Christmas Eve meditation

Though I don’t make it a practice to post my sermons here, in the spirit of the day, here is what I had to say last night.

Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us, every one.

May 029Do you know how strong babies are? It’s been said that an experiment was conducted in which a professional athlete was asked to mimic the movement of a baby lying on his back. The athlete quickly became exhausted and couldn’t keep up.

Babies are powerful. Recently my family and I attended a choral concert where a group of twenty young women were on stage singing beautifully, fully; but when one little baby in the audience began to wail, their sound was drowned out and every eye went from the stage to the baby.

Babies change the world, in the way that babies up-end the lives of their families from the moment they are born. Scattered parents suddenly become aware of the need of regular feeding times; grandparents start to call more often. Strangers coo as they peer into the stroller, and the most reckless driver slows way, way down when a bicycle towing a Burley is riding on the street.

We’re so glad you’re here tonight, with or without a baby, and though it might be presumptuous, I would say that all of us are here tonight because of a baby. You might disagree with that. Maybe you’re here because your mom made you come. Maybe you’re here because you miss your mom or another beloved person has passed, and you know nothing would have delighted them more than sitting with you in church on Christmas Eve. Maybe you’re here because you love the ceremony of carols and candles. Maybe you’re here because it is a culturally appropriate thing to attend a church on December 24. And maybe, just maybe, you’re here because of The Baby. Whatever the reason for your presence here tonight, welcome.

Babies bring out the best and the worst in us. Some of it is biological, that protective urge we have for the young. In her book Small Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver tells the true story of a sixteen-month old toddler in Iran who wandered from home. For hours the villagers searched for the child. Eventually they found him, in a cave, in a cave that was the den of a bear. When they found the child, the mother bear was nursing the baby and protecting him from the intruders in her home. As Kingsolver writes, “What does it mean? How is it possible that a huge, hungry bear would take a pitifully small, delicate human child to her breast rather than rip him into food? … You could read this story and declare “impossible,” even though many witnesses have sworn it’s true. Or …you could think of all that and say, Of course the bear nursed the baby. He was crying from hunger, she had milk. Small wonder.”

Babies do that to us – draw maternal instincts from women and men and even wild animals. Babies do that to us – unless we’re on a six-hour cross-country flight and we’re sitting next to one who is crying, or spitting up, or needs a diaper change when the “fasten seat belt” light is shining. They bring out the best and the worst in us, and the Christ Child is no different.

The Christmas story is perfect, in a way: a simple story with stock characters, all the wonder and exhaustion a newborn brings, cute farm animals flanking the Holy Family. And this child, lying in a manger, this child who brings out the best in us – all our hopes, all our graces. But for some this child is neither blessing nor annoyance but a threat. Kings want him dead. Governors will want him tried and crucified. This child represents not innocence but power and an end of the old regime. So much on a little baby’s shoulders; thank heavens babies are strong.

But the point of the Christmas story is not the strength of the Christ child. Really, the point of the Christmas story is just the opposite: that God, the Omnipotent Creator, came to earth as a baby – a helpless, wee little baby. That, in the words of the apostle Paul, God chose what was weak and foolish to confound the strong and the wise. That God became as vulnerable as an infant so that God might know what it meant to be human.

I think about that bear in the story Barbara Kingsolver tells, if in a way we’re not a bit like that bear when it comes to the infant Christ: wild, in a way, ferocious in our limited humanness, mistrusting of others, and yet innately aware of our job to protect this little life. But God needs no protecting; it is we who need God.

When I was younger, living in my parents’ home or visiting them at Christmas, I used to hide the baby Jesus in our family nativity. He would show up in the middle of the centerpiece on the dining room table, or on top of the paper towel roll, or sometimes in the junk drawer that we all have in the kitchen. It drove my mother crazy, especially when my siblings and in-laws joined in in the game. I know there are some people who don’t set baby Jesus in the nativities until Christmas Eve, but that’s not what this was about. It was about mischief, and having fun trying to find where someone hid Baby Jesus, and (truth be told) about making my poor mom just a little more frazzled at Christmas.

But I wonder if maybe in another way we hide the baby Jesus. If we looked for him, could we find him in the manger, or is he somewhere else? Have we hidden him, or has he left his usual place so that he can go out to meet us where we are? He goes out to us, confined not within the walls of a stable or even a church, but to places where no one would expect a baby much less a savior. He goes to the dusty corner of a funeral chapel, where we sit rent from grief. He goes to the tents of refugees in camps that look like cities, there amid those who must find a new home. He goes to wait in line for a bowl of soup, or a pair of warm socks. He goes to the stoop where children won’t sit for fear of being victims of a drive by shooting. He goes to the prison cells where the guilty wait for nothing. He goes to the ICU room where a beloved lies unconscious and unrecognizable because of all the tubes and machines. He goes to houses that don’t know his name.

He leaves the place we expect to find him so that he might find us.

