It has been a very full week here at this old house. I just finished grading the online course I teach twice a year for the Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership (MSFL) program for Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan. Five minutes ago, I hit submit on my final grades and the hectic week of grading several assignments and moderating many discussion board threads (group e-mail, essentially) ended. We decorated the tree last night. For two weeks, it had sat in Advent with only lights and candles on it but now it has decorations. John’s sister, who is with the State Department, arrived yesterday from the Consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan (making it out purely through prayer), finally home for Christmas. And last but not least, this week I finalized my notebook with all the music in it for all the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services at church. It has been a very full week.

My reward for being faithful to all these tasks will be to look at my new pop-up book by Robert Sabuda, the 20th anniversary edition of his Christmas Alphabet, and to read the second of the Tony Hillerman novels with Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo police as the main character. Creation is celebrating with me; the sun just came out after a morning of dark, stormy-looking clouds. Advent 3 is ending well, thank you, God.

Pop-up books fascinate me. I love how they are constructed. It is an art form I would like to explore further someday. I also love murder mysteries, especially ones that have a continuing character or story line in each successive book. Having traveled in the Southwest again this fall, I like reading the descriptions of places I have been in the Hillerman novels. He is also acknowledged as an authority on Navajo culture, which I am appreciating learning about while adding up the body count and wondering who this book’s killer is. Right now, I am poised to go into the short week of Advent 4 and then Christmas with only (mostly) fun things to do. (I still have to clean this old house on Monday.)

I look forward to the 12 Days of Christmas that will begin on Thursday. It makes me sad that on December 26th, the radio has no more Christmas songs, the stores are jettisoning their holiday wares, and most people are ready for “Christmas to be over.” For Christians, Christmas is just beginning! Or it could be; too many don’t understand the blessing and gift of liturgical time and so get caught up in “mall time,” ending Christmas themselves on December 26th. Living by the Church Year calendar and not the current season at the mall can give us a larger perspective on life and our place in eternity. While everyone else feels that Christmas is over, we, as Christ-followers, are just beginning to savor the richness the Feast of the Nativity was designed to be, a far cry from what it has become.

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is an immense Reality to ponder. The first cry of Jesus in the manger is God’s first battle cry of victory over sin, death and evil. The manger may look all fuzzy and warm but it is God’s beachhead into enemy territory. You don’t see that much on Christmas cards! It takes me at least twelve days every year to begin to fathom that concept. Many Christians focus more on the Crucifixion and/or the Resurrection, also very important pieces to God’s plan, and skip quickly over the Incarnation. Too many Christians treat Christmas as a nice family time and not a time for corporate worship. A longer meditation time, alone and together, on what it means for Jesus to leave everything and live as a human being for 33 years on this earth can help us understand what John 3:16 is really all about: For God SO LOVED THE WORLD (emphasis mine). That verse makes no sense if we don’t begin to grasp the Incarnation.

Not grasping Christ’s coming as a human being has also led to a lot of disregard for, even hatred of, Creation and even our own bodies. If we understood how much God loved the material world as evidenced by Jesus coming in human flesh, Christians would be on the forefront of the environmental movement as well as understanding that self-care does not equal self-indulgence. Yet, by seeking only redemption out of the world through Jesus’ saving work on the cross and Resurrection, we too often treat our life here on earth as a long wait in a run-down train station with bad coffee. Our life of eternity begins here and now! Jesus showed us that by his birth and the way he lived, as well as his death and Resurrection! The Kingdom of Heaven is here, now. Good news of great joy!

Advent has been a time of getting ready; the 12 Days are nearly here. Let the party begin! https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTNnkjSh0yEit5QIXL054XJf91FqDYtV9XGF3cldRhPgQDjaW1V

 

We are still having “San Diego-like” weather here at this old house. We set a record high of 65 degrees yesterday, though thanks to the Pineapple Express storm that slammed into California the other day, we are supposed to get a tiny bit of snow tomorrow. Warm, dry weather certainly has made it easier to get around town and hike on the trails that surround this old house.

