Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

I did this last year so I'll do it again this year. Take the first sentence from the first post of each month, and string them together to make a new post. I'll cheat a little--if the first post is a quote from another source, I'll go with the first sentence of my original prose. Here goes!

Rural northern Missouri is a strange mix of "North n' South". If you've been following the news, you might have heard about the flap the "Atheist ads" a lot of the London buses are sporting. It would be easy to make this stanza totally about sexual morality, but I think it’s bigger than that. Ok, we start the versicles and a collect as we move towards the supplication....One of my medical students sent me this on Facebook...I had to post is abso-freakin-lutely AWESOME! Ok, by now, many of you know I have a habit of sitting down and relating seemingly unrelated things.

Over on Ruth's blog, she got a ton of hits and comments for asking a very simple question...what do you think Heaven will be like? You know, one of the things rural folks seem to do more than city folks is "attend funerals and wakes." This movie was on the tube when I was sort of "napping, laptopping, and TV watching" in intermittent bursts over the weekend. Some of you may know I am presently up in Seward, AK visiting my blogfriend Robert this week.
Ok, without getting totally gross here, I have to admit that when we are talking about that "stench" I have a VERY advanced handle on just exactly what that stench would have been like, having had rotations in my residency through the Office of the Medical Examiner. Last night, as part of my Advent meditation process, I sat out by my chiminea fire, took a walk back and forth on my road a couple of times, and hung out by the fire some more.

I still remember when I first saw "The Great Santini." I was in college, and saw it at the Kennedy Theater in Kirksville, MO. I had been a little over a year from having left the tumult of a family life bullet-riddled with alcoholism and violence. I somehow sat through the whole movie, but promptly went home and threw up. It still is, to this day, "my PTSD movie."

I would not have thought of it today, had not a different discussion of PTSD crossed my path.

I am not afraid to admit that thirty years later, two scenes in this movie make me queasy.

Bull Meechum (Robert Duvall) is a warrior without a war. To assuage his need for war, he drinks too much and terrorizes his family, particularly his oldest son, Ben (Michael O'Keefe). Every family activity becomes a competition, every interaction between Meechum and his son becomes a bullfight. Meechum's wife, Lillian (Blythe Danner), somehow, in the midst of this, continues to feed a gentleness into her son, despite her husband's repeated attempts to beat it out of him, and keeps her own sanity via the depth of her own religious faith.

But to anyone who ever had one or more alcoholic parents, parts of this movie become very, VERY close to home--the "friendly games" that turned into physical violence, the hyper-vigilance to see "which version" of your parent came home from work today, and the times the alcoholic parent wasn't drinking and you realize how much you love him/her, only to have that person turn around and dash your love for them to the rocks yet another time, so you ask yourself, "Why did I ever bother? Why was I stupid enough to let my guard down AGAIN with this person?"

This movie is a reminder of the toxic residue that can be created when our desire to love fully clashes with those who are incapable of it because of their own demons. It's about this clash coming to a head at the place the abused must stand up for the strength of his or her convictions and walk away from the toxic dance.

It is a movie about giving up expectations and living in the moment from "that defining moment of the end of a pattern," onward.

In my own case, this movie was prophetic. In less than five years from the time I saw this movie for the first time, I had the moment where I stood up to the abuser in the room once and for all--and both our lives were forever changed, and I know for sure in my case, it was for the better; I think in some ways, both of us for the better.

The problem, though, arises in those times we come to that conclusion without that "final confrontation", without that one defining "High Noon" moment (to steal from another movie) where the demons are all named, and faced. How do we get there without "out-Santini-ing" The Great Santini? How do we get there in the spirit of love and reconciliation without a direct, no-holds-barred cage match between you and the abuser? How do we get there without the convenient ending we get in the movie, with the death of The Great Santini and Ben's admission that he had often prayed for his father to die?

It's much trickier, isn't it? It's much trickier when the abuser is still alive, or still in your family, or still in the shadows as the "ex", "because of the children." It's trickier because perhaps one of the most basic human survival instincts, buried way down in the limbic lobe of the revenge.

Oooo. Revenge.

Revenge is not in our Baptismal Covenant, is it? Yet plenty of the the Psalms reek of the Psalmist asking (and maybe even gloating a little over it) for God's revenge upon whom the Psalmist declares as "wicked." People do all kinds of revenge in both the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps it is one of the rawest, most human parts of our humanity.

I think back to an old saying..."The best revenge is to be happy."

That's a great saying, because when one truly becomes happy, the motivation no longer becomes "revenge" per se. Even if one starts pursuing happiness to "get back at the abuser," as one becomes healthier, that becomes less of the reason for pursuing happiness, and the real healing starts, and the need for revenge lessens.

The 12-step crowd has known this one for a long time. People who recognize they hold grudges, in their recovery process, are often told to "Pray for that person every day for two weeks. Repeat as necessary."

