Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Seventh Day of Christmas 2013 New Year's Eve

Okay, so New Year's Eve isn't on the church calendar. The church's new year started a few weeks ago, on the first Sunday of advent.

But it is just before 11:00pm on New Year's Eve as I start typing this, and I do look back in wonder at the last year.

It started with big plans, got derailed by a health crisis, and am ending it in good health, and looking back at some gifts received in both my writing and performing endeavors. I have good friends, a good church, and a good arts community. There are challenges ahead, as always, most of them not anticipated, but this past year . . . well, taught me some things about rolling with it all.

We cannot know the future, but we make plans for it anyway. It's some kind of innate insanity we have as a species, a blessing of craziness, and however the new year unfolds, whatever adjustments we must make to the plans, it's going to be all right

Romans 14.8: If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

I think the lesson I learned most this past year is that I really believe this line from Paul. (And I don't believe every line from Paul!)

New Year's Eve is not on the church calendar, but for this year, at least, I'm calling it Thanksgiving Day.

Here's to a 2014 with many blessings and help for the hardships! 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Sixth Day of Christmas 2013

Here we are at the halfway mark through the season of Christmas and I'm reminded of the differences between the secular Christmas and the religious Christmas. This past Sunday, the congregation I attend had a Christmas "Lessons and Carols" service, four days after everyone was relieved to have "Santa Baby' stop wafting through the air. The kids at our church don't tell the Christmas story in pageant form until next Sunday, by which time, I suspect some Christmas toys have already gotten boring, broken, or lost.

And the only place you'll still find a Christmas tree up (or in my congregation's case, greenery, wreaths and Christmas lights) is in a Church building. Even most Christians have their tree down long before the Feast of the Epiphany.

Yes, the sort of Christians who follow the old church calendar, we're a bit out of step with the culture this time of year.

And I like it.

In face, I was musing a few days before the First Day of Christmas how nice it would be to celebrate the Incarnation without all the stress and expectations of gift-buying and giving and, of course, getting.

Except that's pretty well what I'm doing now. I continue to remember it's Christmastide, I continue to think on and ponder the Incarnation (although, to be fair, I think on the Incarnation pretty well, all year-round---my practice as an artist is practically based upon it), and all my Christmas shopping (what little I do) is well over.

And the secular Christmas isn't too terribly awful. If I think we could do without the stress involved in gift-giving and making sure everyone on the list is covered, I also think that gift-giving is a nice custom. If I think we, as a culture, tend to go way overboard on this custom, I do admit to enjoying giving my modest gives---and getting the few I get.

So halfway through the season, I'm feeling less humbug about it all than I maybe did three weeks ago, and I still remain in awe of what it means for God to be enfleshed like us, for us to bear the same Image.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fifth Day of Christmas 2013

Random events of my day.

1. Woke up this morning to dreams induced from worry about a young woman from my church who is in the hospital due to being the victim of a violent crime. The dreams really had nothing to do with praying, but for some reason my first thought was that it felt like I'd been praying all night. I suppose that is possible.

2. Missed my bus for church but got there in time for the Eucharist, so I'm told that counts. It also counted that I got to sign the get well card for the young woman.

3. Had lunch with friends after church, some of whom were heading to the hospital with the card afterwards. This young woman is in ICU and while doing miraculously well, also has serious injuries and can only have limited visitors---her mother being the ongoing default visitor, of course. So we're visiting via cards, prayers, and representatives.

4. Went for a walk this evening and found this poster on a light pole:

God and Karma are after these thieves, with one of the Ten Commandments to back it up. I hope she gets her trailer and its contents back. Maybe posting this picture here will help.

5. Someone using the name Rudolf Bultmann sent me this private message on Facebook: "You are self-righteous, arrogant, and judgmental. You so full of yourself." I've never had a message from a dead theologian before, but he seems to know me. I guess being dead gives you insight. (I think I know the source of this. It is both deserved and ironic, all at once.)

Not exactly five golden rings, is it? But Prayers, thanksgiving, and insults from dead theologians leaven the terror of street violence. Somewhat. 

I would ask your prayers for Chris and her family. This is hard stuff. 

That's all I have today.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Fourth Day of Christmas 2013 Holy Innocents

From the Gospel According to Matthew:

 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

An anthem from the 16th Century:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his owne sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
These two pieces---scripture and hymn---strike me as terribly sad and need no more commentary. I will refer you to the Wikipedia page for the Coventry Carol for more information on the carol. There I learned history that I did not know and am fascinated that it comes from a Mystery Play---this stimulates the theater history part of my brain, but remains very sad---three mother's lament for their children, slain while the Christ child escapes into Egypt. 

