Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blessings for the New Year: Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience

May this new year bring you many blessings, strength to meet the challenges before you, courage to see the opportunities, and adventures in fascinating places (and a warm beach or two). And may the wisdom of those who have gone ahead surround us with their wisdom and light our path:

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Saint Paul's Letter to the Colossians 3:12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

How do we know there is such a thing as time?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about Christmases past, friends near and friends far away, and dear friends departed this life. Sometimes it seems as though only yesterday I was going on my first date, taking my first college exam, looking for my first job, filing my first newspaper story, quitting my first job, getting married, moving from this place to that place.

We've been in Virginia almost four years, but it seems like yesterday we arrived (and, yes, there are still a lot of boxes yet to be unpacked). Another New Years Eve arrives in a few days, another year marked gone on the calendar. I behold each day with thanks, for each day is truly an irreplaceable gift. May you have many blessings, abundant health, and beautiful memories in the coming year.

Barbara Crafton penned this the other day about time and Christmas, and I leave it with you today:

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By Barbara Crafton

How do we know there is no such thing as time, you ask?

Ah -- I can document it for you: cast your mind back to the Christmases of your childhood. Remember the afternoon of the great day -- the wreckage of toys and wrapping paper, the ruin of the Christmas feast still littering the table, the exhausted adults surveying it all listlessly. Remember your lust for the toys you received, remember the carefully-selected gifts you brushed aside, so entranced were you with whatever gift it was that seemed to you to be the star. And remember, then, the despair that clung to the edges of your orgy: it would be a whole year until next Christmas. A YEAR! A YEAR, do you tell me? How on earth would you make it through? A year was as good as a century in those days. A year was an eternity.

Now think of last Christmas. How long ago does it seem? About a month? Me, too.

Time is not constant. It is relative. It speeds up -- and not just the human experience of it, either. Time itself is intimately paired with location. It's why there are time zones -- it's already tomorrow in India. And yet I can pick up the phone and speak with someone there: he will answer right away: real time intersects with elapsed time when I do that. If that's the case in India, on the other side of the modestly-sized earth from where I sit and write this, imagine what time it is on Alpha Centauri.

Did I mention that this train of thought can be confusing?

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
Just when we think we might have overdosed on Nativity scenes, the gospel reading in church this Sunday will feature this austere reminder: that which is, always has been. It IS. Jesus of Nazareth was born in a time and a place, but Jesus the Christ is not contained in a moment. The moments of Christ are all now.

Don't worry if this isn't coming together for you yet. Sit with it for a few decades and it will. When it does, its implications will, too: if there is no such thing as time, nothing is lost. What was still IS. The sad parade of loss we know as history is only a parade on this narrow stage of earthly life. It stretches out only here. The God's-eye view of our life is not linear. It is all now.

He's got the whole world in His hands. Bet you never thought of it as a Christmas song.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Holy Innocents: Million of children die in warfare and we can do something about it

Memorials to the dead in Libya including children
Photo by CIVIC
“Blessed are all 
who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:11b

The Christian calendar today holds grimmest of markers for the year: The Feast of the Holy Innocents.

It is the day we remember that King Herod murdered all of the first born boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus, the one who the Magi had told him would grow up to be a king. Jesus and his family escaped, but the carnage and anguish in Bethlehem was great.

It does not sound like much of an occasion for feasting.

There is perhaps some consolation in the fact that it didn’t happen, at least not this way. The Gospel writer of Matthew came up with this story as a literary device to render Jesus into the “new Moses” by having the Holy Family flee to Egypt so that Jesus could emerge like Moses in a “new Passover.”

No other gospel writer – no other historian – says that Herod slaughtered all of the babies in Bethlehem to kill Jesus. Indeed, the gospel writer of Luke – the only other account of Jesus’ birth – has the Holy family returning in short order from Bethlehem to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up in relative safety and calm. In Luke, there are no innocent babies killed and no terrifying trips back and forth from Egypt.

What then to make of the Holy Innocents? Should we ignore it?


What comes to mind is that the world is full of Holy Innocents – children who are killed or maimed in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Somalia – and children are still murdered in the Holy Land. The children die as pawns of the powerful. Children die in Gaza and the West Bank and Bethlehem all too frequently because the adults are at war. We don’t need a King Herod to feel shame for the deaths of millions of innocent children in our world.

But we can do something.

For several years I have been supporting the work of CIVICThe Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, an organization that documents the plight and advocates for refugees and victims caught in the cross-fire of the world’s conflicts. Its purpose:
“Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict works on behalf of war victims by advocating that warring parties recognize and help the civilians they harm. CIVIC supports the principle that it is never acceptable for a warring party to ignore civilian suffering.”
Marla, right, with a family in Iraq
shortly before she was killed
CIVIC was founded by a very brave young woman, Marla Ruzicka, from Lakeport, California, who in the months after 9/11 went to the frontlines herself to document what she saw, and then bring that information to the doorstep of decision-makers in Washington.

Marla was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005. She was only 24.

It was my privilege to say prayers for her in the California Senate after she died, and I can tell you some very hardened politicians shed tears that day.

CIVIC has not only continued her work, but expanded it, going to Libya, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Lebanon and Israel. CIVIC works on a shoestring budget but it has had a huge impact by getting Congress to allocate funds to compensate war victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bringing the stories of real people caught in warfare to the media.