My personal experience doing this activity has taught me something. It has taught me that, if I earnestly pray for an abuser in my life, that my anger gives way to sadness. Not pity, but a true sadness. Pity dehumanizes a person, and that only does to the abuser what the abuser did to you. For me, it becomes a sadness about a world that can harm someone so that for them to feel good about themselves, they must abuse other people, or abuse substances, or both. In feeling the sadness of the world, we can honor our Baptismal Covenant to "seek and serve Christ in all people."

However, it will NOT make the PTSD go away. As I said earlier, there are still two scenes in this movie, thirty years later, that I have to force myself to sit through, and after I have, I still feel this slight "shutting down" afterwards. But I remind myself that, with God's help, I did not punch the "stop" button...and going through our lives without punching the "stop" button is a living reminder of the gift of grace.

John 1:5:

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Sorry for one of my "crappy cell phone pictures" but if you click on the photo to enlarge it, you'll see why I whipped out the cell phone and shot the picture "before it was too late." The streams of light over my barn were amazing! I have been joking I should call this photo, "The Transfiguration of the Barn."

All joking aside, back to that light. This verse is part of the text from this past Sunday, the first Sunday after Christmas. Every three years in the Revised Common Lectionary, after having been through the classic rendition of the Nativity in Luke, we go from the most concrete rendition of the birth of the incarnate Christ on Christmas to the most theologically powerful, but visually obscure rendition of the Incarnation in John 1 the following Sunday. Can you say, "Left brain, right brain?"

But in that reading (John 1:1-18), it is consistently verse 5 that jumps out at me in one way or another and becomes an earworm..."The light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it." You can feel both Isaiah 9:2 and Isaiah 60:1-2 dripping from the pores of John 1.

The Greek word used for "overcome" in this passage is the word "katalambano," which can be used to mean to physically lay hold upon, mentally lay hold upon, grasp, catch, to take possession. The KJV version of this passage says the dark could not "comprehend" (mentally lay hold upon) the light.

The physical world, time and time again, shows us that interplay of the dark and the light. We slip into the darkest and longest nights of the year in the winter of the Northern Hemisphere. Each night, the sun sinks beneath the horizon. Clouds roll by and partially obscure the sun. In a solar eclipse, the shadow of the moon blots out the sun.

But in each of these, light always wins. The moon's shadow abates. Clouds continue to move and the sun comes back out. Winter gives way to summer, and each morning, the sun rises again--sometimes with spectacular fanfare, as in my picture taken shortly after dawn.

Light always wins, given enough time.

In those scenarios, when you get right down to it, the light never really went away. In our darkest night of winter, it's the longest day of summer in New Zealand. Our night is noon in India. Obscuring clouds and lunar shadows are only obscuring because we're standing on the other side of the clouds, or the eclipse. The sun never physically stopped shining.

So in that sense, the thick darkness and deep gloom we might feel in our present moment is neither to someone else in the same moment. It's all about perspective. Our most profound grief, our deepest fears, our most intensely acute pain, is merely an opaque barrier that can only stand if we continue to choose to stand on the opposite side of the barrier from the sun. We speak so often about someone "losing their faith." it was never really "lost;" it was only obscured. In all those things, we forget these obscuring cloaks are only temporary.

I think sometimes about the nature of the times we have felt separated from God, or doubt His existence, or feel the black cloak of depression resting on our shoulders, or feel separated from those we love by the chasm of death. Over time, this separation can become a self-separation, where we keep hauling around this opaque screen in front of us all the time, and never know it, because our eyes have become accustomed to the dark. We somehow forget that it is the nature of all living things, even the simplest and most primitive organisms, to turn towards the light. So there we sit, claiming to be "alone in the dark", when in reality we are simply failing to respond to our instinctual desires to turn to the light.

But the light is always there--the light that cannot be overcome. We only need the faith of a sunflower to make it ours.

(Cartoon from Mark Anderson's website)

As we continue to revisit Advent on this blog this year in terms of the concept of our own "spiritual pregnancies," we are kind of that point in the year, the dawn of the day preceding Christmas Eve, where Mary's water has broken and the labor pains have started. No more "abstraction" exists in that concept of the arrival of that baby at this point--it's all reality, and no one knows the reality of it more than Mary!

The moment when a pregnant woman realizes "her water broke" is like the curtain rising on a new act of a "write it as you go" drama. For some women, the moment comes in a gush, especially if labor pains started prior to the event, and there is no doubt what happened. For others, it's merely a trickle, and she, for a time, might be debating whether it really happened, or whether she just wet her pants (again) a little. Only until the labor pains start does she figure it out.

Then there's that moment of "what do do with the other half of the story." Women, for millennia, have been temporarily hiding the moment from the more, um, nervous and prone to be excited "significant others" of their world, in a temporary (and usually mistaken) attempt to control the potential drama of the situation. Other women, especially in the first pregnancy, become afraid, and desperately seek the strength of their partner or close family member. Some are relieved that this show is finally getting on the road. Some go through all of the above, and more. In short, it's rarely drama-less, despite all attempts at drama control.

