Thanks be to the custodians

mopAfter we all leave the church building on Christmas Eve – after the old friends who grew up here reconnect and go over to Broadway to find a place to have a drink together; after the choir trundles back downstairs to hang up their robes and put away their candles (you will put away your candles, won’t you?) and says ‘see you in the morning’; after the pastors hang up our robes and collect the sweet little gift bags that make their way to the office; after the deacons scour the pews and find some bulletins and a glasses case and hopefully no one’s cell phone – after we all leave this building on Christmas Eve, our faithful custodian will still be there.

We will say good night to him, of course, and thank you, and see you in the morning and do you want us to stay with you till you’re done, but he will say no. No, I’m fine.
And then I imagine he will double check the other building and turn off some stray lights. He’ll make sure the Christmas tree lights are unplugged, as well as the lights on the wreath in the balcony, and that the sound system is off. He’ll make sure the candles are really, truly extinguished. He may restock the paper goods in the restrooms. He probably won’t vacuum , and that’s fine. He’ll check the building to make sure everyone has left, and he’ll turn off the final lights, and set the alarm, and make his way home an hour after all the rest of us.

I am grateful to the custodians, the ones who work at our church and all the custodians, who are the first to come and the last to go, the ones who turn the lights on and off, the ones who do the cleaning that most of us don’t want to do, the ones who fix dripping pipes and restock supplies, the ones who sweat or freeze down in the boiler room when the dang thing won’t work (again), who graciously receive all our complaints with the patience of Job.

There is something holy in that work, don’t you think? There’s something in all those tasks that seem so mundane that echoes the divine a bit. Think about it. The first to show up and the last to leave. The one who cleans up the messes. The one who hears all the complaints with an expansive heart. The one who makes sure our spaces are safe and warm and welcoming with the most pragmatic of things.

Sometimes I wonder if when Jesus comes back, he won’t seek out all the custodians and janitors and sextons first. They know. They know what it’s like to be a bit lonely in work whose scope is hard to appreciate by lay folk like you and me; they know what it’s like to clean up messes that we thoughtlessly left behind. They, like him, are the ones who are often unseen, unacknowledged, unappreciated.

At Christmas we appreciate Jesus very much. We are so glad he was born, not simply because it gives us a chance to celebrate. We appreciate Jesus because he did something he didn’t have to do: he put on the mantle of human flesh, as that saying goes; he limited the divine unlimitedness to know us and save us, however we understand those verbs. We appreciate that little Lord asleep on the hay, that infant so tender and mild, the one whom shepherds greet with anthems sweet.

We appreciate him less during other parts of the year, as the snow melts and carols are replaced by love songs or Irish jigs or “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” or whatever seasonal song needs to blast away in the elevator. We acknowledge Jesus less in July. He’s still at work, healing, cleaning up after us, receiving all the complaints. So maybe we can work on acknowledging him a bit more in July or September or Groundhog’s Day.

In the meantime, think about those janitors and custodians:  the ones at church and the school janitors, Lord love them; the folks who clean up airplanes, especially after a trans-continental flight; the ones in hospitals and nursing homes and stadiums. If you’re so moved, seek one out. Say thank you.

It’s a holy thing to do for someone who does holy work.

Christmas Eve at the cemetery

Arlington-without-Christmas-wreathsIt was such a brief scene as I drove by: a man pulled over on the side of the road, standing on a hillside that was dotted with in-ground gravestones, standing in front of one that was decorated with some red and white flowers – carnations, maybe.  I saw him for only a few seconds, and I wondered why he was there, standing on the muddy ground in the rain.

Was that his mother, his wife, his best friend, his brother?  Why that moment?

The chiaroscuro of the season always gets to me: life’s way of creating shadows so that the candlelight seems all the more bright; life’s way of creating drama about everyday things, like visiting a cemetery, or pulling over on the side of the road in the rain.

In my first six years of ministry, I conducted a funeral or memorial service every year on December 23rd, or 24th, or 26th.  Ruth, age 84.  Jean, age 81.  Gene, age 78.  Faith, age 85. Maybelle, age 79.  Bob, age 89.  I would often use the texts about Simeon and Anna for those service, old people who died knowing the full consolation of Israel and the promised savior.

But still.  Standing at the cemetery on Christmas Eve – it makes your heart break a little, when you get back into your car and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” is the first thing that comes on the radio, and then some idiot passes you by with a loud blare of his horn because you’ve slowed down, because you can’t really drive very well with the tears flooding your eyes.

A friend of mine let me know I won’t see her on Christmas Eve; it’s a hard time right now, and she didn’t think everyone around her would appreciate her tears.  It is bleak, this midwinter, and for us in Portland is has been gray and sodden.  There are other  people I won’t see at church on Christmas Eve.  Some leave town to be with whatever family is still left.  Some will be full with a feast and wine, sleeping through our carols and candlelight.  And some will just stay home, because all the songs and all the twinkling trees cannot fill the well of sadness that’s taken squatter’s rights in the heart these days.  But there are many I will see, there because they have joy to share, or questions they seek answers for, or because they love to sing in the candlelight, or because their Mom made them come, or because this is their community, and of course they’ll be there on Christmas Eve.