A physician friend of mine and I were talking about biology, about how extraordinary conception and birth are on a purely scientific level. They are near-miracles, given all the things that need to happen in order for life to begin. My friend commented that labor is hard, not just hard for the mother, but for the baby as well. I wonder if labor was hard for God. I wonder if it was hard to put on the mantle of flesh and bone, to limit speech to mere cries and mews, to become small and soft. It was a labor of love, of course, for God to become a human child, sent to our dens where each day we choose to seek this God, or not. And if we choose not to seek, not to follow, if we leave and wander off, we are neither lost nor hidden. We are found and loved.

May the Christ Child bless you, and find you, and know you. Amen.

12 06 077

In Praise of Church Musicians

musicYesterday afternoon I was getting out of my car in the church parking lot, there to go Christmas caroling to some of our homebound members.  A parishioner was getting into his car, having finished up a little celebration of some sort or another.  He commented that I was back after a busy morning, and said he wondered when we clergy types get to worship and soak in the beauty and meaning of Advent and Christmas.

That was kind of him, but he is a kind person so I expect nothing less from him.  I told him that we find ways, that when someone else is preaching or praying, or when the choir is singing, we let go of all the leader-stuff we’re supposed to be done and find a tidbit of worship.

Truth be told, pastors have it a whole lot easier than church musicians.  (Disclaimer: my brother is a church musician, and a university music professor, and conducts lots of choirs, so I am a little biased about this whole thing.)

Very very few church musicians have just one job; very few churches can afford a full-time director of music or organist or choir director who gets a good salary and full benefits.  Most church musicians have at least three jobs, differing choirs, and December becomes a weary blur of concerts and recitals and eggnog (if they’re lucky.)

I have been blessed to work with amazing church musicians.  Just yesterday, our choir sang one of my favorite pieces of music – Chesnokov’s “Salvation Is Created” – as the prelude, followed by an incredible a cappella anthem, with drums, the African “Betelehemu”, followed by a Rutter anthem using the words of a 16th century poem, followed by a beautiful choral response to the Welsh tune Ar Hyd y Nos.  As if that weren’t enough, our organist and assistant organist played a four-hand, four-foot postlude.  Really, who needs a sermon when you can have all of that?

So today, I tip my hat, I bow, and I thank all the church musicians, and special nod to those with whom I have worked over the years, and to the one I have known my whole life: Allen, Tom, Emily, Allan, Will, Marion, Rudy, Liz, Chris, Lee, Frances, Paula, Todd, Jenee, Debbie, Jeff, Michael, Leslie, Si, Linda, Anne, and my dear Tommy: thank you for making happen what the mere spoken word cannot.  Thank you for reminding us that the morning stars sang together at the beginning of all things.  Thank you for sharing your talent, for the countless hours, and the patience, and the sheer endurance of it all.  Come the 26th, put your feet up and rest, for heaven’s sake!

Gloria in excelsis Deo!


Door-AjarToday, after lunch after worship, I went to one of our senior living communities to preside over our monthly communion there.  I love doing that – extending the morning’s table to a group of our saints who can’t make it to the church in the morning.  For some, it’s too hard to physically get into the van that brings them to church, and then too hard to climb even a few stairs.  For others, one hour-ish is just too long to sit in a less than comfortable pew with restrooms too far away.

So we take church to them, gladly.  Two retired clergy who live in this place, and who worship with us regularly, organize the whole thing and I appreciate that.  These two guys could easily play Statler and Waldorf – the old Muppets commentating in the balcony. They love to make cranky observations about church, but I’ve learned as I watch them minister to the saints at communion that you only have to dust off that fine powder of curmudgeon to discover some sweet and compassionate men.

When I arrived at our communion place, which is also where people gather to watch movies and assemble jigsaw puzzles, one of the deacons told me that a regular wasn’t feeling well enough to join the group; could we take communion to her?  Of course.  As we went to her room, we passed one room where a church member recently died.  Farther down the hall, we passed the room where that woman’s husband died a year or so earlier.  Other people now live in those rooms.

It was odd passing those rooms where I spent a few very intense hours as they lay dying.  It’s odd that other people live there now.  It’s odd that those place which were so holy during those dying days are now rooms for another purpose.  Is the holinesss still there?  Or did it leave with the soul of the departed?

After communion I stopped by the hospital to visit another member who has been unconscious in the intensive care unit for ten days now.  She’s another saint of the church.  At 93, she’s been taking French lesson.  As I entered the ICU, I passed by the room where a member was recovering from a stroke.  She has since passed, but I remember the conversations she and I had in that room, and the prayers shared there with family and friends.

So I’m feeling a bit haunted today; haunted by the memory of people who have died, haunted in spaces they inhabited, haunted not so much by their death but by their absence.  It’s odd to feel haunted on the first day of Advent.  Of all the things this season is about, mourning loss or even just remembering it doesn’t quite fit the bill.  It’s a season of light and dark, of portents and hope, of God breaking into the world.  It’s not about our breaking out of the world, or about emptiness.

But maybe it is.  Maybe Advent is about loss, in a way – the loss of the old way of doing things, the loss of the old understanding of how God does things. And maybe it’s a little okay to be haunted by that.