In all pregnancies, be they actual or spiritual, in all the tumultuous events of our lives, be they joyful or tragic, there is the moment when the abstract-ness of birth abruptly ends, and the reality of the impending birth reaches that "point of no return." Even in death--physical death, the death of relationships, the death of the "givens" in our lives, the underpinnings of new birth emerge from the shadows. But in all of these "births" there is one constant and unyielding truth--it will be messy.

Now, I freely admit I'm going to steal a little from the best Christmas eve homily I ever heard here, but add my own take to it. Birth, for all its wonderful-ness, for all its awesome-ness, for all its joyfulness--when you get right down to the gory details of it--well, it's messy, and sometimes a little gross, and definitely a little scary. There's pain and sweating and screaming and moments of fear and unease. It involves smelly fluids and blood and genteel body parts and a crowd of people standing around looking at the genteel body parts in a rather impolite fashion. There's a placenta to expel--a mysterious piece of tissue that is half-mom, half-baby, a portion of the lives of two people--that will be unceremoniously dumped in the trash or turfed to the surgical pathologist.

Not only that, when that baby is born, honestly...few newborns are "cute." They're slimy and bloody and wrinkled and have a bit of an odd smell and have nasty stuff in their hair. They have little scrawny arms and legs and swollen genitalia. They're not terribly happy, being kicked out of their nice warm temporary home where everything was predictable, and dumped out into the big, cold world into the arms of strangers. Never mind they no longer "fit" their former environment. Sometimes their mothers are dismayed that they don't immediately want to love this newborn--sometimes it takes a bit to adjust to the fact this slimy, noisy little alien is not that fantasy baby they imagined.

So it is with our spiritual newborns. We don't always want to acknowledge that "what we got" isn't exactly "what we expected," and we are a little dismayed that we didn't just take right to the business of loving it. Suddenly the harsh realization that it has been born, it will require our constant care, and it WILL turn our world upside down, can frighten us with one of the deepest sorts of fear. We fear we "won't do it right." We fear others will judge our ability to care for it. (Oh, they will, but it really won't matter.) We fear, oddly enough, the selflessness that will emerge from us to care for it--that somehow that might diminish us.

Something usually happens along the way, though, with those real babies, that melts through all that. Eventually, that baby begins to have a need to feed--and it doesn't matter whether you are feeding that baby with a breast or a bottle, there is just...well...this LOOK that comes over a contentedly feeding baby that puts the world totally right. For me, it's the fact that babies, unlike us older folks, can breathe and swallow simultaneously. They can feed and be half asleep. It's a magical window of time where what is impossible for me is possible and overtly visible for them. That simultaneous sound set of a breathing, swallowing, half-snoring, half-snuffling baby cannot be duplicated in any other facet of the universe. It's a moment when "all things are possible." Oh, sure, there will be pee and poop to clean up later, and burping and spit up curdled milk stuck in my hair, but who cares?

We go through the same process with our spiritual newborns. Despite all our trepidation and fear, if we simply consent to the power of our own awareness, a moment will come that will be that mystical "all things are possible" moment. We will see that baby for all it is and all it can be. Cleaning up the poop it generates won't matter.

I have thought many times how existentially hard it must have been for God to consent to give one of the best parts of Himself to the world in the form of a baby--a baby born in a rude barn, with a dirt floor, covered in rags, in dirty straw, laid in a feed trough, to such an ordinary set of parents. But even then, it was only a prelude to allowing that child to grow into a man who would be nailed, bleeding and scorned, to a wooden cross. To give freely and willingly all that that is God's love in that fashion is a form of trust in humanity I'll never have in this life. But the one thing it does do is empower me to eventually trust in all the spiritual births that have happened and have yet to happen in my life. I may not understand them at the time, I may not even like them at the time, but I at least can have the fortitude to wait them out and see how they grow. But I'll be the first to qualify that with "Not without the help of others, and not without God's help." I know I am powerless to handle that one alone.

My wish for all of my blog readers this Christmas season is to simply grow to love those babies destined to be born to you, and to keep feeding them. Merry Christmas!

John 16:32:

"The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me."

Yep, you heard me right in the title of this post. I used the words, "alone," "Christmas," and "blessing" all in the same sentence.

One of the things I noticed as I was surfing Facebook the last couple of days is the number of my former medical students who are lamenting "their first Christmas on call." Some of this will be call physically in the hospital, some of it "home call." Some folks with families have sent their family members on to visit relatives, leaving them "alone on call." Also, as big winter storms threaten different parts of the country over these next couple of days, some folks realize they are staying home instead of leaving town because of the threat of weather.

But what it made me realize is there are a lot of folks in my world who are feeling a little uneasy about that prospect of a "first Christmas alone," whether "alone" means "not with my family," or "on call at the hospital," or "really truly solo." Well, I'm going to cut you in on a little secret.

