Solstice

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great Light…”

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…”

“In them there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike…”

“…For those who lived in the land of the great shadow, on them, light has dawned.”

The solstice was this weekend. On Saturday, in the northern hemisphere, we had the shortest day of the year, where we currently live the day is nine hours and forty-four minutes long. I usually reflect during this time of year that one of the reasons I am glad that we use Christmas lights to celebrate the season is because we are fighting off the length of the darkness of the night. 

Our neighbors have multiple light displays and blowup decorations in their front yard, and I asked my husband when we were both awake in the middle of the night if it was close to dawn, or just the neighbors. It was just the neighbors. Just enough light to have me wonder if I should be waking up, not enough to keep me awake. 

I wonder if Christianity has become that for some people… just enough light to wonder if they could wake up, not enough to keep them awake. Are we all flash and no warmth? 

I was standing next to a woman at the grocery store who was complaining about Christmas, because it wasn’t any fun for her. She remembered it being fun when she was a kid, but now it was more a list of chores, a set of things added to what she had to get done, decorations to put up and immediately take down again. I wonder if she had budgets to check against wishlists, consumerism facing limited resources, trying to make it still “magical” for her kids, but really wishing she could have a day with less, not more. She was already ready for it to be over, for Christmas to be over and done with, something else she didn’t have to face anymore as she checked out at the grocery line on her way home from work with a kid in tow and dinner still to cook and get on the table. 

One of the families in our neighborhood lost their baby at 23 weeks gestation, the would-have-been grandfather told me last week. I wonder if they will have both a hard time with this Christmas, and the next, and easter, when the due date would have been, now both high holy christian calendar celebrations reminders of their loss. 

Loss seems harder this time of year. 

We remember who is missing at the table, we grieve the conversations we never got to have, we feel the loss of who we never got to see experience this thing we are doing together. 

And then, even if the grief isn’t weighing heavier, there is aggressively cheerful holiday music playing practically everywhere we go—the grocery store, the coffee shop, the clothing stores, the bank, the school, and (if we’re not careful) the church. Our culture doesn’t want to hold the space for anything but holiday cheer. 

I wonder if we become like my neighbor’s light display, just enough to fake the dawn but never enough to usher in the sun. I want to shine light towards hope, but I rarely know what tangible thing that hope would be. 

And Scripture promises that hope, the light shining in the darkness, a light dawning, a great light that illuminates the path on the way that leads to life. 

My daughter, on the ride to church today complained because it was cloudy. The sun was hiding behind the clouds. She’d rather have the sun. But even behind the clouds, we know the sun is still shining. And, now that we have passed through the longest night, the sun will be returning even through the cold of our winter. 

Come, Light. Come.

This Particular Ubiquity

I read “The Polar Express” to my daughter for the first time last night. It was more of an emotional experience than I was prepared for. 

I remember growing up, listening to my father read us the book with his storytelling voice (the most soothing of all his voices) and discovering the mystery of believing. I remember looking at the pictures in the book, realizing that some illustrations in books were pictures, and some were artwork. I learned to value that artwork, to value that people made art for children that surpassed the concept of simply pictures to accompany words, that good art in a book can add to a story, and give it depth and texture and motion and pathos. 

I didn’t learn all of that the first time we read the book, but through my years of my parents sharing the artwork of Chris Van Allsburg and others who think that intricate and good work is worth doing for children who might not understand the depth of it, but that children see when they are valued participants and interpreters of art, I learned that art matters. 

The Polar Express matters, in ways that is clear even for people who might have only seen the movie. 

And because this particular story impacted me in a particular way at a pivotal moment in my childhood, I wanted to be the first one to share it with my daughter. I wanted to control the way she was first read the story. And I don’t know if I was ready to share it with her yet, but her preschool is having a “Polar Express” day next week, and I don’t trust her teachers to “get it right” (whatever that might possibly mean) and so I read my favorite Christmas book to my elder daughter. And I cried. 

She watched and listened and interacted with the story and sat to listen for the whole of the book, even though it is one of the longer books we have for children before we switch to chapter books. She wants to know why we don’t have a leather thong for our bells on our tree, but I think I can manage that one. 

I hope she heard the beauty of the story. It was that wanting, for her to hear the beauty of the story, not the plasticine commercialism that became the movie and the train rides and the vast number of companies who are capitalizing on the nostalgia of parents who remember their parents reading it to them and so want to “do the experience” with their kids… though I did price check what it would take for me to take my daughter to the “experience” in town… 

I like that The Polar Express is not just my thing. I like that the story hasn’t disappeared into obscurity, and that it keeps being told. It is a good reminder to me that what I found special during my childhood wasn’t necessarily isolated to my own experience. I am not the only child who heard this story as a kid. I think I forget that sometimes, in part because I feel so different from the rest of the world, that all of my experiences have not been unique solely to me. