Christmas Lights

I wrote “Christmas Lights” while living in 1998; it’s probably my first conscious attempt at writing a theological reflection, way before I ever thought that I could go to seminary. I thought I’d lost it, as this piece is old enough to have been saved on a floppy drive (!?) or only a CD, but I found a hard copy in my files, finally! Here it is, uncut and unpolished, and I take a theological jump without enough support.

December 15, 1998, Aliquippa, PA
I was listening to Scott Paulsen and Jim Krenn on WDVE the other morning. They were joking around about Christmas lights. Callers and the morning crew swapped stories, trying to outdo each other with descriptions of overly-decorated houses, laughing over the power surges the people cause when they turn on the lights and Duquesne Light must be raking in the big bucks.
Why do Christmas lights fascinate us so?
Perhaps it’s because the sun sets so early. I think Beaver Countians, and Pittsburghers, too, are trying to outdo each other in their attempts to drive back the darkness. My neighborhood is teeming with Christmas lights, and I have to admit that I love it, the tacky homes as much as the tasteful ones. Driving through any neighborhood around here certainly takes away my seasonal blues.
Maybe we’re trying to recapture our lost childhood.
I grew up, for the most part, in various suburbs of Milwaukee—with a short stint in Connecticut during the energy crisis in the ‘70s (not many Christmas lights then). One of our family traditions was to take a drive on Christmas Eve to look at the lights. The four of us—my mom, my dad, me, and my sister—would drive around town “oohing” and “aahing” as if it were the Fourth of July. My sister and I even managed to keep our “she’s on my side” squabbling down to a minimum.
If we didn’t go for a Christmas Eve drive, it meant we were in Iowa visiting my relatives. The drive from Milwaukee to my grandparents’ house in Steamboat Rock is seven hours. We always traveled on a Friday night, after my dad got home from work. I usually slept during the hour and a half stretch to Madison because I-94 in that part of Wisconsin is about as exciting as the stretch of I-90 through Ohio and Indiana.
Once we left Madison, we traveled on a two-lane highway through a string of about ten small towns. Each town, from Mt. Horeb to Barneveld to Mineral Point to Dickeyville, had its downtown street lights festooned with those old-fashioned decorations made of tinsel garland and lights. Each town had its own variety: candy canes, snowflakes, stars, ornaments. I could tell which town we were in just by those decorations. I would stay awake just to see the lights (ok, maybe dozing or daydreaming a little). And in between towns, there were farms scattered across the gentle hills, their houses and barns outlined in light.
Now I drive through Hopewell, to Monaca, to Center, to Beaver Falls, listening to my kids quit their squabbling long enough to “ooh” and “aah” over the homes adorned with the latest craze—icicle lights—or the homes decorated to resemble electric gingerbread homes.
Why are we so fascinated with Christmas lights? Are we trying to make up for the brief winter daylight? Trying to rekindle childhood innocence? Or are we trying to recreate the light of a star that shone over two thousand years ago?

Advent Wilderness

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“To put it another way: if you, as the owner of the house, know that the thief is coming but not the hour that the thief is to arrive, do you sit between now and that time, anxious, hyper vigilant, rigid in an armchair perhaps, smack dab in front of the door, hands tight on a shotgun, afraid to leave the chair? Are you then awake? How else might you prepare?” –from Advent Anxiety

The second Sunday of Advent and still Matthew’s gospel serves as a provocateur, pulling me up, wresting the shotgun out of my numb fingers, saying “armchairs are notoriously difficult to turn around in; how then can you repent?” Pulling me through zig-zagging narrow corridors in a rush, past vitriolic tweets and social media frenzies, past scores of emails per day from retailers reveling in their revealing of ever lower discounts and ever more perfect gifts. Until finally, I’m pushed–

out, crying aloud in wonder at the stark light of the sun and the radiant heat of the desert. At first, I mistake the absence of noise as total silence, but while marveling at the needed quietude, random buzzes (not the large drone of a hive), creep into my awareness. Stones, too, in some pattern I cannot discern, laid down long ago by flood and cataclysm, make themselves known to me. For a surreal second, I ponder whether stones can buzz, but then, camouflaged against the hard-packed sand, locusts move. Not enough for a plague, but plenty if you’re hungry. Watch out, I murmur softly, the prophet, the baptizer, might be about.

Of course, that’s exactly when the gospel nudges me forward. There’s a man, a ways from me; it’s hard to estimate distance in the desert. Is that what camel hair looks like? Hesitation on my part, only because I don’t want to disturb the stones. There’s no path, though the way is certainly straight. There’s no choice for me, really, and so I step forward.

