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Foot Prints in the Present

Hi friends, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany were beautiful, and they came and went quickly, like a host of angels flashing into a field and then ascending into heaven again.   In sometimes stark contrast to the celebration, throughout those seasons many of you dealt and are still dealing with illnesses of varying kinds and severities.  Furthermore, many of you have been and continue to care for and support family members who are struggling with illness.  Some of you are bearing witness as your loved ones die.  Some of you already have.  The anniversary comes; you carry on.
 
When we’re caring for a loved one who is dying, their illness and our presence with them during it can become the center of our life.  It takes up all of our bandwidth, so to speak.  We’re not sure what we need, or what we’re feeling about any of it.  We just know that it’s the day the hospice nurse visits.  That our son arrives at 4pm to spell us a bit.  That it’s time to eat or change the sheets.  That she was awake for a while and might have even recognized us before drifting back to sleep, but who can be sure at this stage.  The waiting between the tasks themselves is somehow the most physically demanding thing we’ve ever tried to do.
 
When the day comes for him or her to die, and he or she crosses over to the furthest shore, a new set of tasks is given.  Funeral arrangements, family travels, paperwork and more paperwork.  This too is part of saying goodbye.  But when all of that is over, then what? 
 
I had a conversation with a friend of mine recently about all this.  He reminded me that for many people, it’s the season after the ordeal, after the all-encompassing work of caring for a dying loved one, that season is the hardest.  There’s nothing but the ache to keep the mind and heart busy.
 
When a friend of ours is caring for an ailing loved one, our impulse is to say, “Let me know what I can do.”  That is a good impulse.  It’s the impulse of love.  But remember, once the funeral is over, for most of us it’s back to normal.  But for the surviving family, there may still be a long stretch of lonely desert ahead.  That’s (also) where the Church belongs. 
 
I attended a funeral this week at which Bishop Reed was the preacher and officiant.  In his sermon, he said, “Christ’s love is always in the present tense.”  One of the ways that is true is through the Church: we are the presence of God’s love—Christ—for each other.  As such, the love of Christ is always in the present tense because “where two or three are gathered together in his name, he is in the midst of them.”  We are here, now.
 
As a priest, I have the great privilege of hearing people’s stories.  When I’m visiting with somebody, frequently they begin to articulate where they are now in relation to some significant event at another point in time.   They’ll say, “And then John and I met,” or “After Mom died we began to…” or “After Suzie was born” or “Once we sell the house, then….”  These events are a bit like the divisions between chapters in a book.  Frequently, the death of a loved one marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.
 
The Church’s job—our job—is to help ensure that the members of our community are reminded that Christ’s love is always in the present tense, both before the event, during, and after.  The Church as a community of prayer, ritual, shared work, and affection is a kind of container in which there is grace enough and room enough for us to undergo change, particularly the painful changes associated with loss. 
 
We are for each other the love of Christ in the present tense, even if you or I as individuals can only understand our own lives by referring to a past that no longer is, or a future of which we’re no longer confident.
 
Again, many of us are either in the wake of loss or know it’s coming soon.  I want us to pay attention to each other.  Remember, the season after the ordeal does not present itself as dramatically or as urgently as the ordeal itself.  But it is its own kind of desert. 
 
There’s an old Christian poster about footprints in the sand.  It starts out as two sets of foot prints, Jesus’ and the speaker’s.  Then, at one point, just as the trail leads trough a bleak desert, there’s only one set of footprints.  The speaker looks back at the desert, incredulous.  “Jesus, why is there only one set of footprints in the sand?  You abandoned me right when the going got rough!”  Jesus replies, “That’s where I carried you.” 
 
I understand the point, but I’ve never liked the poster.  In my experience, whenever we’re able to look back at a desert and say, “God carried me,” it’s because there was somebody or a whole bunch of somebodies through whose hearts God did the carrying.  If I were to design that poster, the speaker would look back at the desert and see that there were six or eight or a hundred sets of footprints.  Little prints, big prints, the tracks of a wheelchair, and the whole lot punctuated by the tips of a few walking canes.
 
Those footprints are the Church, the community that comforts those who mourn.  Those many footprints are the Body of Christ.  May we be worthy of the name.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+ 
 

Moths in the Moonlight

Hi friends, this weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.  A star, a light of heaven, appears in the sky that the Magi might navigate their way to the Son of God.  It’s that guiding star that’s got me thinking about something I learned about moths a few years ago.  It’s the only thing I know about moths: like the Magi, nocturnal moths are creatures who navigate by the lights of heaven.
 
You’ve probably observed that moths seem to be attracted to light.  The truth is they aren’t attracted to lights; they’re confused by them.  Most nocturnal moths navigate by moonlight or starlight.  These light sources are far enough away that they appear at “optical infinity” to the mothy eye.  “Optical infinity” means the light source is far enough away that the rays of light shining from it are effectively parallel when they strike the eyeball.
 
