"Finally, I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell." Frederick Buechner
Come in! Come in!
"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein
Monday, December 31, 2007
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . .
Sunday, December 30, 2007
On the fifth and sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . . .
(There, now I think I'm properly all caught up.
So now it's back to my lonely writer's garret.)
Saturday, December 29, 2007
Just two or three paychecks away . . .
I'll just call him "Dave."
He's a piano tuner and salesman who lost his job about six months ago. Then, the youngest of his three children got a 'very bad' case of pneumonia and a serious case of bilateral ear infection that ended in a week long hospitalization with surgical insertion of tubes in his ears. Dave's wife, I'll call her "Stella," lost so many days of work to be at the hospital with her sick child that, she was eventually fired.
They have no health insurance.
Within three months the hospital bills were mounting higher than their mortgage payment, and they could no longer afford to live in their modest home. They sold it and used the slight margin of profit to pay the medical bills, but there was still a substantial balance. The hospital and doctor's office reminds them monthly with pages and pages of itemized bills and recorded phone messages .
Within two months of living with Stella's mother, she and Dave could no longer take the constant criticism and haranguing ("It's all his fault. I told you not to marry him. He's such a looser!") and so they moved into a hotel. They've been there for three weeks. The hotel manager was tender-hearted and only charges them $80 ($92 with tax) a night for a suite with a king-sized bed, bathroom, two folding cots and a small galley kitchen with a hot plate and a tiny refrigerator, a small modern convenience for which "Stella" is deeply grateful as it keeps the children's milk and the baby's formula and liquid antibiotic cold.
By the grace of God, the forces of good cosmic alignment and Dave's obvious skill and talent, he was able to get a job three weeks ago. They've been scraping by on unemployment checks, the generosity of a few sympathetic relatives and some Shop Rite gift certificates I've given them. Christmas toys and clothes were provided by the generosity of a parishioner at St. Paul's who "adopted" them as a family. Miraculously, Dave has saved up enough money for a down payment on an apartment, and his brother paid for the security deposit as a Christmas present to the family.
They were supposed to move in today, and I was to drop by this evening to bless the house, but the apartment won't be ready until January 2nd. Dave called me in a panic on Saturday to tell me the news. "I have nothing left, Reverend Elizabeth," he practically sobbed into the phone. "I don't know where to turn. I thought the worst was behind us. And now . . .this? What am I supposed to do? I feel like I've been sucker-punched. I feel sick to my stomach."
"Sit tight," I said, "and don't panic." I explained that I was driving up from Rehoboth Beach and would come by the hotel first, before going home and see what I could arrange with the hotel manager.
It's an old Howard Johnson Motel with the HoJo Restaurant attached - anyone who grew up in the 60's, 70's and 80's would recognize it even without the familiar orange roof and neon sign. It's not called that anymore, of course. It's the Wellsely Inn - owned and operated by the Patel family - from India - a familiar situation to anyone living in the Northeast Corridor. The HoJo Restaurant where once you could get the best macaroni and cheese served with your choice of hot dog or fish cake, or a plate of spaghetti with two meat balls is now Lee's Chinese Restaurant. The sign outside said, "Sunday. 1 - 3 PM Dim Sum. All You Can Eat." Penciled underneath, it read, "No Sushi. So sorry for inconvenience."
The Wellsely is out on Rt. 10, hiding modestly if not with some embarrassment among towering Hiltons and Hyatt Regencies and pleasantly landscaped Courtyard Marriotts, in and among strip malls packed with Computer Stores and Rite Aids and Subway Shops and Chili's and IHOP Restaurants.
Those who drive their suburban SUV's or Lexus and zoom by at a much faster rate than the posted 55 mile an hour speed limit probably never even notice it is there. They probably never even wonder who belongs to the cars parked outside. They certainly wouldn't guess that this is home for anyone like Dave and Stella and their three kids. I know I didn't.
Turns out, I was able to help with this wee last bit of this family's journey on the road back to 'normal' - whatever that means. It certainly meant a great deal to Dave, who thanked me profusely. So did his wife, who held the baby close to her in the cool of the early evening. I heard the congestion in the baby's cough and noted the worried look on Stella's face.
Anxiety is a constant companion when you are poor. It lurks around every corner, just waiting to steal away your one moment of happiness. It seems that you are always on edge when you live on the edge of impending disaster.
But, here's the thing. The thing that really got me. Dave got his wife and kids off to the car. They hadn't had supper yet. He was taking them to a Burger King as a special treat. He pulled me aside and whispered, "I hate to ask you this. You've been so kind and so helpful. I hate to impose."
The guy doesn't know it, but he had me at 'hello' weeks ago. He looks like every geek I ever sat with in the lunch room in high school. You know the type. Painfully shy. Highly intelligent. Not well polished in the social skills department and not particularly handsome, but you could have a good conversation and get some really good tips on the English or Chemistry assignment and never have to fear that he would hit on you. You know? Yeah, you remember. Those boys were always so grateful if you spent even 20 minutes with them. They didn't know it, but I always got so much more from them than they ever got from me.
Whenever I need the sanctuary piano tuned with a great discount for the church, Dave's my man. Forever.
"Sure, Dave," I said quietly, noting that even my anxiety was rising. I, too, began to fear the worst. "What is it?
"Oh, it's not us," he said, "We'll be fine. My faith may have been shaken, but I trust in your faith. You've been a rock." He took a deep breath and then he said, "It's this guy. . . actually . . . it's this family. They are in a worse predicament than we are. He needs so much help. He's a construction worker and you know what it's like in that business. Especially in this economy." Dave shifted his weight back and forth before he spoke, "I wonder . . . I mean . . . could you talk to him?"
"Talk to him? Well, sure, Dave." I paused, hating the way this was going to sound, "What do you think he needs?"
Dave didn't skip a beat, "Hope," he said. "The guy needs hope. He's got some resources, but he doesn't really know how to use them. He's so lost, he can't see the forest for the trees. More than anything, the guy needs hope. He's drowning in this place. In his fear. In his desperation. You can give him hope. It's what you do. You believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. You called. You gave me encouragement. You helped me to strategize. I think you may be able to help him."
"Look, Dave," I started, I'd love to talk with him, but . . ."
"Oh, no, I don't mean right now. I mean, if it's okay with you, I'd like to come to your church tomorrow. I'd like to bring the wife and kids. And, I'd like to bring this guy and his wife and kids. If that's okay. I mean, we're not members of your church, and we certainly owe you more than we'll ever be able to give, but we'd be good visitors," He laughed at his own goofy joke. "Is that okay? I don't know if I can convince him to come with us, but I'll try. Could you maybe talk to him after church?"
"Of course, Dave, " I said, suddenly aware that my face felt hot with my own embarrassment.
We parted company as the kids waved wildly to me from their car. I got half way to my car before my shame overwhelmed me and I felt my eyes well up with tears. I had thought sure I was going to be hustled for more money. Why did I think that? Dave had rarely asked me for money. He mostly wanted to talk. "Help me think through this, " he would often begin our conversations. And so I did.