When I reach him, he’s sitting, cross-legged at the edge of a shallow arroyo, a stream gurgling through it. “Child of Abraham,” he greets me, patting the ground next to him. We sit in silence for a bit; me, studying him surreptitiously and expectant of a prophetic rant about vipers; he, turning a stone over in his hands. The locusts sing. Finally, I ask, “Am I the wheat or the chaff, John?”

“Why is it always an ‘either/or’ question?” He looks at me, and I can’t help but notice the little smudge of honey in his beard. “When you ask it that way, you begin to ‘other,’ even yourself.” He shows me the stone in his hand–it’s vaguely heart-shaped. He tosses it into the flowing water. “It’s really difficult to baptize stone hearts–open yours and let the chaff therein float away.”

John reaches down and slips off my flip flops. Rising, unsure, I step into the stream, the cool water rushing over my dusty feet. I pivot back toward him. “Will you help me to open my heart?” I whisper.

The baptizer smiles. “Ah, that’s a better question.” I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Turn around,” John says, “the one who comes with the Holy Spirit and fire is here for just that reason.”

Advent Anxiety

This Thanksgiving holiday, I, like many, many, many other people, flew to visit family. This Sunday, like many, many people, I sat in church, celebrating the first Sunday of Advent (Happy New Year to my fellow liturgical geek friends), and listening to part of the gospel of Matthew’s little apocalypse. Every three years, we are given this reading, this lesson, and yet every three years, this passage takes us aback, it seems. Isn’t Advent a season to pull away from the stress and anxiety produced by the constant revelation of newer and better gifts to buy for your children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, husbands, wives, etc., etc? Aren’t we already awake enough through constant media bombardment, social or otherwise, secular or otherwise? Does this passage encourage us to ever more hyper vigilance for the Second Coming in an age that urges us to ever more uber awareness so that we can grab all that we can now, now, now, before the thief returns to the house? We can be taken or left at any moment. What awaits those taken? Those left? Who is taken; who is left?

As my outward bound flight taxied to the gate at the Charlotte airport, both a flight attendant and the captain made an announcement regarding those who had tight  connection times to their next flight. Most of those having the small increment of time were seated at the very back of the plane. Could those of us who had a longer time prior to the next stage of the journey or those who had reached our destination please stay seated so those families could disembark quickly and easily. We get parked at the gate, the seatbelt light blinks off, and what happens? Nearly everyone stands up and crowds into the aisle, grabbing for the overhead compartment latches, anxious–gotta off the plane first. A few of us stay seated, waiting as the families in the back rush (a difficult task in a narrow tube) past, with that harried, disheveled look folks traveling with young ones often have. We were thanked, both by those fellow passengers and by the captain.

How easy and how addictive that anxiety is! That zero-sum-driven angst that almost compels us to act impulsively on the “if I’m not first, I’ll miss something” fear; the “if I’m not first, I’m last” fear. As if being last is necessarily bad. I must admit to that temptation while waiting in the terminal–I arrived early both for the outward, visitation-bound travel and for the journey home; had time to buy refreshments, Dramamine, and a crossword puzzle book; found seats near the appropriate gate; and sat, trying to settle. Pulled out my pen and began a crossword, feeling relaxed, sipping my Coke. Looking up, watching the people going up and down the terminal. Fidgeting in my chair. What time is it? Oooh, the information screen behind the gate desk shows 20 minutes until boarding begins. I know the time. Relax again, puzzle over and answer a few more clues. Look up again, more folks gathering–lots of carry-ons. Great. Sigh. Remind myself not to get anxious; I’ve packed lightly: a duffle bag and a large purse that will both easily fit under the seat in front of me. Doesn’t matter which group I board with, even though my ticket reads “Group 2.”

More folks start to gather around the gate–why are they standing so close? Will they try to board before their group is called? I fidget more; I’ve put the crossword away and am trying to read my advance reading copy of Tad Williams’ latest fantasy novel. I give up in favor of watching to see how many people take advantage of the courtesy bag checking. I nearly get up to check mine. No, no need to be anxious–I prepared, packed lightly so I wouldn’t have to check a bag or worry about getting a bag into the overhead compartment. I’ll get on the plane, doesn’t matter if I’m first, last, or in the middle. Yes, there will be some discomfort as others get settled, get backpacks or cases stowed, before and after I do. All will be well. But the temptation to share in that anxiety–to get up and get closer to the gate, to stake my place, to glare at others who don’t line up properly, to make sure I’m with my boarding group, to be ahead of other boarding groups, to claim my space and get ready for the scary prospect of take off–is strong. I tuck my boarding pass into my book and I stand.

