December 25, 2007

Christmas Eve

Born in Us Tonight!
Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-120

This is a night for pageants and pageantry. All over the world, churches are clothed in gold and candlelight; children, and adults too, reenact the Christmas story; some of the most beautiful music in history is sung; there are great cathedrals where thousands gather to watch carefully choreographed processions, and there are small country churches like ours where worshipers come with less formality but no less faithfulness.

And there is a single thread that runs through all our celebrations, and it is this most ancient story of the birth of Jesus. It has been read and reread, told again and again, acted out, displayed, painted, sung, and depicted for thousands of years. All we have to do is hear a phrase or two in order to know what is coming. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” “She brought forth her first born son.” “There were shepherds abiding in the fields.” This is the story we know by heart. It is a story we know in our hearts.

But it is often the case that something so familiar loses a bit of its original meaning, and that may be what has happened to Christmas. This story is not only about a newborn baby. It is about God being born into the world. It is about what the church calls incarnation – God taking on human flesh and living among us as one of us. That is the heart of this story, and if we can see the story with fresh eyes, it may be that we can learn something new about God, and eventually about ourselves. So imagine with me, if you will, how the story might be told if it were happening right now.

A young couple is on the road. His name is Jose, and she is Maria; she is very pregnant, and they are not married. They’re traveling in an old Toyota station wagon, kind of mustard colored, not pretty even when it was new in 1978. Every twenty miles or so, he has to pull over and put water in the radiator. They keep scraping their money together to buy a gallon of gas here or there, driving as carefully as they can in hopes that the gas will get them where they need to go. They are on their way to Raleigh; they have gotten an official looking piece of paper in the mail that tells them, in English and in Spanish, that there is some problem with their work visas and they need to appear in person to register with the government. So they are making this long trip in this old beat-up car in the middle of the night.

And maybe it is the stress of the travel or the worry about the visa or just that it is time, but Maria goes into labor. They are out in the country; they have no idea where the hospital is and even if they found it, they could not afford to seek care. So they try to keep going but the going is hard, and when they see the little lights up ahead, they both breathe a sigh of relief. Here is a town – maybe there will be someone who can help them.

It is a small town, and it is late at night and most of the houses are dark but some still have Christmas trees shining through the windows. And there are lights in the streets, street lights shining with decorations. All throughout the little town, the lights twinkle in the dark streets. Encouraged by that, Jose begins knocking on doors, but most people sleep through it, don’t even hear the sound. And the few who do are afraid to open up to a strange man, badly dressed, obviously poor, speaking Spanish, standing on the doorstep in the middle of the night.

And time is running out. This baby will not wait. So they pull the car around behind the Minute Mart where there is an outdoor water spigot, and he helps her into the back of the car and the baby is born. The water from the outside spigot is very cold, but he tries to warm it a bit in the car so he can wash off the aftermath of birth from his Maria and this new baby who will be called Jesus. And he takes his undershirt and tears it into strips and gives it to her to wrap around the baby so he will be warm and snug. Then they settle down to sleep; they are exhausted.

But soon there is a tapping on the window of the car, and the car is surrounded by a group of bikers wearing their black leather jackets, motorcycle engines still thrumming in the night. They are frightened by the sight of these unexpected visitors.None of them can figure out why the bikers are there, not the bikers or Jose or Maria.

Somehow the bikers just had to come. They saw the light in the car and they came to investigate. So Maria shows them the baby and the sight of that small face, those tiny hands, melts the hearts of those big tough guys. Before they go back to the road, they take out saddlebags with cheese and beef jerky and some bottles of beer. It’s the best they have to offer, and for some unknown reason, they feel they need to give something to this family, to this child.

And then they go roaring off into the night, but when they get together with their buddies later on, they tell the story about that baby, about that mother and father, about the light in that car and in that town,
and they tell how that encounter made them want to give what they had away. They don’t understand it, but they tell the story nonetheless.

This isn’t the way it happened, of course. The first ones to come to visit the child were shepherds, not bikers. The baby was born in a stable, not in the back of an old beat up car; and it was the little town of Bethlehem, not the little town of Atkinson.

But maybe if it were happening today, tonight -- this miraculous birth – maybe it would happen in a place like this. And here is the good news, the good news of great joy. It does happen tonight, and it does happen in a place like this.

It is not enough for us just to remember the birth of the baby Jesus. It is not enough to celebrate with hymns and gifts and family gatherings. If that is all we did, we would miss the point. Christmas is more than the story of a baby born to desperately poor people far from home with no place to stay. It is about God in Christ coming into the world. It is about God in Christ present even now. That is the good news, and we are to respond to this good news by seeking the one who has come seeking us.

But if we are to find this Savior we will need to look in the unlikely places. Remember his own words:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25: 35-36; 40)

The Christ who is born of Mary is present in the world in the faces of the poor and the hungry, the refugee and prisoner, the sick and lonely. And also, I have to believe, in the faces of the rich and the rulers, the powerful and the presidents, the movers and shakers – but sometimes you may have to look a little deeper there in order to see. The Christ who is born of Mary is present in all people. May we be watching for him, making room for him, welcoming and serving and offering ourselves to him.

And, dear friends, because Christ is present in the hearts of all, then the Christ who is born of Mary is also present in us. The Christ who is born of Mary is the Christ who is born of us. As one holy man (Meister Eckhardt) has said: “We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity... But if that birth does not take place in me, what good is it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me. What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God [two thousand] years ago and I do not give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?”

As we celebrate God’s wonderful gift to us in Bethlehem, may we also celebrate it in Atkinson, and in all the other places where we are. Our Christ is still Immanuel – God with us. And that is good news of great joy for all people. For unto us, and within us, is born this day, this very day, a savior who is Christ the Lord!

Thanks be to God! Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

December 24, 2007

The Southern Gospel

Yesterday in Sunday School, we read all the Gospel accounts of the coming of Jesus. Matthew and Luke, of course, tell about the birth, and John writes a long and lovely prose poem about the incarnation. And then there is Mark, who mentions nothing about a baby, and instead just jumps right in to the story of the ministry after the barest of introductions: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”
After the lesson, one of the women leaned over to me and said that she thought Mark was a northerner and Luke was a southerner, because Mark was in a hurry to get to the story, but Luke added in all the details: what the baby was wearing, where the whole thing happened, how Mary knew she was pregnant, who came to visit. My friend was right – the southern way is to tell the story in all its specificity, and when we hear Luke 2 in church tonight, I will be thinking about the evangelist as one of our neighbors – interested in having us know exactly how it happened, in all the detail, so we can picture ourselves in the story. Which, of course, we are.

December 20, 2007


I had to do some laundry in preparation for my trip. I took off the pair of brown socks that I was wearing, put them in the laundry basket, took it directly to the basement, and put the contents into the washing machine. After the wash was finished, I put everything right in the dryer. And when the clothes were dry -- back into the laundry basket and upstairs to pack. But..... there was only one brown sock to be found. I looked in the washer, in the dryer, in the sleeves of the clothes that were in the clean laundry. Then I looked in the bedroom, in the laundry basket, in the washer again, in the dryer again -- twice. No brown sock. How could it have disappeared?
And all I could think about was Matthew 24: "Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left." Two socks will be in the wash; one will be taken and one will be left.
I finally found the sock. Somehow it had fallen behind one of the suitcases and stuck there with static electricity. I found it, but I did a lot of looking. And maybe that will be the way it is at the end for those of us who seem to be lost -- the One who has washed us clean in the first place will just keep looking until no one is left behind.

December 17, 2007

This takes the cake!

Where I live now, the sugary coating that goes on a cake is called frosting; where I grew up, it is called icing. Either way, I was thinking about it this morning, and both words are appropriate descriptions for what I woke to see. It has been a long time since I made a seven-minute icing, but the world looked just as though God had spread a spatula of it across everything. It had snowed and then sleeted, and the whiteness was coated with a shiny smooth layer. It was beautiful. The sun sparkled on it like the candles on a birthday cake. The whole world looked as though it had been decorated for a celebration. Maybe that is why people love the idea of snow for Christmas. All that frosting and icing is a reminder that we are preparing, and being prepared, for the ultimate birthday party!

