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Photo by Heidi Thompson (Dec. 2015, Ft. Ross, California)

From the poem “1983” (in Best drugstore concealer india Lo & Behold: Household and Threshold on California’s North Coast) by California poet Joanne Kyger

Crossing the Pacific by observing the clues in sea bird behavior,
……the signals of wind drift and current set,
…………and knowing the many hundreds of chants
………………in which star navigation courses are set.

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Boxing on the Feast of Stephen

December 26th is the feast day of St. Stephen. He’s the patron saint of “Boxing Day” as it’s known in England. The day families make boxes of rich Christmas meats and presents to redistribute the wealth among the poor.

All that we know of Stephen’s life is in the Acts of the Apostles (6-7). He was one of the seven deacons, probably a Hellenistic Jew, appointed by the apostles to look after the distribution of alms to the faithful (especially the widows) and to help in the ministry of preaching. To judge by his famous discourse, even if it is somewhat ‘retouched’, Stephen was learned in the Scriptures and the history of Judaism, besides being eloquent and forceful.

The gist of his defense of Christianity was that God does not depend on the Temple, in so far as, like the Mosaic Law, it was a temporary institution and destined to be fulfilled and superseded by Christ, who was the prophet designated by Moses and the Messiah whom the Jewish race had so long awaited. He finally attacked his hearers for resisting the Spirit and for killing the Christ as their fathers had killed the prophets.

They then stoned him for blasphemy apparently without a formal trial, while he saw a vision of Christ on God’s right hand. The witnesses placed their clothes at the feet of Saul (afterwards Paul), who consented to his death.

Here’s the old English Christmas carol referring to Stephen:

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the winds blow stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page. Treadst thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

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Christmas Day in Seattle

Joe, Fredrick, Gage and Zev on Christmas 2015

Joe, Fredrick, Gage and Zev on Christmas 2015

My brother Joe and my sister-in-law Michelle are some of the bravest people I know. They face their brokenness and that of others as directly as they can and then turn it into love. Amid all the Christmas festivities, they’ve discovered its true meaning and are sharing it with their children. Thus is the ancient Word borne from generation to generation. Here is an excerpt from Michelle Berger’s Facebook post about their Christmas:

The Honda sleigh, complete with vantlers, and a big red nose, with thee little angels, two lovely women and one big strong, gentle man had one very rewarding and wonderful Christmas night!  The evening shift began at the Seattle Union Gospel Mission and with the many people on the streets around.  Joe bought 22 big ass cans of Snow’s Clam Chowder and a big ol thing of Starbucks (folgers) coffee, in addition to our goodie bags. My good friend Andrea brought 45 goodie bags too, some with socks, some with gloves, all had candy and a few had the coveted dollar wrapped 3 cigarette treat.  I’ll tell ya, Joe serving hot chowder and hot coffee out of the back of our Honda Sleigh and the kids, Andrea and myself handing out the goodie bags, was like a festive holiday party.

People were so kind, grateful and gentle. “God bless you”, ” merry christmas darlin” they said to Sorelle.  After this morning, Gage and Zev are pros.  It was inspiring how much these humans appreciated a warm cup of chowder or coffee and who doesn’t love candy, money and cigarettes?..
Well, me. .I hate cigarettes but I also hate snows Clam chowder out of a can but thankfully, tonight was not about me.
Some asked if we had underwear, blankets, water, wipes to clean themselves with. . Just the basics we generally take for granted. We didn’t think of that this year.  To my surprise, most of these people aren’t even wasted or on drugs. Maybe some mental disorders but even a few told us they were smoke free and sober, they just wanted candy wink emoticon. Overall, this night took last year’s Christmas night to the needed and welcome next level.

The reward was more profound, as well. . An irreplaceable feeling of connection and pride came from being of service and talking to these people just like they were already our friends.  Such magic in that human to human dynamic. First we extend unsolicited kindness and in return we receive a priceless gift of a growing heart and a widened perspective of the various plights of people in our own backyard.

