On December 18th in Advent the church raises its voice to cry out, “O Adonai!” or “O Lord!”
This is, perhaps, the most honest prayer there is, Beloved. In times of trial and joy, “Oh God” or “My Lord” slips from our lips.
In the ancient context of Advent, this cry is both an invocation and a statement of political priorities. The Empire of old (and now?) would have you believe that power is Lord, that grievance is Lord, that Caesar is Lord.
In fact, all the ancient steles and decrees said just that: Caesar is Lord.
But the church, at its best, says that the Divine is Lord.
It’s a political statement. We’ve forgotten that…but we can remember. There is time.
-art is by Michael Adonai, an Eritrean painter, entitled “Back to Homeland.” You can imagine crying out “O Lord” when longing to return to your mother…
Today the church, especially those of Scandinavian heritage, remembers a young saint and martyr who, in memory, has a taste for sweet rolls and coffee: Saint Lucy, The Light Bearer.
Having lived sometime at the end of the third century in Sicily, Saint Lucy was a victim of the Diocletian Persecution, a purging of Christians in Roman territories. She was said to have lived a good life who had a heart for the poor. Legend goes that her mother fell gravely ill when Lucy was a young maiden, and when she recovered St. Lucy gave all of her bridal dowry to the poor in thanksgiving to God. Her would-be suitor did not like this at all, and turned Lucy in to the authorities for being a secret Christian.
As punishment Lucy was forced to work in a brothel…though she refused to work at all, which frustrated her oppressors. They took her out to the village square and built a fire around her in order to scare her into submission, but she remained unafraid. She eventually died due to these intimidation tactics, and her legend grew in the Christian communities as a brave young woman who had no fear in the face of danger.
Saint Lucy is remembered as the patron saint of the working poor. Her name literally means “light,” which makes the intimidation tactics of her oppressors ironic.
In modern practice Saint Lucy’s memory made its way far north to Scandinavia where she is highly regarded, especially as her feast day is quite near the Solstice.
Saint Lucy, or as she is known in the North, “Sankta Lucia,” is remembered by the procession of a young girl in the house wearing white with a red sash (the sign of a martyr), her head adorned with a crown of candles, bringing breakfast and a blessing to each room. These candles stand for two important symbols in Saint Lucy’s story: both the light that was used to intimidate her, and they also symbolize her eyes (the candle of the body), which prayers to Saint Lucy are reported to protect. A traditional breakfast on this day are Lussekatter, or “cat’s eye rolls” made of saffron and currants.
Oh, and if your home doesn’t have a young girl to process, have no fear. Young boys often dress in red as St. Lucy’s attendants by the name of “Star Boys.” They, too, carry on the tradition with star wands, blessing each room.
It makes sense that in the Scandinavian North around the shortest days of the year the people would seek out signs that the light would never be extinguished. Saint Lucy is one of those ancient signs; an ancient memory that humans have long utilized to remind themselves that though shadows lengthen, the light never dies.
Though the Saint Lucy practices are fun and highly tied to heritage, it is too bad that she is not remembered better as the fierce young woman of lore.
Saint Lucy is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that reminders of hope are necessary for humanity, and stories often provide those reminders.
The story of Lucy the Light Bearer, the fierce and unafraid young woman, is worth remembering.
On this day I often recite a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, especially as daylight is at a premium and we’re all overworking:
“My candle burns at both ends it will not last the night. But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light.”
-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
Today, as we begin our Advent journey in 2020, the church honors Dorothy Day, Friend of the Poor and Antagonizer of the Privileged.
Born in Brooklyn just before the turn of the 20th Century, Dorothy worked for radical newspapers in her early years, mixing with the bohemian crowds of Greenwich Village.
She found herself living with a man she loved, and became pregnant in 1926. It was during this time that she experienced a life-changing conversion to the faith, and she made her home in Roman Catholicism.
She struggled to marry her internal passion for the Christ with her outer conviction to work for social justice. In 1933 she collaborated with fellow gadfly, Peter Maurin, to found the Catholic Worker Movement. Living simply and intentionally, this pseudo-monastic community took a vow to live collectively for the betterment of the poor and the outcast.
They set up hospitality houses in the city, collective living units in agricultural plots of land, and convened clarity councils to make decisions. They aimed to “create a new society within the shell of the old.”
