O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the king, and peace to all on earth!
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; o come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
~ Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)
In the summer of 2007 I had the privilege of going on pilgrimage to Israel. It was with a group through Candler seminary. I like to describe our gaggle as 18 clergy and 3 adults. It was truly an amazing two-week trip. We were a week on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee and a week in Jerusalem. We traveled around in a comfortable, chartered bus. I remember our guides showing us traditional site after traditional site of all the stories of my faith. I remember laughter. I remember tears. But mostly I remember our singing. We sang on the bus and on the shoreline. We sang at dawn and dusk. I can still hear the echoes of those amazing pilgrims. The Lord is my light and our salvation, whom shall I fear?
All through our trip we encountered the Palestinian Wall. The thing snaked its way along with us as we journeyed through the country. Soon, even when we couldn't see it, we still felt its presence. Sometimes it was a part of our conversations, sometimes not. But always it was there. Threatening. Ugly. Separating. Conquering. We met people whose families were separated. We met people who had to daily show different forms of paperwork to pass through to the other side. We saw 18-year-old girl and boy soldiers with guns ordering elders to do this-and-that and putting them in their place. We saw that. We witnessed time after time what a Separation Wall can do to polarize groups of human beings from one another. And through our time in Israel, we sang.
One day we journeyed south of Jerusalem into Bethlehem. We took steps down beneath the Church of the Nativity to the traditional site of the Jesus’ birth. There, too we sang. The words rolled through the tiny space and time stood still: Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. There, in the silence following the signing, we imaged what it must have been like to hear this baby’s first cry.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come to this place where we continue to build walls. Come to this place where we look past one another and cannot see. Come where ancient carols still echo in our hearts. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise one, I would do my part.
But what can I give him?
Give my heart.
~ In the Bleak Mid-Winter
He is born! Alleluia! Unto us is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
This day celebrates the coming of a child, a fulfilling of God’s promise. Emmanuel, God-with-us. In flesh and blood. One who laughed and cried. One born to walk the earth, share the stories, teach lovingkindness, heal the sick. One born vulnerable into the world while an angel sang overhead. One who would turn the world upside-down.
What can I give him? Isn’t that the question of the day? Perhaps it is our life-question, ever-evolving. One gift enough? Maybe two? Will a tithe do it? How about if I sit in the front row and participate on three committees? What is required of me? In the Hebrew scriptures, in Micah’s book we are taught we are to do these three things: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. So, what does this day require of us? How are we to know?
Perhaps in our end is our beginning (as our friend T.S. Eliot would say), we can turn back the pages to the first Sunday in Advent. Then I invited us to live into the words from Hamilton, “Look around, look around. How lucky we are to be alive right now.” This isn’t a statement anyway implying “hey look at me, I’ve got it all figured out.” I think on this Christmas day it serves us well in two ways. First, we can acknowledge and be thankful for all that we have, friends and family, comfort and able-nesses. How lucky we are to be alive. Not to be taken for granted, not for one instant. Secondly, and more importantly the call to look around speaks to how we are to be in the world. Our lives aren’t to be spent in the audience. We are to look and see what is happening or not happening. We are to hear the angel’s `Alleluia,’ to respond with love. If there is hunger, bring food. If someone is sick or in prison, visit. If someone is cold, share a blanket.
What can I give him? It’s as easy and hard as the invitation found in the last line of Christina Rossetti song: Give my heart. Last night's Lessons and Carols service at NDPC ended with the benediction below. We were given our road map and blessing both. It is a beautiful piece entitled, “Shine On, Star of Bethlehem” from the Sabeel Liberation Theology Centre:
On the Eve of Christmas Hatred will vanish
On the Eve of Christmas the Earth will flourish
On the Eve of Christmas War will be gone
On the Eve of Christmas Love will be born
When we offer a glass of water to a thirsty person
it is Christmas
When we clothe a naked person with a gown of love
it is Christmas
When we wipe the tears from weeping eyes
it is Christmas
When the spirit of revenge dies in me
it is Christmas
When in my heart I no longer want to stay apart
it is Christmas
When I am buried in the being of God
it is Christmas.
Merry Christmas to you and yours. Thank you for sharing this journey. I’ve been grateful for your companionship during this Advent season. Wherever you are and however this day unfolds for you, may you be reminded that love is greater than fear and light greater than darkness.
Cold are the people, winter of life.
