First Sunday in Advent 2014

Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Mark 13

So this is not an easy passage to understand. One minute, Jesus is saying “truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place and in the next, he acknowledges he doesn’t know either the day or the hour of that cataclysmic event.

Now, the questions about the rapture, or the second coming, are intriguing and they have the capacity to get people really stirred up. Towards the end of 1971, I was a little girl in Colombia when there was all this brouhaha about how the Rapture would happen, I believe on January 15, 1972. I know it was a Saturday. People got more and more worked up. That morning, at about 6, someone came and banged on the front door before anyone in my family had gotten up. It was our neighbor, a widow who lived alone and was distraught. She’d decided she couldn’t stand to face the Rapture by herself and would stay with us for that moment.

Somehow, her showing up made the possibility of the Rapture far more real and terribly scary for my brothers and me. My parents were gracious with our neighbor and took turns trying to explain that they didn’t believe there’d be anything special about that day. As the hours passed by and then actually started to drag, I’d see my mom rolling her eyes at my dad. Finally, after 11 that night, our neighbor decided the Rapture might not happen that day after all, and asked my dad to walk her home.

Here’s something else I have learned about our concern with the Rapture—it is easier for us to keep hoping and waiting for it to come so God can fix everything that’s wrong, than it is to do some of the harder work of being faithful disciples who work in the fields of the kingdom of God. We want to forget that we live in what someone has called “the meantime”.

“Keep awake.” “Stay alert.” “Be on watch.”  If all that means is we scour the news daily for the kinds of signs that will tell us the end is near, the work may be scary, but it is easy. Somehow, I don’t think Jesus is asking us to do that. There is too much in the rest of the Gospel that has to do with the work of loving a broken world here and now.

In the meantime, how do you stay awake to all those realities about our world that we wish God would fix with a magic wand? What are we to be on watch for, to stay alert to?

This year those questions have particular resonance for me. I have rediscovered cold mornings. I already thought my bed was pretty great but these days? MMmmmboy. I am very fond of the quilt on our bed and  it is the absolute, perfect, weight for these fall-into-winter days. Our sheets are old enough to be that wonderful cotton soft. My pillows are just right so there isn’t a single ache or pain in my body as I wake up. I lie in the warmth of my cocoon not moving one muscle, doing everything I can to prolong that moment of perfect comfort as long as I possibly can. As I learned to say from my husband, I love my bed.  But if I am going to stay awake, I must get out of my bed.

Sherod and I decided to get out of the rat race, out of the constant stress and anxiety of the complex ministry in the Southeast Florida that was consuming and robbing us of all joy and hope. Here in Lowndesboro we have unplugged from the Internet and the 24-hour cycle of news and stopped often to look, to breathe deep, to allow wonder to find its way back into our lives. That is both a gift and a temptation.

When Jesus says, “stay awake”, I am convinced that on the one hand he is invites us to see—really see, with eyes filled with wonder—the amazing creation that surrounds us. I imagine that for those of you who have lived here big parts of your life, it is easy to take all this beauty for granted. But this place is an invitation to marvel at rolling hills and bales of hay, the Black-eyed Susans, the Popcorn trees and the Nandina as its berries turn that brilliant red, the Ginko tree as it flames in glory one last time before its leaves fall off.

The temptation anyone who lives in a little slice of heaven like this must struggle with constantly is that we all want to draw the circle of our life as small as necessary to stay safe and comfortable. Today’s Gospel challenges that impluse. We are called to stay awake, to be alert to God’s presence and the ways in which God may be moving towards us from the most unexpected and sometimes difficult places.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned off the TV or radio when stuff about Ferguson came up since the summer. Missouri is a long way away from here, and all I want to do is finish making and canning my apple butter and getting my house and my heart ready for Christmas. But it has been clear that just getting out of bed, waking up each day, meant I couldn’t turn away.

My stepson Charlie—the finest young man one could be honored to know—is a law enforcement officer who just had a colleague killed in the line of duty outside of Tallahassee this past week. Neither his wife, nor his dad, nor anyone who loves him, can bear to spend much time contemplating how often he is in harm’s way and how easily our world could come crashing in on us because all he does is get up and go to work in the morning.

The person I work most closely with, Ron, is a priest like me. He was even ordained in the same year as I was. Ron is also an African American man who grew up in Detroit. We travel together often and in September, over dinner one night, I heard and saw the agony with which he described his fear every time his son, who isn’t even a teenager yet, goes out with his friends.

I am trying to listen more than talk these days. Each of these two men I care for and respect, holds a set of truths that seems to be completely at odds with the other. As I try to see how the pieces can fit, how we can move beyond this place of such deep fear, mistrust and brokenness, I feel incredibly impotent and powerless. So helpless that there’s a part of me that desperately wants to beg God for the Rapture to come, come now and let me off the hook for solving problems this complex and intractable.

