The Hour of Disquiet

4am
is the hour
of my disquiet.
Wide awake in that
suspended time,
dawn is a
dream –
too far away,
too long in coming
for me to escape the heavy
blanket of shadows.
I should wait
patiently
… patiently …
but I am tempted
to escape into
sleep.
Let dawn come
without my attentiveness.
Let me wake only after the shadows
have fled and the sun has
warmed the earth.
Let God arrive
while
I close my eyes
against this dis-ease,
against the eternity of 4am.
Let me rise once advent is ended
and fears are vanquished …
or else strengthen
my heart,
Jesus,
for I lack
the courage to wait
and to watch for the dawn
when it’s 4am and time stands still.

The Desert Shall Rejoice & Bloom

We lean on Isaiah for wild, prophetic imagination in this season of Advent:

One day, not too long from now, a mountain will be established. It will be higher than all other mountains, it will soar above the hills and valleys, it will reach so tall that it will tickle the stars even while its roots are secured in the depths of the earth. And the mountain will be known as the house of God, the home of the Holy One.

All people and nations will set their sights on the mountain, and they will join together to pilgrimage there. Friends and strangers will meet at every crossroad and say, “Let us go to the mountain; let us enter the home of the Holy One where we shall learn God’s ways.”

So they will journey together, on that day that is not too long from now. And as they journey they will discover God’s ways already pouring down from the mountain, flowing as a clear stream through hills and across valleys, pooling like an oasis in the desert, flooding boundaries and collapsing walls that have stood between us. Along every edge of every pool and river and stream, peoples and nations will be bending their backs to the work of hammering plowshares out of swords so that they can furrow and plant the fields together.

adaptation of Isaiah 2:1-5

O Holy God, we sigh with longing to catch Isaiah’s vision of a new day, of a new realm. We sigh with fatigue and dejection, for we have forgotten how to dream. We sigh in a prayer of hope, trusting that your imagination has not dimmed since those days when you inspired Isaiah.

Out in the middle of the field, there is an old tree stump, the remnant of an ancient cedar tree long ago devastated by a lightening strike. The farmer cut the deadened tree down to a stump, but now plows and plants around it every season, waiting for that stump to rot away into the earth.

Out in the middle of the field, there is an old tree stump, the remnant of greatness now simply stuck in the mud. One day, not too long from now, from that same deadened stump in the middle of that same field, a green shoot will push through and begin to grow. A new shoot will emerge, and stretch, and swell, and mature, and branch out, until the fullness of this new shoot-that-has-become-a-tree can be seen for miles.

The farmer will shake his head and smile in resignation, and he will call the tree “New Life.” Children and squirrels alike will scamper across the field to climb in the tree’s branches; they will call the tree “Home.” Birds of the air — from the sparrow to the hawk — will hide in the tree, and they will call it “Shelter.” Men and women will come from afar to sit and lean back against the tree’s trunk while they listen to the world around them; they will name the tree “Wisdom.” Bear and fawn, lamb and lion will lie together among the tree’s roots, and they will call the tree “Peace.”

The tree itself will look at the life among its branches and under its brances and beyond its branches, and it will see all life without distinguishing which is greatest and which is least. But the tree will know and recognize that which gives life to life, and that which hinders life in life.

Out in the middle of the field, there is a tree, and the tree stands as a sign to all creation.

adaptation of Isaiah 11:1-10

We look to the trees to teach us how to stretch our arms wide in welcome and love. We look to the sparrows and the lilies to teach us how to trust fully in you. We pray for peace, Creator God. We pray for peace.

One day, not too long from now, a spring will bubble and overflow in the desert; a field of soft grass will grow in the concrete wasteland. One day, not too long from now, exquisite flowers will bloom on the garbage heap and bluebells will ring their praises from the street corners.

Tell those who are afraid that one day, not too long from now, the earth will no longer drown from floods or grow thirsty from droughts, but water will flow enough for all creation to live and be satisfied. On that day, all people will dance with all creation — children and elders, abled and disabled together will swing with joy, and songs will be sung in every language to the glory of God!

One day, not too long from now, the lost will be safe and the wandering will be found; predators will grow hungry in their search for prey, because all will be safely harbored in God’s embrace. Then as brothers and sisters we will remind one another, “Here is your God! Take courage and do not be afraid!”

adaptation on Isaiah 35:1-10

Come swiftly, O God! Be borne among us, O Christ.