December 16, 2007

Third Sunday of Advent

“Are You The One?”
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Luke 1: 47-55
James 5: 7-10
Matthew 11: 2-11

He had been so sure. Even before the beginning. All his life, he had heard the story, told over and over again, of the meeting between their mothers. While he was still in his mother’s womb, he had recognized the one sent from God to be the Savior. He had grown up knowing the story of his own miraculous conception, as well as that of his cousin. His mother had sung to him the song she learned from Mary until it was as much a part of him as the beating of his own heart: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” He knew that his own life work was to prepare the way for the reality he first learned from Mary’s song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

His part in this holy drama had seemed compelling and inevitable. He had been so sure of his own calling, and all that time in the desert only strengthened his conviction. When he came among the people and began to preach, his message was strong and unambiguous. “Repent,” he told them. “Turn your lives around, change your thinking.” And then when they wanted to know how to do that, the answer was shaped by those words he had learned from his mother. “If you have two coats, share with someone who has none. If you have enough to eat, share with those who are hungry. Live honest lives. Lift up the lowly.”

And the people came in droves to hear him. Who knows what motivated them. Maybe they were curious, interested in seeing this odd man with his wild eyes and primitive clothing. Maybe they were hungry for his message of transformation. Maybe they just wanted to see what was going on. Whatever the reason, they came.

And then one day, his cousin came, too. He baptized him just the way he had baptized all the rest of them, except it wasn’t the same at all. Because he knew that the Spirit was present somehow, and that in the moment when the water slipped through his fingers, all the hopes and prayers of his own ministry were fulfilled. In that moment, he had no doubt that this was the one.

His conviction gave him the strength to speak out against the evils of his day. His faith made him fearless, and his fearlessness made him reckless. He challenged the ruler and his sinful lifestyle and found himself in prison because of it.

And in that place of dark confinement, suddenly he wasn’t so sure. He began to wonder and to question and maybe even to doubt. Had he spent his life for nothing? Had he been wrong all along? Herod still ruled; people were still oppressed; the rich got richer and the poor still suffered. And it seemed there was no judgment, no condemnation, no axe at the root of the tree, no winnowing fork separating the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. The world was much the way it always had been.

And the echo of that long ago song rose up in the darkness of his prison cell and mocked him until finally he could stand it no more and he sent word to his cousin: “Are you the one who is to come? Are you? Or are we supposed to wait for someone else? Did we get it wrong? Was it was all a big mistake? Are you the one?”

And this was the response: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus had breathed life into the words of prophets long dead. He had reclaimed God’s holy intention for creation. The dry wastelands of life were blooming and beautiful. All was joy and gladness, no sorrow, no grief. The desert was transformed; it became a garden, like that garden in the beginning. Except … John was still in prison, Herod was still in power, the poor and the weak were still oppressed.

There is no record of John’s reaction to the message that came to him, but I wonder if it really answered his question. And I wonder, too, if we are not asking the same question: Are you the one?

Look around at our world: The beautiful words of Isaiah, the strong and clear words of Mary, the healing, saving words of Jesus seem just that – words, not reality. Here is the reality. The homeless roam the streets. Children go to bed hungry, in our town, not just far away. Millions are disabled by diseases that are easily treated or even prevented. Poverty cripples the dreams of bright young minds. And the rich get richer and the poor still suffer. And maybe we were sure at one time that what we or the church were doing made sense, but our helplessness in the face of the world’s wrongs stirs up our own doubt. Are you the one?

Here we are, waiting for Christmas, but in truth we are waiting for more than that. We are waiting for the complete fulfillment of all those ancient words. We are waiting for the waste places of our world to become beautiful, lush and lovely. We are waiting for an end to illness and disease and disability. We are waiting for an end to our own inability to speak, to act, to change.

The world is a mess, and it is easy to despair when we look around us. But here is the work of Advent: Look deeper. Try to see beneath the surface. Go to the desert and look for the life that lies there. Hidden in the sand are the seeds of the crocus. Under the parched surface, there are pools of water. In the midst of death and dryness, there is life, just waiting to flower.

Our faith is like that, too. It is marked by the “already” and the “not yet.” Everything that is meant to be is already present, but it is not yet fully realized. All the goodness that God would want us to have is already given, but we have not fully embraced it. The power to restore creation already exists, but we have not yet let it loose.

And the work of Advent is opening our eyes to see what is already there. The work of Advent is preparing the way for what is to come and is already here. The work of Advent is strengthening the weak hands, making firm the feeble knees. It is saying to those who are of a fearful heart: Be strong, do not fear. Your God is here and your God will come to save you.”

And the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy. Waters will break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. And a highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way. And it will be the way of the Lord, and we will walk it with him.

May it be so, even as it already is. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

Snow Day

This winter that was so slow in coming has arrived with a vengeance. It snowed on Thursday and pretty much shut down the whole area. Traffic stood still for hours. It was so bad that the mall closed around suppertime – and Christmas just around the corner of the calendar. As I drove to work in the morning, the world was brown and even still green in some places. But all that was hidden in the afternoon, covered with a thick blanket of snow. And now it has snowed again, mixed in with sleet and freezing rain. It is cold, windy, and icy. Lots of churches cancelled their services this morning. We had worship and it was really nice. It would not be quite Advent without this Sunday of joy, the pink candle, and Mary’s song. And I wonder what all those pastors did with their snow day. Did they have coffee at the kitchen table and read the Sunday paper? Did they go back to bed and sleep through what would have been the call to worship and confession? Did they pray or listen to carols or read a book? Did they have trouble deciding how to spend this day off? A snow day is a rare gift, and I hope all those ministers who had one today were as excited about it as if they were eight years old. I hope it was a Sunday of joy for them, too.

Christmas Controversy

There is a big controversy at my home church about the manger scene. For more years than I can remember, it has been a kind of home-made affair, with department store mannequins dressed up and placed in a small shed that is put in place every December. The figures had gotten worn and old, and they were replaced in the last year or so -- by more mannequins. It was getting difficult to haul the shed out each year and then put it back, so someone made a small trailer. The whole thing now sits on that and can be rolled into place.

The figures are strange looking – no question about it. The angel of the Lord has a decidedly Dolly Parton-ish air. The shepherds (but one of them might be a wise man – hard to know) have been described as looking like stereotypes of Taliban officials. Mary is almost completely covered, as though she were a little embarrassed by all of it. And that seems to be the reaction of some church members – obviously not those who bought the new mannequins and their costumes. The town is talking, and they feel they are a laughingstock. Some of them wish they could just have a nice plastic lighted nativity like the big brick church down the street. Instead they have this one that is in poor taste and doesn’t fit with most folks’ views about what the Holy Family and its visitors ought to look like.

I’ve never been a fan of the mannequin manger scene, but I’ve been pondering the reactions to the new set up, and here is what I think: Maybe it isn’t inappropriate at all. Maybe it is closer to the spirit of the first Christmas than any of us realize. After all, there was nothing tasteful about the original. Maybe it was a crowded and cramped space; and maybe putting the manger scene on a trailer is a metaphor that reminds us that the stable was a “vehicle” for the coming of God into the world. If you met those first shepherds on the street, maybe they would look more than a little scary. And if the angel of the Lord appears as a woman of abundance, then maybe that has something to say about the nature of heaven, where there is always an overflowing “more.”

And here is the other thing. That this is a controversy strikes me as wholly and completely appropriate. We’ve domesticated what happened in Bethlehem until our Jesus has become plastic and still, clean and bright and quiet, not at all the kind of trouble-maker he turned out to be in real life. People then talked about him and how out of place he was, how he seemed to attract the wrong kind of attention, how he wasn’t like what the good religious people had come to expect. And, even though it makes me wince, I have decided to give thanks for this strange manger scene that has everybody talking.

