Monday, December 24, 2012

This Christmas: Unanticipated

I've been caught up this season in the idea of how Christ was expected and received. The Israelites had been expecting and hoping for a messiah to save them from their enemies, but the idea that this savior would come in the manner that he did was a surpise to those who believed what they were shown (Mary, Joseph, the wise men) and impossible to those who did not. As I wrote several days ago, the shepherds seem included only because "a vast host of other [angels]--the armies of heaven (Luke 2:13, NLT) had nobody else they were permitted to tell, and they had to tell somebody. Only the most marginalized, those who were looking in from outside, could fathom that God's savior and the heir of David would emerge from anywhere but a palace.

I've been reminded in several ways this week that this messiah was not only known but eagerly anticipated, even by those who would ultimately play a roll in the story of his arrival. While I have a couple issues with "The Nativity Story" (2006), it does nice work in demnostrating how Mary, Zechariah, and others knew this should be happening, but could not easily grasp the logisitics. Jason Gray's beautiful song "Rest (The Song of the Innkeeper)"* speaks from a heart tired of waiting, desperate to be saved, and unaware that salvation is just outside his door. We are so often so certain that we will recognize what we are waiting for, and miss it because we're focused on the logistics--what is and isn't possible, when Jesus himself was pretty clear about the impotence of that word.

So as all this was rolling around in my brain, I wrote this out in the quiet early morning yesterday. It came both from biblical reading and personal experience, and so its voice is somewhere in between the two. It's already taken some revisions and will likely take a few more, but this blog doesn't advertise the polished, only the drafts...


So many beacons--like stars,
like voices shouting in the wilderness--
and still we did not know you.
Expecting, anticipating, we looked to lords and kings
but found only men.
We were waiting for a prince to lift us 
over enemies and empires
and so we did not see the poor--
the eagerly, desperatey faithful--
who you saw with favor and pleasure.
Shepherds dancing in the street we dismissed as drunk,
astronomers from far away as academic.
We were so sure we knew where to look.

Within our own empires we waited,
in our own calendars we planned,
never understanding that a true savior 
must come from something else
and take apart the world before saving it,
humbling our enemies but also ourselves.
That's why we were so angry:
you were supposed to show us favor,
to take our faults from us without making mention of them.
You and the men we hung beside you
were all rebels, and we were waiting for
a quieter messiah, a restful king. 

[A note: the idea that "the men we hung beside you / were all rebels" is one that has stayed with me since the first time I read it, in a high school English class dissecting Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Read the whole thing here.]

I hope you and your family--be they biological or adopted--have been renewed in thi holiday season. If you read that sentence with an eyeroll or a sigh, I hope you take a moment to stop and ask for that very thing, as that's the point of everything we celebrate: not to make us better, but to remake us entirely.

Merry Christmas.


* Listen to "Rest" here. And while we're on the subject, I cannot say enough good things about Jason's Christmas album, Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy (or, ya know, Jason in general). "Rest" and "Man of Mercy" are my favorites, but his youngest son, Gus, taking lead vocals on "Christmas for Jesus" ("Is my heart the present He put on His list?") is the one that chokes me up every time. $9.99 on iTunes, people. Make it happen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book Review: Keeping the Feast

It is with great relief that I report completely loving Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal by Milton Brasher-Cunningham.  At first glance the book seems flippant--a lightweight paperback clocking in at 120 pages, broken down into vignette-like chapters and interspersed with recipes and poetry. But like any good cook, Milton* is an expert in balance and nuance, and as he blends story with insight and faith with food he neither moves too hastily nor dwells too long on an idea before moving along. (There is, perhaps, credit due to editorial here--it might have been tempting to push for a more solid book length by sacrificing this struck balance. They chose wisely.) He also strikes a casual, heartfelt tone, being clear and convincing without coming off as pushy. "The metaphors that follow are invitations to supper, if you will," he writes in closing the introduction. "I intend them as poetry more than prescription: jumping off places for further conversation. Hopefully, over dinner" (5). This is carried throughout the book--I don't feel shoved in any particular direction, I only want to lend the book to several friends and then invite them over for dinner to talk about it.

