New Traditions for Our Family

My husband is an atheist.

That’s right. I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church and I married a man who could care less about anything remotely related to God.

He will be quick to amend that. He will say that he does care. He cares because I care but it’s not quite the same. It’s not the same as having a partner seated next to you every Sunday in church. It’s not the same as having a spouse that shares some similar experience from childhood. He didn’t have that. Mine was weird.

My father is also an atheist. Or at least, at one time, he said he could care less about God. It was shortly after my mom had died. They’d fallen in love, had two children and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. They’d been been married eleven years when she died. It was not the ending he would have imagined. It certainly wasn’t what he wanted. He had every right to be mad at God, but that wasn’t how I dealt with it. Instead of rejecting God, I snuck off to church.

It was, as I tell those in the churches I’ve served, my young rebellion.

Marrying my husband was not a rebellion. He just happens to be an atheist. He’s an atheist who chose to marry a Christian pastor and regularly jokes about the bake sales he’ll host as a pastor’s husband when he retires from the Army. There are a lot of things that make our marriage wonderful, but Christmas can be hard.

For you see, I adore Christmas. It starts with Advent. It’s a season that echoes with my soul every single year. It calls me into greater attention with the needs of this broken world and forces me to focus on what I can do to bring hope, peace, joy and especially love into a world that needs so much more of these things, but I love the decorations. I love the lights lining the roof of my neighbor’s home. I love the gift giving and the twinkly tree that I turn on again the minute I wake up.

I love the candles held in the darkened sanctuary as we sing Silent Night. I love the cookies. Well, I love the cookies when I’m not pastoring a church and there are just too many cookies. I love the carols and sappy movies. I love the mall Santas. I love every bit of it.

My husband doesn’t love it. He doesn’t hate it but it doesn’t have the same magic for him. He doesn’t get excited like I do. That would be hard to accomplish for anyone.

He did, however, agree to raise our children in my faith. We talked about it before we got married and it’s still a conversation we continue to share. There are things that come up, things that neither one of us ever expected but things that we need to keep in the ongoing conversation of how we might try to raise the one kid we do have and any other children that might become a part of our family.

So we keep talking. We keep talking because it’s important.

We’ve made some decisions already. We decided we’re not traveling for the holidays. Our children will know a lot of change in their young lives. There will be lots of moves and no matter where we might call home, we want them to have an experience of the familiar. We want them to know that these are the things that our family does.

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Our first Easter Vigil

Earlier this year, we made a list. We picked all of the days that we would want to celebrate and how we might cherish these special days in our family. We talked about what traditions were a part of our younger years and what really matters to us. It’s a work in progress. We both know it will change but we started with an Easter Vigil. I explained the tradition and the big parts of the liturgy to my husband and then suggested a redacted version that might work for our family. Of course, it involves lighting a big fire and food. He was won over and it was wonderful.

I opened the document earlier today to remember what we intended for Christmas. It was blank and perhaps that is right. It’s our first Christmas where it is just us. It’s the first year where we get to try new things and see what fits our family.

Truthfully, the Easter Vigil is the only one we really have figured out. There are other things we want to do, but our baby girl isn’t old enough yet. Service is important to both of us and it’s something we want to share with our children, but there isn’t much that a one-year old can do to serve. There are other traditions that I know will emerge once we all start sitting down to dinner together at the same time, but neither my husband or I have our act together to sit down at 5 o’clock to eat together.

There are things that I hope will happen but I don’t really know what will happen. I don’t know how these practices will evolve in our family. I don’t know what will end up sticking and that’s hard for me. I love a good plan.

So it is with Christmas. I’ve made plans. I’ve planned a menu and wrapped presents. I made elf hats like my great-grandmother made us all wear on Christmas Eve though we will wear them on Christmas Day. We are going out to dinner on Christmas Eve and there will be the cinnamon rolls that I loved as a kid on Christmas morning. I’ve prepared for the details but not for the wonder.

That’s what always surprises me on Christmas. There is something mysterious and magical that happens. That’s what I want to emerge from all of these new traditions that we make for our family but it’s hard to plan for magic. It’s something that comes. It surprises and hopefully delights. My job is to wait for it and to be ready when it comes.

