December 25th: The Craziest of Second Comings

painting by Alexy Kondakov

Merry Christmas, Beloved!

I mean that with all my being.

Merry, in the ancient use of the word, didn’t mean “happy” or even “bright,” as the carol might suggest. “Merry” meant “safe” or “secure.”

“God rest ye merry, gentlemen…” was how the old song went. So many think it means that the gentlemen are happy, but really it is better translated as, “God make you safe, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!”

Which makes more sense, right?

So I wish you today a safe Christmas, a blessed and secure Christmas, especially in these pandemic days. Advent just hit differently this year for me, perhaps for you, too. But I pray Christmas hits with safe and secure joy.

Today I’m taking a little bit of an easy way out and coopting a poetry piece from my brother Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He writes,

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree,
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars.

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives.

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck creches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special deliver
and where no televisioned Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey.

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white bears
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
Pennsylvania
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous soul
He waits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

I pray that it will be revealed to which anonymous soul God stole away into this year.

Perhaps yours?

Thank you for letting me journey with you.

Today, throw on the Mynabirds “All I Want is Truth (for Christmas)” in the hopes that 2021 will be a year of safety and truth for a change!

December 24th: Mary, Center Stage

Neuschul, Ernst; Negermutter; Leicester Arts and Museums Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/negermutter-81312

On this Christmas Eve, much different than years before, Mary is taking up much of my heart-space.

Normally I’d be busy with service preparation and sermon writing, this being my first Christmas out of a typical pulpit.

But now I’m prepping for a quiet Christmas, which still requires quite a bit of intention, but in a more meditative and introspective way.

How are you preparing, Beloved?

I mean, if Mary miraculously carried the Christ child, it stands to reason (by that logic) that we all might be pregnant with the Divine. Or, already are…

How will the Divine be birthed in our lives this year?

Advent is the time when we ask this question again. It takes four weeks to answer…sometimes longer.

Mary’s song sung in Luke’s Gospel where she talks of “the mighty being cast down from their thrones” and the “humble of heart” being exalted gives us a clue, I think, to what it means to have the Divine birthed into our world.

How will you participate, Beloved, in lifting up the humble and humbling those at the top? How will you, as Mary will, cry out in the streets for the sons and daughters killed in violence, fueled too often by politics? How will you, as Mary will find herself, be at the table of the unwanted more often than the table of prestige?

Because we love romance we’ve idealized Mary’s story of this miraculous birth in some lowly stable, but in fact she birthed a revolution and the church has forgotten that powerful story and put in its place a impotent story that coddles the powerful.

It’s just true, Beloved. I wish it weren’t, either. Religion has lost the lede.

As you prepare to birth Christ, birth the revolution, this year, throw on Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” as you do. It is a modern retelling of Mary’s song, if I’ve ever heard one, and speaks loud and clear (at least to me) what it means to birth Christ in this world, now.

December 23rd: What We Really Want…

Have you ever tried to express yourself and just spouted off thing after thing, like you were trying out a bunch of words like a model tries on clothes?

“What I mean is…”

“No wait, I should have said…”

“That’s not it, what I’m trying to say is…”

Sometimes I think the O Antiphons for the church are like this human propensity to just say the first thing that comes to mind, only to try again, and again, and again until we get it right.

Because we call for a Lord, for a Ruler, for the Dawn, for a Key; we call for it, but none of it quite fits.

Until today.

Until today, when we say to the Divine, “What we really mean is, we just want you near.”

Or, as we cry out, “O Emmanuel!” which literally means, “God-hugged-close.”

The human longing for some unjudging love, for some Divine reassurance, for a reminder that this isn’t all just going to crap is ancient and ever-present and, Beloved, if there’s a year we need it, 2020 is it.

As philosopher and theologian Karl Rahner says,

“It is both terrible and comforting to dwell in the inconceivable nearness of God, and so to be loved by God that the first and last gift is infinity and inconceivability itself. But we have no choice. God is with us.” (from Meditations on Home and Love, 1977)

In what ways do you know the Divine…however you might define that…as being close? How is God far away? When you cry out, “Come, Emmanuel!” what do you imagine that will mean for your life?

What if it’s already true?

Spin what I think is probably the most incarnational song that ever became a pop hit, Osborne’s “What if God was One of Us” as you ponder the idea that God can be close again this year…is close again, this year.

December 22nd: What Rules?

When I’m working with people in my coaching work, a question I’ve often lifted up is, “What rules?”

I don’t usually ask it in that kind of way, but rather say something like, “Is your calendar ruling you, or are you setting your calendar?”

“Are you playing defense all the time, or are you on offense?”

In Advent the church today calls out to the Messiah, “O Ruler of the Nations, Come!”