I have purposefully spent several hours of my Christmas Day alone for the past eight years, and at more times than I'd like to admit, my call schedule put me "home alone" off and on in the past two decades...and if you've never spent part or all of Christmas alone, you've missed an opportunity to be visited by the angels.

How radical is that? The holiday that our culture screams is all about family and togetherness and love and presents? For most people, the concept of embracing "alone-ness" at Christmas seems at the very least, daunting, and at most, downright scary. It might even sound "wrong" in that, "Uh...that's just wrong" sort of way. But with the right frame of mind, it can be more "right" than you can imagine.

A quick Google search on "how to spend Christmas alone" scared me a lot worse than what I'm about to tell you. Some of the suggestions were things like, "play cheerful music," "forget all the bad stuff," and "indulge yourself." In other words, what I'd call "me-based distractions." Sort of the grownup versions of how we'd distract a toddler or pacify a baby. In my mind, this season is about a gift--God's gift of the Christ Child. The key to enjoying Christmas alone is to come up with ways to give in crazy, radical ways.

So here's a short list of some ways you might consider spending parts of your "first Christmas alone:"

1. Start the day with some quiet time for reflection and gratitude. List the things or people for which you are grateful and why. Pray for the needs of those people. When I am often "stuck" in my prayer time, I grab my laptop and "pray my Facebook page." I simply start reading the status reports as I scroll down and read what's going on in the minds of my Facebook friends. I can always come up with something to take to prayer from that.

If the weather or the situation permits, take a walk, and simply listen to the sounds around you and feel gratitude for the "little stuff of life." Try to see or hear things you never noticed until this moment. Feel gratitude for your new discoveries.

2. Plan a special meal for either yourself or others. If you are truly alone, this meal doesn't have to be a traditional "Christmas meal." Go for a "symbolic meal" instead. Try to think of a meal where each item on the menu symbolizes somebody or something important in your life--sort of a "secular Eucharist." If possible, another great way to spend part of the day is to volunteer for an organization that provides a Christmas Day meal. Most of those organizations are more than happy to take last minute volunteers even if you will be assigned one of the most menial tasks.

One year, when I was home alone for Christmas on "home call," I made a turkey dinner for each of the three shifts in my hospital clinical laboratory. It was not a fancy meal--it consisted of one huge turkey divvied up three ways and re-heated for the later shifts, mashed potatoes/gravy, cornbread stuffing, peas, and a pie for each shift. I made each shift promise not to tell the next shift what was going to happen. The look on their faces when I showed up an hour into each shift with that dinner was priceless.

Meals are one of the most basic ways human beings connect, and what they bring to the lives of others is miraculous.

3. Give presence, not presents. One year, when I was on call in the hospital, I walked up to the nurses' station and asked, "Who's the loneliest patient on the floor today?" I then, after asking a little bit about them, sat down and made a card out of the strangest things you can find in a hospital, went to the patient's room, presented the card, and we visited a little. Christmas is funny--people seem to open up and tell stories about their life with a little more openness.

A little creative thought can bring endless possibilities. Surprise a neighbor with a gift on the porch, in person or anonymously. Set an amount to spend, surf the Internet for charities that appeal to you, and make $5 or $10 gifts to them until you reach your spending limit. Write "thank you" notes to your friends for "just being them," or text message them with a simple, "I was thinking about you today, Merry Christmas!" Comment on your friends' Facebook pages with a holiday message. So what if it might seem a tad weird. In this era of global communication, we have more ways to give to others than humans have ever had the capability of doing so.

4. If sad or negative memories creep in, let those feelings come and sit with them. To paraphrase what angels are always telling people in the Bible, "fear not." Sad memories remind us of our own capacity to love. Negative memories create resolve to create and honor new traditions, new ways of living our lives. Ignoring them or distracting ourselves from them thwart our ability to grow and love in new and more challenging ways.

5. Finally, at the end of the day, right before you go to sleep, reflect on the things you've discovered from the experience. What did you learn? What new traditions can you create? For what new things do you find yourself thankful? Reflect on the "Christmas stories" in Matthew and Luke. Imagine yourself in the various roles in the story, or think about who the "shepherds," or "magi," etc. are in your life. There's something about that half-sleepy state at bedtime that can unbind our spiritual imaginations--take advantage of it.

For those of you spending your first Christmas alone, I wish you an incredible journey!

Pinched from Bob Rea on Elizabeth Kaeton's blog:

"By now Mary must have been feeling more than a little pregnant. I once opened a sermon with the words, 'By now Mary's water will have broken,' And talked about the stretch marks of the spirit."

