Tuesday, December 31, 2013

No more "only human"! (And other things I wish would happen in 2014)

I don't normally fool with New Year's Eve blahblahblah.  Something has been on my mind, forwarded by a few conversations and perhaps by just viewing 12 Years a Slave at last.  But here's my quibble, my phrase I would banish first of all from the lexicon if I were somehow to ascend to the office of Language Despot.

"Only human."

As in, some variation of "he shouldn't have done that, but what are you going to say? He's only human," or "she shouldn't have said that, that has really messed things up, but you know, she's only human," or "I can't help it, what do you expect from me?  I'm only human."

Stop it.  Now.

Genesis 1:27 first of all: humankind is made in the image of God, male and female both.  Who else gets to claim that one?  (Our cats might think they are gods, but nothing in Genesis supports this claim.)  This isn't exactly the kind of thing that makes the phrase "only human" make any sense at all.

The psalmist gets it, a little bit (139:14): "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."  No matter how much we degrade it, being human is a pretty amazing thing.

If nothing else, the Christmas season (and we're still in it, remember) should remind us Christians of one amazing thing about humanity; Jesus was human.  Everybody remember the phrase that has shredded the brains of theologians for centuries?  "Fully God and fully human"?  That the one God and Lord of us all should have deigned to squeeze all of that God-ness into human form should be forever and always an impediment against demeaning our own humanness or using it as a cop-out for our own stupidities or evils.  To look at Jesus is not only the closest we're ever going to come to seeing what God is like on this earth, it is the best expression of what it means to be human as well.

If you have to find some way to excuse the evil words or deeds of another, find another way to say it. Maybe "he shouldn't have done it, but what are you going to say?  He's as fallen as anybody."  Or "Wow, she shouldn't have said that, but hey, we're all sinners here."  Not only does it not demean our "fearfully and wonderfully made" humanity, but perhaps it forces us to look to our own fallenness or sinfulness at the same time?

Theo-linguistic rant over.  For now.

Other things I wish would happen in 2014:

I wish I wouldn't have to write any more blog posts about my health, even if those are the ones that get read the most.

I wish that by this time next year, I'm writing this blog from a new location, if I have time to write it at all what with settling into a new calling and all that.

I wish that the Yankees would miss the playoffs for a second season in a row and that the Pirates and Royals would play in the World Series.  (I didn't say all these wishes were realistic.)

I wish another phrase would be laid to rest for good: "the Olympic movement."  It's not a movement, for pete's sake, it's a corporate empire.

I wish that popular music would be less about desperate cries for attention and more about ... well, virtually anything else.

I wish that the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute would be settled in a way that allows everybody to make a living and to get back to being a good orchestra.

I also wish, speaking of classical music, that the clapping-between-movements thing would be settled once and for all, so I can know if it's even worth bothering to go to concerts anymore.

I wish I would recover my ability to read novels.  Historical stuff, biographies, non-fiction in general; I can get engrossed just fine.  Fiction has failed to do that for me for a while now and that pains me.

I wish that the duck guy with the beard would be strapped into a chair and forced to watch 12 Years a Slave on endless loop until either he gets it or his brain explodes, his choice.

I wish that people would really get just how much World War I has shaped the world, as the centennial of its beginning approaches.

And I wish that your 2014, and mine, would be not merely happy, but joyful.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fugitive child

This year's lectionary sequence for those on the Revised Common Lectionary is the kind of text that prompts pastors to take a vacation Sunday.  After all the cuteness of the Christmas Eve pageant, or the resplendent beauty of the lessons & carols service, or whatever your church did on that occasion, for this Sunday you get a text on mass murder.

A king with a paranoid and violent past, which tendencies were only reinforced by advancing years and declining health, needed little prompting to react with an act of violence.  Not only had those visiting scholar/astrologers put about this business about a newly-born king (and Herod knew he had no brand-new descendants in cribs anywhere about), they had also failed to play along with Herod's scheme to eliminate this new threat.  They were supposed to report to him, those scoundrels.  They were supposed to tell him where this upstart infant was.  Somehow, they got away without reporting back to Herod.

Those damned prophecies went on and on about someone coming, someone who would be bad news for people in power. Herod believed in knowing his potential enemies, and kept scholars around who could interpret these hoary old prophetic texts of this crazy tribe of people in this backwater of the Roman Empire.  When those Eastern visitors showed up spouting this business about a child born "king of the Jews" and a star somehow connected to it, Herod wasted no time putting his own research staff to work on the problem.  They'd tell him what he need to know.  They knew how their bread was buttered, and most likely they knew where their graves were dug.

In the meantime Herod brooded.  Matthew quaintly tells us that "all of Jerusalem" also brooded with him.  It would be a mistake to take this as some kind of sign of sympathy.  When a king with Herod's track record of eliminating enemies or potential enemies or imagined enemies got upset, you were upset, because you never knew if you might be one of those enemies or potential enemies or imagined enemies.

Herod's research department finally came through with a location, a backwater in the backwater named Bethlehem.  Herod sent the visitors on their way, with a polite but firm reminder that they should stop by on their way home and tell him all about this newborn king, and then went back to nursing his ailments and his grudges.

They had stiffed him.

Too much time had passed with no sign of the visitors.  Who knew what was up with that infant usurper now?  He put his research department to work again: how old might that child king of the Jews be at this point?  Armed with their answers, he engaged in about as gruesome and vile an act as the Bible records (and it records plenty of gruesome and vile acts).

A boy?  Born in Bethlehem? Up to age two?  Kill it.

Kill them all.

The dream angels got to work again.  Having warned Joseph not to put away his pregnant wife, and redirected those visitors away from Jerusalem, they had more dream work to do.  Joseph needed to get his newly-enhanced family in gear and get them out of Bethlehem.  Death was coming, and it was not this child's time to suffer it.