We tremble in shadows this cold endless night,
frozen on the snow lie roses sleeping, flowers that will echo the sunrise,
first of hope is our only warmth, weary, its flame will be dying soon.
Voice in the distance, call in in the night,
on wind you enfold us, you speak of the light,
gentle on the ear you whisper softly, rumors of a dawn so embracing,
breathless love awaits darkened souls, soon we will know of the morning.
Spirit among us, shine like the star,
your light that guides shepherds and kings from afar,
shimmer in the sky so empty, lonely,
rising in the warmth of your Son’s love,
star unknowing of night and day,
Spirit we wait for your loving Son.
~ “Night of Silence” by Dan Kantor
In our handed-down generation-to-generation story we've been told that today they are still making their way. Very pregnant Mary and most-understandably, very anxious Joseph are still making their way to Bethlehem. By now, they must have been exhausted. They were probably hungry and bone-tired. I wonder if young Mary had been having animated and specific conversations with God. Likewise I wonder where Joseph found the faith and the strength to put one foot in front of the other. We are told they made their way from Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of David because Joseph had been summoned to pay his tax. Left foot, right foot. Almost there. Their journey is almost finished, but they are not yet there. Not yet.
"Not yet" have been two of our most faithful words. They hold the tension between what is just not right now and what is surely coming. These words hold expectation and hope. They hold discomfort and anticipation. They hold past and present and future. Our faith has deep roots in these words. Our stories reassure us that what we pray for is possible, that all things are possible. These two bridging words have gotten us to there-to-here and will surely lead us on.
Many of us are already singing the Christmas Carols. I know I am and have been for weeks now. The notion of singing "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" through almost the entire month of December does not seem humanly possible. But the truth is - We. Are. Not. There. Yet. Mary and Joseph are still making their way. Our work, our task, our practice for these long, cold December day is to wait.
Dan Kantor has written a beautiful piece, "Night of Silence." The longing and trembling weave together with images of what is promised: "rose," "sunrise," "light." Soon we will know of the morning, but not yet. We are still waiting with expectation and longing. We are still paying attention to what is all around us. We are still hoping beyond hope. As we wait and watch, we continue to listen for the melody of the songs we know by heart. We are bursting to sing them. Just. Not. Yet.
thanks to Susie for this picture
'Twas in the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had fled,
that mighty Gitchi Manittou sent angel choirs instead;
before their light the stars grew dim, and wondering hunters heard the hymn...
~ Jean de Brebeuf
On this Full Moon night, we can see in the dark. Every 29 days we are reminded of this truth that can't be true. Every 29 days we are reminded to see past what doesn't seem possible. On this night nature shows us again that light is always greater than darkness – and that the darkness cannot, will not ever keep it out.
Through these past December days, we have journeyed – left foot, right foot toward Bethlehem. Along the way we have lost something, and found something new. Along the way we have grown weary, and somehow found a way to continue. Along the way we have reconnected with stories and songs that again inspire us. Each of us brings her own prayers for what can be next. Each brings his own hopes for what is not yet.
My sisters and I spent our summers at Girl Scout camp in Indiana. All summer long we would spend our days singing and swimming and building and believing that everything is possible. And at night one of my favorite things would be to walk from one unit to the next in the dark. There was a gravel road between the Pirate and the Ranger unit, and then continuing on the gravel road to the Pioneer unit. What I loved was to turn off my flashlight and try to make my way in the dark. Those night journeys taught me some pretty important lessons. Some of these life-lessons were: darkness doesn’t keep us from going from one place to another, a second -that where we are going is so often where we believe it will be, and a third - that when walking in the dark, if you look up you can follow the road you are traveling by watching the openings in the trees. Still true. Still leading me on now.
These can be such overwhelming days. The world can feel out of balance. How comforting and consoling it is to remember that we can see even in the dark. We are making our way through these winter days being guided all along the way.
Today is the shortest day of the year. No pressure. No worries, necessarily. No need for us to `be faster, do more quicker.' It's one of nature's ongoing gifts, teaching us to pay attention. Shortest day of the year. Today.
This is also the year's longest night. Again, no pressure. This is just another time for us to be mindful, thoughtful, intentional. What do you do when you find yourself in the dark? It happens to all of us at one time or another. Expected or unexpected. Each of us finds ourselves at some time gradually or suddenly in the dark. What do you do? Do you panic? Do you sing your songs of strength? Do you somehow find a way to light a candle?