CIVIC has gone everywhere it can go, working with officials from the United Nations, and with governments in Israel and Lebanon, Russia and Georgia, and everywhere there is warfare. To read a summary of CIVIC’s accomplishments, click HERE.

I know that all of us are inundated this time of year with appeals for funds. But what better way to remember the Holy Innocents than by giving to CIVIC? I will be giving today as my devotion to this Holy day. Please join me. You can make a donation to CIVIC by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas wastes no time

Merry Christmas. Now, back to work.

The Christian calendar wastes no time in reminding us that the “Way” of Christ came with a cost to his earliest followers and to innocent bystanders.

On Monday we celebrated the feast of St. Stephen, the first deacon and an early martyr who forgives his tormenters even as they stone him.

Today we have the feast of St. John – “the one whom Jesus loved” – and who would grieve deeply at the death of Jesus.

Tomorrow, comes perhaps the hardest of all: the remembrance of the “Holy Innocents,” the children murdered by Herod the King.

The Twelve Days of Christmas toss out the wrappings right quick. The baby in the manger does not stay a baby long in the Christmas season.

If you aren’t quite there yet, neither am I.

As for me, I am still in recovery mode. We had a tremendous Christmas, with more than 600 people coming through our doors Christmas Eve. We marched around the church with dozens of children at 5 pm singing “The Friendly Beasts” as we accompanied Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

At 8 pm we sang carols and listened to the beautiful harp playing of Margaret Lee. Then at 11 pm we pulled out the stops, lit the incense and sang until we were hoarse.

Christmas morning was clear and lovely. We kept to our regular Sunday service schedule – Christmas came on a Sunday, after all. Attendance was solid, and I was charmed most of all by the five sweet people who came to our 5:30 pm service. With Pastor Heather Warren and myself, that made seven. We sang a few more carols and gathered around the Holy Table for our Christmas Eucharist as the sun faded outside.

And now this week, we get walloped with martyrs, apostles and innocents. What to make of all that?

It is a reminder, if we need it, that Christmas is the opening act of Easter. The crescendo is still to come. The baby in the manger grows up, finds his calling, teaches and heals, and ends up on the Cross. It is a reminder that the Christmas story continues to be written after his birth and death by the people who continue to meet him along their path. Those we saints remember this week remind us that we are still a part of this vast and great Christmas story that began before time and has no end.

The readings for today drive home the point. From Proverbs 8:22-30: “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago… I was his daily delight, rejoicing before him always.”

And from the Gospel of John 13:20-35 we are told of the Last Supper on the night before Jesus died. As Judas goes out to betray him, Jesus tells his followers how to continue writing this great story every day of their life:
“I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Monday Funnies: Christmas Edition

We made it through Christmas -- six services in two days at St. Paul's, and a good time was had by all, we pray. My voice is hoarse, but nothing a little eggnog won't soothe.

I hope you have had a festive and blessed Christmas. Here is a cartoon for the season by Dave Walker. Just remember, we have eleven -- count 'em -- eleven days to go in Christmas.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

"The People who walked in darkness have seen a great light"

May you all have a blessed Christmas. My sermon from the 10:30 pm Christmas Eve service is below. The lessons are Isaiah 9:2-7 Titus 2:11-14  and Luke 2:1-14(15-20).

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The prophet foretold, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
Something happened long ago, in the shadows of an obscure desert town in a far corner of the Roman Empire. It seemed ordinary at first: 
The birth of a baby. 
At first, only his parents knew how extraordinary this was. All parents think their babies are extraordinary, of course. 

At first, no wise men came, no shepherds, no disciples, no adoring masses. No one was there but his parents. 
The gospel writer Luke tells us this baby was born in a stable; born not into wealth, not into power, not into social status or aristocratic inheritance. 

This baby, like so many tens of millions of babies then and now, entered life in relative poverty and without much of a chance. 

The survival of this baby, like tens of millions of other babies then and now, was not so certain at first. 
This baby was born out of wedlock, to Jewish parents from the hill country of Galilee, a land occupied by a foreign power, the Roman Empire. 

The mother was barely a teenager; her name was Miriam, or Mary. She was to have an arranged marriage with a man named Joseph, but she became pregnant – and not by him – before the wedding. 
That fact put her in grave danger because her pregnancy was a violation of the law.
Joseph was a carpenter, and in those days carpenters made simple implements like wooden bowls and mallets. 

Carpenters like Joseph led a meager hand-to-mouth existence. 
Joseph stuck by Mary when he didn’t have to. He could have had her stoned to death for dishonoring him, but instead the two fled their hometown of Nazareth. 

The gospel writer gives this a polite patina by saying they were going to Bethlehem to register for a census. Except that historians tell us there was no census. Mary and Joseph were probably fleeing the judgmental eyes of their relatives. 
Getting to Bethlehem was not easy and they were lucky to survive the journey. The road goes over hills and robbers hide along the way. 
They had nowhere to go in Bethlehem; either there were no relatives in Bethlehem or none would take them in. 
And so they had their baby in a stable – a barn. Other legends say they birthed this baby in a dark cave, and Bethlehem is riddled with caves. 