We got our tree up. This one really is a “Charlie Brown” one. We always cut a “thin,” meaning, we cut a tree that is growing in a clump with other trees. Not only does thinning trees make for a healthier forest but also, because we need tall, skinny trees with a flat back to fit in the only spot we have in this old house to put a Christmas tree, a thinned tree usually fits the bill. Everyone wins. That said, this year’s tree is a little more sparse than usual but it is a great candle tree because there is so much space between the branches. We have lights on it and the candles in their holders. Decorations will come later.

We really do light the candles on our Christmas tree. We can do that because of the following:

The tree sits close to the front door where it could be quickly thrown outside in case of a fire.

We turn off the furnace so it doesn’t blow the flames onto the branches.

We all sit there, watching the candles burn. We NEVER leave the room, even for a moment.

When we are finished, we leave the lights off until every candle is blown out. That way we know we have them all out.

Only when it is completely dark in the room do we then turn on electric lights and put the furnace back on.

That said, a Christmas tree with candles lit on it is a breath-taking sight many have never seen before. It is a different kind of light than the strings of small colored lights we turn on without concern no matter how lovely the light bulbs are. The glow of a live candle is qualitatively different than an electric light bulb. Candles feel like living things compared to a more static light bulb. Yet, the danger inherent with the “living” candle is so much more real than with the light bulb. Certainly, tragic fires happen due to shortages in electric wires but a lit candle on a cut tree, even a very fresh cut tree, is far more dangerous than the 300 colored lights glowing there as I write.

Life is like that. Life is filled with more danger than death. Think of a charging grizzly bear vs. one that is dead. They both offer a thrill to behold but one will kill you while the other will not. I forget who said it but it is so true: “life is fraught with dangers, safety among them.” Safety is a dangerous illusion too many of us in North America don’t understand. We assume, when we get in our car, that we will arrive at work or the grocery store. We know intellectually that we could be in a car accident but we don’t really believe it will happen to us. We assume when we go to bed that we will wake up in the morning and that our children will as well. We get a cold and assume we will get better. For many people in the world, those are not necessarily givens. When we live in peace and safety, we can get lulled into thinking that this is the way the world works. We begin to take things for granted, things like clean water, plenteous food, secure shelter, clothing, education, healthcare. People in war zones and refugee camps know how difficult life is without those things.

Then, there are the daredevils of this world: people who climb dangerous mountains or fling themselves at high speeds down hills on skis, dive in underwater caves or chase wars as foreign correspondents. I certainly shake my head at some of these escapades but sitting in fear in supposed security in my living room is no way to live either. If we embrace life, there will be danger. Period. And we all die in the end so we are never truly safe in this life.

That is why I think it is good to sometimes put ourselves in a place of risk, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. When we move out of our comfort zone to help someone, when we go back to school after years of being out of the classroom, when we step out in faith not knowing the outcome, when we light a real candle on a Christmas tree, we are igniting a life force deep inside that too often is kept locked up in a false desire to “stay safe.” I am not advocating foolish behavior but I am advocating embracing life more fully than we may be inclined to do normally.

Advent invites us to embrace life. Advent helps us light a candle rather than curse the darkness. Advent says live life knowing that eternal life is yours for the choosing. Pushing ourselves past where we might feel safe in some situations can be a good spiritual discipline.  Just make sure you don’t burn the house down while doing it.

As I sit in this old house, it is the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th.    http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/how-to-celebrate/   is a wonderful site with all kinds of resources about Bishop Nicholas of Myra from the 4th century. For people who struggle with Santa Claus and the idea, in their view, that it is lying to their children, I invite you to celebrate St. Nicholas, an historic figure who gave gifts in secret, among other things. For those who feel that “Christ” has been taken out of Christmas, St. Nicolas can help ground us in the message of Good News at this time of year when the secular holidays are reaching a fevered pitch and many feel closer to Scrooge than the Babe in the manger.

Here in this old house, the girls would put out their shoes before going to bed on December 5th. In the morning, St. Nicolas would have left some chocolate and a small gift, usually Christmas-themed socks or earrings. That evening, we would read the story of St. Nicholas. It was a way to pause, celebrate in a small way, and to learn how one person lived the call of Christ in their life in a way that was unusual but that also became a model for the whole Santa Claus and gift giving traditions in North America in December.

