Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Yes, it's still Christmas!

Merry Christmas! Hey - I can say it until January 5, and I fully intend to. So there! For Christmas I, the Episcopal Church uses the old BCP lectionary rather than the RCL, so our readings for this coming Sunday are:

Well, dear ones, we have finally arrived. After that long stretch of Ordinary Time, after the "Repent!" from John the Baptist during Advent, after the pain of birth and the dirt and noise and stink of doing this in a stable, after having to be reminded over and over to be not afraid, we know that Jesus is here, among us. And we're given these twelve days to relax, to be comforted by our Emmanuel, to enjoy the presence of Christ.

Well, you know, except for all the pesky martyrs who have feast days this week - Stephen, deacon and first martyr; the Holy Innocents - the infants and toddlers living in Bethlehem whom Herod ordered slain; Thomas Becket. And when the secular world is celebrating the New Year, we are celebrating the Holy Name of Jesus, which is called this because Anglicans are too prim and proper to celebrate anybody's circumcision, not even that of the Messiah.

But for Sunday, we don't have to think about these things. The RCL gospel tells the story of the slaughter of the children by Herod, but the BCP readings are joyful, delightful, even sweet. Isaiah tells us that we are wrapped in God's love, like a bride in her beautiful garlands; that God is making us grow and bloom like a beautiful garden; that God holds us in God's hands like a beautiful crown. The psalm reminds us that God knows the name of every star in the universe, that God heals our broken hearts, that God strengthens us and protects us and blesses us, that God gives us rain and winds so that the grains and the green plants will grow and so that all the birds and animals can be nourished just as we are. The letter to Galatians gives us comfort in the knowledge that God has adopted us as God's children; that God hears us when we cry out "Abba! Daddy!" to God; and that as God's children, we will inherit God's kingdom. And the gospel reading from John is simply one of the most beautiful scripture passages in the entire bible.

We are enveloped this Sunday in light and beauty and comfort. So enjoy it!

Of course, there is homework. Our world is just broken enough that we have a hard time believing we can be accepted and wanted and loved as much as God loves us. We have a hard time even imagining how much God accepts and wants and loves us. When we see ourselves as God's children, we become aware of our failures to live up to our parents' expectations of us, and of our memories of their disappointment in us, either expressed directly or interpreted from words or actions or facial expressions. I know I can only imagine that God - who is so much more in every way than my earthly parents - must be so much more disappointed in me. Why shouldn't God leave me to make my own way? Why shouldn't God turn God's back on me? Why shouldn't God abandon me?

Well, because that's just not God's way. And the proof? Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us. And we are reassured that not only does God love us, not only will God never abandon us, but God treasures us. God holds us in God's hands like a crown of beauty, like a royal diadem. God gives us light in the darkness, healing when we are broken, water when we are parched.

So the homework is simple - though I will not ever claim it is easy. The homework is this. For just a moment, close your eyes and imagine what it means to be loved and treasured completely and utterly. Not for anything you've ever said or done. Not for your job or your children or your parents or your school or your church. Not for your clothes or your house or your car. Not for the Christmas lights on your porch. Not for the gifts you bought your loved ones or for the charitable donations you have made. Just for you, you beautiful child of God, you!

The advanced homework is a little less simple. It is to take this feeling - this overwhelming, complete, and perfect love - and to try to carry it with you for more than just that moment. Treasure it. Ponder it in your heart, like Mary. Become familiar with it, even intimate. Remember that you did not earn it, and that nothing - no thing that ever was or ever will be - can take it away from you. This is a gift. It is grace. It is God's love, not human love.

And then, rejoice. Sing Hallelujah. Because you, my friend, you are the royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Lectionary Post: Zealous Christmas!

The readings appointed for Christmas (Eve) in the the Episcopal Church are:

I am absolutely thrilled this year, because I get to read that passage from Isaiah at our "midnight mass," and it is one of my all time favorites, ever ever ever. Of course, I do tend to get earwormed by my favorite chorus from Handel's Messiah, but that's okay - it's CHRISTMAS! :-) I'm also excited, because this psalm has one of my favorite passages in the bible - then shall the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord. Good stuff, good stuff.

I noticed when I read through these lections that one word sang out for me, as happens most weeks when I sit down to write this reflection. This word, though, wasn't a happy fuzzy bunny word; it doesn't feel all warm and snuggly like we expect Christmas to feel. We have our visions of the whole family sitting together in our pew in church, peaceful and loving, all dressed beautifully and smiling at each other as we hold our candles and sing Silent Night. The baby! The rapt mother Mary! The cute little lambykins! It's all so sweet and warm and comforting.