St. Dorothy died in 1980. There is a story about her funeral that, as her casket was being carried through the street to the sanctuary for the funeral Mass, a person with severe mental illness pressed in on the crowd gathered around the procession. They made their way to the casket, and opened it, peering down upon Dorothy. The whole crowd stood and let it happen, knowing that it was precisely this human Dorothy had come to give her life to, and was ministering to them one more time.
St. Dorothy Day is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that simple living is a calling for some, but not all. Poverty should be a choice, by God, and not the result of unfair economic, social, or political circumstances. The church is called to lift those trapped in poverty and to invite those with much to embrace a simpler life for the sake of their neighbor.
-historical bits from Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals
Today the church honors two ancient saints of the faith, perhaps the “Patron Saints of Waiting,” St. Elizabeth and Zechariah, the Parents of St. John the Baptizer.
This feast is honored in Palestine on this date, and honoring them begins to turn our collective faces toward the season of Advent, the season of hope and patience.
Zechariah is the pious priest in the line of Abijah, noted by St. Luke in his first chapter. Elizabeth, whose namesake is the wife of Aaron (the brother of Moses), was also of priestly lineage. This makes it, at least in the ancient world, an ideal marriage: pure and priestly.
By the time of Jesus, there were so many of priestly lineage alive that the duties of the temple were afforded by lot, as not all could participate. One day this privilege fell to Zechariah, as the story goes, and he was ordered to light incense in the Temple. As he was performing his priestly duty, an angel appeared to him and announced that he and Elizabeth would, in their old age, have a child.
By the way, if your Biblical mind isn’t brought back to the aged Abram and Sarai and their son Isaac at the mention of this story, you’re not paying attention…these stories are meant to invoke one another, Beloved.
If your Biblical mind isn’t brought back to Hannah and her son Samuel in the telling of this story, you’re not paying attention, Beloved.
Luke, in writing his Gospel, knew what he was doing with these lovely saints…
Elizabeth, that dear saint, did not, for whatever reason, have any children in her young age. In this way, she followed in the footsteps of Sarah and Hannah before her.
By the way, I note “for whatever reason,” because contrary to popular belief at that time (and even today), we have no biological indicators that note that anything was amiss with Elizabeth’s ability to conceive. Indeed, Zechariah could have had an ailment that prevented him from parenting. But, as with all history written by men, for some reason the fault falls on Elizabeth.
I love Saint Elizabeth, and St. Zechariah, too, because their struggle is so relatable to so many today.
Zechariah had a hard time believing that they could have a child, and for this reason he became both deaf and mute for a time being. This is a strange biological development…much like having a child in your old age would be…but the theological development is pretty clear: some things that the Divine makes possible are hard to talk about and hard to listen to.
Zechariah and Elizabeth named their dear child John, defying tradition. At the naming of their child (Zechariah wrote it down for those present), his voice was restored, and immediately he was blessed with a song that we still sing in the church today during the season of Advent, the Benedictus Dominus Deus. It is a song about promise fulfillment and echoes the Magnificat of Mary and the Hebrew Scripture song of Hannah in 1 Samuel.
St. Elizabeth and St. Zechariah are a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes Diving things take a little while to happen, and that patience and hope must continually hold hands in this life.
They are also a reminder for me that the church needs to openly and honestly talk about the difficulty of conception, a topic so few want to discuss because of its delicate nature. But, Beloved, this is such an important and wide-spread issue, the church must talk about infertility with honesty, and forget with the nonsense of “in God’s time” or any such mess that can be hurtful for those who want to be parents but have difficulty for whatever reason.
Today the church celebrates All Saints Day, the day in which the formal saints of the church (those canonized) are recognized and remembered as examples of the faith.
This celebration is very old, perhaps dating back to the 4th Century, though it is clear that earlier commemorations of this feast day were held in the spring, sometime between Easter and Pentecost. It was originally intended to celebrate not just any saints, but the martyrs of the faith.
The focus and the date of the day shifted sometime just before or in the early 7th Century. In the British aisles it had already been honored on November 1st, probably in response to the pagan autumn festivals that culminated at the end of October (which many of you participated in last night with ghosts and goblins socially-distancing at your door!). The date stuck for the whole church within the century, and came to have a deeper connection not only with the seasonal cycle on display in the northern hemisphere, but also with pre-Christian sensibilities. One example is this Celtic idea that the arrival of mists and frosts around this time were examples of ghostly/faery visitors, so it made sense to have a day remembering them when they started to make their presence known again.
