Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve Candles

It's Christmas Eve, a day I wait for all year long, because it's my favorite day of the year. I enjoy it, I revel in it, and I reflect on it, more than any other.

Christmas Eve is a time of memories for me. The smell of the live Christmas trees we had when I was a child, decorated with the big colored bulbs and the glass ornaments, some of which were old favorites and treated very gently because they were part of our tradition. There were presents under the tree, and I dare say I am not the only child who risked sneaking underneath to shake a few boxes to see if I could figure out what was in them. As I got older I still shook the boxes occasionally, but it was more important for me to make the tree bright and colorful. It still part of how I celebrate Christmas, even though the tree is much smaller, and, unfortunately, is artificial.

One thing I remember about Christmas growing up was that in our neighborhood it was the custom to put a candle in each window of the house, at least the front windows of the house, and light them every evening. I'm not sure whether it was a colonial custom or not, but if you went to Williamsburg during the Christmas season, every window on Duke of Gloucester Street in the Historic District would have a candle in it. Okay, they were electric candles, but there were still  real enough to make them a very special part of Christmas for me. Since we are celebrating the birth of the light of the world, it only seems fitting that we would have candles as an important part of our commemoration of his birth. After all, the place of that birth wasn't exactly lit up like Broadway.

Christmas Eve was a time to go to church. No matter what denomination you were, and even if you never went more than once a year, it was always on Christmas Eve. Our little church across the street from where I lived had what they called a candlelight service at  7 o'clock every Christmas Eve. It was dark out then and usually pretty brisk, temperature wise.  But as I walked toward the church, I could see a candle in each window, a light welcoming the traveler and the congregant alike. Most of the service was done with very low lighting as we sang the traditional carols and read the traditional story of what this night is all about. It was a really special time, and, walking home afterwards, the stars never seemed brighter or clearer than they were on Christmas Eve.

Churches still feature candles on Christmas, and many of them use candles throughout the year as reminders of the light of the world. The Baptismal candle stands tall and proud, flame dancing in the tiny eddies of air that pass by it. The torches carried by the acolytes mark the procession that begins and ends the service as well as light the Gospel as it is read to the people. There are the Eucharistic candles that promise the Eucharistic meal shared by family of God. There are the tiny twinkling candles in the chapel, marking the prayers of those with special intentions or needs, and perhaps candles on the ends of the pews glowing in their clear hurricane globes. Then there is the little red lamp with a candle inside near  the sanctuary that tells us that the body and blood of Christ present among us and blessed for our use.

Whether or not Jesus was born in an actual manger like we picture it, and whether it was December or April when he was born, the anticipation of his birth is a season of celebration, light, music, families being together, and good food and drink. Unfortunately, this is not the picture many of our fellow citizens of the world, a number of them Christian, have of Christmas. For them there may be no tree, no lights, no feast, no presence, no family. There are those who are wrapped in darkness in their own minds because of ill health, family tragedies, scars of wars and abuse, and a number of other things that make Christmas less than a joyous event. For them it's difficult to celebrate the birth of someone who seems so far away sometimes. It's always a good thing when families and churches together try to aid those for whom Christmas is a blue season, and that too is part of our tradition. Still, in our own homes, in and of our own plenty, we need to remember those who are suffering, often in silence, because there is no one there to hear them or care.

If there was one thing we could do to brighten the world this Christmas Eve maybe it would be to light a candle and put it in the window. That's always been a signal that someone is inside waiting, and the candle is a beacon for those in need to knock on the door and find shelter, warmth, and acceptance. If every window had a candle in it, think with the statement that would make. To me it would be far more impressive than the multi-gazillion lights fixed in and on homes and yards of those who go wild with Christmas spirit, and whose electric bills probably could feed a family of four for a year. Yes, those houses are fun for us to look at, they take us out of ourselves, and make us all kind of like children again, seeing the brightness and movement. But little things, like putting one small candle in the window, could be a signal to a lost person that someone is there and caring. That might make make someone's blue Christmas a few shades lighter.