You know, like undergoing childbirth. With no painkillers. With no nurse to whisk away soiled and bloodied sheets and pads. In a stable. With noisy, smelly animals. With no ice chips or mom to hold your hand. And then the place fills up with noisy, smelly shepherds who want to gawk at you, while you try to rest and catch your breath and feel some relief from the pain, but the baby is crying, and you have never nursed before, and you are only a girl, and why did you ever say yes to that angel anyway?

Yeah. Sweet and warm and comforting. Like that.

So anyway, the word that sang out for me from these readings today was zeal. It shows up at the very end of the reading from Isaiah - the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this - and at the end of the reading from Titus, too - [Jesus will] purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deads. And while the word zeal doesn't appear in the psalm or the gospel story, the concept certainly does.

The thing about zeal is, it's not a word that seems particularly attractive to us. We might want to be loyal, but not necessarily zealous. We see passion and excitement as good, but zeal might go just a little too far for comfort. Zeal is a little bit edgy, maybe even dangerous. The people we might describe with the word zeal are not usually people we admire or want to emulate. Think for a moment about someone who strikes you as zealous. I'll bet you find that person a bit frightening. I know that the people who come to my mind from that word frighten me somewhat; they certainly make me uncomfortable and a bit squirmy.

Well, guess what. God doesn't call us to be comfortable. God's job is not to point a magic wand into your life and say, Poof! Now you have every comfort! In fact, God has sent prophets throughout time to disrupt us from our comfort, to make us squirm, to shake us up. In America, we live in a land of great comfort. There are still women all over the world giving birth much as Mary did, two thousand years ago. And I - I don't know whether I would have made it through either childbirth without a nice epidural, in a big sterile hospital, where there were lots of people to help me be more comfortable.

So Christmas? It's not about comfort. The message - we finally have our savior after generations of waiting - this is an occasion for joy. But Jesus taught a lot of really hard stuff. And the comfort he gave? It wasn't for us, here in the land of abundance. It is for the poor, the lame, the blind, the sick. It is for the women who give birth like Mary did, in the year 2007. It is for the children in Africa who have lost their parents to AIDS. It is for those who count a day as a good one when they have had anything to eat that day.

The problem for me is, I don't see these people. I will confess to being mostly blind to the things that don't cross in front of my eyes - and even to a great number of the things that do cross in front of my eyes, if they don't bop me upside the head, too. What can I do for an orphaned child in Africa, or for a desperately poor man in India, or for a pregnant woman in Cambodia with no access to a hospital? It feels so hopeless to me - the problems are too big, too far away - and I feel helpless.

The last statement in the letter to Titus says that Jesus came to redeem us from iniquity. Iniquity. Not equal-ness. And not just being redeemed from that not-equal-ness, but from all not-equal-ness. Jesus came to bring comfort to the orphan, to the hungry, to the suffering. And he came to purify his people - that's us - so that our zeal for good deeds could bring this about. Jesus will establish his kingdom and bring peace to the nations, to shine light in the darkness, to throw down oppressors - through the zeal of the Lord.

These two statements mirror each other. From Isaiah, it is God's zeal that brings about this kingdom. And from Titus, it is the zeal that Jesus stirs up inside us that will bring about comfort and peace. It is no mistake that the Third Sunday of Advent is known as "stir up" Sunday, with its collect that begins Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. It is actually a little bit scary to pray this prayer, just as it can be frightening to come into contact with someone who possesses zeal. Because the truth is, when God stirs up God's power in us, things change. We change. Maybe we change the world around us as a result. When we are stirred up about something, when we are feeling God's great might, we may, in fact, be described as zealous.

We may do things like sing gloria in excelsis while out in the fields. We may do things like follow a star to a stable to look at a newly born, squalling infant with his exhausted and frightened parents. We may lose our happy snuggly bunny warmth and comfort. We may advocate for the poor, for the sick, for the imprisoned. We may make people uncomfortable. We may even make people upset or angry, in our zeal for good deeds.

So this Christmas, may God bless you and all those you love. May God bless even those you disagree with, those you dislike, those you are angry with, those you have trouble forgiving. May God bless those you do not know, those you do not see, those you do not hear. May God stir us up and bless us all with zeal, with squirms, with discomfort. And as the Franciscan Blessing says,

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really CAN make a difference in this world, so that we are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Apropos of nothing, really...

