Saturday, December 24, 2011

Are we there yet? I think we are!

What an interesting Christmas Eve! After the children's Nativity Play we returned home to cook dinner, and realised that Moose (five-year-old black Labrador) was anything but well. To cut long story short dinner was abandoned and the family have taken him to the Emergency Room at Riverhead Animal Hospital. I await news, even as I prepare to return to church for the final preparations for the late mass. Not the best of starts for the celebration of the Incarnation. Poor Moosie!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bethlehem Minus One, and Counting ...

I began last Sunday’s sermon by asking: Does it feel like Christmas yet? And here in the Lewis house it certainly does. Even twenty-four hours makes a difference. Yes, the decorations have been up a week now (although yesterday I felt the need to hang more baubles on my Italian-style garland) and cards are being opened by the dozen every day. But now there are culinary signs: bottles of wine and cognac, lists of cheeses ordered for the morrow, the promise of fresh salmon for the Christmas Eve dinner (wrapped with béchamel sauce in filo pastry) and the delivery of flowers for Kate from her God-mother. Yes, it feels like Christmas today, even if tomorrow, liturgically, we go through the motions of the last day of Advent. And rightly so. The Offices will ground me in that tradition.

In the meantime I have spent three hours wrapping gifts and stocking-fillers (US: Stocking-stuffers) and, as I posted on Facebook, amazed myself in doing all of this before Christmas Eve, possibly for the first time ever!

And I am excited. Why. Because I am looking forward to tradition. And about that I will write a great deal more

Thursday, December 22, 2011

BETHLEHEM MINUS TWO, AND COUNTING … Leading to a Complaint Against Some Clergy

In accord with tradition and demand my shopping list for food and drink is on the way to being completed. Checked off. Done. Whatever word or phrase you choose to use. Yet it’s more than Christmas Day. For the second year we are gunning for a Boxing Day party. Last year we had invited some thirty people, but when we woke up on the morning of the 26th we took one look at the weather forecast and decided that we ought to tell those guests to stay at home. Notwithstanding, Messrs Fred and Bob showed up mid-afternoon, brushed a few inches of snow off their shoulders and declared, “It’s just a flurry!” They left three hours later, full and (very) happy.

No, this year’s intended party is bigger, and given both the benign weather forecast and the response to the invitations, it is live and huge. We expect over fifty people. I can’t wait! My cook and catering alter ego is already taking over. There is a battle plan, and it will be so much fun. I will write about the food in a later post.

With twenty-four hours to go until Christmas Eve, and the beginning of the princess of festivals (Easter being the Queen) I am personally content and spiritually happy about this celebration. Yet I have two subjects about which, before this season of goodwill truly kicks in, I wish to sound off.

The first is Christmas cards, and to be precise, photo-cards. Once upon a time I resisted these, thinking that they were too secular. But I have mellowed and adapted, and have grown to appreciate them. As a family we now embrace this form of Yuletide greeting. But! And it’s a serious “but” or objection. To all of those people who create and send these cards: May we please see a photo of all the family. Please? Christmas is not about our children but rather about all of us as a family.

My second bugaboo, which oscillates between irritation and actually being rather cross, is the class of clergy who, on Facebook or other social media, complain of being busy, even over-worked at Christmas. Those posts about the number of services, the production of service bulletins, and the “Oh! I can’t wait until Christmas afternoon, etc.”

Guess what, guys? Don’t be so bloody pathetic. It’s not only what we do – it’s what we are called to do. I may write and sound like an old ordained fart, but I still recall my curacy, twenty five years ago, and the twenty-plus services over three days, bringing carols and sacramental grace to old and young, churched and un-churched. Stop bleating and start posting stuff that doesn’t draw attention to you! No one, in the real world, is in the least bit interested!

Now, about this coming party…

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cutting Comments

Haircut day, and since Leo has completely disappeared into the Russian mists (or more likely permanently moved to his condominium in Miami Beach) I now drive to Sag Harbor, where April opened her barber shop some five years ago. She first cut my hair ten years ago when I had just moved to this area and she and her father ran the barbers in Jobs Lane, Southampton. Cruelly increasing rent forced them out, but eventually they found a new opportunity where they now are. Even in Sag Harbor they battle rent increases, interestingly enough by Chinese conglomerates who apparently own more and more commercial real estate in the East End of Long Island.

Today was a real treat in that the father, Charlie (the original “Choppin’ Charlie”) was there to cut my hair. April had decided to take a day off, and so her father had stepped in. The phrase is “slow precision.” With great conversation. Plus clergy discount. And the best of haircuts!

