Saturday, December 31, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

Happy Hogmanay to all my Scots friends.  (Happy New Year, or more accurately, Happy Eve of the New Year, to the rest of you.)

And in traditional Scots, May the best ye hae ivver seen be the warst ye’ll ivver see.  (Translation: May the best you’ve ever seen be the worst you’ll ever see.  Martin Frost)

Auld Lang Syne, thought to be the most popular and well-known song in the entire world, is sung in some version in Peru, Chili, Finland, China, France, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Korea, The Maldives, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sudan, Taiwan, Zimbabwe and Thailand, to name but a few.

It has been sung in countless movies including It’s a Wonderful Life.

And, of course, Jimi Hendrix gave it his magical electric guitar spin in his performance of December 31, 1969 at the Fillmore East.  Hendrix died in 1970.

Having spent a year interning in Scotland as a student minister, I have heard the song played and sung many times.  But my best memory is the celidh (dance, pronounced kay-lee) held in my honor at the end of my time in Greenock.

After a night of trampling on the feet of good-natured partners (I am an enthusiastic, but talentless dancer), we ended, as is traditional, with Auld Lang Syne.  For me that night, it was not simply the ending of a good night of fun, but the end of a time magical . . . a saying of good-bye to friends and colleagues and to a wonderful, blessed time of learning and growth, restful care and challenge.

The clasping of hands, the approach and retreat of the ‘dance’ of the entire room in one large circle, was symbolic of so much more than I can put into words . . . coming close and retreating away my literal coming into and going away from the lives of so many incredible, kind, giving, good people (with typical Scottish reserve, they will cringe at my very-American excess of language, but it’s all true).

And so to Bill (The Very Reverand William Hewitt) and Moira and family . . . to Liz and Idris and the crew . . . to Stuart and Patricia, Christine and family, to Ann and Anna, Bob, Allison and the kids, Susan, Cath and Jim, Campbell, Nessie and Douglas, Ian, Monica, Les, Ruth, Ishbel, Margaret, Fraser, Ida, Ricky, Marion and George, Liz, Gordon, Morag, wee Kirstie, Peter and Ann, and so many others . . .

To Wilma and John and all the ones who have gone on before . . .

I’ll nae be thir tae see it, but dance a dance and drink a wee cup for me, dear friends.

All your kindness to this strange American in your midst, I will never forget.  Oh, and put a cuppa on, for I’ll be home soon.  Love, Beth

Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking Back

My Top 10 international stories of 2011  (not necessarily in any order of importance)

1. Osama bin Laden - dead.  US college students party in the streets like it’s 1999 and I am embarrassed by and for us as a nation.
2. Arab Spring
3. Purported end to US occupation of Iraq.  Irony: those in the US who supported its war against the people of Iraq (claiming it was to depose tyrant Saddam Hussein), opposed the Arab Spring, out of so-called concern about what would fill the vacuum created by the loss of dictatorial leadership in places like Egypt - apparently, that was not a concern when it came to Iraq.
4. Occupy Wall Street
5. Tsunami in Japan with the attendant nuclear power disaster, the long-term effects of which remain unknown.  Related story: failure of governments of the world to reach agreement on further climate-change strategies.
6. US proving that any boy  really can grow up to be president, as many in the very party she personifies will not support Michele Bachmann because she is a woman – irony may not be news, but it sure is interesting.
7. The US wages yet another undeclared war in the Middle East in the deposing of Gaddafi of Libya and calling it a NATO action (as if NATO is something different than the US).
8. World-wide economic tail spin
9. Death of Kim Jong Il, the effects of which for North Korea, its neighbors and the world, remain unknown
10. Oh, and apparently, the most interesting thing for the world to check out online was making a 13-year-old girl’s attempt at fame (Rebecca Black sings Friday) an international joke.

My Top 10 Personal Stories of 2011
1. My son got a job and moved away from home . . . again . . . and I must admit how much I miss him.
2. The lights were on at Obaugh’s way too often this year. . . Obaugh’s is the local funeral home in the community where I live and when someone dies, owner G. W. turns on the front porch light.  In this tiny place, we said far too many good-byes, including from our own church and the families in our church . . . Bobby McCray, Sonny Smith, Ruth Wade, Eugene Hodge, Levi Armstrong and Joey Roberts.  Levi and Joey were young, killed within weeks of each other in car accidents.
3. Chris & Heather Scott and their girls Ruth and Esther moved away, leaving me with one less ministerial playmate . . . I still feel their absence.
4. I stayed close to home most of this year but did manage to visit friends in Chicago and have friends visit me from Scotland and Pennsylvania.  Oh, and I went on my first and maybe my last cruise (I didn’t get seasick, but that was just way too much ocean for me)
5. I got a new car, well, new to me, anyway . . . and a new computer.
6. Inspired by RevGalBlogPals and my good friend Liz Crumlish I started to blog.  And technology came to our church by way of Podcasts (temporarily suspended while we get a new web site up and running) . . . we’re on FB now, and I’m a guest blogger on the Thoughtful Christian’s blog Gathering Voices (shout out to David Maxwell for thinking I’ve got something to say)
7. At age 56, I began cello lessons and am even learning to read music for the first time!
8. There was an earthquake in Virginia and Ben and I felt the shocks
9. I saw an abundance of butterflies, squirrels and deer, insects and bunny rabbits.
10. I went to my first film festival

History may be writ large, but it is lived small . . . in the everyday-ness of our existence, we find our meaning, purpose and place in the world.

This year mine has been less about the larger world and its events and more about home and family and friends.

In the small as well as the large, so many have suffered so much and my heart aches for them all.

But as for me, it has been, by and large, a very good year.  For that, I am thankful.

And I am wondering . . . what have been your Top 10's for 2011?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Less is More

- = +

Seeing the above symbols on a billboard recently, I puzzle and puzzle:  what does it mean?  The best I can do is “Less is more.”

At Christmas time in the United States, there is much preaching on less . . . less consumerism, less consumption . . . all appropriate given our over-use of the world’s resources and our relative share thereof.

But I think now not of consumerism, but of the approach of the New Year as measured on the Gregorian calendar favored in the Western world.

One of the customs here is to make New Year’s resolutions: promises or commitments, typically to one’s self, to do better, to do more, at something . . . more dieting . . . more effort at drinking less . . . more time given to good causes . . . more work at being an all-round better person.

What if, this New Year, we sought to do less rather than more, to even be less rather than more.

It goes against the grain for we can-do Yanks, doesn’t it?

But maybe, just maybe, this is a time for less promises rather than more . . . less commitments we will not keep (largely because we don’t want to, even though we think we should) . . . less effort . . .

Maybe, just maybe, this can be a year when we stop listening to the voices in our heads and on our television and computer screens telling us that we don’t do enough, that somehow we aren’t enough . . . and simply be content . . . content knowing that we are doing our best . . . content knowing that even amidst the hard times, and there will be hard times, we are blessed . . . blessed with each other . . . blessed with the ability to be useful to our fellow human beings, even if our bodies restrict us to a life of lying in bed . . . blessed knowing we can serve and allow ourselves to be served . . . blessed to simply be . . .

This year, my resolution is to make no resolutions . . . to take life on its own terms . . . as it comes . . . day by day . . . that will be enough . . . and so will I.


On the phrase “less is more”:

"Less is more" is often misattributed to Richard Buckminster Fuller or to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and it has become a prominent motto for minimalist philosophies. It was actually used much earlier in Robert Browning's "Andrea del Sarto" (1855), and the similar German phrase "minder ist oft mehr" by Christoph Martin Wieland in Der Teutsche Merkur (1774).  Wikiquotes

Andrea Del Sarto by Robert Browning

I do what many dream of, all their lives,
--Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,--
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)--so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate'er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman's hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that's shut to me,
Enter and take their place there sure enough,
Though they come back and cannot tell the world.
My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here.
The sudden blood of these men! at a word--
Praise them, it boils, or blame them, it boils too.
I, painting from myself and to myself,
Know what I do, am unmoved by men's blame
Or their praise either. . . 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Rachel Weeps: On the Loss of a Child

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, 
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, 
because they are no more.
                                                    –Matthew 2.18
                                                      (quoting Jeremiah31.15)

On the Roman Catholic calendar, today is the Feast Day remembering the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the boy children who, in the Matthean narrative of the birth of Christ, are the collateral damage to Herod’s effort to find and kill the Messiah.

On such a day, it is common and appropriate to remember the thousands and hundreds of thousands of children who die each year from poverty, as casualties of war, living in refugee camps, as part of the exploitation and human trafficking that views children as commodity rather than human being to be treasured.

But this Feast Day, the trembling of Rachel’s shoulders seems much closer to home than what even horrifying statistics can convey.

My own father died of cancer in 1993.  He was in his early 60's and his own mother, my Grandma, in her 80's.

For all my sorrow at my own loss and my sadness for my mother’s loss of her husband, it is always the vision of my Grandma, Dad’s own mother, that draws my mind’s eye backward to that time.

I can still remember Grandma standing there at the casket, alone, allowing herself no comfort from any quarter.

Grandma hovering over the body of her baby boy is the loneliest sight I have ever seen.

A mother then myself, I understood and my heart broke for her . . . no parent, no matter how old, should have to stand in such a place mourning such a loss.

This feast day, this day set aside to remember those murdered out of the fear and jealousy of a tyrant who would be threatened by a toddler, I am mindful of all the parents who have stood and watched as their own children have returned to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

However your own child was lost to you . . . whether in the vagaries of the madness of war . . . or the puzzling loss of the body turned against itself with disease . . . car accidents or random unexpected tragedy . . . suicide or homicide . . .

This day and always, my prayers are with you.  I can only try to imagine the depth of your loss.  I know not the source of your comfort.  I hate that you have suffered in such a way.  I ache for your loneliness.  And I cling to the belief that God stands ever at your side as you keep your own vigils, weeping your tears, crying your anguish.  I know not whether there be any comfort in that presence.  I only know that you and your pain are not forgotten and neither is the one you loved so much that you risked giving life where it might be taken away.

May Comfort and Peace find you and grant you rest.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Blessing of Discomfort

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.
And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator,
Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour,
and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide,
be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore.

Blessing by Sister Ruth Fox, Order of Saint Benedict (OSB)

A friend's Christmas letter ended with this blessing.  I can think of no better challenge as we enter another year, another span of time wrought by challenge, pain, sorrow, wars and rumors of wars.  

It's an odd blessing, perhaps, this notion of seeking from God discomfort rather than comfort . . . anger rather than calm acceptance . . . tears rather than laughter . . . foolishness rather than wisdom . . . 

But contained within such words of blessing is the acknowledgment that we are put here not for ourselves or our own ends; rather, we are here to tend towards God . . . 

Tomorrow is the feast day for the observance of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents (Matthew 2.16-18) in the Roman Catholic tradition.  Protestants tend to shy away from this horror found right in the midst of the account of the birth and first years of Jesus.  Scholars will claim it didn't happen.  Folks in the pews simply will not notice this account of infanticide, glossing over such a harsh narrative in favor of the wise men coming to pay homage to the Christ child with a glance at the holy family's flight into Egypt, without much thought or attention given to the reason for the flight.

Jesus' first human status was 'refugee'.  

Before he was 'teacher', before he was a learned student or even an impudent pre-pubescent, Jesus was a refugee.  And the occasion for the family's flight was infanticide:  the killing of children en masse.  

It is appropriate in our collective remembering that we join with our Catholic brothers and sisters and remember the holy innocents, and in remembering, to have our own fire for justice rekindled within.

Sisters, brothers, may you be blessed this day with the discomfort of knowing there is work to do towards God's own justice . . . righteousness . . . and peace . . . and that you are called to do it.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

There's a Song in the Air

It is winter in these mountains where I live . . . the sun shines, dazzling the eyes as it reflects off the frost giving us the hoped-for white Christmas.  The air is cold . . . stick-your-nostrils-together-when-you-breathe-in cold, but the winter birds chirping away don’t seem to mind.

Last night’s candlelight service is now but a memory.

And my Christmas has begun. . .

As a pastor, my Christmas begins when yours ends. . .

I love it all . . . the hustle and bustle of last-minute preparations . . . the beauty and pageantry of the late-night service . . . the stillness that descends on the gathered as candles are lit . . . and in some ways best of all, the time after . . . the time of reflecting on who was there and who wasn’t . . . hearing the carols again in my heart . . .

You (well, you and the winter birds) are my Christmas play list and I thank God for each and every one of you. . . the ones I know so well and the ones I will never see or meet.  Thank you and Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve in Amman

Christmas Eve, 2005, Amman, Jordan.
On Christmas Eve, I went to midnight Mass at a local Roman Catholic Church with a Roman Catholic colleague, a Jewish girl, her 'lapsed Protestant' boyfriend (from a Protestant family almost never having been to church himself) and a young Muslim friend.  The worshipers were almost all Philipino domestic workers and the service was in English.
  During communion (the Mass), I stayed with our guests while my Catholic colleague went forward to receive the host (the communion bread).  Jamil, my Muslim friend, asked why we didn't all go up and as I was trying to explain, it got less and less sensible to me.
As we sat, Jamil said, “I like this - it is very nice - it reminds me of Jesus (whom Muslims embrace as a prophet) loving and feeding the poor.”
  I turned to see the people (many of whom are among the poor) walking forward to receive the host from the priest and I saw with new eyes.  Jesus did come to feed the hungry, physically as well as spiritually.  Is communion an enactment of that reality as well as the reality of atoning sacrifice for salvation?  I want to think so.
  We, our guests and I, continued to watch quietly.  The question occurs to me:  who, starving to death, would I not feed?  It is the question I am left with as I marvel that my Muslim friend  wanted to participate and saw no reason why he should not.  Feeding those who lack:  it really is pretty simple, isn't it?

I wrote this reflection five years ago, as I prepared to return to Iraq in the wake of the kidnapping of four of my colleagues from CPT, the peace group I go to Iraq with.  It was a very difficult time, without much joy.  The rain and cold of that Christmas Eve night was appropriate to the mood . . . darkness was all around and the light was hard to find.
As we sat in the service, the priest prayed to God, “Let us be dazzled by Your light.”
I saw very little of God’s light in those days, but one sparkling moment was when my friend Jamil, his eyes alight with wonder, spoke of the beauty of Jesus feeding the poor.
In this Muslim man’s eyes, I saw the light of God that night.  The light from Jamil sustained me on many lonely nights, as he and his friends at the hotel we stayed in awaiting our entry visas into Iraq comforted and cared for me, prayed for my kidnapped colleagues (their friends as well), and generally brought joy out of their poverty to an American woman, who, but for them, was very much alone in her sorrow.
And so, this Christmas season, I pray for each of you . . . in your own sorrow and loss, in your own poverty, may you be aware of the surrounding joy of those you mistakenly believe have little to offer . . . may you who inhabit the churches have your eyes opened to the godliness of those whose feet have never darkened the church’s doors . . . may you standing on the outside see the beauty and wonder of the Jesus who would feed you and may you receive the courage to come inside, for you have much to offer as well as to receive . . . 
May this be the Christmas when we all sit down at God’s table as welcomed guests and receive the great meal of love that God in Christ prepared for us from before the beginning of time itself.
In God’s own dazzling light,
Beth Pyles, Pastor

Friday, December 23, 2011

I Won't Be Alone

On speaking of Christmases past, Sarah remembers happy times with family, most now gone, and says, “They’re all gone, but I can close my eyes and be with them again.  I might be by myself on Christmas morning, but I won’t be alone.”

“I might be by myself, but I won’t be alone.”

I can think of no better statement to capture the essence of the coming of the Christ child, for there are many times when we are by ourselves, but with His coming, we are never again alone.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

They Don’t Know You Like I Do, Ma

I will never be cool enough to go viral . . . shoot, I’ll never be cool enough to be cool in my kids’ eyes . . . well, maybe in my step-kids’ eyes, but they never had the ‘luxury’ of actually living with me, so I’m not sure that counts.

Some years ago, while attending seminary as a second-career student, some fellow seminarians actually younger than my own kids, opined that I just might be the coolest old person they knew.  I was very flattered and rushed to call son Ben and tell him.  Without missing a beat, his reply came over the line at the light-speed of the sharp-witted: They don’t know you like I do, Ma.  

We both still laugh about that one. . . so funny because it is so very true.

I love Jesus and I love my family and friends and I love my church and I love my life and am generally a very content woman . . . but every now and again, like when watching the Blackberry Night Bikes commercial (this is not an endorsement, but I love, love, love those bikes), I wish I were that cool . . . or at least cooler than I am . . . cool enough to have my 15 seconds (used to be minutes, but things move a lot faster now than they used to) of fame for something totally silly . . . totally unimportant to world peace . . . and totally me . . .

Alas, it is not to be . . . I am a great audience for other people’s creativity . . . but there are no Guinness Book of World Records records for the cool of appreciation . . .

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Underpants? For Me????

I am so excited to share this particular Christmas with my grandson Rowen.  He is now 4, the perfect age to grasp the wonder and awe and majesty, to rejoice in the anticipation as much as the event, to relish each surprise as it comes his way.  To see Christmas again through such eyes is a delight and I can hardly wait.

In my family, and I suspect in yours, when it comes to Christmas gifts, some are absolutely inspired and will be remembered for a life time, but most are pretty pedestrian, the giver more appreciated than the gift.

And as soon as November rolls around in my family, we stop buying things for ourselves or others unless they’re to be saved for Christmas.  Need a new pair of socks?  Wait for Christmas and maybe Grandma will get you some.  Getting low on dental floss?  There’ll probably be some in your stocking.  And if you’re lucky, there’ll be a can of your favorite black olives all wrapped up under the tree for you.

We wrap everything and call it a gift – I love that about us, even if it does make for some pretty funny gifts (use your own imagination, but think on the advantages of Polident once you’ve reached a certain age).

But my absolute favorite gift moment has to be my son Ben, exclaiming as he opened one such family gift from me, “Underpants?  For me????”

Like Rowen, Ben was still a small boy and there was no irony in his voice.  He was genuinely thrilled to be receiving a gift of white jockey underpants.  Every single gift he opened was a new and wonderful surprise and he received them all, even the underpants, with equal joy.

I love that about him.  I loved it then and I love it still.  This son of mine always finds joy in receiving.  He doesn’t measure and find wanting.  When it comes to gifts, he sees the glass not as half full, but as overflowing.

And isn’t that so very true?

The gifts we receive are gift and giver, all rolled into one . . . what rapture, what joy, that you would think on me . . . that you would give me this . . . from you . . . oh, how lucky, how blessed am I!

Gifting is holy ground and all who stand upon it are blessed.

I don’t know whether Rowen will have his father’s unabashed excitement and gratitude at receiving gifts or not.  I hope so.  I hope I hear from him this Christmas, “Underpants?  For me????” because he is surely going to receive some.

Merry Christmas, Ben.  Be watching for those underpants.

Love, Mom

The Importance of Wrapping Paper

During Bible Study today, Rosalee shares a Christmas lesson on the importance of wrapping paper . . . years ago she and a fellow teacher got identical gifts for their students, but the other teacher wrapped hers and Rosalee did not.  Rosalee’s students felt somehow that they had gotten less than the other students because their gifts weren’t wrapped.  It wasn’t that they wanted wrapping paper; they actually believed the gifts themselves were different.  The wrapping paper somehow transformed the other gifts into something more.