Being in the dark can conger up something fearful, something wrong or bad. It's not necessarily so. It can be, but not necessarily. Growing up in a central Illinois, we all paid attention to the seasons and to the ground's rhythms. Even though we thought of ourselves as "town people," we lived in a farm town. My sisters and I could ride our bikes 1 mile west, or a half mile south, or 4 miles east or a mile north before we would be surrounded by corn and beans. We would hear about crops and growing seasons in church and school, at the store or at doctor. We grew up hearing about when to plant and when to harvest. We grew up hearing about the rhythm of tending to the ground. So I know a little about preparing the ground, about planting the seed, about cultivating and nurturing, about pulling weeds, about harvest. I know about the importance of honoring time and the need to allow the ground her rest.
Being mindful of these December days, today's longest night feels like a moment of intention and a time to honor our need for rest. This has been a long year filled to overflowing with emotional highs and lows. My spirit could surely use a night of darkness, of stillness, of gathering in. Farmers know that the ground cannot sustain continual planting. All the nutrients, all the goodness will be used up, will have no way to replenish. The same is true for us, sisters and brothers. We cannot be "on" all the time. We, too will be used up.
This night nature beckons us to pay attention. This night we are invited to be mindful, care-full. Winter Solstice marks the once-a-year moment when darkness holds us. When darkness holds us longer. Being in the dark isn't awful. It doesn't have to be scary. If we stop and wait, we adapt. Soon, what was total darkness, becomes darkness-lite. Soon, we can begin to see in the dark. We may have to move a little slower, look a little closer, maybe even take our time as we make our way. But it is a life-lesson for us: we can make our way in the dark.
What is remarkable about our Winter Solstice is that we are all sharing this day and this night - together. For goodness sake, we celebrate National Pancake Day and National Grandparents Day (both good and worthy celebrations). Today we - all of us - celebrate the Winter Solstice. At 5:23 EST is the Solstice moment for us in the Northern hemisphere to mark. In this moment perhaps we can say a prayer for the world. Choose your words for recovery and reclamation, for care and kindness, for hope and healing for everyone. For those who must be sorely afraid in Syria today, for those who are rebuilding in Paradise; for the child being born in North Korea today and the child who dies too soon from gun violence someplace in the United States. 5:23. Set your alarm.
When it's dark we light candles. When it's dark our senses seem most keen. When it's dark we sometimes pay our best attention. When it's dark our life-songs come back to us and remind us who we are meant to be. Perhaps one song to sing tonight as we pray, "Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright..." Blessings on you this day and may God bless us, everyone, this night.
Thanks, Susie for this picture
In the hurrying and scurrying of these busy days, we can remind one another and remind ourselves of choices. We can remind one another and ourselves of intentions. We can remind one another and ourselves of what matters most. It can be as hard and as easy as slowing down, paying attention and listening.
One of my favorite parts of my job is the bookends at the beginning and the end of the day. Every morning I park in the parking deck on Clairmont and set out walking through an upper part of Lullwater park to Egleston. And then on good days, when work is done, I walk back to my car in the deck. It's not quite a mile each direction. How great is that? I get to begin and end with sounds of birds singing and squirrels playing. I get to see the sky and the clouds and the trees and the leaves. I get to remember to breathe. And with these things, I am reminded of the Holy. The Holy that was, is and will be. The Holy that is seen and unseen. The Holy that Listens to it all.
Coming or going to work, all along the way there are signs and symbols of our mid-winter living. Nature shows ways to help navigate through this season. Living/dying, growing/decaying, dawning/dusking. Over my head and beneath my feet, nature brings guides. Through this winter lens I can often get a glimpse into winter's gifts and graces. There is a stark truth and honesty about this season. There is an timelessness all around. It's easy to miss it, when I'm distracted or just plain tired. But when I am paying attention, when I'm seeing, when I'm listening, there are so many things to discover. Trees, long hidden by their leaves are now visible. Seeing their stark branches, I see what looks to me like the trees' most vulnerable times. And what I am seeing in truth, has always been there, right before our eyes. If only I had eyes to see.
Gifts come when I pay attention. Holy listening is just that. Listening for what is more than I might first notice around me, and paying attention to what I am hearing. So much of our days can just feel noisy. So much feels amplified and turned all the way up. AND there is life, too. Our lives are being lived out in all the busyness and commotion and noise. What matters, what makes all the difference is when we don't ignore, don't grow numb, don't dismiss what is alive around us. Holy Listening comes when we are awake to the life that is there. It comes when we tune in and don't tune out. It is listening through the noise and listening for the heart of the message. It comes when we do our best to be as fully present as we can possibly be.