Bethlehem Minus Four, and Counting …

Hear we are, December 20th, and once again I have failed to pay attention to the traditional calendar of the Church. For we have already reached the mid-point of the O! Antiphons (which began on December 17th,) and I forgot all about them. Ancient sentiments, praising the names of Jesus and reflecting the messianic prophecies of the prophets of Israel, their origins are rooted in the Middle Ages but their words are none the less potent today. And today’s Antiphon is:

O Key of David and Scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no man closes; you close and no man opens. Come, and deliver from the chains of prison those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Yet my mundane mind is cluttered with less prophetic things such as Kate’s school concert, the continuing basketball season, the re-wiring of some tree lights and the menu for our Boxing Day “open house.” And I have just read the Christmas Message from the Presiding Bishop and feel once again that the cosmic power and glories of the Incarnation have been reduced to a welfare and social action agenda.

O! Dear.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bethlehem Minus Five, and Counting…

I am exhausted today. Monday is usually my day off and today was no exception, but the final items necessary for this family feast called Christmas had to be addressed. Plus the routine tasks that every family demands. My weekly trip to the dump. (For UK readers that is the “skip.” The local recycling center for glass, cardboard, cans and paper.) Then the grocery shopping, and a visit to the vet to pick up some phenobarbitol for Bela, our epileptic, abandoned-adopted cat. How many other local clergy get to pick up a controlled substance every few weeks? I’d rather not know!

There is certainly a seasonal excitement in the air. While in the Bridgehampton Commons I called by the “bird store” to wish Michael Mackay a very happy Christmas. Michael not only is the morning presenter on WPPB, our local public radio station, but also a devout Roman Catholic and a cantor at the Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary in Southampton. We mused for a while that apart from the obvious fact that Mary and Joseph were there, the primary witnesses to the birth of our Lord were animals. Yet let’s be realistic. Even the Victorian carol In the Bleak Mid-winter’s line, “The ox and ass and camel which adore,” was only two-thirds correct. There were no camels in Bethlehem.

I have baked a cake with five dried fruits and mixed spices. It is only seven inches in diameter (unlike my mother’s huge Christmas cakes) but now drenched in a certain holy spirit and wrapped, I will ice it on Christmas Eve and maybe find a traditional decoration or two. A snowman or candy holly sprig. Who knows?

And I have learned a new word today. “Giftables.” Heard in a conference call in a local retail store. Hmm. What does that actually mean? Can it improve the Epiphany scriptures?

And they opened their giftables of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

As if to balance the somewhat western expressions of the birth of Christ, I am reading All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer (Wiley 2003.) It was a gift to my late and dear friend, (U.S. Ambassador) Heyward Isham, and inscribed:

With admiration to another world citizen. Best wishes, Stephen Kinzer.

And it is a brilliant description of how the present stresses, strains and alleged threats in Iran are entirely of America’s making and engineering.

In the beginning was the word…

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thoughts Delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2011

Does it feel like Christmas yet?

It does! Even though, as Andy Williams once sang and wished, there’s not yet much mistletoeing, hearts are not yet glowing, and loved ones are not yet near. Thank God! I hear some say.

It may feel like Christmas in the stores and on the streets, but in church? Can we be “of good cheer?” There are no signs of decorations, but the candle posts are a hint of things to come! So are the readings. The Gospel reading in particular.

For these verses from Luke’s Gospel, traditionally called the Annunciation, or Announcing. A divine message given to a young girl, and her response. It is a pivotal moment, and a poetic moment - a story that is both moving and mysterious.

A church hymn of the early fourth century sang:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the God-bearer:
"Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!"

And so, given the beginning of a new story, and the expectation (literally!) that fills the air, I think it only right to announce that Christmas may now enter our hearts and lives.

Mary’s life had been quiet up to that moment. The moment when she received a message.

What was that scene really like? How did the angel Gabriel appear to Mary?

For two thousand years we have used our imaginations. We have painted, sculpted, engraved, carved and sung about the angel’s visit – and it’s all wonderful fun. So much interpretation and variety – but let’s not take any of it too seriously. Most of these images and ideas belong in Renaissance Europe and not in First Century Palestine. So let’s forget the wings and the haloes!

Mary had an encounter with an angel. An angelos. (Masculine, singular.) A messenger.

And that angelos/messenger would have looked quite normal, like you or me (if that is normal) – but his message was anything but normal.

You will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

All of a sudden normality has disappeared, for the significance of this meeting has now become apparent. This is now God’s act. God’s decision. God’s plan to enter into the world and change things forever. For life and faith would never be the same again.

Yet it took a human response to make all this happen. The response of an eighth grade girl who said “yes,” knowing the consequences of her decision. For she risked shame, humiliation and death by stoning.

