31 December 2008

Same Old New Year

Just a few minutes to spare before doing something ceremonial about the New Year.

Work was very quiet this week. I managed to clear my desk and read backlogged stuff piled on the shelf behind me. The urgency of clocks and deadlines slowed to a crawl and this is perhaps the most wonderful gif of the season. A generation ago, when I started this life, January was itself slower, notably in winter places. But now that electronics has connected everything and revved them all up, even January is fast. That makes this week between Christmas and New Years’ the ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ for me.

And after tomorrow it will be over all too soon. As with every year the quarterly taxes are due in January, but for the first time I must file a FAFSA form for our (presumed) college entrant next fall. I am cooking soup for the congregation on Sunday, a labor of love but a labor notwithstanding. The next week I am having some church leaders over for a meal and conversation. Two weeks later I must travel to Westchester County to preach for an ordination (a task and honor I have never done before.) All good things, desirable things, but demanding things as well.

When will I read, study, pray, write? In the gaps between tasks. Once again, the important and meaningful are elbowed aside by the urgent and demanding. And yet somehow, it will all happen. Not a ringing testimony, but faith nonetheless.

28 December 2008

Tax And Spend

Please read Tom Friedman from today's (Sunday) NYTimes. Then tell someone else, fast. If you can find a better idea (not his by the way, as I saw it suggested before the election) you should be president.

27 December 2008

Not Funny

So the RNC is outraged by a satire of “Puff the Magic Dragon” pointed at the president elect and his ethnicity. Dudgeon has always been a tempting posture, from the left or right. And they ought to be quick about condemning one of their own before someone else does and they, yet again, look stupid about race.

What I want to know is how or even whether the president-elect’s staff will respond as well, or in kind. Honestly, they do not need to. From what I can tell, the song is rather harmless if poorly titled, and the president-elect only stands to look better by brushing this one off. He looks tougher if he doesn’t react to every racially insensitive gaffe that will turn up. And believe me there will be plenty.

I, on the other hand, am saddened that humor so easily trucks with bigotry. Much as I cringe at the ubiquity of vulgar language in comedy, I wince when race or gender or religion is tweaked for laughs. Just this week a comedian on one of the cable stations, a ventriloquist, did a long set with a dummy representing “Ahmed” the world’s worst terrorist. The dummy by the way is a skeleton as he was a suicide bomber. Get it.

Aside from being gross and grotesque, most of the humor depended on stereotypes of Middle Eastern Islamic fanatics. He had an accent, of course. And did a lot of yelling. He did not, to his credit, do religious or political humor, but the context was essential to the humor.

The crowd was thrilled. I was angry. Muslims are part of my life, as friends and colleagues. There are lots of funny Muslims out there, really funny ones. Like the woman who tells the joke about being stopped by the police and asked for her license, and asks if he wants her driver’s license or her pilot’s license. Political, religious, and cringe worthy in its own right. But not at her expense.

I guess that’s the key. Humor always involves some mockery. It’s powerful stuff. I suppose my hope is that we would use it for more than cheap laughs.

25 December 2008

A Little Vinegar With Your Sugarplums?

Rarely do I post what I say in church. That and this are different places, with different voices. But for some reason, what I said last night seems worth sharing. You decide.

You deserve better than this. Shouldn’t the Christmas Eve sermon be the very best of the year, pondered and polished for days and days so that its message was as pure and clear as the midnight sky? But no. This priceless message was composed at the last minute, fit between the ten inch snow storm on Friday (and the shoveling of it), the five inch snowstorm on Sunday (and the shoveling of that), the 8 inch snow storm on Tuesday (and the shoveling of that, twice). Also a trip to Chicago and back on Monday, an insurance physical, and the usual flotsam of every day.

I have no excuse, though. Any reasonable person could anticipate that December would have its challenges. Everyone knows that life goes top speed from October 31 to January 31. Anyone with an ounce of wisdom would have realized that depending on an unbroken string of good luck (and good weather) was foolishly naïve.

“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

These verses struck me yesterday, rereading them to find a thread of an idea. Clearly Joseph did not plan things very well either. After all, he had plenty time, nine months in fact. Even if the census order came unexpectedly, surely he could have sent word for a room. And if he came from Bethlehem, surely he had relatives there? People did not move around much then. Something doesn’t add up. It all seems to be a bit, well, contrived. That provoked a memory.

Nikos Kazantzakis, in his version of the life of Jesus, portrays Jesus noticing that Matthew has been writing a lot recently. But when Jesus reads what Matthew has been writing about him, his is outraged. "This isn't the truth. These are lies! I was not born in Bethlehem. I've never set foot in Egypt in my life. I don't remember any magi! And the dove did not say, 'This is my son, ' while I was being baptized!"

He’s right. It’s all a lie, the whole sweet story, from begats to shepherds, magi to manger. Not a fact in it. Two of the gospels don’t even refer to his birth, and the two that do, Matthew and Luke, don’t add up. And nowhere even in these two does it mention winter at all. So we are here tonight in honor of a story that didn’t happen, not this way and not at this time. The whole story of Christmas is a lie.

But the truth of Christmas is not. And what is that truth? Ah, here is where you expect me to tell you about the spiritual meaning of the story, its symbols and ideas. You are waiting for me to unwrap a little insight about messiahs or magi, about the tenderness of hope born in a stable and bleary eyed wise men who are searching for the pearl of great price.

But I am not going to do that. The truth of Christmas is that somewhere about two thousand years ago a woman gave birth. That happens every day of course; is happening right now. While we bathe ourselves in memory and hope, surrounded and enthralled by the beauty of eye and ear, a woman just up the hill is sweating and grunting and frightened. She is not alone. Thousands of women are in labor right now. Most of them not in the presence of nurses and doctors or even clean sheets. But the miracle of birth for them all is messy, and hard, and painful.

This is the truth of Christmas – miracles are hard work, and costly too. While the familiar words of the Bible resound in our ears, she takes deep breaths between contractions. While the music we love lifts us to celestial heights, she grinds her teeth and clenches her fists. And as I preach to you now, the waxy crumpled face of a child emerges from her body into the world. Most of them cry, their first act a shout of protest. Some do not cry. Some of them die. It is nothing like what we think Christmas is, and yet this is the truth of Christmas.

I tell you this because of what happened to me yesterday. I sat down for coffee with a young person in this congregation. She is searching. Lots of people are. And lots of churches know this. They’ve even created ‘seekers services’ for those who are not yet sure they are Christian. But this woman was telling me that what she wants is not an answer so much as a church willing to be really honest and honestly real.

That’s when I knew that the lovely lies would not be enough tonight. They are all right, so long as we remember that underneath them lies a prosaic fact that once, a very long time ago, a woman in Roman Palestine gave birth to someone who she later saw executed as a criminal. This fact lies at the center of the sweet story and this fact is what deserves our attention. “For this you mother sweated in the cold,” wrote the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
For this you bled upon the bitter tree
A yard of tinsel ribbon bought and sold
A paper wreath; a day at home for me.
The merry bells ring out, the people kneel;
Up goes the preacher before the crowd
With voice of honey and eyes of steel
Droning your humble gospel to the proud.

The world is asking for someone to tell the truth, a truth not found in soaring spires and rising choirs, a truth as often obscured by majesties of worship, a truth uncloaked of satin words upon your eager ears. Eloquence becomes a lie of its own, for if I do not tell you the truth now, then when? Though I would love to please you with well wrought words and win your admiration, though it is infinitely harder to speak thus, especially tonight when the soft sounds of the story are what you came to hear, the siren of beauty, the angelic song is drowned out in my ear by the groans of women bearing children and those same women keening when they die. That story is what needs to be told.

Every day Mary labors, and every day Jesus comes into the world. Every day Jesus dies and every day Mary mourns. (Even the lovely lie ends with the slaughter of innocents.) But beloved of God, you whom I know and whom I do not know, here is what I do know.

We love. Not perfectly, not wisely, not even well, but we do love. In this cold, hard, strange world we dare to love. We sweat in the cold, groan in pain, weep in silence, struggle, labor, rejoice; we pour out of lives – which is what Mary did and Jesus – for love; something no one has seen or touched, something that cannot be cataloged or codified, something that to eye and ear is invisible.

All love has is stories, wild stories, stories no one can prove.

21 December 2008

Jack Frost Nipping

Yep, it has been a while, but hey I am a clergyman and this is advent. That and we had two giant snow snowstorms in 48 hours. The driveway gets plowed but everything else is my job. Walls of snow two feet high surround my driveway, sidewalk and steps. Did I mention the high winds and the bitter cold today? A third of the churches in town cancelled services, but we plowed through and it was very good. So were the cookies afterward. I read the fourth ‘stave’ of Dickens’ famous novella aloud after services. That was truly fun.

Strong weather makes you pay attention to things, doesn’t it? Walking to the gym last week was hard with slippery and icy streets and wind and cold. What struck me was the river. I cross it every day on my way to and from. This week I saw sheets of ice. Not floes and chunks, sheets as in sheets of paper. They were sort of rectangular in fact, and traveled in clumps of three or four. The river looked like a messy office floor, only it was brown and liquid. On the shore of the river was just forming ice along the embankment. Ducks swam close by as the current was fast from a rainstorm we had last Sunday night, our last bit of autumn I think for some time.

My fingers hurt a lot now, from Reynaud’s phenomenon. I think of it as a mid life gift from my mother. I can remember being young, in my twenties that is, when I spent a winter in Vermont with my folks, and how I could walk about easily in the cold. If it was sunny and in the 20s I barely needed a hat. Now I need a hat, two pair of gloves, parka, scarf, and still I feel cold and fingers throb. My son however goes out in a jacket and little else.

As you might imagine, I do not look forward spending my dotage here. And yet, forgive me Floridians, the idea of Florida is equally unattractive. I have lived a peripatetic life, which now begins to haunt me a bit as I have no sense of belonging somewhere so strong that it overcomes the challenge of hard winters or hot summers. The closest may be Maryland, which I left eagerly almost forty years ago, having grown up in what seemed to me its cloistered culture. I longed for real places with names people knew and respected. This past year its abundant supply of relatives and the studded landscape of memory began to look mighty nice.

That and the milder winters of course.

14 December 2008

Dead Tree Walking

I hate Christmas Trees.

Never mind that I am of heavy German ancestry, or that as a tenth generation Marylander my state song is also “O Tannenbaum,” or that a pioneer in my faith community was among the first to introduce domestic Christmas trees to America.

I hate Christmas Trees.

I hate the drag home, strapped to the car or, when we lived in NYC, carried through the streets like a dead deer.

I hate the needles falling and the prickly sensation while holding it upright, or the downright struggle to get it in the stand. I hate untangling the strings of lights and trying to arrange them on the branches.

And I really hate hanging decorations. It takes a long time and they slip off sometimes and there are so many of them. And tinsel, thank God we don’t do tinsel at my house any more. although there is scarcely anything more redolent of Christmas that tinsel.

It’s not some anti-pagan thing. Believe me, I am plenty pagan and happily so. And yes, it is better to sacrifice a tree than a child if the choice must be made.

But let’s face it – the whole tree thing is rather new. You can’t find one before 1800, even in Germany. Yule logs, sure, but decorated dead trees, no.

And what could be more sad than to look out on December 26th and see castoff trees lying like war dead in the street, filaments of merriment still clinging to the needles?

Hang your garland, light your candles, mull your wine and gobble your sweet meats. These I can love. But do we really need to kill whole forests to feel merry?

Oh, the horror.

13 December 2008

Only Myself To Blame

When you give people an easy way to say "ehhh," they do.


12 December 2008

Practical Procrastination

Stalking the wild sermon today. Ordinarily I do that on Thursday, but the newsletter deadline was Wednesday. I was in Muskegon on Wednesday for a meeting. Therefore the newsletter had to wait until Thursday.

So I am thinking about my sermon today. I think about it all the time, but today is when I should do something about it.

That means opening a fresh page on which to type. I remind myself of the title, put it at the top. Then I consult the cheat sheets of preachers – anthologies, books of quotations, bartleby.com, the common lectionary.

Between these things I check my email, play some solitaire, take a swig of coffee or diet coke. I see that it is sunny again this morning. Maybe I should chop at the ice still in my driveway. My paper did not come this morning. Lunch is on my mind though it is barely past 11 a.m. I notice that it is cold right now so the heat will be coming on soon.

See a pattern here?

Yes, I realize I am writing this post as well.

Somewhere today or tomorrow, I’ll catch the scent. I’ll lose it too. The first page will be a throwaway. Most weeks I get bogged down in an illustration or dilation or some tempting insight and end up working for an hour on a single paragraph. When that happens I know it is probably best to throw the whole graf away. Most sermons are about 15 pages long, five of them never written down, five written but rejected, five written and used. Come Sunday even these will be pretty lame.

