Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Poem for Christmas Morning

A Child in Starlight -- by Elmer Diktonius

There is a child,
A new-born child --
A rosy, new-born child.

The child whimpers --
All children do.
And the mother takes the child to her breast.
Then it is quiet.
So is every child.

The roof is not over tight --
Not all roofs are.
And the star puts
Its silver muzzle through the chink,
And steals up to the little one's head.
Stars like children.

And the mother looks up at the star
And understands --
All mothers understand.
And presses her frightened baby
To her breast --
But the child sucks quietly in starlight:
All children suck in starlight.

It knows nothing yet about the cross:
No child does.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Do You Hear What I Hear

“Do you hear what I hear?” the Harry Simeone Chorale asks in a popular Christmas carol.

I hear a lot of things. Carols come from my car radio, television advertisers me warn that there are only so many shopping days left, phone calls invite me to holiday gatherings – or inform me that the church is one shepherd short for Friday night’s live nativity and I need to be there at five sharp to don our costume. There’s shopping to be done, meals to be made, cards to be addressed and sent. Yes, it’s Christmastime … and it’s busy.

What about Jesus? Is there room for Him in the Advent Inn’s schedule, or is it full up? Taking time for moments of holy silence can clear some space for this Savior King who comes clothed in baby’s flesh. That’s because silence is where Quakers believe we encounter the real presence of Christ. Jesus comes to us in the peace of the silence, a silence which is an active going toward God, seeking a glimpse of the One whose coming we celebrate. If we take some space for silence this season, we will hear the Voice that speaks not only in words, but also in gentle tugs on our hearts and in the beauty our eyes behold in the lights, the sights, sounds, and people surrounding us this season. So stop. Relax your body and mind. Breathe deeply; slowly and gently. Savor the silence. And listen.

“Do you hear what I hear?”

-- Brent

Monday, December 15, 2008

'Tis the Season to be Jolly -- or Not...

"Tis the season to be jolly, Fa la la la la, la la la la. ..."
Oh yeah? Well, not for everybody. I ws thinking about that while getting ready for Meeting for Worship yesterday. I was thinking about some of my best friends and how they and I might be considered by some an emotionally/mentally motley crew. I have friends who are bi-polar, depressive, in therapy, attending 12 step programs, etc. And I'm prone to depression and panic attacks -- thank Heaven (literally) for a good doctor and Paxil. We're a walking, talking illustration (it sometimes seems) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

I used to think this was a bad thing -- as in I should be ashamed (especially of my own "abnormalities"). But another thing I realized as I looked over my friends (and me) is that we are, by and large, sensitive folks, caring people, and very creative. Many of us are writers, musicians, artists, and the like. And not second rate either -- well, present company excluded. Some have had books on the New York Times bestseller list. Others sell every piece of art they create. I mean, I'm blessed with a rather amazing bunch of people who are my friends.

Most of my friends are also deeply spiritual people. Very spiritually aware. And this is sometimes a very tough season for us. For some reason, while everyone else is "Merry-ing" it up, I'm often more in a "Bah Humbug" mood -- or worse. Part of it, for me anyhow, is the disconnect between the festive and celebratory that often ignores the deeply spiritual aspects of the season -- the coming of the Christ. The coming of Light into this time of extreme physical (and sometimes spiritual) darkness of these shortening days. It's Light I need. And I'm not the only one. As one friend said to me recently, "A scary and dark season in some ways....need more Light."

As I thought about bi-polar, panic attacks, depressives, seizures, et al, I also wondered which Bible characters had those traits. Or saints. Others have thought a lot about this, but it was new to me. Which made me wonder not if encounters with the Spirit were symptomatic (i.e., which DSMIII classification does this fit in?), but rather if my friends and mine "abnormalities" were actually doorways into a deeper life of the Spirit.

Of course, since I think too much, other questions came to mind. One was, "Am I more spiritually aware as a person prone to panic attacks/depression than those who are not?"

Well, I thought, that's more than a little a bit spiritually arrogant.

But I did begin to wonder if Jesus was preaching today on the hills of Galilee, would He do a beatitude for us today? Perhaps something along the lines of "Blessed are the emotionally challenged, for they shall feel and see God's presence in amazing and scary and hopeful ways?"