December 11, 2007

Beauty Advice

She was at the cosmetic counter at the drugstore. I stood in line there because I was in a hurry and the line was short. Her hair was as black and shiny as imitation patent leather shoes. She was wearing a bright turquoise turtleneck with a thin cotton vest over it. The vest was probably company issue; it was supposed to be black but it looked rusty compared to her hair, and it was stained with what seemed like the lunch of days gone by. She was wearing a nametag that read “Marcia, Beauty Advisor.” And then, just in case you missed it, she had another badge pinned on her vest below her nametag: “I am your beauty advisor.” The skin on her face was crisscrossed with lines. It is a cliché, but it really did look like a road map with streets crossing here and there, the record of past journeys there for all to see. She had put on makeup, a lot, and it had settled into the creases. I looked at her face and her hair and the declarations pinned to her dirty vest, and I thought: “Oh no, you are not my beauty advisor.” And then I felt an immediate stab of remorse. I wondered if she had put on that makeup for a husband or a mother, for a grown child, for someone who looked at her and saw a beautiful woman, someone who was beloved as a sweetheart, a cherished daughter, an ever-young mother. Or did she go home to open a can of cat food for a being that did not care how she looked but only that she was a supplier of food? What courage did it take to look in the mirror every morning and pin that badge on: “I am your beauty advisor?”
I paid for my purchase – packaging tape, antacid, and lip balm – and left with my bag. And I thought that maybe her kind of beauty was something with a lot of advice to offer me.

December 9, 2007

Snow and Roses

The first snow of winter fell while the roses of summer were still blooming – one season intruding into another, each beautiful in its own way and the overlapping of the two more lovely than I could have imagined.

Photo by Jane Highsmith

A Toothache

I have a toothache. The dentist knows which tooth hurts but I can’t exactly tell. He says it is because of “referred pain.” It is an interesting concept, isn’t it? The source of the pain projects itself somewhere else, so that I think it is another tooth that needs work. And I wonder if maybe that is the calling of the church – to be the source of the world’s referred pain. Maybe we are to be the location where the pain of homelessness and hunger, war, and the impact of natural disasters lodge. Maybe we are the place that registers the pain when all other places are numb or in shock or oblivious. And if we do, indeed, feel the pain of the world, then we also must respond. Pain, after all, is a sign that something is wrong, that there is a danger that can threaten or cause damage. Pain is a message that action is needed. What would it be like if the church responded to the referred pain of the world by taking steps to ease that pain, to treat the source of the distress? I think we do that at our church by working to feed the hungry. I don’t think there are many folks who show up on Sunday morning with rumbling stomachs, but I do think that some come with souls that are growling because they share the hunger of the world. This month, our offerings go to the local food bank. That is a good thing. And it is also good that we are the nerve that feels the referred pain of the world around us.

December 4, 2007

Silent Night, Holy Night

We had our Advent service of lessons and carols on Sunday. Outside it was all ice and dark, slick danger, but the chapel was warm and bright with candles. The choirs sounded the way angels must sound, and the readers were serious and careful with the ancient texts. There is sometimes something truly mystical that happens in worship and that was one of those times. I knew everything that was going to happen in the service – when we would sit and stand, who would move where and when, what the words of the prayers would be, and how we would light the candles. It was all written out for us in a script. I knew what was going to happen, and I was still caught by surprise with the wonder of it. We sang “Away in a Manger” and it made me feel like crying. The words of the song of the Christmases of our childhoods surrounded us with grace, so simple and sweet, holding much more meaning than any ordinary words could. And then we lit all the candles, passing the light from one to the other in the dark sanctuary, and we sang “Silent Night” with the guitar playing, and I thought maybe I could almost understand the mystery of the manger. And then we all went out into the icy night, into the holy silence.

December 2, 2007

First Sunday in Advent

"Dirty Work"
Isaiah 2:1-5

Some years ago I visited Colonial Williamsburg with my family. It was one of those southern summer days when the temperature and the humidity are both hovering around 100. that bothered the adults but my niece who was four or five at the time was completely unphased by it. She loved watching the craftspeople at work, weaving baskets, making pottery, that sort of thing. But her favorite place was the blacksmith shop. A man was at work there with a hammer and anvil, shaping metal into useful tools. He was working over an open fire because the heat was necessary to soften the metal. It had to be a hot fire so occasionally he used bellows to pump air onto the coals and fire them up. I remember him working but mostly I remember how it was almost unbearably hot in that blacksmith shop and there were ashes and soot over all the place. His was a hard and dirty job.

I remembered that blacksmith shop as I read Isaiah’s prophecy: they shall beat their swords into plowshares. It is a wonderful outcome, isn’t it? All the weapons of war transformed into farm implements; no more tools for fighting and killing but rather equipment for planting and growing; no more bloodshed but instead a world at peace. Isaiah’s prophecy is both a hope and a promise, a word of comfort spoken to war-weary people. But I find it a bit disheartening that more than 2000 years later the promise of peace is yet to be fulfilled and the hope lies fragile in our hearts.

And I wonder if that is, in part, because we have misunderstood the nature of peace. I think we almost universally view peace as the absence of war. Certainly that is part of it, but to say that peace is the absence of war is like saying light is the absence of darkness. It is true, but it is only a small part of the truth. And it has nothing to say about the real nature of peace and how it is created.

Making peace is hard and dirty work. It requires the complete transformation of the very purpose of our lives. However it happened, the stuff of our life got shaped into something sharp and dangerous. However it happened, we wounded people we love, as well as those we don’t even know. However it happened, we came to spend our energy on defending ourselves and protecting ourselves and gaining our own advantage. We have been told that we have to attack life if we are to live it fully.

But in God’s holy blacksmith shop, all that gets changed. The essence of our lives remains the same, but our purpose is completely reshaped. Maybe we still have a sharp edge but that blade is now used for opening the ground of our being so that something new and nourishing can grow. Instead of living lives that are focused on self-protection at the expense of the rest of the world, we claim a calling that seeks to serve the other, not ourselves.

And what would that be like? Maybe like this:

In the mid-1990s, a Manhattan carpet store owner named Fernando Mateo had an idea that he thought might make the streets of New York safer. He created a program that gave $100 gift certificates form Toys ‘R’ Us to all those who turned guns into the police. During the 16 days of the program, 1,502 firearms were collected in one New York City precinct. And, guess what? Crime went down dramatically during that time in that precinct and the two adjoining ones as compared to a similar period. Assaults involving guns dropped from 10 to 2, gun possession arrests went from 18 to 11, and armed robberies were down 53 to 28. (“Armed-Crime Dip Recorded During Gun Exchange,” by Ronald Sullivan, New York Times, January 8, 1994) The success of the program has spawned similar ones nationwide.

Guns for toys: swords into plowshares.

Here is another example. This past week, the U.S. military invaded Bangladesh – did you know that? Twenty-four hundred U.S. Marines and sailors moved into the country to help Bangladeshi government provide clean water, medical aid, food and other relief supplies to victims of Cyclone Sidr, the most severe storm to hit the country since 1991. Thirty-six hundred people were killed in the storm and those who survived have almost nothing left to sustain life. So, equipped with 20 helicopters, the U.S. forces have delivered 160 tons of relief supplies to the storm victims this week. The main need is clean water, which is processed aboard US war ships and then delivered by military helicopters to the victims.
(“Storm-Stricken Bangladesh Gets Aid from U.S. Marines, Sailors,” by Phillip Kurata,

The equipment of war used to bring life-saving aid, water rather than weapons: swords into plowshares.

And this kind of transformation is not just something that happens on a large scale, as in these examples. It also happens in the smallest of spaces, in here. I don’t think that I can bring about world wide peace, but that doesn’t let me off the hook. I can work for peace in my world. And I must if I am to be faithful to God’s vision for creation.

But whether in the world around us or in the world within us, this is not easy work. In fact, it may be painful. Consider Isaiah’s image. In the heat of a holy forge, where the breath and the fire of the spirit melt our souls, we are hammered by God into something different. Our hearts are softened so that we can be remade. It is a hard and dirty work that God must do in order to reclaim us and restore us again to our rightful purpose, to recreate us into the people God intended us to be all along.

