I read a lot of mysteries. Escapism, I’m sure. But I also enjoy a good novel, one that pulls me into a world that seems real to me, at least in the moment. I wonder if I’m drawn to both kinds of books because they elicit such different reactions from me, the reader. I like a well-written novel, and by that, I mean one that has interesting characters, a vivid setting, and a twist or two. I have very little patience with plodding plots, flat characters, too-timely coincidences and gift-wrapped happy endings.
I just finished Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, which was wonderful. It took me to 1930s New York and into intriguing social circles and complicated, fascinating relationships. And, much to my surprise, it included a brief passage that comes close to explaining why I like a good mystery, too. Towles’ narrator is talking about those by Agatha Christie.
“You can make what claims you will about the psychological nuance of Proust or the narrative scope of Tolstoy, but you can’t argue that Mrs. Christie fails to please. Her books are tremendously satisfying.
“Yes, they’re formulaic. But that’s one of the reasons they are so satisfying. With every character, every room, every murder weapon feeling at once newly familiar as rote (the role of the postimperialist uncle from India here being played by the spinster from South Wales, and the mismatched bookends standing in for the jar of fox poison on the upper shelf of the gardener’s shed), Mrs. Christie doles out her little surprises at the carefully calibrated pace of a nanny dispensing sweets to the children in her care.
“But I think there is another reason they please -- a reason that is at least as important, if not more so -- and that is that in Agatha Christie’s universe everyone eventually gets what they deserve.
“Inheritance or penury, love or loss, a blow to the head or the hangman’s noose, in the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. Poirot and Marple are not really central characters in the traditional sense. They are simply the agencies of an intricate moral equilibrium that was established by the Primary Mover at the dawn of time.”
Intellectually and spiritually, I have accepted the fact that we live in a world where justice will eventually be served, maybe not in our lifetimes and not as we expect or envision it to be. And I believe that doesn't let us off the hook -- we still need to work for justice. I know we live in Job’s world, but sometimes I long to live in Agatha’s.
If your weekends are anything like mine, they’re full of errands and e-mails, maybe with a little entertainment on the side. Rare, quiet moments are a prize, and I have been known to seek them out. So, if you have a hectic weekend ahead of you, and you’re anywhere near Northeast Portland, drop by The Grotto, a peace-filled spot just off of Sandy Boulevard. There are wooded paths for quiet walks, benches suited to sitting and thinking and a gift shop full of art, books and beautiful reminders of our better selves. I’ll be there from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, signing my book, Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians, if you’re interested. But mostly I’ll be eager to talk to you, to hear about the strangers you’ve encountered in your life and what you’ve learned from them.
It’s been two days since Joe Soldati and I read at Broadway Books. I spent yesterday swinging from overwhelming gratitude to pinching myself (hence, the black and blue). My deepest thanks to all of you who turned out for this event; to Don Colburn, who had the idea and pitched it to the bookstore (and to Joe and me); to the owners and staff at Broadway Books, who put us on their schedule, moved the furniture and stayed late with all of us.
The audience, all of them serious readers with senses of humor, was wonderful. The youngest was my two-month-old granddaughter Dot, who though she looked bored, didn’t vocally object to being there. The farthest traveled was my first city editor, who lives now in Seattle and spent most of two days with me dissecting “The Post” (she, with her firsthand knowledge!); members of my writing group, who’ve read my manuscript as often as I have. One of my dearest friends brought her husband and discovered that Joe had been her English teacher back in college. Poetry fans who came to hear Joe were interested in my book, too, and vice versa.
There were colleagues from my newspaper days (Vivian posted pictures!), friends from my kids’ middle school days, people I’d interviewed years ago, neighbors and strangers. And I know there were people who were out of town; struggling with colds; had plates so loaded they couldn’t imagine adding one more event; and people like me, who may have written the wrong date on their calendars. I don’t need to see you to know you all are with me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Broadway Books is my friendly, neighborhood, independent bookstore. That means a lot to a work-at-home writer who relies on reading and walking to exercise both brain and body. On Sunday, I weathered the cold to buy Anne Lamott’s Stitches for a friend recovering after surgery and a copy of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing for myself. When I opened the door to the light and warmth of the store, my glasses fogged up. As I waited for them to defrost, I remembered the best book I ever bought here -- J.R. Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar. It’s a good book, but I remember it so fondly because my husband, who only read non-fiction (“Why would anyone want to read something that isn’t true?” the newspaper man in him often asked) loved that particular book. It was probably the best Father’s Day gift I ever gave him. Many of my memories of Broadway Books, which settled in Northeast Portland about the time I did 25 years ago, stack up with memories of the friends and relatives I’ve given books that I bought there.