All I know for sure is that I am grateful for my friends, my encounters with God, and my relatively panic-free life. That I am at a place where I feel that, while this might be a good day to die, it's an even better day to live. And that my friends share their joys and sorrows and ups and downs with me -- helping me to realize that Jesus laughs and cries in hearts and souls throughout time and eternity and that God will keep me safe though all of life. Even if it kills me.

-- Brent

Two resources I've found helpful are Therese Borchard's "Beyond Blue: A Spiritual Journey to Mental Health" on ( She writes with honesty and wry humor -- and I loved her "12 Bi-Polar Days of Christmas." And Dancing With God Through the Storm: Mysticism and Mentall Illness by Jennifer Elam.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mary -- Drenched in the Speech of God

This is that special season when we sing carols, hear scripture, and say “excuse me” and “pardon me” as we elbow the other shoppers aside. In spite of that, we sometimes lose sight of one of the major miracles of Christmas. And that is that the central figures of the Christ event were people just like us.

Not that you would know that by the different depictions that pass our way this season. We see it portrayed serenely on Christmas cards, in Christmas plays and songs, and in living and plaster Nativities all around town. In them , the Christmas scene is idyllic. It’s the very picture of a 1st century nuclear family – mommy and daddy and new baby.

But the fact of the matter is that the first Christmas was far from idyllic. Because it wasn’t being staged by arranging paper mache figurines, it was being acted out by real people on the stage of life. Joseph, the Shepherds, the Magi and all the rest, even mean old Herod, were real folks in real time living real lives and trying to make sense of it all. And into their lives comes the miracle of God’s Son – Emmanuel, God with us, come to lead us back to God. And one of those characters of Christmas was Mary – a real, flesh and blood, teenaged girl.
Hildegard of Bingen’s “Antiphon for the Virgin” reminds of this --

Pierced by the light of God
Mary Virgin
drenched in the speech of God,
your body bloomed,
swelling with the breath of God.

For the Spirit purged you
of the poison Eve took.
She soiled all freshness when she caught
that infection
from the devil’s suggestion.

But in wonder within you
you hid an untainted
child of God’s mind
and God’s Son blossomed in your body.

The Holy One was his midwife;
his birth broke the laws
of flesh that Eve made. He was coupled
to wholeness
in the seedbed of holiness.

This poem takes us out of the Christmas we’ve created it in our image and reminds us of the miraculous nature of the coming of Jesus. We often confine our understanding of the miraculous to that of God becoming a baby – which is indeed a miracle. But there is more. There is something, I believe, miraculous about the boldness and obedience behind Mary’s “Yes” to God.
This was no easy “Yes.” This was hard and carried a societal stigma that makes the one we used to force on unwed mothers easy to bear by comparison. What God asked of this young woman was about the most difficult thing she could accede to.

To be sure, as the Bible reports, when Gabriel comes and says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” Mary “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Who wouldn’t?

Gabriel continues “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Her response to this is remarkable, or maybe miraculous. Where in almost every other instance of encounters with heavenly messengers the receiver of the message asks for a sign to verify that it is from God, Mary simply asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She doesn’t try to talk her way out of it. She doesn’t explain her unworthiness. She doesn’t ask “Why me?”

Mary, a simple (in a positive sense) trusting young woman simply looks into the face of the eternal and said “Yes.” How can she do that? Hildegard’s poem gives us a clue how – and I believe it is found in the line “drenched in the speech of God.”

What a powerful image.

“Drenched in the speech of God.” It’s a phenomenon with which we should all be acquainted, yet I fear too few of us are. Mary can say “Yes” because she has heard the voice of the Divine, felt it rain over her, and knew in her heart that it was God speaking. It reminds me of a more modern parallel in the Quaker tradition – George Fox’s hearing of a voice saying “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition,” and whose heart, upon hearing it, he says “leapt for joy.”

While Mary’s words from God came from the mouth of the angel Gabriel standing beside her, and Fox’s came from inside his soul, both were unmistakably from God to the ears of these listeners. And joy was the result.

Who can imagine what Mary felt when she first stood in the face of the mystery of the eternal? What might her thoughts have been? Surely she knew she was risking society’s, family’s and Joseph’s disapproval. But did she also know the supreme joy she would have cradling the baby in her arms? Could she even begin to dream of shepherds abandoning their flocks or wise men bringing gifts from afar to come and worship the baby king? Was there even a slight shuddering premonition of the cross that awaited her beloved baby boy?

