookends:  from being barren to expecting.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Bold Speech

So, yesterday I was invited to lead the December Bible study at one of the Women's Circles.

They've been inviting me every December for many years, but I always feel honored.  It's their annual pot luck, so I get to share lunch with them as well as lead the Bible study.  They all make salads and Christmas goodies.  They always begin by standing in a circles and holding hands, singing "Be Present at Our Table, Lord."

This year, at lunch, someone passed around old pictures they had found from almost 20 years ago.  The Circle was much bigger then.  Some of the women have died, and others have moved; a couple of them simply don't come any more.  I remembered how there used to be two tables set for lunch, back when I started coming to their December meeting.  So we spent some of our time during lunch remembering some of the people we missed, and sharing stories.

When it came time for the Bible study, the few of us moved to a sofa and chairs.  Two of the women in our group have macular degeneration now, and can't share in the reading of the scripture.  They listen, and participate in other ways.

Our Bible study yesterday was from Acts 4, the end of the story about Peter and John healing a man and then brought before the authorities, who demand that they stop talking about Jesus.  In the very end of the story, the disciples all get together and they pray:  and they ask God for boldness so that they can continue to tell the good news they know.  At the end of the prayer, there's an odd detail:  the apostles actually can feel the earth shaking beneath them.

For what it's worth, I don't think of the word "Bold" when I consider this group of elderly women, some of them frail.  They are quiet Lutherans, and they don't seem the type to make waves.  I was wondering just how this Bible study, with several questions about "Bold Speech", was going to go.

At one point, though, I asked them to tell me what was something really important about their faith, about God, about Jesus.  They all said, mostly in their quiet way, about how their faith keeps them going, about how they couldn't get through the days without it.  One woman ( the youngest in the group) got a little more specific by saying it was the unconditional love and forgiveness of God that was most important to her.

I thought:  this may not seem like a big deal, but it is.  If you aren't old yet, you may not realize that growing old is not for sissies.  When people say that the unconditional love and forgiveness of God for them gets them through each day, they are actually saying a lot.  Older people are dealing with a lot of things:  they are grieving the deaths of family and friends, they are going blind, they are dealing with pain.  And it is the unconditional love and forgiveness of God that keeps them going.

That's what they said.

I said, you know, that might just be the most important thing to be bold about.  Because in this world, love and unconditional forgiveness, unfortunately, are not the first words most people think of when they think of Christians.

Growing old is not for sissies, that's the truth, and I could see it in the lives of the women gathered in that circle.  I suspect that every age has its pains, though.  Life is not for sissies.  The truth worth sharing is this:  we need all of the unconditional love and forgiveness we can get.

It's worth being bold about, at any age.  It might even be earth-shaking.