When a moth flies around, doing whatever moths do, she finds her way by changing course relative to the parallel rays of light shining from the moon.  But if a moth gets too close to a brighter, artificial light source like a street light, she begins to navigate by that instead.  If the streetlight is closer than the threshold of optical infinity, then the rays of light shining from it are no longer parallel and radiate out from the bulb in a million directions.  When a moth tries to navigate in these circumstances, she flies in circles around the light fixture, unable to understand why she isn’t getting anywhere.  After a while, she tires and lands.  If she lands close enough to the light source  (inside a lampshade, for example) the brightness tricks the moth into thinking the sun has risen—so she goes to sleep, as any nocturnal creature would do.  When the real sun eventually rises, it’s as though the whole world conspires to prevent her from ever waking up again.  She’s robbed of her beloved dark.
 
This bit of mothiness is a good metaphor for Christians for two reasons.  First, the simple fact is that, even though moths navigate by moonlight, no moth ever tried to fly to the moon.  The moon and stars enable the moths to navigate here on earth; they’re not far off fixtures for which moths sit and yearn.  Optical infinity represents a kind of boundary between moth and moon, but it is a boundary crossed only by the moonlight, never the moth.
 
Likewise, the distinction between creature and Creator is absolute, but it is one the Creator freely and joyfully crosses so as to put us at rights with the world.  We Christians too often make the mistake of thinking that the light of God is simply an otherworldly destination, as though the purpose of faith, the bible, church, and all the rest were to get people a ticket off of earth one day.  But to think like that is to be a moth flying to the moon.  To put it another way: imagine if the Magi had forsaken their pilgrimage to Jesus and had instead become astronauts blasting off for the Star of Bethlehem itself.  It’s silly.  God did not make us creatures of the earth by accident.  Earth is our ecosystem.
 
Second, it is the moon’s sheer distance from the earth which allows moths to navigate.  The principle of optical infinity means that only unchanging celestial lights like the moon and stars are always distant enough to be reliable for navigation.  Headlights on a car, the light in a mall parking lot, even an Advent candle can run the risk of eclipsing the subtle but constant light of the heavens.  Moths can navigate by moonlight because moonlight simply isn’t from here.
 
Likewise, people of faith can navigate the world by the light of God because God was not created: God isn’t “from here.”  We can trust in and practice God’s attributes—virtues like patience, generosity, and hope—because they belong to God.  The whole spectrum of God’s goodness shines from optical infinity, like parallel rays of light, illuminating the earth from above.  When we see those qualities at work in our friends or loved ones, we are seeing a person navigate by the light of God.  We’re seeing an unconfused moth doing what unconfused moths do.  We’re seeing a Magi on her pilgrimage: not a perfect person, but a person with purpose, generosity, a measure of determination, someone who knows what she knows and pretends to no more than that.
 
When we see someone operating out of fear, like King Herod trying to kill all the Israelite baby boys born around the time of Jesus’ birth, we see a moth bewitched by power, prestige, or some other manmade light.  Herod spirals into tighter and tighter circles of exhaustion and anxiety.  A sinner like Herod, like you or me at our worst, is a creature navigating by a light too small and too harsh to bear the full weight of his needs.  The flickering socio-political order to which Herod adheres simply isn’t big enough to direct him to the security he desperately seeks.  Eventually, he can no longer circle, but falls asleep under the harsh glare of his own power mongering, perhaps never to wake again. 
 
Sin, it seems, is more like the confusion of a moth in a floodlight than the breaking of a divine rule.  The moth doesn’t navigate by moonlight because the moon would get angry if she didn’t, but because it’s good for her and her ecosystem.  It’s how she’s made.  It’s just mothy to judge everything by a moonbeam.  Like Sister Moth, Christians try to do the things we are called to do because it’s how we are made: in God’s image, the perfection of which is Jesus.  To feed people, to comfort, to take up our crosses—it’s just mothy.  It’s just how resurrection creatures are made.
 
Epiphany is like this: we flit around the streetlights down here, spiraling, starving, wearing ourselves ragged.  Then one starry evening Moonlight Herself takes wing alongside us.   “This way,” she says.  “Follow me.”  And we’re off to sip the dew from an evening primrose. 
Or whatever it is unconfused moths do.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 

An Invitation to an Epiphany Bonfire

 
Merry Christmas, friends!  I want to invite you to an Epiphany Bonfire and Potluck.  We’ll gather at 6pm at the home of Juan and Susan Guerra on the Feast of the Epiphany, which is Saturday, January 6th.  Susan and Juan can be found at 108 Jay Jay Cove, Kyle, TX.  Terri Thompson is taking RSVP’s so we have an idea of numbers to expect.  Please RSVP to Terri at alphamare83@gmail.com or (512) 567-0575.  A SignUp Genius will go out soon so we can coordinate who is bringing what.
We’ll begin the night with dinner at 6pm, and then fire up the bonfire closer to 7pm.  We’ll say our Epiphany prayers around the bonfire together.  This is an all ages event.  S’mores supplies and marshmallow roasting sticks will be provided!
Christmas season lasts for twelve full days and ends with the Feast of the Epiphany, which is the day we celebrate the light of God appearing as a star to the magi from the East.  Jesus was born an Israelite to Israelites, and yet because he is the savior and redeemer of the whole world, we celebrate the Epiphany as the moment the light of Christ is made known to Gentiles like us and the magi:  “a light to enlighten the nations [Gentiles], and the glory of your people Israel,” goes the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32).
Because Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas Season, our bonfire will consist mostly of a burning of the Christmas greens, meaning that we’ll burn St. Elizabeth’s Christmas tree (which should be good and dried out by then).  The evergreen of wreaths and trees are a symbol of life during the long cold months, and when they dry out, they become fuel for light and warmth.  You are welcome to bring any dried out wreaths or garland from your own home and add to the fire, but for safety’s sake, please dispose of your own Christmas tree!  We don’t want our fire to get out of hand.
One other reminder: this Sunday, December 31st, we’ll have a guest harpist and a guest flautist playing at worship!
Merry Christmas, and I hope you’ll celebrate the Epiphany at our Burning of the Greens Bonfire!  Saturday, January 6th at 6pm at the home of Juan and Susan Guerra.
God’s Peace,
Fr. Daniel+
 
 

Music Incarnate

Hi friends, I’m writing to encourage you to join me at our choir’s interactive Christmas concert this Sunday—Christmas Eve!—December 24th.  It’s at 5pm in the church.  And if that weren’t good news enough, we also have a guest harpist and guest flautist joining us on Sunday, December 31st at our regularly scheduled 10:30am service.  I want you to come not only because the choir and our guest musicians have been working hard for weeks, but also because music is good for you. Whether we’re singing along or just listening, music involves us in beauty, which provokes and awakens our desire for oneness with God.  In short, music is an entrance into the incarnation.  I’ll begin with that word incarnation and then work backwards to music and then specifically Christmas music.
 
When Christians talk about the incarnation, we’re talking about God’s taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul says it well when he writes (or more likely quotes) a hymn about Jesus that says
 
he emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
  he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross (Phil. 2:7-8)
 
God doesn’t simply ‘appear’ to be a human being; God isn’t pretending. God’s Word, through whom the sun and stars were made, really does become flesh and dwell among us as one of us in the world we know, the world where death and violence are very, very real.  He “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross,” as Paul writes.
 
The Son of God has a human body, mind and heart, and yet also remains entirely one with God.  We see in Jesus a human person—body, mind and heart—completely imbued with divinity, all Jesus’ faculties swept up in God’s saving action.  Jesus walked and ate; he invented parables and preached and taught; he was saddened by death and angered by injustice.  All very human things, yet all entirely swept up into the life of God.
 
Music sweeps us up into song the way Jesus is swept up entirely in God—body, mind, and heart.  Very few things we experience engage us as entirely as singing or playing music.  To sing or play the drums or clap or sway to the music involves our bodies.  Notes and chords are physical phenomena.  When two voices harmonize, it’s a physical harmony of wavelengths.  When it’s done well, we can feel it.  When we’re in the midst of a song, following the words in our hymnal or bulletin, our minds are engaged—reading the words, anticipating that funny high note we’ll come to in the next line, trying to sing in concert with the choir or our neighbor.  So often in the midst of powerful music, our hearts…change.  We reach crescendos of joy, or find peace in a well-resolved chord, or for no reason we can fathom, a song sustains within us a long note of sadness we hadn’t known we’d been carrying around.  A song can speak words to the heart normal speech can’t.
 
Music involves our whole being in an unfolding beauty.  It’s not like looking at a painting in which the art, while still powerful, is primarily the object of our observation.  Rather, music pulls us into itself.  Consider a familiar hymn like “Amazing Grace.”  When we sing it, we are lifted up into it, united with other folks in the room into an experience we didn’t invent—none of us wrote that song—and yet nevertheless an experience that simply wouldn’t happen without us. Because the hymn is beautiful and true, even after we’re finished singing it stays with us somehow, humming along in our minds on our way to the car.
 
The Christian life is a bit like that: gathering together to sing a song none of us has written and yet there’s no one here to sing it but us.  It’s a song which we never sing exactly the same way twice, and yet the song is always recognizable.  Likewise, none of us invented God, and yet without the Church, there’s nobody to ‘sing’ what God is like for anyone who might be listening.  The Church today is not the same as it was 1,000 years ago, and yet it’s also still familiar and recognizable as the Church.
 
Just as a song moves through time and changes in beautiful ways, yet without ever becoming a different song, so too does the Christian year move through time and change in holy and beautiful ways, yet without ever becoming something different.  Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, and Christmas is the season in which we celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God: the birth of Jesus. 
 
In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, we see a human life fully harmonized—body, mind, and heart—with the music God is playing.  In Jesus, that harmony is so total that it’s no longer possible to tell singer from song.  The Church is called to harmony like that—to listen to the song God is playing in our time and place, and to let that music involve us in itself, to sweep us up into undiscovered harmonies.  God desires that our whole selves, body, mind, and heart, might be a part of that music just as the life of Jesus was and is. 
 
