December 31, 2008

A New Year

The snow is white and crisp and clean. It fell all day, covering up the grayness of mid-winter. Tonight the air is so cold that it gives a kind of purifying shock to the lungs. The sky is black velvet clear with all those distant stars twinkling as bright as the Christmas lights reflecting on the icy walkways. The old year is now as gray and dull as the winter landscape was before the snow. Soon we will turn the calendar, learn to write 2009, look for a fresh start. May this year be like the cold brightness of this night, beautiful, erasing the old dinginess, giving us a sparkling landscape so pure and new that it takes the breath away. May we be able to begin again, right the wrongs we have lived into, turn our backs on the past. And may the bright shining stars light the way into a future where we learn how to be the best selves that we can be, our true selves, the ones who are made in the image of God.

December 28, 2008

The Christmas Parrot

Psalm 148
Luke 2:22-40

Did you get what you expected for Christmas? Or did you spend the last few days standing in line somewhere, waiting to exchange? It is always nice to get the perfect size, the right color, the preferred item, at the outset, but sometimes, in spite of our lists and our not-so-subtle hints, that just doesn’t happen. Usually we can – and do – swap for something else, but there are those things that we just get stuck with – no exchange, no gift receipt.

This happened a number of years ago to friends of mine. On Christmas morning, one member of the family received a huge box. I imagine it was far and away the biggest gift under the tree. Everyone waited in anticipation to see what it was.

Well, what it was – was a very large, ceramic parrot. The parrot was about three feet high, painted a really bad shade of green with orange and yellow trim. It was pretty awful.

I don’t know if the gift-giver meant it as a serious gift or not but the Christmas parrot became a great tradition in that family. After the first year, the object was for the previous year’s recipient to foist the parrot on another relative. And, as I understand it, the rules of this tradition mean that once you have, you have it until you can get somebody else to receive it. The Christmas parrot roosted in my friends’ sun porch for several years, actually.

After the flannel shirt is frayed and worn and the sweater is moth-eaten, when the box of candy is long-gone and that year’s hottest toy is gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, the Christmas parrot endures. How ironic that what seemed to be a joke at first has become one of the most lasting gifts in my friends’ family.

Now, you probably don’t have any Christmas parrots in your family – it seems a unique tradition, fortunately – but I imagine almost everyone has received a gift that was not quite what they expected. And that should not be a surprise or a disappointment to us, because when you think about the story of the first Christmas, almost no one there got what they expected either. From the very beginning, Christmas is about the unexpected.

Old Zechariah in the temple is visited by an angel who tells him that after he and Elizabeth have given up, they will indeed have a child. And that child, John, will be the one to prepare the way for the messiah. Zechariah’s reaction: “How can this be? Are you sure?” The angel also visits Mary and gives her unexpected – unbelievable – news. Her reaction is the same: “How can this be?” And Joseph, an orderly, measured man, no doubt, a carpenter, receives life-changing instructions in a dream. It would not be surprising if in the cold, bright light of day he asked himself: “How can this be?” Then the two of them, Mary and Joseph, find themselves in Bethlehem, a baby needing to be born, and no provisions. And we might ask ourselves: “How can this be – that the son of the great God of the entire universe should come into the world in this way?” Yes, from the very beginning, what people got was not what they expected.

And the beginning is even before Mary and Joseph. The prophets told of the unexpected as well – a messiah, a savior, coming in a world of disarray and disappointment, a world of sorrow and sadness and sin.

And even that is not the beginning, perhaps. If we had the vision to see, it might be that we would know that the beginning is without beginning. We would know the most unexpected thing of all – that the Lord of all the world cares even for us; that before we even existed, a great and powerful love was built into all that would come into being; that this love would not depend on our merit or worth or goodness, but it would come to us as an amazing unexpected gift of grace. We would know what Simeon and Anna knew – that God has not abandoned us, but instead has provided for our salvation, even when that means saving us from ourselves.

But this knowledge of the prophets is not an easy knowledge. It defies our expectations. All the waiting and anticipation for deliverance comes, not through power and might, but gathered up in a tiny baby. The prophecies are fulfilled in the strangest way imaginable, wrapped in fragile flesh and completely helpless. God wears a human face, and is called by a human name, and lives a human life. And almost everything about that life, the life of Jesus, is unexpected: his birth, his ministry, his friends – none of it what the people were looking for.