If you ask most humans, I think they’d tell you that they don’t like to be ruled. And yet, we’re all under some sort of rule. We work hard to keep up with the Joneses. We work hard to pad that bank account. We let insults and failed relationships dominate the limited free space in our minds. We pine for things we want and are neglectful of the things we need.

The numbers on the scale. The numbers on the stock market. The names we’re called…and the ones we call others. We’re all ruled by something.

It’s funny that usually the ones who scream “Don’t Tread on Me!” through their bumper-stickers and yellow-flags are so ruled by their ideology that they can’t see the irony…

We’re all ruled by something, Beloved.

What are you ruled by?

In our Advent waiting, watching, and wondering, as we cozy up our homes for an unexpected guest, it’s also an opportune time to uninvite some guests from the party. Like, perhaps it’s a good day, as we’re so near Christmas, to uninvite that thing that has been steering your rudder in this season.

Or, perhaps, every season.

Because, for as much as we don’t like rulers and yet we’re all ruled by something, we do need a governing force in our being, Beloved. We do. We need a moral compass. We need banks to the river of life, and this is, I think, what the church cries out for today when it’s at its best: some guidance.

Because all those other things that rule our lives make us feel crazy most of the time.

And we’re not crazy. We’re just, well, poorly governed.

Today we cry out for a new leadership in our being. How would you rather be ruled, Beloved?

Dream a bit about it today. It’s possible. At least, in the season of Advent, we hope it is.

And while you’re dreaming, throw on Counting Crow’s “Long December” and wonder how, “next year will be better than the last…”

December 21st: On the Shortest Day it Still Dawns

Today is the shortest day of the year for most of us. The Winter Solstice.

It seems fitting, then, that today the church cries out, “O Dawn!” or “O Bright and Morning Star!” as if entreating the Divine to break through the shadows for just a little longer.

The ancient rituals around the Solstice predate Christianity, of course. My ancient ancestors would take this day as a festival day, cutting down a large tree to burn mightily. They’d sing and dance around the fire, drinking and playing games, and they’d do it not just to have fun. They’d do it because they believed that, in their revelry, they’d coax the sun back into the sky, their long-burning fire helping to fuel it.

After all, if you heard a party going on, wouldn’t you want to join?

And this coaxing dance soon turned into a celebration dance as the sun did return, keeping its promise for another year.

This O Antiphon the church cries out has the same kind of feel, Beloved. In fact, the church knew this, which is why it placed its Christmas celebration at this same time. The congruence was not on accident, and fit so well.

I remember at Valparaiso University singing, “The dawn from on high will break upon us…” in morning prayer, and those words became written on my heart in a way that won’t seem to rub off.

What is the wisdom here?

We no longer believe the sun to be a god that needs coaxing. And, I dare so many may believe the Son to be God, or at least profess it, but don’t behave as if they actually do…

The deeper wisdom for this day is, I think, the ancient truth that those pagans and those early Christians knew: the dawn always comes, Beloved.

The night never lasts. The shadows never last.

I was listening to Krista Tippett’s podcast “On Being” the other day where she interviewed philosopher and writer Jennifer Michael Hecht. Jennifer, who is culturally Jewish and doesn’t practice a faith, writes passionately about how suicide has affected her life. From a non-believing viewpoint, but all the while incorporating wisdom from many religions, she argues that we can fight against suicidal urges by reminding ourselves of this very truth: how you feel today is not how you’ll always feel.

Or, in other words, the dawn always comes.

Even on the Winter Solstice. Even in the Winter Solstice of your life.

Some see it as a Divine promise. Others just know it from experience. But, regardless of how you come at it, Beloved, it’s just true…the dawn always comes.

Oh, and spin Five for Fighting’s “What Kind of World Do You Want?” while you’re reminding yourself that the dawn always comes. Because, well, if the dawn always comes we always have a chance to participate in building a better world.

December 20th: The Key

The Secret.

The Prayer of Jabez.

The Miracle Morning.

The 4-Hour Work Week.

That right star on which to hook the wish.

That magic penny.

That deep well that will grant my hopes and dreams.

We’re in love with those magical implements that will fix everything we perceive to be broken, aren’t we? What are the magical words to say, what is the shortcut, the silver bullet, the key that will unlock our hopes and dreams?

The true secret, Beloved, is there is no secret…

At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe.

The secret to success that the author of The Secret won’t tell you is that the only thing The Secret made wealthy was the author. The 4-Hour Work Week is an illusion made up to sell books. The Miracle Morning helped the author wake up easier because they made a pretty penny off of selling us the idea there was a “miracle morning.”

Oh, sure, like most pieces of writing, I’m sure there are helpful bits in all of these works.