And -- when that happens, then we, too, must engage in that same kind of dirty work in the world, bringing the power of the Spirit to places of war and conflict, even if those places are in our own homes, within our own families, among our colleagues, our neighbors, the strangers in our streets; melting hostility; reshaping and bringing holy purpose to all of life. We, too, must recast our swords into plowshares.

In these Advent days, we are preparing to celebrate the birth of the one called the Prince of Peace. May we do that by allowing the Holy Blacksmith to beat the weapons we have made of our lives into implements of care and growth. May we be transformed by wind and fire of the Spirit so that we, in turn, may engage in the hard and dirty work of transforming the world.

And may our Advent prayer be the prayer of the poet:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
(John Donne)


The photograph is the sculpture "Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares
" in the United Nations garden. It was a gift from the then Soviet Union presented in 1959 and made by Evgeniy Vuchetich.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

November 30, 2007

Sermon, November 18

"Good News!"
Isaiah 65:17-25
Luke 21:5-19

How do you get your news: TV, radio, internet, or the old-fashioned way – out of the paper? We are awash in news—or what passes for it – these days. And our news is a depressing mixture of the truly tragic and terribly trivial. But God’s news is different, and ironically, there is nothing new about it.

God says: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” That seems like enormously comforting news to me. When you look around at our world, all you see is a mess, isn’t it? The mess covers our earth and extends to the heavens. We have poked holes in the ozone, we have polluted the air and the water, we have dug up the deposits of the ages and used them the fuel our fancies – big cars, big houses, big appetites for entertainment.

And it seems that Jesus must have been looking far into the future when he spoke to his disciples, when he said: “You will hear of wars and insurrections. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes and in various places famines and plague.” That sounds like our earth and heavens, doesn’t it? And worst of all, most of the mess is of our own making. And so it is to our time, as well as to an ancient time, that God speaks: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”

Imagine these new heavens and new earth, this new creation, for a moment. There will be no weeping or distress. There will be no infant mortality, no lives cut short. There will be no working poor. Those who build the houses will be able to afford to live in them. No one will be homeless. Those who pick the fruit and harvest the vegetables will not go hungry. People will have good and productive work, enough to be satisfying but not so much as to be exhausting and overwhelming. Those who do good will not feel that their work is in vain. No child anywhere will grow up in the shadow of calamity and terror. There will be peace. The wolf and the lion and the lamb will dwell together in harmony. And so will humankind. That is God’s new creation.

But it isn’t really new at all. This is, in truth, God’s old creation. It is the vision that God had for the world at the beginning of time, when the whole earth was like a green garden, when plants and animals and woman and man lived together, and the earth and the sky formed a great and beautiful dwelling where everything that was needed was available in overflowing abundance.

We have forgotten that vision of God’s good creation. It has been eclipsed by what we see day in and day out. But in the midst of our mess, the word of God still comes: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth like the heavens and earth at the beginning of time.” This is God’s news, this is good news. And it is not some abstract hope for a return to the good old days. It is a present reality, a reminder that the God who made the universe is still at work in our world. And it is a call to us to join God in that work, to be co-creators with God.

So against this backdrop, let me read you some of the news, our news, from the Hartford Courant, this week, on Thursday (November 15, 2007).

More than 35.5 million people in this country went hungry in 2006 as they struggled to find jobs that can support them, the Agriculture Department said Wednesday. Single mothers and their children were among the most likely to suffer, according to the study. Of the 35.5 million, 11.1 million reported that they had “very low food security,” meaning that they had a substantial disruption in the amount of food they typically eat. For example, among families, a third of those facing disruption in the food they typically eat said that an adult in their family did not eat for a whole day because they could not afford it. (Section A)

And God says: “They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not plant and another eat. They shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain.”

And God says: “What will you do about it? How will you testify to my good news; how will you demonstrate my new creation in the world?”

A man charged with killing a two-year-old in Groton told police he held her face against jets in bathtub then left her there and went to watch football, according to a search warrant unsealed this week. …. He told police he got angry when the baby threw up and then cried while he bathed her. Police said: “He stated that he knew what he did was wrong but that he did not care.” (Section B)

And God says: “No more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days. No one shall bear children for calamity.”

And God says: “What will you do about this? How will you testify to my good news; how will you demonstrate my new creation in the world?”

Nearly a third of Americans have at one point worried about becoming homeless and many more are taking in friends and relatives needing a home, a survey found. The homelessness issue has touched more than those who are living on the streets, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday. “When people read the news and read about bankruptcies, home foreclosures and auto plants being closed, they worry that they may be next. (Section A)

And God says: “They shall build houses and inhabit them. They shall not build and another inhabit.”

And God says: What will you do about this? How will you testify to my good news; how will you demonstrate my new creation in the world?

The military is making backup plans in case the unrest in Pakistan begins to affect the flow of supplies to American troops fighting in Afghanistan, the Defense Department said Wednesday. Said Lt General Carter Ham: Certainly, any time there is a nation that has nuclear weapons that is experiencing a situation such as Pakistan is at present, that is of primary concern. (Section A)

And God says: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

And God says: “What will you do about this? How will you testify to my good news; how will you demonstrate my new creation in the world?”

That’s the news – just part of it and just one day. And I’ve got news for you. Changing things will not be easy. Some of the powerful institutions that we have built and invested so much energy and effort in maintaining may need to go. When Jesus spoke of Herod’s mighty temple being tumbled, that might have been a prophecy for his time and a parable for ours. What we have made for ourselves, done for ourselves, constructed for ourselves will not matter – unless it gives us an opportunity to testify, to show with our very lives that we believe and trust that it is God’s way, not ours, that will prevail in the end.

Jesus told his disciples that the words and the wisdom they needed to do this would be given to them, and that is both a promise and a challenge, for us, too. It requires that we engage in radical trust, trust of the other, trust of God, not only of ourselves. As the old saying goes: It requires that we pray as though everything depended on God and work as though everything depends on us.

And I see that happening here. You feed the hungry; you support social service agencies that help the poor; you give money here that is used to promote economic and social justice in New Haven; you work for change in laws and policies; you speak up for what is right even if doing so is uncomfortable. You are at work with God.

And let me suggest a way to do this even more intentionally. However you get your news -- TV, radio, internet, newspaper -- use it as an occasion for prayer. Pray for the people and the tragic situations that are daily before you. Pray for our wounded world. Pay attention to what is happening around you. And then try reading the paper as you would read the Bible, as though it is God calling you to be at work in the world. Because it is.

God is still at work, with us, with creation. And what God’s creation is all about is shalom. We often translate that word as peace, but it has a more expansive meaning than that. It means wholeness, completeness, the full realization of God’s intention for the world. It means new heavens and a new earth. It means creation as God intended it to be all along. God is doing that, even here, even now. God is restoring shalom. And we are called to be part of that work.

God says: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” And that, dear friends, is really good news. May it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

Letting Go

These are truly the last of the tomatoes. The cold has made them a little shriveled, but it is a miracle to be finding them at all at this late date. They have hung on and on. The leaves on the trees seem reluctant to fall this year, too. On my street, there are trees still wearing the green of summer, although it seems a bit faded now and certainly out of place, like a woman going out to shovel snow decked in a summer sun dress. There are small forests of oaks in reddish-brown, with pounds of leaves still high overhead. We have raked away the obedient ones that kept to the assigned schedule. But the recalcitrants remain firmly fixed to their branches, hanging on tight. It will snow on them soon. They will be weighed down by ice, rattled by the cold wind. They will put a heavy strain on the limbs and there will be damage and loss as a result of their stubborn persistence. They should have let go a long time ago. And I wonder a little what will happen next spring when it is time for the new leaves to sprout. Will the old ones still be clinging to the branches, blocking the emergence of the new? Will the refusal to let go of what has become old and faded distort what might have been?
It is easy for me to see how out of season the tomatoes and green leaves are -- harder to see what hangs on in my life until it threatens to become a liability. That which is fresh and green, with the sweet taste of new, is so hard to let go, even when it has become faded and shriveled, even when its time has passed, even when what has been risks damaging what is and what might yet be. That is true for the garden, for the trees, and for my soul.