... but it has been noticed that there are several items around various people's desks in the office today that seem to have been anthropomorphized. They look a bit like these:

I understand that these faces may be from this product. But I wouldn't know anything more than that. Honest.

Today I am grateful for...

... one of my favourite puns ever, which my mom just forwarded to me again. Enjoy - and make sure you aren't trying to drink something while you read.

There is a factory in Kansas that makes the Tickle Me Elmo toys. The toy laughs when you tickle it under the arms. With demand higher for the holidays, the factory needs to bring on some new hires. Lena, a gorgeous, leggy blonde, is excited to be hired at the Tickle Me Elmo factory, and she reports for her first day promptly at 8:00 AM. The next day at 8:45 AM there is a knock at the Personnel Manager's door. The Foreman throws open the door and begins to rant about the new employee. He complains that she is incredibly slow and the whole line is backing up, putting the entire production line behind schedule. The Personnel Manager decides he should see this for himself, so the 2 men march down to the factory floor. When they get there the line is so backed up that there are Tickle Me Elmos all over the factory floor and they're really beginning to pile up. At the end of the line stands Lena is surrounded by mountains of Tickle Me Elmos. She has a roll of plush red fabric and a huge bag of small marbles. The men watch in amazement as she cuts a little piece of fabric, wraps it around two marbles and begins to carefully sew the little package between Elmo's legs. The Personnel Manager bursts into laughter. After several minutes of hysterics he pulls himself together and approaches Lena. "I'm sorry," he says to her, barely able to keep a straight face, "but I think you misunderstood the instructions I gave you yesterday..... Your job is to give Elmo two test tickles."


Monday, December 17, 2007

Advent 4 - the *almost Christmas* lectionary post

The readings for this coming Sunday in the Episcopal Church are:

These are some... interesting.... readings this week. The Isaiah reading is chock-full of names and references that were very meaningful to the people living in this place at this time, but that probably sail right over our heads today. I'm not a biblical scholar, by any stretch of the imagination, and while I'd love to be able to have the time to do that some day, that's not where I am right now. So I'll sail past most of this, and focus on the one passage that really sang for me: Hear then, O house of David! We hear this in the psalm, too: Hear, O Shepherd of Israel! The reading from the letter to the Romans is the greeting, the opening, and though these words are not used, it says the same thing: Hear me! Hear God! And in the gospel lesson, we have an angel speaking to Joseph in a dream. Pay attention to me - listen to me here, Joe.

So this week, we have been given an invitation in these readings. Hear. Listen. Pay attention. God is at work in the world. And you can be part of it! The challenge is... we don't know where God is going to be. (Okay, smart aleck answer: absolutely everywhere.)

The thing about Christmas is that, well, it is utterly preposterous. God is taking us completely by surprise here. Tell me the truth: if you were an omnipotent being, with full and complete knowledge and wisdom and understanding, and the ability to do whatever you wanted, would you choose to become a human being? Would you choose to be born into this world as a completely helpless infant, unable to do anything for yourself, relying one hundred percent on the love of these flawed and broken and unlovely humans? Would you choose to be born in poverty? In a stable? In a time without nice, sterile hospitals and good drugs and all the benefits of modern medicine? Would you choose to subject yourself to pain, to anger, to frustration? To indigestion and toothaches and hangnails and stubbed toes and fleas and lice and gas? (Um, yes. It is a certainty that Jesus farted. Just as Jesus peed and pooped and did every other thing that humans do. This is what it means to be human, even if you are God.) Who would expect this?

Well, we do - those of us who choose to be Christians. And it came - comes! - as a surprise. This is why we need the invitation, the reminder to Hear!, to Listen up!, to Pay attention! Because we don't know what Jesus will look like when he is here, and it's a no-brainer that Jesus will show up in the most completely unexpected form - quite possibly the most offensive form to me or to you that he could possibly take. Yes, Jesus could well be Archbishop Akinola, or Bishop Robinson, or Osama bin Laden, or Timothy McVeigh, or Britney Spears, or Bill Gates, or Michael Vick, or Jane Fonda, or your ex-wife, or Vice President Cheney, or even that crazy lady who walks around with a shopping cart full of tattered clothes and empty soda cans, talking to herself and shouting at passersby. Jesus could be the African child whose parents have died from AIDS. Or Jesus could be Pat Robertson. This is why we have to Listen!, to Hear!

At Christmas, we celebrate Jesus being born into this world. Literally born - from the womb of a young woman who was probably terrified. And at this time, we have an opportunity to give birth to Jesus ourselves, spiritually, symbolically - because it's a no-brainer that you or I are the most completely unexpected form that Jesus could take for somebody.