I loved tonight, we all did. There is just something indescribably rewarding to love on this level.  Next year I think we’ll stock up all year from Costco, with all the stuff these friends actually asked us for, socks, gloves, underwear, sanitizing wipes and blankets.
This is good. Maybe it’s not for everyone but for our family, Joe in particular, this feels right, appropriate and just plain good … better than presents, better than a meal that takes a day to make and better than laying around in our gluttonous luxuries.  Two worlds, connected by the the God that lives in our hearts and no amount or lack of material things, can diminish that powerful and triumphant gift of Christmas Spirit.
Merry Christmas, to our friends near and far, I’m grateful to share the planet with such grace, generosity, kindness and love and all I gotta do, is open my eyes and look around. . That is a blessing I pray for us all!

The picture above is our friend Frederick, who told Joe, who’d shared conversation with him this morning with Gage, that he’d been squeezing his size 12 feet into a 10 1/2 pair of shoes and that he could really use a winter coat to add a layer on these cold, cold nights. We had that at home and we could bring them to him and answer his need. The fact that Joe remembered, and came back to him tonight, he told Joe “made his night, because he felt special”.  We knew his name, and kept our word, our kids he treated like family. He’s a kind man, already looking out for our safety.  He made two new friends in Joe and Gage and it proves once again, that ya just never know who is gonna be the messenger or when hope is gonna show up and change everything.

Merry, Merry Christmas one and all, may we all sleep with full and peaceful hearts tonight. Amen.

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Merry Christmas!

 

Bureij refugee camp, Gaza

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”John 1:1-5

It was 1999. There were 1,500 Kosovar refugees in this camp on the dusty outskirts of Sarajevo. They had come by bus, car, and on foot. First held in the expansive bottling rooms at the Coca Cola factory, the refugees now lived in an old cattle barn, in tents, and on an open field.

We were invited into the barn’s converted milking room and given the best of the plastic seats around a plywood table. Forty families live here in 6-by-8 foot cubicles separated by curtains. The men tell us that Serb soldiers (self-proclaimed Christians) herded them out of their homes. One asks us to find information about his brother, who he presumed was dead in Kosovo. Adem, the oldest man in the camp at 80, wears a blue wool beret and his weather-worn face glistens with tears. Thirty members of his family were killed by Serb paramilitaries in Kosovo.

The women stand around the ring of conversation holding children on their hips. They serve us coffee in chipped red cups. Harija, in her mid-30s, shot her words at us like fire. “How can I live with this pain that my neighbor—my husband shoveled snow from her walk before he even cleared our own—stood in our yard while I was hanging laundry and spoke aloud how she was going to kill me and my children because we are Muslim? She was trying to decide between mortar or sniper.” Harija looked at us. “Did you come here just to stir up pain, or are you going to help us?” she said. Then she wept.

There was no doctor in this camp. The outhouses were overflowing. The only food available was bread and canned vegetables. The graffiti on the wall showed a young man with a gun to his head. We delivered watermelons to a few of the families. One man led me down a shoe-strewn hall. He opened the curtain and there, on the bunk bed, lay a 2-day-old baby boy wrapped in clean linens and a rough gray army blanket. The mother looked worn but happy in her torn T-shirt and dusty skirt.

I pray over the child, making the sign of the cross on his forehead. No one seems to mind the mix of religious symbols. For Christ to come at all, he must be born in the lowliest of places.

Christu natus est! Blessed Christmas!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

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Christmas Eve: ‘O Holy Night’

Henry Ossawa Tanner "Virgin and Child"

“Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother And in His name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name.”—Placide Cappeau

“‘And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’”Luke 1:76-79

Welcome, my friend, to the fruition of our Advent pilgrimage. We have peregrinated the sacred wheel of time. We have endured the refiner’s fire. We have rested at the caravanserai of the candles of Christ.

Tonight is the Great Night. O Holy Night! An English custom says that a loaf of bread baked this night will cure the sick and heal the broken-hearted. It is believed that on this night at the crossing hour animals are given the power of speech as a gift for their service at the manger in Bethlehem. It is said that on Christmas Eve at midnight honeybees hum the 100th psalm (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come into the Presence with singing.”)

“It is a strange thing to come home,” wrote Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlof. “While on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.” Tonight we creep into that sacred darkness. It is a strange place. One, perhaps, where we never thought we’d find ourselves. Yet, like dreamers, we have been drawn to the Light. There is no present that we can wrap. There is no money we can offer. There is no sin that should hold us back. As the Talmud says, “God wants only one thing: the heart.”