Yes, I have nothing to add. The above will have to stand for my thoughts---or lack thereof---for this somber day in Christmas.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Third Day of Christmas 2013 John Apostle and Evangelist

December 27, depending upon where you are in the greater Christian community, can be a feast day for a few different things, but for many western Christians (Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians) it is the feast day of John, Apostle and Evangelist.

It is an irony of the church year, that two days after we tell stories about Baby Jesus, we celebrate a gospel that has no stories of Baby Jesus. In fact, we sometimes forget that only two of the four canonical gospels have any talk of Jesus's birth or childhood.

But John does have this cosmic "origin story" (to use a comic book term). "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . "

The writers of this gospel (and we can assume it was a community that identified with John in some way that compiled this gospel---it certainly isn't the apostle John---sorry if that ruins Christmas for you, but there it is) give us what we theologically trained folks call a "high christology." It's written later than the other gospels---around 100 C.E., some scholars placing it a little earlier, others later, even much later---and so the followers of Jesus had come to think about who they were, who Jesus was, in ways that the earlier gospel writers maybe didn't. This community imagined Jesus as someone who was in control, self-aware of who he was as the Son of God, and who was clear on the reason for his life.

Certainly, one of the most devastating pieces of the Gospel of John is it's clearer distinction between the followers of Jesus and emerging Judaism. While there are things said against certain sects of Jews in other gospels, John paints with a broader brush. "The Jews" become the villains of the stories, not just the Pharisees. This eventually has horrific consequences on history.

It is difficult---maybe impossible---to unravel all of this, but it seems likely that the writers of John---the Johannine community---would be as horrified as we are by the ways their words were eventually used. to justify inhuman atrocities.

How can we ever know that something we do, with intention of bringing Good News to the world, will pave the road to something like Auschwitz?

It is important to remember that these things happen. We have to own this piece of our history and we have to let it color our celebrations and commemorations of the Gospel of John. We are not wrong to cringe at every mention of "the Jews" in the Gospel of John, because it is right to remember that people who professed faith in Jesus used those words to torture and kill millions of people, not only in German ovens, but also in Inquisitions and in smaller scaled incidents where humanity was---and is---denied Jewish people. We Christians have to have the humility to recognize and confess that these incidents come from among us, from our zeal and certainty.

We have no excuse, really. We can only repent.

But the Gospel of John is not only about remorse and unintended consequences.

John is also the poetry of the prologue. It is also the story of the woman caught in adultery. It is also the comfort to millions of grieving people to know that, when confronted with the death of his friend, Lazarus, "Jesus wept."

John is not my favorite gospel, it may even be my least favorite of the four, but for all it's problematic history and tendency towards a triumphalist theology (which I find problematic, too, but that's maybe for another post), there is much beauty and comfort in there.

My art history and sound art professor from grad school days, Jeff Abell, responded to a thread about these issues on Facebook today in this way: "Like so many writings that have influenced history, beauty and difficulty go hand in hand."

 That succinctly sums up my pondering on this feast day of John, Apostle and Evangelist: beauty and difficulty and the humility needed to own up to both.  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Second Day of Christmas 2013 The Feast of Stephen

Stephen was remembered in the book of Acts as "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit," and again, "full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people"

But the religious authorities didn't see it. The began to argue with him, saying he was blaspheming against God.

Now, this was when the Church was new, still a Jewish sect. Paul had not yet met Jesus on the road to Damascus, was still called Saul, was not even thinking about talking to Gentiles about Jesus. So I think we can assume Stephen, like all the first disciples, was Jewish. In answer to the charge of blasphemy, he gives a long speech, recounting the history of Israel, from Abraham, to Joseph, to Moses, to David, recounting the ways the people God had chosen had always wrestled with God, had killed the prophets, and that the ones arguing with him now were following in their footsteps, not paying attention to the movement of their God but opposing God.

This didn't set well with the religious authorities. It seldom does.

So they killed Stephen. We remember him as the first Christian martyr.

But reading over his story again just now, it strikes me as more than just remembering the first Christian martyr and the problematic (to understate) blaming of the Jews for not recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. It seems to me, here as we slip into the third day of Christmas, that the Feast of Stephen might be best observed as a day for looking at our own religious authorities, our own places in religious hierarchy, at our own resistance to the prophetic voices among us, at our own idolatries that keep us from seeing the new thing(s) God is doing among us.