What better time to hear beautiful music, to sing, to celebrate the incarnation of God’s song in and among us?  The choir will begin at 5pm this Sunday, Christmas Eve.  I hope you’ll be there to participate as part of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic and incarnate body.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Shepherds and Magi

Hi friends, today I want to write about the third and fourth candles on our Advent wreath.  They remind us of the shepherds and magi, respectively.
 
This Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent, and our candle is rose.  It reminds us of the shepherds we read about in Luke’s Gospel.  Basically, the shepherds are out in the fields, just doing their jobs one night, when an angel shows up.  They’re terrified—who wouldn’t be?—and the first thing the angel says is, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10).  The angel tells them what to look for—“a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”—and then a whole host of other angels appears, praising God.  The shepherds do as they were told and take off for Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15).
 
What strikes me most about the shepherds’ involvement in the birth of Jesus is that they were just doing their jobs when the time came for the Messiah to be born.  They weren’t particularly well-educated or knowledgeable.  We have no reason to suspect that they were any more or less devout than other folks.  It’s a little ironic that the shepherds should have such a central place in the nativity story.  Advent is a season of preparation and expectation…and yet the shepherds weren’t especially prepared for or expecting anything!
 
Perhaps the shepherds are God’s way of reminding us that fidelity in our everyday, mundane work is precisely where an angel might appear to us with good news.  That word mundane comes from a Latin word that means “world.”  Mundane work is work of the actual world you and I inhabit.  Simple, material things: washing the coffee pot, pruning the hedges, keeping your livestock safe.  The shepherds are people close to the good earth of the world.  In Luke, it is to them that God’s angel announces the birth of the Messiah.  And where will they find him?  In a manger, a kind of feed bin for livestock that shepherds would know well.  The God of the heavens and beyond the heavens has taken on the mundane flesh and blood of the world.  The truth is that God is not “up there” or only in Church.  God is here, now, in the very fields in which we stand.
 
The shepherds stand in contrast to the magi, or wise men, of Matthew’s Gospel.  We will remember the magi when we light the fourth candle of our Advent wreath next week…even though the magi show up late to the party and don’t arrive until Epiphany! 
 
Unlike the shepherds, the magi didn’t get a visit from an angel.  Instead, the magi found out about the birth of Jesus because they were looking for it: “we observed his star at its rising,” they say (Matt. 2:2).  The magi were scholars and dreamers.  Instead of a manger, they knew where to look because of a star, a far-off light in the heavens.  To most folks, it would’ve appeared to be just another star like any other.  But the magi were educated and practiced in the art of paying attention.  Their eyes and ears were trained to look for significant and out of the ordinary events.  They’re seekers who arrive at understanding by asking questions and interpreting events.  They make their way to Jerusalem and then begin inquiring, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2).
 
They follow their peculiar star until they reach the house in Bethlehem where Jesus is.  (No stable or manger in Matthew!)  They see Mary with Jesus, and they kneel down in homage, presenting to him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:10-11).  Their homage and gifts are grand, symbolic gestures.  Gold is a symbol of kingship.  Frankincense suggests divinity since frankincense was used in religious temples of all kinds.  Myrrh was a spiced ointment used to anoint the bodies of the dead in preparation for burial.  (See John 19:39.)   That the magi offer myrrh to Jesus as a gift suggests that even in his very early childhood, the magi suspected that the powers of the world would conspire against him to bring about his death.  Indeed, the magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who immediately plots to destroy the child Jesus (Matt. 2:12-14).
 
Perhaps the magi are God’s way of reminding us to pay attention, to look for significance in what might otherwise seem perfectly ordinary.  Like the magi, one of the ways we can do this is through study, particularly studying the bible.  I don’t necessarily mean intensive study of Greek or obscure Israelite genealogies, either.  Learning the stories, familiarizing yourself with a parable, or memorizing a few verses from a psalm goes a lot further than we often think.  That kind of study helps us to remember that we are a part of God’s story.  The magi are no more or less characters in it than you and I.  The truth is that no character in God’s story has ever seen the rise of an ordinary star; all is laden with miracle.
 
God’s angel visits the shepherds in the midst of their ordinary work and tells them where to find Jesus.  Had the shepherds not been faithful in the very mundane work of watching their flocks, they would’ve missed it.  The magi find Jesus by paying careful attention to the rising of an extraordinary star, one other folks missed or were unable to interpret.  Had they not studied diligently and practiced the art of paying careful attention, they would’ve missed it, too.  Taken together, the shepherds and magi remind us to be faithful to what is ordinary while always training our imaginations to notice the extraordinary around us. 
 
Most of us have seasons of each.  Like a faithful shepherd, you were just doing your job when God intruded.  Like a seeking magi, you had an intuition that there’s more out there and have been desperately looking for it.  The end is the same for Shepherd and Magus alike.  And these are only two of the many roads that lead to the Son of God.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

A Dimly Burning Wick

Hi friends, I got to see my Godson last weekend.  His dad is one of my best friends and was being ordained to the Episcopal priesthood, and I flew to Birmingham, AL for a very quick visit to surprise him.  There was a lot going on the day of the ordination, but since I was a surprise visit I didn’t have any formal responsibilities in the service—which meant I was free to goof off with (and help keep an eye on) my Godson.  He’s five, and his name is Thompson.
 
