Saturday, December 31, 2005

LC's Tree: Virgin and Child

"The Virgin Mary...heard the angel out, pondered the repercussions, and replied, 'I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said.' Often the work of God comes with two edges, great joy and great pain, and in that matter-of-fact response Mary embraced both. She was the first person to accept Jesus on his own terms, regardless of the personal cost." -- Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, excerpted in Watch For the Light: Readings For Advent and Christmas, Plough Publishing House

The Christmas Saints; and Going Back For Thomas

You know that episode of "I Love Lucy" where Lucy is working on the assembly line at the candy factory, trying desperately to keep up with the conveyor belt? That's how it feels to me trying to keep up with December saints' days and commemorations; they keep speeding past, especially now at the very end of the year.

This past week the Church remembered the Christmas Saints, also known as the Christmas Martyrs: St. Stephen; St. John the Divine; and the Holy Innocents. St Stephen represents martyrdom by deed and by will; St. John, martyrdom by will but not by deed; and the Holy Innocents, martyrdom by deed but not by will.

The proximity of their feast days to Christmas is a reminder that, even as we celebrate the joy of Christ's birth, the shadow of the Cross falls over the manger. At my church, for a couple of years, we'd put up a live Christmas tree in the sanctuary opposite our main Christmas tree, trimmed in white and gold -- and then on the following Sunday we'd come to church to find the branches lopped off, decorations and all, to symbolize Christ's kenosis, his emptying of himself into our humanity. On Ash Wednesday, entering the sanctuary, we'd find the old Christmas tree trunk set up again, another tree limb bound across it to form a cross.

This is one of the things I love about following the Church calendar; the teaching that goes on, almost subliminally, in the ordering of the days. And, just as thanking God for these saints helps us remember the Lenten season during Christmastime, in the springtime we celebrate the Annunciation -- a bit of Advent joy and hope during the Lenten season. It's a kind of sacred choreography, the Church calendar.

And since I'm a lousy dancer, I wound up missing a step and neglecting one of my own favorite saints and apostles, St. Thomas, whose feast day was back on the 21st. Thomas is a saint who doesn't always get much respect; the story of his doubting Jesus' resurrection and subsequent encounter with the risen Christ is sometimes spun in a way that makes him appear to be a bad guy, when he isn't at all, and makes Jesus appear to be scolding him, which isn't really the case either. I just found a good online overview of St. Thomas , written by James Kiefer, whose name will be familiar to those of you who use the Online Daily Office. I love the portrait; I also like Kiefer's description of Thomas as "pessimistic" but "sturdily loyal," two qualities that I think are endearing in a saint.

Friday, December 30, 2005

LC's Tree: At Last, a Christmas Reptile!

I'n't it cu-u-u-ute? Posted by Picasa

2006: The Big Do-Over

Checking in with the RevGalBlogPals' Friday Five:

Do you make New Year's Resolutions?
Usually at least a couple. Ironically, I tend to find New Year's Day a more envigorating day than Christmas because it's a kind of annual life reboot -- a big do-over. By January 1 I'm usually ready to do that.

If so, are they generally successful?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes in part.

Do you write them down, or make a mental list?
When I've been a more faithful journaler I've written them down; otherwise I keep mental track. Now that I have a blog, I've added a new level of accountability, no?

Even if you don't make resolutions, is there something you want to focus on in the New Year?
Well, keeping in mind that it's generally counterproductive to work on changing more than three life behaviors at once -- that's pretty much an act of self-sabotage -- here are three that I want to work on first:

1. I want to be more faithful and methodical in following the Daily Office. Some weeks I really fall off the wagon. And when I do that, it affects the quality of my life, spiritual and otherwise, in a negative way. So I am going to make a concerted effort to try harder.

2. I want to work on my anger issues; specifically, I want to regain my ability to use humor as a response to things and people making me angry. I admire people who are able to exhibit wit in such situations.

3. I want to rediscover the joy of reading, as opposed to skimming, which I find myself doing more and more of these days. Marva Dawn has noted in her books on worship that technology is essentially rewiring our brains and changing how we process information; I can see and feel this in my own life. It's very seldom that I can completely immerse myself in a book the way I could as a child or even a college student. I want to recapture the ability to focus on what I'm reading to the exclusion of other things, instead of feeling compelled to multitask as I read. (This is, by the way, a repeat performance for this resolution, which tells you how successful it was the first time.)

Now, those are systemic/methodical/long-term resolutions. My less profound, less high-commitment to-do list for the year includes:

Replacing the air ducts around here. They're as old as the house, and they look gross.

Purchasing a copy of The Daily Prayers of the Church -- pricey but worth it, I've been told.

Getting out more. I'm not even sure what that might mean, exactly, but it's something I want to do in aught-six; get out more.

Upgrading my unmentionables. I know this is probably sliding down the slippery slope into Too Much Information, but the contents of my lingerie drawer were beginning to look like a cross between a liquidation sale at the North Korean Revolutionary People's Undergarment Factory Number 9 and a scary bag of discards left on a Salvation Army doorstep. One evening I was watching an old CSI re-run, and at one point in the episode a detective, looking down at a cadaver in the morgue, noted, "There is nothing sadder than a woman with dingy underwear." Ouch.

Finding my stomach muscles again. I know they're in there somewhere.

And do you have plans for New Year's Eve?
New Year's Eve is actually one of the more downer days on my calendar. New Year's Day is much better. New Year's Eve I usually overindulge in snack food and then sack out well before the ball drops. Whoo-freaking-hoo. But I'm open to attitude reformation.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

LC's Tree: The Last-Chance Woodpecker, and a Story

I bought this almost-lifesize woodpecker long ago, at a Ben Franklin store-liquidation sale. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And in fact, it's a handy decoration to have for a Christmas tree with, say, a big hole amid the branches, or with an overly tall top branch that needs some embellishment.

And as long as we're talking woodpeckers, here's an Anishnabe story about the origin of the woodpecker. There were indigenous people living, or at least hunting, right in my back yard, once upon a time -- I have the arrowhead to prove it. So maybe my woodpecker now serves as a nod to the previous tenants. The star of this story is Nanabozho, an interesting figure in Anishnabe mythology, a bit like Jesus (human mother, spirit father; sent by Kitchi Manitou, the Great Spirit, to teach the people); a bit like the trickster Coyote of Southwestern Native American mythology; and a bit like the demigods of classical paganism.

Once upon a time an old woman wearing a red headdress, black dress and white apron was making a batch of bread dough, when a stranger came to her doorway. "I'm terribly hungry," said the stranger. "Would you mind sharing some of your bread with me?" "Sure," replied the old woman. She went to her fire and placed a big piece of dough over it; but as it cooked, it looked so perfect, so beautiful, that she thought, "This is much too nice to give to a stranger." So she took that piece of bread and hid it in the ashes, and instead pinched off another piece of dough to make more bread. But that piece, as it browned over the fire, looked even more beautiful than the first. "This bread is too fine to give away," thought the woman, and hid that bread as well. "The stranger can have this last bit of dough instead." She set the last little piece of her dough over the fire; but it too grew large and golden and lovely. "I can't possibly give away such a fine piece of bread," thought the old woman. She slipped the last of the bread into the ashes with the others.

She went back to the stranger. "I'm sorry," she lied, "but my dough fell into the fire and was ruined. So I have no bread to give you."

At this point the stranger revealed himself: He was Nanabozho, the great teacher and magician of The People, son of a human mother and The West. "You greedy, selfish woman! Because you would not show hospitality to a hungry stranger, you yourself will know hunger, and will have to forage for your food in the very wood of the trees!" And with that the woman was turned into a woodpecker. And even now you can see her red headdress, and black clothing, and white apron, and hear her remorseful call as she flies through the forest.

The moral of the story...share your breadPosted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Feast of the Holy Innocents

This time of year we often hear that "Christmas is for children." Adults smile indulgently at children's unbridled excitement; treacly song lyrics speak wistfully of "Toyland, beautiful girl and boy land," where "once you've passed its borders you can never return again."

I recently read a sermon by Paul Neuchterlein (see The Text This Week's commentaries for December 28th for the link) in which he points out that Christmas is for all children, not just middle-class American children or the dimpled tots of our picture-perfect fantasy holidays.

Christmas -- the real Christmas, the inbreaking of God's saving power in the person of Jesus Christ -- is also for children who live in the shadow of death -- death by the hand of the mad or malicious; death by the culmination of many banal evils inflicted by a chain of ignorant and/or callous adults; death by natural disaster; death by poverty, by disease, by neglect.