In my own family, I have seen this in the positive sense, where even white socks and underwear become like the North Star in the wonder of giftedness they inspire simply by being festively wrapped.

And so it is, I think with life.

Chefs and fashionistas and wedding planners and interior designers have always understood that packaging matters, which is just another way of saying that we consume, we take in, we understand things, first with our eyes.

But when it comes to wrapping paper, our hands matter almost as much as our eyes . . . whether we rip and tear eagerly or slowly and carefully take apart what has been so thoughtfully put together . . . whether we notice the color and design of the paper or only see a blur of color as we dive into the gift underneath the wrapping . . . no matter how we approach it all, our hands hold the reality of gift before our minds grasp the nature of the thing presented and make their judgments . . .

In that moment, when the gift sits on our laps, when the wrapping paper surrounds the gift with care, when we behold with our eyes and deconstruct with our hands, there is holiness . . . the recognition of something special having arrived . . . the anticipation serving to actually transform the thing awaited into wonder and beauty and love . . .

That, for me, is Advent . . . the wrapping paper surrounding the gift of the coming of the Christ child . . . the wreaths and the candles, the children’s pageants and the poinsettias, the greening and candy making, the Christmas cards sent and received, the unwrapping of the Biblical story, the waiting and waiting and waiting . . . all make the event, the coming, the triumphal entry, even more than it was already . . .

Jesus is often for me like a pair of comfortable old socks . . . welcome, fitting just right, familiar . . . but the coming, the Advent anticipation, the wrapping paper wonder of it all transform that comfortable familiarity into something bigger, something my hands and eyes know so much better than my mind . . .

Even comfortable old socks can be transformed . . . even the one who wears the socks can be surprised.


Monday, December 19, 2011

O Holy Night

I remember many holy nights, some bursting with the soaring strains of the hymn – Christmas Eve services past . . . three male friends at a Christmas party spontaneously dropping to their knees as they sang off-key and gloriously . . . Fall on your knees . . . the laughter, the wonder, the soul-touching music . . .

Tonight as I drove the mountains home through the dark tunnel of the night, the radio brought the glorious word to my hearing in a new way . . .

It was the last verse rather than the first that spoke into this night . . .

Truly he taught us to love one another; 
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

From that holy night to this, the message is heard anew and anew . . . when he appears, the soul feels its worth . . . 

From God’s worth comes ours . . . and we are taught again how to love one another . . . taught again the law of love and the gospel of peace . . . taught again that all our imprisoning chains are broken in Him for the sake of our brothers and sisters. . . taught again that oppression no more shall find its home on earth . . .

O Holy Night as sung by Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo 

A Winter Blessing

I have always thought of winter as the metaphorical season of our discontent, to borrow from the Bard.  But as I sit here today, I'm revisiting and coming away with winter now as my metaphor of Sabbath.  The summer of doing and memory creating gives way to the winter of simply being.

May this be your season of Sabbath rest into the God who loves and adores you.

Shabbat shalom.  Peaceful, blessed, Sabbath to you and all you hold dear.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Suitable Messiah

Whatever else is true, it is emphatically not true that the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth were suitable to his time, but are no longer suitable to our time. Exactly how suitable they were to his time is perhaps suggested in the end of his story.                         –G. K. Chesterton

I am in search of a suitable Messiah . . . one who will come when I call . . . who will be strong . . . one whose omnipotence shows in ways I can measure . . . whose omnipresence is obvious by the changes wrought in the world . . . one whose omniscience prevents every bad thing before the badness even has a chance to grow from budding thought to flowering full-bloom evil . . .

I am in search of a suitable Messiah . . . strong, sure, purposeful, direct, clear and clearly in charge . . .

I am in search of a suitable Messiah . . . not a dependent, crying, needful baby . . . not a god who grows . . . not a savior who needs me to do the saving . . .

I am in search of a suitable Messiah . . . and this baby Jesus in the manger simply will not do!

A messiah who needs rescuing is an oxymoron.

Such a messiah isn’t suitable at all.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's About Time

It’s about time. . . 

It seems that I have been running late . . . behind . . . past due . . . for a long time now.  Often when I enter a room, my greeting is, It’s about time you got here, underscoring my behindedness in all things.

A part of me wants to respond But!  But I sent you . . . my prayers . . . a card . . . a phone call . . . a warm wish . . . friends . . . 

The buts most often die on my lips unspoken, for the ones reminding me that it’s about time are being quite literal and they’re right.  It is about time. . . the time we make as well as the time we take . . . the time we make just to sit and be with others.

Cards and calls and prayers all matter, but there’s nothing quite like physical presence when it comes to comfort and friendship and reassurance.

The ultimate in our understanding of the Christ event, I think, is this reality of presence.  For a long time, God had been sending hints and voices and promises.  But one day, God came in person, all wrapped up in swaddle.

And in that moment, all humanity inhaled love and exhaled its new understanding . . . it’s about time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


If time were a color
it would be white
for its ever-present
presence of all things
into this one moment

If time were a color
it would be black
for its ever-absent
absence of all things
poured out
and given over
out of this one moment

out of

Do we travel time
or does it travel us?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Noticing the Wings that Fly

Sunday, I travel 6 miles to Headwaters Chapel for the first of two church services.  I park along the road, in front of the Varner family farm.  Sometimes the cows are lined up along the fence in hopeful greeting; what they think I bring, I cannot say, but whatever they’re hoping for, I disappoint, turning away from them and towards the chapel.

Last Sunday was a beautiful, cold, crisp, clear winter day.  The cows had long since given up hope on me, so there was no greeting, or so I thought.

As I turned from the car door to swing my robe on at the road’s edge, I felt more than heard or saw movement.

And then I heard it . . . the sound of hundreds of birds’ wings beating . . .

The flock lifted up on waves . . . staying low, it was almost as if they ran rather than flew across the road to the field further away from this mid-morning intruder.

A smaller group held back, waiting until all the others had landed on the other side before lifting up in identical fashion. . . the staggered crossing created a long ten-count of beating wings . . . the only sound in that moment in the whole of the valley . . .

As they resettled in the far field, I realized why I hadn’t seen them before . . . even though I knew they were there, even though I watched them fly in and land, as soon as they touched down, one by one and in groups of hundreds, they disappeared into the short grass.

The wing sound was my only real proof that they had been there.

I was sorry I had disturbed them even as I longed to hear their wing song again.

If they hadn’t moved, I would have never seen them.

Ears are for hearing and eyes for seeing, but hearts that soar and feet that dance and wings that fly are for noticing.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

I'm Dreaming of a White (Socks) Christmas

I have many Christmas memories, most of them wonderful, some of them truly horrible.  I survived the horrible and cherish the wonderful.