Today and especially this evening, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, with all the blessings of the season and all the joy of the celebrations. May your homes be warm and your relationships even warmer. Made those who feel left out or sad for whatever reason find comfort in this evening. May there be peace, just for one night, in this world. May all children go to sleep tonight feeling full of food, safe and loved. May we each have a light glimmering in our window as a sign that the celebration is not about material things, but about the spirit of giving and loving, just as Jesus came to be born in this world to bring those things to all of us.

A blessed Christmas Eve to you all.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Cafe Saturday, December 24, 2016.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,    and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home. -- Luke 1:46-56

Christmas is just around the corner. The lines in the stores get longer same thing with the post office. Everybody's trying to get everything done so that come next Saturday night everybody is ready for the coming of Christ child, or the coming of the grandchildren, or maybe a few unattached friends or whoever. We can finally sit and take a breath and realize the whole of Advent has gone by and what do we have to show for it?

One thing we hear in a lot of the Christmas stories that we read and listen to is about Mary's trip to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who also happen to be pregnant at the time under slightly less strange but still quite remarkable conditions. Elizabeth immediately knows what Mary is about to say because as she said, her baby jumped in her womb. Mary responded with a prayer or song that we call the Magnificat, after the first few words that Mary spoke, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Mary goes on for a bit and describes a situation where things seem to be turned upside down.

God hasn't chosen a princess or even a wealthy person for the singular honor of bearing God's son. God is so great that enemies stand no chance against God and mighty empires fall at God's command. The hungry eat, and the rich find that material things and money count for nothing in this upside-down world. God has been there for Israel, has made promises to the ancestors which God is kept. But most interesting and remarkable all is that God chose a young woman from certainly no high a status family, and who has virtually no power in this world. Yet God has chosen her to be the mother of God's son.

What would it be like to live in a world that's upside down, a world where even the poorest have a roof over their heads, ample nourishing food on their tables, constructive work to do. What would the world be like if those who were ill, whether mentally, physically, or any other perceived difficulty, could find that they are  parts of a society that valued them for what they could do, and not for what they could not. What would the world be like if children were safe no matter where they were, safe from violence and bombs and bullying. What would the world be like if all people treated all other people with kindness and respect as it is children of God, even those who used another name for God or perhaps didn't recognize God at all?

There's a lot of handwringing going on as we approach Christmas, not because of Christmas itself but at what comes afterwards. We can live on hope during Advent and we can live on joy during Christmas. When we the tree away, when all the packages have found their places, and all the wrappings have gone into the dumpster or the recycle bin, what we do in the cold world of January and February when it's so easy to feel that there's no hope and little joy? Perhaps we need to take another look at Mary's words. Perhaps we need to remember that one person can start an avalanche. One person can start a movement, and one person's contribution to make all the difference in the world. It's about seeing possibilities instead of negativities, just like it's about seeing good instead of only seeing evil, even if it is just to expose it.

Mary was on the right track with her song.  God can do anything and God has done a number of wonderful things and is very worthy of praise and rejoicing. God chose a very ordinary woman to do a very extraordinary thing that could change the entire world. She, in humility, did as she was asked, and we have seen the result. That's a glorious thing.

We have been chosen as God's people. Not just those of us who pray Mary's Magnificat or the Lord's prayer and feel like that's enough. We all have a job to do in this world and it's not just a job that will benefit us but the lot of others as well. God has chosen each of us to do a bit of Christ bearing, not just this week or next week or before Epiphany is over. The job is a lifelong one, and its purpose is to make the world turn upside down.

So this week what can be done to encourage the Christ light to go from a tiny spark to a flame? We can do Santa Christmas giving trees to help the needy and those less fortunate, we can contribute to food banks, buy gloves and socks and hats for homeless people. There are a lot of things we can do and a lot of things we are more likely to do this time of year than any other. When it comes down to it, what are we gonna do the rest of the year?

How are we going to incubate that spark of Christ that's in all of us and help the world turn upside down? Maybe we can start by magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in God our savior. Then by getting to work.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 17, 2016.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Waiting for God

You keep us waiting. You, the God of all time, Want us to wait. For the right time in which to discover Who we are, where we are to go, Who will be with us, and what we must do. So thank you … for the waiting time.” - John Bell, quoted in The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers, compiled by Dorothy M. Stewart

I'm always on the lookout for things that make me stop and think. I often run across them while looking for something else entirely, but suddenly, the words seem to pop off the page as if they were in bold lettering and larger font than the words around them. The one above is one of those happy accidents.