I have thought about those stretch marks for a few days now. We are now in the week where we realize some of our wonderful plans for Dec. 25 are doomed to fail. Maybe it's that the stores ran out of some special item we wanted to buy for someone. Perhaps it's that realization that some of your friends will be getting their Christmas cards after the 25th. Possibly you got that phone call that a certain relative will not make it home for the holidays because of work scheduling problems. In my line of work, many of us realize we will be on call and might be yanked away from the festivities at any time. Even the best Christmases have some disappointments mixed in. None of those things are deal-breakers, they're just little tiny scars--stretch marks.

Like Mary's belly, we stretch to accommodate the little disappointments without much trouble, but they do tend to leave little scars--so when we look back, they are not totally forgotten. In fact, most of us, if we could just manage to forget the little scars, could have more "perfect" Christmases. But in looking back, we also realize we bore those little scars, usually, for a very good reason--love. We allow ourselves in this season to be stretched in all sorts of ways simply because we want to welcome that infant Jesus with the kind of love reserved for new babies. Even the most curmudgeonly of us tend to, on occasion, make fools of ourselves over babies. I think it's because babies simply suck up all the love you give them and never make fun of what a fool you're being.

For some reason, my mind wandered back this weekend to a very special baby who entered my life twenty years ago for only a few days. I was on my Well Baby Nursery rotation as a clinical medical student. I was not having a lot of fun on this rotation. First of all, you have to realize that Well Baby Nursery nurses and clinical medical students generally do not mix well--like gasoline and matches do not mix well. By and large, Well Baby Nursery nurses seem to behave like they're the only human beings on the planet capable of properly caring for infants--right down to often behaving like they know more than the babies' mothers, and CERTAINLY more than interloping clinical medical students who are there for a month and disappear!

I've always joked that Well Baby nurses think there are two ways medical students diaper babies--too tight and too loose! Clinical medical students are also incapable of wiping a baby's butt. No matter how clean the baby's butt appears, the Well Baby nurse will exclaim that you left poop all over it.

Well, I was "double doomed" on that rotation, when the nurses discovered I had no children and no siblings. I might as well have been the giant baby-eating monster to them. They were constantly yanking babies out of my arms who looked perfectly satisfied and yelling, "No, no, no, THAT's not right, you didn't swaddle that baby right/put that diaper on tight enough/put the little stocking hat on its head right/that baby didn't NEED a stocking hat, it's hot enough as it is/yada, yada yada..." night...(kind of like that image I have of the first Christmas, actually!)...along came a baby they did not want to deal with. She was one of the infamous "crack babies." Our Well Baby nurses did NOT like crack babies. They cried a lot, with this shrill, kitten-like cry, and tended to upset the other babies in the nursery and get ALL the babies to crying. The Well Baby nurses also didn't like the crack mothers, either, surprise, surprise. This baby had all the earmarks of "trouble in Dodge City." One of the nurses basically summarized the case as "White crack mom, black crack baby, she's not keeping it, she doesn't want to even see it, call Family Services in the morning about it."


That was my first clue that this baby was going to be different. I didn't even know if "it" was a he or a she! Well, I had to write the admission note, and when I got the paperwork, I finally learned it was a "she." Sure enough, as I was sitting and writing the admission note, all hell started to break loose in the nursery. The new baby was crying in that "crack baby" way, and all the other babies were crying, and there were too many crying babies and not enough arms to hold them. So one of the nurses comes in the chart area with the "culprit"--the new addition to the nursery--sticks her in my arms (probably as "punishment"!) and goes, "Here--why are you charting when you should be holding one of these babies anyway?"

Then something magical happened.


Suddenly, it was like all time and sound stopped in the nursery. All the nurses stopped, turned, and STARED. I said nothing, just kind of grinned and shrugged. I had no idea why that baby girl liked me. Maybe I smelled good to her. To this day, I haven't a clue.

Finally, one of the nurses broke the ice. "Well, I guess she's YOUR baby now!"

Well, and for about six days, she was. In about ten minutes, I had "named" her, but I decided that name was between her, me, and God. I knew someone was going to give her another name. But until Family Services found a foster home for her, the Well Baby Nursery was her home--and as it turned out, I was a temporary parent by default on a 12 hour shift.

Then something else magical happened. The Well Baby nurses started letting me be. Sure, I was still diapering and cleaning and swaddling all the OTHER babies wrong, but they left me alone with this one. I found they were letting me hold this one and carry her around to my heart's content. I would write admission notes with one hand and hold her sleeping on my chest with the other. When the other babies were being allowed to go off with their mothers to be fed, I'd take her down the hall to the nursing station on the floor and we'd go "visit." The nurses let me be the only one to feed her on my shift. The other medical student on the other shift would call me at home and ask if I was coming in a little early--it was feeding time and "she doesn't eat for anyone else the way she eats for you."

Sometimes I would just sit and say nothing, and marvel at her little fingers and toes and nose, and listen to her breathe and squeak with my eyes closed. Sometimes I talked to her about the things I hoped would happen for her in her life, and say, "You're not gonna remember me, but I'm gonna remember YOU, so it will all be okay."