But really, was it time for any child in Bethelehem to suffer the kind of death Herod had in mind?  Was it time for countless Rachels to be set to weeping for their no-more children?  But it is not our place to wonder at Herod's evil.  Political agendas continue to kill children, even in our enlightened day, do they not?

But for Joseph and family, the angel warning must have seemed ominous itself.  Flee to ... Egypt?  Egypt, of all places?  Joseph, whom Matthew takes great pains to place in a line of descent all the way back to Abraham, through Judah the son of Jacob, would know all about his people's history with Egypt, the ancient famine refuge-turned-enslavement empire of the Hebrew people.  A place like that was where someone like Joseph would have no connection, no relations, no home whatsoever.  Of course you were going -- the king wanted to kill your son (never mind all that crazy business with Holy Spirit pregnancies and the gaggle of shepherds who showed up when your son was born; this is my son and the king does not get to kill him, not if I and these strange dream angels have anything to do with it) -- but how were you going to survive in Egypt?  And for how long?  And how would we know when, or even if, it was safe to come back?  But still, you went, so Joseph and Mary and the infant-toddler aged Jesus took flight into Egypt.

Caravaggio, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c.1597

So, for a few years of his childhood, the one Christians call the Messiah, Son of Man, King of Kings, all those grand and glorious titles, was essentially a fugitive from justice -- or at least one sick, paranoid king's idea of justice.

Adam Elsheimer, The Flight Into Egypt, 1609

And again, we dare not judge.  The refugee is not a rare enough figure in our time for us to judge.  And it doesn't take a sick old king to set families to flight.  The number of refugees in flight from Syria is in millions and escalating constantly.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Flight Into Egypt, ca.1916-22

The artist above, Henry O. Tanner, apparently found the theme of the Holy Family's flight resonant with his own life; he created about fifteen different works on that theme.  Was it the racism he experienced in his native US, racism which eventually drove him to relocate to Paris, that caused the image to force its way into his mind again and again?

Eventually the family got one more dream angel alert, telling them it was okay to return from Egypt, and then one more, suggesting Galilee as a nice alternative to Judea.  Thus, according to Matthew's account, the child came to grow up in Nazareth.  Nazareth was apparently the kind of place people made fun of, if Nathanael's pithy putdown in John 1 ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?") is to be believed.  Still, it was outside the reach of the late Herod or any of the late Herod's descendants, which was good enough.  The fugitive Messiah had a home, at last.

That child would grow up, and again take to wandering.  Approximately the last three or so years of his life were spent as an itinerant rabbi, preaching with particular vehemence a good news about enough for the poor, the release of captives, sight for the blind and hearing for the deaf, about justice for everyone instead of law for those who could afford it.  How much the fugitive childhood remained in the mind of the itinerant preacher, we cannot know.

Of course, this story was preached today, if it was at all, to congregations most likely far emptier than normal, and certainly less full than this past Tuesday night.  Again congregation size becomes a pretty good metaphor; very few would be, or could be there for the family in flight.

Unlike last week's rant, this week's events don't quite set me off the same way.  Yeah, my life has known disruption, but I can't say I've ever even remotely felt like a refugee, or an exile, or a fugitive. Perhaps having this "text of terror" dropped in our laps so soon after our cute little Christmases is exactly about disrupting the rather complacent and prettified way we do Christmas.  In truth, I'm not sure we can do justice to the story; how do we possibly capture the horror of such a slaughter as Herod enacted in his paranoia and fear?  Or how do we possibly capture the panic of the family's emergency evacuation to a strange and fearful place to escape something even stranger and more fearful?  And what place does it hold in our Christmas?  What does such a story do to our manger scenes and children's sermons?

Can we, in our hearts, ride with the fugitive child?  Can we see that refugee child in the countless millions of refugees all across our world?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Upon a midnight clear

It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, good will to all, from heaven's all-gracious king":
the world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

A song.  Not some windy and accusatory finger-pointing sermon, though such would have certainly been justifiably preached at a world that already was well-versed in humans hating and enslaving and degrading one another.  Not a treacly, gloppy effusion of hyper-sentimental mock poetry, or painfully earnest talk of "feelings" or some other embarrassing display of sanctimonious goo.  No, this news, this radical, world-upsetting news, this divine intervention to end all interventions, this ultimate offense against our human sense of superiority and self-sufficiency, had to be delivered in a song.

Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heavenly music floats o'er all the weary world:
above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o'er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.

The song is not stopped; the worst we can throw at it cannot, will not silence it.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; 
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and we at war on earth hear not the tidings that they bring;
O, hush the noise and cease the strife to hear the angels sing.

We humans excel at war.  We excel at the multi-national kind, with armies massing against one another with spears or swords or cannon or rifles or bombers or drones; we excel at the more personal kind, with weapons made of words, or with fists or clubs or ropes for hanging or sainted beatified handguns.

We are failures at peace.  We fall even short of the low bar of goodwill.  In our heart of hearts we have to admit that much of the time we really don't want to be good at those things; war is more fun, until it isn't anymore, and then hating others for getting us into the war we were screaming for in the first place is more satisfying than admitting that our screams for war were wrong and hateful and sinful to begin with.

And yet, amidst the noise of our noisiness, the song will not be silenced.

And you, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low, 
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing:
O, rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

You whose forms are bending low, bowed under the weight of poverty, of homelessness, of enduring the spittle-flecked hatred of people who claim a fictional, weaponized, whitewashed Jesus as a club to batter you for your poverty or homelessness or merely being what God created you to be; the song is for you.  It may not come swiftly, it may come so slowly as to leave us despairing that it will ever come at all, but the hour is coming, and the song of peace will yet become the reign of peace, and not merely of peace, but of shalom -- real, pervasive, more-than-peace peace, when all is fulfilled, all is in its right place in God's good created world, all is in right relation to God and to one another.  The song continues; the day will come.

