The Take Down

The multi-colored lights still hang off the front edge of my roof, and nets of the same still blanket the shrubs below. My Christmas tree is up, and there are still things underneath it. Most of the gifts have found their way into their permanent places, but a few boxes and baskets remain – to the great delight of my two cats who relish sleeping in them. That this is the state of things on January 15th is strange – Christmas is usually stowed in the attic a couple of days past Epiphany.

But this isn’t a usual year. Pandemic deaths and hospitalizations are at record levels; there are thousands of National Guard soldiers camped in the Capitol, and a threat of violence hangs over the capitols of all fifty states; the deaths of my father-in-law and a dear friend brought loss and sharp-edged grief into our everyday lives which cannot be marked and lessened with shared prayers, services, and meals. There’s a heaviness to this time weighing on my body, mind, and soul: is that why the tree still stands? I can’t say.

This morning, I opened the curtains, fed the cats, and greeted the light of a new day. Looking at the tree and all the work it represents, something shifted. Instead of boxing ornaments and lights as quickly as possible, I’m going to turn the take down into a spiritual practice. I’ll remember the Christmases past that each ornament represents; I’ll remember holiday gatherings with my father-in-law, Bob, and be grateful for his presence. I’ll recall the Christmas day that Ben and his wife Lena dropped by – and the laughs we shared over the mess of Matchboxes, Legos, wrapping paper, and ribbon that surrounded us. When all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas 2020 are gone, I’ll do something I haven’t had the heart to do yet: give Bob and Ben back to God with love and gratitude.

As for life beyond my own door: I can’t cure the pandemic, but I can certainly make sure I’m doing my part to lessen its damage; I can’t prevent mob violence, but I can do my part to act firmly and wisely, and avoid embittering and embarrassing others.

Love God, love self, and love neighbor. It shouldn’t surprise me that it comes down to this once again. But sometimes, it does.

Vantage Point

Yesterday, my son and I took a walk on a local Land Trust trail. Half a mile through the leafy trek, we found ourselves standing on one side of what used to be a train bridge. The bridge itself was nothing but a few re-barred pilings jutting out of a slow-moving stream. A trail sign informed us that we were on the remains of a passenger line that stopped carrying riders in 1953. Ahead of us, a straight tunnel through the pines with no visible end; behind us, the fallen pine needles a red carpet hallway stretching through the woods. We were standing in a one-point perspective painting incarnate.

When we looked right, marsh grass divided the stream, obscuring whatever lay beyond the immediate hundred yards. I195 spanned the water a hundred yards and a glance to the left. Cars flashed across the bridge, their drivers as unaware of this old train line as they were of our presence on it.

A short drive and a walk through the woods: a serene path, railroad history, marshland life, and modern transportation all visible from a single spot. This vantage point offered something unique, something that couldn’t be found anywhere else: the gift of being in a particular place, at a particular time, with a particular companion.

What a moment of grace and peace, offering strength to face these politically and pandemically challenging days.

 

Choose Your Words Carefully

Unreality is the enemy of the spiritual life. Living in a false reality, denying what is – they rob us of the blessings that the present offers. They also make it difficult if not impossible to change the things that diminish life on this planet. When an individual chooses a false narrative, a lessening of the spirit is inevitable; when that false narrative becomes communal and is not challenged, the results can be tragic. Even deadly.

Yesterday, Donald Trump chose to incite violence because he could not and would not accept political defeat. He gave permission for his most radical followers to disrupt the peaceful transition of power and called it patriotism. A woman died – the dire consequence of unleashing powers no one can fully control.

This event didn’t just happen. Trump’s refusal to accept defeat, even after the many lawsuits and objections to the outcome had failed, was humored by too many who hold political power and media platforms. Now we know what harm it caused, and we will learn in the coming months how much harm it might continue to bring.

In a time when so many have died from a virus, we can’t afford to live in unreality. Our words matter, our actions matter, our willingness to accept reality matters. Let’s hope those with a microphone, a camera, a pen, and a voice choose them very carefully.

Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

In Memoriam, Ben Suddard

For years, whenever I pulled my refrigerator out to clean the coils and scrub away the grime that had grown under it, Ben would knock on the door – an instance of synchronicity the universe created not because it was of great significance, but because it was funny. Ben’s knack for laughing at life’s quirkiness turned those many encounters into fond memories.

