Monday, December 23, 2013

A Pause in Advent #4: May Nothing You Dismay

Year One

I was still standing
on a northern corner.

Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.

of Your existence? There is nothing

 --Franz Wright
 Walking  to Martha's Vineyard

I keep trying to write something that will capture what I want to say better than this poem does, but I can't.

Emmanuel: God with us.

That is the most exciting thing I have ever heard.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A (Late) Pause in Advent #3

I have joined Floss and others in a Pause in Advent. Check out Floss's site for a list of other bloggers participating in this annual event.

I'm composing a playlist of Christmas carols that I'm not sick to death of hearing. I love Bing and Perry and Andy Williams and Burl Ives, but I've been listening to them sing "White Christmas" and "Frosty" and "The Christmas Song" for nigh onto fifty years now and can no longer really hear them. I need new versions, new songs.

On my playlist I have the great Odetta's "What Month was Jesus Born In" and "Shout for Joy," and the strange and enchanting Sufjan Stevens' "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." I have Big Star singing "Jesus Christ (was born today)." And I have what may be my favorite Christmas carol of all time, Tom Waits' "A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis."

There's actually no mention of Christmas at all in this song. It starts out with the narrator writing to her friend Charlie, telling him that she's pregnant,

"and I stopped taking dope
and I quit drinking whiskey
and my old man plays the trombone
and works out at the track.

and he says that he loves me
even though it's not his baby
and he says that he'll raise him up
like he would his own son

and he gave me a ring
that was worn by his mother
and he takes me out dancin
every saturday nite."

The next few stanzas continue on describing how good the narrator's life is. And then we get to the end of the song:

"Hey Charlie,
for chrissakes
do you want to know
the truth of it?
I don't have a husband
he don't play the trombone

and I need to borrow money
to pay this lawyer
and Charlie, hey
I'll be eligible for parole
come Valentines day. "

It's right around this time--a week away from Christmas--where I start to feel like the narrator of this song. I'm trying to paint a beautiful picture with the Christmas tree, the lights and decorations, the house that smells like Christmas cookies and banana bread. But it's too much. Suddenly I'm cranky and out of sorts, on the verge of getting a cold. Hey, Charlie, you wanna know the truth of it? I'm not all that merry and bright.

And that, my dears, is when Christmas really starts, when I'm ready to tell the truth about my own poverty. I don't have a husband and he don't play the trombone. Most days I'm stuck in a jail of my own making.

Christmas is about many things, but to me, for it to have real meaning, Christmas has to be about hope. O come, o come Emmanuel, pay my bail. Shine a little light in this darkness.

It's no coincidence that the narrator of this song is writing a Christmas card. It's no coincidence that she's a hooker. Jesus served the lowliest of the low. Some say he preferred them. For those of us who have money, nice homes, status, sometimes we forget our poverty. It's only when we hit the wall that we see the light shining from the other side. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Pause in Advent #2: Housekeeping

 I have joined Floss and others in a Pause in Advent. Check out Floss's site for a list of other bloggers participating in this annual event.

Here's something I wrote on this blog a couple of years ago:

Yesterday I was told a story about a young pastor visited at home by an older pastor. The older man told the younger man that every table in his house should be an altar. By this, he didn't mean the young pastor should have a chalice and a silver platter of communion wafers on his bedside table and TV trays. Instead, he was preaching a kind of mindfulness. Pay attention, he was saying. Keep God in mind whatever you do.

When I think about cleaning my house for Christmas as a way of making it picture perfect for a picture-perfect Christmas, I feel cranky and tired. Count me out. I would rather celebrate Christmas among the dust bunnies, thank you very much.

But when I think of Advent as a time of making altars throughout the house, then I feel much more cheerful.

The reason we observe Advent is that we have to prepare our hearts for Christmas. We have to make them big. And by building our little altars, we are reminding ourselves that God is on His way. We say, We are ready to be hopeful. We are ready for peace. We are ready to truly love one another.

We are ready, we say, to greet God when He appears in our doorway. 

With that, I bring you this week's poem, by Mary Oliver.

Making the House Ready for the Lord

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice –it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances –but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And I still believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

From Thirst, Beacon Press, 2007

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Pause in Advent

The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. While our contemporary consumer culture begins the process celebrating Christmas right after Thanksgiving--with relentless marketing and an endless soundtrack of carols and songs--liturgical tradition takes a different approach. In liturgical churches you won't hear carols or see a Christmas tree in the sanctuary during Advent--those festivities are reserved for Christmas. Advent, by contrast, is a more solemn season of preparation and anticipation. We set aside these four weeks to prepare ourselves to receive this great mystery into our hearts.

"First Sunday of Advent: History of the Feast," God with Us

I've decided at the very last minute to sign up for Floss's A Pause in Advent. I would like the spiritual discipline of taking time every week to write about my favorite liturgical season of the year.

The above passage from God with Us goes on a little later to say, "Just as we might clean our house in preparation for the arrival of a special guest, so church tradition asks us to take stock of our souls and be at our best when the special day arrives." That's daunting, isn't it--the idea of taking stock of one's soul? How is your soul doing these days?

In general, I have felt that my soul is in need of watering. Of better care and feeding. I was reading an interview with the wonderful (and, sadly, late) poet Jane Kenyon last night and was struck when she said that poets need to be stewards of their gifts. "Protect your time," she writes. "Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours."

Not only is that wonderful advice for poets, I think it is fine advice for someone preparing to receive a great mystery. I will do my best to be quieter this Advent season, to turn off the radio, to turn away from the Internet, to read poetry and take long walks. On winter Sundays, I like to set out on a walk twenty minutes or so before dusk, so that as I'm headed for home the sky is flooded with pink and gold and a blue giving over to darkness.

I will leave you with a poem by Jane Kenyon from her wonderful collection, Let Evening Come (Graywolf Press, 1990).

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.