And of all things, every time I see a new package of white socks, I remember Christmas at my Grandma’s house.

Every Christmas day, my Mom, Dad and I would have our own Christmas time and then we would travel ‘over the river and through the woods’ to Grandma’s house, where extended family gathered for more celebration.

Often, distant family would come who hadn’t called to tell Grandma they were coming.  But she was always ready for them, for at Grandma’s house, no one left without a present.

As soon as she’d see Aunt Irma and Uncle Lernie, or Aunt Irene or Uncle Dice pull up, Grandma would send me hurrying to her bedroom dresser, to get from the top drawer (where I wasn’t allowed to go otherwise, because that’s where Grandpa kept his ‘secret’ stash of pink lozenges that I so loved) a package of men’s or women’s white socks to wrap and put under the tree with their name on it.

It might not be white socks anymore, but my own mother always has a little stash of gifts for the unexpected guest and now, so do I, because you never know who might drop by at Christmas.  And every guest, bidden or unbidden, must have a gift.

Welcoming the unexpected is a wonderful lesson my Grandma, Mary Edra Tennant Pyles, taught me about the meaning of Christmas.

And like Bing Crosby, I too dream of white Christmases, but mine are filled with socks more than snow.

This Christmas, may you be met with gifts of white socks everywhere you enter as the unexpected guest; and may you be ready to welcome such guests into your own circle of love.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Simplicity of Truth

My family loves to play games – cards, board games, drawing games, you name it, we’ve played it.

For a time, a favorite was Balderdash, where you lie (bluff) word meanings, trying to convince competitors that your hoax definition is really the genuine article.

My son Ben was a teenager when we spent hours and hours working our way through the Balderdash card box, continually amazed at how many words there are that we’d never heard of.

And much to Ben’s chagrin, I could almost always tell when a definition was one of his creations: he’d take a word like verdigris (actual definition: the green stuff on copper) and come up with something like the true and genuine meaning of fictitious grist for the mill, usually seen in the pulp novellas of the 19th century in England and generally read by poor women of the day. . .

The less Ben knew, the longer and more convoluted his definitions became.  Even when I told him, less is better, he just couldn’t help himself. . . his manufactured truth just had to be a thing of complexity.

And so it is in life: truth is a fairly simple thing; deception, by its very nature and in its effort to obscure and disguise the truth, is a thing of nonsensical complexity.

Some years ago an independent candidate for president had a running mate who, during the debates, was asked the usual questions, but he gave simple, direct answers.  I still remember the shock and surprise of the moderator: this man was not acting according to the script.  Don’t you want to say more?  he was asked.  No, was his simple, truthful answer.

It’s a pretty good template for judging truth: the more words, the less truth.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Spepash and Other Nonsense

I cracked myself up yesterday.  E-mailing a blog post, I had to fill in the usual “word verification box”, filled with the wavy letters, to make sure that I’m a human and not a spam or a bot (I know, it’s not ‘a’ spam, but I couldn’t resist, as visions of Monty Python’s Spamalot fill my head).

In any event, I have decided to start collecting the random letters the magic word box throws up at me (testing, as often as not, whether I am old rather than whether I am human – who over 50 can read those letters, I ask you?), with the object of creating new words.

And so I give you my first offering from the magic words that aren't words box:


Spepash:  the feeling you get when you can’t read those fuzzy, wavy letters, and thus become filled with that sense of failure as a human being that only a machine can invoke.


That’s my definition and I’m sticking with it.

I admit, I did play around with some alternatives . . .

What would a ‘spepash’ be? I asked myself.

I’m sure it would be something

and fun

and just full of


the opposite of balderdash?

Quick as a flash?

a 99.9 yard dash?

Full of panache?

But while such speculations are fun, words have meaning, after all, and in the Beth.Pyles online pocket (yeah, try that!) dictionary 2.0, spepash is machine-created dread.

Use in a sentence:  A wave of spepash crashed over Beth as she sat before her computer, fingers trembling lest she err, and began to tenuously type one by one the barely discernible letters into her security box; the stakes were high -- having failed twice already, she would be locked out forever if she failed this time.


Really, who could make this stuff up?  Check out CAPTCHA (for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart).  It seems that while I know that I'm a human being, my computer doesn't.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Not Holier Than God

I was trolling the web, looking for a cute image on the idea of ‘spiritual temperature’ when I came upon the 2008 blog posting by David Wayne.

I love the Bonhoeffer quote from his book, Life Together:
Christian community is like the Christian's sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature.
And David’s paraphrase of John Calvin, that “ there are some people who have higher standards of holiness than God. . .” is as funny as it is sharp.  Who says the great reformer didn’t have a sense of humor?

In my own time and place, it is not the vice of complaining that draws my attention; indeed, it isn’t any vice at all that occupies on my mind just now.

Rather, I sit with a community that is in pain . . . there has been no collective catastrophe, but there are so many individual ones, both great and small, that I find myself to be so very spiritually tired. . . not numb . . . not bored . . . not fed up . . . not impatient . . . not judging . . . just sad . . . and tired, soul-weary-tired.

Some of us will survive our current crises, some will not.

This winter is not the season of our discontent; rather, it is the season of our loss.

Counting that loss, however, is part of the problem.  Doubtless, Bonhoeffer had no thought of the seasons of loss in the life of a church when he wrote the challenge to avoid the constant taking of our own temperature, but it is a metaphor that serves well in such times, I think.

Of course we must be self-aware.  Of course, we must provide good care to self and to others.  Of course we must observe our own sabbath rest.

But in the midst of heartache, it does little good to seek to measure it.

In the midst of sorrow, there is little point to counting our own tears.

Such efforts are not only in vain, they are also a way for us, for me, to try to step around what’s happening, to avoid the pain by acting the part of impartial observer, collector of the statistics of sorrow, as if that would somehow minimize the real hurt happening around and within.

God does not count the cost.  But God experiences it.  So too must we.

Today I am sad.  And I am tired.  Sitting with that is necessary.  And measuring it will not make it hurt less or pass sooner.

This is the season of my sorrow.

May I sit with it grace-fully.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When Is a Soldier Not a Soldier?

When is a soldier not a soldier?  When he or she is a mercenary . . . or part of the growing “private military”, also known as private security contractors (PSC’s).

In Iraq, a soldier is not a soldier when he or she is in country paid indirectly rather than directly by the United States government.  A soldier is a PSC and not a soldier when he or she works for a private contracting firm receiving billions of tax dollars for the privilege.  A solider is a PSC and not a soldier when he or she can act with impunity in violation of local, national and international laws without consequence.