How beautiful is the Word that signals hope: hope in the midst of loneliness, hope for the impossible overturning of oppression, hope that the limits of this life are not the limits of God.

How beautiful is the Word that brings peace: peace to the beggar at the gate, peace to the lepers cast out from their families, peace to the woman no one will touch, and peace to the soldier coming home from war.

How beautiful — how needed — is the Word that brings joy even amidst a dry desert, even amidst economic worries and job insecurities and broken hearts longing for love.

How beautiful is the Holy Word of love that is for all people: love for you, love for me, love for the estranged and love for the lovers, love so holy and so vast that its song echoes beyond the stars.

adaptation of Isaiah 52:7

How beautiful is the Word! How beautiful is our God!

Monday Muse: Rachel Weeping

The second Sunday of Advent has passed. The second candle in the Advent wreath has been lit in the name of peace. The tree has been cut from a hillside of firs or pulled out of storage and assembled in the living room. The Christmas shopping list has been checked and double-checked.

A perfect time to look forward to the agonizing Year A lectionary readings of the First Sunday after Christmas: the slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23).

holy_innocents_pic

Many pastors take the First Sunday after Christmas as a much-needed vacation Sunday — or at least, I did — and it can be tempting to escape this gospel reading by scheduling a guest preacher in one’s place (who, most likely, will not touch the Matthew text with a ten-foot pole).

And yet.

And yet the slaughter of the innocents is not simply an unsettling Christmas-buzz-kill gospel story. The slaughter of the innocents is the daily headline in our modern world.

Sandy Hook. Trayvon. Renisha. Syria. Central African RepublicPhiladelphia. Gun violence. Drone strikes. Bullying. Cars exploding, malls popping with gunfire, storms devastating homes. Young men and women picking up arms for war. Young men and women fleeing from war. Sexual harassment and rape of our children. Girls and boys dismissed, undermined, injured, overlooked because their complexions are brown and black. Our children are dying, Rachel is still weeping…

christmas-tree-dry

…and Christmas didn’t fix that.

There is a theological problem on the First Sunday after Christmas: Emmanuel has come and the problems of the world remain. And regardless of whether or not the pastor is on vacation, worship on the First Sunday after Christmas holds the opportunity (the obligation) to honestly and pastorally account for the mourning in the world and in our lives.

Perhaps worship attendance is light on that post-Christmas Sunday. Perhaps it seems distasteful to set a tone that is less than light-hearted; after all, there are only so many Sundays when it is liturgically fitting to sing Christmas carols.

Then again.

Then again, the role of Advent/Christmas worship is not to put the feel-good icing on the cake of the holidays. Contrary to popular opinion, the responsibility of the Church is not to enable contentment in the pews but rather to embody transformation in the world. Emmanuel has come, and we celebrate his birth not because we need more presents and holiday meals in our lives, but because we need God With Us in our lives desperately.

The First Sunday after Christmas lays bare our need for God’s presence by retelling the nightmare of the world’s suffering: children killed without a second thought, families on the run for their lives, people making desperate choices just to survive. To honor the solemnity of the gospel reading on the First Sunday after Christmas is to attend to the very real disenchantment that we face in those days following Christmas when we look at ourselves and we look at our world in the mirror…and we lament to see that we are unchanged by Christ’s coming.

One: Recount the gracious deeds of the LORD.

All: Because the tales of our deeds and the tales of our world are too disheartening to tell.

One: Recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, who dwells among us with grace.

All: Emmanuel is here, even amidst our distress. Emmanuel is here, because of our distress.

One: Listen as the snow and frost call out God’s praise.

All: Listen as the children who are suffering cry out in God’s name.

One: Listen as the moon and the stars ring out their songs to the glory of God.

All: Listen as the angel whispers, “The LORD is near. Do not be afraid.”