“O come, O come Emmanuel, come our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God!”

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Christmas Eve.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

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Fourth Wednesday in Advent

2015-05-13-15-41-30-1When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”–Luke 1:57-60

Mary is a variant of Miriam. Miriam was one of the three primary leaders of the exodus, along with Aaron and her brother Moses. She was a prophet. Both Mary and Miriam’s names carry the echoes of the word “bitter” (see Ruth 1:20) for the bitterness that was pressed down on the people in the time of Pharaoh and in the time of the Roman occupation of Israel and destruction of the Temple. In some translations Mary or Maryam’s name is “sea of bitterness.”

The story of Maryam, in Luke’s narrative, mirrors the crisis that caused Moses to flee Egypt. In Exodus 2:12, Moses murders an Egyptian soldier. It’s premeditated, and it’s an act of treason against Pharaoh. He “flees” (2:15) from his death sentence to the land of Midian.

Maryam also “flees” (Luke 1:39). Not because she has committed murder but because she is “untimely pregnant,” as Richard W. Swanson notes in his excellent article “Magnificat and Crucifixion.” Not only is she pregnant outside the clan arrangement, but it’s very possible that she belongs to a priestly family. This pregnancy, an affront to the social and religious order, is a crime that may be punished by death—either by stoning, strangling, or burning (according to the ancient legal tractates).

Maryam doesn’t wait to be dragged into the streets as part of an honor killing, as Swanson frames it. Instead, she heads for the hills of Judah—perhaps to the “castles and towers” (2 Chronicles 27:4) built there by King Jotham—where her kinswoman Elizabeth (or “Elisheva”) would offer her protection. Elisheva was a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5) and thus a powerful priestly leader in her own right, as well as with her husband, Zechariah.

What happens when Maryam approaches Elisheva’s gates? The baby in Elisheva’s womb leaps and dances in response to Maryam’s greeting—as David did before the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:16). And Elisheva leads the gathered community in a loud song of rejoicing. She pours out her blessing on Maryam and on her baby—a sign of Maryam’s bravery and radical prophetic hope. Who am I, asks Elisheva—she of the priestly lineage whose family business it was to study the prophecies of God and believe they would be fulfilled—that I should welcome the one who truly believed that the promises of God would be kept?

What promises of God do you believe will be kept?

Ad……vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Sojourners where this reflection first appeared in print.

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Fourth Tuesday in Advent

The Story Teller by Joel Klepac www.joelklepac.com

“The Story Teller: I Could Not Save Them” by Joel Klepac www.joelklepac.com

“Zechariah asked for a tablet and wrote, ‘John is his name,’ and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.”—Luke 1: 63-64

Zechariah’s muteness may not have been a punishment doubting the angel Gabriel’s rather outlandish promise that Elizabeth was pregnant. Rather, Zechariah’s muteness could have been a psychosomatic response to trauma. Sometimes it’s called “hysterical muteness.”

In the 1980s in Los Angeles, there was an epidemic of blindness among Cambodian women in their 40s. “Each of these recent immigrants had been a victim of the Khmer Rouge revolution and the violent regime that followed. The women struck with blindness,” scientists reported, “had all lived amidst the horrors of genocide. More specifically, each woman had witnessed the murder of a family member. Four years later, 200 such refugees went blind.”

“The blind are often unable to visualize images in their Mind’s Eye. Hence, they can no longer be plagued by images from traumatic memories,” said a neuroopthalmologist.

Zechariah had dedicated his entire life to God and to the temple. There is no evidence that he had ever had a mystical experience of the presence of God. What a shock it must have been! First, an angel appears to him. Second, the angel in effect tells him that the Messiah is coming. Third, that Zechariah will be the father of the “forerunner,” the reappearance of Elijah. (The fact that Elizabeth is well beyond childbearing years hardly seems to matter.) The fourth and final trauma is that Zechariah is confronted with his own words of doubt after a lifetime of outspoken faithfulness.

He fell silent.

“So now here we stand,” writes theologian Karl Barth, “simultaneously deaf and mute like Zechariah…. In spite of his unbelief, he was still a herald of Advent, one who waited for God.”