I hadn't realized it, but the best resource I had provided him was exactly what he wanted for his 'neighbor'. Not money. Hope.
We all want it, don't we? It's all any of us really want. Hope. That's what we seen in that Nativity scene, isn't it?
I've been so consumed with chasing all the details of Christmas, and so self-absorbed with my doctoral project, that I had missed the 'holy family' right in my midst.
You know, if we tell the truth, we're all just two or three paychecks away from living at the Wellsely Inn out on Rt. 10, with the Patels from India and the Lee's from China.
We're all just two or three paychecks away from criticism and haranguing and the shame of believing that if you are an American, living in the land of opportunity, and you are in need, you are a total and complete failure and you deserve your lot.
We're all just two or three paychecks away from living with the anxiety that steals at any moment of joy you may find in the midst of your search for 'normal', or 'stable', or, well, just not being in desperate need any more.
The best commodity the church has is not money for 'outreach' or 'mission.' It's hope. It's the kind of hope that comes out of relationships - relationships that are increasingly difficult to have in a culture which promotes white picket fences that reportedly make good neighbors. It's a society that still endorses 'rugged individualism' and blesses it with cell phones and 'blue tooths, and IPods that only increase our isolation while we talk but do not speak to each other and listen to sound but do not hear the human voice.
We are all just two or three paychecks away from losing it all, and the church stands guard there, at the brink of isolation and fear, offering relationships and hope.
That's important to remember in these days of "All Anglican drama, all the time." It's important to remember as we begin a new year filled with the hope of new resolutions.
I don't know about you, but suddenly I've got a resolution brewing in my head. No surprise, it has something to do with being more intentional about being an agent of hope. No line item in the 2008 budget for that, and yet, its probably one of the most important things we as a church and as individuals will do this or any year.
Because we're all just two or three paychecks away from needing hope more than anything else in the whole world.
Friday, December 28, 2007
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . . .
Everyone deserves a chance to fly!
"Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game. Too late for second guesses. Too late to go back to sleep. It's time to trust my instincts. Close my eyes and leap." It's time to try defying gravity.
Go Megan! I hope you're happy, my dear.
On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . .
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Ho, Ho, Ho? Oh, oh, NO!
On Christmas Day (of all days), the good people of The Episcopal Church of St. Nicholas, Atwater, CA, in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, got a letter from the former Episcopal Bishop, John-David Schofield, now self-proclaimed bishop in the Anglican Diocese of the Southern Cone, that could only be described as the ecclesiastical equivalent of coal in one's Christmas stocking.
Read all about it at Fr. Jake's place where there are several articles including personal, eye-witness accounts of John-David's visitation and a copy of his letter to the people of St. Nicholas, which, among other things, instructed them to change all the locks on the church as well as that to the vicar's office.
You can get a full update on the whole, sad story here, as well as a place to write letters of support to the Rev'd Fred Risard, the Vicar of St. Nicholas, and the faithful Episcopalians in the Diocese of San Joaquin, through a group named Remain Episcopal.
I trust the barely audible sound we hear from the corridors of power at 815 is that of letting the powers that be in the Anglican Diocese of the Southern Cone in San Joaquin have just enough rope to hang themselves.
The silence on the Conservative and neo-Orthodox blogs however, is something else, again. Never mind. Just wait for even a note of clarity or direction from 815 and then sit back, fasten your seat belts and put in your asbestos ear plugs. The howls of neo-Orthodox protest are bound to break the sound barrier - but not a whimper about this amazing display of high-octane mean spirit that would make the Grinch even greener with envy.
Methinks there are others, like the Grinch, with hearts two sizes too small.
Being mostly consumed by my dissertation is a joy compared to this latest chapter in "As the Anglican World Turns."
Merry Christmas, indeed!
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me . . .
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Offline - except, when I need a break
Okay, beginning bright and early in the morning, I will be seriously working to finish my dissertation and have it in to my advisor by January 1st.
I may not make it - it's a Herculean task - but I'm going to give it a good go. It's due February 1st, but I need to give myself a 30 day cushion because, well, I've got other things to do. Like, you know, running a congregation.
So, it will be 'radio silence' from here until the New Year - except when I get bored or need a wee break or a giggle or two. I expect you'll then scold me soundly and send me back to the pile of books that sit on my desk.
Off I go then, to 'embrace the struggle.' Send up a few prayers, would you? I'll need them. Thanks.
City of God Appeal - 10 More Days
Compare this picture from the movie with the video you'll see here of the children of City of God, Rio de Janeiro, who sing for us at Christmas.
This is what this Christmas Appeal is all about.
Jonathan (Mad Priest) and I will be running the Christmas Appeal for the children of the City of God through Twelfth Night. The twenty-seven day total, thus far, is an amazing . . . wait for it . . . .
I am deeply, deeply grateful for your generosity, and trusting this video and note from Fr. Eduardo Costa will inspire you to dig deep and give again. Or, if you've been wondering what to do with that money you got as a Christmas present or how to put to good use at least part of that Christmas bonus you just got - well, here's a GREAT idea. We'd love to round off this contribution an even, tidy $7,000
Here's what Fr. Eduardo has to say:
Dear Revd's Jonathan and Elizabeth.
All of us here in Cidade de Deus are extremely thankful for your compassionate offering. We plan to use it primarily with our children ministry, and with infrastructure updating in order to support better classrooms, kitchen and other resources for the children and our community per se.
I'd ask you to take a look at this video: (see it here)
These are some of our City of God children singing at Most Holy Trinity (which is the other parish I serve). We had a joint Christmas celebration. Please note that the song they sang is already part of the donation that some of you sent to us. With the first offerings, we bought several songbooks and mass settings for children.
I'd also want to apologize for not corresponding much. My English is not as good as Luiz's and he didn't have much time recently to revise my texts, since he's just moved to the US to advance in his art and theology studies.
Have a blessed Christmas. May the birth of Jesus represent a rebirth of hope in your hearts. I hope we can stay connected after Christmastide, especially now that we will have an USPG missionary working with us, Fr. Nicholas Wheeler (Diocese of London), who will be able to communicate better in English.
Fr. Eduardo Costa and all of us in Cidade de Deus
You can contribute by donating by Master Charge or Visa here or by sending a check, cheque or money order, made out to St. Paul's and earmarked "City of God" to:
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
200 Main Street
Chatham, NJ 07928
Thank you. My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. And, all the children of City of God, Rio de Janeiro, thank you from the bottom of their little hearts.
On the first day of Christmas my truelove gave to me . . .
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
My favorite Christmas was the one which brought two of my most cherished gifts. I didn’t even need to unwrap the package before I squealed in delighted recognition of what lay hidden under the paper and in a cardboard box – my very own ‘Howdy Doody’ rocking chair. It was the exact one I wanted, with Howdy and Buffalo Bob, and Clara Belle the Clown stenciled on the headrest – each one waving ‘howdy’ just to me.