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

This is the traditional image of a servant, echoing the verses of Psalm 123:

As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters,
and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the LORD our God,
until he show us his mercy.

There is so much to do these next seven days. For Christmas comes but once a year, but it always takes us by surprise! And in church and out of church we are preparing for a day, a time, a season of celebration – and yet a time of personal, thoughtful reflection.

For we do more than celebrate a birth of child in humble surroundings, powerful though this event was. We consider our response to God’s astonishing act.

For if an angel (an angelos/a messenger) gives us a message that we know to be divine and in need of an answer, and we are asked to do something that involves obedient risks - what answer do we give?

Will it be that of Mary?

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess's
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do--
Let all God's glory through,
God's glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

As we now enter the Christmas season we are given the story, the question and the answer. That is why it is the most wonder-full time of the year!

Bethlehem Minus Six, and Counting ...

For reasons of time and family I’ve missed a couple of beats on this countdown. But does it really matter? My personal countdown to Christmas seems to be out of synch with most others anyway, the most authoritative being the Christmas tree stand in Bridgehampton whose sign today announced that there were seven days to Christmas. I suppose that in most ways they are correct. My stubborn calculations are founded on the Judaeo- Christian tradition that believes that a feast begins at sundown the evening before the actual date. But who am I to prevaricate?

I suppose that I am also guilty of supporting the belief that Jesus was born at night – the night of the Holy Family’s arrival at the City of David. The Gospel of Luke is unspecific, except to assert that they (Joseph and Mary) had been in Bethlehem for a while, maybe a week or two.

This idea of a late night arrival has created an entire culture in itself. Art , drama and music has echoes the romance of this scene down the ages. But our common and cultural enjoyment is not based on the scriptures but on a second century spiritual novel that goes by the name of the Gospel of James. It is there, and only there, that we read of Mary giving birth at night.

So the date of the actual birth celebration is moveable – especially if you are a Christian of the Orthodox spirituality. This column would therefore be entitled: Bethlehem Minus Nineteen.

I "like" this

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bethlehem Minus Eight, and Counting …

The forecast rain had held off, and so yesterday afternoon provided my with a chance to complete what has evolved into a family tradition since we first moved in to our house in 2002. The tradition of “Dad Putting up the Outdoor Lights.” The family laughs at me, they tease me – but then they put pressure on me when not so much as a single bulb has been set in place by the end of the first week of December.

It all began in December 2002 when we bought a large illuminated grazing deer which, on account of the motor and piston within, silently moved its head up and down as if feeding on vegetation. Perhaps we also bought a string or two of colored bulbs as well that year, I really can’t remember. What I do recall is that by the next year a second deer had appeared, and numerous strings and mats of many lighted colors were in place mid-way through Advent. Let’s now call it the “glittery slope!” Every year saw the stock of decorations increase. Snowmen, penguins, bears. Then a lobster in 2007. Striped candy canes, a Dickensian lamp post with flickering light; a spiral Christmas tree – and even another deer! And hundreds of yards more strings of all colors.

A rod for my own back? Perhaps, but once in the mood great fun – and a challenge to arrange them differently every year. This year’s addition is a cluster of flashing bells over the front door, and a star fixed on a tree at a height of fifteen feet. Problems have already occurred. Last night’s wind blew over a penguin, a candy cane has failed and stubbornly refuses diagnosis, and we have been reminded not to plug in the vacuum cleaner while the decorative lights are on. The fuse will blow!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gentle and Inspiring

Bethlehem Minus Nine, and Counting...

On a day such as today when the stores are not calling me to spend more, and the grey skies compel us to stay indoors, it would be an ideal opportunity to be creative and think on matters spiritual for the coming Sunday and the feast that is getting closer. But interrupting phone calls are stranger than usual; in a basement on the church campus there is a feral cat hiding, refusing to move; it is rumored that a person (nameless) is unscrewing the external light bulbs at night to prevent glare; the complaints about last Sunday’s music continue to flow (I find it hard to disagree) and still the odd requests of strangers are being heard. Is there a service Christmas afternoon? No, there never has been. Can I deliver Christmas leftovers to the Food Pantry after lunch? Are you kidding? Is there Sunday School at the Midnight Mass? What? No comment.

I would much rather turn my thoughts to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the distractions are humorously overwhelming. Those words will come in their own time. I am reminded of Gabriel’s message to Mary: For with God nothing will be impossible. Except, that is, a Christmas afternoon service, and ...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bethlehem Minus Ten, and Counting ...

If the truth be known Advent calendars are a dangerous distraction this season. Decembers, certainly my Decembers, would not be the same without them, but they can lull the window-opener into a false sense of security. Because they, sorry – we – are counting up. Whereas we ought to be counting down. The dawning knowledge that there are only ten days until Christmas Eve is a stark reminder of how little time we, sorry – I – have left.