Holy listening is listening with our hearts first. It is getting out of my own way, and focusing on the one who is right there with us. Holy listening both marks this very instant that you are completely alive and marks in that same moment when time stands still. Holy listening is being mindful of God's presence. And the gift - for this Advent and each day throughout the year - is that the Holy is always, always with us. When we are listening for the Holy, we are making room for something gentler, wiser, kinder. Here, with these intentions we are creating a space when every now and then, the dear Lord enters in.
…we know faith. As Advent has been gathering round us, we continue to be encircled by story. Words of our life-story walking side by side our daily-story. There is a feeling of the fullness of time companioning these days. Stories and songs that we have known our whole lives can speak new words again this year. The hopes and fears of all the years has never felt more true.
…we know hope. As December has been enfolding round us, encouragement comes in expected and unexpected places. There is nothing like a child’s whoop or a giggle. There is nothing like hearing the ringing of a bell and hoping that Clarence has gotten his wings. There is nothing like the light that shines from a single candle. There is nothing like the words of a carol sung that fills my whole heart, And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.
… we know love. As Emmanuel is drawing closer, we know well our yearning for God’s presence. Emmanuel, God-with-us, each one of us. In these days we take heart knowing that God has unconditional care for each one. From these days we are given again courage and vision, strength and compassion. Enough and more. It through the lens of grace and mercy we see again this day, the wonders of God’s love. Love has brought us this far; love will bring us home.
thanks Linda, for this picture
Especially this season love is alive. Showing up more often than not, love is right there. Love is there in the midst and mess of us. Love is in the “pass the salt,” “Boy this is amazing. How do you make it?” of us. There from the setting of the table to the clearing of the plates – and every moment in between. Love is alive and well - reaching across and around and over our tables. Day-after-day, meal-after-meal when we find ourselves sitting at table with one another, and I believe, more often than not that love is there among us.
Some of my most favorite stories heard and told happen around tables. Since before I could talk, I have been welcomed into the family – given and chose – conversation. Every now and then there are poignant and important conversations around tables. Every now and then there have been difficult and nearly impossible conversations around tables. Every now and then. But mostly, it’s just life shared. “How was your day?” “What did you learn?” The things that keep us rooted and grounded happen around this amazing, simple, and sacred space.
Especially at the holidays I am mindful that time is different at the gathering tables. Even in the midst of the here and now, conversations from the past echo. And there, prayers for what will be are often birthed. Some (not all, but some) conversations are heard by ancestors. I can’t begin to tell you how many times, we’ve been eating a meal and one of the boys will be telling some story. And while I’m listening, I wonder what Mom or Dad would be saying as they, too listen-in. It’s holy. It’s welcome. It’s love.
In these Advent days you might have already shared a table or two when time felt different somehow. It happens. I believe it happens more than we know, we just sometimes are too distracted or too tired to pay attention. In these coming days, gather-in your spirits and gather-close to those you love. It might be a phone conversation. Two different zip codes (when creative and committed) can share a table - just takes a little intention and imagination. These are precious days, friends. These middle-days-of -December 2018, will never come again. And it’s up to us to be mindful, thoughtful. It’s up to us to be attentive to all the expected and unexpected meanings that these table-moments hold.
This picture at the top of this page is of me and Sister Margaret, my Spiritual Director. We were reaching out to one another and holding hands at Evans Fine Foods. [I am forever grateful to Martha G for catching us in this moment]. For more than 10 years Margaret and I met most every Tuesday morning to have pancakes and play cribbage. This was our place to meet and speak of holding on and letting go. We would talk about prayer. We would talk about family. We would talk about church and call. We would laugh and often cry. She held me and my story in ways that are hard to find words that can fully describe all that it has meant to me. What I know to be true is that when she would sit and listen and sometimes even reach out across the table – I felt love.
So, pay attention, friends to all the tables in your lives. Try not to miss them. When we gather around the table and reach across with our words and with our hearts, we are most certainly entertaining angels unaware.
There are so many pieces of December that I love. So many once-a-year things happen. Traditional and treasured tasks. Re-living some things I've been doing since I was a child. The music. The rituals. The gatherings and all the chach-chaka that accompanies them. This year is no exception. Brogan's home on college break from Guilford, Sam's playing in band and singing in choral concerts. Decorating the tree. Seeing again the ornaments that I watched Mom decorate the tree on Prairie Avenue. Look around, look around how lucky we are to be alive right now. So many spaces and places that I love in this season.
We can plan and plan. We can hope and anticipate. We can do our darnedest for things to come together and to fit in place.
And then things happened. Expected or unexpected, things happen. Intentional or unintentional things happen. There are shifts and jigs and jags. There are twists / turns and sometimes things we've hoped / planned / envisioned / worked for... Just. Don't. Happen. Sometimes it's a two-match fire.
I’ve working my way through the traditional `December crud,’ and yesterday morning all I wanted was a fire in the fireplace and a good book. Setting everything up for success, I got my slippers, a hooded sweatshirt and grabbed a blanket. Warmed up some tea and found my book. Last on my list was to build a fire in the fireplace. As a Girl Scout, I can’t tell you the pride I have in building a one-match fire. Each time, that experience warms my heart. It helps me feel competent and on my game. (And yes, I am seeing some eye-rolling as you are reading 😊). Build the fire from the bottom-up, put things carefully in place, light a match, sit back and enjoy. As life should be.
Not yesterday morning. Instead I lit the match, brought the little flame to the rolled up newspaper and even with my verbal encouragement and stick-prodding, the thing went out. Fizzled really. Sputtered and gone.
Sometimes it’s just a two-match fire.
These can be hard December days. Illness. Grief. Losses of jobs or dreams. Strained, struggling relationships. Emotional fatigue. Just naming a few. Some of us are just out-of-rhythm. It’s not easy being in the world some days. It’s not easy seeing smiling faces and hearing the caroling when our hearts are heavy.
Sometimes it's important to not give up on the fire. In those moments, we just have to take courage, find another match, shift the paper and the sticks around a little bit. Pay closer attention. Claim. Or reclaim. It's up to us. It matters that we choose and to risk a second try.
(p.s. It turned out to be a great all-day-long fire. The intention, the trust, the commitment of finding that second match made all the difference. )
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow.
In the bleak mid-winter
~ Christina Georgina Rossetti
On this third Advent Sunday, December's chill hangs in the air. The season of winter feels like it's settling in and making herself right at home. Try as I might sometimes, I just can't quite bundle up enough. The cold around me feels as much inside as out. Bone cold comes mid-winter. Nights are almost as long as they can get, and we feel darkness' coming earlier and earlier each evening.
Our Christmas carols hold such rich, connective and enduring words. Especially in this carol, we are held snugly in the wintering season. In this hymn's haunting melody, as well as the heartening lyrics, we are welcomed back to a familiar a place that recognizes our feelings of hope and longing. Many of us yearn for something new to enter into this moment. Something different. Something redeeming. Something sustaining.
When I was first coming to love this hymn (and not knowing the composer was English), I was certain that it was written by someone who grew up in Central Illinois. These words understood what we all knew of our deep, endless and bitter-cold winters. If you've ever fallen on the ice, you know about earth standing hard as iron, water being much like a stone. If you've walked, especially at night there is a moaning made by the wind that stays inside you.
So many beautiful carols have been written to hold this season, these bleak mid-winter days. Many words and phrases we know by heart: "late in time behold him come;" "when half-spent was the night;" "the hopes and fears of all the years;" "with the angels let us sing, alleluia." When we were little my sisters and I would stand next to our grandmother in church. I would always be amazed to see her crying. We would lean in closer to her as tears ran down her cheeks. Sunday after Sunday - especially at Christmas time - she would cry, and somehow, somehow she would continue to sing.
Now, years later, as I think about this carol and so many of the carols I have loved my whole life, I know well my grandmother's tears. I feel my own tears going down my cheeks, and see our sons watching me. There is amazing comfort in being held by years of singing these carols that I know by heart. As I sing, hearing others' voices, time falls away. In many ways some of the strongest words of my faith are held in these carols. Centuries ago Miss Rossetti knew that there are times when the wind moans. She, too had seen such storms that snow fell on snow, snow on snow. And somehow she gave us a carol. This carol which today companions me past what can bend, but somehow not quite break. Her words enfold, encourage and resound - just on up ahead.
I wonder if this year I will be able to sing this carol all the way through to the last verse. I know I'll be hearing my grandmother's voice. Maybe this year Brogan or Sam will sing it through to the end.