Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Time Crunch

So, a number of the laypeople in my life have been trying to figure out this whole Christmas thing and why it often seems as though I disappear. There's been a number of conversations over the past few weeks with various individuals, going like this:

Are you coming for Christmas Eve? You'll miss the codfish balls!

When are you coming for Christmas day? Not til after noon? That's so late! The kids want to open their presents!

What are you so stressed out about? You work for the church, you knew about this stuff.

Last year was the worst- it was the first time I'd lived near my family since starting the ministry, and I tried to do everything and just about killed myself. This year, the best aunt let me know she'd think of me and the door was open if I could get there, but no pressure. (The Day's rock!) My brother finally figured out that Christmas is NOT the day to ask me to cook anything. Bring wine. That's it. (He knows I probably have a bottle or two on hand.) I think my parents are still trying to remember my working hours. It seems like they are round the clock right about now. M just keeps a picture of me on his desk at work, so he remembers what I look like. "Oh, yeah, the wife, she's that dark haired chick..." My cats, on the other hand, are unrepentant, needy mewlers who cry when I won't pick them up. "Why don't you love us anymore? What have we done wrong? Here, let us give you our toys and you will love us again! I'll put it in your shoe for you so you will be sure to find it!" It's really not personal, guys, but I swear, if I find one more catnip mouse in my slippers...

Finally, this morning, I canceled my hospital hours so I could put the final touches on tonight's services (plural!), do the emergency laundry as I couldn't do laundry during the snowstorm (the laundry rooms were the last to be shoveled), wrap the presents, and perhaps do some of the cooking (we are literally down to cans of beans and tomatoes and crackers- we have a TON of ingredients, but I haven't even had time to cook!).

M looks seriously at me over breakfast and totals up in his mind all the extra services, extra office hours, extra visits, extra writing and notes, and I remind him about the extra cleaning due to the sloppiness of the snow. And he says, "Oh, so it's sort of like Easter, just not exactly..."

Ah, yes, pretty much. Christmas is one of the TWO BIG DEAL services for clergy. We joke about the "C&E Club Christians", but we all know that we are putting on a show for the twice-a-year crowd. There are people who are mourning the loss of relationships or loved ones at this time of year, when the mass media spends its energy telling us all how happy we should be with our perfect lives. There's a lot of emotional need- grief, joy, hope, despair, that just rockets around God's people at this time of year.

For the clergy person, we're sort of caught in the middle of this perfect storm. While trying to keep our own family life going, we're also trying to be present and pastoral for the many in our parishes who we might only see tonight. For these two days, there's a lot about the parish that just has to come first.

We clergy try really hard to balance our lives- family, work, self. So on the days like this when the parish, by necessity, just swells up and overwhelms us, give us the gift of understanding when we seem to retreat from normal life. We're on the front lines of celebrating the gift of God becoming incarnate in human form. It's a little overwhelming.

I'll see you in church tonight. Peace on earth to all people, and peace in the highest heaven. May it seep throughout the rest of this season.

Merry Christmas. And to my clergy friends, hang in there!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

So what does a priest do on her snow day?

After hours and hours of agonizing, reading every weather related news piece I could get my hands on, and a few phones calls to the weatherman (he's also my uncle, so I have his private number!), we called it snow day. There's so much snow we're not even plowed yet.

So what does the priest do? Well, we went for a couple of snowy walks around the neighborhood. M introduced me to his church, a UU place where the minister lives next door. Just like I used to hold services when I lived next door... even if it were to a crowd of none! We went for brunch, since the restaurants were open. And finally came home, where still, nothing was plowed, shoveled, or swept. Come on, apartments, it'll be dark soon! Get with it!

I hope you all had a nice, warm, safe snow day. See you on Christmas Eve!