I could barely contain my joy and in ten seconds flat, the paper was ripped off, the box torn opened, and I was rocking rapturously, eyes closed in sweet, mystical delight, as the little music box on the rocker tinkled the anthem of my childhood: “It’s Howdy Doody time.”
Suddenly, my mother exclaimed as a little joke on my enthusiasm, “Oh, Elizabeth, if you keep rocking like that, you just might rub off the stencils of your favorite characters.” I instantly jumped out of the chair and was frozen in horror at the thought.
My mother, distressed by the unintended impact of her words, took quick remedial action. She looked around the room and silently, so silently, surveyed the doilies, hand-tattered by my grandmother, which covered the headrest of every chair in the living room. To my astonishment, she chose her very favorite one to place on the back of my chair. “There,” she said, “let’s put this right here and whenever you rock, this doily will protect all your favorite characters.”
The rocking chair is long gone, but I still have that doily, all these many years later, folded carefully in the bottom of my drawer. I couldn’t have known it then, but it was to become my most treasured Christmas present, a token of my most cherished Christmas memory – the time my mother redeemed a moment tarnished by few unintended, ill-timed words and restored the glow of Christmas joy to my child’s heart.
For me, that doily represents the true spirit of Christmas. For it is in such small, simple redemptive acts of generosity and kindness that the reason for the birth of Jesus, the Holy Child of God can be found: that the whole world might be reconciled to God and each other and be at peace.
May your Christmas memories and moments find such joy, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope, that your voice may be one among the angels who eternally sing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
A Sermon for Christmas Eve
Well, are you all excited? Or, are you all exhausted? I suspect, if you are like me, your are a combination of the two – your excitement about the anticipation of Christmas is carrying you over the happy exhaustion of tending to last minute details of this important celebration.
I had to chuckle yesterday as two young moms came to me after church. The place was a veritable hive of activity – some were putting together the swags of pine and holly in the parish hall as others were arranging the poinsettias. These two were just a little miffed. “Did you read the NY Times article about the decorations at St. Bart’s?” one asked. “Why do we have to wait so long before our church is decorated?”
“Yeah,” agreed the other. “I mean, it’s the FOURTH Sunday in Advent. Hello?” she huffed playfully, “I mean, what’s up with THAT?”
Someone else had asked me that which is the perennial question all Episcopal priests get asked this time of year, “We haven’t sung ONE Christmas carol yet! Why not? Everybody else is doing it – the malls, other Churches . . . why can’t we?”
I want to remind you that these were adults asking me these questions. Adults who are married with children. ‘Why do we have to wait?’ ‘Everyone else is doing it.’ The excitement and anticipation of Christmas is something that sweeps us all away, no matter how old we are.
I chucked because I recognized the same questions, the same child-like demands, in myself. Everyone always explains this as ‘getting into the Spirit of Christmas’, but the true spirit of Christmas requires a spiritual maturity that is not bound by time and age. It is also decidedly counter-cultural.
The story of Christmas is not about ‘things’ and ‘now’ – it is about ‘spirit’ and ‘eternity.’ That which draws us this night to the scene portrayed for us by St. Luke is about the gift of the peace of God which passes all human understanding.
Our Advent Series this year was “Something about Mary.” We looked at the ‘theotokos’, the God-bearer, the Mother of God as a way to learn more about Jesus. We looked at what the tradition of the church has had to say over the centuries about Mary – from the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant perspectives – and found as much controversy about Mary as have always surrounded ideas about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit.
It was in our study of the scriptures, however, that we came to some startling insights and revelations. What we know about Mary – as much as we can know anything about ‘facts’ from the stories that were not eyewitness accounts written 40 – 100 years after the fact – can be reduced to a single, short paragraph.
So, what’s the point, someone asked. Perhaps some of you are asking the same question. What’s the point of this story, none of which can be proven, which gets passed as ‘fact’?
What we discovered is this: If you believe nothing else about the story of Jesus – the stories about his birth and life, the stories of the miracles he performed, what he said in his sermons and the lessons he taught to his disciples, the stories of his crucifixion, death and resurrection – despite all of these things, if you do not believe that he was the Incarnation, the human embodiment of the Love of God which took on human flesh, then you can lay no claim to being a Christian.
Now, in this very post-modern culture, that makes you, at the very least, a very odd duck. A veritable fish out of the waters of our earth. Forget about the myth or the facts of scripture. If you believe that God loves us enough to have come among us to teach us to walk the pathway toward our salvation, then you have earned a place among the misfits of a culture and society which rejects anything which can not be weighed and measured, analyzed and proven, felt and touched, seen and heard with our own eyes.
I love to tell the story about Barbara – someone I want to be like when I grow up. She was going through a particularly difficult time, and needed the services of an attorney. Her attorney happened to be a very devoutly religious man, who was rushing to end their appointment because he had to be in church. They finished their conversation as they walked to their cars. As they did, they were approached by a homeless man, standing at the gates of the parking garage, asking for ‘spare change.’
The attorney brushed the man aside, grumbling something about ‘useless drunks’ while Barbara stopped to reach into her pocket for some change. She looked into his eyes, smiled kindly and said, “Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.” The man looked deep into her eyes and said, “That’s okay. Thank you very much,” and then turned and walked away.
The attorney was astonished and said, “Why did you do that? That was foolish! He’s only going to spend it on more booze.” “How do you know that?” asked Barbara, stepping closer to look deep into his eyes with the same kind smile, as she asked a question that stopped him dead in his tracks, “How do you know that man wasn’t Jesus?”
The truth is that man was Jesus. And so was the attorney. And, so was Barbara. As Christians, we believe that in our baptism, Christ lives in us – in the fragile, frail humanity of each and every one of us.
As humans, we all have the potential for enormous good and monstrous indifference, but it is the potential to do good that beckons us to this church tonight, to gather ‘round the Western European replications of the Nativity scene in Bethlehem and tell the old, old, story and sing the familiar carols of the holy feast we call Christmas.
You may not be able to put your thought into these exact words, but if you take the time, if you hush all the noise and clamor, and examine your soul tonight, you will find that the reason you are here is because of this potential, this possibility – that you might ignore or fight off the cultural impulse for indifference and choose to do something good. Something kind. Something noble. Something, in fact, foolish and wasteful that is the embodiment, the incarnation of Love.
Okay, some of you were dragged here by a parent or a spouse or relative who said to you, “C’mon. It’s Christmas. You can go to church one night in the year. Please?” Sound familiar to anyone? You know who you are.
Even so, I want to suggest that this act of kindness and generosity, to go somewhere you don’t want to go, because you love someone is the embodiment of the Spirit of Christmas. To suspend all judgment, all your proud intellectual powers to do something as foolish and as wasteful as going to church to be with the ones you love.
I want to suggest that you, even you, want to believe the unbelievable – that our culture, our society, our world, doesn’t have the whole story, doesn’t own the truth wrapped up in fact and cool analysis.
Indeed, I want to suggest the outrageous: that you, even you, came here this night because of your potential to do something good, something kind, something noble, something foolish and wasteful that is the embodiment, the incarnation of Love.