And now this carefully curated store with wooden shelves and tables heaped with good, if not excellent, books is giving me a gift. They have invited Portland poet Joe Soldati and me to share a reading there, and I am inviting you to join us. Joe has published several collections of poetry; his latest is Sacrifices: Retold and Untold Stories from the Bible [Poems]. These are not the Sunday School characters you may remember. Joe imagines a letter from Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, who has no idea his wife has been carrying on with King David. Joe reads the minds of soldiers gambling for Jesus’ cloak at the crucifixion. These poems make me shudder, smile, reflect. I think you’d like them.
My book, Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians, has filled my time since I left the paper. I was inspired by my time as a reporter, when I’d reach out to total strangers and talk to them about their most closely held religious beliefs -- which often were very different from my own. This experience reminded me of Bible stories, in which the foreigners or outsiders behave better than the believers they’ve encountered. So I researched and wrote about six of these stories and raise some questions about them, all in an effort to spark the conversations we need to have now, when our fear of strangers threatens so many of our religious and civic values. I believe Scripture can help with these conversations because, whether or not you know or revere the Bible, it has probably influenced your life. As a culture, we invoke the story of the Good Samaritan and we think we know what it means. But do we know the story of Hagar and the light it sheds on racism, refugees and hope? Or the story of Naaman, an enemy general who overcame his own ego, his most dangerous foe?
Though I tried to write with humor, my share of this reading may not be as entertaining as Joe’s. I get it. But I’m not asking you to come and buy my book. Feel free to buy Joe’s, or find something else on the shelves that may be calling to you. Or don’t buy anything, just come and join the conversation. It will be thought-provoking and fun. And I guarantee you’ll leave feeling better, as I always do when I leave Broadway Books.
If you can come, the reading is Tuesday, March 6, at 7 p.m. at Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, Portland, OR 97232.
What a week this has been: another mass shooting, more aggravations and inaction in Washington, D.C., a dear friend requires, receives and is recovering from serious surgery, another Valentine’s Day without a card from Fred. I did what I always do: I ate too much chocolate, I spent time with my beautiful baby granddaughters, I edited a book chapter for a friend, I knitted, I tried to pray and I read a lot.
This morning I picked up Anne Lamott’s Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, a book she wrote after the shooting in Newton. Here’s what I will take with me today as I head out on errands:
“Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, hope. The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbor, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry. You can also offer to do other people's laundry, if they have recently had any random babies or surgeries.
“We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we’d pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. . . .
“In the aftermath of loss, we do what we’ve always done, although we are changed, maybe more afraid. We do what we can, as well as we can.”
This morning I plugged the last remaining pieces into the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that I’ve been working on since Christmas. They were not the last ones. As it turns out, six pieces are missing, gathered up and thrown away as I cleared the living room on Boxing Day or devoured by the vacuum cleaner in the weeks since. Six gaps: Two of the skaters in Rockefeller Center are missing partners. Two high-rise walls have holes in them. A chunk of the night-time sky is gone, and one outline resembles a body falling from a nearby rooftop. I crawled around the living and dining rooms on my hands and knees, checking under furniture and rugs. I ran my fingers around and under cushions. No luck. Now what?
Can I give away a puzzle, knowing it’s not complete? Would I ever want to tackle it again without the sublime experience of seeing it whole and finished? Why does it bother me so much that I can’t finish it? It’s not like the pieces are lying in front of me and I can’t see how they fit together. For six or seven weeks, this puzzle has challenged me and entertained me, given me something else to think about when I need a break from the news of the world or my own to-do list. And I did find the right spot for every piece I had to work with. That’s something. But still they eat at me, these missing pieces.