So as you Hear! for Jesus in the world around you, I think we are also invited to Listen! for Jesus within ourselves, too. What is the part of me that is a frightened young woman who is struggling to give birth to a savior? What is the part of you that is fertile, great with child? Can we, as the readings from Isaiah invited us earlier this Advent, make the ways straight for this birth to take place? Can we level the mountains to make room for Jesus, who will bring water to our dry places? And what will this Jesus be like, the Jesus who wants to be born from me, from you?

I think the key to all of this is that when we Hear!, when we listen up and pay attention, we find that Jesus is Emmanuel. God with us.

God is with us.
God wants to be with us.
God chooses to be with us.

The psalmist asks God to show us the light of God's countenance, so that we can be saved. And God has. Jesus is the light of God's countenance. Jesus lived, here on this earth with us. And Jesus lives here still: God with us. Emmanuel.

So my prayer for you this week, is that you will Hear! Listen up! Pay attention! God is at work in the world, and you can be part of it. And I pray that when you listen, you will hear, and you will know that God is good, that you are loved, and that Jesus is indeed Emmanuel.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A touch of intentional gratitude

Well, since I've been complaining so much lately -- :-P to Cafemusique there -- and really not practicing my gratitude very much, I have noticed the lack. Yesterday's Friday Five was good, but I need to express some gratitude, unprompted.

So the first thing I am thankful for this morning is my home. I'm fortunate to live in a really great apartment complex, which surrounds a 14 (or so) acre lake. This lake and the surrounding landscape is home to dozens of ducks, some herons and egrets, probably hundreds of squirrels, a couple dozen geese, and all kinds of songbirds. I love being able to walk around the lake and see all the critters. And on my patio, I have two bird feeders, a hanging suet cake, a squirrel-treat suet cake, a little bowl for peanuts, and food and water dishes for the peripatetic boy-kitty we've been calling Cyrano because Midnight doesn't want anything to do with him.

I am also thankful that Midnight has recovered completely from her bout of acute pancreatitis. She is feeling so much better now, and is even a teeny bit playful. If you knew the fat-lazy-monster-cat that is Midnight, you'd know that "teeny bit playful" is just about as good as it gets. This is the kitty that used to be so lazy, she would recline on her side to eat - like a Roman at an orgy - and reach out her paw to scoop out one or two kibbles at a time. The hair is growing back on her kitteh belleh, from where they had to shave it for her ultrasound. (Hee hee - she looked soooo undignified with no belleh fur!)

With Midnight's recovery, my daughter and I adopted a rescue kitty from the Virginia Beach SPCA. May I have the pleasure of introducing you to Majesty. Majesty is a twelve-year-old light-grey-and-tan tortie. She is a sweet little thing, and now that she feels at home here, she has definitely claimed me as her hooman. Midnight was NOT happy with this intruder at first, but they seem to be reaching an understanding, and Midnight is grudgingly becoming more playful and frisky. (It helps when I spritz her toys with catnip spray.) This is good, because she needs to drop, oh, about half her body weight. Majesty is a slim thing - just perfect, actually - and like the kitty I grew up with, she's probably going to look like a kitten until she dies of old age. It was so neat at the SPCA, when we thanked the lady who helped us with Majesty's Soft Paws. She said, "No, thank you. It's not every day - well, it's not any day - that you see a twelve-year-old animal go home with someone." Everybody there was thrilled to see Majesty go home with us. And we're thrilled to have her in our home.

Finally, I had my cervical joint injections yesterday afternoon. I think I'm thankful for these, but I'm not completely sure just yet. :-) I'm still smarting a bit from having twelve injections in the back of my neck, plus three or four just to (supposedly) numb things up a bit back there. But when I woke up this morning, I almost felt... good? It was a real surprise. The back of my neck is still a little bit stiff, but it's nothing like the all-over tightness in the muscles back there, and certainly nothing like the muscle spasms. Activity has already made my knee a little sore, but it was so wonderful to wake up feeling this way, for the first time since... well, since I can remember. Yay!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Gaude! Rejoice!

From RevGalBlogPals this Friday comes a wonderful Friday Five:

Rejoice in the nearness of Christ's coming, yes, but also in the many gifts of the pregnant waiting time when the world (in the northern hemisphere, at least) spins ever deeper into sweet, fertile darkness.