For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold,
when with the ever-circling years comes 'round the age of gold,
when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, 
and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.

It will come; the song of peace will be the song of all of us, even if some can only sing it with throats poisoned with bile.  The song of peace, the song of a child who becomes a dividing, upsetting, empire-rattling Man of Peace and Man of Sorrows, who suffered and continues to suffer the flaying and crucifying of those who fawn over manger scenes and those who scorn them; that song will continue, even if no one sings it, until all will sing it, and peace will be more than a dream.

Rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Disruptive child

Hey, I got published this week!

No, I don't mean this little measly blog that maybe twenty people ever read.

This past Wednesday an article (by me, yes) on creation and the new Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal was online-published in the PC(USA) journal Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.  (I was also involved in a piece that appeared the next day in the same journal, but my role there was more provocateur than author.  True confession: the Facebook status that triggered the conversation was not posted after the service that morning.  I blame Adam Copeland.)

It was an enjoyable piece to write, giving me lots of excuse to spend time plunging into the new hymnal and spending lots of time reading hymns and having lovely internal debates about how this verse or that phrase related us to the creation of which we are a part.  It's a project I may want to revisit in the future, as the hymnal and its new content becomes more familiar.

After it appeared in e-print, some new thoughts started to seep into my mind.  One was that even in ministry/denominational involvement, so much still comes down to who you know.  In this case I was fortunate that the relatively new managing editor of the journal was a recent Union grad, who remembered me as having some brains and competence and increasingly taking more and more interest in creation and liturgy, as the previous four blog entries here might suggest.  More to the point, she remembered those things while she was looking for someone to write that article.  For good or for ill, making contacts and all that still matters.  One hopes church leadership makes a habit of casting as wide a net as possible, but at the same time it's on me to make as much contact as possible in order to have that kind of opportunity.

The next thought that slipped in when I wasn't looking was "gee, it's kind of fun to publish when perishing isn't the only alternative."

There are times I almost forget my academic past.  Not really "forget," but I become so involved and engaged with where I am now and what I am doing now and what I am preparing to do in the future that I don't necessarily spend much time thinking about that academic past.

On the other hand, there are times when that memory is yanked forward in my mind.  For example, this past fall I had the opportunity to teach a class, or part of one, on the subject of music in the church for the Preaching & Worship course here.  (I actually do have a master's in church music and had taught courses in it at one of my academic stops, not to mention all the other degree work and teaching experience in music, so it's not totally lame.)  The preparation was actually a bit nerve-wracking; it had been a couple of years since I had taught a class, and even longer -- more like six or seven years -- since teaching one on anything relating to church music, and frankly I felt a bit out of date at times.  Still, given only an hour I was freed from the need to get to specific and could offer up a pretty general, even philosophical take on the subject with some practical guidelines as the framework, and that helped me to come up with something useful.

What I didn't expect was how I felt afterwards.  It almost felt as if I were indulging an addiction again after having been sober, so to speak, for years.  (I can't really know what that feels like, thank God, but how I felt after teaching that little session seemed a lot like how that might feel.)  It was in my head again, and I liked it, and I wanted more.  It reminded me that I really, really found a lot of joy in the classroom (other stuff about academia, meh) and a lot of joy in research and in good colleagues and in seeing students become scholars (and maybe playing some role in that).  I didn't walk away from KU because I didn't like my life.  Never forget that part if you are a regular reader here (both of you).

Between that experience and the little article above, that whole academic past came creeping back into the forefront of my consciousness this fall, even as I remained conscious that it is the past.  There's no future in teaching that subject in Presbyland, and I have no desire to leave Presbyland or to give up this fool's errand.  If there were some way to do it in the PC(USA) context I'd certainly have to think about it.  It may not be a perfect metric on calling, but Frederick Buechner's line about calling at the intersection of your great joy and the world's great need has a lot to recommend it, and there is a crying, screaming need in the PC(USA) for pastors who are not completely lost and uneducated about music in the church.

But still, that is my past.  And it wasn't one I was looking to leave.  I was all set to stay in Lawrence as long as they'd have me, maybe even long enough to be able to afford tickets for men's basketball games at Allen Field House.

That I am here instead, on the cusp of seeking certification and filling out forms and starting the search for a call in earnest, is testament (here's the dramatic shift in subject) to why I often find Christmas annoying.

No, this isn't a rant about commercialization, though I wonder if that might play a role in it.  It isn't even a call for holding on to Advent through, you know, the whole season of Advent (neither of the churches my wife and I attend right now managed it, alas), though maybe that plays a role as well.

No, I am actually thinking about how we do Christmas in the church.  At this point in my life I can't help but react viscerally to the fact that it's too, … too predictable.  Too safe.  Too tame.  (My head is now filling up with Chronicles of Narnia references to Aslan being "not a tame lion.")

In those years when there's any kind of attempt at a live nativity in any service in which I'm involved, I find myself hoping a real live infant is being cast in the role of baby Jesus.  And if so, then I find myself rooting for the child to start squawling like, … well, like a baby -- a real baby -- at the most inopportune time possible.  It would at least make the service a little more appropriately disruptive.

This is a child who, merely by being born, utterly disrupts Herod's kingdom to the point where that vile king commits mass murder; who, at age twelve, blows off the fam and enrolls in the Temple and starts blowing the minds of the priests with his questions, before the parents can drag him back to Nazareth.  And that's before he's even an adult.  Then he utterly uproots at least twelve lives (at least I had a year-plus to prepare to come to seminary; none of this dropping nets or leaving tax tables and immediately following) and probably many, many more; completely hacks off the religious establishment of his day; upsets the ones with many possessions by telling them to give them all away and follow; hangs out with sinners -- even eats with them! (horrors!); and so on, and so on, and so on.