It's as true now as it was 2,000 years ago: In most times and places, children have been the most vulnerable citizens of our planet. They're often the last to be fed; the first to be exploited or abused. Not too long ago I read an article by a biblical scholar who thinks that the Slaughter of the Innocents is a mythical event because there appears to be no independent verification of its occurrence in the historical record. My reaction -- as a forty-something whose lifespan has coincided with the atrocities of Vietnam; the days of Cambodian killing fields; genocidal slaughter in Uganda, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in the Sudan and many other places, and who has over the years seen and heard countless reports of child abuse, neglect and exploitation -- is that in a world where children are expendable and where violence in service to self-interest is the norm, perhaps this event wasn't recorded because it wasn't particularly remarkable...then or now.

This is the world where God met us in the person of Jesus -- a helpless child, one of countless helpless children; soon to be a refugee child, like many small refugees. Because the God we meet in the Gospels refuses to fight the powers of evil on their own terms -- terms of power-over and payback. God's power is made perfect in weakness: the weakness of a baby; the weakness of an executed prisoner.

We often feel helpless in the face of evil; it seems too big, too overwhelming, too persistent. But the Christ we follow calls us into battle against the darkness by calling us into what the rest of the world sees as weakness -- the kind of weakness that allows our hearts to be broken; that helps our closed minds give way to new vision and understanding; that opens our clenched, grasping fists; that lets us be pulled out of our safe, dark fortresses of self-absorption and self-interest.

Christmas is for children -- for all children, everywhere. It's for all the children of Eve, of every age and place. What's the mission of the Body of Christ -- which is to say, all of us? "Let them know it's Christmastime."

Starving Somalian child; a 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Kevin Carter

LC's Tree: The Voice of the Lobster

'Twas the voice of the Lobster; I heard him declare:
"You have baked me too brown; I must sugar my hair." -- Lewis Carroll

You may wonder why I have a lobster hanging on my Christmas tree.

My mother does. She hates the lobster, which is why he is relegated to the back side of the tree, where he will not elicit negative commentary like, "Why did you ever buy that thing?"

But I was very happy to have found the lobster, because I needed a Christmas crustacean.

It's like this: I have always, ever since I was a little kid, loved the old-fashioned German blown-glass Christmas ornaments, representing all manner of thing from the sublime to the ridiculous. When I grew up and began shopping for the latter-day reproductions on my own, I determined that I would collect one representing every major classification of animal. (Plants are a little harder; I do seek out fruits and vegetables of all kinds -- my collection includes everything from a lumpy brown potato to a tiny raspberry, and once I almost succumbed to the lure of a purple-tinged artichoke.)

I've done very well -- I have various mammals and birds, a couple of insects, a few mollusks (a snail, a scallop and a nautilus shell), a frog and a fish. I don't yet have a reptile; my usual source for seasonal bling-bling does have a turtle that may find itself in my ornament stash some year, and I'm suprised there isn't a snake as well (perhaps with a divine foot whomping it in the head). I don't think I've ever seen a blown-glass worm, or anything farther down the zoological tree. But finding a representative of Crustacea was a shopping challenge for a long time. Since so many of us are crabby at Christmas, you'd think there might be one of those around...or a cute little shrimp. But no.

Anyhow -- as the Song of the Three Young Men says, "All ye whales and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord; praise him and magnify him forever."

Rudolph the Red-Shelled Lobster Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Doing to the Least of These

Here is an excellent column by Cynthia Tucker on the disconnect between our nation's self-professed values and how it actually treats poor people.

LC's Tree: A Bird of a Different Feather

It was 1983. I was a recent college graduate, with no real job and no prospects, slumming in a bookstore and sharing a duplex with my best friend and another student acquaintance.

Our townhouse was, once upon a time, kind of a classy place...rumor had it that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed our building, which we didn't believe for a minute, but you could tell that whoever had built it had cared about its design. But that had been upwards of 45 years ago. Now it was ramshackle inside and out; repainted untold times on the inside; windows so loose that in the winter the sheets of Visqueen covering them billowed like sails; appliances from the 50's that were constantly breaking down. Our living room furniture consisted of a single mattress and spring on a metal pull-out bed, and a bookcase made out of bricks and planks.

Still, we tried to make the place as homey as we could. I'd bought a straggly Norfolk Island pine, maybe two feet tall, to add something green and alive to our common area, and come Christmas I decorated it with some straw ornaments from an alternative Christmas fair, and some homemade paper snowflakes and other found items light enough to hang on the branches without the flimsy tree doing "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and bending completely over. ("Oh, no! I've killed it!") My friend was the daughter of a home-ec teacher, and had learned to channel her considerable nervous energy into a variety of crafts; this particular year she'd taken up origami, and she presented me with a lavender peace crane to add to my tree. At the time I found no special significance to the color of the crane, or at least none that I wanted to think about very hard because thinking about it scared the stuffing out of me. (I now find this hysterically funny, and wonder if my housemate knew something about me that I didn't.)

But, anyway, I still have my lavender peace crane. It has survived the end of that particular friendship, over time and distance, and numerous moves, as well as the teeth of my other post-college housemate's cat, who liked to surreptitiously remove ornaments from my tree and bat them down our basement stairs. I like to think that it's come to represent peace within myself just as it represents the hope for peace in the world. So it has an honored place on my tree.

A rare bird from my youth Posted by Picasa

Monday, December 26, 2005

St. Stephen's Day

It's a bit sobering to share a birthday with a martyr's feast day -- not only a martyr, but the first recorded martyr for the Christian faith. (It's a little like sharing one's birthday with the anniversary of the south Asian tsunami. Maybe I'll celebrate my birthday in June from now on.)

On the other hand, as I was thinking about St. Stephen yesterday, one of the first, admittedly flippant things that came to mind was, "He should be the patron saint of anyone who's ever been tapped for a church committee."

We usually think of the end of Stephen's life -- his courageous defense of the faith, his refusal to fight back, his forgiving his attackers even as they hurled rocks at him. But I keep finding myself thinking about the beginning of his diaconal ministry. Imagine being called to administer, and perhaps more accurately referee, an aid program in the context of a Balkanized community with one side accusing the other of unfairness in the distribution of assistance. Do you think that, when word reached Stephen that the Church leadership had, after prayerful discernment, picked him as one of the people to undertake this task, he was happy about it? I'm thinking not.

Stephen, from what we can gather, was a member of the church subgroup feeling marginalized -- Hellenized Jews, who were culturally and linguistically Greek, who seem to have been discriminated against in the early Christian community by the Hebrew/Aramaic speaking Jewish converts, probably because, in the eyes of the latter, the former's Jewishness had been compromised by their assimilation into Greek culture. Yet Stephen had been picked, it seems, to be part of the team working for reconciliation and equity between the groups. And evidently he did his job well, and more than that -- exceptionally well, not only in terms of his diaconal job description but in terms of working "signs," and of preaching and debating critics of Christianity. Well enough to find himself in the sights of the religious authorities when they decided to crack down on this increasingly visible and vocal new sect.

I think that's one lesson we can learn from Stephen's story: That in a Church where we're still learning how to do things, still trying to get it right but not always succeeding, some of us may be called to "represent" on behalf of others; and it's going to be a tough, thankless job and one that may cost us more than we might think at first, but that the process may also lead us to our finest hour, to a time and place where we can reflect Christ in a way that we may not have thought possible.

There's another lesson in Stephen's the very end, when Stephen's murderers lay their cloaks at the feet of one Saul of Tarsus -- apparently the instigator of Stephen's stoning. You really have to admire Luke's narrative skill here; doesn't that ominous line make you want to read more, and find out about this villainous character Saul? Oh, we will.

The beauty of Stephen's martyrdom is not only that he dies without hatred or regret, with his eyes fixed on his Lord and Savior, but that his death also plays a role in the redemption of his killer.

I read that Bono recently had lunch with Jesse Helms. They're friends -- not just for photo ops, but for real. Whodathunkit? When Bono was advocating on Capitol Hill for more HIV/AIDS research and support funding, he lobbied Helms hard. Not the sort of fellow you'd think would have a metanoia moment on this particular issue, but he did. I understand that Bono's passionate advocacy, which included "doing theology" Bible in hand with the old senator, moved Helms to tears.

When Christ comes down, things change. People change. Even institutions change. "Even so, come, Lord Jesus."

The stoning of St. Stephen, 13th century, Black Bourton, Oxon Posted by Picasa

LC's Tree: Flora and Fauna

As you can see, there's all kinds of stuff going on in this sector of the ol' Christmas tree: You've got a pomegranate, and a turkey, and what I call the Semi-Pornographic Plum (shot from a discreet angle), and the Christmas Hedgehog, there above the Christmas Spider.

Now, at this point you may be thinking, What does any of this have to do with the Nativity of Our Lord? Good question. If a space alien landed in my living room and viewed my Christmas tree, at least this part of it, what information would s/he/it glean about my belief system?

Maybe nothing. Frankly, during my Pagan Period, I was just as excited about the family Christmas tree as ever, if not more so, because for me it was a delightful in- joke...I could go from ornament to ornament and find some touchstone of pre-Christian spirituality.