 

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days

Jan Richardson lost her beloved husband Gary during Advent. It was more sudden than the wars and rumors of war that the gospel Mark hints it could be. Nobody saw it coming and the grief lingered for many more seasons. In her online Advent devotional two years later, Jan shared that she was looking for something different to accompany her through Advent. She searched for resources on Advent and mourning and found them all to be instructive. None of them invited her into the mystery and longing of these days.

All of these years later, that has stayed with me.

It’s that something different I’ve wanted too. The closest thing that I’ve found to the apocalyptic chaos that I feel every Advent is in Jan Richardson’s own words. And so, when whatever other devotional I’ve chosen for the year insists on my being merry and bright, it’s to Jan Richardson’s Night Visions I return. This proves more challenging with every move since I can’t always find it.

It’s frustrating to hear the familiar words of the prophets plead for comfort and hope and that maybe things will change when every single inspired word in this season seems to lean too far into the future. The prophets aren’t there yet. Things haven’t changed but there is a chance that it won’t always be like this. It hasn’t happened yet. No messenger has come. No baby has been born. We’re still waiting.

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Order your copy 

They point to the heavens above and trace the movements of the twinkly stars in the sky. It’s continued in each and every moment these familiar text tell us to beware. Keep alert. Pay attention, they remind us which is really all you can do when your heart has been broken. You wait for something to change. You notice every single thing that reminds you of what has been lost.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Devotional for the Grieving and Brokenhearted wanders through the mystery of sacred scripture. Each day, starting on December 2, there are new words to inspire and challenge both from scripture and from my own broken heart.

You’ll find in these pages words to welcome and suggestions for how to pray in these blue days. You’ll find some written prayers but not too many. You’ll hear hints of my story of loss but you’ll also hear from some of those I trust most in daring to talk about how this really feels, including Joan Didion, Kate Bowler, CS Lewis and Jan Richardson. (You’re not surprised by that last one, I think.)

After thirty years of grieving my mother’s death and ten years of pastoral ministry, I know that our hearts break in thousands of different ways. I don’t dare name all of the many ways that Advent can be hard. The fact is that it is not the most wonderful time of year for everyone so I wrote these words for those that don’t want to sing carols. I wrote who the lights don’t shine brightly. Their days are blue. Their hearts are broken and it’s enough just to turn on the twinkly lights and spend just a little time thinking about how different this year is.

I don’t dare suggest that these words will make anyone feel better. Mostly because I think that’s a crappy thing to say to a grieving person. In the name of all that is holy, don’t ever say that to me. Instead, I wanted to know if I could find words to illustrate the deep, dark blueness that is Advent for me. I wanted to know if I could paint a picture of grief that fit the prophets.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days concludes on December 24 full of wonder. No baby is born. There aren’t even any shepherds in the fields, but there’s a feeling that something could happen. Something might happen. That’s what the prophets dreamed. That’s what I hope every day my grief feels too heavy to carry. It won’t always be like this. God is here. Somehow, God is still here.

If you are interested in wandering with these blue days with me, I hope you’ll find this resource I’ve worked so hard on to be easily downloadable here. You may be interested to see the other resources I’ve written in From My Kitchen.

Sweet Baby Jesus

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… 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. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” — Matthew 24:36, 40-44

When I heard these words intoned in worship on Sunday, it was in the hope that something is coming, something good. It was not just a nod to the opening scene in West Side Story in which Tony sings this song. We actually heard him sing this hope in a video clip upon the screen. I do not doubt that something is coming. I am just not quite certain that it will be good. Like those that first heard this wisdom spoken by Jesus, I am suspicious of those that promise goodness or greatness for that matter.

And yet, in church this past Sunday, we were encouraged to consider the good that God has done. There were hints toward the past, some distant memory of which no one quite remembers the details. Some promise of what was but doesn’t feel quite relevant to the present moment. Apocalypse is more than a promise. It’s more than a memory or even a possibility but that despite the fact that everything seems to be going to hell, we can dare to believe that it won’t always be like this. Somehow, by God and by our own stubborn might, we will transform this mess. Change will come.

Tony can sing with all of his heart about something coming, but this year it feels no better than singing about the long expected birth of sweet baby Jesus. I know. I know. That is the tune of Advent. We sing about that birth. We hope for it. We need it.

Tbirth_final_cover_rehis year, I need a different tune. I need a different song and Elizabeth Hagan is the pastor that I need most. I have been honored to know Elizabeth through The Young Clergy Women Project. We’ve read each other’s blogs. We’ve cheered on each other’s ministries and now I want to offer her new book from Chalice Press to every pastor that ever dares to speak of hope in Advent.