In practical terms, when I have encountered enlisted US military soldiers in Iraq, they were eager to hear a word from home, and apologetic of their limitations in hospitality (such as forcing Iraqis to remain standing in ankle-deep mud in the cold and rain for an ‘audience’ with a higher up, while inviting westerners inside for warmth and comfort. [Side note: we stayed outside with our Iraqi friends]).

When I have encountered private contractors, whether security or otherwise, they have refused eye contact or engagement, have fired upon a vehicle I was riding in (a ‘friendly’ warning shot), have been rude to Iraqis and others, and have generally created a cringingly bad impression of the United States and its citizens, to say nothing of their actions of violence towards the unarmed civilian population whose language they do not speak and whose cultural norms they apparently do not care to understand.

It is widely reported that the United States is leaving Iraq effective December 31 in terms of its military presence.

Which brings us back to the opening question: when is a soldier not a soldier?

The fact is that the United States is not leaving Iraq in terms of its presence of force.  Security contractors will largely take the place of US military personnel.

And whenever government officials of the United States, whether Democrats or Republicans, speak of our forces in Iraq, they studiously avoid mention or inclusion of PSC’s, who, for some time, have actually made up the majority of our on-going presence in Iraq.

Honesty and integrity loathe the misuse of language and false categorization that create this mass denial of reality.

Why is it so important that the American people be led to believe that our occupying presence no longer exists in Iraq?  Why do we so misuse language that it no longer effectively communicates anything of importance?

When did Jesus’ admonition, elegant in its simplicity: Let your yes be yes and your no be no, get forgotten in our collective consciousness?

When did a soldier stop being a soldier?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Doing It with Others

It’s different doing it (whatever the it is) with others than doing “it” alone.

Whatever the “it” may be, the very doing of it with others makes it of a different order altogether.  Acting in concert transforms the action into something it would not have otherwise been.  It’s not simply that we do the “it” either alone or with others.  By acting with others, as opposed to alone, the very “it” is itself changed.

Yesterday I sat in a group of musicians, average age 12.  As part of my cello lessons, I was included, with the other few adults, in the concert recital.

But because of my grown-up duties, I had been unable to attend the group rehearsal, so had only the brief warm-up before the concert to actually play with the other instruments.

Thus, when the piano accompaniment came along and we were clipping along at a different tempo, I was lost.  When other instruments near me were playing melody to my harmony lines, I was totally thrown.

I had practiced for a solo, but was being called to play in concert.

The cello is an orchestral instrument.

Like the cello, we human beings were crafted to be orchestral instruments playing symphonies, with the rare solo moment, made even more special for the symphonic surround.

There is little, if any, point, to practicing for a solo existence when I was crafted to live and act and have my being in community.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Cliff Notes: Advent 2 Sermon

It Could Have Happened Like This

The angel Gabriel, an eternal optimist who leaves realism to God, is charged by God to go and visit a human female to bring her the ‘great’ news that she will have a child without a father . . .

Perhaps he first goes to Jerusalem and seeks out a girl . . . maybe her name was Tabitha . . .

Tabitha, it’s me, the angel Gabriel, and boy, do I have some great news for you!  God wants to send a baby into the world, a very special baby, and God wants you to be his mother!  What do you think of that?

Imagine our fictional Tabitha . . . busy cutting and chopping, helping to prepare the evening meal . . . she hears a buzzing in her ear . . . it sounds like words . . . but there’s no one in the room . . . so she just swipes at her ear to chase away the imagined gnat and goes on chopping . . .

Gabriel is astonished . . . immediately back in heaven, he reports to God what has just  happened . . . God merely smiles and tells him to go back . . .

Next imagine Gabriel visits a girl in Bethlehem itself . . . now this is a good plan, he thinks to himself . . . they’ve got to be here for the census anyway, so why not start out here?

Anna, he shouts, having learned that a whisper simply will not do . . . and poor Anna immediately drops to the ground in a dead faint . . .

And so it goes, girl after girl, town after town . . . one is too busy to be bothered . . . one doubts her own sanity and refuses to believe Gabriel is an angel of the Lord . . . one is too frightened by the shame and degradation she will experience . . . one gets so angry she chases Gabriel out of the house with a broom . . .

By this time, Gabriel, still an optimist, is getting frustrated . . . Lord, what am I to do?  None of them will do it!  

God smiled and told Gabriel, Go back. . . you’ll find her . . . have faith . . . which is a very unusual thing to say to an angel . . .

And so back to earth he goes . . . out of towns and out of ideas, he finally turns his attention to Nazareth . . . a town so small it’s not really a town at all. . . kind of like McDowell or Headwaters. . . and there he notices a teenage girl all alone . . .

By now, Gabriel has figured out that he needs to get them alone . . . too many human voices drown out his message or distract the girls from his good news . . .

There she is, all by herself!  What good fortune!  But Gabriel doesn’t get too excited . . . after all, by now, he’s done this a thousand times . . .

But this one . . . she really is different . . . she’s just as confused as the others, but she is also curious . . . and she listened to Gabriel . . . really listened . . . much of what he said still didn’t make sense to her, but she got the basics . . . God wanted her to have a baby . . . God’s baby . . .

Gabriel waited with bated breath (well, it would have been if angels had breath) for her answer . . .

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

She agreed!  She said yes!

And all heaven poured forth its Hallelujah!

And she, the girl named Mary, the one who said yes to God’s invitation into the divine love story, sings her joy . . .

 . . . my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for he has looked with favour 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 promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
                                    –Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 1.47-55 (NRSV)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

In the Meantime

The greening of the church . . . that wonderful time when the scent of fresh pine mingles with the accumulated treasures of generations in dressing the church up for Advent . . .

I love the decorating, the gathering of community, the transformation, but it wasn’t until today that I connected what we’re doing so directly with our anticipation of the coming of Jesus. . . that I saw the greening of the church as an act of waiting-for-Messiah hope . . .

Dressing the church in the green of life is like waiting for spring in the dead of winter while  enacting it in the meantime.

That’s what it is to anticipate Jesus . . . waiting, but enacting him in the meantime.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Leaping in Expectation

While uncertain, the word hope may have a connection to the word hop, as in leaping in expectation.

Isn’t that a wonderful vision of hope?

Think of Christmas mornings when you were a child or even better, the night before, when you could scarcely make yourself stand still, let alone lie down to sleep.

That kind of expectancy, the jump-up-and-down excitement of your small child self knowing that something good, no – something wonderful, lies beyond. . .  the hug-yourself-in-anticipation of what is coming and coming soon . . . that is the hope of the coming of the Messiah.

Zechariah’s hope for a Messiah wasn’t abstract . . . it was the sheer joy of a man waiting a lifetime for the gift of his own child.

Elizabeth’s hope literally leapt within her.

Simeon’s hope was so great that when it was realized, he could say that now he could happily pass from this world.

The point is that Messiah’s saving love and presence has a form and a shape and that form and shape is each of our own lives. . . for one, salvation looks like a child in the womb . . . for another, holding a baby long awaited . . . for another, a wife home from the hospital . . . for another, a call from a friend long missed . . .

What is the shape of the thing hoped for in your life?

This Advent season, may Messiah’s coming and coming again fill that longing, taking on the shape and form of your desires, your yearnings, your salvation.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hope in the Midst of Pain

Should not your piety be your confidence and 
your blameless ways your hope
                                                                  –Job 4.6

One of Job’s friends, a fellow named Eliphaz, utters these words, presumably intended as comfort to Job in his distress.

Job’s children have died.  His wealth is gone.  His health has evaporated before his eyes.  There is no reason for any of this that has anything to do with anything Job did or did not do.  In other words, this is not some sort of divine punishment against Job.  If anything, these horrors are visited on Job because he is so righteous, as some sort of test of the limits of human love for God.

The implications of such a view are for another time.

What draws me today is this line from Eliphaz about hope.  

A FB friend today wrote about his own anguish and pain (he suffers chronic debilitating illness and is plagued by virtually constant physical pain).

One of his friends offered ‘comfort’ in the form of scripture on the source of hope and the rewards of righteous living.

Doesn’t this miss the point today as much as it did back on the ash heap at Job’s place?

Our own goodness, such as it is, is no source of hope or confidence.  Our goodness is our response to God’s own goodness, no more, no less.  It is offered to God for its own sake, without expectation of reward or protection from harm.  

And innocence is no protection from harm.

And most of all, in the midst of our pain, our real, cry-out-in-the-dark hurting, the hope we seek is that the pain will stop.  That’s all.  

Whether the pain has a purpose or whether we can glean some learning from it is for the time after the pain has passed.

In the midst of the pain, the consuming fire brings us down to primordial basics: it won’t last forever; you are not alone; I am here; make it stop! 

If Job’s blameless ways were the source of his hope, Job would have had no reason to suffer in the first place.  

The fact is that suffering is the one universal of being human, whether of the good and upright stripe or the not-so-much school.

So for those suffering today . . . chances are it’s not your fault . . . the pain really will pass . . . and you are not alone . . . not now, not ever. . . and sometimes all you can do is ride it out, feel the pain, and cling to whatever glimmer of hope you can find.  

May your persevering not be in vain.

May your pain be eased.

And in its midst, may the kind hand of God reach out and hold you up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Hope For You

This Advent, my hope for you is . . .

clear skies

smooth sailing

hip-hop-poetry-slam-joy moments

new friends

nothing extra

knowing you’re necessary because the earth, like a machine, doesn’t come with any unnecessary parts

enough challenge to keep it all interesting

enough ease to find your rest

a replenishing well

a winning team to root for

lots of wow moments

a life well-lived

love well given

Nod to movie Hugo for the unnecessary parts line & a shout out to Judy & Rich for the late-night inspiration.  Go, Rehobeth!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Infinite Hope

We must accept finite disappointment,
but never lose infinite hope.
                                                  –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

My grandson clutches the latest Christmas catalogue to his body and when asked, identifies each and every item in it as something he wants, needs, fervently desires . . . even the things for girls . . . yes, I want that too . . . only for boys, is his stock response to his challengers.

The temptation during this time of year can be to chastize, to bemoan the crass materialism that makes even little children’s reach exceed their grasp, but I’m changing my tune on this one.

It is the job of children to have  reaches that exceed their grasp, for their desires to be bigger than their own abilities to achieve those desires.

And yes, it is often the job of the grown-ups in the room to act as the wise corrective, bringing back, reining in, that childish desire to something reasonable.

But it is also the job of the grown-ups in the room to accede to those desires . . . to give as well as to give in . . . to recognize and respond to the infinite hope that resides in every child.

Hope is a funny thing . . . mostly, those who need it the most have it the most. . . or so it seems to me.

But there are those who didn’t get their hope quotient. . . those whose catalogues of dreams got lost in the mail . . . those for whom the infinity of hope has been obscured by the finitude of disappointment.

For those you know who are in need of some infinite hope today . . . may your prayers for them be converted by God’s own Spirit into whispers of hope into their hearts.

May they, may you, be reminded of the possibilities of an infinite hope.

Advent: A Time of Hope, Not Wishes

“Advent is the time of hope, not wishes. Christians truly believe that Jesus is working through our work to bring about liberation and allow us to live in dignity and peace. And we do not wait idly, we wait expectantly, and we continue the struggle in the meantime.”
–“The Holy Margins” by Julie Myers, CPT

Advent is a time of hope, not wishes.  Julie writes her reflection from Christian Peacemaker Team’s (CPT) Colombia home, recalling the continuing work of the people of Colombia to reclaim their land and their dignity, at great personal risk.

I cannot imagine a better understanding of this thing we call hope: keen desire mixed with fervent effort.

Hope is not fatalism, simply awaiting what will come.  Nor is hope, as Julie points out, merely wish or desire, for blended in with the desire of hope is the expectation of it.

Hope is reality working against the odds.

So today, during this week of hope during the Advent season, I ask myself:  for what do I hope?

I live in such plenty that it is often difficult to experience any sense of lack or desire.  It is often as if all my desires have been met.

But this is the lure and the lie of material comfort: the mirage that all is well and nothing is left to be desired.

For what do I hope?

Big things like world peace . . . plenty of food on every table . . . reconciliation among and between us all . . . shelter for every head . . . creation cherished . . . children safe and loved . . .

But those things are more like wishes than hopes.

I hope, I desire fervently, I work for, I expect . . .

that someone’s Thanksgiving was a little brighter, a little less lonely, a little more fed, because my community gave of itself food for the table . . .

that a few children will have a happier Christmas and will find hope for themselves because someone brought them some toys and tokens to show that they matter and there are people who care . . .

that mine will be a reconciling voice at the table of family and friends . . .

that the generations in my family will flourish, knowing they rest upon a foundation of love and care from the generations before them . . .

These are my hopes . . . my desires . . . the things I work for and fervently desire . . .

I wonder . . . what are your hopes?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cliff Notes: Advent 1 Sermon

Keep Watch

“Mark 13 speaks to those who expect too much and to those who expect too little. [But most of all, it speaks to] those who have forgotten to expect anything at all”, says author Lamar Williamson.