To put it another way: if you, as the owner of the house, know that the thief is coming but not the hour that the thief is to arrive, do you sit between now and that time, anxious, hyper vigilant, rigid in an armchair perhaps, smack dab in front of the door, hands tight on a shotgun, afraid to leave the chair? Are you then awake? How else might you prepare?

Stories Beget Stories

Audio from 9:00 am sermon

In the introduction to his new collection of assorted writings, A View from the Cheap Seats, one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, who’s written theologically-charged fantasy novels such as American Gods and Good Omens (with the late Terry Pratchett), names all the writers he’s read evangelists. Evangelists because reading one author, such as Tolkien, led Gaiman to yet another storyteller and from thence to yet another writer—a journey for him of good news through words and imagination. Stories beget stories, and the stories we tell bring tangibility to ideas and concepts that we can’t otherwise touch.

For example: How many of you watch 30 Rock? It’s one of my comfort shows; one of my favorite episodes is called “Leap Day”—it aired February 28, 2012. In it, Leap Day is a major holiday where people dress in yellow and blue (heaven forbid if you’re not wearing it), nothing that happens that day counts, and an old man named Leap Day William, who lives in the Mariana Trench, emerges every four years to exchange children’s (and adults’) tears for candy.

One of the storylines in the episode revolves around CEO Jack Donaghy—the stereotype of an ultra-Republican, ultra-conservative businessman, played by Alec Baldwin. Jack sees Leap Day as an opportunity for making extra profit for the company and even has a bet with his business school friends as to who will make the most money on Leap Day—the goal causes him to neglect his year-old daughter. During a rhubarb-induced slumber, he is visited by the Spirit of Leap Day Past, Present, and Future, and after seeing his grown daughter “experimenting with liberalism” (she’s participating in a Habitat for Humanity build) in the future, has a change of heart and goes home to spend time with her, after giving Kenneth the page money enough to buy the biggest rhubarb (the holiday food) in the shop down the street. “The one as big as me, sir?” Kenneth asks as all ends happily.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the storyline was begotten from Charles Dickens’ well-known tale, A Christmas Carol. I know I’m getting to Christmas early, but then again, so are the stores. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his change of heart is a familiar story to most; if not the print version, then through movie or TV versions. Does the mention of the story conjure up certain images for you? Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s poor yet cheerful clerk. Or his son, Tiny Tim, who wears iron braces on his legs and uses a crutch, and whose words, “God bless us every one,” still moves me when I reach the end of the story.

And Scrooge. A name that’s even made it into our vernacular: “Don’t be a scrooge!” we say to those who seem in danger of being curmudgeonly and ungenerous. In the story, Dickens describes Scrooge as cold. He’s well-to-do and callous—he won’t keep Christmas, saying “humbug!” to all. He grudgingly gives Bob Cratchit a day off for the holiday; won’t accept an invitation to dinner from his laughing nephew, Fred; and when gentlemen knock on his door to ask for a donation for the poor, Scrooge asks “are there no prisons?” “are the workhouses no longer in operation?” Of course, he gives no money. He won’t keep Christmas at all. All who know him feel there is no hope for reversal. Scrooge rejects kindness and caring and turns his back on those in need. He may not feast every day—he generally dines on porridge at a tavern but neither will he share his wealth.

And yet, someone comes back from the dead to warn him that his dealings in life will affect him in the hereafter. While Scrooge dines on his soup in his cold rooms, he is visited by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley—I’m sure you can envision it–weighted down by the chains he forged in life through his actions: a long, heavy chain with which he must spend eternity. He must wander the earth as well, no chance of happiness or peace. Yet Marley is given the chance to warn his friend Scrooge, to give him a chance to escape the same end.

And so probably the most familiar part of the tale—Scrooge is then visited by three Spirits; those of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Scrooge sees what he was in his youth—a boy at school with a lively imagination, an apprentice clerk who enjoyed making merry with his boss and friends; he comes from a not very wealthy family. When he’s a young man, his fiancé breaks their engagement—Scrooge is becoming enamored with wealth, becoming hard-hearted and ambitious. It wouldn’t be right for him to marry a woman with no dowry, so she generously leaves. In all the scenes he’s shown, Scrooge easily reconnects with his old self, reliving eagerly the joyous ones, and feeling sorrow for how he’s behaved recently, wishing he’d acted differently.