And I just don't see that Jesus anywhere at all in the typical Christmas Eve service.

It's all "Silent night" and "infant holy, infant lowly," and "little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes."

True enough, the lives of Mary and Joseph have been turned upside down by this point.  Mary enters the ranks of unwed pregnant girls, and Joseph has to have an angel talk him down from the ledge.  But you don't have to be "little Lord Jesus" to do that to a couple, even today.

Baby Jesus is, as most babies are when they're sleeping quietly, rather easy to love.  Say what you will about the twice-a-year church types who will turn out in force this Tuesday, but they're a pretty good metaphor for the life this child would end up leading in this world.  It's easy to be there for the baby, and easy to disappear when things start getting demanding.  (And then easy to show up when all the ugly stuff is over and everything is triumphant, I suppose.)

So in the end, I'm the one who roots for disruption, because I've certainly known it (and I haven't even gotten into the whole cancer business).  If baby Jesus starts bawling right in the middle of "Silent night," don't you dare be upset.  Just take it as a sign of the bumpy ride ahead if you have any designs on following this child seriously.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent 4A prayers and other texts

Some explanation here; Advent 4A readings here.

It's been interesting to work through Advent with this intentionality about creation and its presence in our worshiping minds.  There are some weeks, like Advent 3A, that are just packed with images from the created world, and some weeks like, well, this one, that are a bit more sparse; one has to go looking a bit.  The sign from Isaiah, of a mother expecting, put me in mind of the ways our natural world demonstrates expectation, be it in planted seeds or growing rain clouds; others might come to your mind.  Maybe part of the point is to learn to see ordinary things like planted seeds or growing rain clouds in a sacramental way, as signs that point us back (when we keep looking away) to the ongoing, in-breaking, unceasing movement of God's purpose in the world, particularly when we choose to (and let's face it, we choose to) live as if we are doomed and all is lost.  
The point of the exercise isn't to suggest that every single week should be liturgized (if I may make up a word) creationally (if I may make up another word); were I leading from the table I might have let this week's liturgy pass, for example.  I'm not necessarily advocating for taking whole liturgical seasons in this fashion.  What I am trying to suggest here is that the more pervasively our liturgical life can draw upon God's creation (of which we are part and partner) and its ongoing lessons to us (lessons that are God's lessons to us after all, as creation is God's creation), the more we can do, hopefully, to undo that detachment so many of us techno-saturated and terminally citified Christians experience from nature.  Maybe we'd be a little less likely to be quite so exploitative of the planet.  Maybe we'd be a little less likely to befoul it so.  Maybe we'd be a little more likely to act as if the planet really does belong to God, as if all of this world is, to borrow a phrase from a hymn by Adam M.L. Tice,"borrowed holy land."
Maybe.  It's worth a try.

Call to Worship:
One: Seeds are planted; they germinate, grow, and blossom.
All: A tiny cloud grows into a great storm.
One: Show us, Lord, how to live in expectation of your mighty works.
All: Teach us to see in your creation, in your world, the signs of your glory.
One: The Lord will do great, unexpected things.
All: Thanks be to God.

Prayer of the Day:
O God of all that is, what stands and waits and what lives and breathes, give us eyes to see and ears to hear your presence in our lives.  As a great tree grows from a tiny acorn, so let your Spirit grow and thrive within us, that we might be part of your action to bring righteousness, justice, and peace to your whole world. Amen.

Prayer of Confession:
God of might and glory, we do not live as if you are a God of might and glory.  We cower in fear rather than living in faith.  We shrink from the darkness rather than living as light in the world.  Forgive us, good Lord.  Shine forth and save us.  Redeem our fearfulness and give us your presence to renew and restore us as good and righteous members of your creation, living so that all will see your good works and glorify you.

Assurance of Pardon:
Hear this good news: our God is still at work in the world.  Even in the smallest things the great deeds of God are being carried out in creation.  Our fearfulness and shame cannot put an end to God’s work.  God calls us out from fear to quiet joy, and calls us to step out and take part in the renewing of the world.  For this work in Christ, you are forgiven.  Amen.

Prayer for Illumination:
Almighty and everlasting Lord, shine your light of illumination and inspiration into our darkened and fearful souls, that we might hear your word in the words of scripture.  Amen.

Communion – The Great Prayer:

Hear these words from scripture: (Adapted from Romans 1:2-4)
[God] promised beforehand, through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning God’s son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection of the dead.

Though our eyes strain to see, though we see only ordinary sights such as an expectant mother, God’s purpose is moving in our world.  Ordinary everyday things like grains and grapes contain the purposes of God, to intervene in this world and shine light that overwhelms our darkness.  In sharing the blessings that come from those grains and grapes we testify to a God who will not stand by idly, but will toss aside kings and scatter darkness, and will undo the world in the birth of a baby boy.  The table is open to all who call upon the name of that baby, the one who is light and hope and peace.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Merciful God, we are often not grateful enough for your constant care for your people.  From the very beginning when you set light apart from darkness you have shone before us your unfailing care and nurture of your children.  Your light shone in pillars of fire, flames of altars, prophetic orations and psalmist songs, unlikely stars and apostolic witness.
Yet we grope and flail about in darkness, denying your light, stopping our ears against the call of prophet and psalmist and apostle, and prefer our dank isolation to the light and warmth of your presence. 
Lord call us out of the darkness and renew us in your light, that we might sing with all of the prophets, psalmists, and apostles, with angels and saints and all of creation:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory;
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Teach us, Lord, to rejoice in the work of your Son, Jesus Christ, whose breaking into the world in the unlikely form of an infant we await with longing and eagerness.  Taking on the form and substance of humanity, Jesus lived among us bearing witness to your ongoing work among us by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, ministering to the poor and homeless, sharing meals with outcasts, and condemning any form of injustice that continued to spread darkness over your world.  In Christ’s living, dying, and living again, we witnessed just how far you would go to reclaim all of your creation.

Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Let your Holy Spirit break out like undying, unbearable light among us, O God.  Let us be so filled and overflowing with your Spirit that we cannot help but live as Christ lived, and do as Christ did.  Let our witness be one of grace and truth, putting aside fear and living in the light, as light shining in darkness, light that darkness cannot overwhelm.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

The Bread and the Cup:
Jesus took bread and broke it, and gave it to his disciples.  In the broken bread shines the love of God breaking into our world.

Jesus took the cup and blessed it, and gave it to his disciples.  From that cup flowed life itself, salvation and grace to all.

The table is prepared.  Jesus bids us come and eat.

Prayer After Communion:
All-loving God, break into our world and restore us.  Drive our our fears, open our eyes and ears, feed us with your heavenly food and drink, that we can do lo less than be your light in a dark, fearful world.  Amen.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent 3A prayers and other texts

Some explanation and background can be found here.  Texts for Advent 3A here.  With any luck there might be some connections.

Call to Worship: (adapted from Isaiah 35, Psalm 146, and James 5)
One: The desert shall blossom abundantly.
All: Our souls are so dry.  How can anything bloom there?
One: Teach us the patience of the farmer waiting for the crops to grow.
All: Be patient, Lord, with our weary, waiting souls.
One: We have hope in the Lord, who made heaven and earth, deserts and blossoms and growing crops, all teaching us how to wait.
All: Thanks be to God.

Prayer of the Day:
Great creating God, maker of all that grows, be present among us this day even as we wait with difficult patience for the coming of your Son into our world.  Teach us the patience to wait for your movement among us, to wait for your time of growing and blooming and maturing.  Let our energies be devoted to pursuing your justice in your world, and to restoring all people and all of creation to right relationship to you.  These things we seek in the name of your Son for whom we wait, in the power of the Spirit, Amen.

Prayer of Confession:
Holy and everlasting God, we fail ourselves and we fail you in more ways than we can count.  We run ahead when we need to wait for you, and yet we are indulgent and tolerate injustice when you call us to demand justice.  Our stewardship of creation is destructive, violating your sacred land so nothing can bloom and flourish.  Our gratification of our desires exploits the poor and impoverishes our spirits.  And we take offense when you call us to justice.  Good Lord, forgive us.  We need your Spirit to help us repent and live rightly with all you have made. 

Assurance of Pardon:
Hear this good news: the wilderness and the dry land will still rejoice – not because of anything we have done, but because our God is a restoring God, making highways through the rough places and opening blind eyes.  Our Lord Jesus does not condemn us but calls us to be one with him in bringing forth justice and peace in God’s creation.  For this good work, in Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.  Amen.

Prayer for Illumination:
Dearest God, open our blinded eyes, open our deafened ears that we might see and hear your word to us in the words of your scriptures.  Amen.

Communion – The Great Prayer:

Hear these words from scripture: (James 5:7-8)
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.  The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.  You also must be patient.  Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

When our world seems its driest and dreariest, when justice is mocked, the poor are punished for their poverty, and the ones oppressed hear no good news, we are called to be bearers of hope and justice.  We become blossoms in the desert, testifying to the opening of our blind eyes and the softening of our hardened hearts.  Our witness at this table, sharing bread and cup across all the divides the world can build, shows God’s promise to be coming for all who cry out. 

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Holy and Great Creator, we give thanks and rejoice in your unending provision for your people.  From earliest times you delivered your people from deserts, sending food to eat and providing water from the rock when they faltered in the wilderness.  You parted seas and rivers to deliver them from oppression.  Time and again you opened your heart to give good things to your people; fruitful and abundant lands, bountiful seas, and winds and rains to bring refreshment and nourishment to your people.
Still we your people fail you, squandering your good gifts and spoiling your creation.  Yet you do not forsake us; you call us back by the voices of the prophets, the songs of the psalmists, the proclamation of your disciples. 
Teach us to sing in hope with all of your creation:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory;
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We give thanks for your Son Jesus Christ, who came into this world to proclaim your good news of new sight and hearing, liberation and cleansing and new life.  In the waters of baptism he claimed humanity alongside us, and in breaking bread and sharing the cup from the vine he showed us how that humanity is to live at one with him and with one another.  In his words, his deeds, his living and dying and rising, he delivered us from sin into new resurrection life.

Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Send your Holy Spirit among us, Lord, upending our settled ways and satisfactions and reorienting us to your justice, where wilderness cannot threaten and where good news is for the poor and oppressed.  In your Spirit turn us around to be agents of that justice, and right stewards of all you have made. 
Glory to the One who creates, the One who redeems, and the One who sustains all, Three in One, One in Three, now and forever.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

The Bread and the Cup:
Once a farmer waited patiently for the precious crop of grain, tending soil, watering and replenishing it, until the harvest came forth.  Those grains have become the bread that Jesus breaks and blesses, ministering to us through the power of the Holy Spirit, and showing us how to be ministers to one another.

Once a vintner waited patiently for the precious crop of grapes, tending and pruning the vines, waiting for sun and water to do their work until the harvest came forth.  The fruit of that vine has become the cup that we share in Christ, flowing among us like life itself, and showing us how to live with one another in the Spirit.