I've always found the juxtaposition of following our celebration of a meek baby in a manger with a remembrance of a stoning---the cost of discipleship, the consequence of loving that baby---and I still think that is a true piece of the story, one of the more genius juxtapositions of the church calendar.

But having re-read the story of Stephen, I realized it's really so much more than just remembering the cost of discipleship---Stephen's story is a reminder to not be so rigid, to not condemn every new thing, to be open to the spirit and the prophetic voices among us.

God is always moving, always doing new things. The church is always resistant---even the "church" before the church. It seems the best way to remember Stephen is watch for the things that offend us and look for the movement of the Spirit within it.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

First Day of Christmas 2013

A few days ago, I heard, as you do this time of year, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" in passing. I don't think I was even paying much attention to it, it was just part of the season's soundscape.

And that's when something can hit you unexpectedly. This year, this time, the phrase "comfort and joy" caught my attention. More precisely, the word "comfort" caught me.

I can't tell you exactly why it hit, what my emotional state of the moment was. I can say that I've had a bit more "winter blues" than usual this year (not exactly a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder, but winters are not my happiest times of year), and maybe the general malaise of winter found my ear attaching to the word "comfort" more eagerly than usual.

I haven't made a search of this, but I don't think there's much in the way of comfort in most Christmas hymnody (overlooking, for this post, secular Christmas music, which often has sad themes). It's usually very joyful. Some hymns may be darkened by the foreshadowing of the cross. Advent music has some comfort talk, particularly the popular hymn based upon Isaiah 40, "Comfort, Comfort Now My People." Still, Christmas seems to be more about joy, celebration, bright angels and awe of the common folk.

Or maybe "comfort" is all over the material. Like I said, I haven't taken the time to search other hymns for this message. But this year, I heard the unspoken message behind the line, "tidings of comfort and joy," precisely that some people are discomfited, maybe even inconsolable. Much more significant than my winter blues, I know a family who just buried a patriarch and is on watch for a significant friend of the family to die. An internet acquaintance lost his mother quite unexpectedly when she fell and cracked her head hard enough to kill her. Another internet friend just had to take another step in his mother's situation as she receives hospice care. All these things are on my mind this Christmas Day, even as I celebrated with good friends and healthy babies. There is much joy in my life, also many who might be comforted, occasionally myself included.

I heard in the line the lyrical equivalent of a shadow in a painting, giving the picture depth.

This Christmas, I'm a bundle of emotions, really, reflecting upon the year I've had---a year of medical scares and wonderful good fortune. I'm thinking a lot about incarnation and God-with-us (Immanuel). I'm thinking about loss and gain, pain and recovery, death and resurrection.

Comfort and joy. Tidings of comfort and joy.

Good News finds you where you are. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Day 24 Star #lutheranadvent

The Wise Men got to Jesus by following a star. I use a bus schedule.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Day 23 Shepherd #lutheranadvent

Today's theme was a challenge. The easy interpretations weren't in my path today, and even when I thought of trying to find maybe a school bus, schools are probably all closed for the holiday and no buses are running.

Out for a walk this evening, I was approaching the fire station down the street from me and I started to think maybe firemen are a type of shepherd, all of us the sheep under their watch. As I got out my camera, a siren flared up and an ambulance was pulling out---you can see the blur of it on the left edge.

Some parallel with the shepherd who goes out after the one who is lost may stretch the parable . . . or I just expanded my notion of the spiritual shepherd. After all, a spiritual shepherd is only useful if there are shepherds looking out for our physical well being, too.

I'm okay with this photo. I think it pretty much works for the theme.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Day 22 Angel #lutheranadvent

I've come to think of "angel" in terms of "God's messenger" (as opposed to "guardian" or somesuch), so I began to think on places where God's message comes to me. Since this word was the word of the day on a Sunday, I thought of this as I heard the lessons of the day read from this lectern. Yes, I thought, this is the site of revelation, where the word from the Lord comes with regularity. So after the service, I ran up to take this picture. I even got there before the acolytes and got the four advent candles burning.

I hasten to add with real surety that this is not the only site of God's revelation. Had "angel" come on a weekday, I might have taken any number of pictures of places and things that bring God's message to me. But this lecturn---and countless others around the world---is where angels stand weekly. and sometimes more often, to bring us revelation. This seemed right today.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Day 21 Gift #lutheranadvent

Today's theme, Gift, overwhelmed me a bit. There is much in every moment that I find to be a gift (even if my attitude, moment to moment, does not reflect this). I've become aware enough of the world beyond my immediate surroundings to know that I live in crazy abundance.

