Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Twelve Books of Christmas, December 31

On this 7th day of Christmas, I'm recommending a book called "The Miracle of Saint Nicholas" by Gloria Whelan, and illustrated by Judith Brown.  It is a story that takes place in post-Soviet Russia at Christmas-time.  A little boy named Alexi walks past the Church of St. Nicholas in in small village of Zeema.  He asks his babushka about the church, and she tells him stories about what Christmas was like when she was a little girl, before the soldiers came and closed the church.  Alexi has many questions for his babushka, including "What is an icon?"  "Why is the church closed?"  "Why can't we have Christmas in our church again?"

Babushka told Alexi that the church has been empty for 60 years.   The church has an empty altar now.  There is no cross, there are no candles, no bread and wine, no icon of St. Nicholas -- and no priest.  There were mice living in the church.  "It would take a miracle to open our church", she said.

But Alexi dreamed of Christmas at St. Nicholas.  And he worked hard to make it possible.  He swept and he cleaned and he made the church ready just in case the people would come, and just in case there could be worship on Christmas.

I will let you read the rest of the story yourself.  Gloria Wheelman's prose is evocative and poetic.  Judith Brown's detailed pastel illustrations help us enter the Orthodox culture of Russia.  This picture book is accessible to small children in its basic story, but its depth makes it compelling to readers of all ages.

I love to find books to give another's culture's experiences of the meaning of Christmas.  This book helps me understand the depth of the incarnation, in a country where faith was suppressed for a time, but did not ever die.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Twelve Books of Christmas, December 30

Today is the 6th Day of Christmas.  Today's Christmas book is one that just came out this year.  It is called "Nativity", by Cynthia Rylant.  I saw it in an airport bookstore, and resisted temptation, but then decided that I just had to have it.

There are Christmas books that are unusual because they tell more of the Christmas story than you expect.  For example, I have an old book illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham, called "The Christ Child."  This book tells the Christmas story but it does not end when I think:  the book continues with the flight into Egypt and return afterwards.  These episodes are not usually featured in a Christmas book.  Usually you just get the manger and the baby, the shepherds and angels, and perhaps the wise men.

Nativity is unusual because of what it includes as well as what it leaves out.  The story is elliptical.  It begins, not with the manger, but with the shepherds and the angels who hear the good news, and come to visit the baby.  And after telling this portion of the Christmas story, Rylant shifts to one scene from Jesus' adult ministry:  portions of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.

"Blessed are the poor," Jesus says, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

That's all.  Just those two scenes from Jesus' life.

The humble birth -- and the one who preaches humility.
The meekness and poverty of the nativity  -- and the meek shall inherit the earth.

And as for being pure in heart -- have we, like the shepherds, been to the manger, and seen the baby?

Have we seen God?

Like I said, it is a very unusual Christmas book.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Twelve Books of Christmas, December 29

This is the fifth day of Christmas.  For today I have chosen a Christmas book that I found several years ago, "The Huron Carol", by Frances Tyrell.  Tyrell has illustrated the little-known carol, which was originally written both in Huron and in French, as a way of telling and singing the Christmas story with the Huron Indians.

From the back of the book: "Father Jean de Brebeuf (1593-1649) worked among the Huron Indians in the villages around Fort Set Marie, where Midland, Ontario now stands.  During his twenty-two years there he translated many books into the Huron language. But he is best remembered for this telling of the Christmas story in the setting of the Hurons."

The pictures and the carol imagine the Christmas story taking place in the setting and among the Huron people.  Instead of shepherds, the first visitors are hunter braves; the wise men from the east are chiefs who bring gifts of fox and beaver pelt for the baby.  The pictures also show the hunters traveling by snowshoe and the traditional dwellings of the Huron Indians at that time.  The pen-and-ink drawings are intricate and accurate, even to the constellations in the sky.  At the back of the book, the first verse of the carol is presented in three languages:  English, French, and Huron.

I love this book because it speaks the mystery of the incarnation so beautifully:  that Jesus was born into a particular time and place, but his incarnation means that he is born among us, in all of our particular times and places.  This book reminds me to notice and give thanks for Emmanuel:  God with US -- and to notice the particular and intricate beauties of our lives -- and of other lives, not known to us.  Jesus has come for ALL of us.

There is a newer version of "The Huron Carol", with a different illustrator.  It also looks like a beautiful book, and I would recommend it.  But this earlier one remains my favorite.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Twelve Books of Christmas, December 28

This is the 4th Day of Christmas, and, for some of us, a day when we remember the Holy Innocents, those babies killed after Jesus was born, while Herod was looking for him.  So, today's recommendation is perhaps an unusual one, the book "Refuge".  This books touches on the beginning of the Christmas story, and tells all of it from the donkey's point of view.  The donkey brought the man and woman to Bethlehem, where they found refuge among strangers.  The shepherds and the angels came, of course, and then:  the man had a dream:  a dream of danger, and the little family was on the road again.