Caves also are where people are buried. To be born in a cave was not a sign of regal distinction. To be born in a cave was a sign of someone living in constant fear. 
There was absolutely nothing outwardly extraordinary about this birth.
Not at first. 
Then, the gospel writer tells us, the angels started showing up. 
The angels came to shepherds in a field, at night. The angels didn’t come to kings, aristocrats and high priests. The angels came to the shepherds. 
Shepherds were an even lower class than carpenters. They lived outdoors, slept in caves, and lived with sheep, and they smelled.

And these particular shepherds had the night watch. These shepherds to whom the angels came this night were the lowest of the low. 
The angels told them something extraordinary was happening: 

The birth of a baby in a stable, and this baby would be the messiah, the One who would bring them salvation and freedom, the anointed One of God they had longed for. 
How could that be?, these shepherds wondered. This baby? Here? 
The shepherds were terrified. We are but lowly shepherds, they said, and this baby is in a barn. 

This is not what we expect. This is very different than anything we have been told by every teacher we’ve ever heard. 
The shepherds went to see for themselves. They found the baby lying in a hay trough.
And then the lowliest of the low understood what this was about. 
It was about them. 
They expected a king on a throne tossing off judgments like thunderbolts, but found a healer who would lead a life of simplicity, prayer and truth. 
They expected a God of war. They got the Prince of Peace. 
Later people would try to explain this with complicated theologies, flavored by ancient Greek philosophy, medieval mysticism, modern scientific inquiry, post-modern skepticism. 

People would cover this baby in many layers of words down through the ages. He would wear a lot of swaddling clothes. 
But tonight we have a baby in a manger, only this baby. We are at the beginning of the story of a very frightened poor family long ago, and a naked baby in a stable. 
This messiah whose birth we mark tonight is different than anyone, or anything the world expects. 

He comes to set people free in their lowest places, in their lowest moments, and to bring unconditional love and unlimited healing that lasts beyond this world. He comes with no conditions, no strings attached. 
What better way for God to tell us this than with a helpless baby, born in the lowest caste, in the most obscure place on earth?

The world of power and politics is turned upside down by this one birth. Human expectations, human economies, human politics is upended. 
The story of Jesus – his birth, his life, and his death on the Cross, begins this night. 

The story of Easter begins on this night, too – the story of how Jesus rose from the grave to appear to his followers and give them strength and courage against all human odds. 
Christmas is this great bookend with Easter, and truly the two must be seen together for they are inseparable. 
Those who first saw the Risen Christ of Easter continued to write this story in the way they lived afterwards. The first Christians called this new religion simply “The Way.” 
Their story is also our story. We continue to write this story of Christmas and Easter each day of our life. 

This way of life, this way of faith, is not just about the afterlife. It is about this life. It is about how we live right now, here, today and tomorrow. 

This Christmas night, I would invite you to find ways to deepen your faith, to set aside a regular time each day for prayer. 

I would invite you to renew your faith by being in this faith community once again.
If you don’t have a regular community of faith, and you live here in Charlottesville, think about joining us here at St. Paul’s. 

If you have been away from this church for a while, make this your first day back.
And ask yourself this: 

How is God tugging at your heart tonight? What acts of kindness and generosity are calling you in the new year? 

What do you want to strengthen in your life, and what is dragging on you that you need to shed? 
Bring it to prayer. Have courage. Act. 
And then let’s get to work together in the new year: We have people feed, the sick to comfort, children to raise, and a hurting world needing every single one of us. 
This way of life will change everything in this world if we let it. 
This way of life begins once again tonight with the birth of a baby long ago. 
And the prophet foretold, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” 
May you have many blessings this Christmas Night and always. AMEN.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The greatest Christmas story ever told: "Get the kid his peaches"

Here again, my friends, is the greatest Christmas story ever told by a great story teller, Al Martinez, formerly of the Oakland Tribune and Los Angeles Times. 

I run this story every year in Fiat Lux, and it brings a tear to my eye every time.

As you may know, I spent 20+ years as a newspaper reporter in California, and spent many tedious hours on the night desk on holidays.  So, continuing the Christmas tradition of Fiat Lux, here again is Al's great Christmas story. Merry Christmas . . .

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A Christmas Story

By Al Martinez

IT happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.

I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.

It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.

We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.

I remember it was about 11 o'clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day's editions.

Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you're young and fast and never get tired.

Then the telephone rang.

It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he'd had a few under his belt.

Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn't tell Al what he ought to or ought not to do.

He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom.

But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.

We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.

"What's up?" he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.

He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.

I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one.

Al listened for a moment and then said, "How long's he got?"

"Not long," I said. "His doctor says maybe a day or two."

There was a long silence and then Al said, "Get the kid his peaches."

"I've called all over," I said. "None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They're just plain out of season. It's winter."

"Not everywhere. Call Australia."

"Al," I began to argue, "it's after 11 and I have no idea . . .”

"Call Australia," he said, and then hung up.

If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.

I don't quite remember whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas Day.

There was only one problem. Customs wouldn't clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.

Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the secretary of agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.

"It's close to midnight," I argued. "His office is closed."

"Take this number down," Reck said. "It's his home. Tell him I told you to call."

It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.

I made the call. The secretary said he'd have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.

"All right," Reck said on his third and final call to me, "now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy's house."

He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand.

By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.