November 16, 2007

Holy Food

I've been going to the gym in the mornings. While I'd just as soon tread away in silence, the two TVs are tuned to the morning news shows -- pictures on both, sound track only from one. The news (if one can call it that) on the two TVs is not exactly in sync, but both TVs cover mostly the same stuff. Maybe it is the logical outcome of 24 hour talk TV, or the early morning hour, but a lot of what I see at 5:30 in the morning is pretty silly.

This week, there was a story about a holy pancake. A woman in Florida was cooking breakfast on Sunday (of course....), when she served up a pancake with an image of the Holy Family on it. Or it might have been Moses -- who could tell, for sure. (All those holy folks kind of look the same in the frying pan, don't they?) And then the big dilemma: What exactly do you do with a pancake that has a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, or Moses or some other holy person, as the case might be? Do you freeze it so you can take it out on special occasions and view it? Do you serve it up with butter and syrup, destroying the evidence of your personal miracle? And if you do that, who gets to eat it, and then does that person become holier than before, and holier than thou?

Well, what this family did was put the pancake up for auction on EBay with a starting bid of $35.00.

I don't know what I would have done. In the first place, I don't make pancakes, and then, too, I don't really look for pictures of Jesus in my food. I've never found a Madonna in a potato, for example, or seen the face of Jesus in a biscuit. And the truth is that I discount this sort of experience.

And then I am reminded of what happens to me on Sunday morning, not at the kitchen table but at the Communion Table. I break the bread and pour the juice, and it is holy food. I eat and drink and I know the mystical presence of Christ. I take all that in and, God willing, I edge toward holiness myself.

But what happens at that Table is not for sale, not even to the highest bidder.

November 11, 2007

All Saints Sermon

“Suddenly Saints”

Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

When Pope John Paul died, thousands and thousands of people came to pay their respects. I remember seeing an aerial photograph of Rome with this long line of people waiting to pass by to honor this man. Around St Peter’s, multitudes gathered in love and grief, many of them holding signs that read “Santo Subito:” santo – saint; and subito – immediately, or for you musicians, suddenly. Santo subito: make him a saint immediately. Whatever the Church’s process, the people believed that in God’s eyes, he was already a saint.

So what is sainthood? What makes John Paul – or Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or anybody, or that matter – a saint?

Meister Eckhart, an ancient holy man, a saint himself, once said this: The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. Maybe a saint is one who know that, and then goes the next step of seeing the world through the eye of God. How does the world look when you do that – when you take a long loving look at the real?

Consider for a moment at two women, Ruth and Benita, who founded a non-profit fair trade organization that links the world’s most rural and economically-disadvantaged cooperatives to the U.S. market. Their company, called Mercado Global, provides both fair wages and investments in the long-term development of communities in developing nations. How did Ruth and Benita get started? While they were in college, they spent nine months in Guatemala’s western highlands working with rural women’s cooperatives that struggled to find domestic markets for their traditional handicrafts. Returning to the U.S., Benita and Ruth held fair trade crafts sales on their campus. They made enough money doing that to make a difference, and decided to make that part of their life’s work. Ruth and Benita are Yale College graduates, class of 2004.

And then there is Daisy. When she was six years old, she went to first grade in an elementary school in a very poor part of the rural United States. She was so fragile and tiny that she looked as though she would break into pieces if you touched here.
Daisy loved school. It was the best thing that had ever happened to her. And her favorite part of school was the cafeteria. It was a big room, linoleum floors and cinderblock walls, a kind of sterile place, but Daisy loved it, because there was food there: breakfast and lunch, and often a snack, too. And the only thing she got to eat was at that school. She tried to eat as much as she could, but it was never quite enough. And so she starting going through the trash cans, gathering up the food that had been thrown away- fruit hat someone had not eaten, unopened boxes of cereal or cartons of milk. Fridays were really hard, because she would most likely not have anything to eat after she left school until she got back on Monday morning. The cafeteria manager, a by-the-book kind of person, saw her doing this one morning after breakfast and ran out and yanked her away. “You can’t do that, you can’t have that food. And besides you already had your breakfast.” A teacher’s aide was watching this and lit into the cafeteria manager. And then she helped that little starving girl get together enough to eat. The cafeteria manager was just following the rules, and it would be good to get the rules changed, but that takes time and effort. And in the meantime, a child was starving and there was someone there to do what needed to be done.

I don’t know if Ruth and Benita are people of faith. I don’t know if Daisy goes to church or not. But they are saints, aren’t they? And so is that teacher’s aide who saw an injustice and did something about it.

Is that what saintliness is all about: seeing the wrong in the world and doing what you can to make it right? If it is, then the first step is the seeing. But why doesn’t everyone see the same thing? What is that clouds our vision?

I was in Washington DC for the past few weeks and I spent part of a Sunday afternoon walking around Georgetown. If you have ever been there, you know that it is a lovely place, full of expensive houses, very nice restaurants, and upscale shops. And there are a lot of homeless people, too – more so than it seems there are in New Haven. And then I wondered if I had just gotten used to the street people here, that they are just part of my daily routine, and so I don’t even see them anymore. I don’t know. I wondered if my life of privilege makes me blind to the pain around me.

And suddenly, it is as though I hear Jesus saying:

Blessed are you who are poor – women of Guatemala and homeless people in New Haven -- for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now – Daisy -- for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now at the injustice of it all – Ruth and Benita and that teacher’s aide --- for you will laugh.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, all the way to the bank, for you will mourn and weep.

There is a great reversal here. The blessing, the sainthood, goes to the poor and the hungry. The blessing, the sainthood goes to those who are grief-stricken by injustice, who see the world with God’s eye, who are not blinded by pride position or power. The saints are those who see with the eyes of their hearts enlightened. And where are we in all this?

In a short story titled “Revelation,” the gifted Southern writer Flannery O’Connor gives us a glimpse of what this might be like, this seeing with an enlightened heart. (Everything That Rises Must Converge. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 1975)

The story begins in a doctor’s waiting room, where Mrs. Ruby Turpin has an encounter with a girl who is, in Mrs. Turpin’s view, the wrong kind – ugly to look at, fat with bad skin, common, white trash. As it turns out, the girl, who is named Mary Grace, goes to Wellesley College, but clearly Mrs. Turpin is better than she is. In fact, she considers herself better than a great many folks.

She despises Mary Grace, and the girl knows that, but she also knows Mrs. Turpin in some deep and frightening way, “in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition” (page 207). Pushed to her limit by the woman’s sense of superiority, Mary Grace finally throws a book at her and tries to choke her.


“What you got to say to me?” Mrs. Turpin asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” [the girl] whispered.” (page 207)

The girl’s message stirs up a fierce anger in Mrs. Turpin. Later, back home, out by the pig pen, she gives vent to her anger before God.

“What do you send me a message like that for?” she said in a low fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog and me too? How am I saved and from hell too? . . . “Why me?” She rumbled. “It’s no trash around here black or white, that I haven’t given to, and break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” … “Go on,” she yelled, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”…

A final surge of fury shook her and she roared, “Who do you think you are?”

The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment with a transparent intensity. … She opened her mouth but no sound came out of it. … Mrs. Turpin stood there. … Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there… as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge.

At last she lifted her head. … A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak [of the sunset] as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast hoard of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself …, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right.

She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and responsible behavior. They alone were [singing] on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” (pages 215-218)

And so shall it be with us. And so it is already. We are in that holy procession, even if we are bringing up the rear. And when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened to see the world -- and ourselves – as God sees, then we will be able see our place in that great company. Santo Subito!