I have continued my peanut brittle making this week. The new thermometer seems to be working fine and much peanut brittle has been wrapped up, ready to be mailed or handed out in the days ahead. We still don’t have a tree yet. We continue the tradition begun nearly 40 years ago of decorating gradually throughout Advent. It helps us to understand the theme of waiting that Advent proclaims and counterbalances for us the insanity the secular holidays have become. I have two lighted decorations that I put out at the beginning of Advent. One is a glass tile block that a friend put lights inside of and then decorated outside with ribbon and cinnamon-cookies. That is out on the sleeping porch. My favorite is a basket given to us about 25 years ago. It is filled with newspaper on which have been glued pine cones that have been intertwined with small colored lights. That is the first thing I turn on in the dark kitchen in the morning and then again during the gathering darkness in the afternoon. It is one of the last things that goes off before bedtime.

Light in the darkness: it is such a symbol for me, especially with all that has happened in our family in the last couple of years and continues to happen in the world around us even today. All of us need a light that gives us hope. That light may take very different forms but it is the symbol of the hope we carry inside of us that “God does indeed bat last.” While things can seem pretty bleak and hopeless now, God is never at a loss amongst the ruins of our dreams, our relationships, our world situations.

Turning on my little basket of colored lights on a cold, dark December morning may not seem like much but as I look out my kitchen window toward the coming dawn, I am reminded that God is still at work. The rising sun becomes for me a symbol of the growing Light Advent reminds us of each year.

O Emmanuel, enter the dark and wilderness places of our lives. Bring us hope and light in the dark and drudgery of our lives. Shine in our hearts and in our world, Lord Jesus. Come, o come, Emmanuel.

This old house has smelled wonderful all week. We have had a house-full, straining the limits of the structure and its plumbing. In addition, there has been a lot of cooking going on particularly related to the Thanksgiving dinner. I tried brining the turkey this year and boy, did that make it fork-tender and moist! That will be my new turkey cooking M.O. for the future.

Today, the first batch of peanut brittle was made to send home with departing family. Once again, I had to buy a new candy thermometer as the other day, one seemed not to be working as I attempted a caramelized sugar “crust” for the pumpkin cheesecake. The cheesecake was wonderful but the crust was a failure.

Making the peanut brittle this afternoon, I had three candy thermometers in the pan, checking to see how they were calibrating against each other. Two of them seemed to be doing well while a more expensive one seemed to not be quite right. I have made so much peanut brittle over the course of 40 years that I can see and smell when it is close to being at the hard crack stage.

I have tried, unsuccessfully, to test for the soft ball stage in cold water at times when it felt the thermometer wasn’t measuring accurately. Hard crack is easier for me to discern through sight and smell. I find it fascinating that sugar can go from granulation in the bag up through a number of transformative stages ending up as peanut brittle.

Advent begins tomorrow and the frenzy of the secular holidays is beginning to reach the “soft ball” stage, moving toward “hard crack” by the time we get to December 26th and the “post-Christmas sales.” This is where Advent is such a help for me during all the commercial insanity around me. Observing Advent, followed by the Twelve Days of Christmas, and ending with Epiphany on January 6th is such an easy way to live sanely and counter-culturally, in my opinion.

The other day, someone commented that people like me should get out of the Middle Ages, embrace the modern world, let Christmas begin whenever the mall dictates and recognize that times, in and out of the Church, change. I have been giving that idea some thought as, anyone who has a sense of Church history knows, liturgical practices have evolved over the centuries. Sometimes to me, they feel like they have devolved as we have fewer rich traditions than they did in previous centuries.

Easter, for example, was celebrated all day with various rituals, ending, in some places, with the dance through the labyrinth in the pavement of the cathedral, if they had one, that reenacted Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil. Now, we get excited if a congregation has trumpets for the one hour service. Life today does not rotate around the church as it once did and so change is inevitable but if our traditions and Traditions help us give a message that the world does not give, can not give, aren’t they worth keeping?