"Al," I said, "if I don't start writing this now I'll never get the story in the paper."

I won't forget this moment.

"I didn't say get the story," Reck replied gently. "I said get the kid his peaches."

If there is a flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and affect our futures, that was mine.

Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.

I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.

The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I've learned since.

I wanted you to know that this Christmas season.

Al Martinez is a former reporter and columnist for The Oakland Tribune, from 1955 to 1971, The Richmond (Calif.) Independent and Los Angeles Times to now. Born in Oakland, he also has written several novels, for television and the movies. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 25, 1986.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas message from the Presiding Bishop

A Christmas Message from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

“See, your salvation comes” (Isaiah 62:11). 

The great prophets before Jesus proclaimed a vision of a nation and a people redeemed. We continue to share that yearning – as the Christmas hymn puts it, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” We’ve seen abundant hopes spring up in the past year across the Arab world and Eastern Europe, and in the global Occupy movement. Those voices seek a world of greater justice, communities in which decisions and the gifts of creation are more available to all. Our understanding of salvation is most profoundly about justice in community, and as Christians we believe that help and healing for all are grounded in the incarnate presence of God – among us and within us.

We look for salvation to the one who came among us in the most humble way, a helpless child born in a scandalous way to a poor peasant couple. The Incarnation, God with us, changed the world in ways that we insist are leading to the ultimate healing of all creation. “See, your salvation comes,” says the prophet in every age, yet it is not yet fully come upon us. We live in hope for its fullness. May hope be nourished within us, in each and every human being and community, for the journey toward God’s healed and holy future.

That proclamation of coming salvation is a part of Isaiah (Isa 62:6-12) that will be read in some congregations at Christmas, but if you don’t hear it, go and read the whole of it. Its centerpiece speaks of what that salvation looks like:
The Lord has sworn ... I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies,
and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have labored;
but those who garner it shall eat it and praise the Lord, and those who gather it shall drink it in my holy courts.

(Isaiah 62:8-9)
That is not a vision of pristine isolation, but a vision of comfort and healing to a people frequently at war, occupied, or exploited by superior forces. The fear of powerful others taking and using for themselves the produce of the poor is healed and transformed into a society in which the gifts God provides will be shared by all. For when salvation comes, that society will be called,

‘the Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord’; and you shall be called, ‘Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken’
(Isaiah 62:12)

Jesus comes among us to remind us of a world living together in peace, to reclaim and make real that vision of creation for all humanity and all God’s creatures. That world is put right as relationships between God and humanity are set right. The relationship between God and human being cannot be set right without equal healing of relationships between us mortals. See, your salvation comes! Will we welcome that healing?

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori 
Presiding Bishop and Primate The Episcopal Church

Above relief: “Romano d’Ezzelino” by Roberto Frison

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Longest Night

Tonight at 7 pm at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville, we are holding a worship service in a way that we have not done before. We are calling it "The Liturgy of the Longest Night," mindful that today is the Winter Solstice, and mindful that this is a time of year that is difficult for many (including yours truly).

Not everyone finds the Christmas jollies so jolly.

But we are also mindful that the nights now turn shorter and the days turn longer. Some churches call this service "A Blue Christmas," but as we talked about it at St. Paul's, that just seemed, well, too blue. Tonight is still Advent, still the time of waiting before the dawn. The light comes even in the darkest night, and even a glimmer of hope can shine into our hearts.

For many, this is a hard season because of a loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job, or a health issue that is gnawing on body and mind. This is also a time of anxious waiting for many -- a son or daughter away  at school or in a job in a far off city, or in uniform on a battlefield, or aboard a ship-of-war at sea. Or maybe you are like me, living here in Charlottesville with family far away.

Santa down the chimney doesn't seem to ring quite right for some.

So whatever it is that you wait, come join us tonight. We will pray, listen, sit in silence, light candles, hear music, and provide healing prayers for those who seek them. Come join us at St. Paul's tonight, the longest night, but marking the night when the darkness begins to recede and the days begin to brighten.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee"

Winter will soon officially be here. We've had several mornings up on our Virginia hill with frost on the chicken coop. Today it is warmer and drizzly. We are on the cusp of the seasons.

Here is a photo Lori took a few days ago of the sky and tree line as seen from our hill, and a poem to mark the change of seasons, sent as a gift by our friend Karen in Tennessee. May you have blessings aplenty in this Advent of expectation.

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From “Frost at Midnight”
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sunthaw; whether the eve-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The season of Mary, with prayers for peace and goodwill to all

This is the season of the one we call Mary: the Jewish maiden Miriam, mother of Yeshua, or Joshua, the one who we call Jesus.

On Sunday, and again today in the Daily Office readings, we hear Luke's account (Luke 1: 26-38) of how the angel told Mary she would be with child, and this child would be "called the Son of the Most High."

Mary declares she is a virgin, and the angel says she will be pregnant from "The Holy Spirit."

And so the Christmas story begins.

Through the ages, Mary has become larger than life, the "Theotokos," the "mother of God." For some she has remained a perpetual virgin, although the biblical accounts clearly state she had other children besides Jesus (and why wouldn't she?).

We almost lose sight of this perplexed, probably frightened, teenage peasant girl in a land long ago. Much would happen to her -- she would outlive her son, Jesus, and would be carried into her old age by the early Christian community.