© Martha C. Highsmith

November 6, 2007

The Boss

The boss stone in a cathedral is a kind of keystone that sits in the ceiling at the intersection of stone ribs. The soundness of the structure depends on the boss stone. It absorbs the tension of the ribs, distributes the load, and bears the weight of the whole. Without it, the whole thing is always in danger of collapse. And yet, what you notice when you look up is the vaulting ceiling, the stone pillars curving inward, the soaring arches. You almost never even notice the bosses, and certainly you don’t accord them the kind of importance that they deserve.
This is a week when some big bosses in the corporate sector have lost their jobs. I wonder if it is because they wanted to be noticed, rather than providing the support for their organizations. I wonder if they were impressed with the weight of their own positions, rather than feeling the weight of being responsible to their employees and shareholders. I wonder if those of us who are flesh-and-blood bosses are prone to forget what the stones seem to know. And is that a particular, terrible tendency in the church?

November 2, 2007

November Tomatoes

There are some bug holes and cracks and spots, and they aren't perfect -- but this is November 2 and I have gathered vegetables from my garden. I don't know whether to rejoice in the grace of bounty from this little plot of earth at this time of year or to despair that global warming seems more imminent all the time. A hurricane swirls in the ocean, tomatoes and peppers and eggplant ripen in New England, and next door the bicycles are still in the yard. I thought I would return home and find all the leaves gone, but lots of trees are still green and the raking has not yet begun in earnest. I read in the newspaper about a little town in Tennessee that has run out of water. And I read about a town in Mexico that is inundated with too much. The times seem out of joint, somehow, as though nature is protesting our casual treatment of her, as though she is irritated that we have taken her so for granted. I hope this is just a small lover's quarrel, that we can make up for the damage we have done, that it is not too late to mend our relationship with the earth. And, in the meantime, I eat my November tomatoes.

November 1, 2007

The Turtle's Eye

The world is full of vast and strange beauty and most of it I never notice. To see the eye of this ancient-looking turtle makes me think that God must have greatly enjoyed creating the world. There are lots of exotic animals at this zoo. And mixed in are the squirrels and the chipmunks and the sparrows. In reality, they are no less exotic, no less beautiful. And I don't much notice them, either. So this wide-open eye is an eye-opener for me, too. It demands: Look! Watch! See!
Or as the Bible might say it: Behold!

October 31, 2007


My sister and I climbed a bit of a hill in Arizona to reach the top where there was a single, giant saguaro cactus. We were able to get right up next to it, to see how tall it was, how green it was, how strange it was, at least compared to things that grow were we live.
It was a mystical plant. And there we we were in the desert, paying homage to this ancient plant. It lives where nothing should be able to live. It grows over years and years, and we were there only for one single day --not even -- to see it.
And when we came very close, we heard the cactus singing. It was a sound like nothing I have ever heard before. I know it was the wind blowing through those spikes but it sounded like music from heaven or some other-worldly place.

I have heard a lot of music in my life, and a lot in the last few weeks. But I have never heard anything that sounded like that cactus singing to us. It was like music from beyond human understanding. It was the "music of the spheres." It was the music of God.

Photo by Jane Highsmith

October 28, 2007


It was homecoming today – not the football game kind of homecoming with a parade and floats and the smiling queen with the bouquet of roses. This was homecoming at church, my brother’s church. It is a small country church, out in the middle of nowhere. The members all know each other by name and genealogy, have probably visited in each other’s homes, go sit in the hospital when one of them is having surgery, and lend a hand or send money when there is trouble. Homecoming means special music, fall flowers, and dinner in the fellowship hall after worship. Tables were piled with food: fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches, collards and potato salad, devilled eggs, hush puppies and biscuits and ham and barbecue. And a whole separate table just for dessert with cakes and pies, cupcakes, banana pudding and peach cobbler. There was sweet tea in big red cups, and it was good. Everybody was talking and laughing and taking pictures. The little boys were running around, the teenaged girls were patting their hair, and the teenaged boys were watching the teenage girls. And the rest of us were catching up with each other, smiling at the children, and eating. There was everything in abundance in that small church – love, food, family, enjoyment, joy. Other churches may have gathered today with bigger choirs or fancier buildings or more powerful preaching, but none with a purer spirit of fellowship than where I was.

Centering Prayer, cont.

In giving instructions about prayer, Jesus said: “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” I think the KJV uses the word “ closet,” and that strikes me as somehow more powerful. First of all, a closet is a small, dark space, without room for distraction. And second, if I were to pray in my closet I would need to do a lot of work first – and maybe that is just the point of this instruction, at least to me.

My closet is packed with stuff. I have more clothes than I can possibly wear in a month, I suppose. And just how many pair of black shoes does one woman need? If I were really to go into my closet to pray, I would need to get rid of a lot of stuff, literally and figuratively. I sit to pray and I am surrounded by my physical and mental accumulations. They crowd out my silence, intrude into my spirit, and disturb my soul. Instead of focusing on God, I think about what to wear, which bills need to be paid, whether I did the agenda for the 8:30 meeting. I try to pray in the midst of a soul crammed with the accumulations of too many seasons. I have held onto that which should have been discarded or recycled long ago: old grudges and hurt; imagined identities that no longer fit the reality of who I am; unnecessary busyness that bounces around my brain like a pack of chattering monkeys.

The room for centering prayer at the cathedral is dark and plain. It is a physical representation of what I would want for my spiritual reality. So I work on emptying my spiritual closets -- and my physical ones, too -- so there will be a little more room for the Holy Spirit, even in the midst of all the stuff of my life.

October 24, 2007

Centering Prayer

Every Wednesday, the cathedral has a half hour or so of centering prayer. The space is wonderful, dark and still with smooth white walls, one candle burning and the morning light coming through a high stained glass window. This morning, a woman came in and sank down in her chair and said "Oh, yes." And her "yes" hung in the air and resonated in my soul and I felt "yes" too.
I am not very often quiet and almost never quiet in the company of others. There is something about a collective silence in a place that has known hundreds of them that soaks into your bones. I do not need to pray -- somehow the space and the silence pray with and for me. I will cherish this when I leave, when I am back home where my praying is filled with to-do lists and garbage trucks and the paper thumping against the front door. But for now, the prayers still linger within, my poor prayer and all those powerful ones of the other people, unknown to me, whose silence enfolded me this morning and continues to do that.

October 23, 2007

Bells, bells, bells, bells......

Marie Borroff has a lovely poem “In the Range of Bells” about walking down the hill in New Haven and listening to the bells ring. I am here at a cathedral also in the range of bells, but I do not find it a thoughtful exercise. Instead, it just seems like (dare I say it) noise. The ringing yesterday and again tonight seems random and unpredictable. It is not music to me nor is it a sound that counts the hours, coming, as it does, at odd moments. It is as though some unseen hand needs to practice a six- or seven-note scale – over and over and over. And maybe that is in fact the case. I prefer the sound of acorns falling from the tree outside, birds going to sleep, and even a siren in the distance that calls me to prayer for someone in distress. The disembodied dinging of these bells is not peaceful, not prayerful.
There is much about this place that is lovely and calls to the contemplative in me, but there is also much that seems of pomp and privilege, and I do not connect with it. I wonder if the appreciation of grandeur is, as they say, an acquired taste. I have been formed in a small country church, not a cathedral, where the music was an often out-of-tune piano and the voices of those I loved singing over my head. There were no sophisticated choirs, no carillons, no majestic organs. But all the music, here and there, is the praise of God. Even, I suppose, these interminable bells…..

October 21, 2007

Irony for Dinner

I’m not very good at eating out by myself. I love cooking for myself at home, making nice dinners and eating well, but there is something hard about going to a restaurant alone. I did that tonight, though, at a place down the street where I have been before, so it didn’t feel so strange. I took a book and sat at a small table outside. It was a lovely night, warm and clear, and the place was crowded. The people right next to me were a young couple. She was wearing a sparkly diamond, and they were planning their wedding. Or rather, they were planning the reception. She was very concerned that the guests not see the place where they would have dinner until after the cocktail hour. He had suggestions that she seemed to find helpful, but mostly (I thought) he just agreed with her. I wanted to ask them if they had thought about the ceremony at all, but, of course, I didn’t.
I ordered guacamole and it was very good. And I read a chapter in my book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, called “Eating Neighborly.” It describes a diner in Vermont with a menu of food that comes from within an hour’s drive, a place with the slogan “ Think locally, act neighborly.”
I’ve been in Washington for a week now, and I haven’t seen an avocado tree anywhere. But I ate the guacamole and enjoyed it even though it wasn't consistent with "neighborly" behavior. And I wonder if it would have been a neighborly thing to do to ask that couple about their vows and the prayers and promises they would be making for their lifetime.