“O King of the Gentiles, yea, and desire thereof! O Cornerstone, that makest of two one, come to save us mortals, whom Thou hast made out of the dust of the earth!”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

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Fourth Monday in Advent

honey cup“That virginal quality, which for want of a better term, I call emptiness is the beginning of contemplation. … It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to receive water or wine.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff, Let me see you, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.”Song of Songs 2: 13b-14

Christmas Eve is almost here. The Advent pilgrimage has been arduous or easy. We will arrive either “shipwrecked at the stable door” or on bended knee to “carol all most joyously.” But, we will arrive. Now is the time to open our hearts to the honey of that Holy Night.

How will Christmas Eve and Christmas day be spent? The Ukranian Orthodox have a wonderful tradition for Christmas dinner. Before Christmas Eve meal, the family fasts all day. Housecleaning is completed ahead of time. Everyone dresses in their finest. Music, resting, and receiving visitors are the order of the day. As evening approaches, the children are sent outside to spot the rising of the evening star. With its sighting, the meal officially begins. The host takes a bowl of custard and invites all the departed family members to share the Christmas meal and asks God that the household may have food enough to share throughout the coming year.

Another Orthodox table tradition is the communal sharing of bread and honey. The host takes a plate with small pieces of Christmas bread and a dish containing honey and salt. Dipping each piece of bread lightly into the honey, the host approaches each dinner guest, starting with the eldest, and says, “Christ is born.” The guest responds, “Let us adore Him.” If there are two hosts, then the ritual is repeated.

“O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, that openeth and no mortal shutteth, and shutteth and no mortal openeth, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

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Fourth Sunday in Advent

“Come Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; From our sins and fears release us; let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.”

“Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.“—Romans 1:5-7

We light the fourth Advent candle to remind us that things are not always as they seem, and that hope springs forward at the sound of its name.

In William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” he wrote:

I give you the end of a gold string.
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
built in Jerusalem’s wall.

The followers of The Way in the early church wove together a “gold string” that reached back to the creation of light in the Genesis story and forward to this very Sunday in Advent. There is a golden thread that sews us together as students of Jesus. Paul calls this thread the “grace of apostleship.” It is passed, hand to hand, from one generation to the next. Like kindergartners on a field trip through the big world, we are given a rope and told to hold on. We know that the rope reaches all the way back to the teacher, the anchor, the shepherd.

Advent is a time to marvel at the golden thread and to make sure that we have not become separated from it. If, by chance, you have become separated from it, do not be afraid. Jesus extends the end of the string to you again. What glistens in your life? What sweetens your days? Your answer is the beginning of the thread. “Only wind it into a ball,” my friend and “it will lead you in at Heaven’s Gate.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

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Third Saturday in Advent

 

“‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.’”—Matthew 1:20b

For a short while after 9/11, people living in the terrorist “bull’s eye” of Washington, D.C. were encouraged to create a sealed room in their house with plastic wrap and duct tape. This was to protect them in the event of a chemical or biological weapons attack. The military surplus stores sold out of gas masks. Plastic sheeting and duct tape were soon rare commodities.

The frenzy appeared to be mostly among the middle class. The rich thought they were impervious to such danger. The poor figured they die anyway. But those in the middle rushed to protect themselves—caught between fear and the illusion of control.

Joseph also had the illusion of control. He controlled who came in and out of his house. He was the gatekeeper of his home. Tradition tells us that he was much older than Mary. He was “established.” He was also from the royal lineage of King David and yet had not produced an heir. When Joseph learned that Mary was already pregnant, he had little reason to continue with her. The lineage had to be kept pure. He didn’t need to invite this complication into his house. God knows what havoc it might wreak!

Joseph, however, like his namesake, was open to the importance of dreams. When the messenger entered Joseph’s dream and said “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” he listened.

Who are you afraid to take into your home? Why? Do you see your home as gift to be shared or a right to be protected? Do you have possessions that are so precious they hinder hospitality? Have you ever had to “depend on the kindness of strangers”?

“O Wisdom that comest out of the mouth of the Most High, that reachest from one end to another, and orderest all things mightily and sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence!”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

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