How many times do I have to hear about the innocence of a sweet little baby as the answer to all that breaks our hearts? How many sermons must we hear before it hits us that this one metaphor cannot and will not speak to all that needs to be changed?

I need more than that sweet baby. Don’t get me wrong. I need me some Jesus, but it can’t be the only metaphor for this Advent. There has to be another way to illustrate that possibility than that itty bitty baby. There has to be something else.

I confess to you that I haven’t actually read Elizabeth’s book. If I had, I may have already found that metaphor. I have instead read an excerpt from her book and I’ve followed the ministry Elizabeth has continued to provide on her blog and on Patheos. What I have heard in these words is testimony. Elizabeth is telling the truth. She’s pointing toward the real hope of Advent. It is more than an attitude or an aspiration. It’s not enough to tell each other to try harder in prayer or sheer will, but true hope is more than the promise of something good. It isn’t always a song that we sing but might be more clearly understood by our protests.

Advent is not just a time to light candles and deck the halls. It’s a time to imagine what could be. It is a time to admit that things haven’t worked out as we might have hoped. Things are far worse and yet something is being revealed. Somehow, we are being changed. Transformation will come but it might not come with all of our tender ideas of a sweet little baby. It might not capture all of our ideals of parenthood. It may not even come with the pangs of birth but if we keep awake, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew, we might find what Elizabeth proclaims to be Advent’s hope:

Allow God to meet you wherever you are.

Open your heart to the coming of something unexpected.

And most of all, say yes to those urges that could only come from the Spirit.

It’s what the season is all about. Really.

Better things are coming. Just wait for it.

It’s a testimony I need to hear this year and so I’m adding Birthed to my Christmas List. Maybe you will too.

The Birth of Hope

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope — where it comes from and how we find it. Because it seems hard to find right now. Any proclamation of hope feels nonsensical. It feels trite and ridiculous. Or worse, it’s so obscure and distant that it’s impossible to claim. I find this unacceptable and it seems to be most of what I hear. What good is the possibility of hope if you can’t imagine it in your own life? What good is the promise of good news if it seems to come to everyone else but you? 

I would say: diddly squat. And yes, there are terrible things in the news. There is so much violence and destruction but it’s not the headlines that have me thinking about this possibility of hope. It’s the church I’m pastoring. I am their interim pastor. I am walking with them through a season of ministry where everything is uncertain and unknown. I’m wondering with them about what ministry looks like in a rural community where nothing much seems to change. It’s all fine and good to say that there is hope for the church. I would tend to agree. There is lots of hope for the church universal — but what does it look like for this teeny tiny church in the countryside? 

I don’t tend to post my sermons here but this one is still working on me. I’m not writing anymore. I’m not editing the words that I preached this morning from Micah 5:2-5a and Hebrews 10:10-15 but they are challenging me. We’ve spent most of Advent in this church asking questions inspired from the prophets. This week is no different. There is a question at the heart of this sermon that I’m still trying to answer. It isn’t resolved yet. Perhaps because Christmas hasn’t come yet. There is part of me that wants so very much to expand on those last two paragraphs because it feels like there is more there. There is more to be said as hope is born. 

So here is a sermon about that hope that is coming.lights-788903_1920

 

Imagine that time before the old agreement, before there was a new plan to replace the old. Imagine, if you can, such a time and such a place where there is no need for anything new. There is no technology or theology to be improved. It is just the people in their old ways looking for love, hope and peace.

Imagine a time when you and your clan are without a home. You’ve been pushed out and left in the wilderness. You can’t go to the temple. You can’t worship as you always have but it’s what you want most. When everything is so new and terrifying, you and your clan want nothing more than to worship.

So it was in the Diaspora of the Jews. They couldn’t get to the temple — the place where all worship happened, the place where God lived. And so, they did something different. They didn’t abide by the blood sacrifices that had made a comeback in those days when Mary and Joseph are making their way to Bethlehem. They had to do something else in their exile. They had to find another way to worship. So, the rabbis led the people in worship as together in the wilderness “they offered prayers, songs and offerings in synagogue worship services.”

Did their worship change because their situation changed? Did their relationship with God change because that was God’s will? Or is this just how change happens? Do our old habits always give way to new ways of worshipping and living and hoping? Aren’t we always hoping for more?