I might have taken a picture of my cat, here at arms length, who I consider a gift. I thought of taking a picture of my empty, cupped hand, an image that felt almost right, but I couldn't really explain. Had I seen friends today (or thought of it when I did see a few friends), I could have taken pictures of them, as I am gifted with many good people in my life. I might have taken pictures of books, CDs, any number of things that have been a gift to me and my journey through life.

Finally, with nothing else to consider, I went out into my apartment complex parking lot and pointed my camera up and whipped to the side as I pressed the shutter button. I'm trying to connote "everything." It's all a gift and it all goes by in a blur.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Day 20 Proclaim #lutheranadvent

The above is a picture of Prayer Meeting, a sculpture by John Scott. It is on the campus of the University of Houston-Downtown, where I work. It's one of my favorite things on the campus. The moving "fans" in the circle will softly clang in the wind and it always draws my attention. It seems like a type of proclamation inserted into my day. Art as proclamation---well, that's a whole lot of what I'm about.

I also remembered I have this video, which I took well over a year ago. I don't think I've ever posted it anywhere, but now seems a good time.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Day 16 Sign #lutheranadvent

Down on White Oak Bayou, I came across this row of grass and other debris, obviously deposited from the last time the bayou was out of it's banks. It's synapse jump or two, this sign of water overflowing, in really kind of scary and dangerous ways, reminded me of the images we invoke in baptism (Noah's flood, being buried with Christ). Water leaves a mark on the land and on our head.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Day 15 Prophet #lutheranadvent

Or prophets. A very few personal ones:

I try not to look ahead, because part of this exercise, for me, is having a single word to think about all day, so if I look ahead, I get the words jumbled. This was one case where I kinda wish I'd taken a picture a few days ago and broken my personal rule about making a new picture everyday for this.

There was a piece of graffiti on a bathroom wall that would have been great for this. I'd already composed in my mind what I'd say about it. "Paul Simon said the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, but we don't have subways in Houston, so we rely on the bathroom walls."

The graffiti was one word: somebody.

So without a picture, I tell this story to bring you a word from the Lord: You are somebody.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Day 14 Wreath #lutheranadvent

With this little picture-a-day exercise, I really dislike the concrete words (rose, wreath) and so tyr to find something not immediately so literal (that's just how I roll). I kept an eye out for some ideas I had in my head for how I might do "wreath," but in the end, none of those things materialized. So while waiting for a bus---and I had a long-ish wait for the next one---I saw a bunch of leaves. I decided that while literal, this made a nice little piece of mini-land-art. I'm sure the wind has scattered the leaves again by now.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Day 13 Good News #lutheranadvent

I'd taken a different picture this morning for today's theme but then as I was walking to my apartment from the bus stop . . .

It's hard to tell what's happening here---I took the picture from a distance on purpose, to avoid invading others' misfortune---but all the lights on the other side of the street are flashing lights from a fire truck and ambulance. As I walked by , I saw there was someone on the sidewalk and they were laying a stretcher next to him/her. There were no parked (or crashed) cars nearby and I wonder if it's one of the neighborhood's homeless guys---they camp about a block from there. I thought, "blessed are the broken, for they will be cared for." also: turn around---here is the Reign of God. 

So I took this picture.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Day 12 Await #lutheranadvent

I have this relationship with the moon that I don't think I've ever written about. Maybe it's because I was a preschooler when Neil Armstrong set foot on it or maybe it's something more primal. I can't say. The moon in a day sky especially feels mysterious and, in some way, inviting. Just a white orb in a field of blue.

Today's word, "Await," had a few possibilities for me, particularly since I rely on public transportation in a city notoriously bad for public transportation. In other words, I spend a lot---a LOT---of time waiting at bus stops.

But that "A" at the front of the word felt like something other than "waiting" for a bus or for the Messiah  or even Godot for that matter. It felt like something less tangible than even the undefined Godot. Wouldn't the play have a different feel if it were called "Awaiting Godot"?

Maybe I'm having some idiosyncratic word parsing here. It's a feeling, not a definition.