They pass the shepherds and sheep on the way, and they take comfort from one another until they reach their refuge:  Egypt.

It is really a simple and beautifully told story.  There are some things that are over-simplified, of course -- it sounds like the wise men came shortly after the shepherds, when in reality, that happened somewhat later.  But the focus of the story is that the Holy Family has to flee.

Most of the illustrations are in black and white, with flashes of color interspersed.  It tells a part of the story we don't usually think too much about.

But this is Christmas too:  Danger -- and Refuge. Telling this story helps keep our sentimentality in check, and remember that there are children all over the world who are still in danger, and families who still need refuge.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Twelve Books of Christmas, December 27

My book recommendation for today may seem unusual, as it is not really a Christmas book.  It is a winter story set in the Ukraine, based on an old folk tale.  My recommendation for today is Jan Brett's book, "The Mitten."

It is a lovely, whimsical story about a boy who received a pair of pure white, hand-knitted mittens from his grandmother.  (This is not, by the way, a Christmas present.)  She is worried because a pure white mitten will get lost in the snow.  And that is exactly what happens.

As soon as the boy loses his mitten, a tired mole finds it and takes refuge inside the mitten.  Not long afterwards, a snowshoe rabbit also finds this refuge, and before we know it, there are many animals from the forest inside that mitten, as it stretches to many many times its normal size.

But grandmother's stitches hold.

At the end, of the animal sneezes and all of the animals are released from the mitten, which finds its way home.

But I want to focus on that stretched-out mitten, with all of the animals inside, as a wonderful image of the mystery of the incarnation.

How is it that the great and infinite God became so small, that God could fit inside a new-born baby? It is impossible, just like the folktale.  And yet -- God is with us in this tiny baby.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Twelve Books of Christmas, December 26

I am thinking about posting a recommendation for a different Christmas book every day here  Today is the 2nd Day of Christmas, and the book I am recommending is called "Good King Wenceslas", a picture book by John Neal and illustrated by Tim Ladwig.  John Neale wrote the hymn, Good King Wenceslas in 1855, and this beautiful picture book is an illustration of the hymn, and accompanying story.

I remember singing this carol at our school's Christmas program, and having a vague idea of the story behind it, that the King was walking through through the snow in order to help someone who was poor, and the page (what was a page?) was following him and walking in his footsteps, and his footsteps were warm.

The pictures bring the story to life.  There are some pages without words, only pictures showing the preparation of the meal they would bring to the peasant's door.

The front pages of the story related something I never knew:  King Wenceslas was a real person, a tenth century king, from Bohemia, now part of the Czech republic.  There is a statue commemorating him in Prague.

A Historical note at the end of the book tells us a little more about the king, one who was known especially for his kindness and compassion to children, orphans, and slaves.

There have been other books illustrating this lovely carol as well.  Here are a couple of examples:
Good King Wenceslas
Good King Wenceslas

As well, Tim Ladwig has illustrated a number of books for children, including The Lord's Prayer, Psalm 23, and The Beatitudes:  From Slavery to Civil Rights.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Perfect Gift

A friend told me recently that she had found the perfect gift for her husband, who is a wonderful cook.  It is a cookbook that has just come out.  All of the recipes are by chefs who are immigrants, and all of the proceeds help to advocate for immigrants and refugees to this country.  Her husband is passionate about the recipes and the cause.

It is, indeed, the perfect gift.

I think about this sometimes:  the perfect gift.  It's the one that I want to give.  The exact perfect gift:  the thing that you would never ask for, but want, nevertheless.  The perfect gift is not the one that is on the list of "things you want for Christmas" (although they are good too.)  The perfect gift isn't necessarily expensive.  Being pricey isn't what makes it perfect.  It might be small, or it might be large.  It just fits the person, perfectly.  It is something they want, without knowing it.

One year I gave everyone in the family scarves for Christmas.  They weren't terribly difficult to make, but it was more time-consuming than I thought it would be.  I'm not sure they were exactly the "perfect" gifts, but I wanted to give something that had a little bit of myself in it, so I knitted all these scarves.  One of them I just barely finished before the 4:00 service on Christmas Eve.  I'm actually not sure it was long enough, even now.

I want to give the perfect gift to everyone every year, but, to be truthful, I'm not sure I hit the mark that often.  I remember thinking I had something good for my mom one year, the year that my dad died.  Then my mom opened the Christmas present from my niece and nephew, pictures of them when they are small, put in a frame.  And she cried.  And I knew that they had given the perfect gift.

This is the season of gift-giving, and there are times that my heart just wants to give something to everyone.  Toys for children!  Books for everyone!  Something hand-made!  Then there are other times when it just seems overwhelming, and I wish I could be content with Grace.  Just the gift of life, of other people.  Just the gift of laughter, tears, someone who will not abandon you.  Just the gift of the herald angels singing, Glory to the newborn king, the gift of candles glowing, the gift of the silent night, the gift of the baby, joy to the world.

He was not what we asked for, not what we wanted, or at least, not what we think we wanted.  In the end we rejected him, in one way or another.  He is a baby who will create peace, and make a lot of trouble.  He will bring new life, in a world that mostly wants to stay the same.

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His Heaven.
No hear may hear his coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


It is Advent, for a few more days anyway, and, I will confess that I haven't been feeling all that advent-y this year.  For some reason or another.  Perhaps it's the Texas weather, all sunshine and rain and no snow (except for that one extremely unusual Thursday evening.)  I don't think that's it, though, because this is my third Advent in Texas, and I don't remember feeling this way the last two years.

Maybe it's the fact that Advent is so short this year.  We light the fourth Advent Candle in the morning, and bam!  by sundown it is Christmas Eve.  I love a long advent, with time to reflect over all of the candles, with time to think deep thoughts about wonder and waiting, making time and space for the coming Christ, who is also present.

There is this one small thing, though, every Sunday.  For some odd reason, I decided, on the first Sunday of Advent, to wrap up a number of sunglasses and give them out to the children, and invite them to see differently this season.  Advent is for seeing in a different way.  I am terrible at wrapping gifts.  I will do almost anything to avoid it.  But I got a roll of Christmas wrapping paper and wrapped up the sunglasses, and put the under the tree.  (Don't judge me.  Yes, our church Christmas tree is up before Christmas.)

That first Sunday I had the children look for the present under the tree, and a couple of them ran over and picked it up and brought it back, and we opened it together.

This description, though, does not do justice to the event:  the children tore, ripped, clawed open the box, in their excitement.  It was momentary pandemonium.  (To their credit, they carefully put the wrapping paper pieces in a basket afterwards.)

I decided to wrap up a different present the two next weeks as well.  A gift under the tree.  The children opened it with great joy and wonder and haste.  We could all feel their excitement, even if all the box contained was a play microphone.  It didn't matter!  There was something unknown in there and they wanted to find it!

They were impatient.

I know that Advent is a time of waiting, but sometimes it seems so sedate, and when I saw the children, I caught a glimpse of wildness, and I thought:  maybe Advent is really a wild season, not a tame one.  Maybe Advent is full of things we cannot control, and maybe the things we are waiting for are also wilder than we imagined.  What if we were opening a box of peace on earth?  What if the gift God offered us contained healing and hope for all the things that hurt our hearts, for all the things that endanger our world?

Would we be impatient too?  Would we claw it open just to see what is inside?

For a few more Days, it is Advent.  For these next few days, Lord, let me not be sedate.  Let me be impatient to know what is inside your love.  Not just for me.  But for this whole terrible and beautiful world.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sermon Advent 3: "Preach!"

Based on John 1:6-8, 19-28

            During my extremely brief career in theatre, I had one small but memorable role in a church production of “Camelot.”
             I had no lines but one solo – and you heard but didn’t see me as I sang from behind a curtain.  
             I played a character called “Nimue” -- and it was my job to sing to Merlin and lure him away from King Arthur and Camelot.  
            It was a small but important role (I told myself) because it was important for Merlin to be out of the picture for most of the play. 
            So I sang my song and Merlin followed the voice.
            I had one job – and then I disappeared.

            I can’t help thinking about this one, small role when I think about John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading.  
             John has a small, but important role. 
            And who does John say that he is? 
            He mostly tells us who he is not – he says – I am NOT the Messiah.  I am NOT Elijah.  I am  NOT the prophet. 
            Who is he?  He is… the voice.  He is a voice crying in the wilderness. 

            A voice.  That’s what John is. 
            Like the voice behind the curtain.  Heard, but not seen. 
            He’s not even called “John the Baptist” – just John. 
            John the Voice.   
            His main job is not baptizing – it’s pointing to the one who is coming after him.
             He is a witness to who Jesus is, and who he will be.  That’s what he does.   
            And he is adamant about who he is NOT – because it is so much more important who Jesus is.

            John is standing around talking to the religious leaders when he says it, his witness. 
            He says this, “Among you stands one you do not know.”   
            That is his testimony.
             Later on he will see Jesus and he will point to him and say, “There he is, the lamb of God. 
            The one who takes away the sin of the world.”  But to start, he says this intriguing thing, “Among you is one you do not know.”

            And it seems to me that this is the beginning of our witness, our voice, as well. 
            We will end up saying other things, but this is the first truth:  among you stands one you do not know. 
            Because if Christmas means anything it means this:  God is with us, God is among us, God is here, not absent from us.
            And when I mean “Here” I don’t mean just “in the church” – although I believe and I hope he is here, among us, in our community and our families and working in our personal lives to transform us.
             But he is here – in Montgomery and in Conroe and in Willis.  He’s in Grace school, and he’s at Mateley Ranch and Geisinger and Stewart and Lone Star and all of the other schools. 
            He’s in the Chamber of Commerce and Fire Station. 
            But most of the time we don’t see him or notice that he is here.

            I think that is one of the reasons that churches had steeples, back in the day – to remind people of God’s presence – not just in the church – but in the neighborhood, in the world.
             The church stands as a reminder, but it doesn’t point to itself.        Like John the Baptist – we point to something much bigger than us.

            We stand here, we gather together, and what we say is, “Among you is one you do not know.”
             And then we point to where we see him, and who he is for us.  But in order to do that we need to know where we are see him, we need to stop and breathe and look around. 
            That is – in part – what Advent is for.  It is has become a time of year full will activity and preparation, with expectations that are often actually impossible to meet. 
            How can we make Christmas, how can WE make Christmas special for everyone this year?
              Will we set the right table, get the right presents, invite the right people?
             Can we make it to all of the places we are expected to be? 

            It is just a week before Christmas eve, and the first thing I want to say to you is “among you is one you do not know.”  
            And when you are looking around for him this coming week, notice first of all the places of grace. 
            Notice the places where you do not need to measure up, where you are known and loved, where arms are open. 
            Notice the places where people make sacrifices, where there is mercy abounding. 
            Notice the places where there is justice, where people are lifted up, where they are seen and claimed as children of God.   
            And tell the world:  “among you there is one you do not know.” 

            He is here, and he is here FOR YOU.   
            He is here for you, and he is here for the sake of the world.    
            He is the light of the world, and we are the ones called to bear witness to the light.
             He is the light of the world,  the one who sheds light on both the shabbiness and the glory in the world. 
            He sheds light on our pain, and he heals us.  He sheds light on our sin, and he forgives us. 
            He sheds light on our hunger, and he feeds us. 

            He is the light of the world, and we are called to see it. 
            He is the light of the world, and we are called to preach it. 
            He is the light of the world, and we are called to point to it – with our lives, with our words, in our actions. 

            Like John. 

            It starts with a Voice.  It starts with a voice, and it leads to a life dedicated to making known the Christ who stands among us, unknown.

            It’s a time of year – just before Christmas – when there is more darkness than light. 
            Sometimes it seems that way in more ways then one. 
            But there is one among us whose mercy is strange, who loves his enemies, whose steadfast love endures forever.

            A few days ago, I saw on television a rare encounter.
             It was between Meghan McCain, John McCain’s daughter, and Joe Biden, the former Vice President
            She was interviewing him about his new book, and she confessed that she couldn’t get through it, because he was talking about his son’s cancer and that is the same cancer that her father has. 
            And the Vice President came and sat next to her and told her how her dad had been such an influence on his son’s life and how they had been friends and how there was hope and she should not give up.
             And I caught a glimpse then of mercy and love and bonds that are stronger than death, of what it looks like that God is in the midst of us, God is among us. 

            Where do you see mercy?  Where do you see sacrifice?
             Where do you see the hungry being fed, the poor being lifted up?  Where do you see relationships being healed?

            Dear world, among you is one you do not know. 
            He is the Lamb of God.  He is the Light of the World. 
            He takes away the sin of the world.

            And he calls you:  Beloved.




Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent 2: In the Wilderness, Prepare!

 Isaiah 40/Mark 1:1-8

            “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas … Everywhere you go”
            For a brief moment – late Thursday night and early Friday morning – I sort of felt like singing this song.
             It snowed! 
            Something I have been told NEVER happens here.
             It snowed, and it was a surprise, and one of my friends said she and her husband just drove up and down the streets near them because then they could see the snowflakes hitting the windshield. 
            Simple pleasures. 
            And in the morning there was this light coating of snow, and when my husband went to the store for a couple of things, he said that everyone was in good spirits there –talking and wishing each other a Merry Christmas!
            “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas ….. Everywhere you go….”
            It reminded me of preparing for Christmas when I was a little girl, and when my dad and I would go out to get the tree, and we’d drive in that snowy cold winter air like they have up north and we’d sing this song all the way to the Christmas tree lot. 
            Because for some reason or another, snow, a beautiful blanket of snow, said Christmas to us.
            It was part of the Christmas preparations, and we expected it, but we couldn’t make it happen.