The table is ready.  Come, let us share the blessings of Christ’s table.

Prayer After Communion:

God of the desert and the wilderness, of grains and fruits and all that grows and lives and is, we thank you for your unyielding love for us shown to us in your gifts of grain and vine.  Let your gifts unsettle us so that we will not rest in a world of injustice and oppression, but will overturn the world so that all will eat, all will live in your freedom, and all will know your peace.  Amen.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent 2A prayers and other texts

See the previous post for explanation.

Call to Worship:

One: A shoot shall grow from the root of Jesse.
All: In creeping winter we wait for this shoot to grow and blossom.
One: Seeds of hope sprout into blooms of joy.
All: Praise the God of new life and growth. 
One: Let us worship the God who brings life.
All: Let us worship God.

Prayer of the Day:

God of all that blooms and sprouts and grows, show us your hope in the unexpected. We seek the signs of your presence with us even as we wait in hope for the day of peace. We look for signs of life in our dry and dreary seasons.  We pray for your coming to us as we await your Son, and long for the presence of you Spirit, Three in One, One in Three, now and forever.  Amen.

Prayer of Confession:

One: Holy God, we confess that we have sinned against you.
All: We have lived in despair when you call us to hope.
One: We see a shoot of green in a world of gray,
All: But we stamp it out or pull it up.
One: We live in a lush, prolific and plentiful world,
All: But we spoil it, befoul it, pollute it, exploit it, and degrade it.
One: You give us Enough, as you are Enough,
All: But we trample one another to get More.
One: We plead for mercy for our sins against you and your world.
All: Forgive us, gracious Lord, and set us against our old ways of fear and exploitation.

Assurance of Pardon:

Hear this good news: hope still blossoms.  The Advent of Christ still springs forth as a new sprout, growing into full and gracious life in God.  For this new sprout of hope, know that in Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.  Amen.

Prayer for Illumination:

Holy God, break into our dreary world like new springs of green, growing and taking nourishment from your earth, that we might see and hear you aright in the words of scripture before us today..  Amen.


Hear these words from Scripture: (Romans 15:4-6)
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 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.

In the midst of a dark, sad world, hope gathers us around this table.  We come to partake of the gifts of God’s earth because shoots of hope sprout up in our lives despite our best efforts.  We come because God welcomes us, without walls or bars, to God’s own table, to share in God’s bounty.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Creator God, maker of all that is, your provision for us is displayed throughout your creation.  The fertile soils, rushing waters, and gleaming rays of the sun you created bring forth our sustenance and nourishment since humans first worked the ground.  You have sprung forth hope in dry places, springs of water from rocks, manna from the heavens to provide for your people.  Your people found not just drink and cleansing, but deliverance in the waters, when they crossed through the Red Sea. 
Yet we continue to live in despair and apathy and ignorance of your graciousness to us.  When we fail in hope you call us back in the promises of prophets, the songs of psalmists, the preaching of disciples, in the renewing of your creation in seasons and growth.
Good Lord, renew in us the hope to sing with all of your creation:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory;
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We thank you for Jesus Christ your son, who burst into this world live a living green shoot from a dry and dead stump.  Living as one of us he felt our joys and sorrows, our hopes and our despair. He plunged into the waters of baptism, made the wine of celebration out of the water of life, and from bread made from the grains of the earth he gave us yet a new sign of hope.  In his living, dying, and rising, he banished death and despair, and set new life into us.

Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Give to us, O Lord, your Holy Spirit, blooming forth with new life and hope. Set us right in your Spirit, binding us to all that you have made, and teaching us the peace and harmony of your holy mountain where lamb and lion lie down together and a little child leads them.
In your Spirit us to live in justice in your creation, to welcome the unwelcome, to lay aside the weapons of enmity and take up the banner of love.
Glory to the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer, Three in One, One in Three, now and forever.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

The Bread and the Cup:

Jesus took bread, once a new sprout out of old ground, and broke it and gave it to his disciples, giving us a new sign of hope in him.

Jesus took wine, pressed from vines once growing and twisting their way towards the sun, and poured it and gave it to his disciples, giving us a new sign of hope in him.

The table is ready; Jesus bids us come and eat.

Prayer After Communion:

God of growing things, we are grateful for your gifts to us.  Teach us to lay aside despair, to live in hope, and to share that hope with all of your creation. Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Advent 1A prayers and other texts

Note: Back in May I took a course on Ecology and Worship, the principal activity of which (other than a lot of reading) was writing liturgical materials with a particular awareness of creation and ecological concerns.  The tricky part was infusing the prayers and texts with such awareness without getting out of whack with the occasion.  I'm not always sure I succeeded but the effort was itself the reward, and I even managed to adapt part of one for use in my parish internship this past summer.
This past Tuesday I attended, as part of my current non-parish internship, the Living Waters Interfaith Summit hosted in Richmond by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  In one session, pondering the question of how to bring home to congregations the significance of the environment that surrounds us (in particular the waters of the Chesapeake watershed, but it's hard to separate) I was reminded of that  May class, and ultimately moved to resume the activity of writing liturgy with that balance in mind.  What follows is a first effort for next Sunday, Advent 1A.  Make of it what you will.  You might check the scriptures for the day from the Revised Common Lectionary as well, as some references to those are found below.

Call to Worship:

One: Our eyes are shrouded, as in a haze on the high mountain.
All: We long to see you, O Lord.
One: Our senses are uncertain, feeling and even smelling the coming rain in the air.
All: We yearn to feel your presence, O Lord.
One: We are awakening, slowly, as dawn overtakes the darkness.
All: Come to your people, Lord, like the dawn of a new day.
One: Let us worship the God who molds the mountain, refreshes us with rain, illumines our lives with the sun.
All: Let us worship God.