In the end, we see a total reversal, repentance in Ebenezer. After the last visit, it’s Christmas morning; it’s not too late. Ebenezer opens his curtains, opens his window and shouts to a boy outside, asking if the big prize turkey is still in the window at the butcher’s. “The one that’s bigger than me?” the boy asks. “Yes!” Scrooge tosses an excess of coins to the boy. The turkey is to be a surprise for the Cratchit family, they’re going to feast; though earlier in the book, we see that they easily make a feast of what they have—that the feast is in being together, is in the love they have for each other.

Dickens and the Victorians loved the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus—it certainly helped to beget A Christmas Carol. Dickens does some reversals of his own—the biggest one is that the rich man does have someone to come back and “bear witness” to him. But I’m not here to read an English paper comparing the two stories. It’s enough for now to know that one is born from the other.

Which brings us to our gospel reading for today—the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Jesus tells this parable on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to his own crucifixion (part of me now pictures Jesus and the disciples sitting around a campfire). This is a story of rejection and reversals. The Pharisees, who have taken Jesus to task because of who he associates with—the tax collector and others—have rejected those same outcasts and rejected Jesus as well. We have a classic story of the reversal of fates of the rich man and Lazarus. Can you picture Lazarus? He’s a beggar, covered in sores, in pain and hungry. We could get graphic here imagining the pus and the blood running. And I’ll leave it to you to imagine whether the dogs who lick his sores are being compassionate in their doggy way or have a different end in mind.

Can you picture the rich man? He’s wearing purple robes—very exclusive ones as purple is meant only for members of the Roman royal family. And he feasts every day, disregarding the beggar at his gate. Imagine that—feasting everyday in the same way that the feast was given for the return of the prodigal son; Luke uses the same word in each story. And after he dies that he is in Hades, a dry, dusty, hot place, being tormented while Lazarus, who’s also died, is in the bosom of Abraham, at peace. The rich man calls, callously, for Lazarus to be sent to him to put a cooling drop of water on his tongue. We heard Abraham’s refusal as well as the refusal to send Lazarus to the five brothers. There is no hope for the rich man, it seems.

This parable is the only one in which a person is given a name—Lazarus. I find it interesting that medieval folks tried to give the rich man a name—mostly commonly Dives, which is a misreading of the Latin word for “rich man.” So basically, they were still calling him “rich man.”

And the chasm. Do you see a wide gulf, say, like the Grand Canyon—so wide that you can’t reach across it? Or do you see the gate that separated the two men?
So what stories does Rich Man and Lazarus beget for you? Did Jesus hope that his audience would go forward and retell this story to others? What resonates in this gospel for you?

What comes to mind for me is a quote from Scrooge’s nephew as he describes Christmas: “The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on another journey.”

These words remind of an experience I had a couple of weeks ago. I went to Goodwill; I was buying something for a costume. Outside the store, sat a young man, a teenager really, homeless. He had a variant of the usual cardboard sign: “Anything helps. God Bless.” A couple of people passed him by as they entered the store. I looked at him, and said, “I’m sorry; I don’t have any cash on me.” He answered, “That’s ok; just thank you for saying something. That’s enough. God bless you.” I went into the store, and didn’t think until later that I could have offered to buy him a Coke and chips.

So I wonder: do we share things in common with the rich man in the story? I don’t mean that we feast every day, callously disregarding the beggars at our gate, or that we are are destined for the heat of Hades, like the rich man. But we live in a culture that tries to teach us to love material possessions, that tells us stories about them—that the newest iPhone, the newest Tesla, the latest iteration of Pepsi or Coke, will help fulfill us, these stories are all we need in life; these things will keep us safe, and safely, behind our gates.

Like Scrooge, though, we have someone who came back from the dead, someone who loves us immeasurably, someone who through stories and example, reminds us to not only see the outcasts, but to share what we have now with them—even if it’s a kind word, an acknowledgement, a hug. We do have the resurrected Christ who wove stories throughout his journey to the crucifix to teach us, to help all try to make reversals, as needed, in our own journeys when we find ourselves reveling solely in our material things and forgetting those who might be outcasts, or are simply in need of our help. We have the feast that we share together at least every Sunday.

I wonder what stories will you beget with your life. Where will this gospel lead you?

God bless us, every one. Amen

Prewriting September 25’s Sermon

This is definitely not going to be my sermon, lest anyone become alarmed. Just stuff that bubbled up tonight as I opened myself up to Luke 16:14-31. I will continue this, in any case, so stay tuned. . .