Then again, maybe everything. Yesterday many of us heard this passage, from the letter to the Hebrews:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
All things -- pomegranates and plums, arachnids, birds, insectivores, glassblowers and Christmas-tree-factory workers. And not only that, but the One in whom and through whom and for whom all things were made also chose to become part of the creation, arriving pretty much the way the rest of us do. Who knew you could get so much Incarnational theology out of fruit, a spider, a bird and a hedgehog?

Postscript: I just heard Dar Williams' "The Christians and the Pagans" on the radio...having lived "both sides now," I thought it was a lighthearted but meaningful meditation on finding commonalities and getting along.

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small... Posted by Picasa

Our Lady of Crimbo

What a difference a day makes.

Confession time: I was trying to keep things light and objective on my blog, just because I don't want to be a downer for other people, but my Christmas, apart from remembering and giving thanks for its spiritual significance, was not a good one. I spent much of Christmas Eve feeling extremely alone and sad; then around midnight we had a momentarily frightening Falling Incident at our house (no injuries this time, thank God, unlike last Christmas Eve when my mother fell in church and broke her wrist, and we spent the wee hours in the hospital ER); and I got through Christmas Day mostly through grim "git 'er done" determination.

But today was my day. I got out of the house and out of town for a few hours, with no real itinerary, and felt my body unclenching for the first time in about a week. I found myself, despite the overcast skies and rain-mottled landscape, enjoying things -- the perfect tiered symmetry of the black spruce, and the startling coral of Michigan holly berries, growing in swampy forest bordering the highway; Dutch belted cattle, like walking Oreos, in a pasture; the Amish girl I encountered at Meijer's, expertly maneuvering the computer touchpad at the self-checkout; Eric Clapton's greatest hits on the stereo at my food coop, and the lemony cream of Swiss chard soup I had there at lunch.

One of the things I enjoyed the most was in a churchyard on the main street of a village near here. It was a nativity scene -- one of those pastel, cartoony plastic ones, a little worse for wear. The figure of Mary had fallen flat on her back, and now her praying hands were seemingly beseeching the skies for help. I had to laugh out loud when I saw it. That could be me, I thought.

The I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up Mary is a wonderful icon for those of us who have a rough time during the holidays; who get stressed out and worn out and disappointed by what my Brit friends call Crimbo -- all the frenzied, distracting, non-Christocentric stuff surrounding Christmas.

And what's great about the Church calendar is that those of us who keep it still have eleven days of Christmas left to adore the Holy Child of Bethlehem -- eleven days now unencumbered by to-do lists, social obligations, deadlines and unrealistic expectations of a Hallmark-card holiday.

Our Lady of Crimbo, pray for us every Christmas.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

More Tree Peeping With LC

This is the first Christmas ornament I ever bought, my own self, for our family tree.

Christmastime is here... Posted by Picasa

What You Got For Christmas

You're probably wondering what I got you for Christmas.

Well -- I got you two things. One thing is a donation to The Heifer Project . Heifer helps people around the world become food self-suffient, earn income for their households and help their neighbors by providing them with livestock, trees and technical expertise in raising them. Recipients of Heifer gifts promise to share any offspring with their neighbors, so one gift keeps giving throughout communities.

The other thing is a day sponsorship at The Text This Week -- the week of Epiphany 6B, February 12th, to be exact. If you haven't visited The Text This Week -- Webmeister Jenee, who's a RevGalBlogPal , has put together an amazing treasure trove of lectionary readings with commentaries, sermons and other sermon and worship helps...and she does all this from her home, while she takes care of a special-needs son. Whenever I post an essay on a Sunday Gospel lesson, or share a work of art on my blog, there is a very good chance that I've been to Jenee's place first.

Both donations were made to the glory of God and in celebration of my friends. That's you!

Hope they fit. Merry Christmas!

This Just In...

Quoth the little-girl lector who read our Old Testament lesson this morning:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger
who announces peace, who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God resigns.”

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Unto Us a Child Is Born

The Gospel does not merely teach about the history of Christ. No, it enables all who believe it to receive it as their own, which is the way the Gospel operates. Of what benefit would it be to me if Christ had been born a thousand times, and it would daily be sung into my ears in a most lovely manner, if I were never to hear that he was born for me and was to be my very own? If the voice gives forth this pleasant sound, even if it be in homely phrase, my heart listens with joy, for it is a lovely sound which penetrates the soul. -- Martin Luther, Christmas sermon

A happy and blessed Christmas to everyone!

"Unto Us a Child Is Born," Hanna Cheriyan Varghese Posted by Picasa

The 12 Days of LC's Christmas Tree: Christmas Eve Preview

As promised, here are some up-close-and-personal photos of my eclectic Christmas tree. Blogger's photo upload function is acting up on my this afternoon, so I decided that instead of trying to post several of them in one post I'll just publish one a day.

"Every picture tells a story, don't it," and every -- or almost every -- ornament on my tree has a story behind it. The star of this photo is a celluloid Weihnachtsmann -- that's Santa Claus to you -- that my paternal great-grandparents brought over on the boat from the Old Country. These were some of the most no-nonsense, least sentimental people I can think of, so I can't imagine, of all the things they gathered together to take to America, they'd take Christmas ornaments...but they did. That out-of-focus silver ball behind Santa is also from that collection. These are some of the oldest ornaments on the tree.

The white blob in the upper left-hand corner is a satin dove I bought at a peace-and-justice alternative Christmas fair many years ago -- that's its bulging crop; perhaps it had been eating granola -- and the pretty daffodil ornamanent is a fairly recent acquisition I picked up at an after-Christmas sale at the ArtReach gallery in Mt. Pleasant, a few years ago when I was feeling blue around the holidays and decided I needed shopping therapy somewhere outside the boundaries of Outer Podunk. As you can see, I'm not into themed Christmas trees -- who do you think I am, Martha Stewart? -- but enjoy happy chaos.

Oldies but goodies Posted by Picasa

"Kling, Gloeckchen, kling-a-ling-a-ling"...another antique ornament from the great-grandparents Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 23, 2005

O Christmas Tree

What I did today after we came home from shopping...not bad for a Manchurian spruce out of a box. Tomorrow I will take you on a guided tour of My Back Pages, Christmas Ornament Edition.

 Posted by Picasa

How to Grow a Grinch

First you pair an adult daughter with an 80-something mom. The mom walks with a cane, is hard of hearing, has other health issues that make long car rides and wanderings through large stores a dicey proposition, and has a habit of not telling the daughter about impending incidents related to these issues; but by golly, she wants to go Christmas shopping. "I'll go wherever you go," says the mom. "You're the driver. And this is for your birthday present, so I'll get you whatever you want." The daughter knows this means two stores, tops, neither of which are really where the daughter wants to go, and that if the daughter goes where she really does want to go and indicates what she'd really like, the mom will start to argue with her about why she should want something else. So the daughter says, "Let's go to Kohl's," because this is the kind of store that the mom actually has in mind when she says, "I'll go anywhere you go." (Barnes and Noble is not.)

Next the daughter and the mom travel to the nearest mall -- the scene of absolute shopping chaos. The daughter lingers in the jewelry and perfume department, a department that the mom does not care for; the mom starts doing the pacing and eye-rolling thing and says, "Let's hurry and go to the clothing department," because that's really what the mom wants to buy the daughter anyway. The mom buys the birthday present; which is something that the daughter did want, kind of, but in the meantime the daughter buys herself something she wanted a little bit more, back in the other department .

The daughter and mom head for the kitchen appliances. En route, the mom stops in the card section. She shows the daughter a birthday card she is considering purchasing for the daughter. Don't ask; it's how things work in this family. The card is slightly naughty; the front shows a retouched 1920's-era photograph of a matron at a writing table with a message underneath that says something like, "I was thinking of getting you five Chippendale dancers, a trapeze and a bottle of champagne for your birthday." The mom thinks this is funny; the daughter thinks, Huh? The daughter wonders if the mom gets the allusion to the trapeze, and finds this possibility disturbing. The daughter goes on to think, I really don't want to have a conversation about the situational inappropriateness of this card in the middle of the stationery aisle at Kohl's, even though the mom's hearing loss might prove to be advantageous. ("A Presbyterian? What do the Presbyterians have to do with this?") The mom winds up not purchasing the card. The daughter sighs in relief.

Within the next hour and a half, there is 1)a Bathroom Incident (not the daughter); a simultaneous traffic jam on both of the main streets running through the mall complex, resulting in a 15-minute commute 100 yards to the main street; 3)a temporarily lost mom in the supermarket ("I had to sit down on the bench in the entryway"); 4)a shopper in front of the daughter whose check keeps getting rejected by the cash register, flustering the cashier and causing much sighing in the line rapidly forming behind; 5)the cashier seeing the daughter take two gift cards from the rack, but then asking her, not once but twice,"So are you buying these or redeeming them?"; and 5)a Bathroom Incident with the dog, discovered when the daughter and the mom return home.

On a positive note: The daughter now has a new sweater and a little bottle of Cool Water men's cologne, which the daughter prefers to the women's version -- it's got that evergreen-woodsy-mossy thing going on, which the daughter finds much more friskifying than either champagne or Chippendale dancers. And a box of Stash white-and-green tea, which was found after finding the mom in the supermarket. And a sample packet of Mackinac Island Fudge coffee, which the daughter is drinking right now while listening to Brian Setzer sing "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus."

It could be worse.

(My Grinchy pic is courtesy of Animation Artwork . And I really did not do this to my dog, as much as I felt like it.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Happy Winter Solstice!

A Yule bonfire in Iceland, courtesy of Jo's Icelandic Recipes

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, I used to be a heathen. I don't mean figuratively; I mean literally. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

So you might wonder why I am devoting a post to an observance that many equate with paganism, or that may remind me in a troubling way of a past spiritual detour away from the Christian faith.

Well, it's like this: Just moments ago, I heard the St. Olaf Choir and a Norwegian girls' choir in Trondheim sing a moving rendition of "Beautiful Savior" -- a hymn that, while of course praising Christ, also delights in the world Scripture tells us was made in and through and for Christ. Every so often, along with the rest of us who follow the Daily Office, I read The Song of the Three Young Men, that soaring canticle from the Old Testament Apocrypha in which everything in the created order is exhorted to praise God.

One of my old spiritual mentors from my university days used to opine that "creeping Gnosticism" was one of the greatest dangers to contemporary Christianity. One of the hallmarks of Gnosticism was its dualistic, antagonistic view of the material versus the spiritual worlds, completely contrary to the wholistic Hebraic way of thinking. The fear, in some Christian circles, of even acknowledging, much less celebrating, the created world as anything more than an interesting backdrop to the cosmic drama, is a symptom of creeping Gnosticism -- a discomfort with our enfleshed existence in a created universe. This does not square with Genesis' message of a world created with love and care by God and pronounced good. And I think this is an important point to make at a time when we are about to celebrate God's entering into this created world in a very real, tangible, enfleshed way, the same way that we all get here.

Christ entered a world of rhythms and seasons that touch our lives -- times of warmth and cold, of growth and harvest and fallow ground, of light and darkness. Our welcoming that point in time when the shortest, darkest day gives way to more light should in no way detract from or distract from our celebration, later this week, of the Light of the World breaking into our spiritual darkness...quite the opposite. Take it from a reformed heathen who still welcomes the turning of the year's wheel into longer, brighter days.

A St. Olaf Christmas in Norway

I'm watching and listening to this right now, and it's magnificent. It's being broadcast on many PBS stations at 10 pm EST tonight, but check your local listings.


And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor 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 forever."

My friend *Christopher's recent bloggings have me thinking about what it means to bear Christ in a hostile world.

This has always been a serious, and often dangerous, task. In different times and places it's meant actual physical peril. Ironically, throughout the ages many of the great mystics and renewers of Christianity, people we revere as heroes of the faith, have found themselves having to protect themselves and the Christ within from the institutional Church itself.

Today many of us find ourselves bearing Christ both into a hostile secular world that finds our beliefs quaint at best, ignorant and superstitious at worst, as well as into Christian circles that deny the living presence of Christ in our lives because of our sociopolitical viewpoints or our sexual orientation or our following a Christian tradition that doesn't look like theirs. Sometimes the brokenness and sadness of the world makes us lose grasp of the hope in Christ we carry inside us. And sometimes we can feel as if our own intellect or emotions are imperiling the Christ Child within; for instance, while carefully and sometimes painfully navigating that challenging space between contemporary scholars' studies of the historical Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ we see through the lens of faith, the very Word of God in whom and through whom and for whom all things were made.

One of my coworkers, someone with whom I work closely, had difficulties during her pregnancy. I saw and felt her anxiety during this frightening time. I saw how she did everything she could to protect her child; changing her diet, and her activities, and even her vehicle, to safeguard the new life inside her. But I saw something else -- a fierceness and defiance in defense of her child. Like the bear-themed artwork she favors in her office, she demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, the tough love of a mama bear.

This is what I hear in Mary's Magnificat -- a strong, defiant "yes" above the droning chorus of "no" around her, and an affirmation of a God whose arm is not too short to save. This Mary is not a "virgin lowly," but a virgo potens, the First Disciple, standing in solidarity with us and helping give us voice to our own "yes" no matter what our challenges in carrying her Son into our world.

"Magnificat," David J. Hetland  Posted by Picasa

My Dog's Favorite Christmas Cookies

Cody, a.k.a. The Codeman, my dog, is a complex canine. He loves Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney and choral music; he seems to enjoy watching the news, although for some reason he intensely dislikes one of our local meteorologists, and he also hates sports reports (too many people running, waving their arms and throwing things). And -- he likes spice cookies. Loves them, in fact. Loves them so much that he can launch his arthritic 13-year-old body into a perfect vertical jump onto the sofa in an attempt to coerce a cookie-eating human to give him a piece.

Here's the recipe of the cookies he loves. I like 'em pretty well myself. Unlike the Pfeffernuesse of my acquaintance -- hard little spicy nuggets that need about a week in a cookie jar to properly mellow -- these are soft, and spread out a bit, and are quite edible right out of the oven, although they too improve in flavor over the course of a few days.

Sour Cream Pfeffernuesse

3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 TBS butter
1/2 sour cream
1/4 cup honey
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups flour (this is what the recipe says -- personally, I'd add a bit more)
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper (don't be afraid)
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
powdered sugar

In a large bowl beat granulated sugar, butter, sour cream, honey and vanilla until well blended.

Mix dry ingredients except for powdered sugar. Add to wet mixture and beat until a soft dough forms.

Divide dough into four pieces. With floured palms of hands, roll each piece of dough on wax paper to make a 3/4" thick roll about 10 inches long. Wrap and refrigerate up to three days. (You can also freeze up to six months.)

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice dough crosswise into 3/4" pieces. Place an inch apart on lightly greased cookie sheets. Bake 8-10 minutes or until firm and lightly browned on edges.

Roll baked cookies, while still hot, in powdered sugar to cover, then place on rack to cool, out of reach of hungry little dogs.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Faux Fir, Pain Update, and a Cookie Recipe

I'm in the process of putting up our new, mother-demanded/mother-approved faux Christmas tree...just taking a break in between the branch-fluffing, a task that's taken the better part of an hour, and that has left little red welts all over my hands, just like handling a real Christmas tree. I also notice that the fake needles shed too, albeit not like a real tree. All in all, people, I'm not seein' a real advantage here, other than a relatively easier time sticking the fake trunk into its stand. But I am trying to maintain a Positive Attitude despite all this, helped considerably by listening to Bach on the Beeb all afternoon, taking occasional deep sniffs of my real Christmas wreaths, and sneaking Christmas cookies. My mother, of course, is just delighted with our, um, Manchurian spruce: "It's so much less trouble!" Bite tongue, LutheranChik! Christian charity! It's your mom! Keep humming "Wachtet auf"!

Which reminds me: Thanks, all of you, for your kind words, thoughts and prayers. My wonky jaw has improved somewhat; yesterday I had only a bit of an ache, as if someone had punched me a few days earlier, and I felt chipper enough to bake cookies. This morning when I awoke the pain had all localized to my molar, but only when I applied pressure to that side of my church today, when I went up for Communion, the taking-and-eating was enough to bring the pain all back; I think the chalice bearer, down the line, thought I was having a profound religious experience as I grasped for the cup, when I was actually thinking, "Ow...ow...ow...OW!" Oh, day at a time. With any luck I'll get a pre-Christmas doctor's appointment so we can at least start to figure out what's going on in there.

Anyhow...back to the tree...I'll have to post a virtual tree tour when it's all decorated. Until to fluff some more.

Oh...but here's a cookie recipe I found while recipe-mining the Internet. It's delicious and decadent and makes lots. If you are fasting for Advent, this is your cue to avert your eyes.

Chocolate Cream Cheese Cookies

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese (lower-calorie works fine)
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 large egg
1-1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 (12 ounce) package semi-sweet chocolate chips, divided
2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 350 F. Beat cream cheese with butter, egg and sugar until light and fluffy. In the top of a double boiler over hot (not boiling) water, melt 1 cup of the chocolate chips. Stir into batter. Stir in flour, baking soda and nuts, if desired, along with remaining chocolate chips. Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until firm around the edges. Allow to cool one minute on baking sheets then remove to wire racks to cool completely. Makes 4 dozen cookies.

Musical Notes

Check out the MP3's of the "'O' Antiphons" at The Topmost Apple . These are traditionally sung beginning on Dec. 16th. And whether you sing them or say them, they're a wonderful addition to your Advent devotional practice as the stable of Bethlehem appears on our horizon. Thanks, bls, for sharing these.