We in this ‘ruggedly independent’ culture are hungry – starving – for a miracle. Oh, we talk of such things: the ‘miracle of modern science’. The ‘miracle of technology’. We use the word ‘miracle’ so often that, like our use of the word ‘love’, we have flattened and cheapened the truth of its meaning.
Everyone of us in this holy place on this most holy night stand as beggars at the gates of hope, asking for the spare change of a glimpse – a hint – a suggestion – of a miracle.
We all stand this night at gates of hope that have been barricaded by the stones of anger, frozen shut by the cold winds of indifference.
We wanted signs and sounds of it yesterday, but as any new parent can tell you, the birth of new life comes when it will, when we least expect it – sometimes too soon and sometimes later than was originally predicted by the wise men and women who are the servants and midwifes of the miracles of modern medicine.
Even so, these same parents will tell you that these ‘cultural miracles’ which can help save a life come too soon or prompt a life into being which has become dangerously late pales in comparison to the experience of holding a miracle in your hands and looking into its wide, wondrous eyes, all red and puffy from the difficult journey here from the beyond.
We stand this night at the gates of hope, looking to find The One who will help us choose the path that leads toward our salvation. We are not a patient lot. We want poinsettias and the smell of pine and the sound of Christmas carols in Advent. We want desperately to be ‘just like everyone else.’ To do what everyone else does. To have what everyone else has.
We are, and we are not. We are Christians. We are a decidedly foolish, counter-cultural people. We tell wild, unbelievable stories whose facts can neither be substantiated nor proven, and we tell them to our children, and our children’s children because, while we may not fully believe them we believe in them fully.
We are Christians. We listen to the song the angels sing. We look into the eyes of strangers and smile. Our hearts are open and tender with compassion for those who go hungry or are homeless and pray for the strength and the courage to find food and shelter for them.
We are Christians. While others examine facts, we look to the stars. We work for peace in a land gone mad with war and rumors of war. We struggle to examine and admit our faults. We repent and make amends. We seek forgiveness and reconciliation – with ourselves, with others, and with God.
It is exhausting and exiting work, this business of being a follower and a believer in Christ. To be Christian is to be a counter-cultural person who knows that Christmas is not just for children. Rather, Christmas is for the holy Child that lives in each one of us – that loves foolishly and dreams wildly and hopes against hope for the miracles we believe are possible because of our belief in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
On this night, we believe that a miracle has been given to us, in the birth of Jesus, whom we call The Christ. We do this because, as Christians, we know that sometimes you have to do something foolish and impossible – sometimes, you have to reach way down in order to touch a star. Amen.
Monday, December 24, 2007
Christmas Eve: Judith, the young Judean girl
I have a friend who says that preaching a children's service is like being thrown into a bucket with live bait. He's right.
After the Gospel is proclaimed, I gather the children at the chancel steps and we re-tell Luke's Christmas Story with some of the characters from the Creche - Mary, Joseph and the three Wise men.
I have a Fontanini Creche, which has all sorts of other characters - villagers who might have been in the Little Town of Bethlehem. I tell the children that one of the greatest gifts God has given us is our imagination. I ask them to think about who might have been in Bethlehem, and how the news of the story of the birth of Jesus might have affect them. I end by asking them to use their imagination and think what it might have been like to have been in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus. How might they have heard the news? What gift might they bring to Jesus?
Last year, I told the story of Azzan the Baker who found generosity and shared all of his bread with the towns people. This year, I told the story of Judith, a young Judean girl, who dreamed of being 'good enough' to make her parents proud of her.
Here's the story I told. Who do you think was there? What story might you tell? What gift might you bring?
The story of Judith
Judith was the youngest daughter of seven daughters, born to Usef and Zarah in Bethlehem. Her parents thought she would be the one – the boy-child – the son. They thought that about each of the births of their daughters since they had had their second child.
In the village and time when Judith lived, having a son was very, very important. It was not just about a sentimental bias or preference. The economy of the time meant that, if anything happened to Judith’s father, if there were no son, the entire family would be instantly destitute. At that time, it was simply not allowed for Hebrew women to own property or run a business.
Judith often overheard her parents talking late at night about their worries. Zarah was weeping softly. “I have been a failure to you, Usef. I have brought you no sons from my womb. What if anything should happen to you? We would be left with nothing. Absolutely nothing! I have brought shame to your family. To my family. Why has God turned his face from us and not shown us favor?”
She heard her father’s voice speaking tender words of comfort to his wife, “It will be alright. We have good daughters. Beautiful daughters. They will marry good men who will take care of you.” But Zarah was inconsolable.
Usef’s voice brightened. “Just look at our youngest daughter, Judith. She is not only beautiful, she is strong. Why, she is better than any son, helping me tend the sheep in the pastures. She shows real skill at helping me sheer the sheep in the Spring, and I would not have been able to deliver all the lambs without her by my side. She is a real gift from God – a sign that you will not be left without help, should anything happen to me.”
It was in that moment that Judith resolved to be the best daughter any man who wanted a son could hope to ask for. She ignored her mother’s bitter warning to her father, “And, if you are caught teaching your daughter what a father only teaches his son, what then?”
One night, she heard her father tell her mother about a young couple who had come to the town because of the census. The young woman had delivered a son out in the manger where the animals were kept, because there were so many people, there was no other place for them to stay.
But, Usef said, there was something special about this boy-child. The other shepherds who had been keeping watch over the flock were all abuzz about this event, so common and expected in that day and time. A star had appeared in the sky which led them to the place where the young parents had laid their son. The shepherds said that they heard such sweet music as could only be sung by angels in heaven.
“What could it mean,” he asked. “What child is this that has caused such rejoicing that God chose to send a special star in the sky? Some are saying that this is the Messiah, come to save us. Could this be the one?” he mused. “Could this be the savior we have been waiting for these many, long years?”
“It’s a boy,” said Zahara, sadly. “If I should deliver a son, we would also hear angels sing.” She turned a cold shoulder to her husband and said bitterly, “Why should this young woman have a son as her first born? What about us? Who will save us if God should take you?”
It was then that Judith got an idea. She thought that she would bring a small gift to the new family. Surely, they would be thirsty. She would bring them the gift of fresh water to bathe the newborn. Fresh water for the new mother to drink. If she did this small thing, perhaps it would be another sign to her mother that she was just as good as any son. Perhaps it would bring some comfort, some sign of hope.
So, even before the early morning light, before any one in the house awoke, Judith dressed quietly and quickly and slipped out of her parent’s house. She picked up a large jug and filled it with fresh water from the well and then, heaved the heavy jug onto her head. She let out a little groan as she did and silently wondered if she had made too much noise.
She turned from the well and headed out on her journey. Her face was lined with determination and conviction. She knew exactly where she was going. Her father had described the place where the new family were staying. She knew the exact place from her work with him in the fields.
Water. She would bring a gift of water. Water was the gift of life given by an abundant God who cared for and loved every creature in creation. Her gift would be a sign and symbol of God’s blessing upon this new life. Hope for the future. Their future. Her future.