Oh, come on! I am annoying myself now. This is a cardboard puzzle, not my life stretched out on the dining room table. That, I guess, I’ll finish some day. Some pieces of it will surely be missing, too.
and I will probably make myself look at it, but here are five things I decided to read first this morning:
A PBS NewsHour piece truth-checking the notion that immigrants bring crime with them when they come to our country: “The most striking finding from our research is that for murder, robbery, burglary and larceny, as immigration increased, crime decreased, on average, in American metropolitan areas. The only crime that immigration had no impact on was aggravated assault. These associations are strong and stable evidence that immigration does not cause crime to increase in U.S. metropolitan areas, and may even help reduce it.”
Betty Crocker’s recipe for peanut brittle: “Cook, stirring constantly, to 300 degrees (or until a small amount of mixture dropped into very cold water separates into threads.”
A Religion News Service piece by Peter Gyves, a Jesuit priest and physician, under the headline "January was tough on the poor. And so was tax reform:" “It is time for people of faith to reclaim their compelling voice by bringing awareness to the poverty suffered by those less fortunate, and by creating opportunities for those more fortunate to walk in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in need. Sadly, over the past several decades, some prominent voices have aligned themselves with the powerful rather than the marginalized. Their support allowed this recent tax legislation to gain tax cuts for the wealthy by eliminating health care insurance for as many as 13 million individuals.”
A Sojourners piece titled, “The State of Religion and Politics in 2018 -- and Why It Gives Me Hope,” by Cassandra Lawrence : “We’ve seen religion at work in all the people who are reaching out to one another in quieter ways, gathering in living rooms and in houses of worship across the country to make efforts to get to know one another better.” Lawrence mentions specific programs and events worth noting.
And, finally, the last chapter of Christopher Fowler’s Ten Second Staircase, in which aging academics dig into the past to solve modern crimes in London: “‘England has the most contemporary spiritual landscape in Europe. The meaningful aesthetics of family and religion have fallen by the wayside. We have tribalism, but no belief system against which we can measure ourselves on this wonderful blank canvas, to finally prove responsible for our own destinies, international corporations are busy trying to fill the void. What could be more grotesque than companies behaving like vengeful deities by copyrighting the genetic code, or stopping seeds from producing? So someone must remain behind to remember the past, and I’ve appointed myself for the task. Do you want tea?’”
I know, I know, there’s a GOP memo in my inbox. But right now, I’m heading out for a run.
I sometimes speak to small groups, and I’m often asked why I am still a Catholic. Still.
We all know of former Catholic women who have said they left the church because they could not be ordained and/or they disagreed with official church teaching. But, while I flirted with Judaism as I studied Hebrew years ago, I have never left the Catholic Church, never even seriously considered it. But the question of “why” keeps coming back at me.
I converted to Catholicism when I was almost 30, having grown up in the Presbyterian Church. I have wonderful memories of that church and the people there who guided me along the path. But my interest in the Catholic Church began when I worked for a few months with Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Spokane. I was so impressed with these women, their dedication to God and their sense of service to everyone, including women so often overlooked by the rest of the world.
Later, when I moved to Portland, I lived a few blocks from St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral. I remembered those Holy Names sisters as I walked by this mountain of red brick in Northwest Portland. One Christmas morning, I found myself, for the first time, inside the cathedral, in Mass. I remember feeling oddly at home. I didn’t know what was happening around me, but the “smells and the bells” drew me in. I joined the catechumenate there, a group for people interested in learning more about the church. A handful of women I met in that group remain close friends today.
Later I attended a Protestant seminary, chosen because it was liberal, located in a large city, a place where I thought I could learn to write about the Bible and religion in general. I had no desire to be ordained. I saw my gifts leading me down a different path. But, still, my classmates, assuming ordination was an issue for me, wondered why I didn't switch to a denomination where that might have happened. Many women in my class had done just that. But I found myself drawn to a half-dozen women who longed to preach and pastor but still stayed Catholic. When our fellow students were graduating and planning ordinations, we planned our own “commissioning service” and sent each other out into the world to find or create our own paths. I often think of those women and wonder how their lives have worked out.
I awoke this morning to “hear” one of them again. Nancy Small has written a piece for America magazine that explains why she is still a Catholic and the particular path she’s found. She writes eloquently about her experience in seminary and since, and the realization that she is already ordained. She quotes a line from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:
“The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood.” I encourage you to read her essay here.