And an alert for all Bach lovers: All this week, BBC 3 is presenting an all Bach playlist. (You'll also want to check out their Choral Evensong recordings -- this past week's was from Capetown, South Africa, and in addition to hearing a blend of traditional and African choral music you can also hear a homily by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of my real heroes.)

"Fling wide the door, unbar the gate" -- the King is coming!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Don't Be Afraid

"Be afraid. Be very afraid."

It's a theme you'll pick up on quite quickly if you spend any time listening to "Christian" broadcasting. And you may have even heard it sitting in your own church pew. God is coming to kick fannies and take names, so you'd better shape up or else.

Interestingly, though, that's not what we hear in the Gospels. That's not what Mary hears on the fateful day of her angelic encounter. It's not what Joseph hears as he agonizes about doing the right thing about the major complication in his upcoming nuptials. It's not what the disciples hear, even when they're blockheaded enough to deserve it. It's not what we hear as the resurrected Jesus we can easily see and hear and touch leaves us for a time.

What do we hear instead?

Don't be afraid.

How interesting that, when God "comes down," as God always does, the first thing God does is reassure us that God's presence is a good thing. For whatever reason, we humans seem hardwired to assume the opposite, in the same way that the wild animals in my backyard assume that I am not their friend, even as I come slogging through the snow with food for them every day.

And it's also interesting that God tends to tell us Don't be afraid in the context of giving us a job to do. Although some of God's assignments do seem frightening indeed: To undertake tasks on God's and on others' behalf that we don't believe we're capable of accomplishing; to go among people hostile to God and to ourselves, on God's behalf; to turn around and walk in a different direction than the one we've been traveling, and head into terra incognita; to be a part of situations where our role in the story is unclear. For some of us maybe even the assignment of being open to God's presence in our lives for another 24 hours, or another hour, or another minute, is a daunting one.

In Sunday's Gospel lesson this is where Mary finds herself; about to be given a job by God. Folkloric embellishments aside, we really don't know a lot about Mary except that she was a small-town girl, probably only 12 or 13 years old, looking ahead to the narrowly defined role assigned to her by her family and culture. An unremarkable young girl; a nobody. And then, suddenly, the message of God came down: Don't be afraid.

And here's another thing we know about Mary: She said yes. Yes to this nutty, nonsensical proposition from God. The funny thing about how this works is, when we let go of our fear and defensiveness, our assumption that God is out to get us, and give ourselves over to God's presence in our lives -- we find ourselves saying yes to the most unlikely things. Yes to turning outward when every fiber of our being tells us to keep turned inward; yes to forgiving when we want to nurse our wrath to keep it warm; yes to tasks that frighten us, that appall us, that cause us discomfort, that cost us.

No matter what the circumstances of our lives are telling us about the "next right thing" we're called to do -- our Gospel lesson tells us that we're not alone; that God is a God who cares enough about us to pour Godsself into our very humanity, and to stand with us, no matter who or where we are. Don't be afraid.

"The Annunciation," William-Adolphe Bouguereau Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 16, 2005

Five Times Two a couple of memes going around this week.

The Revgalblogpals have created a party-down meme:

1) Have you ever gotten a really good kiss under the mistletoe? Tell the truth. Spare no details. Was the mistletoe real, because kisses under the fake stuff do. not. count. Although a girl can always dream. And in the meantime, here's a neat website all about mistletoe, believe it or not. (Note to webmeisters: Bring back the Art Nouveau page! We want Art Nouveau mistletoe art!)

2) Do you know anyone who makes real eggnog, not the stuff from the carton? And if so, do you actually like it?
A few years ago I was at a party where the ambitious hostess had whipped up some homemade eggnog. It was pretty good; lighter than the storebought concoction. I just tried not thinking about the raw eggs; although I suspect the alcohol content of that particular batch had strong antibacterial powers.

3) What's your favorite Christmas party album/CD ever?
Oh, I think for a par-tay party I'd want a custom mix of jazz/swing/classic pop -- you know, Ella, Rosemary, Frank, Nat and friends -- and then some get-down Christmas blues, and some uptempo worldbeat Christmas music, and maybe some mellow Windham Hill-y instrumentals interspersed throughout.

4) Does your office/workplace have a party? Do the people there ever behave the way people in movies behave at office parties, which is to say, badly?
Yes, we do. Actually we have three parties in December -- a very informal potluck lunch, and then the formal, official party at our community's sole white-tablecloth restaurant, and then, just a day or so before our Christmas vacation, a Christmas tea for our office hosted by our boss, an Anglophile who collects tea things and likes to do this. (The tea is not intended to be sex-segregated, but our male employees are terrified of attending, and usually throw themselves a pizza party elsewhere on premises while our soiree is going on.)

Ironically, out of all these events, the most unruly I've ever seen anyone has been at the tea, which is followed by a "Chinese gift exchange" where people bring unmarked gifts, draw numbers and take a gift (sometimes the very one they've brought) -- and then subsequent gift-takers are allowed to steal the gift if they wish. There's the spirit of the season for you! Anyway, some of the women can get a little aggressive and/or territorial; I guess that's why some of them spend so much money on those fake nail extensions. But other than that our parties are pretty subdued affairs. A coworker of mine, though, reports going to his spouse's employer's Christmas party at a local bar and, after the evening had progressed and the liquor had been flowing freely, some of the females started flashing the other partygoers and innocent bystanders. I'm reasonably sure this would not happen at any of our parties.

5) If you have to bring something to a party, what is it likely to be? Do people like it?
What I bring depends entirely on my mood. And I hate bringing the same thing to the same crowd twice. A lot of the time I get asked for my recipes; but most of my friends and coworkers are terrific cooks, so I'm under some pressure to perform.

That's one meme. The other is simply a challenge to list five absolutely random facts about oneself. I seem to recall doing this before, but I think I can come up with five more random facts:

1.Last summer I made a batch of peach chutney. (It was okay, but I'm not sure anyone would ask me for that recipe.)

2. I own a pair of old-fashioned waffle-stomper Iverson snowshoes that make me feel positively athletic when I use them. (Except when I trip over them and fall into the snow.)

3. Two of my favorite books as a middle-school-ish child were Howard Pyle's Robin Hood and an anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories.

4. Rocky and Bullwinkle is my very favorite TV cartoon, ever.

5. My personal best for keeping a terrarium alive and reasonably attractive is two years. (That one illustration of a Wardian case in my new gardening book has me all geeked on terraria.)

Hey -- they said random, not interesting.

Someone Else Having a Really Bad Day...

I'm out driving on a local highway, through a stretch of swampy, woodsy property, when I see a large bird with a rather languid flight pattern coming over the treetops.

"That almost looks like a great blue heron," I think to myself.

I look again.

It is a great blue heron.

Great blue herons are not supposed to be here in December.

Poor, cold, hungry heron. I hope it has a stretch of shallow open water somewhere.

(Thanks, USGS, for the heron pic.)

Pain Hurts

Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, I used to get sick at Christmastime.

It was as regular as clockwork. One year it was pneumonia. One year it was pneumonia with a chickenpox chaser (caught from another kid in the hospital with pneumonia). A few years in a row it was bronchitis bad enough to land me first in bed, then the ER.

I gradually toughened up, with the help of gamma globulin shots and more exposure to other kids. By the time I was in college, I was down to about two colds a year, and grateful for that. My only Christmastime ailment was the malaise caused by listening to the seasonal Parental Fight, which I guess was their version of the Christmas Illness Syndrome. But that's material for another blog post. (When I first saw the Seinfeld "Festivus" episode and heard about the ritual Airing of Grievances, I thought about the Parental Fight, and told my friends, "Well, I guess we already celebrate Festivus at our house." Come to think of it, I suppose it was a Feat of Strength that I didn't just turn around, walk out the door and spend Christmas somewhere else. Or maybe that was a Feat of Stupidity. But, again, another post for another day.)

Anyway...after being relatively hale and hearty for 30 years or so, I have again succumbed to illness. I have come down with some sort of chronic sinus-and-surrounds congestion that's manifesting as incredible pain around my jaw. It waxes and wanes -- two nights ago I couldn't sleep at all; last night, properly dosed with Sudafed PE I was finally able to catch some Z's. But I'll be doing fairly well, with maybe just a dull, brain-freeze-achy ache on one side of my face, when suddenly a stabbing pain will shoot up into my cheekbone, down into my palate, down into the deeply filled molar I call my "weather molar" because it's touchy that way -- it's so bad I literally see stars. On a pain scale of 1 (my dog accidently hooking me with one of his remaining teeth) to 10 (the GYN biopsy I had once, where they very nearly had to pry me off the ceiling), it's about an 8.5. Sound even aggravates it.

Thinking that perhaps my weather tooth had finally started to deteriorate, and anticipating, with some dread, the unwelcome gift of a root canal this Christmas, I finagled a same-day appointment with my dentist, who X-rayed my teeth from all angles, whapped them with a mallet, checked my bite...and pronounced everything fine. "I'm betting it's your sinuses," he said. "People come in here all the time with toothaches, and that's what it turns out to be."