What makes you rejoice about:

1. Waiting?
2. Darkness?
3. Winter?
4. Advent?
5. Jesus' coming?
Okay. I like this one, so let's play! :-)

What makes me rejoice about...

1) ... waiting?
There is a deliciousness to waiting for something you're looking forward to. The anticipation is exciting, energizing. It gives us the energy and the eagerness to do things we might not ordinarily do -- and I'm not talking about staying up all night to clean house, either. I am learning that while I'm not very good at the virtue of patience, I can live into the waiting, into the anticipation, and find gifts and graces there that I did not expect.

2) ... darkness?
Although I do find it wearying to drive to work while the sun is barely above the eastern horizon, and to get back home again as it kisses the western horizon, I do enjoy the winter darkness. I like having more time to actually see the stars, especially since Orion is one of the few constellations I can actually recognize. And to me, there are few things more beautiful than a bright crescent moon in the crystal clear winter night sky. The crescent moon always gives me delicious shivers anyway, but in a clear dark winter sky? Mmmmmmmm!

I also like candles and twinkly Christmas lights... and I adore the times when I turn off all the lights but my Christmas tree and my Advent wreath, and just soak in those tiny lights in the darkness.

3) ... winter?
Hee hee. My new beau continues to debate with me on whether Virginia Beach truly experiences winter. He asks, so when does winter actually start down there? And I say, December 21st, same as everywhere else! There is a stark beauty to a bare tree against a winter sky - either that crystal clear winter blue, or the dove grey of a winter storm sky. I love the patterns that ice makes, and rejoice in icicles (because I see them maybe once or twice a year). I love to watch it snow, especially if I can curl up inside in a blanket and watch it. And speaking of snow, I think the only snow we got last "winter" that stuck at all happened on Holy Saturday - that's right, in April. It was bizarre and beautiful, to see my car with both snow and windblown cherry blossom petals on it.

4) ... Advent?
Well, kind of like my answer to #1, I like this intentional time of living into the anticipation, of being pregnant with the saviour, of making the journey to Bethlehem, of waiting for God to rescue me and all my people. It is a real gift and treasure to me to go to church during Advent for an antidote to the frenetic pace of the gift-buying season, or to light my candles and sit in silence. Besides, my favourite colours are purple and pink - so it just doesn't get better than Advent!

5) ... the coming of Jesus?
What's not to rejoice at? I love God being born as an infant - of placing Godself in a form that invites humans to care for God. I love to imagine Jesus as a child. There are enough signs of smart-aleckiness and bratliness in Jesus in the gospels that I have a feeling he was quite a handful as a child. Anne Lamott hypothesizes that the mothers in Jesus' time each carried a rock in their pockets at all times, so that if their children acted up, they could hold up the rock and say, Oh, go ahead, keep it up. Remember what happened to Benjamin's son last year when he was lippy to his mother? This image makes me giggle, particularly when my two indulge in smart-aleckiness and bratliness.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Apropos of nothing, really

Last week, my daughter and I went to hear the Vienna Boys' Choir at the new Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach. And while there, we noticed this dedication of the Grand Staircase in memory of Tom Riddle:

So yes, this is the Lord Voldemort Memorial Grand Staircase. Hee hee!

Late Lectionary Post

I realize I am late getting my lectionary reflection written for this week. I was gently nudged by one or two clergy friends, who said they didn't know what to write in their sermons because they hadn't had a lectionary post from Hedwyg yet. (Um, yeah, right. :-) But it's sweet and flattering, so thank you!) And it's kind of funny, because I started writing these lectionary posts to see if I would have the discipline to engage with the readings each week and come up with something meaningful out of them. I don't know how well I've succeeded with this, but I'm definitely working with the readings most weeks, and I think that's a good thing. I certainly don't flatter myself that I'm coming up with the same caliber of insight as someone with a seminary education would, but then I come at the readings from quite a different perspective.

This Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent, so we get to light the PINK (okay, rose) candle in the Advent wreath. Yay for pink! :-) I understand that since this is the Sunday we celebrate Mary's role in bringing Jesus into the world, we have a pink candle because we know deep down, Mary really wanted a girl. (Hee hee!) Okay, so the readings for Gaudete Sunday in the Episcopal Church are:

These readings have a thread running through them of opposites - blind to seeing; deaf to hearing; lame to leaping; mute to singing; imprisoned to free; mighty to lowly, and lowly to mighty; hungry to filled; rich to empty; greatest to least, and least to greatest; deserts to streams and swamps; weak to strong; feeble to firm. It is a wonderful message, a message of great hope, and the reading from James reinforces this message with a reminder to be strong and patient, to know you are loved. We are reminded that while there may be suffering in this world, at the end, we are brought into the kingdom of God, the God who brings all these opposites to pass.