One: In the unsettled silence that follows our Christmas celebrations, we pray:

All: We are at a loss, O God, to make sense of suffering in the season of Christmas. The best of joy and love cannot erase the pain and suffering of this life, and we add our cries to Rachel’s lament: for children who are hungry; for persons who are not safe at home; for women and girls who are undervalued, overlooked and abused; for our relationships that are broken; for the lonely and the lost; for the distressed and the discouraged. O LORD, hear our prayer. Come and be among us, not in a manger as a babe, but in our world as a savior. Let the wind and the mountains and the seas continue to sing your song as we recover our voices from weeping and learn to sing with the hope of your glory among us. Amen.

(Liturgy written on the texts of Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, and Matthew 2:13-23.)

Let us walk in the light

Here is my light.
Limited though it is,
I hold it up against the night.
Perhaps you will see it
and you will breathe in relief
to experience a needed warmth and
a lessening of shadows along your way.
Perhaps this little glow of mine
will encourage you
to show your own radiance:
each candle sharing its flame with another,
multiplying light in defiance of those
who prefer to live hidden
in deceit’s darkness
rather than braving to dance
with the shadows that play alongside
a community illuminated.
Here is my light:
a votive that flickers and bobs
in the invisible breeze.
If you add your smooth pillar candle
and if another friend calls out a star by name
and perhaps if a child shares a Buzz Lightyear nightlight
(plus we’ll count the streetlights for good measure),
then together we might really be something:
our fellowship
could be the ray of dawn
that interrupts this deep night.
And you with your candle and she with a star
and the little ones with their nightlights
and I with my modest votive
will be content
to live together in the dawn
while we wait for the fullness of Day
to arrive and to chase away all of the shadows
and lingering phantoms of night.
There in the presence of the fire that is called Day
our lights will be consumed
and we will see each other’s faces
truly for the first time
without mystery or suspicion.
Let the Day come! Let the Day come!
Wait and watch with me for the brightest Day
to burst upon us. Wait and watch with me.
Come and create dawn with me,
with our lights together
against the night.

Monday Muse: More than One Lobster Present at the Birth of Jesus

I love this early line from the movie Love Actually! When Lulu Popplewell (as Daisy) proudly announces to Emma Thompson (playing Daisy’s mother Karen) that she has been given the role of 1st Lobster for the Christmas nativity play, I love that she unconsciously hits upon a mystical truth: that at the birth of Jesus, all creation — from the lamb to the lobster, the cattle to the caterpillar — gathered together to honor and celebrate the birthing of God into flesh! All creation!

All creation mystically, ontologically, eternally, present at the Nativity! And the nativity displays in our homes and churches have the artistic opportunity to remind us of all that diversity of creation and humanity … if we allow them to do so, if we intentionally surround ourselves with diverse crèches in this Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season.

Alessi Creche Presepe from Design3000.de

Design3000.de

(This cartoonish crèche is not an example of the diversity that I am advocating. The figurines’ porcelain whiteness and campy smiles are a disturbing caricature of the White holy families that grace too many nativity sets. From the blond curl on Jesus’ forehead to the cheering pink donkey in the background, this crèche rivals some of the cheesiest I’ve seen!)

Andean Nativity

Andean Nativity

Instead, seek out nativity sets that bring creation’s diversity into your home and sanctuary. Display more than one crèche as a reminder of God’s incarnation in more than one region of the world! Arrange multiple sets in the sanctuary chancel or on the altar table, and talk about what makes each crèche similar — and different — with the children during worship.

Celebrate the diversity of creation and of incarnation with a breadth of artistic representations of the Holy Family: from crèches to stained glass windows, illustrated Bibles to Sunday School posters … and not only during the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season but year-round! Let art train your eyes, and let your eyes in turn teach your soul, to recognize God in all of humanity.

A Child Is Born

A Child Is Born

Tell your nieces and nephews, your children and your grandchildren and your church-children the story of Jesus’ birth using a beautiful book featuring a diverse Holy Family, such as Margaret Wise Brown’s A Child Is Born with illustrations by Floyd Cooper. Peel away the pristine privilege from our sanitized retelling of Jesus’ birth with the beautifully clumsy artwork of The Nativity by Julie Vivas.

In one way or another — and preferably, in many ways — make room in your Christmas displays and celebrations for all of creation! Take advantage of the seasonal abundance of artwork and nativity displays to remind yourself and your church that the lobster, the lion & the llama join their voices with people from Cairo to Cleveland in praise of Emmanuel’s birth.