Well, except for the Prayer of Jabez which was totally a scam…

But here’s the thing: the search for the shortcut, the secret solution, the silver bullet is a fool’s errand for your life, for my life, for anything.

The O Antiphon for this day, December 20th, is O Key of David. This ancient name for the Messiah is intended to evoke the idea that the chosen one will unlock the blessings of God for the people.

But the irony is, of course, the the Key of David was not the key most wanted.

The suffering servant the world found in Jesus the Christ didn’t seem to be blessed. In fact, he’d be full of unwelcome ideas like, “You must lose your life to gain it,” and “Those who want to be first must become last,” and all sorts of tidbits that would absolutely never sell a single book.

And yet, Beloved, this is Divine wisdom: you will find what you need in the opposite: power is shown through vulnerable love, holiness is shown through eating with outcasts, and the key to unlocking the “good life” comes with giving your life away.

This is subversive wisdom.

The Key of David did unlock some deep truths about the Divine, though humans haven’t typically wanted what’s behind that door because it looks so unlike what the rest of the world peddles as “truth,” “success,” or “the good life.”

And yet, in Advent, in these days, we’re absolutely waiting for the Almighty to show up not with a war cry, but with the wail of a baby…so why are we surprised that the Key of David would unlock a door of subversive wisdom?

As you ponder the subversive wisdom of the Divine in this time of waiting, spin Leigh Nash’s “Wishing for This.” Re-imagine the secrets, keys, and shortcuts you wish for, Beloved, in light of the babe arriving in just a few days…

December 19th: Blooming in the Desert

“Did you know,” my son said with wide-eyes, “that a cactus has flowers? How could a flower grow in the desert?!”

It happens, Beloved.

And I know you know that. You’ve seen the Saguaro, and in these days you’ve certainly seen the Schlumbergera, better known as a “Christmas Cactus.”

I mean, intellectually you know that a cactus blooms in the desert, even if that desert is your own living room where your green thumb is continually challenged…

You know it intellectually, but do you know it spiritually? Do you feel it’s true?

Today the ancient name for the Messiah that the Church cries out is, “O Flower of Jesse!” It doesn’t sound like that radical of a name, right? But take into consideration the fact that the ancient people thought that the house of Jesse was basically a dead end. “A stump,” is how the prophets described it.

Dead.

Dead like a desert wasteland.

And yet the promise was that it was going to happen. That from this dead thing would come a new branch, a flower, “a rose” e’re blooming, if you know the carol.

In some traditions a rose is placed on the altar of a parish church whenever there is a baptism. The symbol here is pretty beautiful, I think. Most would assume it’s a traditional “here’s a flower for a special day” sort of thing, but when you consider that the Messiah was supposed to be the “rose of Jesse,” the symbol goes much deeper: that newborn is an extension of the Divine promise becoming alive again.

In this Advent time, when we’re inching closer to Christmas, we might begin to wonder if all this waiting…no, not just that…if all this spiritual life stuff is worth it, anyway.

I remember one Sunday turning toward the cross during church, thinking, “Why the hell do we do this, anyway?” It was an honest thought, an honest question, and I was the one leading the whole thing!

But sometimes we do it because, well, in the parched moments of our life, in the cold winter landscapes when it feels like nothing is able to grow, in the desert moments of our being when it seems like we’re dried up, we need a reminder that even then and there things can happen.

Are happening.

Even in those places and times, a rose is not only possible, but is dormant and waiting to bloom.

As you mull around in your head and your heart the possibility that something is able to grow in the desert places of your life, throw on Blues Traveler’s “Just Wait.” It’s an unlikely Advent song, my friend.

December 18th: Don’t Call Jesus Lord if You Mean Something Else

On December 18th the Church in Advent cries out once again, saying “O Adonai!” or “O Lord!” invoking the Christ to arrive as promised.

The interesting thing about this title, Lord, is that it’s become so singular and common place that I don’t think we truly grasp what a revolutionary (and treasonous!) thing it was to call Jesus “Lord” in the ancient world.

Lord was a title reserved for the Emperor.

So when people started saying that Jesus was Lord or even “comes in the name of the Lord,” they were making a political statement. They were saying that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord.

Which is why they got into so much trouble…

Being so divorced from this truth, this reality, has done a number on Christianity.

Now in much of America I believe that “Christianity is Lord,” and I don’t mean that in a good way because it totally betrays the idea of those first Christians who didn’t want “religion” to be Lord, they wanted Jesus to be it.

The humble Jewish guy who said “love your neighbors as yourself,” who flipped over the money-changer tables, who broke bread with the outcast…

Here’s a good question, Beloved: who do you want to show up this Christmas?