            It’s beginning to look a lot like – Christmas.  
            Everywhere you go. 
            But what does “Christmas” look like?  
            The image that the prophet Isaiah paints is something else – not preparation for Christmas but preparation for the Kingdom of God .              “Prepare the way of the Lord”, the prophet says – and it’s a huge construction project.
            The valleys will be raised up and the mountains made low and the crooked places straight, because God is going to make an actual appearance. 
            Isaiah is speaking to people who have been in exile, who have been conquered by their enemies and sent away – people who may feel both hopeless and desperate – but also perhaps – feel the weight of their own unfaithfulness. 
            They had turned away from God. 
            But now – now they were living far away from their home and they were dislocated from the things that made their faith real to them.            The temple was gone.  Had God left them too? 
            They were like people who associated snow with Christmas – living in a land of no snow. 
            They were refugees looking for a place to worship – a place that looked like home. 
            And the prophet was saying to them – God is going to make an actual appearance.  Prepare the way of the Lord. 

            It’s a big construction project because the people know that they need a big construction project. 
            They need God to come to them.   
            They need an actual appearance by God.    And In Isaiah, God promises that they will get it. 
            God is coming to them.  Prepare the way.

            But Isaiah says something more than that.  He doesn’t just say, “Prepare.”  He says, “in the wilderness prepare….”  And I have been wondering about this lately. 
            In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.   
            Is this important? 
            What does it mean?  Why prepare in the wilderness?  It’s the place where the people wandered for 40 years before entering the promised land.
             It’s the place where Jesus went to be tempted for 40 days.  The wilderness can be beautiful but it can be barren and it is dangerous. 

            And it is where we are.

            Aren’t we?  I can’t help thinking this.
             I’m seeing pictures of fires burning in Los Angeles.  I hear stories of refugees with no place to go.
             I remember the devastation of flooding in Houston, in the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico. 
            People celebrating at a concert in Las Vegas are murdered, and people worshipping at a church in Sutherland Springs. 
            And more and more, I hear the language of “them and us” … if we disagree with each other, we use the language of contempt.   It seems like the wilderness to me.

            And then there are the small and individual stories I hear about:  the woman who asks me to pray for her husband, who has depression.  The teenage boy dying of cancer.   The woman grieving the loss of her sister.   

            In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, the prophet says.  Because that is where we are. 
            God is going to make an actual appearance – where we are, in the wilderness.

            I will tell you now that one of the hard things this summer was finally moving out of our home in Minnesota. 
            Not because I didn’t want to move, but because – well – moving is just hard work, even when you know it’s hard, it turns out to be even harder.
             And while we were moving I found out that there was a new member of the family – my great-niece was born – and I desperately wanted to meet that little baby. 
            But it was all moving all the time, and there wasn’t time to go and see her.
             I remember one night thinking if I wasn’t so tired, I would just like to meet that little baby, but not having the energy to do anything about it, and my nephew sent a little video of her. 
            And you know, it wasn’t the same, it wasn’t an Actual Appearance – but it was something.

            And finally, when we were back this week, they all came over to my mom’s house, they all came over for supper, and I got to meet her. Lyric is her name.  Like the song. 
            And I got to hold her.  And sing to her.  “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… everywhere you go.” 

            Not because of the snow.  Because of a child.

            In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, the prophet says to us.
             Because that is where we are.  He is coming to us there.  He’s coming to bring life.  He’s coming to bring peace.  He’s coming to bring love.

            And he says, “Repent.” 
            Which means a lot of things, but one thing is “turn around.” 
            Turn around because we are always looking in the wrong places for God, and we’re looking in the wrong places for salvation. 
            We’re looking inside ourselves, we’re looking at powerful people.  But God is coming to us in the wilderness, God is coming to us where it’s cold, and where we are vulnerable, and where we are grieving. 
            God is coming to us in weakness, in a baby in a manger, in the cross where we crucified him.   
            God is coming to us not in power, but in weakness, not in revenge but in love. 

            Prepare the way of the Lord. 
            Turn around and open your arms, and your heart.
            Turn to your neighbor, turn to the stranger.
            Let it be true:
            For you. 
            Because you see it.  Because you bring it.
            It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  Everywhere you go.

            Let every heart prepare him room.