In the 7th Century the date came to commemorate non-martyrs as well, probably in response to the fact that Christianity became dominant and was less-oppressed…resulting in fewer martyrs of the faith. The faithful who died both naturally and by martyrdom were recognized on this date every year, especially if they had died in that calendar year.
Today Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican branches of liturgical Christianity still keep this day to honor those canonized saints of the church, reserving the non-canonized dead to be remembered tomorrow on All Souls Day (more on that tomorrow). Lutherans, with our penchant for comingling the idea of “sinner and saint,” usually don’t make such a distinction, and just honor all those who have died in the faith, regardless of status, on this day.
Whatever your proclivity, today is a powerful day when honored with intention, even for those of you who don’t find yourself in any faith tradition. Honoring our ancestors, learning from their stories, embracing their goodness and foibles, is an important part of the human experience in my estimation. We all are, after all, an unwilling product of those who came before us, but we continually have a choice in deciding what we’re going to carry with us from those past ancestors, and what we’re not going to let continue into the next generation.
All Saints Day is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that those who came before still speak into our present, and that the Divine who seems in love with continual creation also seems in love with some measure of continual, constant, though hidden and obscure (like through a mirror darkly?) preservation.
-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
Social media has made this all the harder, of course. A “like,” an easy comment on Facebook or Instagram, a quick “check-in” for curiosity.
It’s easy. It happens.
But it’s largely not a good thing, especially at first.
But even years later, even today, I still see pastors, pastors I know, showing up to do weddings or funerals for people at parishes they used to serve.
And, yes, I get it: they think it’s harmless. “They don’t go there anymore,” they say. Or, “they haven’t been there since they were a teen,” they say.
But guess what, pastor: you’re largely doing that for your own ego and desire to be needed.
Because you know what? They’re absolutely less likely to show up at their former church now because you still continue, even years later, to hold that role for them.
And that’s honestly not helpful.
You know why we wear that robe, pastor? That white robe?
That white robe is the robe of a servant, yes. But even more so, it’s a robe that makes you interchangeable with any other pastor out there.
That’s what our theology says.
So, you saying “yes” to that destination wedding is just you disregarding that theological truth.
And you know what?!
Just because you say no to the invitation to do a wedding or a funeral doesn’t mean you didn’t mean anything to them. You did! Good on you! You did so much that they want you to be a part of it!
And you can be a part of it: sitting at table 9.
Or by doing a reading.
Or by sending a nice card and a gift with your regrets.
With one exception, for a childhood friend, I have said no to every wedding, funeral, and baptism I’ve been asked to do since leaving parishes. And I don’t say that as a badge of honor, but rather as a testament to me trying to walk that walk.
I care deeply about the people I used to serve.
So deeply that sometimes I wonder at night about their life and how they’re doing and hope they check in sometimes. And when they do, I always respond back in love and respect.
But I do so now from afar. With boundaries I try imperfectly, but really hard, to keep.
With deep love, deep reverence for who we used to be to one another, but with an even deeper understanding that for both of us to live our best lives into the future I must commend them to other people’s care, and they must honor that boundary.
Pastors who perform pastoral acts for others who used to be in their parish do so because they can’t say no to their own ego and need to be needed.
And sure, sometimes that pastor who left asks for permission from the pastor currently at the parish, but let me ask you this: what pastor is going to say no to that request? In such a moment of tenderness, probably with a family they haven’t had the chance to bond with, or who views them with suspicion, the power lies not with the pastor currently serving the parish, but with the former pastor who is called forth from the past like a reminder of other times.
That power dynamic sucks so much.
I would love to preside over the wedding of every youngster I served.
I would be honored to say parting words at every gravesite for those I tended to.
I’d love to baptize every newborn that comes along to families I married and nurtured.
It’s a Celtic phrase that refers to this ancient idea of a “soul friend,” someone who knows your insides even better than your outsides.
I love it. The phrase itself might be Gaelic, but it’s found in all cultures across time and history. It’s an idea of deep knowing and deep understanding.
As this pandemic has forced us all into a new reality which, inherently, means that we can’t “go back” to the old way we were prior to March 2020, some new sparks have flown and new seeds have been sewn, encouraging us all to discover what community might mean, now.