Ben could tell a good story. Whether it was about his childhood, how he met his wife, Lena, or the many adventures he had on Buzzard’s Bay and ski slopes, Ben shared the people and events of his life with a light touch. The humor in his tales was never at someone else’s expense.

My son, Jared, learned to walk at his beach house because he and his wife let us stay there for the first month we lived in Wareham. He brought several of my relatives out on the water to see his oyster farm; he brought oysters and patience to a couple dozen preschoolers as part of a summer program; he and his father built the benches and planters in the public library’s learning garden – a gift of skill and beauty that makes life in Wareham a little bit richer.

Today, Ben left this life he loved. He leaves behind a loving family and good friends. He returns to God sooner than I’d imagined or hoped. Thank you, Ben, for sharing your life with me and my family. What a precious gift you’ve been to me and mine. And to the world.

Enter 2021

2020 was tough. There were blessings, yes, but they tended to be difficulties that turned into learning opportunities. Death surrounded us, on the news and in our home towns. Political unrest and a lot of anger – some righteous, some not – was on full display. The flaws in our imperfect governing institutions and the limitations of those working within them had tangible and almost immediate attention and effect. 2021 might be here, but 2020 lingers in our pandemic-caused isolation and the mounting death toll across the country. There is no quick (re)solution and we remain in an alternate social reality still.

What about 2021? It’s starting with loss, but also hope for a healthier national reality. The patience required to stay vigilant until vaccines are universally available just might translate into a willingness to look for long-term, more permanent strides toward racial and gender equality. Grief at the loss of so many loved ones may turn into an abiding compassion for the suffering of all people – those close by and those flung far across the globe.

Perhaps spending so much time at home will move us to get our houses in order – to let go of what doesn’t matter and to love what does. Such an endeavor isn’t exactly a typical New Year’s resolution, but it seems like a good way to enter this new year.

May God’s peace abide with you in all circumstances, and may you be God’s peace for others. Amen.

Shining A Star Light

Readings: Psalm 124; Jeremiah 31:15-17; Revelation 21:1-7; Matthew 2:11b-18

Opening their treasure chests, they (the Magi) offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, and angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod say that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” [Matthew 2:11b-18, NRSV]

In all my years at church, I’ve only heard one or two sermons on it. No one seems eager to offer such a horror story between Christmas at the manger and magi on Epiphany. The magi go home by another road, Jesus and his family escape to Egypt; it’s easier to focus on these good outcomes than on what happened in the left behind town of Bethlehem. But the story is there, a testament to the cruelty the world visits upon the young and innocent who lack the means or opportunity to find a safe haven.

The madness of a single person in a position of power can extinguish life, stealing the future of so many without thought and sometimes seemingly without repercussions. Sometimes, such evil is hard to see or understand in a direct way ; it’s contours are obscured in darkness. It is only when a light is shining that it becomes visible, and is recognized for what it is.

Epiphany is revelation, a light shining on God In Our World. Epiphany is revelation, a light shining on evil within our world and ourselves. I would do well to remember this. Better to see the cruelty in my own heart and offer it up to God for transformation than to visit it upon the innocents in my own place and time.

In Memory of Bob Fredrickson

On a hot and humid New Jersey summer day, about four minutes after meeting him, Bob Fredrickson invited me to dinner with his family. He hadn’t seen his youngest son in months, and I’m sure he’d have loved to have that first meal together without an outsider. He didn’t know at the time (and neither did I) that I’d become family soon enough when I married that son. He just extended the dinner invitation because he was a kind man.

Over the the last twenty-eight years, I saw him extend the same courtesy many times: my grad school friend who dropped in for coffee joined us for a New York City lunch, other friends traveling across the country given a meal and a place to stay for the night, a dinner out for a friend and her daughter recently relocated to Arizona. Like that dinner so long ago in New Jersey, he didn’t have to and wasn’t expected to extend an invitation to join – he just did.

I see that generosity in his sons – Bryan, Barry, and my husband, Dave. I see his love in how each raised their children. It’s a legacy that cannot be bought or sold, but it’s worth is undeniable.

Thank you, Bob. For the life you gave to this world.

Thank you, God. For Bob’s life.

 

OMG

Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12); John 1:1-14

The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one.