If you think burnt sacrifices are a thing of the past, think again.

07 December 2008

An Overnight Failure

You know the bit. Wile E Coyote in pursuit of roadrunner runs off a cliff, but absorbed in his quest and not looking down, literally runs on air until he does look down. Then he looks at the viewer withresignation and plummets to distant thud marked by a small cloud of dust.

When people wonder how the economy went from so good to so bad so quickly it didn’t. It was bad for a long time, only we didn’t know it. The economy ran off a cliff a year ago, meaning it was in recession even then. But no one knew because the bubble cushioned us against feeling it. Once that burst, reality got in. What seemed to happen right away had been there for some time, but we only now perceived it.

Lots of things are like this. Illnesses like cancer and heart disease can be going on a long time before they break through into awareness. Women demanded the vote for seventy years and were resisted the whole time, until suddenly it happened. A colleague of mine says that churches never feel they make slow progress or that their problems are going away. Success always seems to come quickly and arbitrarily.


We rarely see what is actually there. Denial and delusion are always in the mix. Do not trust your senses or those of others to tell the whole story.

While denial can prop you up against all odds for a while, it is never a reliable long term strategy.

Success is a tipping point/critical mass sort of thing. Until you reach that point it feels like failure the whole time.

Success seems to come overnight, but it actually takes a long time and never seems to be success until it actually is.

05 December 2008

There Really Is A Lobby!

And I stood in it for a long time yesterday.

Three colleagues and I went to our state capitol to lobby some senators on behalf of a bill (H 4162) that mandates an ‘anti-bullying’ policy in every public and charter school.

I was there as part of the leadership of a local LGBT supportive clergy network, as sexuality (perceived or presumed or actual) is a frequent reason for bullying. But this aspect was part of what was holding it up.

I believe it was Twain who said there were two things you should never watch being made, law and sausage. The latter is grisly, the former is tedious and dispiriting. We talked with four senators in the hurly burly of the actual lobby. They gave us five minutes or so, the key senator even less as he was the one most reluctant to see our point of view.

Then we waited for the committee meeting following the general session of the senate. From the gallery we watched as the drone of business, much of it delayed and pent up over the two years of the current legislative session, went by in a blur of repetition and formality. Whatever majesty one has about government is ground away quite quickly despite the imposing room in which they sit.

Eventually, an hour later than planned, the committee met and we trudged over to see if the bill would come out of committee where it has been for many months. If it did not come out now it would die and the process would have to start over – meaning another two years.

We were not alone. A professional lobbyist was there, she was also our advisor during most of the day, and the father of the boy for whom the law is named (who took his own life after being harassed). Though it was not on the agenda, lo and behold they took it up.

The good news, it was sent to the floor. The bad news, language that pointed to a state education model policy, was removed. The reason was that it would tie the hands of administrators in making judgments, and school officials really do have a lot of rules already. But it was the model policy that named various ‘classes’ of kids who are bullied – racial and ethnic of course, along with religion, disability, gender and (this was the sticking point I think) sexuality.

So we helped get the bill out to the floor, but far from the form in which it was passed by the house and farther yet from its original form. We got a first down, not a touch down.

Hot soup was waiting for me at home. Vegetarian soup. I had enough sausage for one day.

01 December 2008

Drunk Man Walking

No I am not drunk, but referring to the statisticians example of randomness, the 'drunkard's walk.' If you click on the link the Wikipedia article would quiclkly make you think I am way smarter than I am. I only meant to refer to the general notion.

Anyway, I just had a few random thoughts that string together in no consicous order.

- You probably make more mistakes than you realize, and that means you get more forgiveness than you know. We mostly forgive and that is probably pretty good in the long run.

- It's hard to separate tenacious from stubborn. Maybe it's all about who is doing the talking, the tenacious one or the poor fellow who has to deal with the stubborn one.

- The more you learn the less you know.

- One size does not fit all, even with spandex. I don't mean clothes so much as economic policy. Sometimes we need less regulation, sometimes more. Sometimes taxes should be high, sometimes low. All the various systems work, and probably should be used. The trick is knowing which to do when.

- We need leaders, but not so much. Everyone talks about the need for 'leadership' but I think the real challenge is followership. Following is powerful stuff but no one wants to be one and it's not the stuff of books in airports.

- It's gets late earlier and earlier. See ya!