We are still carrying her. We are still connected to her through this same Holy Spirit who came to her and comes to all of us, and gives us strength and hope and healing, often when we least expect it. Many encounter "Holy Spirit" as female, and why not?

Sometimes in my daily prayers I imagine myself sitting beside a river, and all of human experience is in that river. Mary herself is somewhere downstream, but I am still connected to her in that river, the same river where John the Baptist stands, the same river that brings water and life to people everywhere. We are all connected in this river just as the Holy Spirit connects us through her breath.

When you pray, your prayers will touch me, as mine will touch yours. We are connected to the poor, and the rich, to the Tea Party and the Occupy protesters. We are connected even to those who cause us the most pain. We are connected even to our enemies.

Lately, Steven Charleston, the retired bishop of Alaska, has been writing brief prayers from the heart and posting them daily on his Facebook page. Here is his prayer for today:
"Peace on Earth. Goodwill to women who work two jobs, to men who come home weary. Goodwill to those who carry our conscience into the streets, goodwill to the soldier missing home, to the student climbing the wall of tuition. Goodwill to the poor standing in line, to the elder sitting alone. Goodwill to the foreclosed family, to the pink slipped worker, to the new parents of an uncertain future. Goodwill to those in chronic pain, to those in chronic hope. Goodwill to the hungry of body, mind or heart. Goodwill to those who have given up and to those who have just begun. Peace, I pray, peace, and goodwill to us all."

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Monday Funnies

Warning: Today's Monday Funnies is in very poor taste, and parental discretion is advised. The overpaid bloated staff in the Jokester Department here at Fiat Lux Productions has scoured the land far and wide for the worst, most hideous, tasteless Nativity sets ever created. We had more than two-dozen entries, but here are the worst of the worst. . .

Yes, made out of bacon and pork products

Made with pats of butter


Christmas has gone to the dogs

Dungeons and Dragons Nativity set


Marshmellow Nativity set - Yumm!

Rubber Ducky, Your the One!

Ticking Nativity

Happy Feet Christmas

Miss Piggy does Christmas

Schmores Nativity - More Yummm!

This one freaks me out:
Jesus in a snowglobe

Vegetales has gotten only stranger.

And how we cry at all these Nativities

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"How is it they live for eons in such harmony?" (but we don't)

I am not preaching today -- but if you are in the area, please come hear Pastor Nik in the pulpit. Today is sometimes known as "Mary Sunday," as the lessons will make clear: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16Canticle 15Romans 16: 25-27 and Luke 1: 26-38.

Our friend Karen in Tennessee sent this other day. Enjoy your Sunday . . .

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“We are fields before each other.”
St. Thomas Aquinas ~

How is it they live for eons in such harmony -
the billions of stars -

when most men can barely go a minute
without declaring war in their mind against someone they know.

There are wars where no one marches with a flag,
though that does not keep casualties
from mounting.

Our hearts irrigate this earth.
We are fields before
each other.

How can we live in harmony?
First we need to

we are all madly in love
with the same

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And one more item today: Steven Charleston, the retired Bishop of Alaska, and who I admire greatly (and who I would love to have come preach at St. Paul's), wrote this on his Facebook this morning, and I pass it along to you:
"The incarnate story begins in humility. That is the first step in our own spiritual narrative. But how to take it? Not once, but over and over, as our life shifts through age and place. It is not feigned innocence or submission. It is what my ancestors believed was the gyroscope of the holy, the sense of inner balance that held a tension between pride and resignation, between limitation and possibility. What gave life to the sacred was a vulnerable power. That same divine energy resides incarnate in each of us, a hope that knows it can change the world, if only it is willing to seek shelter in the poorest home it finds."

Art by Flor Larios

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Extraordinary photos from the National Cathedral

Facade of the National Cathedral
Last Monday we accompanied a group from St. Paul's on a day-long pilgrimage to the Washington National Cathedral, and I wrote about that a few days ago in this space.

Since then, Dudley Rochester has sent these remarkable photographs that he took on our trip. Dudley is an extraordinary photographer!

Let me share three of them with you...
Inside the nave

Space window; notice the moon rock
embedded in the upper center;
the rock was brought back by
Apollo 11

Friday, December 16, 2011

International prayer service simulcast Saturday from Bethlehem and the Washington National Cathedral

Door at the Church of the Nativity,
photo by Lori K. Richardson
Please consider yourself invited tomorrow to this worldwide gathering of prayer in Bethlehem to be broadcast simultaneously with a prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral, via the Internet. Here are the details:

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Bethlehem - D.C. prayer service set for Dec. 17
Simulcast to link Christmas Lutheran Church, National Cathedral  

[Anglican Commons] The fifth annual simulcast prayer service linking the congregations gathered in Bethlehem's Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church and the nave of Washington National Cathedral - with online viewing access worldwide - is set for Saturday, Dec. 17, at 10 a.m. Eastern Time (7 p.m. local time in Bethlehem, and 7 a.m. Pacific).

Online viewers may log in  here for the liturgy featuring prayers, readings in Arabic and English, and hymns alternating between Bethlehem and Washington, D.C.