THE SERMON

I have a confession. I don’t like Peanuts. No, not the nut (which are technically legumes), but the cartoon. You know, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Charlie Brown. I don’t like them. The dirty kid character has always bothered me- where IS Pigpen’s mother? And I think that Snoopy needs some serious obedience training. Of course, not liking Peanuts means I also can’t STAND the Charlie Brown Christmas special. With the exception of the tree (I’ve always liked the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, and have had them myself. I root for the underdog.), I hate that Christmas special. I would read a book or go play the piano or do my math homework while it was on. I suppose that I always found it chintzy. I always thought the other kids were mean to Charlie Brown. They couldn’t see his creativity. They couldn’t root for the underdog. Everything had to be obvious and the right way, the first time around. The stupid tree had to be just right. No other substitutions could be used. Maybe I hate the Charlie Brown Christmas special because I’m uncomfortable with how sad I feel when he hangs that big ornament on the tree, and it slumps down and he moans, “Oh, everything I touch gets ruined!” Oh, how I identify with that! It often seems like, no matter how hard I work or what things I’m trying to do different, it just doesn’t work. The anonymous complaints keep coming. The difference in Charlie Brown is that we know the end of the story- the dopey part (and the part I can’t stand) where everyone comes out and starts singing Hark the Harold Angels Sing. As a kid who was traumatized by a mean choir teacher in school, I always hated the singing in public thing. In the middle of the special, I seem to remember one of the characters reciting parts of the gospel of Luke. Then Charlie Brown runs way from the group. I think the religious kid was trying to say that Christmas first happened because of the story related in the gospel.

Much as Charlie Brown evokes strong feelings, so does Luke’s gospel evoke strong feelings now and through the centuries. Luke tends to raise more questions than he gives answers. Today we are given the story of the Annunciation, when Gabriel the messenger visits Mary and tells her she will become pregnant, that her child will be unimaginably special, and that she will bear the child who will take up King David’s throne.

Mary takes this all rather well. I can only imagine that she had no idea what she was really being asked to do. If she were told up front that her child’s fate would be to die horribly on a cross, I imagine she would have never borne children at all. At my age, I have several close friends who have small kids or new babies now. They go to pieces when their child cries with teething pain. I can promise you they’d never intentionally bring their child to harm. You’d have to be insane to bring a child into a situation where you know he’d be harmed. Mary had no idea what she was actually getting into with Jesus’ birth.

And you see, that’s the way it is with God’s work in most cases. We usually have no idea what it is we are actually saying “yes” to when we embark on the work of the Almighty. If I had known what kind of a life the priest was in for, I would have probably gone to law school or librarian grad school. I’d have never chosen this kind of a life if I had known what I was getting into. But now being in it, I can’t imagine doing anything different.

It’s like that with any sort of work we do in God’s church. We say yes to the experiment of hosting an open house. We say yes to the work of being on Vestry. We say yes to calling a new priest or a new organist, thus starting our way down a new path.

The quirk is that we don’t ever know what would have happened if we had not said yes. We don’t know what would have happened if Mary had said no to bearing the baby who grew up to be the Messiah. We don’t know what would have happened if we had said no to any part of our lives together here. We only know the life we are living through as we live through the “yes”.

That is our good news, and our challenge. We don’t ever know what might have been. We only know what is, as we live into our “yes”. When Mary did it, her child grew up to bring her joy and still more pain that she could have ever known. But he also grew up to free us all from the bondage of sin.

For us- what does it mean when we live into a yes? I can’t answer that for you. Only you can. What does it mean to live into the yes of church life? To live into the YES of attending on Sundays, even in snow and bad weather. To pledge and to give, even in the bad times? To balance looking after your own family and your church, even in the tough economy? To work with a young pastor? To sing new music? To take on the risk of a Cookie Walk or a church fair like Epiphany Unveiled? From my vantage point, even at the same time that we look like a church in crisis, we also look like a church that says yes, an awful lot. We’ve said yes to God in so many ways, together. We will never know anything but the path these Yes’es have led us on. There’s so much hope in this unknown. Where will God lead us next?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sunday Story Sermon...

Okay, guys- since I KNOW that several of you are reading this, even if you won't comment. Oh, please comment! It's so special to get comments!

Anyhoo- this is how the sermon would have gone down. The Gospel book would be put away, but instead of letting you all sit down in a dignified way in your pews, me saying "The people may sit", I would have strode back to the baptismal font area. Without a word. You'd all be looking at me a little oddly.

I would have said that John the Baptist was certainly not a prophet who came to proclaim the Messiah in the way we expected. In fact, John's work- baptizing in the wilderness, eating such odd food, wearing such uncomfortable clothes, crying out again and again that God's Messiah was coming... all of that should have been an inkling that perhaps this whole Messiah thing would not look like we thought it should.

Somehow, God's work just doesn't ever happen the way you think it should. And what if John had a hard time of it? I mean, if he really understood his role in the divine dance, he'd know that his words would foretell the coming of his cousin... he'd know that if he dared speak, he'd be sealing the coming of the Messiah- who came to die. He'd be setting in motion the things that would lead to the death of his cousin. Did he dare?

Listen to this.