Now, full disclosure, if I was ever going to love a book it would be one that ties together faith and food, and views them through the lens of community and hospitality. It's even well copyedited. Milton brings universality to what would otherwise be a narrow focus, tying in his experiences in family and professional kitchens and addressing the continued importance of sharing a meal (Communion, as well as less ritualistic means) as personal ministry.

One of Milton's strongest points--or possibly his overarching point amidst the story and poetry--is his highlight on the idea of ritual, emphasizing importance and purpose. He effectively draws the point that if something is repeated as habit, it loses meaning, but if something is remembered and chosen and reshaped as we change, its meaning grows in power and effect over our lives. "We keep repeating any number of little sayings and actions that remind us of the promises we are committed to keeping, transforming daily doings into something sacred... Where habits grow like kudzu, rituals have to be cultivated and nourished" (11). He dwells on, rather than dismisses, the symbolic importance of ritual, and carries that through in his investigation into the Eucharist.

Milton hits on a point I've heard before, though I don't recall the specifics: that when Jesus called his disciples to "do this in remembrance of me" (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-19), he perhaps meant the gathering together and sharing of a (lowercase) meal as much as the symbolic and specific Passover/Eucharist ceremony. Milton frequently referenced this by hyphenating "re-member" in his point that cultivating community is hard work in a world that tries to pull us apart, and part of our call as Christ followers is to bring each other back together, personally and corporately--to member ourselves again among our brothers and sisters. "When we gather together at the table whether in the Upper Room or an evening meal, sharing food is an act of solidarity, a chance to find and share comfort. Life, whether in Palestine or Pittsburgh, is a dismembering proposition" (103-104).

Perhaps my only complaint for the book is an academic fine point--there are a few places where a Scriptural reference is lacking. A story is summarized or Jesus is paraphrased, but no direct reference is made. There is such care taken elsewhere in the book in citing sources that I think this is purposeful choice rather than oversight, but there were a few times where a direct citation would have been helpful.

Milton has written a beautiful book, inviting us to the table of conversation and encouraging us to open our tables to those around us. He draws a picture of a legacy of community that anyone would long to be a part of: where brokenness is understood and commiserated with; where joys are joined and celebrated; where there is always plenty for everyone and leftovers besides.

* I can't call Milton by his last name--I feel too much like we're friends.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

This Christmas: You Can Wish Me, "Happy Holidays."

[Drafter’s Note: I’ve tried 3 times to make this blog post work. It’s weird to defend why you don’t get defensive about something. You’re almost certain to put someone--likely starting with yourself--on the offensive. But tonight is Grinch night--just watched Boris, and Carrey is waiting for me--and it got me thinking about how we celebrate a holiday, and how we can make it something it’s not.]

I’m not going to get offended when you wish me “Happy Holidays” this year. I just wanted to let you know that ahead of time, because I feel like in some circles this has become an offensive phrase, one to be corrected with a harrumph and rolled eyes--the true spirit of any good holiday. And I’ll wish the same back to you, unless I know what you celebrate, because it would be weird for me if you wished me a Happy Bodhi Day on the basis that you’re Hindu. I wouldn’t be offended, I suppose, but it wouldn’t mean much. So I won’t wish you what I’m celebrating, because it might not be yours to celebrate. (Don’t get me wrong--you’re welcome to join me. SPCN has a great Christmas Eve service, and I make some awesome gingerbread.) 

What I may do, if I’m bold enough, is apologize to you on behalf of people I’d otherwise call brothers and sisters, who may have replied to your greeting in frustration or correction. It turns my stomach to hear the name of this holiday I love--the celebration of the birth of my savior, no less--spoken in that tone of aggression, and I hope you realize it wasn’t really directed toward you. After centuries of being the clear favorite, a push for diversity acceptance can sometimes feel like we’re being tossed onto the street, when in fact it’s just a matter of making room for other people at the table. 

So I’ll wish you, “Happy Holidays,” or perhaps even better, I’ll pause in the race and rush and ask you what you celebrate, how you celebrate, what you’re looking forward to. Because odds are, even if we share the same phrase, we celebrate differently. I hope your celebration is true and real for you, that it brings you to a place of peace and community, that it is more than motions and sayings but that it binds you and changes you a little every year, that it makes you a better you and draws you to the divine. 