Micah speaks to exactly that desire. To displaced, confused, wandering people who know more violence than peace, he gives them hope for something more. Something more than what they’ve known. Something more than what they’ve seen.

So that, as Nancy Taylor says, “Micah captures the ache with which we live each day and the hope that is in us for a future that only God can deliver.”

Only God can deliver this future that is more than what we’ve known and more than what we’ve seen. Only God can imagine such a future without being too bogged down by our sins. As the birth of hope is so very close, coming we hope this very week, we might not want to talk about our sins. But, we must. We have to talk about this for just a moment because these five verses in Hebrews demand it.

Imagine that time before the old agreement, before there was a new plan to replace the old. Imagine, if you can, such a time and such a place where there is no need for anything new except for the fact that everything has changed. Nothing is as it was so that everything around us is changing. And we bellyache. We moan. We protest. We demand God for hope and this is our sin.

As Sister Simone Campbell told Krista Tippett on American Public Radio’s OnBeing, “our sin is our obsession with security.” We have so convinced ourselves that “everything ought to work out perfectly for us. That we ought to have every conceivable drop of oil ever that we’d ever need any time. That we have to have electricity…” she goes on. There is a long list of those things that we need and want. We think that our hope will come from these things, these little guarantees from the long list of our needs and wants. But, hope does not come from a place of security. Hope comes, instead, from the wild surprises that God continues to point us toward.

So, let’s get specific. The prophet Micah points us toward Bethlehem. He pinpoints a place on the map where no one ever thought anything would ever happen. Still, the prophet directs our attention to a specific place — right there, he says, in Bethlehem — and tells us to look for that something more that we’ve always wanted. He zeroes in on our aching longing, turns us around and pushes us toward specifics. Not vague possibilities or warm feelings. No, he says that from this exact place, hope will come. A leader will come “who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”

So, let’s get specific about where and when and even how we see hope being born. For that hope will not only be born in a stable in Bethlehem. Micah assures our displaced, confused, wandering hearts that this hope —God’s hope — was not a one-shot deal. It is a hope that is always coming to birth. Again and again, God surprises us. God’s hope shows up in unexpected places asking us to believe that it’s possible.

Imagine that hope has a name and a face. Imagine that it have a body. Maybe even your body. Imagine that you could be faithfully obedient to that hope within you. And that it could so change what you know to be true and what you see in the world around you, that hope within your body. Or maybe not your body. Maybe you don’t feel it inside you but it has another name and another face.

Yes. Let’s get specific. Let’s pinpoint the exact where that hope is being born right now. Let’s not talk about vague possibilities or warm feelings but ask ourselves this: where exactly is hope being born right now?

Does hope have a particular name and face? Does this hope being born have a body that doesn’t fit with our expectations? Is hope in this time and place found in a Syrian refugee or the Mexican immigrant wandering in the desert as Mary and Joseph did so many years ago? Is the hope that might change all that we know being born in Paris right now? Or will it be found in a Muslim woman’s eyes blinking through the hijab that otherwise hides her face? Or is hope coming right here on Ridge Road?

Get specific. Pinpoint exactly what it is that you God see doing for God has promised that this hope is not a one-shot deal. It is always coming to birth. The question is: where do you see the surprise of hope?

Advent and Christmas Candle Liturgies

J A S M I N EToday and yesterday, I’ve read some really beautiful liturgies from friends and colleagues preparing for Advent. Check out the beautiful liturgies written by my friends Teri and Martha.

Advent is only three Sundays away. Three Sundays. And it was 77 degrees outside yesterday. I don’t care. I’ll still crank up the Christmas carols and prepare for the coming of our Savior.

This year, we actually get to have two Sundays — a whole two Sundays — to celebrate the twelve days of Christmas. It almost never happens. As Christmas overshadows Advent, we forget to celebrate the whole season of Christmas. So I want to be sure that that Light of the World for which we were waiting gets a chance to really shine. You’ll notice that this liturgy — written for one voice concluding with a unison prayer — goes all the way through the Second Sunday of Christmas. The song is from The New Century Hymnal.

First Sunday of Advent

Night and day, we pray. We wait all night and all day to see signs that God will break into our world again, but there are signs in the sun, the moon and the stars. There is light that shines in our deepest darkness. We light this first candle in that hope.

Light first candle.