John lay on his side. It was quite early, almost too early to be awake. He had gotten used to the early times, though. He had gotten used to never feeling like he’d quite slept enough. He’d tried to ignore what was coming as his destiny. But it just kept gnawing at him- this urge, this desire. He’d gone out into the wilderness. He’d given up the food of his childhood. He ate only locusts and honey now. He wore coarse hair clothing. His beard and hair had grown wild. Certainly he looked the part of crazed prophet, but definitely not respectable.

John thought back to before it all began. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen his cousin. Jesus was a strong boy, then, eager to help Joseph with the carpentry. But mischevious, all the same. Jesus liked to listen to the Rabbis and the temple preaching. John favored the wild outdoors. For John, God spoke in the wilderness- in the rocky mountains, the untamed, scrappy trees. Beyond the olive groves, the colors faded until the whole world was a slightly faded, melancholy version of its real self. That was where John heard God- not in the bright, noisy time of the temple. Far from the noise of the city, from the noise of the temple, from the noise of even his own family.

John remembered the awful day he’d realized what he and Jesus had been born into. THey were hanging out with each other, too old to play like child, but not old enough for eavesdropping to have lost its thrill. The mothers were talking, talking, talking, like women do. But they knew it was different, with them. John remembered well the stories of how Mary, pregnant and scandolous, had visited Elizabeth. He knew the stories of how an angel had visited his own father and told him the name to give John. The women loved to hash over those stories, and for some reason, he and Jesus felt they had to listen on these little bits of woman-talk.

On that day, he’d heard the prophecies- something about gifts Jesus had been given and a sword piercing Mary’s heart and someone dying. And Elizabeth responded that John was to be a great prophet, he’d know the Messiah when he came. John had looked at Jesus, then- Jesus had gone a little pale. Someone was going to die- someone important. A sword piercing Mary’s heart? Was his own mother going to die? Jesus looked at John- and suddenly John comphrehended. He was going to be the one who predicted it all. He was going to set it all in motion. It would all start because of him. The look of recognition lasted only an instant. Then Jesus shoved past him and ran into the yard with the other cousins and siblings. They’d never talked about it.

John left home when he was grown. He went into the quiet wilderness. He would not speak in the public arena. If he were going to be the one who would set things in motion, then he’d simply be far away from everyone. It couldn’t all start because of him, could it?

Soon after that, the urges started. When he spoke with his friends in the wilderness, they followed him, as his disciples. He found himself fughting an urge- he spoke indeed of a coming king. He didn’t will the words to come- they just came. He couldn’t keep them down. As he fought against his destiny, it was as if there were a howl of misery in his soul, scremaing to get out. He was amazed at how peaceful it felt to give in, and to call out of a coming messiah. And here he was, in the remote places. Nowhere near the city. Nowhere near his family. They’d be safe, after all. His prophecies would fall on remote ears. Nothing would come of his words. He was just a voice, crying out in the wildnerness.

John rose on his elbow and slowly pushed himself to his feet, facing the rising sun. It was time. Time to wash the pilgrims free of their day’s sins, and send them on their way. Time to tell them of the one coming after him, but nowhere near him. “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” And as he baptized each person, he would say, “There’s one coming later who is more powerful than I. He’ll baptize you with the power of God.” John stood tall as the Jordan swirled around his legs. There was one coming indeed, one of great power. But he was far, far, far from his family. He was far from influence. He was a voice in the wilderness, a voice no one heard or paid attention to. His family was safe. He’d avoided the disaster he’d feared.

He waved to the next pilgrim. Time to come in the water.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Snow day #1

It's the first snow day of the year. I was up last night watching the internet, checking three different predictors, all of which agreed there would be snow. I dreamed ALL NIGHT about snow and snowplows and that Martin invited over all his friends who went out for a snowball fight after I declared a snow day- in the dream, just declaring a snow day made more snow fall.

Meanwhile, here in real life...

When I woke, snow was still falling here in West Hartford. Nothing is yet plowed, though there is just an inch. It is, however, an icy inch. And there's more snow predicted with ice-forming temperatures and severe wind.

The median age of parishoners at Epiphany is north of 50, with a number of pretty creaky ladies and gentlemen. Most of whom I would have called ANYWAY to ask that they not come. That would leave me with about 7 able-bodied persons who are fully capable in eyesight, body, and/or condition of their car.

So we decided to cancel. This was me on the phone with my Senior Warden, who has eyes on the ground in Southbury. So I chose to trust her assessment of the ground conditions while we parsed out the condition of the congregation.