At one point amidst the flurry of activity before the service, Thompson wandered off into the children’s chapel.  The children’s chapel at my friend’s church is similar to our Godly Play room.  There are low shelves with different kinds of work the children can do, wooden figures of the Holy Family and Bethlehem, mats to get out and sit on, and, most important to Thompson, candles, five tea lights in glass holders.  He found a box of matches somewhere, so after we had a short but very serious conversation about always asking before doing anything with fire, Thompson started to light the candles.
 
He moved very slowly and deliberately, using one match per candle.  He’d light one, blow out the match, take the burnt match to the sink to run a little water on it just to be safe, and then throw the blackened matchstick into the trash.  The wick of one of the candles had broken off and was barely a nub.  It took a few tries to light, Thompson holding the match directly on top of the wick, lifting it up to see if it had taken, pressing the flame back to the wick.  I chewed my bottom lip as the match burnt closer to Thompson’s fingers, but when it got close and the wick still hadn’t caught, he very calmly blew it out and struck another one.  The wick caught on the second match but the flame was small.  Thompson dropped the second match on the shelf next to the first and put his hands on either side of the flame.
 
There was no wind in the chapel, no ceiling fan.  Thompson and I weren’t even talking.  The rhythm of the candle lighting had slowed us down from running around in the parish hall like we had been doing.  But what you do when a flame burns low is put your hands around it to protect it from sneeze and storm, even if there’s not so much as a breeze coming in through the window.  It’s as though the flame knows, as though it recognizes the hands of the one who struck it.  It perches a little more securely on its wick, trusting your good will.  Thompson knows this.
 
I flew back to Texas a few hours later.  The next day was our first Sunday of Advent, and in Godly Play our leader told a story to help us understand the Advent wreath.  The Godly Play story demonstrated the first Advent candle, the Prophets’ Candle, with a pointing hand.  God sent us the prophets to be like a hand pointing us towards Jesus.  We lit the candle, and I remembered the slow seriousness with which Thompson struck the matches and lit the candles the day before, how for a few brief seconds he held his hands around a little flame to help it stay alight.  I remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah, who says of the one we call Jesus, “a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3). 
 
In Advent, we await the birth of Emmanuel, God with us.  If your wick is burning low, the wait can be painful, and it can feel like a long time.
 
Each of us waits in our own way.  It’s as though each soul is its own waiting room.  We flip through magazines, refusing to make eye contact with the grief across the coffee table.  We’re angry and afraid of this strange illness who suddenly sat down in the chair next to ours.  We stare at the television mounted on the wall because the news anchor looks so much like our son, and much like our son, the television is muted and not speaking to us.  We hand our iPhone to our four year old so they can watch another cartoon because we’re doing Advent alone this year, and we just can’t fight another battle today.  Shame arches an eyebrow in the corner.
 
If that’s you, I hope you feel the hands of God around you, cupped like the dome of the sky to shelter your dimly burning wick.  I hope for you peaceful moments in which your heart ceases its panicked flicker and grows calm, and rises, ever so slightly, at the Mysterious Presence of the One who struck it first into flame. 
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+

 

Advent Wreaths and Holy Family

Hi friends, this Sunday we’re making Advent Wreaths together in the Mission Hall after the service.  Today I want to write a bit about how Advent Wreaths came about and how they can help us become a more holy family.
 
Like most traditions, Advent Wreaths evolved over time.  Christians and non-Christians have used wreaths for centuries both ritually and as decoration.  Evergreen wreaths were particularly common in Scandinavian countries where evergreens were important symbols of life in long, dark winters.  For Christians today, a circular wreath can symbolize God’s eternity: just as a circle has no beginning and end, neither does God, who is eternal.  The evergreen fronds symbolize God’s continued presence with us even amidst darker, colder times like winter, though Texas winter usually isn’t that dire!
 
As far as I can tell, the first real Advent Wreath was made in 1839 by a Lutheran minister named Johann Hinrich Wichern.  He worked at a children’s home in Hamburg, Germany, and each year near Christmas, the kids would ask him, “Is it Christmas yet?!  Is it Christmas?!”  As a way of both answering and channeling their excitement, Johann took the wooden wheel off a cart, turned it on its side, and drilled holes into it along the rim.  He put four big white candles in for the four Sundays before Christmas and smaller red candles for the week days.  The kids counted down each day until Christmas by lighting a new candle.
 
Roman Catholics adopted the tradition in the 1920s, and Anglicans (that’s us!) not long after.  In many Roman Catholic and Anglican parishes, the color for Advent is purple and is seen as a time of penitential preparation, much like Lent.  Thus, the candles became purple.  The pink candle was for Gaudete Sunday and marked a rough mid-point for Advent.  It’s pink to symbolize a kind of refreshment or break from penitence on our way to Christmas. 
 