Although I want that easy fix, what if God wants something else? What if staying awake is about hanging in long enough with tough problems so our hardened hearts are softened, so we become more willing to work for life-giving peace, mercy and justice? What if staying alert will allow us to see more clearly how the Spirit is present everywhere and goes where it will, to bring grace and hope into the world and replace cynicism with joy? What if, as we keep watch, we become more able to take the risk to love and forgive in ways that bring God’s kingdom closer to fulfillment?

We enter into the season of our Lord’s birth in the midst of sorrow. We stop for these next four weeks to remember that light shines forth out of the greatest darkness. We ponder once again how the wail of a little boy being born in great poverty on a deep, dark night two thousand years ago is the beginning of a magnificent new work of creation that continues today and extends into a future more filled with possibility than we dare consider.

We long for the rapture, we pray for relief and newness, and still, we must press on, do the work of discipleship. Because in the meantime, we are to follow the example of the one who came into the world as a tiny baby and never, in all his earthly ministry, ceased to do the work of the kingdom, the work of love in the now, in the meantime.

Venn Diagrams

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Yesterday, I spent a rather silly amount of time setting the Thanksgiving table, even pulling out my mother and grandmother’s sterling butter knives. Sherod mostly puts up with the silliness though it means little to him. Then we sat, each of us at each end of the table, and had a marvelous meal with our children, grandchildren and three friends who knew Sherod and Charlie when Charlie was a little boy–in fact, Sherod and his first wife and children spent summer vacations with Pat, Larry and Brett. Sherod and I now share a meal with these new-old friends most Sunday evenings.

This morning, I was up at a bit before four and sat with my stepson while we both drank coffee. We are both early risers. He was up especially early to spend the day deer hunting. By mid morning, Sherod had decided he was going to join Charlie for the afternoon part of the hunt. It’s been close to twenty years since Sherod’s done that. We often talked in Ft Lauderdale about how he’d lost interest in hunting, no longer willing to kill a creature so easily. It was clear to me yesterday, and even more today, how deep the bonds are between father and son, and how formative these kinds of days have been for both of them. Sherod has come home in so many and such profound ways.

I can’t say that days like today and pictures like this are all that easy for me. I know I will enjoy bowls of venison chili this winter. I had no doubt that it was important for Charlie and Sherod to go do this thing. I am just keenly aware that it is a part of the circle of his life I stand on the outside of–just as he looks in on much of what still defines me, like the butter knives I stood and polished for over an hour on Tuesday. The mystery of the Venn Diagram that constitutes a marriage…

Advent 2014

Kyrie/Letanía de Alabanza

My priest friend Joe faces another round of surgery and then significant time rehabilitating with a third new knee. It means that I will walk with the community of St. Paul’s through Advent, Christmas and into the season of Epiphany. I could not ask for a more gracious and kind community to be with.

There are all kinds of small graces and gifts in this time. I love Advent. This year, I am so thoroughly aware of the seasons, liturgical and solar. Today, the rain has fallen steadily, much welcomed and necessary. It is not terribly cold but completely overcast and damp, a true fall-into-winter kind of day.   The sun will set at 4:42 but as overcast as the day is, by 4 or 4:30 it will be dark.   Those advent candles are powerful in this kind of darkness.

I laughingly told someone that this is a girl-priest thing: I am delighted that I will get to use my Advent stole, my most favorite stole of all. I will also spend time, four weeks in a row, with the women of the parish and the narratives of the Annunciation and the Visitation to Elizabeth. How will those stories intersect with the lives of a group of women I am just getting to know and how will they intersect with my life, in this new place? I can’t know now, but I have the certainty that by the time Christmas Eve arrives, they and I will have grown some small bit further into the “fullness of Christ”.

Last Sunday, before the service, a couple of people showed me around the parish offices and hall. We went from room to room, each with its own history of joy, some rooms with reminders of significant, heart breaking loss. The very last room we stopped in has a safe in it. One of the people with me went into the safe and brought out a fabric-bound box, about 18” x 10”. Carefully, he took out the parish Registry Book that first starts back to the 1850’s. Every single baptism that has been celebrated in this church is recorded there, along with the weddings and funerals and confirmations. We stopped on one page that showed that there had been a large number of baptisms on a single day. In the section where you normally enter the names of the parents of the baptized, all it said next to all those names was “adult”. The parishioner explained that that meant that each of the baptized was a slave.

I have carried that moment in my heart since last week.   History is very thin in Southeast Florida. Houses are torn down and new ones put up over and over again. Something 100 years old is ancient. I preached at All Saints on one of the Sundays of Advent last year. I already knew it was the last service I would ever be a part of there and I had a keen sense of the passage of time. It had been quite a while since I had preached from that pulpit and when I got up and looked out at the congregation, though I knew many people, I realized it was practically a new congregation. Sherod and I can look back on the 16 years he was there and define three almost distinct congregations he served in. My time with El Centro, and then St. Ambrose was more brief, and the Latino community was even more transitory than at All Saints. A number of people left and quite a number of people of St. Ambrose died while I served there. It was hard to have a sense of history.