Now it's a matter of calling the service participants, the snow day closings people on TV, the organist, the other warden... and I'm in AGONY! Will people be upset? Are they mad? Did I make the right choice? Is it better to safeguard your congregation and hope they are going to be okay in the bad weather, or are you better off going in and holding services come heck and high weather? If I were next door, I'd be open (but still officially closed). I'm quite worried, being 30 miles away- is it RIGHT TO CLOSE, or am I BEING A WIMP?

Augh! The stress!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Holiday in West Hartford

Last night, West Hartford sponsored its holiday stroll. No one I knew was available to come (really, you had to get tile, all night? There was free hot chocolate!), and M was at class, so I went all by myself.

I got to see Santa twice, I got a hug from Rocky the Rock Cat of New Britain Rock Cats fame (the walrus and that other furry guy were there, too), and I got lots of free samples from the shops. One bank used its enclosed lobby for dance performances, with tiny ballet students forming a sort of living music box. L'Shir, an acapella group, sang in the square. They were fun! They really staged their show- and they WEREN'T scared of a little rain! They staged the songs! I picked up all sorts of fun ads and entered a few sweepstakes, and went to the art gallery opening (and resisted the chocolate cake).

And of course, did a bit of thinking. Some of the buisinesses closed early. Well, that's no fun! Other buisinesses stayed in their shops, waiting for you to come in (and ready to scold if you entered with ice cream). Uh, guys, it's a HOLIDAY STROLL. Everyone's giving out free samples. I'm just trying to have a good time. Some businesses welcomed you with open arms, with strolling workers in the streets and smiling faces inside. Reigning Cats and Dogs, I'm looking at you. You were fun!

Two groups hosted what looked like fun parties, but I worried they were private parties in the public venue. Did you really mean that? One group had wine and pastries, and I entered as a couple left. When I finished looking around, I discovered the door locked and had to ask to be let out. Um, maybe I should have wondered why everyone was standing in groups talking to each other, and why no one, yes, no one, even said hello to me. You just had your private party crashed by a holiday go-er! (Either that, or your welcome group stinks!) Another group was having dancing and all the seats were taken, half of them by members of the group. I wonder if there would be a way to have group members enticing the public to dance? Or did you really want us cootie-public to join you?

Mostly, I considered the churches. I have no idea what St. James, the Lutheran church, or the congregational church did last night, if anything. And I was SO JEALOUS! DUDES!

If I were there...

I'd host a living nativity. I'd have a choir carol sing, in FULL CHOIR ROBES! I'd host Evening Prayer, or Evensong. I'd have a guided labryinth walk. I'd give away cookies with church brochures attached. I mean, REI was doing it. Whole Foods was doing it. I was given a cup of rice pudding and a menu by the Shish Kebab house. They sure weren't worrying if I would be offended by their meat-eating lifestyle. They just said, "Hi, here, have some rice pudding and a menu!"

If I were at those churches RIGHT ON THE CENTER, I'd have them LIT UP, open for tours, and I'd be throwing elaborate welcomes on the night of the Holiday Stroll. I mean, Santa came. Shouldn't St. Nicholas also make an appearance?

On the bright side, I was very, very glad last night that I live in (almost) the city again. I liked, very much, leaving my house, wandering around something fun for an hour and a half, then coming home as I started getting cold. No parking, no driving, no mess.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Spookie Dip... ew!

Among my friends, I have a little bit of a reputation as a reasonable cook. A certain Chick-of-Honor had me as a guest in her house one notable summer during which she declared she'd never eaten so well in her life. (She and her husband are no slouches in the kitchen, and I still consider them popover authorities. We *all* ate well!) But suffice it to say, the kitchen and I are usually friends.

Well, barring the occasional misstep like the nothing-but-broccoli-rabe dinner. Maybe I'll add another veggie to cut the sharp mustard-y flavor next time...

And certainly barring the latest effort. I am carefully watching my portion control over the next few weeks. One New Year's resolution is to be healthier, and one of the ways I plan to do that is by watching what I eat and not eating everything in sight. I cook pretty healthy... I just tend to eat too much of it. It's just sooooo tasty!

So I got a cookbook out of the library, advertising "bodacious spinach dip". So I made it. It tasted a little... raw last night. I thought maybe it just needed to sit over night.

Today, it tastes like the sort of dip you'd dip your spinach cookie into if you were a crazy health-food nut and ate only raw spinach. It TASTES healthy.

It tastes ICK! Blah! Yuck!

Then I realized the recipe called for COOKED spinach.

Meet the girl who made the Spookie Dip with RAW spinach.

Out goes the spinach dip. I don't think it can be saved. Next time, note to self- try COOKING the spinach!