She heard herself hum a little song as she walked. It was an ancient song, one that had been taught to her and every young Hebrew girl who had their own section in the Temple, apart from the boys and men. It was the ancient prayer of Hannah, the mother of Samuel.
Judith joined her voice with the ancient voices of all the women of the nation of Israel who waited in hope as she carried the heavy jug of water to the newborn son of Mary and Joseph. She sang, “My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in the Lord.”
Judith didn’t know it, but her parents were watching her at the doorway of their home. Her father had surmised what she was doing and had told her mother. Judith couldn’t see the proud smiles beaming on their faces. She couldn’t hear her mother singing Hannah’s song with her softly, tenderly, the words and music guiding her steps toward the place where she would find hope and salvation sleeping gently, bundled in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
Time Magazine's Top Ten Religious News Stories 2007
You can read the whole thing and some interesting related articles here.
#1Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith
Letters Mother Teresa wrote to her confessors describe the agony of not being able to sense her beloved God for half a century. "The silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see," she wrote. These revelations raise the question of whether her spiritual "dryness" made her a greater saint or some kind of self-deceiver.
#2 | Faith Stalks the Campaign Trail!
Hillary tells Rick Warren about her White House prayer group! Mitt explains how he's a Mormon! Huckabee is an actual preacher!
#3 | The Rev. Jerry Falwell Dies
His death, along with that of the ultra-right-wing Rev. James Kennedy, marks the start of the literal passing of an order. Warren's conciliatory and less political style characterizes the next one.
#4 | The Pope and Latin Mass
Benedict XVI relieves priests of having to get their bishop's permission to celebrate mass in old-school Latin. To many, it is an unwelcome return of church Ã©litism. Others sink happily back into it.
#5 | The Slow-Motion Episcopal/Anglican Train Wreck
The Episcopal Bishops' meeting in New Orleans fails to stem the ongoing defection of conservatives over the church's positions on gays, or the likelihood of a worldwide Anglican split over the same issue.
#6 | Green Evangelicals
Global warming, along with poverty and torture, have become hot issues to a maturing conservative Christian movement.
#7 | The Roar of Atheist Books
There may or may not be more atheists, but there are more atheist authors--and readers want to give them a hearing.
#8 | Another Blow to a Megachurch
A year after Ted Haggard resigned as pastor of Colorado's New Life Church--having admitted to "immorality" involving a gay escort--a gunman kills two congregants in its parking lot. Haggard's replacement, Brady Boyd, moves to heal many wounds.
#9 | The Creation Museum
A few months after opening its doors, the Petersburg, Ky., multimillion-dollar monument to the Flintstone (Young Earth) principle doubles projected attendance. Of Americans, 77% think God at least guided our development.
#10 | Kidnapped Korean Missionaries
The Taliban kills two of the 23 and eventually releases the rest amid rumors that South Korea paid $10 million in ransom, which it denies. Missionary work and its perils are no longer a Western monopoly.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
I Am NJ: the Rev'd Wade Renn
Posted by Star-Ledger Features December 23, 2007 12:00AM
Room at the Inn
Priest leads an effort to offer dignity to the homeless
Story by BY ELIZABETH BIRGE Photos by JERRY MCCREA
Shortly after 9:30 on a Wednesday morning, a man shuffles into the multipurpose room of Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair. Weighed down by layers of clothes, he carries a small black duffel bag containing pretty much everything he owns.
He smells faintly of alcohol and is difficult to understand, both because of some missing teeth and because of a long gray beard that hangs to his chest and muffles his voice. But he's remarkably erudite, lightly taking a visitor's hand and bowing every so slightly as he is introduced.
"Madam," he says.
He's come to use the shower, clean himself up and get fresh underwear and socks -- some of the basic elements of personal dignity -- things more difficult to come by when you're homeless, as Joe is.
But he's helped in this pursuit by a retired Episcopal priest who in the past year has assembled a group of volunteers in town looking to cut through the red tape that prevents one person from helping another -- the homeless, the poor, the under-served.
The shower program is just one effort of that group, MESH -- Montclair Emergency Shelter for the Homeless -- which is spearheaded by Father Wade Renn and supported by the Montclair Clergy Association.
"If you take a shower, you want to put fresh underwear on, right? he asked. "You and I want to do it, so why not they?
Homeless in Montclair?
The idea that there could be homeless in as affluent a town as Montclair is a bracing idea to some who respond to the news with, "Really? Montclair?" But Renn looks past what others see -- or perhaps what they don't see -- and is reminded only of a couple long ago who needed shelter and, finding none, gave birth to their son in a stable.
Renn is looking for a stable, otherwise known as a walk-in emergency homeless shelter. It doesn't have to be fancy, but it must, like the original, protect its occupants from the elements. He hasn't found one yet, but he's got faith and sometimes that's all you need.
"You have experienced doors being shut, is that right?" he asked the congregation last month at House of Prayer in Newark, where he is interim pastor. "Doors we thought we should have been able to go into and journey in this direction or that. Only to find another door was opened, and we stepped into that door and realized God opened it for us, and those doors have lead us to where we are today."
The doors through which the 72-year-old Renn walked on his way to Montclair and MESH include ones at Boeing, where he worked as an engineer after getting bachelor's and master's degrees in physics. Another door lead to his work as a missionary in Zimbabwe for six years. Another to Nutley, where he served as pastor of Grace Episcopal Church for 23 years.
But of all the doors Renn has walked though, perhaps the most important was the one he passed through almost a year ago; the one that took him into the bitter cold. The one that made him think: Someone is going to freeze to death.
A chill in the air
Last January, as the temperature dropped, Renn's anxiety rose.
Each day, as he felt the wind sharpen, he found himself fearing the same thing -- that some homeless person would freeze to death huddled outside a building in Montclair, where he lived.
'I'll be right up front: My anxiety was for the township of Montclair. What a shame, what a blot for Montclair" if that happened, he said.
And then he had another thought.
"We can't let that happen."
Montclair is a splendid town, with good schools and tree-lined streets of center-hall Colonials. But behind some of those windows, and behind some of its buildings, the story is no different than in many American towns and cities.
Every day a free meal is offered in Montclair, and every day 40 to 60 people sit down to lunch, most of them residents who have difficulty making ends meet. Among them are 10 to 15 homeless men and women who avoid the Newark shelters out of fear of violence or theft. Instead, they spend their nights curled up on roofs, huddled next to buildings or wedged in some small space that blocks the wind.
Fifteen homeless adults in a town of 37,000 residents may not seem like a lot, but what if one froze to death, as seemed increasingly likely to Renn last January. What would that say about a community with so much affluence?
He considered the thermometer and then asked the Montclair Clergy Association for help in establishing and supporting MESH. They embraced and funded the idea.
What MESH wanted was an emergency walk-in shelter. Montclair has a temporary shelter run by the Salvation Army, with 23 rooms, including three for families. But those wishing to stay must qualify for housing through the welfare department, must arrive sober and free of drugs, and must remain so and meet several other requirements.