When Family Services finally were coming to pick that baby up to take her to her foster home, it wasn't on my shift. One of the nurses called me at home and said, "Hey, they're coming to get that baby this if you want to see her one more time you might want to get over here for a little bit." So I came by for a spell, and we just sat in the rocking chair in the "cry room" for a while with the door closed and I found the tears falling in a way I never figured I could ever do for "someone else's kid." I berated myself for being so stupid to love something all out that I knew was not mine to keep.

I think now and then about how that baby is now grown, and maybe even has a baby--or babies--of her own. If I saw her on the street, I don't think I'd know her. In my mind, she will forever be this precious perfect baby, who came into this world with baggage, who got one of the rudest starts imaginable, but yet she chose ME to bond with in a unique way, and she had the power to melt my heart in a way I could not belive was possible...and in a way, isn't that a bit how we imagine the baby Jesus this time of year?

The Song of Zechariah Benedictus Dominus Deus
Luke 1: 68-79

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Pssst. C'mere. I've got a radical proposal for you about Zechariah.

Many of us, during Advent, are reminded in the Annunciation story in Luke 1 that before the angel Gabriel visited Mary, he visited both Elizabeth and Zechariah, and they had a little chat about becoming the expectant parents of John the Baptist. Zechariah asks for a sign, and Gabriel strikes him dumb, saying, "But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur."

I like this particular artistic rendition above of the event for one simple reason: Gabriel doesn't look "punitive." The popular take is that Zechariah was "punished" by the angel for his disbelief.

Well...(lean closer...I'm whispering here)...I don't think Gabriel was being punitive at all. I think he's mostly going, "Ok, don't believe me...I can understand that. You say you want a sign? Okay, you've got it. But it WILL occur, and you'll know because you have your voice back."

I mean, why would the angel say, "Don't be afraid," and then turn around and give Zechariah a swift kick in the mouth? That does NOT go with "don't be afraid," unless you're some sort of abusive jerk.

The Greek word in this text for "believe" is the word "pisteuo." It literally means "be persuaded of," or "to have confidence in." So I don't really think Gabriel is saying, "You nasty unbeliever, you...THWAP! Whatzza matter Zach? Cat got your tongue? Bwahahahaha." It's more like, "Ok, I can see you don't have confidence in this notion. You will by the time I get finished, and I'm giving you a gift that will help you see it--silence."

Think of it this way. I'm just a mere novice at using "silence" as a spiritual reflective tool, and I can see how it reaps huge spiritual benefits in myself. Zechariah was one of the priestly class. He probably knew even more about the value of silence. It kept him from just blurting out babble about being visited by an angel. It gave him time to think about what both Elizabeth's and Mary's pregnancy meant. It meant, when he had opportunity to speak, he would know just what to say...and judging from the message in the Song of Zechariah, he evidently made good use of it.

The 14th century Dominican mystic, John Tauler, explains the gift of Zechariah's silence like this: “God cannot leave things empty; that would be to contradict his own nature and justice. Therefore, you must be silent. Then the Word of this birth can be spoken in you and you will be able to hear him. But be certain of this: if you try to speak then He must be silent. There is no better way of serving the Word than in being silent and listening. So if you come out of yourself completely, God will wholly enter in; to the degree you come out, to that degree will he enter, neither more nor less.”

This week, take some time to enter the silence yourself. This is the week of "rejoicing" in the Advent journey. Let God enter wholly into your being and see what seeds of joy reside inside of you, yearning to be released.

(Photo: Luis Gomez, "One Photograph a Day")

It seems sort of ironic that the third week of Advent, the week we assign to "Joy," bookends a week in which Mother Nature hurls us headlong towards the longest night of the year. The world is rapidly enveloping in as much darkness as it can muster. Paradoxically, people in liturgical churches often use this week as a week to reflect on what needs reconciliation, and sometimes we most palpably feel what cannot be reconciled this year. It's a week that our Sunday service springs that pang of desire for the Savior's arrival to lead us from that darkness--we start singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." We light that one pink candle in an Advent wreath throned with deep purple candles--yet even at the tops of the dark purple candles are light.

My quiet time this week has often drifted to what might seem like a strange image for "joy"--A single street light illuminating a dark intersection--a light valiantly resisting a large patch of dark. But as the meditation evolves, looking beyond that one light's power to resist, another light can be seen further down the street--and another--and still yet another--until the realization comes that the whole street is filled with many lights.

Then, suddenly, it's like in Isaiah 9:2: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined." In my mind's eye, I realize that at first what seemed like my own lonely little light, fighting a vortex of dark, afraid to venture beyond it, is really only a few steps from the light of another--and perhaps the person standing under that light had felt just as isolated, just as fearful.

Joy resides in the recognition of the light--both our own, and in the lights of others. The dark cannot be conquered by one, but it can by many "ones," all awaiting the coming of Light of the Prince of Peace

Last night in my EFM class, we were thinking of "metaphors for our lessons this week" and I brought up one of my deep dark secrets.