Personally, I find it refreshing to observed Advent, slowly building up to Christmas, and then enjoy Christmas for 12 Days. Rather than starting when the malls do, I start when the Church does and end when the Church ends. It feels more organic and sane to me.

I know there are people, church-going people, too, who love to put up their Christmas decorations right after Thanksgiving (some, even before). That is fine but for me, the barren house with a few lights that are added to each week in Advent fits my need to stay out of the maelstrom the secular holidays have become. Christian Christmas, as it has been celebrated since about the the 4th century, works for me. It’s rhythms and lessons, music and traditions help me navigate a world gone mad.

So, if you don’t mind, I will wish you a blessed Advent, offer you some homemade peanut brittle, and save the Christmas greetings for another four weeks.

 

The Thanksgiving festivities are gearing up here at this old house. One daughter got in yesterday, another comes in Tuesday. I have been going through recipes, planning the Thanksgiving menu. I love the November food magazines even more than the December ones, which seem so far removed from what Christian Christmas is all about let alone what a church musician and a pastor can reasonably do around leading multiple services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Plus, the Thanksgiving food magazines are a feast to behold themselves. The lovely food on lovely dishes get my creative juices flowing (no pun intended!). I don’t even necessarily focus on the eating of the food as much as I do making it. I love the creative process of cooking and baking.

Tomorrow, I will make the herbed gluten-free bread that will become the dressing. Tonight at Target, I bought a turkey brining bag and will start that process on Wednesday. Tomorrow, late morning, I will tackle the grocery store, bringing home the natural turkey I pre-ordered as well as a lot of other grocery items for the day (and the rest of the week, as we have to eat something those days as well). Somehow, in all the planning of the Thanksgiving dinner event, it is easy to overlook that there are other meals needed in the days leading up to the main event!

The other day, I dropped off the food bag to Emergency Family Assistance (EFAA). Each week at the grocery store, I buy a can of something from their requested items list and then periodically take it in to be distributed to those facing food insecurity. I wanted to get the cans of refried beans I had been collecting to them in plenty of time to help with their Thanksgiving distribution. The volunteer who took my offering was delighted as they had been out of refried beans for a while. It is very humbling to realize that tomorrow, I will  buy whatever I need and want without thinking twice about it, while a plastic sack of canned refried beans is going to make a real difference to someone else’s ability to eat this week. Making the periodic trip to EFAA is a good spiritual discipline for me as I struggle with my own tendency to overeat while too many, even in my affluent town, go hungry.

The Gospel reading for Christ the King Sunday, which this year came before Thanksgiving, is the Matthew 25 parable of the sheep and the goats. This famous parable of judgment is about sheep who fed and clothed those around them and the goats who didn’t. It’s deeper teaching can be summed up simply: the sheep (the righteous, the blessed) noticed those around them and sought to meet their needs while the goats (the unrighteous) didn’t. Both the sheep and the goats ask God the same question: when did we see you hungry or thirsty, naked, a stranger or in prison? The sheep want to know which of the many they cared for were Christ and the goats want to know how they missed seeing Christ. The punch line is that it is in the least and the last that Christ is found and that in some mysterious way, when we care for those, we care for Christ. It boils down to paying attention to others;in other words, it isn’t always all about me.

There is more than one way to be hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger or in prison and the question Jesus asks in the parable relates to intentional living in the world. Do I really see those around me or are they just a blur in the background of my self-referential agenda? Where can I feed someone’s soul with beauty and kindness or clothe their insecurity and vulnerability in a tense situation? Where can I rain showers of blessing into their dry and barren heart or help them break out of the prison of negative self-talk? Actual food, clothing, and hospitality count as well.

Feasting is good especially when it really is about stopping and saying “thank you.” We need true feasts in life but they are meant to be life-giving to those involved with them, to the earth, to those who work to provide the ingredients for them. Whenever we exploit the earth or people so we can celebrate, something has gone awry.

My grocery sack of refried beans won’t save the world from hunger but hopefully, it will save me from forgetting the poor and therefore, losing my soul. Those refried beans may be doing more for me than they are for those who receive them. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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