Sung Response 163 Many Are the Lightbeams (verse 1)

This little light shines through all our hurts and losses in our darkness. One little light reminds us that there is more than this darkness. There are signs all around. God will come again. We pray most earnestly that we may see God face to face and restore whatever is lacking in our faith.

Let us pray.

God of darkness and light, do not let us be overpowered by discouragement and despair. May the dawn of each new day become a sign that your love shines through. Help us to believe that your light is radiant and shines in our deepest darkness. Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent

Night and day, we pray. We pray constantly to overcome all of the hurts and losses in our past so that we can help prepare the way of the Lord. And so, we pray that we can take off the garment of sorrow and affliction so that we can be messengers of the Lord. We light these candles in the hope of that peace.

Light first and second candles.

Sung Response 163 Many Are the Lightbeams (verse 1)

May we stand strong and tall in light of the world. May that light illuminate the knowledge and the full insight in each of us so that we do not doubt that we have good news to share of God’s coming.

Let us pray.

God of darkness and light, do not let us be overpowered by discouragement and despair. May the dawn of each new day become a sign that your love shines through. Help us to believe that your light is radiant and shines in our deepest darkness. Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent

Night and day, we pray. We trust, and try so very hard not be afraid, for the Lord our God is our strength and our might. It is in this knowledge that we rejoice. For the Lord is near. Alleluia! The Lord is near! We light these candles in the joy of the coming of the Lord.

Light first, second and third candles.

Sung Response 163 Many Are the Lightbeams (verse 1)

As many judgments as we place upon ourselves, as heavy are the burdens of our hurts and losses from the past, we lift our voices in song. We sing God’s praises. We are still learning the words. We’re still looking for signs but we trust that we will be messengers of God’s joy.

Let us pray.

God of darkness and light, do not let us be overpowered by discouragement and despair. May the dawn of each new day become a sign that your love shines through. Help us to believe that your light is radiant and shines in our deepest darkness. Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Night and day, we pray. We have so many prayers. With Mary, we pray that our souls might magnify the Lord. With David, we pray for restoration and salvation. Through all of the prayers on our hearts, we pray that God’s love shines through. We light these candles to reveal that love in our darkness.

Light first, second, third and fourth candles.

Sung Response 163 Many Are the Lightbeams (verse 1)

This little light reminds us of the love that is always there. Even as we wait for Christ to be born again, we share in the mystery that God is never faraway. It is the love that magnifies our souls. It is the love that restores us and saves us. It is the love that is always shining through.

Let us pray.

God of darkness and light, do not let us be overpowered by discouragement and despair. May the dawn of each new day become a sign that your love shines through. Help us to believe that your light is radiant and shines in our deepest darkness. Amen.

Christmas Eve

Night and day, we have prayed. We have prayed for signs and salvation. We have prayed for peace and trust. And, now, we cannot help but sing. Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise God in the heights! The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God was there in the beginning. It all started with God. And so, we believe that God will be in every one of our beginnings. This we pray as we light these candles.

Light first, second, third, fourth and Christ candles.

Sung Response 163 Many Are the Lightbeams (verse 1)

Let these lights shine through us from this day on so that we might never forget that God is with us. God is always with us.

Let us pray.

Light of the World, we have been so afraid. We haven’t truly believed that there is good news, but you are the good news. May your love shines through us. May we be radiant in your light so that no one hides in the deepest darkness. We will tell of your love from day to day. Amen.

First and Second Christmas

Night and day, we have prayed. We have prayed for signs and salvation. We have prayed for peace and trust. And, now, we cannot help but sign. We sing to the Lord a new song for we have seen a great light. We who have walked in darkness, burdened by the hurts and losses from our past, have seen a great light. It is the light of the world and it is here. We light these candles in celebration of the Christ who is among us — now and always!

Light first, second, third, fourth and Christ candles.

Sung Response 163 Many Are the Lightbeams (verse 1)

Let these lights shine through us from this day on so that we might never forget that God is with us. God is always with us.

Let us pray.

Light of the World, we have been so afraid. We haven’t truly believed that there is good news, but you are the good news. May your love shines through us. May we be radiant in your light so that no one hides in the deepest darkness. We will tell of your love from day to day. Amen.

If you happen to use this liturgy, please do let me know. I would love to hear about how your celebration of the coming of the Christ emerges. If you are looking for something a little different, you might also check out this post from last year.