Prayer of the Day:
Creator God, our hearts are dry.  Our eyes are heavy.  Our souls are asleep.  Refresh our hearts with the drenching rains of your promise.  Open our eyes with the dazzling light of your presence among us.  Awaken our souls that we may be alert to the dawning of new life, longing still to be united in truth with your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Spirit, Three in One, One in Three, now and forever.  Amen.

Prayer of Confession:
Holy God, we are guilty of so much.  We claim to wait for your coming, but we do not wait for anything.  We claim to love your creation, but we devour its resources and spoil its waters beyond what it can bear.  We say we love your children, but we ignore the poor, marginalize the homeless, scorn the prisoner, and act venomously towards those with whom we differ.  For all the ways we sin against you and disobey your will, forgive us.  Heal our own brokenness, and make of us vessels for the healing of your world.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon:
Hear this good news: our sinfulness is not the last word.  Christ, who could condemn us, loves us instead, and restores us to right relationship with God and with God’s creation.  For this new life, know that in Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.  Amen.

Prayer for Illumination:
Holy God, break in upon us like the sunrise to brighten and illuminate the reading and hearing and proclamation of this your word.  Amen.

Communion Liturgy: 

Hear these words from Scripture: (Romans 13:11-12)
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.  Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

God calls us to this table, God’s own table, to partake of the grains of the earth and the fruit of the vine, and here to learn to live at peace with one another and with all of God’s creation.  There are no doors or gates to bar entry to this table; all who heed God’s call, hear God’s son, and crave God’s spirit are welcome here.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Creator God, maker of all that is, you gave to us a good and fertile world.  Throughout history you have provided good for your people even when your people have rebelled against you.
You have given us abundance in nature, even as we squander it and make scarcity in its place.
You have given us a vast and plentiful world to share, but we war over it.
You have given us prophets and psalmists and disciples and apostles to teach us what your good created world looks like and how to live in it, but we ignore their teaching.

Teach us, good Lord, to sing with all creation:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory;
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, whose life and teaching we celebrate by anticipating his birth even as we mark his undying love for us in anticipating reunion with him.  Living as a human, with a body of flesh and blood, he showed how to live in harmony with all of your creation. He received baptism in water like us.  He gave us this sign and sacrament of bread and wine, gifts of creation, to bring us together in a fellowship in you that cannot be broken, a fellowship that embraces all you have created.  Dying, he showed us unlimited love.  Living again, he showed us unlimited life.

Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Grant to us, O Lord, your wildly rushing and untamable Spirit, binding us to each other evermore, all creatures and plants and mountains, and oceans and winds and rains singing your praise in concert, living in the harmony You intended.
May that Spirit drive us:
            To live rightly in the world, so that none take too much and none have too little;
            To extend your divine hospitality to those who are sick, imprisoned, homeless, estranged, or lost;
            To live in your world without swords or spears, anything that divides or excludes or separates us from You and Your good created world.
Glory to the One who creates, the One who redeems, and the one who sustains, Three in One, One in Three, now and forever.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

The Bread and the Cup:

The soil and rain of the earth nurtured and fed grains that were gathered and used to make thie bread that Jesus broke and gave to his disciples, a sign and token of his life given for us in living, dying, and living again.

The soil and rain of the earth nurtured and fed grapes that were gathered and pressed and made into wine that Jesus poured and gave to his disciples, a sign and token of his life ongoing and flowing through us.

The table is ready; Jesus bids us come and eat.

Prayer After Communion:

God of mountains and valleys, rivers and oceans, we thank you for these gifts of soil and sun and water that You give us.  Teach us, like those who nurture and tend the grains and grapes and then wait with anticipation, to do good work in your world, and to anticipate with eager longing the advent of your Son, through whom we pray, Amen.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A quickie: The guest cat

We've had a guest cat of late.

She lives somewhere in the neighborhood, we're pretty sure.  At least we think so.  Nonetheless, she's been spending most of recent days outside our house, increasingly often curled up on our porch.

Yeah, it was stupid to feed her.  But not as unacceptable a choice as letting her go without, which was evidently the case before.

She's tiny compared to our two monster boys.  Cute.  Black and white, sort of a "tuxedo cat."  Unlike most cats accustomed to roaming this neighborhood (and there are many, strangely), she will generally be quite affectionate (and this was before getting food).

It's heart-wrenching not to let the cat in, especially as the weather gets colder.  But she's not our cat.

Our two cats do observe her from the windows.  They don't like her, or she doesn't like them.  Hissing is involved.

She's clearly been an "outdoor cat" for some time, affectionate or not.  She's certainly not suited to be taken in.

Still, it's hard.  We're pathetic.  

She may even be out there right now.

It's getting awfully cold.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ordinary Name Syndrome

Earlier today while trying to read (I say "trying" because our older, larger cat decided I'd make a good pillow about that same time) I had the radio turned on and was somewhat listening to the public-radio staple Performance Today.  My distraction was momentarily resolved when a piece for flute, oboe, bassoon and piano caught my attention and held it for the quartet's full twenty-minutes-or-less duration. I was particularly struck by the quartet's meltingly lovely second movement and rompingly fun third movement.  Having missed the name of the composer (clearly it was a relatively new piece, though not of the variety of "new" that demands harmonic thorniness or other sorts of unease), I was curious to hear who had created it.  At its end the host (a substitute for the regular, which for me made the show easier to listen to) identified the composer as one Bill Douglas.  A quick Wikipedia search and location of the composer's website fleshed the name out as a musician with fingers in a bunch of different musical activities, from jazz piano to some vaguely new-agey recordings to mixed-influence classical pieces like the quartet I heard, a not-all-that-atypical story for a modern composer.