Others who find themselves in a tight spot on a cold night have nowhere to go in town.
But establishing a walk-in shelter would take time and organization, not to mention insurance, and Renn and MESH felt compelled to act immediately to avoid a tragedy.
At the first meeting, someone mentioned zero-Fahrenheit sleeping bags, and they seized on the idea as a way of providing warmth to people who literally won't come in from the cold.
Renn took $1,000 from the MCA treasury that day and hustled down Route 17 to Campmor, where he bargained for 18 of the sleeping bags. Then he split the bags between Toni's Kitchen and the Salvation Army, two of the three groups that provide free lunch during the week, as well as other services to the homeless and under-served. (The Seventh Day Adventist Church provides a free meal on Sundays.)
The two groups made sure those who could use the sleeping bags the most got them, and an anonymous donor covered the $1,000 investment the Montclair Clergy Association originally made.
The winter passed. None of the homeless froze.
Renn: "We got through the winter successfully, and then we realized that they have other needs that aren't served by other agencies."
And just like that, doors started to open. With a call here, an appeal there and a knack for finding people who want to help, MESH began to put together a series of programs that draw together the resources of the community.
Central Presbyterian Church makes its showers available to the homeless every Wednesday from 9:15 to 11:30 a.m. Renn is there most weeks.
He negotiated with a Laundromat in town to provide 20 debit cards that MESH loads with $10 each month. The Salvation Army distributes them to the homeless, who can return them at the end of the month for a refill.
In addition, he worked out a voucher system with a taxi service in town. So now, when the under-served need a ride home after being released from the emergency room of the local hospital, they have one.
"Wade has no tolerance for barriers," says Patricia Moulton, a member of the vestry at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Montclair, where Renn was the interim pastor for two years before moving on to Newark.
"He'll find a way around them as best he can. I've seen him; he'll just get on the phone and he's relentless. I've been on the receiving end," she says, laughing. "I think he likes to fix things."
His wife, MaryAnn, coordinator of Toni's Kitchen, puts it another way.
"I think the one word that comes to my mind is incarnational," she says. "We're all called to be incarnational, not just to talk about a problem from a far, but to just do it" and try to change things.
"Wade likes hands-on stuff," she says. "He doesn't just like to talk about problems. He'll try to turn that talk into an action plan."
One thing MESH has not been able to find is a storage facility.
"This has not been resolved," says Renn. "We're thinking about it on a regular basis. How can we find a place where people can safely store their stuff? This is a big concern. That's the next project."
In junior high school, Renn took a vocational survey the purpose of which was to determine a student's occupational interests. There was a high spike under one profession: clergy.
His family worked in construction, and he planned to study engineering. His family wasn't religious, he says; in fact, they were anti-religious.
"My reaction to that information was it shows how inaccurate or stupid the test was," he says. "But in the long run it proved to be very accurate. I have a lot of regard for that test."
After finishing his master's degree, he went to work for Boeing, then the Atomic Energy Commission and then Johns Hopkins University, where he did research for the Army.
But, in 1961, he went for a weekend visit to a friend who was studying at General Seminary in New York and, while sitting in the chapel, Renn realized he was in the wrong business.
"I just became very aware that this is where I belonged," he says of sitting in the chapel. When he returned to Washington, D.C., he began to research what was needed to become ordained as an Episcopal priest.
But when Renn told his parents of his decision, they were upset. My father was outraged, says Renn. "Outraged."
Episcopal priests were not favored in his family, and the cruel words of one were responsible for their views on religion.
When Renn was 2 and his sister was 1, she picked up a loose diaper pin that had been left open during changing and swallowed it before their mother could act. The pin punctured organs; his sister died.
At the cemetery, after the service, the Episcopal priest told the grieving parents that because their daughter had not been baptized she would not go to heaven. His father had to be restrained from hitting the priest. After that, there was no more religion in the family, and no one spoke of the tragedy.
Over the years, though, when Renn's father traveled for work, his mother would speak of the loss and, eventually, her burden became his.
After they retired, his parents moved to Oregon; as an adult, Renn visited them once a year. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he began sitting them down the night before he left and saying, "We have to talk about this."
"It had to come out," he says.
During one visit, his mother left the room and came back with a box no one had ever seen before and silently gave it to Renn. It held some of the clothes and toys of his long-dead sister.
"I suspect, I believe, that is the reason" for becoming an Episcopal priest, he says. To seek some resolution for those feelings and that loss.
MESH got a new supply of zero-Fahrenheit sleeping bags for the winter, and has distributed them again to Toni's Kitchen and the Salvation Army. But this time Renn is keeping a few at home, and one is always in the trunk of his car. Just in case.
"If (the police) find someone exposed to elements, they'll call me and I will immediately bring a sleeping back down."
His work keeps him busy and, booked with three meetings a day, he might be working full time in almost any organization. But when asked why he does it, he says only this: 'I'm a church person; I was called to serve."
Contributions to MESH may be made to: The Montclair Clergy Association,
c/o 558 Highland Ave., Montclair, N.J. 07043. Make checks out to the Montclair Clergy Association.
Currently reading: "Giving" by Bill Clinton
Likes to watch: "Casablanca" anytime he can
Hobbies: Playing pinochle, solving crossword puzzles
Christmas wish: An emergency warming shelter for the homeless
Published Dec. 23, 2007
Saturday, December 22, 2007
City of God - Day 22
MadPriest is reporting that our twenty-two day total of contributions for The City of God Appeal is . . .ready?
Gratitude. Yes, that's the only way to describe my feelings about this. Deep, humbling, inspirational gratitude for the generosity and kindness of so many strangers - and, more than a few strange people, this being MadPriest's neighbourhood and all.
I have no doubt that by Twelfth Night, when Laura, the Coordinator of Finances at St. Paul's, gets the 'go ahead' from Maddy to transfer the money to the bank in Rio, that we'll have reached close to $7,000.
Given the economy in Brazil, this will go a long way to help the kiddo's who live in the City of God.
Thank you, one and all. In the midst of the madness of these last days and weeks of Advent, this has been a bright spot of sanity - a window into the heart of God for the children of the City of God.
If, by chance, you haven't contributed, or should you wish to help us raise $900 more dollars and make it a 'lucky seven' thousand dollars, you can make out your check or money order to St. Paul's Church, mark it 'City of God' and send it to:
200 Main St.
Chatham, NJ 07928
Or, visit MadPriest and make your donation via PayPal.
A Poem for Christmas
Shine on, Maddy
Well, it was 'round about Wednesday that I hit the wall in this 'quiet, contemplative' Season of Advent.
'Twas the Mad one, the Vicar of the Anglican Church of All The Lost Souls, who ministered to me as a very angel, albeit one with muddy feet.
As we approach the Nativity of Jesus, shine on. Shine on! And, thank you, Maddy. Thank you.