The quote is about waiting. Lord knows, most of us are not all that wonderful with waiting. We don't like to wait in the doctor's office, having to wait in traffic,  and waiting for a new baby seems to take forever. Then there's waiting for Christmas, even though we have and that calendars to mark off the days (and occasionally a chocolate behind each door which makes things a little more tasty"). We still are more focused on Christmas than we are with Advent. That is supposed to be a time of waiting, but unfortunately, like a lot of other things, who has time to wait?. We've got shopping to do, presents to wrap, cards to send out, trees and houses to decorate, lights to put up, and kids to get to rehearsals for Christmas pageants and Christmas concerts,  and Heaven knows what-all else.  We fall into bed at night exhausted. Who has time to wait?

God doesn't intend for us to rush through this season being so busy that we don't have time to stop and contemplate what it is we're doing. That's getting in the way of our learning the patience that waiting takes. It's hard. We were taught that we have to keep busy lest someone think were slacking off or being lazy or not doing what were supposed to be doing. Heaven forbid that a supervisor at work sees one of the employees sitting there staring at a monitor without moving. Goofing off? Reading Facebook?. Perhaps daydreaming? Or is that employee actually engaged in creative thinking, going outside the box, letting his or her imagination roam while figuring out a way to make things run better, more smoothly, and more efficiently. Generally, however, the employee will be seen as sitting there and doing nothing, and that can be hazardous in the current job market.

Tradition teaches us that waiting can be a very good thing. Mary had nine months to contemplate the birth of her child, time to sit and think, to prepare baby clothes, and to actually sit and contemplate scriptures, prayers, and thought of the change that was about to occur in her life. Many people in the Bible had to wait, some of them more or less gracefully. Prophets encouraged patience which, in essence, meant waiting. If God was punishing the people, then they had to accept the punishment and wait patiently until they were given instructions to move on.

Jesus was impatient a few times. Take the story of  the barren fig tree when he wanted figs immediately. So he blasted the tree. That sounds very un-Jesus-like. The tipping over  of the tables was another in a very un-Jesus-like manner, because he wanted the Temple to be a place of prayer and not a big box store for sacrificial animals with the profits benefiting the priests and no one else. Jesus demonstrated a working lifestyle to  his people , but he also demonstrated going apart and sitting and waiting and praying, just like his mother had done before he was born.

We find it hard to wait. God wants us to wait, and we have a lot to wait for. Who are we? That's something we gradually learn as we grow up and grow older. We don't know that right away, and that's as it should be. What are we supposed to be doing? That requires waiting too, because discernment is not always an instantaneous prospect. Okay, so Paul was knocked off his donkey and got that message right away, but he had also waited without knowing what he was waiting for. And surprise -- it happened.
God is waiting for us to wait. We don't often think about God waiting with us. Often we expect God to be busy doing something because we have we have asked God to do whatever it is that needs to be done. That's the one time a we get really good at waiting. We are asking God to heal someone, to take care of a problem, to bless someone or something, or wait to be to shown the how and why to do something that needs to be done. Then we wait for Jesus or God to do it. We don't always think about doing it ourselves. And perhaps that's what God is waiting for -- for us to make the move to trust enough to start work even if we don't know what were doing is exactly what we are supposed to be doing.

Advent should be a time for us to learn to wait, not to run around like chickens with their heads cut off, until we collapse on Christmas Day and thank God that that's over for another year. We're supposed to use Advent to think about what the coming of the Christ child means, and how we can participate in that coming just as he asked us to participate in bringing about the kingdom. That kind of waiting is hard to do when there are so many needs and so few seemingly are willing to help, and when we have so many things going on -- cultural things, traditional things, active things. But God is patient. God waits for us to slow down and wait for and upon God.

So, since it's about halfway through Advent, I think it's time for me to be less busy and a little bit more patient; to ponder a bit more and struggle a lot less, to look for God in unexpected times and places instead of either shooting up arrow prayers expecting God to take care of them and then rushing off to do something else. When I think of it, God could have made the universe simply by speaking a word or two -- yet we read that God took six days to actually put it together and one more day to rest and contemplate it.