Lead partners are the Lutheran and Anglican churches in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and Palestine/Israel Advocacy Group at Washington Cathedral. The service also raises funds for the Bright Stars of Bethlehem Center for its work in education, health, the arts, and social services.

Clergy scheduled to participate include Christmas Church pastor Dr. Mitri Raheb in Bethlehem; Bishop Suheil Dawani and other leaders of theEpiscopal Diocese of Jerusalem; and the Rt. Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land; bishops Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and  Richard H. Graham of the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope, cathedral vicar; and the Rev. Canon John L. Peterson.

Viewship also is promoted within the Diocese of Jerusalem and its companion dioceses of Washington and Los Angeles, and the Anglican Church of Canada, its partner province.

Anglican Commons is a new volunteer effort featuring mission companions and the shared newsfeed of the Digital Faith community. Christmastide features will focus on the church's mission of "acompanamiento," or accompaniment, in El Salvador.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Pray for peace in the Holy Land

Palestinian students from United Nations schools in the Jericho area create an aerial image in the shape of Pablo Picasso’s Peace Dove, at the foot of the Mount of Temptation just outside the West Bank city of Jericho on November 25, 2011. The UN initiative was done in conjunction with the world-renowned aerial artist, John Quigley, to send out a peace message to the world.
Photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Holy Saturday reflections published in an eBook to benefit River City Food Bank

I don't allow commercial plugs on this blog, but today I am making a partial exception to benefit a very worthy cause.

This topic may not sound very Advent-y, but go with me here.

Several years ago I wrote a short book of reflections about Holy Saturday, the second day of the three days of Easter, the day when Jesus goes to Hell to let everyone out.

My reflections emerged from a group that I led in 2007 that we called "The Holy Saturday Project." As part of the project we worked at the  River City Food Bank which serves some of the poorest and neediest people in Sacramento, a city that has been hit very hard in the economic downturn. We also washed the feet, and trimmed the toenails, of homeless people on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week that year -- and it was not a ritual washing but the real thing with dirty and chapped feet.

The only problem with this book is I never got around to getting it published. The manuscript has sat in my computer, not exactly lost, and not quite forgotten, but a labor-of-love writing project that has not emerged from it virtual tomb.

So I have done something about that. I've published my Holy Saturday book as an Kindle edition with its original title from 2007: "Descending Into Hell" Resurrecting Holy Saturday, Easter's Missing Link. It costs $4.99, and you can download it to your computer, Kindle or iPad. You can find the book HERE.

And here is the good news: I will contribute all the royalties -- 100 percent -- to the River City Food Bank which is so much a apart of this book. The Amazon Kindle royalty is 70 percent, so for every eBook sold, River City will get $3.49.

It may seem odd to you that I am writing about Holy Week in December, but Holy Saturday is akin to Advent: it is time of waiting and hoping, the time of "not yet" but "almost here." And River City could use the funds now.

Holy Saturday has been nearly lost in modern contemporary Christianity, but in ancient times it was immensely important, and was marked as day of fasting, prayer, looking outward with expectancy, and service to the poor. So is Advent.

River City has lived through its own Holy Saturday hell. An arsonist burned down the building a year ago.

Thanks to tremendous community support, River City Food Bank has rebuilt in a new mid-town location.

The organization still needs $36,000 to get fully back up to speed.

The arson and aftermath happened after I wrote these reflections, but that is not included in the reflections. The book, for whatever it is worth, reflects my thoughts and experiences from 2007, and therefore stands on its own as written. I have refrained from giving it a rewrite or another edit. What is most important to me is you read it, reflect upon it and lend me your thoughts -- and be generous with the River City Food Bank.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The National Cathedral: broken stones, metal netting, but still inspiring national house of prayer

Rose Window through the
netting; photo by Lori K. Richardson
WASHINGTON DC -- We haven't been to the National Cathedral since the earthquake in August shook the tops off the bell towers and rained stones inside. But we got there on Monday, not quite prepared for what we saw.

Scaffolds encircle the bell towers where the pinnacles fell to the ground, and two of the pinnacles are on the ground near the main doors. Inside, metal nets are stretched under the ceilings to catch falling masonry. The nets give the Cathedral a grim appearance and block sunlight from coming through the upper windows and making it to the nave below.

The usually stunning Creation Rose Window high above the nave is partially shaded by the netting beneath it, giving the window a dark, almost eerie look.

The damage will cost at least $15 million to repair, and the repairs will take years.

Still, the great Cathedral is great and it is inspiring even in its brokenness. We accompanied a bus full of St. Paul's parishioners to the Cathedral, and we were treated to a Holy Eucharist in the quire and then a 15 minute recital on the Skinner organ.

Cathedral organ keyboard;
photo by Ann Willms
St. Paul's also has a Skinner organ, but not quite this big. The organ at the National Cathedral has 10,647 pipes, making it the 6th largest such instrument in the world.

Next we were given a tour of the chapels, windows and the many architectural features. We stopped at the crypt of our own beloved Charles Perry, who as Provost, finished the construction of the Cathedral in 1990.

We also paused to admire the needlework on cushions in the chapels, many of which were done by Joy Perry, Charles' wife. The Perrys eventually retired in Charlottesville, and Charles died a year ago.

We remembered Charles in our prayers of the people at our Holy Eucharist.