My year of EFM has been studying the Exodus as told in the book of the same name. When I think of "manna", my mental image is of this shapeless but roughly round wad of stuff, white and full of substance.--which takes me straight to the Shmoo of Lil' Abner comics fame. Even as a Sunday School kid, I imagined the manna that the Hebrews found each morning upon awakening as a field of Shmoon, all dying of happiness at the prospect of being eaten--finding happiness by bringing happiness.

The problem, of course, if you had ever followed the Lil' Abner story, was that the Shmoon multiplied so quickly, they could never be made extinct (although the residents of Dogpatch did try.) So the people no longer had any ambition, and simply sat around eating Shmoon and didn't work. (Actually, when you read the wiki link above, there are a lot of parallels in the saga of the Shmoon that sound supiciously like the story of Moses, the Exodus, and the time in the wilderness.)

In short, the more I thought about the story, the more I thought about how when I compared manna with the Shmoon, it reminded me of the very fine line between humility and codependency.

I've thought about that in an Advent way during this week, when the theme is "peace." Sometimes I secretly wish there was suddenly no war, no abuse, no violation of human rights in the world, no homelessness, no suffering, and no untimely death in the world. But frankly, that would be like the difference between giving us Shmoon instead of manna. We would become complacent about this gift and never work on repairing any of the fractures within our own souls. We would stagnate instead of grow.

Shmoon have a tendency to "over-gift." Manna is always "just enough." I thank God for the difference!

(Painting: Rembrandt, Simeon with the Christ Child, 1666)

Canticle 17 The Song of Simeon
Nunc Dimittis Luke 2:29-32

Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:

A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Continuing on with the traditional meanings of the weeks of Advent, the second week of Advent is about "peace." That is a hard topic for those of us who watch the news at supper time. An hour with the daily news pretty much confirms that the world has no inclinations to be at peace. War, violence, and hatred still seem to be pretty hotly traded commodities in how the currency of the world works.

The theme of "peace" in this week has a tendency to flare my emotions at a local level, too. My own thoughts often turn to wondering how many families in my town will be affected by domestic violence. I sometimes imagine how many family members are turning themselves out in the cold and fleeing from violent acts in this "season of peace." My local news channel ran a story last week about a man who was arrested for beating his wife with the branches from an artificial Christmas tree! I could imagine that story in my mind's eye--a family trying to have a classic happy time putting up the tree, and maybe liquor or economic hardship sparked a harsh word or two and next thing you know, decorations are flying and the lava from the volcano of anger burns everyone at the scene. Some of the things related to my own family of origin, unfortunately, allow me to imagine this scene quite vividly.

I sometimes wonder if Simeon in the Luke 2 presentation story wasn't a little bit this way. History doesn't tell us much about Simeon, which allows me to imagine a little. (I actually like it when we don't know much about Biblical characters--maybe that is how teaching through parable stories works, eh?) What little legend about Simeon is out there, is that he was a "just and devout" man; I wonder if he wasn't one of the "odd old ducks that hung out at the temple." You know, kind of like the older folks you might know in your parish that have "been there forever," and won't leave until they die. Sweet and a tad odd all at once.

I wonder if Simeon saw the world with world-weary eyes, as I sometimes do--which allows us to make things that are really good stand out. I think about a little boy I met Saturday. I had gone to town to support two of my friends that were ringing the bell for the Salvation Army. I had been teasing them that I was going to stand out front and sing the old "Salvation Army" song that was often done on high school bus trips:

"Salvation ARRRRMY! Salvation ARRRRRMY! Put a nickel in the pot, save another drunken sot! Salvation ARRRRRMY! Salvation ARRRRRRRMY! Put a nickel in the pot and you'll be saaaaavvvvvved!"

When I got there, I saw they had a little boy with them; he was the son of a co-worker. I was totally struck by his "exuberant sweetness!" Rambunctious, eager, a little hyper, but incredibly sweet and good-hearted." My day was better the rest of the day for meeting that little guy.

Yesterday, I had gone to the early service at another church where another friend is in the handbell choir. When I got there, I ran into other friends and their daughter, who is another incredibly bright, eager, smart little girl, whom I've been struck by for years. I was thrilled to death she wanted to sit with me and not with her parents, and I was more than happy to oblige.

When I see these kind of children, well...I know them when I see them, and all the pain of a weary world melts before me in the time I spend with them--and the experience lasts the rest of the day. I can't totally explain it except "I know these children when I see them."

I wonder if that wasn't what happened to Simeon that day in the temple. World-weary, crusty old Simeon, who felt the pain of the world enough to work hard at living a "devout and just" life in the middle of war, violence, sickness, and pain, came to the temple that day and saw a little guy that just bowled him over with the honest love that literally leaked from the child's pores. He knew it when he saw it--and wasn't about to let the moment pass without saying so in the temple.

May each of see one of those "holy children" this week.