Perhaps I need to build a little Sabbath time into each day of Advent, a time to sit, listen, pray, read, or just be present to God. It might be the only time God has time to get a word in edgewise -- at least, until after Christmas, if then. I know I need to do some of that building, sooner rather than later. I think I'd better start now, because if I don't do it now, I may not have time later. God waits -- and I need to learn to do the same.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 10, 2016.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Pregnant Season

It's finally Advent, my favorite liturgical season of the whole year. It's kind of like fall being  my favorite regular season. There's a feeling of expectation, not quite like the expectation of spring, but after a long hot summer, a bit of crispness in the air, leaves falling from at least some of the trees, and the fact that colored lights are popping up everywhere, signaling that Christmas is just around the corner. It makes for a time of anticipation, at least for me.

Advent is season where we celebrate the anticipation of the coming of the Christ child. It's just a little bit like being pregnant. You've got this little being or this little feeling deep inside and, as it grows, your heart expands to accommodate it. Take a look next time you go out. Look at the pregnant woman. Often you will see them gently rubbing the bump that is growing inside them. You also see her standing there with her hand on their belly, as if to convey a feeling of touch to the little one inside. I know that feeling. I experienced it when I was pregnant with my son, and I still remember it, even decades later. It's that feeling of expectation, of wonder, and of maybe a little anxiety, when the new mother stops to think getting the baby here is one thing, raising it for the next 18 to 21 years is going to be something else entirely.

But yet, there's that period of expectation, the time of dreaming and hoping. Pregnancy is a time for reflection, and Advent incorporates a lot of those emotions and reflections. It's when hopes and dreams are born, just as surely as the day will come when that little bulge in the belly becomes a citizen of the world and a voice to be heard quite literally.

Advent is quiet season, a season to contemplate instant internal growth, and to think about topics we may not get all that much consideration to and the rest of the year. You know, things like hope, and kindness, manners, and doing things for other people, even if there's nothing they can do for us in return. The time when people in stores or on the street are a little more likely to say "Excuse me," "Thank you," or even "Happy holidays". That last one gets a lot of people's goats. It's only supposed to be "Merry Christmas" according to some. But not everyone is Christian;  they have their own celebrations, and we do not honor them when we insist that it has to be Merry Christmas. That's not what season is about. We can't just flip a switch at midnight on Christmas Eve and have peace on earth, goodwill to all humankind appear like a pea popping out of a pod. We only achieve those things where we have placed the most hope.

You know, looking at pictures of pregnant women around the world, even in places where war and famine control exists, you can still see women rubbing the belly or gently holding their hand as if cradling that new life already. That's the closest thing to hope that many of them have, and for many of them it may cost their lives, but for that moment in time they have hope.

Advent is our season of pregnant waiting, the season that we share with the Blessed Virgin in her time of expectation. It can't have been easy for her not only to tell her parents what was happening, but also to endure the stares and probably whispers behind her back. Still, she held to God's promise,
and  lived in hope. It sounds funny when it's put that way, but she went from puzzlement to trust and found her child was born in hope. She walked through each day of her pregnancy, rubbing her belly and cradling it as she would cradle the new child. She had faith, and she lived in hope.

This Advent we have need of hope probably more than we have for a very, very long time. It's difficult for us to see beyond tomorrow even beyond this afternoon sometimes. We hold our breath sometimes in expectation of what's going to happen and wonder, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is this hope that we carry going to bring fulfillment, or will our hopes be crushed? Mary and Joseph felt that especially on their trip to Bethlehem. They didn't know what they were getting into, or at least, they had little idea of what they were getting into. But they went as they were instructed,  did the best they could, and found hope in the fact that there was a private place where a young mother-to-be could strain and cry out and deliver a child who would become the hope of the world.

This Advent, think about the little seed of hope we all carry within us and how we can nurture that hope so that in due time we will bring forth a vision of hope that will encompass the world. We can succeed if our strength, comfort, and even our expectations are God-centered instead of how many presents we can put under the tree.

Let Advent mature like a baby in the womb, nurtured and protected because one day that hope will be born and we will finally know the joy of seeing hope fulfilled.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 3, 2016.