A distant Facebook friend commented this week that she wishes that there were more days in Advent in order to get the tasks done and the lists fulfilled. She was clearly born after her time, for there was once a six week Advent. In the fifth century the season of preparation began on the 11th of November, St Martin’s Day, and it was a time of abstinence and fasting. The four week Advent was not introduced until the following century, and by then the notion of fasting had been dropped. Still, even six weeks would produce a clutch of complainers that there aren’t enough Sundays in the season.

For many years I have organized my domestic Christmas tasks and intentions using two sheets of paper and a stub of a pencil. This may seem ridiculous when my Blackberry controls all other aspects of my calendar week, but I have learned that the pencil is mightier than the small keyboard when walking at speed between stores and car.

Today I am pleased. Over three-quarters of the items on the first piece of paper have been checked off. These are Christmas gifts and reminders. The second page is for Christmas food, but that is another subject for another day. Suffice to say I have today ordered a crown roast of lamb.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thoughts for Gaudete Sunday, Advent III, 2011

Like me, many this morning are thinking: O no, it’s John the Baptist again! And this happens every year on the second and third Sundays of Advent. Congregations are filled with kind forbearance as rectors and vicars all over the Anglican world grit their teeth and resist the temptation to repeat the theme or even the sermon - again and again.

And there’s no getting away from the fact that of all figures in Advent John the Baptist seems to occupy a disproportionate amount of time and space. Only the voice (and not the personality) of Isaiah takes up more page space. But Isaiah didn’t dress in wild animal skins tied with a leather belt (well, for all we know) so he doesn’t interest us that much as a person.

So what to do with the liturgical challenge that John the Baptist is still on our church calendar seven days after he first made an appearance? Perhaps we ought to approach this odd, prophetic figure in a different way.

The world of art may shed some new light on John, but apart from Caravaggio’s wonderful series of seven (or is it eight?) paintings of the Baptist (and I highly recommend that you try to stand in front of an original at some point. Most are in Italy but here is one in Kansas City!) … Apart from these works there is little of inspiration. And even Caravaggio paints himself into his work – just as many bible commentators write themselves into their work. So where are we to go next? Surely not Titian, whose portrayal of John the Baptist is the most camp I have ever seen him! And the head and shoulders of John by Leonardo de Vinci shows the baptizer making what appears to be a very rude gesture. I can’t and won’t show it in the pulpit but it is known on many streets as the Bronx Salute!

To talk about, to think about John the Baptist for a second time involves returning to the text of scripture, and reading it carefully, noting not what we think it says but what it actually says.

Last Sunday we listened to the description of the Baptist’s and his words in Mark’s Gospel. It was primarily a message of repentance and preparation. But today we move to another set of words, another description, another insight. Today we are in John’s Gospel.

No mention of repentance. No judgmental words. Not even a graphic description of John. In fact in this gospel narrative John the Baptist is defined not by what he was – but by what he wasn’t.

He was not the light. (But came to bear witness to the light.)
He was not the Messiah.
He was not Elijah.
He was not the prophet.

And the professional clergy and theologians were puzzled but, giving him the benefit of the doubt, invited him to say who and what he was.

And then he quoted Isaiah. Not the judgment words of Isaiah but the clear call that something was about to happen. The statement that God was on the move. The clarion call to look put! Things were about to change.

A mystical, echoing pronouncement. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’

That’s no message of judgment. There’s no fire and brimstone. But there’s power and mystery and… the message of Advent has now changed.

The old Church traditions of preaching and prayer in Advent followed the guidelines of focusing on Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment. Awkward and uncomfortable though these topics are in the build-up to Christmas, they also do not serve the seasonal bible readings very well.

Because the inspired scriptures and the story and teaching line that lead us through this season of Advent are much more nuanced and instructive than we may think.

We have now left behind the bumpy judgmental road. I hope that we have taken it to heart, difficult though it is. Now we enter something quite different. The Advent mood has changed. Now it’s ethereal. Enigmatic. Forward-looking, with a sense of celebration yet to come.

Although tradition allows, I am not wearing my rose-pink chasuble today, Advent 3, “Gaudete-Rejoice Sunday.” My vestment is looking too old, but the pink stole can be seen upon the altar. But the old, old custom of marking the change of Advent mood by a temporary change of church color makes so much sense. It reminds us that our journey continues. But now in a different way, and with a new idea.

We’ve spent two Advent Sunday’s being encouraged to look at ourselves. This John the Baptist is now telling us: Look away from me. Look away from your past. Look away even from yourselves. And see who is coming.

O come, O come, Emmanuel! Amen.