The World is About to Turn

This morning after church, I walked around Georgetown for a couple of hours. I had never been there before and it was a lovely day for a stroll. Georgetown is a shi-shi (is that a word?) kind of place. There are old buildings, quaint and charming, alongside expensive shops and upscale restaurants. I didn’t buy anything expensive, just a couple of used CDs, but just about anything you can imagine was for sale. There were Barney’s and Kate Spade, with the palm reader upstairs; rare books and the Egyptian store; Godiva and Subway. It was crowded with tourists and maybe locals, too. There were old people and babies being wheeled around, people, like me, consulting their maps, and folks just looking for a nice place for Sunday brunch. And there were a lot of street people. One woman was on the corner, dressed all in white, holding a basket with a hand-written sign that read “Giving is a blessing.” All she had in the basket was pennies. There were men, many of them, with paper cups held out, some of them sitting on the sidewalk, others on overturned milk crates. I remember thinking that there were so many more of these folks than there are back home. And then I wondered if that is really true. I wondered if I have just gotten so used to seeing them in my own setting that I don’t even notice them anymore.

The anthem at church was the Canticle of the Turning. It has these words: “From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev'ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn. These are tables spread, ev'ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn. And my heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all the tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.”

And that was the song that was running through my heart all afternoon.

October 20, 2007

The Art of Art and the Art of Preaching

The National Gallery has an exhibit of J.M.W. Turner’s works. There are a lot of paintings, and as is often the case, they are displayed chronologically. The first room has watercolors that are so specific and detailed they might be photographs. These early paintings are often buildings, in what the materials describe as “the fashionable Picturesque aesthetic, which embraces qualities of variety, asymmetry roughness, and decay.” However they are characterized, the paintings are lovely. Later works are done in oil and take on epic topics: war, fire, storms. There are some biblical themes, too: an angel in the sun, Moses, the fourth horseman, the flood. But here is what I notice: the progression of the work is from precise to abstract. There is more and more of what seems to be to be experimentation, the same scene from multiple vantage points, with lavish use of color shifting with each new view. And finally, at the end, the paintings are almost pure color and light, so open as to demand the viewer’s own interpretation.

I see here somehow the progression of my preaching work. When I began, I thought I had to present a clear depiction of what the text was saying. I thought I had to show it exactly as it was – meaning exactly as I perceived it to be, although I don’t think I had that level of self-awareness. I’ve tackled my own epic themes, and I’ve come at the same text from multiple perspectives. And the longer I’m at this, the more I see my preaching opening up. My intention is no longer to say what I see, but rather to try to create some kind of space and light that pushes others to do their own interpretive work. I want to suggest, to use color, to work with layers of meaning, but I do not want to illustrate, to copy, to try to duplicate. I want to experience what is before me and draw others into their own experience.

Here is how one contemporary described watching Turner paint: “He began by pouring wet paint onto the paper until it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrubbed at it in a kind of frenzy and the whole thing was chaos – but gradually and as if by magic the lovely ship with all its exquisite minutia, came into being and by luncheon time the drawing was taken down in triumph.”

And so I preach, tearing and scratching and scrubbing and immersing myself in chaos -- praying all the while that something will come into being by lunch time.

October 18, 2007

Walking the Labyrinth

At the National Cathedral this week, there have been opportunities for interfaith prayer practices focusing on peace. There was a big concert with Graham Nash and David Crosby, Emily Saliers, Jackson Browne, and Keb’ Mo’. Tibetan monks have chanted and made a sacred sand Mandela. There have been prayers and songs and services. This afternoon I walked the labyrinth that has been put in place as part of this.

The piece of painted canvas is laid on the stone floor of a chapel with a large mural of Jesus after the crucifixion being carried to the tomb. There are candles on the altar and rows of chairs with kneelers. It is a very Christian space. Two people are chanting there, in a language I do not know, accompanied by harmonium and drums. When they pause between chants, there is the sound of a choir from somewhere else, singing a traditional hymn. Some people are walking, some are sitting in the chairs, some are kneeling.

I watch for a while, and the labyrinth seems crowded. I am reluctant to put myself in the midst of all those people, all bunching up together. One woman makes her own path, skipping over parts of the labyrinth, going her own way. I am a little amazed by this, and then amazed that I am so rule-bound that it would not occur to me to do that myself. I wonder if she missed something, or if it was an act of courage to break off in her own direction. I know that when I walk, I will stay within the lines.

I begin to walk, and I am in a hurry. It is hard, so hard, to slow myself down. But bit by bit, I absorb the rhythm of those who are more patient, more prayerful than I am. As I wind around the circles, I feel my soul unwinding. There is a middle-aged man ahead of me in khakis and a green polo shirt, a little wobbly in his sock-feet. Going that slowly puts me off balance at first, too. And then I feel my feet on the canvas, and I feel the solid stone underneath, and I somehow get my grounding. I can feel my feet slowing, my breathing slowing, my mind quieting.

There are children and teens walking, too. Two brothers enter the chapel. They are maybe nine and twelve. They take off their tennis shoes and begin. They are followed by two girls roughly the same ages. They walk, too, while their mother sits on the side and watches them. When I pass the man in the green polo shirt, I smell his cologne. When I pass the boys, they smell like clean laundry. We all follow the path, around and in and out.

In the center, I find a deep prayer within myself. And even when I leave the labyrinth, leave the chapel, leave the cathedral, the prayer stays with me, and so does the quiet and the unhurried feeling.

October 16, 2007


He watched with great intensity as I poured the water from a pitcher that his great-great-aunt had bought. It splashed and danced in his grandmother’s bowl, wetting the embroidered cloth that had belonged to his great-grandmother. I talked to him about the preciousness of water in a desert place and poured it for him to see from his grandmother’s pewter cups that would now belong to his mother. He listened and put his hands in the water. I prayed and so did he, and we watched each other as the words were spoken. His parents promised to raise him to be a loving and faithful person, one who would seek peace and justice, and his aunt and uncle, now godparents, promised to support his parents in this labor of a lifetime. And none of us needed to promise to love him because we already did.

And then I took him in my arms and put the water on his head and said the ancient words of Jesus. And the water dripped on his curls, and he was baptized. And we prayed again, and I held him close and I, too, was held close in that most holy moment. Then I took the oil and anointed him as a precious child of God. And he put his fingers in the tiny bowl and he anointed me. And we went around the room, and he anointed every person there. This little one, who is such a blessing, offered a blessing to all of us. And then we were all baptized -- with our own tears. And it was joy and grace and love, and You were there.

October 15, 2007

Holy places

I have been to Arizona for the first time in my life. It is almost impossible to believe that it is the same earth as the place where I live. For one thing, there is more sky than one can take in. The first time my brother visited, he described it as feeling naked, and I know what he meant. There is something about it that strips you down, makes you feel bare and small, exposed. But exposed to what?

We went to Sedona, a place of red rocks and light so lovely it is almost tangible. There are locations there that people call vortexes, and we bought a little booklet that described them. They are energy fields, spiritual places where one can tap into some kind of inner wisdom or special revelation. It is the kind of thing that New Age spirituality embraces – and so to be pooh-poohed by traditional faith, I suppose.

But it seemed to me to be a lot like the same kind of thing I heard described when I visited Wales, only there it was not vortexes but rather thin places. In Sedona, it is buttes carved from red rock; in Wales, it is holy wells.