Everything was created through him; nothing – not one thing! – came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was the Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out.

There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.

The Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life he brings into the Light. He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn’t even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn’t want him. But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed, and would do what he said, he made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves. These are the God-begotten, not blood-begotten, not flesh-begotten, not sex-begotten.

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. [The Message, John 1:1-14]

John 1: 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
 
When I worked in San Antonio there were large billboards that had messages of faith prominently displayed along major highways. These billboards could be seen in various parts of the country and were rather thought-provoking. One I remember said “DON’T MAKE ME HAVE TO COME DOWN THERE!” and was signed “GOD”. I remember thinking, “well, I guess we did—thank you.”
These words in John’s prologue say it all. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, interprets this verse: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood”. How amazing and awesome is this!
This Word that was in the very beginning, which was with God, which was God, which created all things, is now here in our midst as one of us. Jesus has arrived and is living next door. May we invite him into our homes and welcome him into our hearts today. Oh, my God!
Offered by Bill Albritton, seeker of the Life-Light.

Children and Shepherds, Seeking Jesus

Readings: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:8-20

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven; and on earth peace among those  whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” [Luke 2:8-15, NRSV]

When I think of the Advent season,I go back to my roots.
I was born in a small rural village called Newbold,  just outside Rugby, Warwickshire, England. My sisters and I attended St. Botolph’s Sunday School in a small stone church similar to Christ Church. I’m sure that’s where we heard the Christmas story. We knew about the shepherds on a winter’s night listening and seeing the beautiful angels.
We went Christmas caroling and the one carol that I remember was Once in Royal David’s City stood a lowly cattle shed We were familiar with cattle sheds because the hillsides in our village had sheep and cows and cattle sheds. This is where the Christmas story came to life.
We could imagine the shining stars all about and one special star that guided the three kings to the cattle shed where Jesus was born. In that small village we could imagine shepherds on the hillsides with angels and bright stars. We were filled with anticipation, but not for presents and gifts.
When Christmas finally came we were filled  with the same excitement as the shepherds felt to see the Holy  Infant. We enjoyed home baked candy, cookies and cakes. We were very happy, filled with the Christmas spirit.
So Advent to me brings back warm feelings that I felt as a nine year old child. On a cold winter’s night I still enjoy the bright stars and I am still looking for that bright star which will lead me to Baby Jesus  and the true meaning of Christmas.
Offered by Anita Trottier, child of God bound for Bethlehem.
  [Holy Family,  by Margaret Hill]

Waiting Time

Readings: Luke 1:46b-55; I Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 11:1-11

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor 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 promises he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” [Luke 1:46b-55, NRSV]

It is a time of waiting. It seems to have been a time of waiting for a long time. Waiting for the ravages of the pandemic to cease. Waiting to be with people we know and love. Waiting to hug our grandchildren not just have a virtual chat with them. Waiting to let go of the fear. We wait for something to change, for things to get better.

When the waiting has gone on as long as this waiting has, it’s hard to hold on to hope. I think it was hard for Mary, too. She and other Jews had been waiting for the Messiah for a long time. So, to keep holding on to hope, Mary remembered. She remembered all that had happened, all that God has done. And in that remembering hope blossomed. And when hoped blossomed she was ready. Ready to join in the work of God.

It sometimes helps to sing our remembering. If that’s true for you, here’s a hymn that might help:

A Song of Praise (Tune: Hyfrydol, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”)

Now I lift my song of praises, God my soul does magnify.

Now I sing in great rejoicing, to God’s blessings testify.

For our God has looked with favor on the servant meek and low.

From now on all generations, blessing, honor will bestow.

God has shown great strength and power, brought the proud and might down,

Lifted up the lowly people as a sign that love abounds.

God has given to the hungry good things that they may be filled.

And the rich have been made empty, sent away their voices stilled.

Holy is God’s name forever, for our God has done great things.

Mercy comes to all who fear God, those who live the praise they sing.

God has helped the faithful servant, showing mercy, justice, love.

So forever we will serve God, lift our song of praise above.

May the faith we share together be a faith like Mary’s own.

May the life we live together prove our trust in God alone.

God of challenge and disruption, God whose ways our own confound,

May we celebrate and follow when the world’s turned upside down.

Offered by Jeff Jones, writer bound for Bethlehem.