So now I'm trying to get an appointment with my doc. The office is closed. I'm sucking down Sudafed sinus-headache meds according to the recommended dosage, which make a marginal difference -- instead of feeling like a truck is running over my jaw, backing up and running over it again, now it feels maybe like a mountain bike is doing that. I'm also thinking about how I'm going to get my baking done if I feel like crap this weekend, and anticipating my mother's increasing anxiety at my plight -- which itself seems to contribute to the intensity of the pain. I worry that it might be something worse; or I worry that it might be some previously unnoticed residual injury from the involuntary triple axel I performed in the icy office parking lot the other week before the maintenance guys had come around with their salt buckets. I get whiny.

During my dark night of the atomic jaw ache, when I was just sitting up in bed unable to do anything else, I found myself praying for all the other people in the world having their own 2 a.m. medical and other crises, much worse than mine. It felt like the only useful thing I could do in the circumstances. Today -- well, I just feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry that I woke up with no pain, and thought, "Oh, thank God that's over with!", and then five minutes later as I was puttering around the house it all came back.

Pain hurts. I hate it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On Little Cat Feet

We have a visitor at our home.

It's a cat.

Every morning when I go to my garage I see its dainty footprints in the snow; they disappear at the small space under my garage door.

One morning when I opened the door, I heard a faint "Meow" from somewhere within the garage. "Here, kitty-kitty-kitty," I implored, in my best cat-seducing voice. "Come-come!" I made the high-pitched chirpy sound that momcats make when they return to their kitten-nest, that I have always found to be a good icebreaker with strange felines: Meh-eh-eh-eh! The meowing stopped. But I did not see the cat.

I don't think it's feral. We have quite a few neighbors with cats, so I suspect it's one of those, slumming at our place. Our garage attracts an assortment of small critters each winter that I'd just as soon not have there, so if the phantom feline is enjoying midnight mousesicles and chipmunk tartare, that's fine by me.

But I'd just like to see it; talk to it; let it know that I'm one of the friendly humans; maybe even dare to run a finger down its spine, if it deigned to come that close.

The hidden cat reminds me a little bit of the God who often remains hidden -- Deus absconditus. Every so often you perceive a hint of this God's presence, like the cat's disappearing pawprints and quiet mew. The possibility that it may be at home in your home, this unexpected visitor, makes you happy. You want to see it and hear it and touch it, you try to engineer an encounter; but the unseen one is really in charge of your relationship; it'll show itself when it's good and ready, and quite possibly when you least expect it.

The Holly and the Oy Veh

I can't tell you how many times I've started a post on the current Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays "controversy" -- as contrived a thing as ever there was --then stopped in frustration because it was just making me too furious to write a coherent sentence.

I am angry at Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the American Family Association and the other Usual Suspects -- some of the cheapest media whores ever to parade their sorry booty in the public square -- who prove time and again that they will do and say absolutely anything to push their political agendas, including betray the Christ they claim to defend, in shameful ways that make Judas Iscariot look positively saintly in comparison. I am angry at the media; why is it that, for instance, whenever the television news or a talking-head public affairs program wants to explore some aspect of "Whither Christianity?" they interview a Usual Suspect? Who died and made these people spokespeople for all of Christianity? It's because a lot of journalists today are lazy, and uninformed about religious matters in general, and employed by profit-driven conglomerates that push sensationalism and simple-mindedness because that's cheaper to produce and more popular with the great unwashed. And about them...the Usual Suspects' mindless zombies, able to be whipped into a froth by hysterical, the-sky-is-falling/the-heathen-are-coming direct mail and Kristian broadcasting. It's enough to make a person want to walk away and become a proponent of Seinfeld's Festivus...not to mention making rude suggestions about new, painful uses for the Festivus pole.

And I'm not alone. Usually when I find myself agreeing with a Cal Thomas column, I have to glance outside and make sure that the stars aren't falling from the heavens and that four spectral horsemen aren't galloping over the horizon. But today in his column, even he takes issue with his coreligionists' goofy and cognitively dissonant fixation on the "Merry Christmas" issue in light of the real Christmas story -- albeit in his own sneery, let's-leave-the-pagans-to-their-vile-ways manner.

But today I found one of the best responses to the Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays public discussion. And it was in a letter to the editor in one of the northern-Lower-Peninsulan Michigan newspapers that I glance at from time to time. You can read it here . Thank you, Pastor, for providing a sane and theologically sound voice to this conversation.

Postscript: Today our Legislature -- you know, the guys and gals entrusted with promoting the public good, facing just about the worst economic crisis to hit Michigan since The Great Fire as well as a host of other crucial issues that speak to future quality of life here -- passed a "symbolic" bill declaring that, from henceforth, any decorated tree placed outside the Capitol Building will be officially designated a Christmas tree, not a holiday tree. Well, I know I'll sleep more soundly now. Sigh.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Light Blazes Online

Now, I know that some of my readers, for whatever reason, have not yet purchased the RevGalBlogPals' Advent/Christmas book A Light Blazes in the Darkness, even though you can get it for cheap (see my helpful banner over and down in my sidebar), and even though the proceeds are going toward hurricane relief in the Gulf region. As much as I'd love everyone to buy their own copy...we are also publishing the essays, one day at a time, online. Click on this post title to find the A Light Blazes in the Darkness blog. My fellow bloggers have done a wonderful job with this...check it out.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Hey Jules at Faith or Fiction? recently blogged about spiritual gifts, and provided a link to a Spiritual Gifts Inventory.

I recently took a similar survey on the ELCA website. Interesting results.

I'll show you mine if you show me yours...

Morality, Vision and the Phantom Welfare Queen

In the last few weeks, those of us who've been following the lectionary have been reading and hearing a lot of the prophet Isaiah's calls for social justice. Some of our church bodies have been using the Advent season to advocate on behalf of the poor and marginalized. (See my banner for the ONE Campaign, down the sidebar.) And many of us are including "the least among these" in our individual holiday giving, as our own small way of being Christ's hands in the world.

All of which makes this news nugget particularly ironic: Lawmakers in the state of Michigan -- my state, currently one of the most economically anemic in the nation -- are currently pushing a welfare reform bill that would push a lifetime maximum welfare cash-payment eligibility cap of 48 months. That's it. No matter what the economic climate, no matter what the household's changing life circumstances, whether those months are consecutive or sporadic over many years -- once you hit that 48-month limit, yer out. Forever. Too bad, so sad.

Advocates for the poor, and faith-based groups that work with the poor, object to a lifetime assistance limit. Unfortunately, they're up against legislators of both parties who have, over the years, found that pitting struggling, resentful working-class people against even poorer people is a good way to gain votes. The apocryphal Welfare Queen driving her Cadillac to the DHS office to pick up her food-stamp card rides again, apparently.

Here are some statistics about welfare recipients in Michigan, courtesy of Peter Luke, writing in The Bay City Times:

Fewer than 14,000 households in Michigan have been on welfare for more than four years.

Of the 50,000 individual recipients in that statistic, almost 37,000 are children.

One fifth of the state's long-term welfare caseload are employed wage earners who still need help to survive. More are are too physically or mentally ill to work. Most are caring for children. Many welfare recipients are illiterate, compounding their problems.

Oh...and welfare recipients can count on about $460 a month to pay for things like rent and utilities and clothing and "extras." (A heated mug in the Cadillac, maybe.) This year many social service agencies, the folks who help poor people with utility bills, are out or almost out of heating assistance money, even as the cost of heating is expected to jump exponentially.

Now, you might be wondering why lawmakers (and I'm sure this is happening in other states too) are flogging this particular deceased equine instead of using their brains and influence in a more proactive, visionary way, to help their states live into the future.

I've wondered this too.

Twenty-some years ago, when I was a high school senior, I was tapped to sit on a local committee retooling our high school's graduation requirements. The students on our committee had heard suggestions from our teachers that our economy was changing; that the workplace was changing; that the sort of low-skill/high-pay auto-assembly jobs many households in our area depended on were no longer going to be around. We argued strenuously for more rigorous academic requirements that would equip more people for a more challenging and diversified workplace.

For the most part the adults on the committee listened politely. Then they delivered the verbal equivalent of a pat of the head and proceeded to do nothing. "Most of the kids around here aren't like you," one committee member told us. "Most of them are going to graduate and then go down the street to work at the supermarket or at a beauty shop. They don't need all those hard classes."

At our commencement, our keynote speaker's profound vocational advice to our class as it headed off to its destiny was, and I'm not making this up, "Punch in on time."

Without a vision, the people perish.