At that point a silly random thought entered my head: how many people can accept a composer named "Bill Douglas"?

A jazz pianist named "Bill Douglas" probably presents little problem, but classical music (entirely through its own fault, I sometimes fear) makes it hard for folks who sound like ordinary women or men to get a real hearing in the ears of those, not part of the inside world of classical music, who might nonetheless enjoy hearing what those composers have to offer.

This isn't the first time I've had such silly thoughts before.  As I've blogged before, my main research interest back in my musicologist days was a composer named George Chadwick, active around the turn of the twentieth century.  In some of my down moments in research, despairing at the degree to which Chadwick was neglected in various eras, I would idly wonder if part of the problem was that "George Chadwick" could just as easily have been your accountant.  (For the record, other composers who became focal points in my study at other times were Frederick Converse, which just makes people think of athletic shoes -- I think he might have been distantly related to those Converses -- and Edgar Stillman Kelley, who I'm privately convinced used the "Stillman" to keep from sounding too ordinary -- he was eccentric enough to do that.)

Such wasn't necessarily always the case.  Chadwick was actually fairly successful in his lifetime for an American-born composer in a concert culture besotted with Germans.  Personally, I blame what sometimes gets called the "music appreciation racket" (a term possibly coined by Virgil Thomson, who might have suffered from "ordinary name syndrome" to some degree).  For so long concert patrons got drilled with the notion that one should only be bothered with Great Composers, and those Great Composers tended to have fairly exotic-sounding European names, the kind best rendered in capital letters -- BEETHOVEN, BRAHMS, CHOPIN, LISZT, WAGNER (pronounced with that German initial "V"), MOZART and so forth.  Obviously some American composers of the twentieth century did get over, but there was occasionally something just exotic enough about the name to set them apart, maybe more with italics than caps -- Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein; while Howard Hanson sounded more like a Nebraska dentist and so forth.

Anyway, my tangent-prone mind of course took off elsewhere.  Is Ordinary Name Syndrome a thing?  Does an ordinary, accountant-y sounding name have its own particular psychological weight?  Does having a mainstream name sometimes work to weigh down its bearer with mainstream expectations?

My name is Charles Freeman.  Nice enough name, but nothing particularly special about it.  That squares fairly well with my usual perception of myself.  Nice enough guy, some things I am good at doing or saying, but nothing particularly outstanding or noteworthy about me.  Fairly ordinary in many ways, not bad ways, but fairly ordinary.

I was a bit of an achiever in elementary and junior high and high school, the kind of thing that was really useful at getting into college and then faded into the background in the face of real life.  I am blessed/saddled with a wildly introverted personality that is fascinated with the world and sees so much in it, but lacks the outgoingness to strike forth and say what I see, outside the occasional confines of this blog and the other one, recently started.  I sometimes wonder, in my sillier moments, if I'd somehow be able to find a little more push in my life if my mother had come up with something different to call me -- "Alonzo," say, or "Jackson" (not merely "Jack"), or who knows what.  Probably not, but who knows?  I'd have been mercilessly tormented as a child, I suspect, but perhaps it would have led to a measure of cool and assurance I don't always have, if I'd survived it.

Or perhaps I should go the three-word name route.  Charles Spence Freeman.  As a kid I was mortified of that middle name.  Now I tend to think it's damn cool.  At one point in college I came close to adopting it as my call-by name.  Three-word names do seem to carry a little extra cool, whether through hyphenation or otherwise.  Of course, it helps to have three names that sound fairly cool together.

I am being silly, I do realize.  Still, as I get towards the end of this seminary time I suppose I'm wondering who the heck I am anymore, ordinary name or otherwise.  I don't particularly feel like a pastor at this point, which is just as well because I'm not one at this point.  I'm reasonably good at some of the tasks of the pastor, not so much at others.  I clearly am not free of certain academic habits or modes of thinking.  I could still teach in the higher-ed classroom, though I'm frankly grateful to be free of some of the other burdens of academia.  Still, I certainly don't feel like a musicologist anymore either.

I've had cancer, and for the moment I don't seem to have it, but I certainly don't feel like a cancer "survivor" (whatever that means).  Blessedly, at the moment I don't really feel like a cancer patient, either.

I certainly don't feel like a writer, though I'm now straddling two blogs, so clearly there is some itch to do something with the written word in there.  An itch, perhaps, but not a need?  There is a dribble of hymns with my name on them, but it certainly isn't a flood or a river or even a decent-sized creek.  Is it just a thing, a phase perhaps, or is there something more to it?

Standing at unknown places is more, typically, than our fragile souls can bear.  Even when the thing beyond the known border is good, or likely to be good -- even to be the thing we've been wishing or dreaming or praying or preparing for -- it is a tremulous moment, that one just before you can see it.  Ordinariness stares me in the face, in the absence of that yet-unknown next place.  It has its own taunts, not those that torment the ones given to wracking doubt and fearfulness.  It'll be okay, I guess.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  It may not be the first call, or the second, but you'll get to a decent point, and you'll do fine.   This is where the absence of tone of voice in a blog is so paralyzing; "fine" needs to be heard with descending pitch, the absence of encouragement without quite being its opposite.

I have skills and I have talents.  I know this much.  Getting from having them to using them, aye, there's the rub.  I don't particularly need to be famous, or rich (although a bit more financial sufficiency would be good, with the bucketloads of medical debt impending), or handsome or many of the other cheap goals that consume so many people.  If I have any fear at this point, I guess it is a fear of squandering something, and I'm not exactly sure what.  Such is the natural result of the kind of reckless transition I'm making, I suppose.

At any rate I can only guess that the thing to do is to step forward again, in the hope that light will shed itself upon that unknown thing.  Ordinary name or not.