Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas music: sing now, sing then

Advent IV
Lessons and Carols
12.21.14/Westwood Lutheran

It has been a week of music making at Westwood, I’m learning that’s pretty typical around here.  Last Sunday our Sunday school children filled the chancel area to sing Advent songs and give us a little glimpse into Christmas time.  Then, last Sunday afternoon about fifty people left Westwood in different groups to go Christmas caroling.  Young and old set out to sing to those who are not able to leave their homes and brought the sounds of Christmas to them.   We caroled to people who recognized their church friends quickly, we also caroled to people who could not remember– each recipient of the caroling groups were at differing stages of memory loss and old age. It did not matter – because music has the power to transcend memory loss, our brains are wired in such a way that music stays with us longer than names and dates and even longer than the recognition of beloved faces.    Music, in mysterious and powerful ways, cuts through disease and isolation and brings people of all ages together in the simple, bodily act of singing.  So many that we visited last week moved their lips and even made some sound with words like "O come let us adore Him" or "Hark the herald angels sing", they were signs of the power of story, music and healing. 

And this is the time of year to be brought together in song.  The music making continued on Tuesday morning when all our children from the Westwood Early Childhood Center filled the commons for the “Come as Your Are” luncheon – a lunch to gather and honor our most elderly church members – our youngest family members were singing the songs of faith to our oldest family members (picture?).  They sang the most simple songs of our faith, yet the words “He’s got the little bitty babies and the grandmas and the grandpas in his hands” seem to take on some other meaning when they are shared between such a span of generations.

I am not sure I can put my finger on it, but all week I’ve been pondering this strong connection between the story of Christmas and music – we cannot possibly separate them! Have you had the yearly argument with your loved ones as to when it is proper to turn on the Christmas music in the home and car?  Could we really gather on Christmas Eve and not sing “Silent Night, Holy Night all is calm all is bright?”

In the bible, the Christmas story is carried through narrative and song: much like this service of lessons and carols has been shaped.  This pattern of word and music, word and music is nothing new – the church has always been responding to the Word of God with song, especially at this time of year.

Could the compatibility of music and Christmas have something to do with the way in which God is acting in the story of Christ’s birth? Could it be that the Word became flesh, the Divine God becoming bodily and then dwelled among us as close as the voice which rises up from within us? The coming of the Christ child first entered the world, not in loud, majestic ways but in a woman’s womb – mysteriously taking up residence in a way that demands such intimacy, such feeling of the whole body.  Not unlike music. 

Of course Mary poured out in song after hearing what God was going to do in her life – it is so often how we make meaning, how we process, how we move through experiences or emotions which we cannot explained.  Music takes our ordinary words and gives them lift and power and resonance, music follows the lead of God who takes the ordinary, like Mary and gives her life and power.

Catholic theologian, Henri Nouwan spent much of his life living in intimate communities, he says it this way…

God became flesh for us to show us that the way to come in touch with God’s love is the human way, in which the limited and partial affection that people can give offers access to the unlimited and complete love that God has poured into the human heart." -Henry Nouwen

Perhaps we cannot separate music and the Christmas story because we need music to help us enter into this story that is intimate and holy, calling us to God and mysteriously saving us at the same time.   And this story, of the Holy One coming into our lives needs to take residence deep in our being, sung so far into our memories that this miracle, this presence of God will be the final reality we know while on earth.
There are countless ways to find your voice in the story, consider all these sounds of Christmas:

The song began with the prophet Isaiah: giving warning and hope to a nation in disarray, his melody is filled with longing and beauty (Cellos play“Lo, How a Rose")

Then Zachariah carries the story through his song that burst out from his own doubt: the dawn from on high will break upon us, he sings through a determined melody (Flute play "Joy to the world")

The angels and the whole hosts of heaven sing the promise that no human can fully understand, (brass section plays "Hark the Herald")

Mary, so plain and unassuming, sings her song of revolution and upheaval, with leaps of sound that portray the upheaval God’s kingdom will bring 
(violins play "Canticle of the Turning")

The story of Christmas moves through all kinds of people, even the story of the shepherds give us a tone of searching and yearning (clarinets play "In the Bleak Midwinter")

The Wiseman, invite in the generous and confident (piano plays "We Three Kings")

And all creation that falls silent when the glory of the Lord shines from the star upon the place where he lay (silence)

Every voice has it’s place in the symphony of Christmas, for God’s story includes melody, harmony, counter point and ostinatos.  Dynamics that carry us through every season of our life with this promise: the Word will dwell in your life, in intimate, soul-healing, world upturning ways.

May every song we sing bring us closer to God’s life among us.  Amen.

Not resolutions...alignment.

Christmas I Sermon
Luke 2:22-40

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
   according to your word; 
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’

Today’s Gospel reading features two pillars of faith who never get a starring role in the telling of the Christmas story.  I’m guessing many of you are packing up your nativity scenes and no one is carefully rolling their Simeon or Anna figurine up.  These are two people who are glorious parts of Jesus’ infancy, but only the few get to hear the story – because only on the Sunday after Christmas, once every three years do they make a public appearance.   And today is their day, you get to hear about Simeon and Anna today – consider it your door prize for coming to church just three days after Christmas, I am really glad you are here. 