Nancy lists some of the things she loves about the Catholic Church: “religious communities whose charisms and witness were beacons illumining the path of the holy in my life . . . mystics and monastics, seekers and saints, peacemakers and prophets . . . words of wisdom . . . spiritual practices . . . Catholic social teaching . . . . “ Her list strikes a chord in my heart. Yes, these are the reasons to stay, I think to myself. But there is one more that Nancy acknowledges and I cling to -- all the women who have gone before us, and walk with us still.
All the women who sacrificed and served. All the women who were born into, converted, challenged and critiqued the church. All the women who found a way, like Nancy, to preach, preside and pray within the Catholic Church. The women I have known who fight the good fight. They are my bottom line. They are the reason I remain a Catholic. Still.
I once knew a family that unpacked their nativity scene the day after Thanksgiving. They arranged all the pieces -- the holy family, the shepherds, the sheep, cows, manger and the baby -- carefully and arranged the figures on the living room mantel. The wise men were exiled to the den, which didn’t immediately make sense to me. I asked and the mother involved explained that the wise men figurines would make their way slowly, day by day, from the easternmost corner of the house and arrive at the manger on January 6, Epiphany. I was so impressed.
I knew nothing about the 12 days of Christmas or the feast of Epiphany, and her explanation has stayed with me all these years. I don’t do the same thing. Somehow I suspected that I would not remember to move the magi every day as they made their way toward Christmas. Probably for the same reason I never managed the elf-on-a-shelf that other families foster. That, and I have a lousy sense of direction. I cannot tell you now whether my house faces east or west, north or south, without imagining a map of Portland and trying to figure out where I’m sitting on it right this minute.
But even though, I didn’t observe the same tradition, I’ve learned a little about those wise men and what they have to do with Christmas and with Christians. And I think every season about the magi and their journey and that they arrived at the manger after many of us have taken down the trees and put away the nativity scene. The fir boughs on my mantel are crispy now and my tree is probably past its prime, but I won't take them down until after the feast of Epiphany. Until the wise men have had time to get there -- at least in my imagination. As many who have been reading this blog or my book know, I believe that the outsiders of the Bible -- the strangers within its pages -- have a lot to teach us about the strangers in our own lives.
I have given it some thought and decided that I am hard pressed to come up with better New Year’s Resolutions than the last words of the twelfth Dr. Who, uttered on BBC on Christmas night: “Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”
*Advice my dad used to give me.
In the weeks before and after Christmas, I like to read a book set in the season. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s a holdover from the days we’d read our boys Christmas books from Thanksgiving to Epiphany. Nowadays, it’s adult books I read -- often a murder mystery set in the Highlands or a big city, now or in the past, often with a food theme (coffee, chocolate, cookies). I’m sure it’s just a fanciful escape from the to-do lists that consume my waking energy before Christmas. But some years, I’m in the mood for something more serious: a short collection of essays by Raymond E. Brown, An Adult Christ at Christmas, or a novel by Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ Christmas. I’ve read each of them many times over the years. The reason why is probably obvious with Brown’s book, but this year it was Mr. Ives’ turn. When I finished it this morning, I thought about why I return to this particular book again and again. It is a sad story that spans many Christmases and only near the end is it pierced by slivers of hope. It’s an odd choice, even for me.
Part of my attraction is the setting -- New York City, specifically the Morningside Heights neighborhood around Union, where I went to seminary. Mr. Ives lives on Claremont Avenue -- as did we. He attends the same Catholic Church, visits many others I’ve been to, walks through parks I know, buys pizza and Christmas trees on Amsterdam Avenue. Reading this book summons good memories of the Christmases we spent in Manhattan.
The language is lovely. The details evoke so many of the changes that have transformed New York City for good and for ill since the 1950s. And Hijuelos captures the shifting hearts and minds of his characters as they work and worship, live and love, hurt and heal. Here’s a sample:
“Of course, while contemplating the idea of the baby Jesus, perhaps the most wanted child in the history of the world, Ives would feel sad, remembering that years ago someone had left him, an unwanted child, in a foundling home. (To that day, to all the days into the future, there remained within him, the shadowy memory of the dark-halled building in which he lived for two years, a place as cavernous and haunted as a cathedral.) A kind of fantasy would overtake him, a glorious vision of angels and kings and shepherds worshiping a baby: nothing could please him more, nothing could leave him feeling a deeper despair.”