Friday, December 21, 2007
ENS: Blue Christmas
When 'Joy to the World' is hard to capture, Blue Christmas services help
By Mary Frances Schjonberg, December 21, 2007
[Episcopal News Service] During these shortest days and longest nights of the year, many Episcopal Church congregations are offering services meant to bring comfort to those who struggle to find the joy of the Advent and Christmas seasons.
Often called Blue Christmas or Longest Night services, many take place the evening of December 21, the night of the winter solstice, and are designed for people who are coping with loss.
Those people hear the Christmas song that describes "the most wonderful time of the year with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you 'Be of good cheer'" but instead feel they are living the lyrics of the 1957 hit "Blue Christmas" when Elvis Presley sings "I'll have a blue Christmas without you, I'll be so blue just thinking about you."
The Rev. Deacon Richard Spencer of Trinity Church in Ossining, New York, said the world tells people "if you buy this present, you'll be happy and it will be all ho-ho-ho and joy to the world. Well, what if there's no joy in my world?"
Spencer said his experience in offering Blue Christmas services shows that the effort is about "bringing the light of Christ into the darkness of their lives."
The rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chatham, New Jersey, would agree. "It's probably one of the most pastoral things I do at Christmas," said the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton.
Kaeton places the rationale for offering a Blue Christmas service squarely within the message of Christmas. Noting that Episcopalians proclaim in The Book of Common Prayer's Preface of the Commemoration of the Dead (pages 349 and 382) that "life is changed, not ended," she said. "I think this message gets carried into this service in a way that Christmas sentimentality doesn't."
"If we really understand why Christ came to us, then you really have to think about death and eternal life," she said.
Scott Hagler, the minister of music at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Durango, Colorado, said "there is constant loss in a community, and the faith community is certainly no different."
"I think there is far more suffering during the holidays than we are aware of (though likely much of it is masked), and if the service provides even a brief respite to a few, I'll be very happy," said Hagler, who has offered Blue Christmas services in the past in Denver and has planned St. Mark's first for December 21.
The liturgies vary but usually include quiet music ranging from Taize chants to Advent and Christmas hymns, Scripture readings, recitation of Psalms and prayers. Often, the prayers are accompanied by the sequential lighting of all the candles on the Advent wreath.
"I think the main thing I kept in mind as I was doing research and designing the service was that I wanted to begin with the acknowledgment of pain and loss, and by the end of the service offer some sense of relief, hope or uplifting," Hagler said. "We'll offer opportunities for worshipers to light candles, sing, pray, and to meditate."
Spencer has learned that silence is needed in the services -- and more than one might expect. He said it's a question of doing less during the service, not more.
"Keep it simple because grief is very complex," Kaeton advised. "Just let the service be and let the people take out of it what they will."
Participants in the St. Paul's service on December 22 will hang blue ornaments on the evergreen in the sanctuary, the first decorations on the tree which has thus far been bare for Advent. The next day the rest of the congregation will see those ornaments as they decorate for Christmas, having prayed during the Prayers of the People for the losses the ornaments represent.
"It becomes a congregational experience," Kaeton said.
Not everyone who comes to a Blue Christmas service is trying to cope with the death of a loved one. Both Spencer and Kaeton said they've encountered people who are grieving over the loss of a job, the loss of their health or vitality, the loss of a dear pet, their change to empty nesters, or their addictive behaviors either past or present and the pain they have caused others.
Kaeton said one participant told her that she'd been a recovering alcoholic for 20 years but still grieved over the damage she did while she was drinking and the fact that she simply doesn't remember a lot of her life because of her drinking years.
Sometimes grief can be too raw to bring to such a service, Kaeton said. People who did not come to St. Paul's first Blue Christmas service in 2006 told her that it comforted them to know that a religious community recognized the difficulties some people face at the holidays and would pray for them. The services "send a really powerful message to those whose grief is very deep and is very personal," Kaeton said, adding the intimacy of the service is not something that every grieving person is ready to experience.
Thus, publicizing a Blue Christmas/Longest Night service is as important as offering it. Both Spencer and Kaeton said they posted fliers around their communities and announced the services with whatever diocesan-wide communications tools they had. Kaeton wrote about the service and posted the liturgy on her webblog "Telling Secrets." Spencer wrote about his experiences for the Episcopal New Yorker, the Diocese of New York's newspaper.
They both specifically invited people they thought might be in need for such a liturgy. Spencer discussed the idea with people during coffee hour. Kaeton looked over her parish directory to identify people she knew had suffered some kind of loss in the last five years and sent them invitations. In the end, she said, most of last year's participants were form outside the St. Paul's congregation.
Using the local media is another way to get the word out. The Rev. Andrew Cooley, rector of St. Mark's in Durango and Hagler spoke to the Durango Herald newspaper about their plans.
Both Spencer and Kaeton say the liturgies their parishes offered were attended by small numbers of people. Don't be disappointed by the turnout, Kaeton advise, but instead know that "the really powerful message" that the church cares does come through.
Variations of Blue Christmas/Longest Night services are available at the following URLs.
Background about the growing tradition is available here and here.
One example of a flier publicizing a Blue Christmas service is available here.
* A current online chat about experiencing Blue Christmas/Longest Night services can be accessed at the Episcopal Café website here.
* Other suggestions for handling grief during the holidays are available here.
-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Angels explained by children:
I only know the names of two angels, Hark and Harold.
Everybody's got it all wrong. Angels don't wear halos anymore. I forget why, but scientists are working on it.
It's not easy to become an angel! First, you die. Then you go to Heaven, and then there's still the flight training to go through. And then you got to agree to wear those angel clothes.
Angels work for God and watch over kids when God has to go do something else.
My guardian angel helps me with math, but he's not much good for science.
Angels don't eat, but they drink milk from Holy Cows!!!
Angels talk all the way while they're flying you up to heaven. The main subject is where you went wrong before you got dead.
When an angel gets mad, he takes a deep breath and counts to ten. And when he lets out his breath, somewhere there's a tornado.
Angels have a lot to do and they keep very busy. If you lose a tooth, an angel comes in through your window and leaves money under your pillow. Then when it gets cold, angels go south for the winter.
Angels live in cloud houses made by God and his son, who's a very good carpenter.
All angels are girls because they gotta wear dresses and boys didn't go for it.
My angel is my grandma who died last year. She got a big head start on helping me while she was still down here on earth.
~~~ Lynn , 9
Some of the angels are in charge of helping heal sick animals and pets. And if they don't make the animals get better, they help the ch ild get over it.
What I don't get about angels is why, when someone is in love, they shoot arrows at them.
~~~ Sarah, 7
City of God - Day 20 and Challenge
Two bits of good news, then:
First: Mad Priest has reported our Day 20 Grand Total is:
Everybody say, 'WOW'!
Second: I have received a challenge offer:
I know. It's the 20th of December. Five days before Christmas. You have just learned the appropriate 'O Antiphon' for the day. You have things to do. Places to go. People to meet.
Well, add this: Scrape spare change off bureau, check between the sofa cushions for coins, and find that crumpled ten dollar bill you've been saving in your wallet 'for an emergency' that hasn't happened since you started using a credit card.
