‘Twas the night before Christmas, and out on the lawn
150 were gathered, ‘round dusk (‘twas not dawn!)
Luminarias were placed round the driveway with care,
In hopes that the deer wouldn’t stomp on them there!
People were wrapped in warm blankets on chairs,
While light from the firepits danced round their hairs;
Dear friends and loved ones, and I in my cape,
Had just settled in for a Christmas Eve “date”
When out from the church there arose such a clatter,
We sprang from our posts, to see what was the matter!‘
Twas only the choir and the pageant-tableau
Nice and toasty inside, oh wouldn’t you know?
What a year, what a year! More like two years, in fact!
Life’s felt upended and hardly in-tact
Darn virus persists, pandemic’s still here
It started with delta, now omicron we fear
Divisions abound, wherever we turn
Politics and race, oh when will we learn?
Loved ones fell ill, and others, they passed
Masks, on or off? Boosters, how long will they last?
To gather or not? How many, how few?
And 2-point conversions, the Ravens don’t do!
People are hungry, students can’t learn
Folks keep on struggling for wages to earn
And yet here we are, we’ve gathered once more
To sing and to pray, to watch and hear lore
A story so ancient, so treasured, so true
Of God born among us, for me and for you
God came not to kings or to queens or to power
Not to glimmering, shimmering wealth on the hour
But to Mary and Joseph, poor, humble and meek
Who struggled to make it, week upon week
To a world that was messy, uncertain, unsure
A world that so desperately yearned for a pure
Message from heav’n, from deep within all
That love’s born anew, whatever befalls
Us folks, then and now; distant, near or far
Light shines in the darkness, and spreads from a star
A single flame kindled, in you and in me
Binds one to another and through eternity
We need not know what exactly the future will bring
Love reigns in our hearts, it’s there She is King
And so we’re reminded for once yet again
To keep watch for that star to shine forth, oh dear friends
On Bert and the choir! On Robert, Connections!
On Barb and Rebecca, Jan, Mary and Ellen!
On Freda Marie! On Mark, Chuan and Grace!
On Katrina … On David … our leader in this race!
A race not to conquer, to win or to beat
But to serve others with kindness and joy, is our feat
So onward together, and on with our fight
Merry Christmas to All! And to All a Good Night!
If you met a person who had never heard the story of the Incarnation, what would you tell them? It’s not an idle question. In mid-December fifteen years ago, a parishioner pulled me aside at coffee hour. “I think we need to become more active at St. John’s,” he began sheepishly. “My wife and I decorated our house yesterday for Christmas. We packed the kids in the station wagon, drove out to the east end of Long Island, and bought a tree. Back at home with mugs of steaming hot chocolate, we carried the boxes of ornaments up from the basement, and made new ones on a card table set up in the living room. Close to dinner time we unpacked the creche, and our older daughter giggled as she placed the wise men on a window sill in the kitchen. ‘They’ve got a long way to go before they get to Bethlehem,’ she said. The twins, who are five-years-old, thought this was a great idea, so they positioned the animals and shepherds on the dining room table, two rooms away.” That all sounds great, I said. “We were feeling good about the day,” the parishioner said, “until we heard one of our five-year-old’s whisper to the other, ‘Now what’s the name of that baby in the straw?’” I signed them up for Sunday School.
How would you tell the story of Christmas? I wondered about that with a group of friends at Blakehurst recently. They gather regularly to puzzle over theological questions, following an example set by June Finney years ago, and they invited me to join them as Advent was beginning. “If someone landed from Mars and wanted to know what the December fuss was all about,” I asked them, “where would you start?”
“An angel got the whole thing going,” said one person. “I think it begins with Mary,” said another. “She was 14, pregnant, and unmarried. What do you think about that, rector?” We were off and running! “What about the man—I forget his name,” someone asked. Joseph, I offered… and what do you make of the fact that he seems forgettable, I wondered. “Oh, I think he’s very important,” said someone. “He could have turned his back on her, cast her out of the family. I think he took a risk by doing the right thing. It’s not such a stretch to believe knowing who the father was could be a mystery. We were all 14 once upon a time.” Now the group was giggling, and nodding their heads.
What about the manger, I asked them. “That’s where the baby was born, because there was no room at the Inn.” What do you think that means, why do we include that detail? There was no innkeeper in the scripture… did you know that? That’s a role we have created for our Christmas pageants. Our conversation got quiet, and I told them about some research I’ve been doing.