The characters are real -- rough and smooth, sympathetic and off-putting -- and their personalities come back to me quickly, even when years have passed between my reading of this book. As I mentioned, the plot is a sad one. Tragedy strikes early on and through all 248 pages, an easy answer never rears its ugly head. Ives endures the tragedy, the pain, the sorrow, the memories, the paralysis, the despair, the doubts, the odd monotony of loss. And when the “answers” come, they are not obvious or even easy to understand, either for him, his friends or me.
I think that’s why I love this book and come back to it again and again. We all know that Christmas is a difficult time for many people, for many of us. Somehow most of us soldier through the glitter and glad tidings. Occasionally we re-emerge cheered and comforted. Some of us have witnessed moments of mystery that we don’t understand but hope are good omens. We know the first Christmas was marked by violence and sorrow and yet, love endured and hope, though it often seems fleeting, can pierce our lives. Mr. Ives reminds me of that everytime I visit him at Christmas.
Last month, the Institute for Christian Muslim Understanding screened this film at the Muslim Educational Trust in Tigard, and 350 people showed up on a school night to see it. If you missed it, Oregon Public Broadcasting will show it at 11 p.m. tonight, Dec. 27. Stay up late or DVR it. It's worth your time to glimpse a moment from our shared past when a Christian and a Muslim defied their leaders and met face to face in search of peace. Here's a link to the trailer.
Christmas Day has come and gone, but I am still marking it in my heart. My house was full with my sons, their wives and their two babies -- my new granddaughters. Birth stories, feeding schedules and dreams for the future filled the air. The presents were thoughtful. The food was good, even if we threw it together at the last minute. Both illness and freezing rain kept our family plans up in the air. But we made the most of our time together. All the young ones headed for home about 6 p.m. and I left the dishes on the table, made myself a Christmas cocktail and enjoyed a holiday movie. A hot eggnog and rum later, I poured myself into bed, slept soundly and tackled the dishes this morning. I just finished, after several coffee and cookie breaks and a couple rounds of the living room to pick up paper, boxes and ribbons.
I am sure there is nothing remarkable about these particular Christmas memories. But for me, they are a turning point. My husband loved Christmas, and since losing him five years ago, I seemed to have lost a piece of my heart. But I know he would love these little girls, be proud of his sons, impressed with their wives and that, if he could, he would have mixed my Christmas drink and talked me into that eggnog. I would give anything to have him back here with me, but as the years pass, it seems easier to feel him still at my side. And so I am indulging myself in all the Christmas I can muster and wishing anyone reading this, a peace-filled holiday.
Yesterday, I raised some questions here about the wise men, the trio of magi who meander through our Christmas traditions. We may think we know why they are there. They bring gifts to the infant Jesus. But if you think about it, the magi are shadowy strangers that you and I would probably never let near our children, at Christmas or any other time. But if we read Matthew’s Christmas story carefully, we realize both what we don’t know and what we can learn from these mysterious men.
We don’t know how many there were (we assume there were three because they brought three gifts with them) or where they come from (just “from the East”) or what they really did for a living (theories over the centuries include astrologers, astronomers, magicians, royal advisors, even frauds).
We do know that they followed a star, stopped to ask for directions (wise men, indeed), had a frightfully enlightening encounter with the Romans’ appointed king of the Jews (that Herod, what a nasty piece of work). Eventually, they laid eyes on the infant (the one we know as Jesus), presented their gifts and then hit the road, taking a different route home.
Now, it would take too long to unpack all that detail (I do try to do that in my book). But here are some high points: The magi -- strangers in the Christmas story -- were the characters who (1) acted with integrity, (2) behaved humbly, (3) moved with determination, (4) showed true courage and (5) had a kind of vision that many of us would envy.
You see, if we set aside Mary and Joseph, the wise men were the first people to literally lay eyes on Jesus, to recognize this infant as the king of the Jews (long before that title was nailed over his head on the cross). In other words, magi were foreigners, unknown, unrecognized, undocumented, unverified outsiders who first saw Jesus for who he was. The insiders in Matthew’s Christmas story -- King Herod and his advisors -- were ignorant, petty, selfish, careless and cruel. It’s the strangers in this Bible story who set the holiest example.
So, I would ask you to think about these strangers today as we hear about, judge, discount, shun, even condemn the strangers (including immigrants, refugees, rich, poor, people from other races, religions, backgrounds, political parties, etc.) that some of our leaders encourage us to fear. Strangers can be our teachers, if only we let them.
Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians at https://litpress.org/Products/4504/Sacred-Strangers or https://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Strangers-Bibles-Outsiders-Christians/dp/0814645046
Here’s a quick Christmas quiz for you: Who are those three wise men, traipsing through the Christmas story? The ones who lurk in almost all the manger scenes and children’s pageants of the season? Think about it.
They weren’t Jews. They probably never became Christians. They couldn’t have been Muslims. They were from mysterious, unspecified “Middle Eastern” countries. They passed themselves off as skilled, but we aren’t sure what they did for a living. They seemed well off, but efforts to follow the money have been fruitless. Turns out even their obituaries, on file today in Germany, are actual fake news.
In other words, the three wise men (Do we even know there were three?) were strangers. Foreigners. Outsiders in the original Christmas story. What the heck are they doing there?
If you think it’s because they brought the baby Jesus presents, you’re only partly right. These strangers carried much more important gifts -- for us. That’s why they’re in the Christmas story, why they’re celebrated on Epiphany, January 6, and why we shouldn’t take them for granted today.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you why these outsiders are so important. Yes, I am asking you to wait -- it’s Advent after all.
Kristen Hannum of The Catholic Sentinel reviewed my book this week. Long, long ago I worked at the Sentinel for about a year. I learned a lot from my editor there, Bob Pfohman, and wrote my first stories about an archbishop. In this case, William Levada, who went on to become a cardinal and served in the Vatican. I also got the bug to go to seminary. Here's a link to Kristen's review.
Sunday evening, my daughter-in-law texted me that she and my granddaughter would be stopping by at 7:15 a.m. Monday morning to bring me a Christmas surprise. That seemed a little early, but I would meet them whenever and wherever they propose, so I texted back, “Yes.”
I woke up about 6 a.m., got dressed and was sitting at my dining room table drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. It was still dark out, I hadn’t open the shades on the windows.
Suddenly, I heard men’s voices right outside my window. I peeked out and saw three men, one of them surveying the front of my house. I thought the worst. I summoned my most commanding voice, opened the front door and asked, “Can I help you?”
“We’re going to light your tree,” the guy studying the house said. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“On whose authority?” I asked (“Shoot, does anybody really talk like that,” I thought.)
“Ashley’s,” he said without missing a beat.
For a minute, I still didn’t know what he was talking about. “Ashley is my daughter-in-law,” I blurted out.
“Yep,” he said. “She ordered it.” He smiled. I burst into tears. Within a few minutes, Ashley and my granddaughter showed up. Ashley consulted with the workmen while I cuddled the baby. When Ashley came back inside, she explained that it was a joint gift from all my kids -- my two sons and their wives.
As I’ve grown older, outdoor lights at night have become so important to me. Maybe it’s the result of living through so many gray Oregon winters. But even this year, during a stretch of dry, blue skies, the sight of sparkling lights against the night sky warms my heart. I have always wanted to light the dogwood tree outside my dining room window, but I couldn’t do it alone. Even if I could, I think my ladder-climbing days are behind me. I always assumed it would be too expensive to hire anyone to do it (let’s hope my kids didn’t spend their kids’ college funds on this project!). And so I have contented myself with a string of lights around my front porch and evening walks, where I soak in all my neighbors’ lights.
Well, this year, thanks to my wonderful children, I have a sparkling tree in my front yard. And, as I am reminded yet again, a remarkable family.
Today I had the privilege of preaching at Spirit of Grace, a wonderful and welcoming congregation in Beaverton, Oregon. The readings for the day and my remarks follow.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, this season of anticipation for the birth of Jesus and all that it means to those of us who believe in him. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this is a challenging time -- partly because of the culture and society around us, which seem to have their own understandings of Christmas. And partly because this year Advent, as it always seems to do, finds us all in different places.
For some of us, this is a season of joy, of childlike wonder, when expectation fuels excitement and creates extra energy.