We worship the God of the impossible, who can will the unimaginable.  How can we expect too much from such a God as this?

Maybe it’s not that we expect too much from God, but that we expect too much from others and from ourselves.

We expect too much when we demand perfection and refuse to accept or forgive anything less.

And sometimes, we expect too much from our world, allowing disappointments and setbacks to turn us from hope towards bitterness.

We expect too much from human understanding when we read our Bibles and think we know all the questions and already have all the answers.  When we hear Jesus’ words and think that ‘end times’ are at hand, we claim too much, for in God’s word, there is no such thing as end times.  God’s Word is of beginnings, not endings.

When we claim God’s judgment and not God’s love as the final word,  we claim at the same time, too much and too little, for our God.  We claim too much in our certainty that we know, when even Jesus reminds us that such knowledge is reserved to God and God alone.  And we claim too little when we think the devastating picture Jesus paints is the final word.

We claim too little if we stop there, overlooking Jesus’ promise that such times are a beginning – a promised birth.  His pronouncement, will all its fearsome imagery, is a promise of wonderful things to come:  just as a mother struggles in agony to bring forth a child, so will all creation struggle in pain to bring forth God’s new creation.

We expect too much and too little if we understand this passage as anything less than a promise of the redeeming transformation of all creation.  This is a word of Good News indeed, for we are in great need of such change.

But this text speaks most of all to those among us who have forgotten to expect anything at all.  Jesus encourages the unexpectant, in the words of Ignatian Brother Larry Gillick, to live towards our eternal existence, to know that the ‘when’ is now:  “The fall of the leaves is not the beginning of the end, but the beginning of the beginning. . . God is always coming to make more of us than we can make of ourselves.”
To the unexpectant, to we who have so much we can think of nothing we lack, to those of us who stopped waiting for anything a long time ago, Jesus is issuing a wake up call to the spiritual and earthly reality of his transforming presence in our lives and in our world.

Live as if I were coming back right now! says Jesus, because I am.  In every moment of every day, I am coming back to you. Can’t you see me?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent Reflection: Only God Can Make a Pie

Tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent and we will celebrate with carols, candles and communion.

And the waiting will begin. . . waiting for Messiah to come again . . . waiting for Baby Jesus in the manger . . . waiting for the spark within each of us to be reignited into the very Spirit of God in our midst . . .

And in the meantime, we will go about our lives . . . busy with the day-to-day of existence with even the cracks of time and space filled with the joy or burden of "the holidays" . . .

Can't recommend the book
as I haven't read it,
but it's a great picture!
My own symbol this year of the waiting space is the perfect pie crust.

Pie making requires first and foremost a good crust.  I've been making pies since I was about 12 and only recently did I stumble on the great tip for the perfect flaky crust:  do not stir or over-work the dough -- rather, lightly fluff the water into the flour/lard mixture only until it is moistened:  crust does not like to be overworked.  The more gentle we are with it, the more flaky and wonderful-melting-in-the-mouth goodness it will yield.  As with so many things in life, less really is more.

That's a great lesson for Advent:  less is more.  Not only the less of consumer consumption, but also the less of trying so hard.  Advent is a time, if ever there were, to relax into God and God's good grace, to do our part gently and with patience and then step back to allow The Divine work to simply happen.

We might mix together some ingredients, but to borrow from poet Joyce Kilmer, only God can make a pie.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Thank You to My Family

After all the food was eaten, the dishes washed and put away, football watching wound down, and the family game (Taboo this year) played to satisfactory conclusion, after all that, came my favorite time of Thanksgiving . . . gathered in comfortable pauses and quiet conversation, family all around, young and old, happily in each other's presence, too tired to care about any remaining mess and simply glad to share snippets of thoughts, moments of our lives.

Thanksgiving has always been a favorite, blessed, gathering in my family.  In that space, wherever we gather, we don't so much express our thanks as live it out in time spent with each other.

And in the aftermath, with the turkey gone, the pies all eaten save the secret piece stashed in the back of the frig, the family scattered back to the winds from whence we all came, I find I am thankful . . . thankful these people are family to me and I to them . . . thankful that we can gather together and share and laugh like fools and cry like babies . . . thankful for the memories that will carry me forward to the next Thanksgiving.

Blessings to all now and evermore.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful Hands

In my own mind, giving thanks brings to mind grace at meal time, the obligatory thank you to the holy host before impatiently digging in.  If you’ve ever been at a family Thanksgiving where the one praying seemed to go on and on and on, you’ll know what I mean.  It’s interesting to note that in the Jewish tradition, thanks are offered after the meal, not before.  Maybe if we followed that tradition, we’d be more patient with the thanks.  Maybe.

But maybe our temptation to impatience is more about not truly appreciating the cost of the meal, even in  earthly terms.  Maybe the farmers among us, whose hands have mixed with the soil that brings forth our food are more patient, more aware, more thankful.  For the farmer knows, really knows, in-his-very-cellular-structure-knows what I as a former city-dweller can only understand with my mind: bringing forth the bounty of the earth is no easy task.

At this time of year, to remind us of the debt of thanks we owe, we consider the Pilgrims and their difficult winter, saved only by the hospitality of the Natives who shared their food with them.  The Pilgrims’  thanks were heart-felt, because the food they received came as they were on the brink of starvation.  This was not just another meal in a long line of generally satisfying dinners.  No – this . . . was . . . salvation.

Jesus reminds us that he did not come for the healthy, for they have no need of him.  Rather, Jesus came for the sick.  It’s common sense, isn’t it?  Only the sick need a doctor.  Only the dying know the joy of restored life.  Only the starving know the saving grace of a meal.  Perhaps only those whose hands have been empty can really give thanks when those hands are filled.

Conversely, only the satisfied could say with poet Robert Frost, “Of apple-picking . . . . .  I am overtired of the great harvest I myself desired.”

It is all too easy in our place and time to grow weary of the burden of our plenty and in our weariness, to miss entirely our lack.  Thankfulness comes from the deep place within, the place where, in our smallest child-like selves, we know that what we have, who we are, is the result of grace, not merit.

It is the nature of thankfulness to recognize the gifts of others in our lives.   Thankfulness is not gladness, nor is it self-satisfaction; rather, thankfulness is full appreciation for the reality of our condition and its cause.    Maybe the real trick about thankfulness is to understand that our hands are really empty even when they seem quite full.

Paul calls the Thessalonians and us to a life of continual thanks, for God wishes us to be a thankful people.  Perhaps when it comes to thanks, the question for us is whether we can know ourselves to be starving pilgrims and desperate farmers, even when we feel like weary over-satisfied apple pickers.