Now, add up the sum and go on over to MadPriest's and donate. G'won. You know you want to.
Or, you can send your cheque or money order, marked "City of God" to:
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
200 Main Street
Chatham, NJ 07928
Thank you and may God continue to bless your generous heart.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
The Reason for the Season.
Last Tuesday, Tracy lost his balance despite the assistance of his two canes and fell in the kitchen, splitting open his lip and cracking his head on the counter. Joe called the ambulance and both men spent most of Tuesday and the wee hours of Wednesday in the emergency room. They left the hospital around 7:30 AM, got some breakfast at a local diner, and went home to catch some sleep.
Tracy's cell phone started to ring at around 11 AM, but he had turned off the sound. He didn't get the call that his 81 year old father had taken a turn for the worse. By the time he awoke at 2 PM, his father had been "coded" three times and then allowed to die. Their guilt made their grief almost inconsolable.
Tracy asked if I would preside over a simple ceremony at the Funeral Home on Sunday night and then at the graveside service on Monday morning. "I haven't been able to come to church much," he apologized, "and I certainly haven't been able to contribute much of anything to the church. I have no right to ask this," he said, "but will you come? Will you say prayers for my father?"
The modesty of his request did not match the enormity of the privilege it is to have been asked.
"Of course you have a right," I said. "I'll be there."
It's times like these that I deeply appreciate the beauty of the language of the Prayer Book. The shape of the liturgy (to borrow the title of that classic book by Dom Gregory Dix) offers consolation and solace and hope in ways that transcend words.
But, it is the rituals we keep - as a church and as a culture - that continue to deeply move my soul.
The graveyard was covered in a blanket of ice and snow. The ground was colder and harder than even death. The wind whipped across our faces as if to remind us of the stark reality we were about to confront. His soul already bathed in Light Eternal, Carl (also know as "Pop," "Dad," and "Poppee" to his beloved granddaughters), was about to have his mortal remains lowered into the ground where they would find their final resting place.
He had been a cop. A native of Germany, he was a veteran of WWII, having served in the military forces of the Navy. He was also a deacon in his church, but when he lost his two daughters to drug overdose, the good Christian folk asked him to leave his position of leadership. If a man can't manage his own household . . . well, you know what the Bible says.
The police gave us an escort to the cemetery, which was a real blessing as we made our way from the funeral home in the congested traffic that is just part of life in North Jersey.
When we arrived, we were greeted by two officers, sent by the Navy, in full dress uniform. The casket, draped in an American flag, was brought to the bier, carefully if not precariously carried over the slippery, hard ground from the hearse to the graveside by the cemetery staff. It was a relatively short walk made almost torturously long in the wind and the cold. It was especially so for Tracy who ambled to the best of his ability on his two canes.
We took our positions by the casket, the plastic awning over the graveside groaning and snapping and not offering much protection from an occasional gust of ice-cold wind. One of the Navy men positioned himself at the head of the casket. The other, who carried a trumpet, walked a careful march to a place a short distance from the grave. One of the policemen, a rifle in his arms, stood just in front of him, forming a straight, military line in front of the Navy trumpeter.
I was struck by the way the light glimmered from behind them, casting their shadows on the icy snow.
I consecrated the grave, then commended Carl's body to God - "earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes." A few short prayers about the hope of resurrection and the solace of our faith, and the ritual of the church was complete. As I closed my book and rearranged my scarf to keep warm, the sound of men calling each other to attention broke the silence that had only been punctuated by the sound of human tears on the harsh wind.
The policeman snapped himself and his rifle to attention. Slap, slap. The sound of his leather gloves on the rifle were colder, somehow, than the sound of the wind slapping on the plastic awening.
From out of nowhere, the soulful notes of 'Taps' made their way across the ice and snow, warming the cold wind against our faces. We wept openly - those who knew Carl and those who did not - the tears freezing on our reddened faces. I put my arms around Carl's granddaughters and pulled them close to me to keep them warm. "I'm okay," the youngest one whispered, "I don't mind. This is my Poppee. I'll be here as long as it takes."
As the musical salute trailed to its haunting end, the policeman stepped aside as the two Navy men took their places at the casket, one at the head, one at the foot. In quick, sharp movements, they removed the flag from the casket and folded it with a precision that conveyed deep respect for this symbol of our country.
I wondered how often they had performed this ritual together for all the young soldiers, women and men, who had returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. There could be no doubt that this simple ceremony conveyed deep respect for the 'ultimate sacrifice' made by soldiers for their flag and their country. I wondered if their parents and family and friends had found comfort and hope in that.
One of the soldiers pulled the folded flag close to him in a tender gesture of something he obviously cherished and brought the flag to Tracy, himself a former Marine. In loud, very measured tones, the soldier said, "On behalf of the women and men who have served this country, I proudly present to you The American Flag as a token of our gratitude for your father's service."
Members of the family came forward to place a rose on the casket before it was lowered into the ground. Tears were shed and murmurs of prayers were spoken over the casket.
I noticed that people were removing their gloves to touch the casket one more time. The night before, at the close of the prayer service in the funeral home, I had encouraged everyone to come to the casket to pay their final respects to Carl. I suggested to them, if they wished, to touch the casket and leave their fingerprints there as a final, symbolic gift of the way in which Carl had touched our lives.
They were doing it again, now, in a deeply loving message that words simply could not convey.
And then, it was over.
We turned our backs and our attention to the living - helping Tracy make his way back to the limo, a path which seemed somehow longer and even more treacherous because he was now carrying the fullness of the reality of his loss.
There was something else he was taking from that graveside: an increased awareness of the shortness of his own days and the importance of the simple ceremonies we keep.
At one point, he had to stop and get his bearings. As the cold wind blew around us, he whispered to me, "You'll do the same for Joe and me, right?"
"Absolutely," I said. "When the time comes, which," I added, "will come sooner for me than for you if we don't get out of this cold." We shared a deep chuckle which seemed to have the desired effect of warming us and lightening the remaining 50 or so steps to the limo.
I've been haunted by the image of that graveside scene. It seems to me an icon of the role of parish ministry.
There, in the midst of the ice and snow, the harsh uncertainties of life, I stood as the sign and symbol of God's presence, the warmth of the Gospel message of Christ Jesus, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.
There, between the grave and the insanity of war, I stood as a messenger of hope and peace.
There, in the face of death, I stood as a reminder of the promise of life eternal promised by God in Christ Jesus.
It is a humbling, awesome task - especially to be accorded the privilege of bringing all this to the family of a man I never knew. Which is the final icon, I think, of the church: to keep the simple ceremonies of dignity and worth, especially to those who think themselves unworthy because other parts of the church have told them so.
I'll be remembering this as we keep the simple ceremonies of the last Sunday in Advent and those we keep in celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. The lighting of candles in the progression of Advent. The blessing of the creche. The singing of 'Silent Night' on bended knee in a darkened church, holding slender, lit tapers left over from Easter.
It is important to remember why it was this Holy Child was born.
For this. For this.