For others of us, Advent almost always comes with a long “to-do list.” Some of it is fun; some of it is frustrating. But we rush to complete every task by December 24.
Those of us who follow the news this Advent season see the brokenness of the world, of our country, of our own communities. Given all that is going on, or not going on, we often feel the weight of depression and despair, in a time when we had hoped to see light and possibility.
And for a few of us, this particular Advent may be a time when sadness or loss colors our lives. Our pain seems all the more vivid now because the rest of the world is decked out in red and green.
So, this second Sunday of Advent finds us all in different places. And to be honest with you, before this season ends, I will probably have been in all those places myself. But, thankfully, I think today’s Scripture reaches out to us, wherever we may be.
We would do well to remember that the first reading today, from Isaiah 40, was aimed at people who had lived in exile for almost a generation. The prophet was speaking to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, to a remnant of them anyway, to those who had survived a stunning defeat, a “shattering disaster,” 50 years before. The Babylonian Empire had swept through the kingdom of Judah. They had killed Jews, destroyed villages and towns, and laid waste to Jerusalem. They they had torn apart the temple, the holy place where the Jews believed God lived. Finally, to make matters worse, the Babylonians rounded up the best and the brightest and the most skilled of the Jews, forced them to leave their homes and live in another country, far, far away.
This exile all but broke the people of Judah. The Psalms record their anger, their grief, their yearning, their bitterness. Some were consumed by guilt -- many of them had not led upright lives. Others felt forsaken by God and mourned for the homes and loved ones they had lost. The biblical book of Lamentations describes the ruins of Jerusalem and says the sacred stones of the temple were scattered at the top of every street.
But, as often happens with empires, Babylon eventually fell. The new conqueror, Cyrus of Persia, declared an end to the exile and decreed that the Jews could go home. But, as often happens, freedom came with fear. What would the people find when they went back to Judah, back to Jerusalem? Their homes and villages might still be in ruins. Or other people might have claimed and rebuilt them. And with the temple destroyed, God surely must have moved on.
Isaiah, and other prophets before him, reminded the people over and over again that God was not bound to one place, especially not to a stone temple in Jerusalem. God has been with you in exile, the prophets said, and God awaits you at home.
“Comfort, O Comfort my people,” Isaiah writes. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . make straight a highway . . . every mountain and hill made low . . . uneven ground leveled out . . . do not fear . . . Here is your God!“
Isaiah asks his people to have faith despite what they have seen and heard, despite their doubts and fears. Isaiah calls them to act on that faith, not to linger in the ruins of Babylon, but to go home and remake their lives.
Today’s second reading, from Peter’s second letter, was inspired long after the Babylonian exile ended. After the birth of Jesus and his death and resurrection. This letter was addressed to a community like this one, a church united by their belief in Jesus and challenged by those who doubted his promises. This letter was written at a time when the church’s critics had grown bold. Yes, the followers of Jesus believed that he was coming back to them, in glory. But months, weeks, years had passed, and it hadn’t happened yet.
“Where is the promise of his coming,” some sneered at the church. Questions and doubts threatened to take hold of the community: What is taking so long? Maybe he isn’t coming.
Peter cuts quickly to the chase. Remember “this one fact,” he says. “With the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” His point, some people say, is that God experiences time differently that we human beings do. But I’m not sure about that. Peter is saying that for God, time is both fast and slow, both short and long. I have that same experience, don’t you? When I am sad or lonely, time drags. When I am happy and excited, time flies. I think Peter means that the passage of time is not something we control. But those times when it seems to drag may work to our advantage.
Maybe what we experience as delay is evidence of God’s patience, Peter argues. We can use this time to prepare for Jesus’ coming. Because when he does come “like a thief in the night,” all this -- the things, the stuff, the objects that we have made or built or bought, all the things that consume our attention -- even the elements they are made of -- will all be burned away.
We will be left with nothing but ourselves. And those selves, Peter goes on to say, should be at peace, “without spot or blemish.” I don’t know about you, but getting myself to place where I am at peace and without spot or blemish, will require some effort. Peter reminds us that our waiting is not idle time, to be spent dozing before the fire, waiting for Jesus to knock on the door. We all have work to do. God is not stalling just to catch us off guard or unprepared. God wants us all to come to repentance.