In many Anglican churches, including St. Elizabeth, the Advent color is blue.  I appreciate this distinction because, while Advent is very much about preparation, it’s not as explicitly penitential as Lent.  Advent is about expectation and preparing the way of the Lord.  I think those little German kids in Hamburg back in the 1830s had it right: we should be excited about this!  Our preparation should be active: decorate, cook food for each other, take particularly good care of the “least of these” who are members of God’s family.
 
That brings us to the candles.  A Lutheran tradition many Episcopal Churches have picked up is that each candle of the first four candles represents different figures who helped prepare Jesus’ way.  Here again, there’s variety, but the order we’ll use at St. Elizabeth this year is this: Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Prophets, the Holy Family Journeying to Bethlehem, and Angels visiting the Shepherds.  We’ll talk more about each of these on Sunday.
 
The final candle in the center is for Christ himself.  We’ll have some white candles you can take home as your household’s Christ candle this Sunday if you like, but you’re also welcome to use a candle of your own family’s choosing.  This can be a powerful reminder that God became incarnate as a particular person: a child from Nazareth born in Bethlehem.  Just as Jesus wasn’t some non-descript generic man, but a particular man who walked a certain way and maybe preferred fish to gyros, so too does Christ become incarnate in particular ways in your family and at our church, St. Elizabeth.  We all have the same blue and pink candles in our wreaths because we all share the same patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets, Holy Family, shepherd and angels—but that story comes to fullness in Christ today in different ways in each of our lives.
 
This is why last week I made such a big deal about taking care of “the least of these who are members of [God’s] family,” and why I made a Facebook video about it.  Just as God became a real, unique flesh and blood body in a specific time and place 2,000 years ago to feed and heal and comfort particular people, so too is God becoming incarnate today by taking on the body of Christ, which is the Church.  It’s imperative that we be God’s unique heart, hands and feet in our specific times and places.  We do this by paying extra attention to the particular needs of folks around us, especially folks who might otherwise get overlooked (whether in our social groups or by society at large).  This is how we, as the Church, become a Holy Family: we are set apart for God’s ‘use,’ so to speak, in redeeming the world.
 
It doesn’t have to be something grand.  Just as a regular friends and family are bound together mostly by small things—phone calls, cards, pecan pie and Love Actually—so too are we as God’s family bound together by small things: a cup of coffee, a ride to the doctor’s office, bread, wine, laying on of hands, words of comfort.  This is how we prepare for the coming of Christ into the world, both then and now.  This is how we become God’s Holy Family through whom Christ is born anew.
 
 See you Sunday, everyone.  A blessed Advent awaits.
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

A Cat, a Piano, and the Living Fire of Praise

Hi friends, I wrote a few weeks ago about the turtleness of turtles.  Today, I am quite surprised to say I feel called to reflect on the catness of cats and what catness might have to teach us.
 
I say I’m “surprised” because I am not a cat person.  Don’t get me wrong: I have a healthy respect for cats, and if I lived on a farm or on several acres of land I would want at least one around to fulfill the cattish duty of striking terror into troublesome varmints like rats and mice—but lauding the virtues of catness does not come as naturally to me as enjoying the dogness of dogs or horseness of horses does.  But choosing to praise a creature I’d rather keep at arm’s length is perhaps part of my point: to praise is a natural inclination of the soul, but it’s also one we have to practice.
 
What’s so special about cats?  To be a cat means to purr one’s contentment.  Have you ever noticed how utterly unselfconscious cats are in letting you know when they’re happy?  When a cat is content in its body in the world, whether because of a scratch behind the ears or a quiet moment in the sunshine on the back of your couch, it broadcasts its satisfaction.  It’s as though the breath of life given to it by God is just idling away like an engine at rest: “Yes, here I am, God’s elegant creature.  It is well with my soul.” 
 
A cat purrs because its animal life instinctively recognizes that a world in which to live has been given to it.  A cat purrs its enjoyment of the given world, a world built for catness, filled with food, affection, aluminum foil balls to bat about the kitchen.
 
I read a poem the other day by a man named Edward Hirsch.  The poem is called “Wild Gratitude.”  It’s a poem about kneeling down to play with his cat.  The poem ends with these lines:
 
And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

 
I like that idea, that when we praise we are wreathed in living fire.  This is what cats have to teach us: when we receive something good and enjoy it without embarrassment and without too much concern over what people might think, we are praising God.  We are praising God because we are living our gratitude, receiving the world as a gift, which I think is how God intends us to receive it.
 
Here’s what I mean: if you got your friend a piano for her birthday, she would likely write you a thank you note for the piano to express her gratitude.  That’s great, and that’s as it should be.  (Thank you notes are good!)  But let’s say that at some point over the next year, you’re over at her house for a dinner party, and after dinner she just slips away to the piano in the next room.  You hear her around the corner, starting in on a Chopin nocturne.  You move quietly to the doorway to watch, and you see that her eyes are closed, and that she’s swaying a little to the music, and that she’s positively wreathed in the living fire of what she’s playing—that might make you weep knowing you had given someone a gift they loved so deeply.  That would be your friend’s living gratitude—the strongest form of praise. 
 
I think God watches us from the world’s doorway like that, hoping we’ll get lost in making the world’s music.  Hoping we’ll purr in all the diverse ways that people purr, wreathing ourselves in the living fire of praise.
 
This Thanksgiving, whatever gifts come your way—a good meal, a football game, time on the couch with all your cousins or grandkids or that novel you’ve not had time to read, or just a few minutes on the phone with that step-brother you never see—whatever it is, I pray you’ll receive the full weight of that goodness.  Laugh, cry, wash the dishes in amused silence, watch the slow sink of the sun behind the trees at evening.  However you respond, remember that real enjoyment and contentment are ways we “show forth our praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives” (BCP, 101).
 
This Thanksgiving, I pray you have occasion to purr.  And even if you’re mostly around creatures you’d rather keep at arm’s length, perhaps practice praising anyway.  It might come more naturally than you think.
 
Happy Thanksgiving,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

@theAccuser

Hi friends, as many of you know, I’m from Alabama.  My home state has had a rough week in the news.  I’ll spare you the details, but a special election to fill Alabama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat started the trouble.  My task today isn’t to write about Roy Moore or Doug Jones.  (I trust that those of you who are interested can arrive at your own conclusions.)  Instead, I want to write about one of the spiritual dangers of living in a 24-hour, multimedia information culture.  As I was keeping tabs on events in my home state, I read a tweet by a prominent religious leader.  I agreed with the Tweet—but then I made the mistake of reading the comments.
 
It’s hard to explain exactly what happened next.  As I read, the comments became smugger, angrier, and more anxious.  Inevitably, posts started including CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE NOW WE’RE SHOUTING SO YOU KNOW IT’S SERIOUS.  Commenters introduced new, unrelated issues with “Oh yeah?  But what about XYZ?” as a way of trying to reclaim moral high ground.  This would hook another commenter, and soon they were spiraling downward like birds grappling mid-flight.  This happened with everyone, including folks with whom I basically agreed.  One by one, each fell from the sky.
 
When we get locked into a fight like that, the fall is inevitable because we lose sight of anything and anyone who isn’t an opponent.  We no longer pursue the truth, which might entail conceding a point here and there; we simply try to shout down any voice that isn’t our own.  What’s so sinister about this is that the more we shout, the more power we yield to opposing voices.  Even when we put the iPhone down, or step away from the laptop, we’re still fighting in our heads, plotting the end-all, be-all post to put one over on @WhoeverYouAre.  We imagine ourselves hitting the “Reply” button, dropping the proverbial microphone, and walking away.
 
But of course, we can’t walk away.  We’re not having a real argument with a real person about real ideas.  We’ve imagined for ourselves the semblance of an opponent, an ignorant and immoral character who desperately needs our forceful but ultimately benevolent correction.  We build a debate podium in our minds and give this invented shadow persona the other microphone.  We keep running through our position, point after point, and before long we’re no longer sure exactly who it is against whom we’re defending ourselves.
 
That’s how the Accuser gets in: an iPhone screen becomes a debate stage; the debate stage becomes a courtroom—and we’re the defendant.  It’s a subtle descent.  It leaves us anxious and on edge.  We roil like tea kettles on the inside.  All that we say and do shrieks out like steam.  Why?  Because we’re afraid of…well, we can’t say exactly, but something bad will happen if we don’t justify ourselves.
 
I believe in the power of argument.  It’s how we pursue truth together.  But in the data-static of our current political climate, it’s a fine line between practicing the pursuit of God’s truth in community and practicing accusation, which will always leave us feeling panicked and alone on the Accuser’s witness stand.
 
As I read the comments section, I remembered a scene from Paradise Lost.  The poem opens with Satan’s falling into hell after rebelling against God.  Soon after, Satan holds a great consultation with all the demons about how they’re going to get revenge on the Almighty.  Demons named Moloch, Belial, Mammon, and Beelzebub give speeches advocating different ideas.  They’re erudite, elegant, and entertaining.  Reading these characters’ speeches, it’s easy to forget how absurd they are.  They’re hatching a scheme to get back at God?!  If Satan and his demons think this is going to work, they’ve clearly lost touch with reality.
 
A classmate of mine in college once said of this scene, “Isn’t it possible that all these demons are just voices in Satan’s own head?  He just tried to overthrow the Creator of the Universe, which is basically like saying he just tried to force God into not being God.  He’s got no sense of reality.  Aren’t these demons basically just broken pieces of his own mind?”
 
Reading the comments section was like stepping into Satan’s mind and hearing all the broken voices, as though one of America’s better angels had fallen and turned on itself.  Free Speech, Democracy, Connectedness—I’m not sure what angel it was I saw falling, but @Moloch, @Belial, and the rest were the voices left over.  Each wanted to be king of the comments section, not to better understand the truth.  Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven, apparently.
 
I don’t want that for us.  We’re Christian people.  The Truth is true whether or not we understand all of it, whether or not we defend it on the anonymous marches of the internet.  Argument is good, but it’s a practice best undertaken over time, amongst people who love each other.  The internet is also good, but it’s a medium best used to connect people who already have a foundational affection for each other.  If the Truth God articulates is a man from Nazareth, who ate and walked and wept and got sunburns and met people face to face, then I think we must admit the limits of what 140 Twitter characters can accomplish.
 