A church I used to be a part of has Easter sunrise services at the cemetery every year.  I wonder what it would be like to have a Christmas Eve service at the cemetery – too Dickensian, waiting for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to show up?  Too morbid, like the Zombie Nativity that’s made a few headlines?  Or too real – the presence of death even as we celebrate birth?

The mind goes to T.S. Eliot, who often gets the last word with me.  From “The Journey of the Magi”

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

And still:  a warm Christmas to you, whatever that may mean.easter-candle

Holding fast to the good: Christmas Eve

Haring-Life-of-Christ-Altarpiece-500One of the readers of this blog recently commented that a few of my recent posts have been a bit on the down side, and as I looked over them, I realized she was right.  I have been in a bit of a professional funk, which happens.  I tend to be a glass-half-full kind of person, evidenced by the title of this blog.  The funk needs some personal reflection and you all don’t need to be a part of that.  But I have encouraged myself not only to hold fast to what is good, but to look for what is good, and to share some stories of good news.  So here’s one of those stories.  (And those in it gave me their permission to tell it.)

Our later Christmas Eve service is a beautiful thing.  Our choir sings like the angels.  Our deacons are on it, hospitable with first-timers, alert when all the candles are lit, staying late to clean up afterwards.  The worship committee has worked hard on decorations and details.  But the management of all that falls on me as the pastor for worship.  Do the pastors and ushers have their big candles?  Will the lights go out in the right order at the right time?  Did we print enough bulletins? Did our communion team put the elements in the loft for the choir? Did I remember to remind our congressman that the service starts an hour earlier than it used to, so he won’t show up an hour late?  All of which is to say that sometimes it’s hard to get in the mood for worship when all those details are swirling around in my head.

But I do try to set those details aside; at some point what will happen will happen because of or in spite of all our planning.  And Christmas Eve is so beautiful in the necessary sort of way, even magical for some.  And I love Incarnation maybe more than I love Resurrection.  So here’s a bit of Incarnation reality on Christmas Eve.

Like almost every other church, we light Advent candles for the weeks leading up to Christmas, and on Christmas Eve we light the three purples, the pink, and the big white Christ candle.  We usually ask our new members, folks who have joined in the last year, to light the candles as a way to include them and introduce them.  This Christmas Eve two of our new members were the lighter/readers.  One a soprano from the choir, and one a transgender woman who came to know us because of a tragedy – the murder of a friend of hers who was a member of our church.  They carried out their roles with aplomb and grace and poise.

We pastors processed in during the prelude, and as I settled in and tried to rid my brain of the detaily things and the gnats of minutia, I watched the people come in.  Some I knew; many I didn’t, but there is a joy to watching people come in because it’s Christmas Eve and they want to be in church.  Arriving just a minute or so late were some other new members: a lovely woman and her son who is physically disabled and in a large motorized wheelchair, her best friend, her sister-in-law, and his nurse.  We don’t have a good space for folks in wheelchairs, so they came up and sat in the front row.

As I watched them settle in, I realized that because we were having communion by intinction, everyone who came up would pass by this family as they returned to their pews.  I wondered if it would be hard for some to see this young man in his wheelchair, if for some there is an expectation that everything is pretty and “normal” on Christmas Eve, if the sight of this man would be jarring.  I hoped not, because I know him a little, and because I know that the sight of him in his chair doesn’t begin to capture his personality or his mind, or the love this family has for each other.

Three weeks later, as I think about Christmas Eve and those who were a part of the service, I think we got something right.  Maybe the lights didn’t go out quite right, maybe my meditation was a little more depressing than I had intended, but we got at least one thing right: people who in the past would have been shunned at church were not only welcomed, they were front and center, a part of things.  Because if there is one thing to take away from that stable in Bethlehem, it is that everyone has a place there.  And I will hold fast to that.

“Remembering the stable where for once in our lives

Everything became a You and nothing was an It.

(W.H. Auden, For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio)

On the park bench, Christmas Eve

(This was my Christmas Eve meditation a few years back.  Generally, I don’t think most sermons have much staying power, and maybe I’m being a little sentimental, but I think I may have gotten something right with this one.  A blessed Christmas, and gracious holiday to you.)

park-bench-1340697334wtQThere once was an old man whom, this evening, we will call Joe. Joe was single, never married, didn’t date much. He was an only child and his parents were gone, and he was a bit crotchety, which is to say he was all alone in the world. He had long since retired from a job which brought him a modest income, a few acquaintances, and no friends.

In his retirement he spent his days as he pleased – checking the morning headlines, washing up the coffee cup and cereal bowl. He’d run the few errands he had, get the daily special soup at the diner counter, run a few more errands. Late afternoon would find him on a park bench, alone. It was always the same bench, in the northwest part of the park, near a sidewalk but blissfully far away from the children’s playground. He would sit there, all alone, and with a fair amount of disinterest, he would watch the world go by.

Most days, that was enough for old Joe. Once in a while he would break his routine – he’d give a smile to the cashier as she handed him his change, or he’d bark at the server who overfilled his coffee cup. Most days his routine was enough. But every so often as he’d sit all alone on that park bench, a terrible melancholy would overtake him. That happens sometimes at dusk – babies instinctively cry and the colic worsens, or harassed parents, home from work, stress out as they try to transition from employee to chief cook and bottle washer. Every so often, as he sat on that bench at dusk, Joe would be overcome by a sadness he could not name, and all he wanted, in those anguished few moments, was for someone to come sit next to him. They didn’t have to talk, process feelings, make a plan to have dinner. All he wanted was company, a companion to sit with at dusk after years of going through life all alone.

As the seasons changed, Joe would change his routine ever so slightly and unconsciously so that he was always on the bench at dusk, be it a winter’s 4:00 or summer’s 8:00. The years passed, and the spasms of melancholy grew more frequent, and Joe, already so miserable in his aloneness, became all the more brittle, and a little desperate. He tried ways to make the bench inviting. He’d move the newspaper he’d been carrying around, as if to say, this seat isn’t being saved for anyone. He’d brush off the leaves. Once he even wiped off the residue from the pigeons – all to no avail. For whatever reason, no one ever sat by Joe.

Maybe passers-by feared that his loneliness was contagious, and they hurried past him so as not to catch it. Maybe after years of trying to smile and say hello only to be rebuffed, people stopped trying. Maybe after sitting on that same bench in the same park at the same time, year after year, Joe became invisible, the way the guy on the corner with the cardboard sign “Will work for food” becomes invisible. Whatever the reason, no one ever sat by Joe.

He could’ve died on that bench, so deep was the melancholy, so profound the despair, so pointed the loneliness he could no longer avoid. He wondered if that’s how he would end up – forgotten and ignored, sitting there one minute and dead there the next, without a soul to notice that his life had ended. He wondered if there would ever be anyone who would care. He wondered if he would live out however many days he had left sitting alone at dusk on that park bench.

There may be some here tonight who have felt like Joe at some time in their lives, or who feel like Joe every day. There may be some here tonight who know someone like Joe, some who have passed him by, some who understand how the relentless pain of another becomes invisible. There may be some here tonight who wonder how this story will end, and some who believe they know how it will end.

Tonight, on this night we have chosen to call holy, this is what I know: Our world has been like Joe, battling melancholy. The children of our world have known isolation; they have known what it’s like to be ignored or forgotten; they have felt, deep in their bones, what it is like to be alone. The children of the world have been battered, if not by loneliness or apathy, then by poverty or violence or forces beyond their control that have made them grow up too soon.

Our world has been like Joe, going through the same routines day after day without reason or purpose. The people of the world have known what it is to live by rote, to live in that routine of work and play and rest, of work and shopping and rest, of work and shopping and entertainment, confusing shopping and entertainment with godly play and holy rest. Our world has been like Joe, desperately trying to make that park bench a little more palatable, aching to have someone simply sit down next to us. We have feared the stranger, the other, for so long that it seems too late to make amends for our isolating tendencies. For so long we have sat on our proverbial benches waiting for someone to come to us, never venturing off to go to someone else.

Tonight, on this night we have chosen to call holy, this is what I know: That the miracle of the incarnation might be described as God coming to sit down next to us on our park bench. Because while we might have forgotten or ignored all the Joes of the world, God hasn’t forgotten. God cannot ignore this world that was created by deep love. God will not forsake this world so plagued by fear and greed and pride. God will not turn a blind eye to the pain of the world’s children.

Ours is a visited planet, as the Bible scholar J. B. Phillips once said. Ours is a visited planet, which is to say that God is no theist watchmaker kind of God, setting the world a-ticking and then moving on. Ours is a visited planet, but not in the way you or I might want to visit Tuscany or the Grand Canyon. Our is a visited planet, in the way we might want to sit and visit with a beloved grandmother who died, whose advice and date pinwheel cookies we still crave; the way we might want to visit with our best friend who’s doing his best to beat cancer; the way we might want to visit forever with a child or parent or sibling who is wedged deeply in our hearts.

That is how God has visited with us: with the love a Creator has for his creation, with the love a mother has for her child. Why God would choose to do this is beyond my ken, and all that I know on this night we have chosen to call holy is that it has something to do with love. And this love transformed God (if we could say God is transformable) from being a mere visitor to being an inhabitant of the world, like we are. God visited us, and came to us, and became one of us so that you and I and all the Joes of the world would know that we are not alone.

On this holy night, it is as though Joe is sitting on the park bench again. He has put his paper in the recycling can; he has brushed away the pigeons’ offering. He has waited for the light to dim, once again, alone. But this dusk, this time, this holy time, Someone sits down next to him. He just sits down with Joe, and Joe is not alone. We are not alone; we are loved. Thanks be to God.

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.

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