Which brings us to the Gospel, the beginning verses of Mark, which build on the imagery of Isaiah. Once again, the setting is the wilderness, and we learn that a messenger, sent from God, will “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight.” Mark is not talking about building a highway home, as Isaiah did, but about straightening out crooked paths. And in Mark’s mind, the straighter path -- the more direct route -- lies through the wilderness. And many of us know that to be true.
Mark also introduces us to John the baptizer, giving us just enough detail to make him seem odd and old-school at the same time. John is clothed in animal skins, a strip of hide wrapped around his waist. John’s appearance connected those who saw him then and hear about him now with an earlier time in our sacred history. It connects us to the days of the prophets -- who always spoke for God whether or not the people wanted to listen.
Hear what John is saying now: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John has just described himself as lower even than a slave. But here he is, baptizing “people from the whole of Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” who have come to him to confess their sins. John is a humble man, who acts with power, in the service of others.
And he is not done talking: “I have baptized you with water,” John says, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” I think John, who lives in the wilderness, speaks humbly, does what he can and promises even more, is the prophet of Advent, the embodiment of this season. I would like to be more like him.
I told you I think today’s Scriptures speak to all of us, wherever we find ourselves.
If we are joyful, excited and energized about the birth of Jesus, these readings are a reminder that some of the energy we feel should be directed toward ourselves. So that we will be ready for Jesus and the work he requires of us. Not that we should become glum or self-absorbed, but that we should use the gift of God’s patience to create and foster qualities that won’t burn away on the day of the Lord.
If we are saddled with an overwhelming “to-do list,” we need to remember that we are not alone in our efforts. Helping others and receiving help are both part of our Advent experience. Remember that God is not bound to one place, one day or a single experience of time. Faith can re-write our “to-do” lists.
If we follow the news and see the brokenness all around us, we should not give in to communal depression and despair. Our “shattering disaster” is not the first one we have endured. We have been and can be a remnant people, passing through the wilderness. With God’s help, we can find our way home and rebuild our lives.
And, finally, if we are struggling with some kind of sorrow, these readings remind us that sometimes the most direct path forward passes through the wilderness. We can take one step at a time and remember that we are not walking alone.
No matter where we are this Advent, no matter the challenges that we face, I think I can summarize this message from Isaiah, 2 Peter and Mark in what we used to call a “nut graf” at the newspaper -- a quick and clean statement telling readers why we were writing this particular story, why we were writing it now and what difference it would make to them. So here is my nut graf this morning: God is already here. Be prepared. The Lord is coming again.
Walking home from my gym last night, admiring the sparkling Christmas lights, I passed two houses. Each was lavishly decorated with red, white and blue lights and flew the American flag against the dark night sky. Later I sat down to the evening news and saw the president speaking on the GOP tax plan, standing before a row of Christmas trees, dotted with red, white and blue globes. So when did the shades of Old Glory become the colors of an older, more powerful mystery?
Strangers are our weakness. Despite our best intentions -- our impulses to be fair, open or compassionate-- despite those impulses, strangers still scare us. Most of us were raised to be wary of them, not to talk to them, not to take candy -- or anything -- from anyone we don’t know.
Then, as we grow older, strangers help define us. However we see ourselves, as Americans or the middle class or Christians or educated or employed or conservative, whatever words we use to describe ourselves, people who are not like us are the other. They are strangers.
And we rarely look to strangers as examples of how we should behave. We look to people we know (or think we know). We look to our leaders, either on the great stage or in smaller circles. When we see and hear our leaders telling us not to trust strangers, to fear them, to cast them out, that advice resonates with what we think we’ve always known. We follow the lead of those who tell us to blame strangers and take action against them.
Once more, Pope Francis is condemning the use of fear to sow distrust of strangers, or as we know them today, of immigrants and refugees. In a statement ahead of January 1, the World Day of Peace, he said, “those who, for what may be political reasons, foment fear of migrants instead of building peace are sowing violence, racial discrimination and xenophobia.”
Read about the pope’s message here. Francis is not naming names, but we know who we are. We need to set aside our old habit of fearing strangers and find ways to listen to them, to learn from them. That’s what I discovered as I wrote “Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians.” I invite you to take a look here or here.
Strangers are our weakness, but we don’t need to let them become a weapon.