(Painting: Master Bedroom, by Andrew Wyeth)

From the translation of Psalm 4 in the Compline service of the Breviary of the Companions of St. Luke, OSB:

"Tremble; do not sin: Ponder on your bed and be still."

Every now and then, I find myself needing to observe "The Great Silence." In the monastic sense, keeping the Great Silence involves being silent from Compline to Matins, with the last words you speak being to God, and the first words spoken as the silence is broken to God.

I've personally found that keeping the Great Silence now and then is very rewarding to me...especially after a hectic, busy day. It's especially rewarding during Advent--a time when "watching" and "listening" become even more important in the church year.

If you've never kept silence, it seems daunting. I remember the first time I was preparing for my trip to the monastery. I had no idea what or when I would have to be silent, but I knew that there was going to be silence somewhere. So I sort of practiced by having a few "silent Saturday mornings"--just being quiet, reading, not using the Internet. I had expected it to feel like quitting cigarettes cold turkey. But instead, it was strangely pleasant.

What I've discovered, in occasionally keeping the Great Silence's not very silent. Silence, at least for me, seems to be neither dark nor empty. I've come to realize that when I temporarily remove verbal expression, another form of expression enters into play...the expression of my soul in ways that do not require words. I become more visually aware of my surroundings, and I find my mind actually racing with thoughts and concepts, but not at "high RPM's." It's like a transmission thrown into overdrive--the engine of our soul running fast, but smooth and unburdened.

Compare that with the stresses of a busy day where those transmissions in our mind are constantly being shifted from one gear to another as conversation starts, stops, interrupts, and we are often in a gear where we might be trying to "go fast" but the RPM's are much higher, unable to shift into that next gear smoothly. Anger and frustration grinds the gears as we shift, and sometimes reaches a point where we smell the smoke of burning transmission fluid.

I often dream vividly on the nights I keep the Great Silence, and oddly enough, in the dreams, many voices speak, but I mostly listen. What I often "say" in those dreams are a single thing, over and over--the thing that most matters.

Time becomes an odd player in my nights of silence. It does not seem to move at the "expected pace." Sometimes it moves more quickly, sometimes it seems to almost stand still. It's never the same in any two silent periods. Insight and creativity seem to spring forth from it. Silence is actually a very busy place for me, but a productive one. Not in terms of quantity, but in quality.

As Robert Persig said in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

"We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on "good" rather than "time" and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes."

So, this Advent, as we spend our time "watching and waiting," take some time to discover what a planned period of silence unlocks within you. You might be surprised how "not empty" it is!

Last night, as part of my Advent meditation process, I sat out by my chiminea fire, took a walk back and forth on my road a couple of times, and hung out by the fire some more. I have been thinking a lot about the whole "pregnancy" aspect of Advent this year, and have decided to consider it week by week in the manner of what the four weeks of Advent represent--Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. This first week I have been cogitating on what is it like to be people "pregnant with hope?"

As I sat back down by my fire to contemplate this in the cold, crisp, moonlit night, my fire at my front, cool wind at my back, a very "non-wintery" image came into my head--a germinating seed.

I thought of all these seeds resting below the dark ground. It's a dark place, but it is just a tad warmer than the air above it. Dark but yet enveloping, nurturing. Much like the womb is a dark, wet, nurturing place for a fetus. Some of these seeds will never germinate. Some will, but at the wrong time, and they will die. But some germinate and live.

Those seeds actually germinate in the dark, but they can't stay there. Once they've germinated, the dark is no longer a nurturing place. It's a toxic place, because they need the sun to grow and bloom. So they pop their little pale shoots up and crane their little shooty selves towards the sun. The dark is still there, at night, and in its roots. But the important thing is the dark is a temporary place and a grounding place, not the existence of its being. They MUST turn to the light to live.

As those shoots sprout leaves, they come to learn in their own way, (however plants learn) to grow towards the sun and to crane their leaves so as to get the maximum amount of sun. They come to expect a certain amount of sun. They don't always get it on that day, but there's always tomorrow. They may grow "crooked" because of the best angle of the sun, maybe are not as "perfect" as the prizewinning flower, but they grow and thrive and bloom just the same, in their own beautiful way.

So it is with the hope that lies within our bellies.

Some of the seeds of our own hope, we might not even be able to bear to allow them to germinate. But some of them do anyway, despite any delusions of control we think we have over the process. When they throw that little shoot out, they WILL rise up and lean towards the light. We can't stop it, any more than we can stop the Mississippi river in a rowboat. We are powerless, but it's not to a raging force of nature, it's to a tiny, almost imperceptible force of nature. Who ever notices a single shoot coming forth from the ground, unless we are specifically looking for it?

To me, that is what this first week of Advent is all about...this tiny shoot of our own hopes, barely imperceptible to ourselves, arising from the darkness...just as how the hope of the world arose in this tiny newborn package we call Jesus.



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Kirksville, Missouri, United States
I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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