And look closely at those. The mute don't go to speaking; they begin to sing. And the lame aren't changed into merely ambulatory; no, they leap. And it is God who does this - the God who took the nothingness before time and created the universe, who came into this world as a helpless human infant to show us we are completely loved and treasured and saved, who breathes life into us as the Holy Spirit.

A few years ago, at the annual council of this diocese, the agenda included several sessions of bible study with our keynote speaker. Unfortunately, because our deliberations ran long, we only had the opportunity to engage in the first session of study, which was on this very passage from Isaiah. It is such a wonderfully rich passage for us, full of beauty and hope and grace. And I will invite you more deeply into this passage, as we all were at council that year. The invitation went something like this.

Within each of us are places that are very fertile, lush and growing and very productive. There are places that are somewhat fertile, where maybe the growth is under the soil where we can't really see it, but something is going on in there, and we will see the fruits of this. And there are desert places, where the hot wind blows over the dry sands, where we do not see the water of life, where we don't think anything will ever grow - perhaps even that nothing can ever grow.

So what are these places for you? What are your desert places? What are the places where you aren't sure that there can ever be life and growth and wonder? Once you have found just one, then close your eyes, because we're going to go on a ride, and it's going to feel a little bit silly. So bear with me for a moment here.

What would it look like if that desert place - that place within your mind or heart or spirit or body where you doubt that life and growth can happen - suddenly had streams of water? What would it look like if there were an oasis in that desert place, with green, growing things that bear fruit and support life? What would that be like? What would it feel like, taste like, smell like? How would your life change?

Now, here's the crazy part.

God has the power to do this.

I know, it's crazy. I mean, we all know that God is all powerful, knows everything, sees everything, can do whatever God wants. But we think, oh, God just doesn't work that way. God doesn't reach down with a magic wand and *Poof!* make everything better. I have to engage in that inner work, and bring life to those dry places. Yes, I can pray, and God will guide me, but I have to do the hard work.

Okay, so now for the really crazy part.

God has the power to do this.

When we say that, we're putting God into a box. We're limiting God. We're keeping God from bringing about these changes - from bringing streams of water into our desert places, from bringing light to our blind eyes and music to our deaf ears and songs to our mute lips.

Why would we do this?

Is it possible we like our desert places? Perhaps we've come to rely on them, to use them as crutches (I've never been good at math). Perhaps we're just used to them (Oh, you know me; I just can't parallel-park!). They're an inconvenience, but they're a known inconvenience, a comfortable inconvenience (I don't like that new hearing aid; I can hear better, but it feels funny in my ear. I'm going to use my old one). And if our desert places suddenly turned into green, growing, lush, fruitful oases... we'd have to change. We'd have to use those places, and what if we failed? What if we just aren't good at those things? What if they were only green and fruitful for a short time, and then turned back to desert again? How would we cope with losing that wonder and delight, after drinking from it?

Yeah, we're afraid. We're afraid, so we put shackles on God. And God loves us, so God lets us. Yes, this is the God who brought the universe into being from nothingness, who rained frogs on Egypt and parted the Red Sea, who put Godself into the womb of a young girl in Galilee. This is the God who gave us galaxies and comets, who gave us the Appalachians and Alps and Himalayas, who gave us the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights, who gives us the beauty of a snowflake or a cherry blossom or even a humble dandelion. And yet, we tell ourselves that this God can't bring streams of water into our desert places.

And that's the really crazy part.

So my prayer for you this week is that you find some craziness and indulge in it. That in the midst of all the busyness and hectic preparations for Christmas - their own kind of craziness - you take a look inside and find one of those desert places. We all have them, though we often hide them from ourselves. So as Isaiah says to all of us who have fearful hearts, Be strong! Do not fear! Here is your God! He will come and save you! Because God will, if we are willing for God to help us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bitch, moan, whine, gripe, complain

Okay, so you can help me settle a debate. My boyfriend (anyone else over the age of thirty hate that word?) disagrees with me on this: I think I complain too much. He says I probably don't share enough of what I'm going through. Clearly, I'm right and he's wrong, and I'm now going to spend the rest of this post proving it to the world. :-)

So. Basically, my body is falling apart. At least, that's what it feels like from the inside. Every joint in my body is hypermobile - including shoulders, wrists, knuckles, thumbs, knees, ankles, hips... even the itsy-bitsy joints between the vertebrae in my neck. This means that the joints can move farther in one direction and/or another, and that I don't know that they've moved too far until there is some kind of symptom. Usually that symptom is pain, and it doesn't always appear within the joint that is out of place; it could be upstream or downstream. It could also end up as a dislocation, a strain, a sprain, a muscle spasm, or even a fracture.

Technically, I'm still in recovery from the rotator cuff surgery that was performed on my right shoulder in July. While we'd hoped this would eliminate the pain I'd been experiencing since about this time last year, the real purpose was to get that repair done so that it wouldn't make things worse inside my poor shoulder. And since that surgery, things got better up through October, and then took a nose dive in November.

While I describe this to you, let me begin by saying that I'm taking the narcotic painkiller Darvocet and the muscle relaxant Skelaxin every day, as prescribed by the physiatrist. I also have a prescription for trazodone, to help with sleep. And through those meds, my shoulders usually aren't too painful, unless I've really overdone something. My neck and upper back have spasms, so they can go from being just moderately tight to excruciating... through those meds. My thumb joints go from moderate to so painful that I cannot hold a book... through those meds. I'm a voracious reader and an Episcopalian. In church, I can't process with the other choristers because I can't hold a hymnbook that long. Even with the maybe-two-ounce sheet music for our anthems, by the time I turn the first page, I can't hold the music between fingers and thumbs any more. And biggest of all for me right now is my left knee, which is never ever pain free. If I hold it at a 90-degree angle to sit in a chair, it is horrible within five minutes. If I hold it at a 180-degree angle to stand up or to lie down, it is horrible within five minutes. Walking is okay... for about a minute, and then I'm limping. The only way my knee is moderately comfortable is when I'm sitting with my legs out in front of me, with my knees on a pillow roll, preferably one with an ice pack. By the time I finish a church service or a choir rehearsal, or even a quick trip to the grocery store, I'm moving like an 80-year old.

And yes, all of that is with me taking those meds faithfully, every day.

Sleep has been awful, even with the trazodone. About five nights a week, sometimes six, I can take it early enough that I'm not too hung over in the morning to get up. The other night or two, I have to do without. When I take the trazodone, I get sleepy within a couple hours, and then I sleep for four or six hours before the interruptions begin, and then I am in and out of sleep for the rest of the night. When I miss the trazodone, I may not be sleepy until really late. Then I get two or three hours of sleep before I begin the waking cycle. In bed, I have to keep pillow rolls, so that I can keep them under my knees when I'm on my back, or under my ankles when I'm on my stomach. And still, that only gets my knee to moderately comfortable.

The orthopedists are completely baffled as to what to do with me. All my x-rays are normal, and the locations and patterns of my pain don't fit what they expect to see with the injuries and conditions they're used to working with. The physiatrist is helping me get ergonomic changes made at work, and thinks that between that and dropping some weight, plus my thrice-weekly physical therapy, she'll be able to get me to the place where I can start regular exercise to strengthen all my muscles so that they can do the work the ligaments in my joints can't.

At the moment, I'm afraid, and I don't know what to hope for. I know that I'm in the hands of the best specialists around. I've given up hoping for a day with no pain. I can't even imagine what that feels like any more, and this strikes me as incredibly sad. One of the possibilities that has been suggested to me is prolotherapy, which does not sound like a whole lot of fun, particularly because insurance doesn't cover it. But the way I'm living right now isn't a whole lot of fun, either.

Friday morning, I go to physical therapy, with a scrip that allows my therapist to begin working on my knee. (Fun!) Friday afternoon, I go to the pain management practice to have a series of injections in the cervical facet joints - that's right, about a half-dozen injections into the back of my neck. (More fun!) To put the icing on the cake, I can't take my pain meds for 24 hours before those injections, because my neck has to be good and hurty so that we know if the injections are working.

Like I said, I don't know what to hope for. At this point, the thing I'd like most of all is a handicapped placard for my car. That strikes me as incredibly sad, too. A long time ago, I asked God, why me? Unfortunately, just as it was for Job, the answer was, why not you? And I know I have it pretty good. I have a good job, a home, a car, wonderful children, a loving partner, a supportive church family. I have kitties to cuddle with me and make me laugh. I have music to lift my heart. So why the heck am I complaining so darned much?

Beats me.