Jesus was born into a Jewish home, and in keeping with the Jewish law his parents brought him to the Temple to be circumcised and dedicated to God on his 8th day of life.  It is from this practice that our modern-day practice of baptizing babies finds it’s origin.  And that day at the temple, led by faithful Joseph and carried by a still-recovering Mary, Jesus is laid in the arms of an old man, Simeon. He takes Jesus into his arms and proclaims that now he is ready to die, for a promise he heard from God some time ago is now fulfilled.  Simeon says it like this,
          ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
   according to your word; 
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’

Simeon’s whole life has been lived in faith, trusting that this moment, of holding God’s promise for all people would occur! And, when it did – he knew it, recognized it and praised God.    And then the other, even lesser known character of Anna makes an appearance.  She is known as an old prophetess, widowed and devout as she spent her life worshipping and fasting in the temple.  Anna too, tells of this child and what redemption will come to all the world because of his life on earth. 

Simeon and Anna, they got it.  
This is a rare treasure that we hear from Jesus’ life as told in the gospels.  We are used to hearing about disciples asking frustrating questions and misunderstanding, and religious leaders who are blinded by arrogance.  But today we hear from Simeon and Anna – they acknowledge God’s faithfulness and glory right there in the temple in the form of a baby!  What a gift, for his first week of taking on flesh, Jesus is known and praised, and what an affirmation for Mary and Joseph who stand there, in the temple, stunned at what these two elders of the faith are saying.   In this little known story in the Gospel of Luke, the people of God are aligned with what God is doing and they talk about it, they lift their voice and praise. 


It is not often that we get that kind of clarity, is it? Maybe it is more often in hindsight that we can look back on chapters of our lives and point to God’s presence there.  And we’re in a hind-sight kind of place in our year, with only 3 days left on the 2014 calendar.  On this Sunday between Christmas and New Year, we are at a time of taking stock, reflecting on what’s happened- counting the regrets against the victories, scanning the horizon of our life and the life of the world to wonder what this year has been, what does this year say about us as a person, family, nation, world, what does this year say about us as a church?

Over the weekend I was reading up on headlines and followed a link to see the best photos of the past year and then was led to a link provided by Google which reviewed the year through the lens of their search engine.  Google even made up a little video that you can all go home and check out later – but for now I will share one of the top five list they compiled, the top 5 searches that occurred world wide, of the past year: Robin Williams, World Cup, Ebola, Malaysian Airlines and the Ice Bucket Challenge.  

Now, I think we could have some fascinating conversations about what these searches say about us, the global family (or at least the members of the global family who are connected to the internet).   But just at first glance I hear sweeping themes of tragedy and hope...the defeating death of a loveable movie star and the disappearance of an entire plane of passengers and their crew.  The threat of spreading disease and losing control – these hold 3 of the top 5 spots in searches.  The world cup also holds a spot,  which I know close to nothing about and finally, the ice bucket challenge comes in as a grassroots, messy, life of its own movement which raised both awareness and money for Lou Gerig’s Disease research.  The theme of tragedy stands alongside a movement of hope and healing in the list of what people are interested in learning about as they troll the internet.   A common human experience is that we are so often driven by fear and simultaneously searching for hope. Have these two powers had a place in your year?

Simeon’s and Anna’s whole lives were waiting for hope to be fulfilled.  They were not driven by fear, but by faith – could that be why they could see the presence of God in the form of a baby? Was it their faith that gave them eyes to see God’s glory?

This is the perfect day for Simeon and Anna to show up and remind us that our hope and redemption does not come from the tragedies that play out on a global stage, or the ones that we encounter in our most private corners.   As we “take stock” and think about New Year’s resolutions, or failures from the past year or even from counting the successes of the last year…I hope Simeon’s  story will bring us to know that our hope and redemption comes from being aligned with God in the flesh, in our midst today and every day.

Baby Jesus was brought to the worship space by his parents, to follow the commands of God and to be claimed by this God.  So began his earthly ministry, as he grew and then became baptized it all began with this early affirmation and alignment right there in the temple.  Today We have all had the privilege of bearing witness to ___ babies being brought to the waters, where each of us are aligned again and again and again by God’s promises and presence.  It is a time to take stock, a time to begin again, a time for faith and lives transformed – all because so many years ago another baby came into this world and was brought to the temple and God’s Spirit fell upon him just has the Spirit falls on all of us.

And so our year begins, will we have the faith of Anna that is spurred on by a hunger for God’s Word?
Or could we have the clarity of Simeon and so ardently search and wait for God’s presence in our lives?
Will our lives be led by the hope of the Christmas promise or the fear of the unknown future?

May the resolutions of our lives and the google searches on our screens point to hope and open our hearts to hear God’s promises…like the words from the prophet Isaiah who spoke these, stunning words that give voice to hope from tragedy…

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
   and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
   to spring up before all the nations. 
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
   and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,

For the sake of the world, do not keep silent, raise your voice, raise your voice in praise. 

May our entrance into the new year be marked by Jesus, the Word who dwells in us, may we see, recognized and praise God who is worthy.  Amen.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Our time with a puppy and the police

I am a big fan of Family Systems Theory.  A frame of understanding human relationships as a massive system with predictable patterns.  My study in this field has been eye opening,  helping me personally and in ministry. 

I think it also explains my dog.

Somehow, without much advanced planning I managed to adopt a dog that is frighteningly similar to my daughter.  Parker was 10 months hold when we met.  The kid and I drove to the human society with the goal of “just looking” and checking into some options.  We took a couple of dogs into the play-n-greet area to get a sense of their personality, but the dogs were terribly afraid and skittish, making me afraid that they would be too touchy around a child. 

We were about to leave when a volunteer said there is one more we just had to meet.  We took Parker, a big-eyed, black and white border collie to the play area.  Instantly he was crawling into Micaela’s lap, chasing balls and persistently offering kisses.  It took less than one minute to decide this was the guy for us.  

We adopted Parker on a Friday, the entire weekend was devoted to getting him settled and teaching him to do his business outside.  On Sunday night, two nights later, we were broken into.  Parker had been in a crate in my room, my sweet girl slept in her room just down the hall. Somewhere around 3AM a man cut open a screen to our porch, lifted a window (that was barely open, but visible from the street if you were really looking for it) and climbed into our house.  He opened the door from the porch to the living room, walked through the living room, dining room (about 3 feet from my daughter’s door) and into the kitchen.  He found my purse hanging on a door knob and left the same way he entered.  Leaving the door to the porch wide open, the screen cut and ravaged and the window fully opened.   

Parker didn’t make a sound, I heard nothing.

6 AM I rose to let the dog out, walked from the back hallway and into the living room.  I glanced over at the porch and saw the door ajar.  Immediately, I thought there was a raccoon in my house (because this was a more plausible answer to the door being open than a human), but then I saw the window.  The world went spinning for a second while I wondered if there was another person still in my house.  I ran back to my room, grabbed my phone and called 911. 

After hanging up with the dispatcher I had to take 5 very heavy steps into my daughters room, the door, only partially closed blocked my sight of her.  I had to find out if she was still in her bed, unharmed, but I was terrified.  Like ripping off a band-aid I flung open the door, turned on the lights and saw her beautiful form on a heap of stuffed animals. 

I followed the dispatchers instructions to open the front door and wait there.  I took a moment to attached Parker to his long line in our large side yard.  It wasn’t until I had walked across the driveway that I realized, that’s where my car had been and now it was gone.

Within thirty minutes my driveway was full of men who kept politely lifting their feet while my new puppy and his leash wove all around their feet. I sat on the drive way holding my computer so we could see purchases on my credit cards mounting up.

We stayed in the house for the next ten nights, I slept about 2-4 hours each night, holding some sort of vigil to help us all feel safe.  My daughter and our dog (now liberated from the crate) slept in my bed, it was a crowded,  yet secured sleep.  8 days later the police found my car, no damage done, no prints to be lifted, no arrest to be made.  So we closed the book, it was a crime of convenience, it wouldn’t happen again.

But this asshole still had my wallet, address, identification, all my keys and my peace of mind.

This is when I saw the similarities between dog and daughter.  Parker is so very smart, endlessly sweet and a little needy  He wouldn’t eat unless I watched him, he wouldn’t pee unless we were standing outside with him.  Both canine and offspring love to sit close, so if we’re all on the couch, we’re all on the same third of the couch.  Both love to play and both make really loud noises when their upset (she sasses, he howls).   Micaela has often been too afraid to be in a separate room from me, this was never so true as after this break in.  So, in these days post break-in we’d make family trips out to the yard so the dog could do his thing, and then family trips into our tiny bathroom so the girl could do her thing.  Sometime we giggled through this little parade, other times it was terribly annoying. 

Two months later, he stole my car again.  I had just let the dog out, then put my daughter to bed, walked back into the kitchen and saw that the driveway was again empty.  While the police were checking the house they discovered other signs of tampering that had happened a few weeks prior.  This time, I could not bring myself to stay in the house, we stayed with family for the next two weeks.

Two weeks later the police found my car, no damage done, no prints to be lifted, no arrest to be made.

We seriously considering moving, but I love our house which has enough room to hold my baby grand piano, gives us our beautiful porch-room and big yard.  We adore this neighborhood and we have neighbors that actually know my name and watch out for us. So I decided to make my house less convenient for unwanted visitors and I traded in my wandering car.  Motion alarms, motion lights, window locks and door alarms now decorate our darling house.  I sleep alright, Parker sleeps on my feet.  About every third night my daughter needs to sleep in my bed and I don’t really fight it.  If she’s right next to me, I know she is safe. 

I won’t be getting back my old wallet or keys, but slowly I am regaining peace of mind.  And we’re all getting better at using our respective bathrooms alone!