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, lived a poor man, his body covered with weeping sores—really gross ones, with pus and blood running over his body. He didn’t even have to pick at them. He had to beg for food, and live in the streets; he had no family or friends to care for him. Some how he ended up at the gates of a rich man’s house—thrown there perhaps by those who had no further use for him; after all, he was no longer a useful member of society. No one wanted to be near him because the pus and the blood were, as has been already noted, really gross. Can you imagine the smell? That sickly sweet odor of illness, of a body wasting away. All gave him a wide berth. Except for the dogs—they came to lick his sores. Why? I’ve heard that some church fathers preach that the dogs were being kind—their tongues washing him, baptizing him with their balm, removing the burden of blood and pus. Cleanliness is next to dogliness, you know. And you know what “doG” spelled backward is.

Some newer scholars say, “are you kidding?” Those dogs weren’t being kind—these were no lapdogs, no teacup poodles, no well-meaning Lady and The Tramp dogs caring for a human because no other human cares. These were the mean streets of the city dogs—fierce, looking out only for themselves, fighting over scraps, rat-catchers. As soon as the man dies, they’d be tearing his flesh to feed themselves—just licking that pus and blood for their own sustenance. Savoring that sickly sweet flavor just as much as they savor a roll in the mud. No kindness—it’s a dog eat dog world in this far away kingdom.

Now the poor man, in the swirl of dogs, his name is Eliezar, though it’s easier for us to say Lazarus. But don’t think of that other dead man whose name is the same. Different story—no dogs. Lazarus raises his weak voice over and above the yapping and yipping and growling of the dogs—they’re such talkers. He calls to the rich man, who’s sitting, feasting, relishing his wealth. “Sir, sir, please. Might you spare some food? Might you share some cool water? Surely you have a cracked cup to give, that way my uncleanness won’t become yours.”

Poem written for McLean Baptist Church

This poem was commissioned by Rev. Megan Clapp, Youth Minister at McLean Baptist Church in McLean, VA. The first week of August 2016 was VBS time, and the children learning about creative praise. Megan and Katie, the other minister, wanted a poem that could be read at the Sunday worship time by a child, with a playful tone, and be about the church’s worship space.

The Most Important Part of My Church

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
beautiful jewels
emerald, sapphire, amethyst,
with ruby and gold at the heart—
the crown and cross
of Jesus Christ our King.
Can you guess?
Yes! Our stained-glass window,
With colors bright.

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
simple, strong structure,
space to grow in Christ.
Cradling us safely, yet
with windows clear, and doors
for all to enter and go forth.
Can you guess?
Yes! Our sanctuary walls,
a welcome sight.

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
cross and threefold shadows here,
hovering over waters deep,
promising eternal life in Christ.
Before and after I’m immersed,
Jesus’ teachings I’ll learn to keep.
Can you guess?
Yes! Our baptistery,
With its inner light.

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
the place that we gather
to be joined as a body,
the body of Christ. Together
in communion at the table,
where the Word of God often rests.
Can you guess?
Yes! Our altar, set for
the feast of life.

Do I love my church home?
Yes!
Why?
I spy
every time I’m here
the most important part
of our church—its soul and heart—
singing, laughing, crying,
praying, ministering, loving.
Can you guess?
Yes! We are the church,
in our pews together, all
snug and tight.

Do we love our church home?
Yes! We do! Amen!

There, that wasn’t so bad

Humiliation is like when a young married woman with no clue, living with the in-laws, her husband, a two-year-old, and a newborn, is encouraged by said husband to go on a shopping trip to a popular tourist beach town with the woman who works as the receptionist at the company he works for. She assumes that her husband is doing this out of kindness because in the two years they’ve lived in the South, with the in-laws, she has not really made any friends.

So she gets in the car with this other woman; this’ll be her first trip to the huge outlet mall in this beachside city, maybe she’ll find some nice stuff because they’ve found a place to finally move out or something nice for her husband. The receptionist woman at first is nice to chat with, sharing life histories–the receptionist woman is divorced, with a son, and they get to this outlet mall and start shopping. I think it starts when the  young woman is looking at cards for one to give to her husband–a nice romantic card.

Humiliation is in the store and on the way home when the receptionist woman starts asking questions: Do you love your husband? What if he were to find another woman? What if he were to leave you? And still the young woman is f’ing consciously clueless. Very uncomfortable, though. To this day, she cannot listen to “That’s What Friends Are For” without being right back there in that passenger seat.

Humiliation is the receptionist woman coming in to the in-laws’ house, and yes, the husband is home, and she just won’t leave–talking and talking. And the married woman is getting upset and frustrated and maybe the clues are there, but now she doesn’t want to see. She doesn’t understand.

Finally, the other woman leaves.

Humiliation is like when your now ex-husband tries to get you to be friends with his mistress because he wants his cake and to eat it too; because he has no guts to tell you he’s having an affair and wants her to tell you; because, really, I’m still clueless as to why.