The powers that be in our state apparently have the same visionary insight now as they did in 1979 -- which is to say, none. The auto industry was in trouble 25 years ago, and no one cared -- not the bigshots at the Big Three; not the state legislators; not the educational institutions of the state; not the policy-makers and citizens. No one, it seemed, was paying attention to changes in the world -- in geopolitics, in the economy, in sociodemographics -- that would profoundly affect Michigan's financial fortunes. I got mine.

Now our economy is tanking. The auto industry is moribund. New enterprises are not on the horizon to replace old, tired industries. And our Legislature's response has been to engage in deadlocking partisan slapfighting; to entertain itself and raise campaign money among the True Believers by fighting the culture wars; and to beat up on poor people.

Maybe Bob Dylan said it best:

Your old road is rapidly aging
please get off the new one if you can't lend a hand
oh, the times, they are a-changing.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Thank You, Secret Santa!

This past week I received my very first Christmas gift, from a Ship of Fools Secret Santa across the pond.

The Gardener's Companion is a great book -- especially this weekend, when I was logging some major couch time. It is jam-packed with useful information, poetry, humor, fascinating facts...where can I begin? Here's a list of night-blooming's a poem by Ogden's some information on how to bury Great-Uncle Cecil in the rose garden if you live in the U.K. and that's what you want to's a list of climate's a lovely Victorian illustration of a Wardian case that's making me think of doing up a terrarium've got riddles, and a chart telling you how long you can store seeds, and the story of two people smothered to death by rose petals during one of Emperor Heliogabulus' orgies, and some humorous captions appended to antique's like Martha Stewart with ADD, and I love it.

I also received a lovely Christmas card bearing an evocative photograph of Corfe Castle, Dorset, in the morning mist; it looks like a scene from Lord of the Rings.

Thank you, Secret Santa!

My first Christmas gift of the year! Posted by Picasa

Dream a Little Dream

I'm playing hooky from church today -- I'm still feeling viral, albeit not nearly as bad as I did on Friday.

Part of my healing regimen has been lots of sleep. Usually I don't get enough -- six hours if I'm lucky -- but this weekend I've been absolutely luxuriating in sleep. And I've been having wild, vivid dreams, as if my brain is making up for weeks of REM deprivation.

Some of them I can't really remember; I just wake up happy, with the distinct impression that a good time was had by all. Others have been those very busy, intriguing dreams with huge casts of characters and tangled plot lines, dreams where I can't wait to see what's going to happen next, and am rather disappointed when I wake up mid-adventure.

But last night I had a particularly funny dream that I'll entitle "David Lynch Meets the ELCA." I was on the campus of MSU, my alma mater. The ELCA was having its national assembly there. One of my online friends, someone I've never met in real life, was with me (this happens a lot in my dreams -- I feel that I know a lot of you), and I was trying to be a good host and make a good impression. We wound up at what was supposed to be a keynote address; got separated by a few rows of seats. As we were sitting there waiting for the ecclesiastical big guns to come out, a speaker was introduced, a Finnish-American pastor who, the emcee said, enjoyed sharing the gift of music with others. And up to the stage came -- a garden gnome. That's what he looked like -- a portly, red-bearded little garden gnome clad in clerical mufti, who proceeded to do a cheery song-and-dance number. I looked back at my friend; her head was in her hands in an Omigod manner; then I looked back again, and she was gone. (Which is how I knew on some level that this was a dream; because I'm sure most of you would love to see a munchkinesque pastor-gnome with a Yooper accent doing cabaret in his vestments; might indeed pay good money for that opportunity.) Oh, crap, or words to that effect, I thought in my dream. I scurried out of the auditorium, fending off fellow delegates trying to talk shop -- Get away from me! -- and back to the conference center to find my friend...where I discovered I'd lost my room key. At which moment the dog jumped on my chest, as is his custom each morning, waking me up.

Any armchair analyists or interpreters of prophetic utterance, knock yourselves out.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Being a Sign

Most Sundays when I drive to church I use a route that passes a big billboard advertising a megachurch, which for purposes of this blog I'll call the Triumphant Doo-Dah Tabernacle of Abundant Life, located on the outskirts of the nearest big city to Outer Podunk. At least half the sign is devoted to the beaming face of the Tabernacle's minister. There is absolutely no indication anywhere on the billboard whom or what this establishment serves; an alien beamed down from another planet might well conclude from the sign that earthlings worship a giant hominid named "Pastor Bob" who has very large teeth.

It's easy to make fun of Pastor Bob and the Doo-Dah Tabernacle. But their billboard is a reminder of what happens when we confuse a sign for what the sign is directing us to; when we, as our Buddhist friends might put it, mistake a pointing finger for the moon.

In Sunday's Gospel lesson, where John the Baptist is confronted by members of the religious establishment who demand that he explain himself and his ministry -- "Just who do you think you are?" -- he tells them who he is; but he also tells them who he isn't.
As unique and compelling as John's vision of what he is called to do in the world, as popular and persuasive as he appears to be to others, he maintains a profound sense of humility about himself. He is, he says in so many words, merely a sign pointing the way to the One Who Is To Come.

Throughout history we Christians have had to struggle mightily with the problem of self-idolatry -- of making ourselves and our institutions the be-all and end-all of Christianity, instead of keeping our focus on, and our allegience to, Jesus Christ. Not only does this constitute treason against the One we call our Lord, but it also leads others to similarly equate our religious establishments with Christ. How many people are led to reject Christ, not because of who Christ is, but because of what the Church (which means all of us) has been to them?

We may not (all) be weird holy people crying out in the real or metaphorical wilderness. But we are all, like John the Baptist, called to be a sign -- a sign pointing to Christ. I know if I took that charge seriously -- if I woke up every day with that mission statement in my mind -- it would make a difference in what I said and did; how I treated other people; how I understood myself. Likewise, I suspect if every clergyperson or church bureaucrat sincerely took to heart John's assessment of his own ministry and really, truly claimed that as his or her own, the Christian community would change, in a good way.

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about all the ways in which those of us in healthy Christian community act as signs of Christ's love and grace to one another -- praying for one another; helping one another in practical ways; singing and worshipping together; providing safe space for confessing our sins to one another and hearing the words of God's forgiveness; sharing Holy Communion with one another.

How visible a sign am I of Christ's saving and transforming love? How readable is the sign of my faith community that we're pointing, not to ourselves, but to the Christ who has called, gathered, empowered and commissioned us to live God's reign into the world?

Let Us Pray...

A Shippie passed along this link: The Daily Office For Gay People .

I tend to be of two minds about demographically targeted worship: On one hand, I appreciate a faith community, and regular worship, that is inclusive of all kinds of people -- a mirror of the larger Communion of Saints. On the other hand -- sometimes you just want to, just need to be with your people, however you define that.

Anyhow, check it out. I especially like the photos of gay people "being the Church." I think we can all use more images of that. Sort of makes up for referring to God as the "Big Dude" (you've got to be kidding, people) in the teenagers' petition.

Stained glass cross, Chi Rho Press  Posted by Picasa

Tell Me Something I Don't Know...

You Have a Melancholic Temperament

Introspective and reflective, you think about everything and anything.

You are a soft-hearted daydreamer. You long for your ideal life.

You love silence and solitude. Everyday life is usually too chaotic for you.

Given enough time alone, it's easy for you to find inner peace.

You tend to be spiritual, having found your own meaning of life.

Wise and patient, you can help people through difficult times.

At your worst, you brood and sulk. Your negative thoughts can trap you.

You are reserved and withdrawn. This makes it hard to connect to others.

You tend to over think small things, making decisions difficult.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Friday Dog Blogging

It's been a traumatic week for The Codeman. We threw away his chair.

The chair in question was a rocker/recliner, a relic from when my parents first moved to Cold Comfort Cottage from the family farm two decades ago. If you recall Frasier's dad's chair on that sitcom -- the ratty monstrosity whose upholstery was held together with duct tape -- you will have some idea of what our chair looked like. My dog, being a dog, loved it, a fact which prolonged its presence in our home several years past its Dumpster date. But I finally dragged it to the curb this past weekend; I waited until The Codeman was safely tethered on the other side of the house, doing his evening constitutional, then maneuvered it out the front door and skidded it down the snowy driveway to the road.

When Cody came back inside he poked around the kitchen for awhile, snuffling for his crackers; then he trotted into the living room, aiming for his chair -- only to find an empty space. He screeched to a halt and did a double-take. He looked at us. He looked at the space. He sniffed the air. He looked at us again. He looked at the space again, for a long time. We had rocked his world.

Now, as much as I despised this chair, I felt really bad for my little dog. Considering that he's 91 years old by human reckoning, I felt like I'd just thrown away Grandpa's prized rocking chair. But The Codeman is getting over it. He's warming up to his dog bed -- a never-used dog bed that until now he'd refused to even go near and had been relegated to the basement until this week -- and if we put it on the sofa he'll curl up in it and sleep. Our plan is to get him so attached to it that we can eventually set it on the floor and he'll use it, and then we'll all have our own piece of living-room furniture. We'll see how that goes.