Fallen pinnacles from the August quake;
photo by Lori K. Richardson
St. Paul's tour group;
photo by Ann Willms
Although our St. Paul's group spent the entire day at the National Cathedral, we left feeling we had barely seen it. There is much to see and experience in this national house of prayer, and it is worth many visits to come.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe: Today is her feast day

Next week we will return to the Monday Funnies, but today is special.

Today is a feast day that is enormously meaningful for millions of Christians in our hemisphere, and about which we ought to take note. Let me tell you about it:

Nearly 500 years ago, the story goes, an Aztec with a Spanish name – Juan Diego – saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The local Spanish bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, did not believe him and told him to bring back proof of this vision. Juan Diego came back with his tunic full of flowers – Castilian roses – and the roses were blooming in winter. When Juan Diego poured the roses from his tunic, an image of Mary was imprinted on his tunic.

That image has become probably the most copied and venerated image of Mary in the world.
Today is her feast day - Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, la Virgen de Guadalupe – the Virgin of Guadalupe. This day in 1531 marks when an Aztec brought roses to the bishop, and the bishop had to believe him.

Whether you believe in the story, or believe it happened exactly that way, is less important than what she represents primarily to the people of Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. Her shrine near Mexico City is the most visited Marian shrine in the world.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is sometimes known as the brown virgin – her skin color is that of the indigenous peoples of America. She is the Mary of the poor and the outcasts and those left behind or wiped out as Europeans colonized, industrialized and regimented the Americas. She is the Mary of the lowliest among us who stand up and say "you have it wrong, please listen."

Even the word “Guadalupe” has roots in native Aztec language, and many believe the image is
filled with Aztec symbols. She is the Mary of hope to the poor of the Americas.

There is another level to this that I would commend to you: The Holy comes to us not just in male imagery (God the Father) but in female imagery.

The Holy Spirit is like a wind that will blow where she will, and will show her face in ways that speak to people in the depths of their soul, and give them strength and courage when they most need it. The Virgin of Guadalupe does precisely that for so many, and I have met them (and they weren't all Latino).

And here is something else you should know: Her feast day is a very big deal here in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Catholic Church if the Incarnation is hosting hundreds of people at pre-dawn Eucharists today -- early so people can get to work. The first Eucharist is at 2 am.

Although Our Lady of Guadalupe is not on the official Episcopal calendar of saints, she will be celebrated in many Episcopal churches across the country, particularly in the Southwest.

We've celebrated Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe at St. Paul's in year's past, but this year a number of us are taking a bus trip today to tour the National Cathedral. We will be talking about her a bit today on the bus, and then joining a Holy Eucharist at noon at the Cathedral.

As many of you know, I have a small collection of amazing Guadalupe folk art that I keep on my dresser at home. I have Guadalupe candlesticks, tin and ceramic figurines, santos wood carvings, and a lighted Guadalupe concha (shadow box) on the wall. Nearly all of these items are gifts from friends far and wide, and I cherish each item with thanks for the hands that made them.

I've been asked to talk about the Virgin of Guadalupe feast day on a program aired by the University of Virginia radio station WTJU 91.5 on Wednesday at noon. I hope you might tune in!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Down by the riverside the people come from far and wide

Today at the 10 am worship service we have our wonderful children's Advent-Christmas Pageant (and no sermon!).

Albrecht von Gaudecker and a great group of kids have worked long and hard to bring this season's pageant, so I hope you will come if you are in the area.

I am preaching at the 8 am worship. The lessons for today are Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11Psalm 126 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and John 1:6-8, 19-28. Here in my sermon:

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Today we make the acquaintance once again of John the Baptist, that pleasant fellow who is definitely not jolly old Saint Nick. John the Baptist, as you know, wears clothing made of camel’s hair and he has a leather belt and he eats insects. 
Although his name is “John the Baptist,” he is not a Southern Baptist or an American Baptist or any other kind of modern Baptist. 

He might better be called “John the Baptizer” because that is what he does. He stands in the river baptizing people. 
But before we completely dismiss John the Baptizer as someone who has trouble translating into the 21st century, I’d like to point out something remarkable about John Baptizer:
John the Baptizer draws people to him – many, many people from far and wide. 
In Mark’s gospel mentioned last week, that all the people of Jerusalem and all the people of the Judean countryside come to John the Baptizer. 
This week we get the version in John’s gospel. Not only do the common people come to him, the Temple authorities are so thoroughly perplexed they sent emissaries to question him, and they wonder if he is the messiah, or maybe the prophet Elijah. 
John the Baptizer has captivated all Israel, from the bottom up. 
That is an amazing fact. The gospels are saying, not so subtly, that the people of Israel are having trouble seeing the holy in the holy city.

People are having trouble finding the holy in their homes and work, and they wonder if the holy can be found outside their regular modes of organized religion. 
Maybe that has a ring of familiarity for us? 
And then these ancient people are willing to walk a very long distance to find this holy man standing waist-deep in a muddy river in the desert. 
Something very, very powerful is happening with John the Baptizer, and all the people of Judea have come from far and wide to experience it. 

These people long ago may dress and speak differently than we do. But I would also guess they have much in common with us. 

They have experienced the ups and downs of life, and they are searching for the same things we are, and they probably walked for days to reach the river Jordan and find this John the Baptizer. 
When they get there, John tells them something extraordinary: What you seek is with you already. Look up, open your eyes, God is everywhere and was with you all along.
The word repent means to “turn around,” and that is the great and wonderful irony of this story. 

People walk miles into the desert to find what they had all along. Turn around, see what has always been with you. 
John the baptizer tells the people, who have come so very far, that all they really needed to do is turn around to see God. 

The Holy was with them all along and never had left them, even when life looked bleakest. John declares the same good news that comes from the prophet Isaiah:
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted.” 
Then John the Baptizer washes the people – baptizes them – in the river as a symbol that their life has begun new again, that it is never too late to see and experience God. 
And John tells them something more remarkable, that God will soon walk among them as a human being, as the One who will wash them in Holy Spirit.

“I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 
How will we know this? 

By being awake in this time of Advent before the dawn. 
John the Baptizer is still standing in the river, telling us to sharpen our eyes and ears. Look and listen for God all around you. What you seek is already with you. The One who comes is already here, and is washing you in holy spirit,

Be awake. You really don’t have to travel far to find what you seek. Look for the dawn of Christ’s light in life, and in everyone you meet, today, and in the days to come.

Photograph above of the Jordan River Valley, courtesy of GLOWA, an international research project working on maintaining sustainable water resources in Jordan River region.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hallelujah Chorus: Alaska style

This is a take off on the Hallelujah chorus schtick with the monks that has made the rounds on the Internet for years. Only this is so-o-o-o much better, from the Yupik fishing village of Quinhagak, Alaska, population, at last count, 555. This is worth your time:

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Interested in going to the Holy Land?

Petra, Jordan
If you have never been to the Holy Land, or maybe if you have and you'd like to experience it again, let me recommend a trip in May 2012 led by the Rev. Canon Mark Stanger, who led our trip to Jerusalem last August.

Mark will be starting this trip in Jordan, at the ruins of Petra (which we did not see), before crossing into Israel and going to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Galilee. Mark is a skilled guide and knows the territory well. This will be the 15th tour Mark has led. We much enjoyed his company and guidance in our trip and I highly recommend him. Here is the information:

Join the Rev. Canon Mark Stanger for Come to Bethlehem and see: Holy Land Pilgrimage. For 12 days — May 13 through 25, 2012 — experience the biblical and cultural sites relating to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, his ministry in Galilee, and his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Led by the Rev. Canon Mark Stanger and a local Palestinian Christian licensed tour guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, this pilgrimage begins with a visit to the spectacular ancient Nabatean city of Petra in Jordan. Includes two nights in Jordan, three nights in Nazareth, and five nights in Jerusalem. Contact: the Rev. Canon Mark Stanger,, 415.749.6318

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The sacred and the profane: Holy places, Holy people

Southern steps of the
Jerusalem Temple
where Jesus likely walked and taught
I’ve been fighting a cold all week, and I feel as though some of those swordsmen in the reading today from Amos 9:1-10 are at work in my sinuses. I am up late, hence this is getting posted late.

The readings today are as rough as my throat. The prophet Amos is busy dispatching all sorts of evil doers; the Revelation of John 2:8-17 is following in the same violent theme (didn’t we just get done with Revelation? Why are we back there again?); and in Matthew 23:13-26, Jesus is in full attack upon hypocrites, scribes, Pharisees – all the religious authorities in the Jerusalem Temple.

You can be forgiven if you’d rather go back to bed.

One line struck me, though, and it is a familiar line, from Matthew 23:26:
“You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.”
Jesus is talking about something so basic I hope you don’t miss it. He is talking about sacred space and what makes it sacred: People and their sacredness from the grace of God.

The Temple, the most holy place in all of Israel, is sacred because sacred people come there. People don’t become sacred by going there, but rather it is the other way around.

I can imagine how the hypocrites, scribes, Pharisee and crowds might have reacted.

“Wait a minute,” they might have said. “We bring our most valuable things here, our gold, our perfect things, and the Temple makes them sacred.”

“No,” replies Jesus. “It is by what you do and how you act that you make this Temple sacred or you make it profane. You are sacred, or you are profane, and we can only know that by seeing what you do.”

Doesn’t the sacred space make us sacred? No, it is what is inside us that is sacred, and if we are attentive to the sacredness within us, what is around us will become sacred.

I think of the many sacred places I have experienced, from great cathedrals, to small retreat centers and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem itself. I’ve sat on the very steps where Jesus likely spoke these words above. And I think of the sacred space that I inhabit every Sunday, my church in Charlottesville, and all those who come there week after week.

Many hands and many prayers have made these places sacred, and those prayers don’t disappear. It is the people themselves, standing on the borders of the Holy, who by their sacredness make these places sacred.

Nor is it a secret how these people, and the spaces where they dwell, become sacred.

Like the prophet Amos, Jesus tells the crowds how they can keep the “inside of the cup” sacred – it is by how they act to the most neglected and overlooked among us (Matthew 23:23):
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
Our reverence, if it is true, must extend beyond the walls of our sacred spaces, and extend beyond ourselves to the places we go, the people we meet, and the tasks before us, especially with caring for the poor, the sick and the lonely. We will know our sacredness by how we act, guided by the Holy Spirit living among us. And the places we go will be as a Holy as the Temple in Jerusalem. Opportunities abound!