Do you want the bread-breaker and wandering, itinerant preacher who made friends with the outcast and called the comfortable to task?

Or do you want the one who demands prayer in schools, everyone go to church on Sunday, turns a side-eye to the scheming wealthy but berates those “who live off the system?”

If you call Jesus “Lord” (and, I actually don’t love the title, honestly) I’m just wondering…like, what do you mean by that?

As we await the coming of the Lord, it’s a good thing to wonder about, right?

As you’re wondering, throw up Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes’ “Man on Fire.” Look up the lyrics, listen to the words…that song is, I think, one that reminds me of that first Jesus who walked around, not this latent imposter much of religion has turned him into.

December 17th: Wisdom in the Embers of Life

On December 17th the Church begins counting down the days until Christmas with earnest.

From now on the Church will call out one of the great names for the Messiah (they’re called the O Antiphons), reminding itself what exactly all this waiting has been for.

It’s an interesting practice, I think, this whole “reminding one’s self” thing. It’s interesting because, well, I do it a lot, too.

I remember doing it as a Middle Schooler. As the new kid in school, I was picked on pretty heavily after we moved from Ohio to North Carolina. Every night I found myself telling myself some stories to bolster my spirits, stories that went something like, “Here are the good things that happened today. Here are the people that you know who like you and support you. You are a good person.”

Yeah, it sounds cheesy, but I found it necessary if I was going to get up the next morning.

We’re almost at the Solstice, Beloved, and these are some of the most shadowy days. In fact, the church has called these the “Ember Days,” because it’s when light is most scarce.

In the Ember Days of December, and in the Ember Days of life, we adopt the practice of telling ourselves stories again.

Today’s O Antiphon is “O Wisdom.” We sing, “Come O Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh…

When the light is almost out, when there are just embers left in your soul, remind yourself of the stories, both personal and cosmic, that will breathe some life on those embers and cause them to spark up again.

It’s what the church does in these days. It’s what I do some days. I commend it to you, too.

And as you’re doing that story-telling, listen to the wisdom that the Ember Days of life have to impart. It’s wisdom that comes from trials, but also wisdom the reminds you that the ember remains and is never, truly snuffed out.

Throw on “I Heard the Bells,” a musical setting of Longfellow’s grand old poem. But don’t do the hymn setting of the song, do this one by John Gorka. I learned it as a kid, and it’s still my favorite version of this piece.

December 16th: There is No Such Thing as Away

One of the things I try to talk to my boys about is that there is no such thing as “away.”

Trash that we “throw away” goes somewhere, and we have to be mindful of where that is and what we do with it.

Even when you flush the toilet, that doesn’t really “go away.” It goes somewhere, and we must think hard about how we steward our planet so that we don’t poison anything.

The same is true about our inner lives, Beloved. There is no such thing as “away” when it comes to those things working in our heads and our hearts.

Oh, there’s numbing…for sure. Mindless TV. Addictions of all stripes. Adventures that “take our mind” off things.

But, truthfully, the work of therapists and the work of good clergy and the work of good social workers is the work of helping us all wrap our heads, hearts, and hands around the idea that there is no “away.”

A phrase I like to use is, “We must hug the cactus” of our issues, our past, our guilts, our foibles. In doing so, they hurt less…even though the act of doing it can be painful.

It’s interesting to talk about hugging the cactus of our issues in this season of Advent, a season of hope, joy, peace, and love, right? Usually we save that sort of stuff for Lent, right?

But let’s be honest: the increasing night hours, the forced holiday cheer, and particularly this year, this pandemic may absolutely be bringing people to a tougher place, it may be bringing up “old scratch” as we say in the South. I thought maybe I’d just name that, in case it’s the right thing to name, rather than give you another devotion that’s just really a vapid Lifetime movie about a dentist from the big city who goes home and ends up marrying a poor Christmas tree farmer in small-town Indiana.

I mean, at least I’m offering something that’s potentially real, right?

But just because there is no “away” doesn’t mean there’s no “better,” Beloved. In fact, if there’s one thing I know to be very true it is that better arrives sooner or later. It’s sometimes late to the party, but it usually brings a great side-dish in the form of a warmed heart.

It arrives…it just takes a while.

Christmas arrives, Beloved, it just takes awhile, right? At least four weeks. Sometimes longer.

Spend some time today with the things you wish were “away.” Listen to their fears. Learn from them. And then quietly, slowly, embrace them and see if you don’t find yourself in a place that’s, well, better.

Oh, and St. Elton of the John’s is quite right when he says, “Sad songs say so much…” In light of that simple truth, spin Joni Mitchell’s “River” today and see if she doesn’t speak at least a piece of your heart there.