God’s peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Time, Talent, and Nehemiah 3

Hi friends, recently I’ve been writing about financial giving in preparation for Consecration Sunday this week on November 12th.  Today, I want to focus on other kinds of stewardship.  We’ve talked about treasure, but we’ve not said much about time and talent.
 
Recently, our Old Testament readings during Morning Prayer have been mostly from Ezra and Nehemiah.  Those two books tell a fascinating story.  Here’s the background: in 586 BCE, the empire of Babylon conquers Judah and destroys Jerusalem and its Temple.  Babylon captures many of Jerusalem’s citizens and holds them in captivity in Babylon.  Soon enough, however, the Persian Empire conquers once mighty Babylon.  The Persians aren’t interested in keeping the Israelites hostage, so in 538 BCE, the king decrees that all the Jewish captives  “are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 1:3).  The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the Israelites’ returning from exile and their work rebuilding the city of Jerusalem.
 
It took a long time.  Work began in 538 BCE, and the Temple likely wasn’t finished until around 515 BCE.  The city itself wasn’t completed and filled with people until sometime after 445BCE.  That’s a century worth of work, more than one generation’s best efforts.
 
One of my favorite sections is Nehemiah 3 (even though the lectionary skips it).  It’s a specific account of all the repairs being made to the city walls, gates, and towers, along with details about who was doing what. Six towers and eleven gates are mentioned.  The first and last gate mentioned is the Sheep Gate (3:1 and 32).  I imagine this is because the author is walking the perimeter of the city, just telling us what he sees, and he eventually arrives back where he started.
 
What’s startling about chapter three is the number of people: by my count, thirty-six distinct households or people groups are named.  Only six of those are mentioned as making multiple repairs.  Among the workers are goldsmiths, perfumers, priests, merchants, and the daughters of a ruler.  Thirty-six households rebuild the walls of an entire city, and not a single architect, contractor, or bricklayer mentioned.
 
These unqualified but faithful volunteers rebuild a city the grandeur of which causes Jesus’ disciples to marvel over four-hundred years later (Mark 13:1).  Thirty-six households committed for the long term can build the city in which God accomplishes the redemption of the world.
 
Thirty-six households.  According to our most recent directory, St. Elizabeth has 111.  “But,” you say, “church directories are notoriously inaccurate compared to the number of active participants!”  Fair enough.  But if even one-third of our directory are active participants, we’re at thirty-seven households.  And that’s not counting the Boy Scouts!
 
This past Sunday was the Feast of All Saints.  We had extra special music, baptisms, guests, and some friends we hadn’t seen in a while.  Just this past Sunday morning, at least all of the following people were directly involved: Mark and Wanda Slater and the choir; the Altar Guild; our ushers; the Bishop’s Committee members of the day; Rocki Fiero and our coffee hour hosts; Krista Piferrer who makes the butterfly stones for baptisms; our acolytes; our LEMs, lectors, and intercessors; Kimra Hamilton and Ruth Anne Bloor in Godly Play; Kevin Hammond’s acolyte leadership; our round-up verger before the service; David and Rachel Joiner greeting people and making sure there are plenty of welcome bags for us to deliver to any visitors; Philip Williams who makes the faith chests for baptisms; all the pour souls I “voluntold” to help me with my sermon—and that’s not counting any of the folks who offer their time and talent the other six days of the week making fidget-buster bags, keeping the facilities and grounds looking pretty and in order, tracking our expenses and revenues, supporting each other in life groups, or any of the other hundred gates, towers, and walls in need of constant attention.  I could go on, and I haven’t said anything about the million ways you offer God a sacrifice of time and talent outside our church community—but that’s a different newsletter for a different day.
 
St. Elizabeth a mission of the Diocese of West Texas.  It’s tempting to imagine that “we’re just a small church.”  So what?  Jesus started with a handful of fishermen, a tax collector, and a scandalized Samaritan woman he met at a well.  Lots of times when I or another of our leaders asks someone to help with something, they protest, “But I’m not qualified to do that.”  So what?  Perfumers and jewelers rebuilt Jerusalem. 
 
What I’m saying is this: your presence and your best efforts matter.  Your time, your talent, your loving attention and affection—they are the only tools God has ever used to build the City in which He might dwell with His people.  The City we’re building here isn’t primarily a literal one of walls and buildings; it’s community, relationship, service, spiritual food for people of all ages.  Without you, all the money in the world couldn’t build Jerusalem.  Without you, there is no city on a hill where the gates are always open to those seeking the love of God.  Without you, there is no Church.  Like the first Israelites returning from exile, the work of building God’s City requires the best efforts of more than just our generation; we won’t complete it in our lifetime.  Thankfully, God calls us unqualified laborers home to faithfulness, not success.  I’m grateful to be with you, tending the walls, gates, and towers of God’s City.  Let’s keep the Sheep Gate open.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
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