We can not know Mary’s feelings, other than what we read in the scripture passage today. When the angel speaks she stands in reverence and awe and says “Let it be to me according to your word.”

For Mary, drenched in the speech of God, once her “yes” was said, she moved forward joyously with it. Her obedience and willingness to serve is something she embraced with a joy and serenity. This obedience and willingness came because she heard God’s voice, something that we would do well to prepare ourselves for in this season and year round.

Fox heard God’s voice because he prepared for it – reading scripture, talking with people of faith, praying. We don’t know what Mary did – the Bible doesn’t tell us. But we can guess that she was a person of deep spirit and prayer. When the angel comes, she’s not afraid or doubtful but only “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

And then, “drenched in the speech of God
“… in wonder within you
you hid an untainted
child of God’s mind
and God’s Son blossomed in your body.”

It is then that the wonder of the incarnation, God come down in human form to live among and bring his people back to him, begins – with the simple “yes” of Mary – a yes made possible by being “drenched in the speech of God.”

-- Brent

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Live Again from The Great Emergence

The Great Emergence is winding down -- the event that is, not the movement that Phyllis says is underway in American Christianity (and Judaism).

Phyllis is posing 3 questions --
  1. How, in a religiously pluralistic society, do we maintain our particular faith witness without causing civil unrest or compromising/watering down our particular faith to nothingness?
  2. What does it mean to be human? (This, she maintains, is one of the eternal questions and is especially pressing today, especially as the current generation seems especially self-aware or at least self-absorbed)?
  3. What is the nature of the atonement?

Phyllis says that these are the questions that must be answered and how they are answered will determine the future of the Great Emergence.

Well, my battery is running low (and so is the one on my laptop), so more later...

-- Brent

Live (sort of) from the Great Emergence

It's the second morning of the Great Emergence and I'm looking forward to another great day. Phyllis Tickle has given some absolutely stunning presentations on why/how she has identified what is going on in American Christianity as "The Great Emergence." She has tied all sorts of ideas (sola scriptura, quantum physics) and people together (David Farraday, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin) together, showing how a great emergence is moving through all of society -- not just faith.

As you might expect, most of her presentation is based on her book The Great Emergence. You can find her thoughts there, so I'm not going to recap what she's said here. You need to read the book -- spend some time with it and wrestle with its ideas. I, for one, have found her "story" persuasive -- as well as a cogent, concise description of what is going on in congregational life and the prime tensions of this time.

I will say that Quakers come off pretty well -- especially as she uses us as an example of how to deal faithfully and creatively with the question of authority. Just who/what is in charge? Scripture? Church structure? The Spirit of God? Of course, as those of us who are Friends know, we have been dancing with and around this question for 350 years and sometimes we get the steps right. The getting them right -- holding them in creative tension and allow them each to speak (the community of faith/Spirit/Scripture) -- is never easy, but is ultimately our goal and is spiritually fulfilling and rewarding.

On a personal note, I have been approached by a number of folks at this event who want to talk about Quaker spirituality and practice. Which confirms my long term belief that people are spiritually hungry for the best of Quaker faith. The question then, that I struggle with, is how do we come to live -- to model -- the best of Quaker faith and practice? How do our Meetings reach a place where they could seriously deal with what I consider the most pressing questions facing us -- What has God called us to do
  • With this people?
  • In this place?
  • At this time?

Notice that none of these have anything to do with how do we attract more people? Rather they deal with the question of faithfulness to the call of Christ -- both individually and corporately. Does it really matter if we attract 20, 50, 150 people? Of course it does -- especially if our concern is staffing committees, finding Sunday school teachers, paying staff, heating the building, etc?

But numbers do not matter if we dare forget those things and get back to the initial call of Christ to follow him and his command to feed his sheep. What does that mean for you with your community of faith in your particular place at this particular time? That, I think, is one of the prime questions that the Great Emergence is posing.


Monday, December 01, 2008

Quakers at the Great Emergence

Well, it's hard to believe, but the Great Emergence is almost here. I hope those of you who are attending are looking forward to it as much as I am.

Regarding a Convergent get together, there has not been a lot of interest expressed, but let's try this -- let's meet at 12 noon at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral on the front steps. It's supposed to be in the high 40s, so shouldn't be too unpleasant to meet outside. Then we'll go grab lunch someplace close and chat. How does that sound? I'll have a car if we need to drive somewhere.

Hope to see you soon.

-- Brent