In an unbroken world, we would sit and talk about our hopes and expectations and frustrations with our respective holidays. We would laugh and tear up, nod enthusiastically or raise an eyebrow in question, but leave the conversation knowing each other better. But there’s a line behind me and a traffic jam in front of you and if we’re not careful, we’ll each wind up only wishing each other a good holiday and not actually having one. So peace be with you. May you know you are not alone, and know that you are loved. May you celebrate. May you have laughter. And may you be happy, whatever your holiday.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

This Christmas: The Elements

[Drafter's Note: Point A: I am officially terrible at discipline. Onward and upward. Point B: For the last two years, I've needed to spend a good chunk of November traveling for work, which has resulted in me coming back home to a changed place: pumpkins and the last of falling leaves are exchanged for Christmas decorations and, this year, a thin covering of snow. The lurch in time last year had me scrambling, and even weeks later I hadn't recovered. Christmas didn't feel like Christmas. So this year, I  prepared myself to come back to Advent season, and part of my plan was to be more reflective. Part of that plan was to blog about it. A later start than I'd hoped, and no promises as to how often I'll write, but I want to snag some thoughts and reflections for the next 13+ days about this holiday that can too easily become about stress and consumption. I choose promise and hope, even if I have to scrabble to find it.]

Setting up my nativity has been The Thing Which Determines It's Christmas since 1989 when my mom bought my brother and I each a ceramic set. There's nothing overtly special about it--your basic Mary-Joseph-Baby-Shepherd-Wise-Men-Sheep-Cow-Donkey setup--but it is mine, and as a child it was what set Christmas in motion. I'd strive to set it up better each year: first on the highboy, then on top of the television; one year the angel dangled precariously from a string fixed to the ceiling; the year I learned the wise men weren't present at the birth, they were removed to a nearby windowsill, en route. I think I like that these simple building blocks--a kneeling woman, a sleeping child, a shepherd with a sheep at his feet--come together to speak a story.

A few years ago I had one of my most memorable Bible study nights with a small group of teenage girls. We wrote out a list of everything we thought we remembered from the Christmas story, and then went to the biblical accounts, and talked about how we have fleshed them out. Sarah misspoke and said she remembered the wise men brought gold and incest, Hannah was scandalized when I implied that camels might not have been present at the birth, and we unpacked the story and put it back together again, each of us coming away with a new perspective. 

Since then, I've frequently found myself paring down the nativity to just the actual birth--a young woman, a faithful husband, and a newborn child that was only partly theirs. But as I've thought about it this year, I've found myself drawn to the other pieces, the other elements of this story. In looking for simple decorations to make, I saw an idea for three silhouettes on a wall--Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; the shepherds; the wise men. And the more I thought about it, the more that resonated. As with most great stories, this is not a single snapshot, but a collision of multiple storylines, not at one moment but as part of a greater plot. A faithful woman is chosen, a priest is struck mute, a man plans separation, a cousin celebrates, astronomers find a sign, the man makes a selfless choice, a census is ordered, a king schemes, an innkeeper refuses, angels sing, shepherds shudder, and a baby is born. The shepherds and astronomers find him, the king does not. This is a story about Jesus, but it is really a half dozen stories of dozens of people, all pointing toward but not neatly meeting at a cave of a stable in Bethlehem. Each individual had their story to tell; we just get a bird's-eye view.

A last piece that caught me a few days ago: the whole of Israel was waiting for a Messiah to rescue them and rule over the earth, but none knew to go looking to a homeless couple on the road. In listening to some Christmas standards the other night, I found myself feeling some of the frustration of Heaven--such a huge, history-changing moment, and nobody knew to come celebrate. And I wonder if that's why the shepherds got their invitation. Heaven had some major rejoicing to do, and so they took the party to a nearly-deserted field outside a small town in Roman-occupied Israel and scared the crap out of some shepherds. It was all they could do to keep it corralled even that much. They went to a few nobodies and sent them so that somebody, at least, could stand in witness and agreement as Mary and Joseph stared into Heaven's own eyes. It was a story too good not to share.