The Lutheran Church I’m a pastor in (ELCA) is exploring some new ways of doing the spiritual life. I was approached in early 2021 with an idea: what would a “digital-first” community look like that explored spirituality, worshiped primarily through a digital interface, and grew community without geographical restrictions?
I told them I had no idea what that would look like, but that we do see glimpses of it all over the place now.
After six months of study, exploration, meditation, and a good bit of hesitation, the green light has been given to formally explore this kind of community. A shout-out to my partner in this exploratory time: Matt Hansen, a seminarian who comes from the digital marketing world, was imaginative, integral, and will continue to play a part in this work.
We don’t know a lot about what it will look like, act like, or turn out to be in its final form, but my co-curator Jason Chesnut (you may know him from the Ankos Films and the Slate Project) and I know this much:
-it will be both theologically and socially progressive
-it will have an eye toward the medium we’re working with (aka: we’re not just video taping a church service)
-it will be diverse in every way it can be
-it will be exploratory in nature, but grounded in the best parts of our tradition
-it will be a place where Anam Cara, soul friendship, is cultivated because physical proximity will not always be possible.
We’re calling it Anam Cara Community, and it’s just now being formed and birthed. There will be many touchstones: web presence, video, short podcast (cause there are too many long ones out there), blogging (most likely here), social media, scripture studies, worship gatherings, perhaps even an in-person retreat when it’s safe. Our goal is to create opportunities and resources not only for folx curious about spirituality, but also for pastors who need ideas and inspiration. In this way, this community will be unique, formed by both professional church people, non-church people, and people who fall somewhere in-between.
But it will take time, patience, and discernment for it all to come together. New things take time. You’re invited to be a part of the walk an the Way.
All of the above touchstones will begin trickling out, with more fully-formed offerings coming in early 2022. Our goal is to have our initial digital-first worship gathering at the start of Lent of that year.
I’m reminded, Beloved, that the Apostle Paul and much of the early church were in community together largely through letters and shared stories. That was the “digital-first” medium of their day.
Which makes me think this is not only possible, but probably needed for this next phase of our communal life.
This Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel (15:9-17) is all about love.
It drips of love.
It reeks of love.
But, it’s a little confusing on the face of it because John’s philosophical style mixed with this esoteric notion of love that is both human but also super Divine is, well, hard to describe.
I mean, how do you describe something that literally defies explanation? Divine love (and by that I mean love that is Divine and also the love given by the Divine) is as comforting as a hug and as wispy as a fog.
On a recent NPR podcast where they went back and did a retrospective of the last 50 years of the station, they gave a brief clip of an interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak at the publishing of his latest (and, it would turn out to be, last) book.
The interview started with heartfelt pleasantries as Sendak, who had been on the program before, expressed his admiration and, indeed, love for the interviewer. He noted that they were both up in years, though he admitted he was much farther along than her in that department, and then he said that he saw this as a good thing because he “wouldn’t have to miss (her).”
I was listening to this podcast as I was on my daily run, and this caused me to stop for a second.
Stop, and put my hands on my knees, and as sweat dripped from my brow (it was in the 80’s today here in Carolina), a tear mixed with it because that, by God, embodies what it means to love.
To love is to both have your heart open enough to miss someone when they’re gone, and to be grateful enough that you might pass first so that you don’t have to feel that pain of missing them.
Love means loving enough to miss someone, and to have a small sliver of gratitude that they might outlive you so that you never have to know that hurt yourself because it would be unbearable.
That sound selfish, I know, but sometimes there is pain you just can’t imagine and you pray you never have to realize.
That’s not selfish. That’s human. That’s being in love.
When put in the context of the Jesus story, of self-sacrifice, Divine love means loving something to death…and one step beyond.
To love our neighbor, then, means to love them enough to miss them when they’re absent…which is why it matters who is at the table.
Conversely, you also trust they miss you when you’re gone…
That kind of love takes a lot of vulnerability and a lot of trust. It takes a lot of willpower and heart-power.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our notions of love in this life are often underwhelming.
We say we love everything from babies to burritos…and we can’t mean the same thing when we say that, right? Greek with it’s four-pronged definition of love does a bit of a better job at narrowing love’s definition, but ultimately we just have to be honest and note that love is something we try to wrap our minds around, but just really can’t.
Instead, well, maybe instead we should just wrap our lives around it…and be grateful for a love that has the possibility of stinging just a little bit on both sides of the relationship equation depending on how things work out.