As I pondered the Registry Book at St. Paul’s, as I thought about those names recorded on its pages and the other stories contained in the room where it is stored, a room named after a young person who died tragically a few years ago, I was so mindful of what it means to live in a place where history is not denied, not erased and not easily forgotten, in fact, where history matters.

I will walk with the folks of St. Paul’s for a time. I hope I will be able to make some small difference. But I also know that one of the things that is already different about me is a desire to learn what history might have to teach me. There is a sense of waiting and anticipation—a marked change for one who has been used to going into places with all kinds of plans and ideas and notions. I look forward to getting to read the Registry Book with some care—say names out loud of people who came before me, who have made this place what it is. In a sense, that Registry tells the story of humankind—hope and despair, darkness and light all woven together—almost as surely as the Book of Genesis.

Two years ago at St. Ambrose, we launched an experiment in bicultural liturgy during the Season of Advent. Instead of the Gloria at the beginning of the service, we sang a piece that goes to the heart of what I understand about this season—it is called “Kyrie/Letanía de Alabanza (Litany of Praise)”. It’s how I live, how I suspect most of us live, most of the time: asking for mercy, lifting our song of praise and thanksgiving almost in the same breath. In this season, in this little town far out of the way, we will be hope and longing made flesh. We will try to remain awake for the coming of the Messiah. Lord have mercy…

Te alabamos Señor (We praise you, Oh Lord)
Tú nos das agua viva, (You give us living water)
Señor ten piedad (Lord have mercy)
Kyrie, kyrie, kyrie eleision

We praise you Oh Lord
You open our eyes
Christ have mercy
Criste, Criste, Criste eleison

Te alabamos Señor, (We praise you, Oh Lord)
Tú nos das vida eternal (You give us life eternal)
Señor, ten piedad (Lord, have mercy)
Kyrie, kyrie, kyrie eleision

Bob Hurd, Composer

A place to go

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When it started getting so bitterly cold, we faced the dilemma of our semi-feral cat, Dot. She likes to come into the house for a while at a time but is obviously not a house cat. She could probably become one pretty quickly if it weren’t for our other sweet cat, Spot. Spot and Dot do not like each other. Thus, having her sleep in the house was really not an option. She is not fond of the garage either.

A cat-loving friend pointed me to an easy-to-make cat shelter (http://www.erubbermaid.com/roughneck-homes) and as a result, Dot has a place to go, out of the cold, when she needs to.

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There’s also the tack room close to the big house, with it’s sweet smelling hay and warm corners, the old broken-down freezer full of oats for the horses. When the sun comes in as it sets, the room, with its red walls, glows and there’s this strong sense of safety and hospitableness in there too. Feeling the warmth in the tack room even now, with the cold season upon us and the sun going down so early, getting Dot’s shelter made, both got me thinking about having a place to go. Of course, the need is most acute this time of the year, but we all need it, don’t we, a place to go?

When Sherod and I bought this small farm, part of what made us decide to get it was the space.  We have enough room to welcome people even for fairly extended visits without feeling pushed up or hemmed in. We hope that folks who need a chance to catch their breath, who would like the quiet and solitude that makes writing, or simply praying and reflecting possible, will come stay with us a for a spell.

Our friends Frank and Roberta were already here. On Sunday, our dear friends, Mike and Mary, are going to sleep over on their way from Indiana to Mobile. Wednesday, Maria, Charlie, Penny, Grace and Robert will be here and our friends Pat, Larry and Brett will join us for some turkey-lurkey the next day. I have been slowly doing the tasks of welcome–polishing some silver, cleaning bathrooms, making up the beds and opening windows wide to let the fresh air in now that it’s warmed up again. Our fancy new oven has quit working and it is highly questionable whether or not we will have a working oven by Thanksgiving.  That’s OK–I’ve figured out I can cook the dressing in my slow cooker and I will get to bake the pecan pie and roast the turkey over at St Paul’s, Lowndesboro.  Our friend Pat will bring other deliciousness with her and we will not miss the oven for a minute.  Friends from Florida  are making noises about heading this way later in the holiday season and my dad in the late spring. All that too is wonderful to anticipate.

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It isn’t just that we all need a place to go.  It’s that we can be that place too.

It’s Cold!

When I got up this morning, the thermometer said it was 27 degrees outside and 54 degrees inside.  It’s going to be even colder tonight.  The wind is blowing pretty fiercely so I am sure with the windchill factor, it’s quite brisk.  I had forgotten.  I had forgotten the colors.

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My dog Daisy comes in from outside with the zooms, zooming around the house and stopping to look at me and bark.  I had forgotten how the cold perks things up.  I had forgotten what it’s like to get up in a cold house, light (or, as I sheepishly must confess, turn on, since what we have is a gas fireplace) the fire and feel warmth start curling around me.  I had forgotten how seductive it is to settle into a comfortable chair and read on a day like today.

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I have lots of work so I have resisted the temptation, eaten my oatmeal and checked my to-do list.  I just needed to say though–these days fill me with joy.