There were no hotels or B & B’s in first century Israel, no Holiday Inns with the lights on for all the people who were travelling for the emperor’s census. Modest houses at that time would be constructed with two rooms, one at street level and one upstairs. The lower space would be where a family would keep an animal or two, usually a cow to provide milk for the small fry. It was warm and dry and swept clean for cooking and storing food. The word for the other space is “inn,” and elsewhere in the gospel the same word is translated as “upper room,” like the one where the disciples gathered after Jesus died. Because other family members would have traveled to Bethlehem to be counted, as well, by the time Mary and Joseph arrived, the “inn” was full, so the couple was invited to stay downstairs. They weren’t cast out. The poor family did what poor families do—they made room for them in the best place they could offer. Jesus was born into a space of hospitality.
That’s how I would tell the Christmas story.
The AAA (All African-American Authors) Book Club will take a hiatus beginning in February 2022 to return at a later date. We initiated it soon after the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent worldwide protest in solidarity with the anguish and anger of the African-American community. As many of you may recall, it was a very raw time in which the state of the American justice system for black and brown people was blown wide open for the world to see.
In response to my own deep hurt and anger, I thought it would be a good thing to share some of the AAA experience with the community at Redeemer from a literary perspective. I have always been a book nerd, and it seemed to me that the artists of the world always speak truth in lived reality. I believed that exposure to African American authors would be a good way to experience some sort of unity and solidarity with the lived experience of fellow citizens of the African diaspora in these United States. It was well-received and although our numbers dwindled over time, the passionate discussions and engagement with those of us who remained, has continued.
A couple of months ago though, I received an enlightening article from a member of the book club titled, “The Lofty Goals and Short Life of the Anti-racist Book Club.” It described the outcomes of innumerable book clubs which had sprung up all over the country from the same catalyst—Floyd’s death. The article articulated the questions that had been circulating in the back of my own mind: Reading black authors and gaining knowledge leads one where? In other words, now that we know, so what? To what end does learning about the life experience of an entire group of people with whom I live change me— or you? Let me tell you one way.
I want to tell you about LOVE.
I had voiced several times over the past few months how tiring, sad and dissatisfying it was for me to facilitate the book club alone. I asked whether or not we should consider discontinuing our time together, since our numbers and interest seemed to have dwindled significantly. That night those present were adamant that we should continue to read, reflect and engage. HOWEVER, acknowledging the toll it was taking on my own health and well-being, several of them volunteered to step in to facilitate our times together. They might not realize it, but I felt heard, supported and could breathe a bit. The actions of those four of you (you know who you are!) who volunteered to help showed me what love looks like. THIS is how compassion and solidarity show up in the world y’all!
Although we are taking a hiatus, we WILL BE BACK! The first reading, though will be a discussion of the article I referenced so that we might arrive at an intention for continuing our time together. LOVE and Compassion are both verbs, you know?
Meanwhile, we will begin a new journey of spiritual growth here at Redeemer called “Life in the Spirit,” where we will explore the realm of the spirit in contrast to the realm of religion. You will be hearing more about it in the next few months and may want to join in!
L-I-F-E? It’s All GOOD! (With a shout-out to Patty, Steve, Cathy, and Mark)
Enjoying this Season of HOPE!
On Monday, December 6, many Christians around the world celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas. Perhaps you are familiar with some of the traditions: children place their shoes outside the door at night and wake to find them filled with chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil or small oranges. He may be more familiar to those of us in the Western Church in the amalgamation he became when mixed up with Scandinavian myth and Dutch Protestants: Santa Claus.
For all that he is beloved around the world, very little is known about St. Nicholas’s life. He lived during the fourth century and was the bishop of Myra, a provincial capital in Asia Minor, on the southern coast of modern day Turkey. Beyond that, most of what we know about St. Nicholas is based in legend.
One of the most familiar legends goes like this: One evening, Nicholas was out for a walk. Though he was still a young man and not yet a Bishop, he had committed himself to helping the poor by giving away his money in secret. On his walk he overheard a father preparing to sell his three daughters into prostitution because he had no money for their doweries, and no way left to care for the family. Nicholas snuck back by the house later in the evening and threw three bags of gold through the window, ensuring that the girls had enough to marry.