And the question that I debate with myself is whether one has to go somewhere special to find the Holy. Do you have to meditate on a mountain in Arizona, or wash in the icy water of a Welsh spring? Do you have to be in a sanctuary on Sunday? Does God live in a particular kind of place? I want to say no, but at the same time, I cannot discount the stories of connection to the Other in these thin places. And I have to say that something about the air and the light and the rocks in Sedona – and being on holiday with people that I love – did seem somehow sacred. I know that God is everywhere, and I also know that a lot of the time I do not pay attention. But there are places and times where the barrier between me and my Maker is thin, almost transparent, and I see with clearer vision.

I brought home a little bottle of water from Holywell in Wales, and I brought home a vial of red sand from Sedona. God is not in the water and God is not in the sand. But the Holy is in the memory of those places where people have prayed and worshiped and had the eyes of their hearts enlightened over the eons. And the water and the dirt remind me of my own exposure to the Spirit.

October 14, 2007

Leaving the pulpit

Our church is one that people sometimes refer to as a “major pulpit.” It’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it, because the church is not a pulpit. And I don’t even preach from the pulpit these days. I preach in the midst of the congregation, out among the people. That is what the church is – the people. And the Word is meant to be in our midst. In fact, it is in our midst: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Only we don’t act that way very often. And it has taken a lot of effort for me to enact this belief with my preaching.

But, hard as it is to let go, something profound happens when I walk down that center aisle during a sermon. For one thing, I do not separate myself from anybody else. We are all there together, waiting for the Spirit to speak. I have prepared the sermon (oh, yes….) but even so, I am often surprised by what happens to me in the preaching, how some turn of a phrase takes on a new and deeper meaning for me that it did not have in the practice time, how I suddenly see something I did not know before. But the most powerful thing for me is people’s faces, wearing the signs of what is behind their eyes: watching and listening, daydreaming, fighting boredom, sometimes reading a book or napping. It is a microcosm of the life of faith as I experience it myself. The Word is right before me, and sometimes I am paying attention, sometimes I am bored, sometimes I am distracted and busy, and sometimes I am just worn out with it all. But still the Word speaks. And I may hear some of it in spite of myself.

My prayer before preaching these days is that my words may be transformed into the Word that the people need. That means that it isn’t anymore so much about what I say as it is about what the people hear. It isn’t all about me and how good a job I can do with the sermon. I doubt I will ever let go of my need to study and prepare and do the best I can. But these days, I am learning to trust that it doesn’t all depend on me. I am learning to trust the Holy Spirit. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t easy to walk out there in the middle of the church and preach.

This old church

The church I am serving is old, and we are celebrating its oldness this year. It is a miracle to be in a church that has been around for more than two centuries. That is a long time. I sometimes think about the people who started the church. Documents from the time preserve their intentions, written in spider web script on fragile, crumbly paper. They wanted a church that would have strong preaching and sound doctrine, a church that would prepare young people for a life of service and faithfulness, a church that would not be subject to the rules of the prevailing society. I wonder how well they would think we have done in continuing their legacy.

It is astonishing to try to take in all the change that has happened in the world since this church was begun. That change is reflected in the church, as well. Sermons are shorter, for one thing, and they are less theological, too, I suppose. The preacher, at least this one, does not presume a level of Biblical literacy in the congregation, so sermons that teach are likely to focus on scripture rather than doctrine. The liturgy, literally “the work of the people,” has always been that, so now the liturgy is diverse and ecumenical. We incorporate prayers and practices from many Christian traditions. We sing music that was sung in the eighteenth century, and music that was written last week. We have a huge pipe organ -- and a djembe, an African drum. Worship leaders are not necessarily ordained, and (it would have shocked and appalled them!) the senior pastor is a woman.

At the same time, some things have not changed, and it is even more astonishing to ponder that. There is still an emphasis on strong preaching, a pattern that has persisted through the life of the church. The church has a renewed focus on preparing young adults for a life of meaning and mission, for a life of ministry – although we think of ministry in a much more expansive way than just being ordained. And this church is reclaiming what it means to be a countercultural institution.

When the church was founded, all churches in the area were under the control of a board of local pastors. They decided everything having to do with anything ecclesiastical. That this church broke away from that was extremely controversial at the time. We are not controversial in that same way now, but we are still countercultural. We are in a community where just being Christian can be controversial. Conservative members of our community feel that this church is too liberal, too “out there.” And liberal members of our community often see no need for church at all -- this one or any other, for that matter. And yet, here we are, not the cultural institution that this church once was, but still here, still worshiping, still trying to figure out what it means to be Christian in the world where we find ourselves.

It is fun to celebrate being old, having survived a long time. But it is not enough. The past is only prologue. There is that old saying that God has no grandchildren, meaning that those of each generation must establish their own new relationship with God, not relying on the previous generation to do that for them. What matters is here and now, and where we go from here and now. And just as I wonder what our predecessors would think about what we are doing, even more I wonder about those who come after us. What will they think? I pray they will see this as a faithful time of reawakening.

And through all of this, I realize anew that the church is always written in a spider web script, fragile and lovely, but still created from the strongest stuff that exists. It is only when we try to preserve what we have been that we crumble and disintegrate. So spin us out into our future and make us always aware of the now -- the eternal Now.

October 4, 2007

Back door ministry

There are lots of folks who have traditional -- maybe even conventional -- ministries, but I am not one of them. From the very beginning, I seem to have done things outside the accepted norm. A friend once observed that, from ordination on, I had come to ministry through the back door. He was right, but he spoke a deeper truth, perhaps, than he realized.

The back door of my little house leads into the kitchen.
It is usually a calm and serene place. An old stained glass window colors the light red and blue and green. Measuring cups hang on the wall, and there is an antique towel rack and a chalk board made of a piece of slate from the roof of my grandmother's house. The space is bright and cozy, a tiny room, but when friends come, that is often where we end up, all crowded around the preparation and the food. When I am in the midst of some big project, it gets messy and disordered, with pots in the sink, spills on the counter, crumbs on the floor. I always want things to turn out well, and often they do. Invariably, there is something interesting (maybe not always good....) that emerges from that mess. But then again, there are times that no matter how well I follow directions, no matter how much time and attention I devote, no matter how fresh the ingredients, my efforts result in failure. I cook my heart out, and nothing edible comes of it. But I can never linger too much on what went wrong, when there is always another meal to think of. Usually, I find something nourishing in the pantry or fridge but there are times when there is nothing that seems to feed me. And in all of this, the culinary successes and the failures, I keep on trying -- trying new recipes and techniques, trying to improve my old skills, trying to find ways to keep body and soul together and well fed. And I do that every day, over and over again.

My kitchen is a daily parable of my ministry. I am often called to those places behind the scenes, places and events where a lot of the work
necessary to keep things going and to sustain people gets done. My ministry is not the formal "living room" kind but rather where folks stand around talking. Yes, I have worked in churches and am doing that now, but these have always been temporary positions. I have done substitute preaching, stated supply, interims, and transitional pastorates. I have stayed as long as several years in a church and as short as one Sunday. I have gone for extended stretches with no church to call home. But I have always had ministry. It has been messy sometimes, I have known failure and disappointment, and there have been times when the work was simply exhausting. I have hungered for substance when there was nothing but staleness and leftovers. But every now and then, I have put my heart into something new and challenging and have had it all come together in ways far better than I could have envisioned. And often this ministry of mine is a source of serenity and light.

As a "Martha," I am at home in this kitchen that is my ministry. I love creating a place of hospitality. I love feeding people with the Word. I love doing the work needed to prepare for the visit of Jesus. And I also struggle with resentment against my sisters, and brothers, who are in the living room doing the formal entertaining. But I also claim this gospel truth as my own: "... Jesus loved Martha ..." (John 11.5). And I remember that the one whose name I bear recognized and understood his calling when almost no one else did, and I am sustained and nourished by my own recognition of the Christ who comes to me.

I hope to offer reflections here that sustain and nourish, that comfort and renew, that invite others to embrace and thrive in their own unconventional ministries. We all have a ministry, a calling. I'll share my views on mine, and I'd love to know what's cooking with you!