This little household drama came at the same time I finally gave in to my mother and got her an artificial tree; she'd seen it and touched it and approved of it, and then it went on sale so we got a good deal on it. She was happier about this than about her last Christmas and Mother's Day presents combined, so I really couldn't sulk about it. It's prelit with white lights, which is a win for me. And I'm getting a balsam wreath to satisfy my need for True Evergreen Experience.

The dog and I are a lot alike; we're both creatures of habit, and have deeply-held convictions about things, and get temporarily discombobulated by change. But we get over it, after awhile.

The Codeman, doing his yeti impersonation Posted by Picasa

Where Righteousness is at Home

You know how sometimes a phrase from the Sunday lessons hits you a certain way, and stays in your head for the rest of the week?

All this week I've been "inwardly digesting" the line in Sunday's epistle lesson, also a lectionary reading for December 8th, from 2 Peter chapter 3: "But in accordance with [God's] promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home." Where righteousness is at home.

It sprang to mind when I read this essay in Slate magazine, written by a homeless Katrina evacuee who, against all odds and his own diminishing expectations, was suddenly offered not one but three homes.

It's a story that's certainly heartwarming; but there's also a bittersweetness about it, because the outcome is so unusual, so unexpected. We live in a world where righteousness isn't at home; where acts of kindness and courageous risk-taking and justice-making strike us, simultaneously, as "the right thing to do," yet as something out of the ordinary. For instance, most hurricane victims aren't being showered with offers of housing by caring others. Many of them are, in fact, losing the leases on their rented apartments; being evicted by landlords or defaulting on their mortgages back home; wearing out their welcome in their adoptive communities; at the mercy of others' fickle attentions and sympathies, and overwhelmed, befuddled bureaucracies. Who is your neighbor, if your home's been blown away and you've been relocated in some other city or even other state?

I remember, back in my young-adult religious formation, reading a C.S. Lewis book where he observed that one of the evidences in his mind for the veracity of the Christian story was our sense of living as broken people in a broken world, mingled with our longing for the wrong things to be made right. Where does this tension between our dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and ourselves as we are, and the vision of something better come from if "what you see is what you get"? Lewis would have argued that it comes from God; that it speaks to the initial disconnect between ourselves and God that Christ has come to us to mend.

What would it look like -- a world where righteousness is at home? What would I look like? What would we all look like?

Friday Five -- Snow Big Deal

Taking up the RevGalBlogPals' Friday Five:

Snow: love it or hate it?
I love looking at it; I can have a pretty good time playing in it (snowshoeing, for instance); I hate driving in it.

First snow memory
Oh, that's got to be the snowsuit. Remember those? My mother used to mummify me in snowsuits, hats and scarves until I looked like the Michelin Kid. Despite this, I was able to sled down our driveway on my dad's green childhood sled. (Not named "Rosebud," by the way.)

Best Snow Day ever (actual or imagined)
One of my best snow days happened, I think, last year during a blizzardy spell, as I was reluctantly packing up one morning for my weekly commute to our satellite office 45 miles away; at quarter to 7:00 I got a call from my coworker and neighbor informing me that the bosses had decided to close the office. Boo-yah!

Best use of snow in a movie, song, book or poem
The snow scenes and music in A Charlie Brown Christmas come to mind. The song "Sleigh Ride" -- I always wanted to be the sleighbell-jangler. One of our regional public radio stations always plays "Sleigh Ride" at the first snowfall of the season; I have a happy memory of driving up M-115 toward Frankfort one early November morning, playing hooky from the closing session of some godawful work-related conference at a local resort, enjoying the drama of the heavy, gunmetal-gray sky, and the swirling flurries on the road and "Sleigh Ride" on the radio.

What you are planning to do today, with or without snow
Well, I wasn't planning on it, but I spent a kind of mental snow day recuperating on the sofa.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


The soup is wearing off. The zinc caramels are not helping. My eyes hurt. My ears hurt. My face feels like there's a water balloon lodged behind it. My throat feels...funny. That's what we used to say when we were kids, wasn't it, on the cusp of a cold: "Mom! I feel funny!"

WTF, as my buddy J.C. would blog. If you have to ask what WTF stands for...bless you, my innocent friend. If you don't have to ask -- I can see you nodding in sympathy. (Or maybe I have a fever and am hallucinating.)

It's been a WTF kind of day.

On a serious note, I just read about Dr. Paul Mirecki, former chair of the University of Kansas Department of Religious Studies and professor of a class critical of intelligent design. For the crime of criticizing fundamentalists, Mirecki has been demonized by religious right-wingers, has had a Kansas state representative threaten to cut funding from the university, and was also beaten up this week by unknown assailants citing his anti-creationist viewpoint, pounding him with Kristian Luv [tm] until he wound up in the hospital with head injuries. WTF. WTF is the problem with the Kansas legislature? Who made them either experts in university-level science pedagogy or official censors of university course catalogs? I'd suggest that these self-appointed jihadists climb back into their clown cars, drive off campus and back to their respective offices, and earn their pay actually creating legislation that helps society -- that keeps people safe, that keeps them employed, that takes care of the most vulnerable. WTF is wrong with the sheeple who vote these idiots into office? And WTF do you do with people who think that their close personal friend Jesus wants them to beat up people who don't agree with them? WTFWJD?

WTF is the big deal about wishing people "Happy Holidays"? How is that diminishing anyone's respect for Christmas as a Christian holiday? WTF is happening to people, that's making them so nuts about stuff like this? I'm thrilled whenever another sentient being wishes me a happy anything.

On a far less serious note: WTF was NBC thinking, using an actual recording of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" in a promo for Fear Factor, one of the grossest shows on network television? Is that, like, clever irony? And WTF is up with that promo for the new NBC dramedy about an Episcopal priest and his family and parish, The Book of Daniel? In 30 seconds you've got a smart-alecky surfer-dude Jesus, drugs, rebellious teens, the Mafia, talk about foreign objects in rectums, lesbians and infidelity. Sort of a bizarre mating of Desperate Housewives and The Vicar of Dibley, with some Jesus thrown in. And Law and Order. And The Sopranos. And lesbians. (Gee, thanks.) NBC is evidently very anxious to cover all the bases here...all that's missing, really, is throwing everyone in the show onto a deserted island and making them compete in humiliating contests for money.

And now my scratchy throat is swelling shut, as are my red-rimmed eyes. Something tells me I'm not going to work tomorrow. WTF.

A Souped-Up Chik

I'm warding off a bug today.

It came on suddenly this morning -- that telltale catch at the back of the throat, and ears that felt as if they were filled with water balloons, and a bit of a fever. I suffered through our office potluck, then nipped out for a few minutes to go to the drugstore and buy some Zicam. (My jury is still out on whether this makes a difference at all, but I've got to tell you -- if the efficacy of a medicine is at all proportional to how bad it tastes, then I have every confidence that it's going to cure me; chewable Zicam is like a fruit-flavored Toosie Roll spiked with the mouth-puckeringly-bitter stuff that moms used to paint on babies' fingers to stop thumb-sucking. Nasty. Vile.)

Good thing I made soup last night. It felt wonderful going down, and now I'm all warm and comfy -- it was like getting a hug from the inside.

The following is something like a pork-and-butternut-squash soup I made last year from a recipe I saw on the Internet. I couldn't find it again when I searched for it yesterday, so I just approximated it by guess or by golly. It turned out fine. If you're somewhat alarmed by the number of root vegetables, what I like to do is keep a stash of the more uncommon ones in the freezer, because I like putting them in all sorts of soup, and then just take out what I need. If you are not carnivorous, I'm sure the soup tastes okay without meat -- use veggie broth and maybe just a shot or two of tamari for that evocative "I shop at a food cooperative and wear natural fibers" flavor that at least for me brings back fond memories of my misspent 20's.

Autumn Vegetable-Pork Soup

1 quart broth -- I used ready-made organic chicken
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, chopped
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
3 large stalks celery, sliced
1 parsnip, sliced
2-3 carrots, sliced
2 cups or so of shredded cabbage (savoy is nice but not necessary)
a little cubed turnip or rutabaga, if you've got it and like it
maybe half a pound or so of lean pork, like chops or a lean pork steak, cubed
salt and pepper, thyme and savory, maybe sage
1 small butternut squash, cubed
1 large potato, cubed
1 can white beans, drained
1 can diced tomatoes
a good handful of chopped parsley

Combine broth, onion and garlic, leeks, celery, parsnip, carrots, cabbage, pork and seasonings. You'll want to add some water to cover. Bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer until the carrots are getting done; add the potato and squash; simmer some more until just tender; add the beans, tomatoes and parsley; adjust the seasonings; simmer a little bit more.

Makes lots.

Enjoy with crusty bread.

Off to find the afghan now.
Artwork by Carl Larsson,at Scandinavian Treasures  Posted by Picasa