I’ve been thinking about St. Nicholas this week in the context of Judgement. Today, the four Sundays of Advent are sometimes given a virtue or theme: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. But, as lay theologian Hannah Bowman writes, “The traditional topics for preaching on the four Sundays in Advent are the ‘four last things’ of death, judgment, heaven, and hell.” Slightly less cozy.
I have been chewing on the idea of God’s judgement, and the ways that while we often reckon judgement to be negative, it doesn’t have to be. I often conflate judgement with punishment – but they are two different things. God’s judgement is not retributive but restorative. It doesn’t punish us, but instead restores to wholeness and fullness what is imbalanced or off-kilter in our world. This includes filling the valleys and making every mountain and hill low, as John the Baptist quoted Isaiah in our gospel from Advent II. This is the story of the Magnificat, the casting down of the mighty and lifting-up of the lowly. Bowman writes, “This is not suffering inflicted by God for the sake of retribution. It is instead a radical overturning of the power relations that allow injustice to flourish.” God does not desire the suffering of any – God desires the flourishing of all. God’s judgement is something we can long for and desire because it will set the world right. God’s judgement is equally bound to God’s mercy.
We have met the face of God’s mercy: Jesus Christ. When Christ comes again we will encounter both judgement and mercy and “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:4-6; Isaiah 40:3-5). But there is no reason for us to wait. David+ preached it this Sunday: we can live as if the Messiah is already among us, because Christ lives within us. Freda Marie+ preached it two weeks ago: we must live this way, because the flourishing and life of all of us is dependent on it. We all need the salvation of God.
How might we live in light of the merciful, truthful judgement of God? Judgement that loves us and calls us to live in such a way that fills the valleys and lays the mountains low, even – and especially – when those mountains and valleys are our own? Would you be like St. Nicholas, throwing money through windows in secret, searching for ways to give away some of your own might to those who could desperately use some? Or, like the daughters, would you allow yourself to be lifted up by the kindness of a stranger? This Advent, and all year long, how can we bring about the world “of care and mercy for one another” as God dreams it to be?
P.S. You can read Hannah Bowman’s full essay on Judgement, from which these quotes were taken, here.
As many of you know, starting next month, at 5pm on January 30, 2022, we will begin offering YogaMass monthly here at Redeemer in the church ( … and in the spirit of Advent, “Stay Awake!” for more details, coming soon!).
YogaMass was conceived by The Rev. Gena Davis, an Episcopal priest in Houston, TX https://www.yogamass.com/. As she writes on her website: “So why a YogaMass®? Bringing together the practice of yoga, breath work, meditation, and Holy Communion is a way to encounter the Risen Christ on our mats, and to tap into the deep well of God’s divine light within us, so that it may shine through us and flow out into the world. “
“Tapping into the deep well of God’s divine light within us, so that it may shine through us and flow out into the world” is a wonderful image of intention for every day, and especially during the season of Advent.
Below is a story I recently came upon, by writer Elizabeth Gilbert, describing how she encountered God’s divine light through an ordinary human being on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. I share it with you, below, in the hopes that Christ’s light may shine through you and flow out into the world, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, today.
“Some years ago, I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated—with one another; with the rainy, sleety weather; with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here.
But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. “Folks,” he said, “I know you’ve had a rough day and you’re frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or traffic, but here’s what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your problems home to your families tonight—just leave ’em with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I’ll open the window and throw your troubles in the water. Sound good?”
It was as if a spell had lifted. Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who’d been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?
Oh, he was serious.
At the next stop—just as promised—the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up—but everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.
We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it’s extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it.
But what if you are the light? What if you’re the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for?
That’s what this bus driver taught me—that anyone can be the light, at any moment. This guy wasn’t some big power player. He wasn’t a spiritual leader. He wasn’t some media-savvy “influencer.” He was a bus driver—one of society’s most invisible workers. But he possessed real power, and he used it beautifully for our benefit.
When life feels especially grim, or when I feel particularly powerless in the face of the world’s troubles, I think of this man and ask myself, What can I do, right now, to be the light? Of course, I can’t personally end all wars, or solve global warming, or transform vexing people into entirely different creatures. I definitely can’t control traffic. But I do have some influence on everyone I brush up against, even if we never speak or learn each other’s name. How we behave matters because within human society everything is contagious—sadness and anger, yes, but also patience and generosity. Which means we all have more influence than we realize.
No matter who you are, or where you are, or how mundane or tough your situation may seem, I believe you can illuminate your world. In fact, I believe this is the only way the world will ever be illuminated—one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”