Now, I need to figure out what's for supper, so that I can eat and then take my pain pills. If you could spare a prayer, I could use one. I never know what to pray for any more, so I usually do what the Friends call holding you in the Light. I like that prayer, because you don't have to be a Christian, or really a believer in any path, to pray it. And really, I think it sets God free to be God, and doesn't assert what I think God should be and do. So if you have a moment, would you please hold me in the Light, too?

Thank you, my friend. Peace be with you, and may you know you are blessed, cherished, and loved by the God who created you in God's own image.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Lectionary post for Advent II

I hope your new year is starting well. We had a great Advent I yesterday, with eucharist in the morning and Advent lessons and carols in the evening. It was a wonderful start to this season of watching and waiting and preparing. So our readings for this coming Sunday are...

I have a bit of a habit when I work on these posts, and that is to try to find a unifying concept - one single word - that the lessons taken together embody for me. In Ordinary Time, based on the BCP lectionary, that wasn't too hard, as the readings were chosen as a group to embody a theme. But in Advent and Christmas, as in Lent and Easter, the readings are chosen to tell the story of the liturgical season, so it may take a little more work to find that one-word concept. Today, however, it jumped out at me. The word that these lessons whisper into my heart is family.

Family is so central for us this time of the year. We think about our family gathered around the Christmas tree to give and receive gifts. We have our family parties and meals and celebrations -- with the accompanying disagreements and dysfunctions that make each family unique. We make a special effort to gather together family members who live far away. The thing about family -- the reason the holidays seem to bring out these arguments and dysfunctions -- is that family is where we feel safe. Family is where we can behave badly, in ways we would never dream of behaving at work or in public, because family will always love us and take care of us. (This is actually why we sometimes (often?) behave badly in a church environment, also. Church is supposed to be a place where it is safe to be broken, safe to be flawed and unlovely and even sometimes unloving. Everybody in church is (at least nominally) a Christian, so they all have to forgive us and love us when we behave badly, right?)

The reading from Isaiah talks about the root of Jesse, and what will happen when the branch from the root of Jesse comes into the world. Jesse was David's father - David, the second king of Israel, back in the glory days when everything was milk and honey and strength and prosperity for God's chosen people. After being weakened and conquered and taken captive and re-conquered and subjugated to foreign governments, these chosen people were really anxious to return to those glory days. And who can blame them?

The gospel from Matthew brings up another great father from the history of the Israelites: Abraham. Abraham was an old man - and his wife an old woman - when God promised him a son, promised that his descendants would outnumber the stars in the night sky. Abraham was the first of the patriarchs, and his grandson Jacob is the one whose name was changed to Israel - the name of a nation. Abraham is seen as sort of a father to all of the Jewish people - and hence to Christians, too - as well as to the people of Islam. So we have the father of the loving and benevolent and glorious king of Israel, and we have the father of all of the Jewish people.

And then what happens in the epistle? We are reminded that this family, it doesn't include only the Jewish people, only the children of Abraham. No, God's family includes the Gentiles, too - that means that every last person on this planet is one of God's children. Isaiah told his people that God was sending someone special to help them. John the Baptist told his followers that God was sending someone for all the children of Abraham. And in Romans, Paul (?) reminds us that everyone is a child of God, that Jesus was the someone special who came not only for God's chosen people, but for the entire world.

So in Jesus, our family has widened. Our family is not just our mother and father and brother and sister. Our family is not just our tribe. Our family is not just our nation, our denomination, our faith. Our family is every last soul on this earth, here now, already departed, or yet to be born. And this is our family because God ordains it, because Jesus came for all of us. Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman. He did not refuse help to those who came to him in need. He did not check family trees to find a common ancestor before healing anyone.

And I think that this idea gives us another reminder, in this season of watchfulness and preparation, that hearkens back to last week's readings. We don't know when Jesus will come. We don't know what he will look like. But it is our job to recognize him when he comes. And we can do this better if we are already looking at everyone around us like family, if we are already looking for Jesus within everyone we encounter. The light of Jesus will shine out to us from every person, from every child of God. Sometimes it is harder to see, when someone is trying to hide it or when we are trying to hide from it, but Jesus is always there. Jesus looks out at you from the eyes of your children, from the eyes of your parents, from the eyes of your co-workers and fellow parishioners, from the eyes of the lady behind the counter at Burger King, from the eyes of the crazy guy who stands by the bus station and hurls curses and insults at the passersby, from the eyes of the baby born prematurely and struggling to breathe, from the eyes of the patient in the nursing home. From my eyes. And from yours.

So look at your family all around you. Look at Jesus within them. And as the prayer in the epistle this week says, may the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.