The one who fulfilled the ancient prophecies of the messiah was born to a poor unmarried couple, far from home, with no place to stay. The first witnesses to the miracle of his life were shepherds – unsophisticated, uneducated, unwashed field hands. He never wrote a book, built a church, had a family – never did any of the things that we might think memorable. For his entire, brief ministry, he associated with the most unlikely types – not the rich and powerful, not the religious leaders, not the respected of society. He spent his life with common laborers and IRS agents, with fallen women and contaminated lepers: the outcasts of society, the least and the last and the lost.

Even during his lifetime, the good news he brought was a strange kind of good news. So why should we be surprised if the gift of the presence of God still comes in strange and unexpected ways. Just like the first Christmas when it seemed nothing quite went right, and yet the Lord was in the midst of it, so it often is in our own lives. And sometimes it almost seems that everything has to fall apart in order to make room for his coming. Perhaps Simeon’s words to Mary are also meant for us: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many. . . . And a sword shall pierce your soul, too.”

“A sword shall pierce your soul.” The cross is in the cradle and we do not receive the baby of Bethlehem without also embracing the man of sorrows. Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner explains it this way:

“Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there, too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.” (The Hungering Dark, pp.13-14)

“Just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.” God comes, in loss and disappointment and broken dreams. God comes, disguised as illness. God comes, through unlikely companions and disrupted plans, through heartbreak and betrayal. It is all gift, but it is gift cloaked in mystery, because what seems at first to be a joke turns out to endure through our lives, bearing the presence of God in a way we least expect.

When your marriage has not lived up to your hopes and dreams, when your children turn out to be a disappointment, when your life seems dull and unfulfilled, for the face of the savior. He will be there, born to you in a form that you least expected. When you are sick, really sick, or worse still, when someone you love is ill, look for the face of the savior. He will be there, leading you into a new way of life, showing you how precious the ordinary days can be, offering healing whether or not the doctors can promise a cure. When nothing seems to be going right, when everything is falling apart, look for the face of the savior. He will be there, born in the midst of the world’s chaos.

That is how it was at the first Christmas. And that is how it is now, too. We sing “all is calm, all is bright”, and that is true of the places where he is, but it is also true that he does not wait until everything is calm and bright in order to come. He is to be found in the places of fear and unrest, in pain and suffering, in the darkest of times. His presence is a gift, a soul-piercing gift, and it comes in the most unexpected ways.

Especially at Christmas, we want a God who will lift us out of our troubles and instead we get one who comes to be with us in whatever mess we are in; one who will use anything, even the woes of the world, to touch our hearts, to turn our heads, to get our attention; one who knows both the joy and the sorrow of being fully human. We get a God who comes to be with us, because this is the one who loves us with an everlasting love, and that is the greatest gift of all.

So let us take what is offered, this amazing, unexpected gift. And like Simeon and Anna, let us seek to live out our days in peace, because with our own eyes, we have seen our salvation. And let us praise God and speak about this child to all who will listen.

Thanks be to God for the gift of Jesus.

In Our Hands

Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-20

There is so much about this story that tugs at our hearts: the animals in the stable, the shepherds carrying lambs, the new mother, the father standing watch, and, in the center of it all, a baby. It is a scene written in our memories even though we were not there to witness it when it happened. We have seen it on Christmas cards, in museums with famous paintings, on our lawns and in manger scenes on the mantel so much that it seems as though we must have been present.

But is it not just a picture. It is also music. Of course, it is music in the hymns and Christmas carols that we sing, but especially this night, it is somehow the music of the angels. And their song is a powerful and precious part of Christmas because it speaks to some of our deepest hopes. “Peace on earth,” they sing, and “good will from God” and isn’t that what we want? God’s good will -- the certain presence among us fulfilling all those ancient promises so that the world becomes the way it was at the beginning when there was peace everywhere. That is what the angels sing.

But listen carefully to their music. What they are singing is not about some future time. They are singing about the here and now. When this child comes among us, then there is peace. That is why the heavens open and the music pours down on us. In the coming of the baby, everything that God has ever promised is here and now. Except that it doesn’t exactly seem like that, does it? The world is filled with wars, big and small. There is famine and hunger and financial disaster. Many people are losing their jobs, and those who have them can barely get by. And it is not just the world around us; sometimes there is no peace in our homes, no peace in our hearts. So what do we make of this song that the angels sing, these words from on high proclaiming the reality of God’s presence in the world? What do we make of them? And what does God call us to do to make this Christmas promise a reality?

Let me tell you a little story about an ancient holy man, a saint, known as Kevin. He lived in Ireland 1500 years ago and he was a good and gentle soul. There are many stories of his kind and loving ways. One of those stories tells of a day when he was praying with his arms lifted out. He prayed and prayed, deep in prayer for a long time -- long enough for a bird to come and make a nest in his hand and lay an egg. And as the story goes, Kevin remained with his hand held out until the egg hatched.

It’s a fanciful story, a legend hard to believe I suppose, except here’s the truth of it. The same thing can happen to us. The same thing does happen to us.

Every time we reach out to God, every time we open our hearts, God puts the precious gift of life and love and peace in our hands. And once we hold it, then it is up to us, like Kevin, to protect and nurture it, to watch and wait, to be gentle and patient and to persevere. And it is ironic, I suppose, that the almighty, all powerful God, creator of the universe, ruler of all that is, that this God of awe and might gives us a gift that somehow looks so small and fragile.
Like the gift we receive here tonight. That gift looks like a small piece of bread that we take from each other—a little ordinary insignificant piece of bread -- but that bread has the power of the crucifixion and the resurrection in it, a power that overcomes death and promises eternal life. And then there is the gift that looks like a thimbleful of juice, a tiny little sip, barely enough to taste, but that gift has the life-giving power and healing strength of the blood of Jesus and we taste it and it is a transfusion of love that saves our souls. But above all, on this night, there is the small and fragile gift from God that is a baby. And maybe that is the most fragile of all, because a baby is one who requires our care and protection to grow into life. It is fragile, and it is astonishing, because Jesus, God’s gift to the world, is given to us as one of us. It is what the church calls the incarnation which one preacher describes as “nothing less than Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed.” (Frederick Buechner)

We have a new baby in our family this Christmas, born on December 20. It is easy to forget how little a newborn is, how tiny and fragile. It is easy to take for granted the miracle of new life -- until you hold it in your hands. All life is a gift from God, and on this night, and when we hold a new babe, we are reminded of how amazing that gift is.

But God’s ultimate Christmas gift is kind of surprise, isn’t it? Think about it: God does maybe the last thing on earth that we would expect, coming among us as one who is fragile, helpless, defenseless and dependent. It was certainly not what people wanted two thousand years ago. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God’s people were looking for a savior -- someone powerful and strong, someone who would lead an army to defeat those who oppressed God’s people. They were looking for someone who could wage the kind of war that would restore the land to them, reclaim their power, take over the government. That’s what they wanted, and it’s not so different from what we want, really. We want God to solve our problems, fix what is wrong, take care of us. That’s the kind of gift we want, and instead we get a gift that we have to take care of. That is what happens tonight. We open our hearts, and the gift of life and love is given to us all over again, but it is not always what we expect. In my life, in your life, this gift may seem small and insignificant, whatever it is that God has given. But it demands a response from us, it calls us to care. Our task is to hold our gift gently, to wait and watch with patience and faith as it opens in our midst, to do all we can to make that life and growth possible. The gift is like a newborn baby. The gift is a newborn baby.

When Jesus was born, people wanted peace on earth, and God’s gift to them was one called the Prince of Peace. The angels knew it first and they announced it from the heavens: “Peace on earth.” The shepherds heard and believed and told what they had seen and learned. And some who found this fragile gift within their reach held it with care and patience, watched over it, and nurtured and helped it grow. But others ignored what they had been given and went on their way, leaving God’s great gift shattered and broken and ruined, crushed and abandoned.

That is the way it was then when the angels first sang, and it is still that way now, because we, too, want peace; we, too, listen for heavenly reassurance; and we, too, have the gift within our reach. That gift of peace, of the Prince of Peace, is a reality in God’s kingdom. It may seem that it is not fully realized in our world, especially in these days of war and bankruptcy and bailouts. But on this night of nights, this holy night, the gift is revealed to us and we know that all is possible, that God’s promise is kept, here and now, as it was in Bethlehem. And we are called to cradle God’s great gift in our hands, not to lose heart, not to give up, not to go our own way and drop what we have been given. We are called to hold and protect it, to wait, to watch, and keep faith because it will come to fullness in time. At Christmas, the angels sing to us, and we, like the shepherds, know the promise of peace born as a baby, and like it was for them, he is give to us to hold in our hearts.

As a bird grows in the egg, as a baby grows in the womb, so peace grows in our world through the great gift of Jesus Christ. May we be those who hold it and protect it while we watch and pray.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

December 16, 2008

Thrift Supervision

At the corner of 17thStreet and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, is the Office Thrift Supervision. As federal buildings go, it is pretty nondescript – no soaring columns, lofty domes, or splashing fountains -- just a kind of blank fa├žade suitable for housing an anonymous bureaucracy. The purpose of the Office is to oversee savings and loan institutions, which are known in the financial industry as “thrifts.” But I find myself thinking that maybe we ought to have a federal agency actually charged with supervising thriftiness. What if all government spending had to pass a thrift test? Such scrutiny would certainly cut down on bridges to nowhere and special projects benefiting lawmakers’ hometowns. Federal employees would work long and hard, being thrifty with the money the government pays them. Programs to serve the poor would bypass all the red tape, eliminating the expense of multiple hands to pass the money along.

And what if this Office of Thrift Supervision had services for private citizens as well as the public sector? What if we could have our own expenses supervised by a wise and thoughtful entity, one that might whisper in our ear as we are considering buying yet another pair of shoes, or avoiding the car pool because it is slightly inconvenient, or getting a $4.00 cup of coffee instead of filling up the travel mug? And what if our personal thrift supervisor encouraged us to be thrifty with ourselves so we could be generous with others?

I heard a story on the radio recently about a man in England who had saved carefully his whole life. With interest rates slashed to compensate for an economy tanked by greed, at worst, and overextension, at best, he cannot rely on his savings for the income he needs to support his retirement. He was bemoaning the fact that there is no reward for the thrifty. It certainly seems that way, as institutions and industries that have blown through millions now get in line to be bailed out. But it isn’t just the “economy” because, after all, we are the economy. So I’m planning to supervise my own thrift, to watch over what I spend, what I save, to put my money in the places were it will be most useful (whether that is the offering plate at church or the drive-through window at the bank).

December 14, 2008

The Magnificat, continued

No one can celebrate
a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud,
those who, because they have
everything, look down on others,
those who have no need
even of God -- for them there
will be no Christmas.
Only the poor, the hungry,
those who need someone
to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.
that someone is God.
Emmanuel. God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.
Oscar Romero


Jesus said "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3), and it is an odd blessing unless you think carefully about it. It is ironic, too, that we spend this holy season, well, spending. Most of my friends are poorer than they were six months ago, but, in truth, none of us are really poor. We have more than enough. For us, perhaps, the task of Advent is to hear Mary's song as instruction and as warning. If we are forever full our ourselves, if our souls are as crammed to the rafters as the inn at Bethlehem, the Christ may pass us by, and we will not know what Christmas really means. "Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God." Without emptiness, there can be nothing to fill. Without an understanding of how needy we really are, there can be no way for us to receive the Gift.

December 12, 2008

The Magnificat

Mary's powerful song of praise (Luke 1:46-55) begins: "My soul magnifies the Lord." What would happen if we took this as a command for ourselves; and what would it mean to interpret it literally?
When you cannot see something clearly, a magnifying glass is a useful tool. When I'm tying a fly onto a leader, I have a little magnifier that helps me thread the almost invisible line through the tiny eye. People who stitch use magnifying glasses to help them. And anyone who wears glasses or contacts understands their necessity.
So what would our world, exterior and interior, be like if our souls were magnifiers, if we held them up to God so that God became clearer and easier for the world, and us, to see? Mary goes on to sing of the lowly being lifted up, the hungry being fed, the proud and the rich and those who think they are big stuff being brought down to size. That is what God looks like, and the soul that makes that clear acts to bring about God's vision.
In the life of faith, Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas: buying and wrapping and cooking and decorating. Instead, Advent is meant to be our anticipation of God's promised presence in the world. God has come in Jesus long ago, and the scriptures inform us that God will come again. And in my soul, I know, too, that God in Christ is here and now. So, I take as my Advent task (along with the shopping and the celebrating!) figuring out I can make that presence as clear as possible with my own life, how I can hold my soul up to God so that God shines through, magnified, bright and clear!

December 7, 2008


This morning, I woke up to find snow! Everything was wrapped in white, all lovely, clean and sparkly. It was as though the world itself was a gift, something precious and lovely, unexpected, and a cause for celebration.
Then I went to church, and had a tiny piece of bread and a thimbleful of grape juice, and that was a gift, too -- precious and lovely, valuable beyond all expectation.
And I came home to find a little bag at my doorstep with a book and a note from a dear friend.
All day long, everywhere I looked I found a gift. And I think, really and truly, each day is like that, but most of the time, I am too busy or distracted to notice. Today, though, I could see with the eyes of my heart, and it was wonderful.