Anyway, as I've thought on the word all day, I kept coming back to a night sky and particularly the moon. A moon seems to have some promise in it to me (again, an Apollo thing?) but it's not going to fulfill it, either. It just hangs there and says, "at dawn, maybe, you'll see . . . "

Something about the moon teases me with potential I can't name . . . 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Day 9 Awe/Wonder #lutheranadvent

I try to find awe and wonder everyday, but I have to admit, the cold, wet weather we're having here in Houston these days makes that a little bit more of a challenge than usual. Still, I took a few pictures and i decided this very dark (you may need to click on it and go full screen with it to see it best) photo captures something of the mystery I experience in many contexts.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Day 8: Rose #lutheranadvent

I'll admit that this prompt (Rose) is my least favorite so far in this exercise. Too concrete for my tastes. How many ways can you illustrate "rose"? I toyed with the notion of trying to figure out a way to do a photo that would illustrate the past-tense verb meaning of it---but nothing came to mind that I could actually pull of.

Luckily, we sang on my favorite advent carols this morning and I thought that was about as good as it was going to get for this day's prompt.

And I've been humming the tune all day. A bonus.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Day 7 Hope #lutheranadvent

I posted this to my facebook page first and immediately this thread followed: 

Patty: Whenever I see plants growing out of pavement, I am reminded of how tenacious nature is.

Angela:  Plants is FIERCE! 

Me:  i believe in a fierce and tenacious hope.

Angela: Amen. Is there any other kind?

I love my friends, and I love when they "get" me . . .

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Day 4 Patience #lutheranadvent

Day 3: Peace #lutheranadvent

Forgot to post this last night. I admit this might need some explanation for "peace," but I don't have that explanation. I was looking around for something that might represent "peace," had some things in mind that I might use, but then I looked down and saw this white feather (I'm guessing from a pigeon) sticking up from the gravel underfoot. It was some sort of intuitive "aha!" that has some leaps between the feather and "peace," but here it is. If you can explain it, you're welcome to do so.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Candle #lutheranadvent 2

(yeah, i should have taken one more shot . . . but you get it . . . )

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hope on World AIDS Day

It only just occurred to me that the first day of the season of Advent (the church calendar "new year") fell on World AIDS Day this year.

Advent has become known as the season of Hope and the last 20 years has seen much change in the world of AIDS treatment. There's always hopeful news coming at us about advances in treating HIV, but there is not yet any cure.

Too many people are acting like the miracle drugs we have today are a cure.

I don't want to get into moralizing about safer sex. That's too easy to do and there are statistics that show that doesn't prevent anyone from being reckless anyway.

But the subject of hope has been on my mind the last few weeks as I've found, read, and am re-reading a slim book called Mystical Hope by Cynthia Bourgeault. There are things in this book that are reminding me of things I've sort of forgot or let go or lost faith in. I can't say it's telling me anything that I didn't know before, but it is definitely reminding me.

And while the book doesn't explicitly go into this, it reminds me of something I've said a few times about hoping and wishing. We often wish for things and call it hope.

But the world is woefully short on a supply of genies in bottles and wishing---no matter how much you pray, plead, believe that something must happen---is of little use against some harsh realities.

You can wish all you want, even call it hope, but believing you can fly will not keep you from plummeting to your death if you step off the roof of a skyscraper. It feels like there is something similar going on with people who want to deny the wisdom of safer sex, wishing with all their might that they won't contract the virus or if they do, wishing with all their might that life on the miracle drugs will be just like life before, only with pills.

As I said, its too easy and of no use to moralize about it. There's something in our species that has a little bit of a death wish anyway. Cigarettes continue to be manufactured and purchased and smoked despite good data that says it's a bad idea. I continue to eat a few too many carbs despite my doctor assuring me that only a certain level of consumption is safe for me and above that level they are a slow acting poison.

Sugar or sex. Something's going to kill you and we seem willing to risk playing with things that will get us there faster.

But hope is something else. It is the assurance that we are held by something bigger than us, that we have identity and ultimate safety that cuts through the dehumanization and deadly danger of real life.

I think I'll leave that right there for tonight. I'm holding some choice personal saints in memory and in hope tonight and pondering what that might mean for this season just begun.

+ + + + +

On a lighter note, this was being passed around on Facebook: 

I'd been thinking about ways to observe the season and this struck me as just the thing, so I'll be doing this on Facebook and Twitter (where the hashtags work) and here as well. Will I get a picture posted here each day? We'll see, but I will be doing my very best to get 'em on FB and Twitter. (I don't do Instagram.) 

Here is my first entry for PREPARE: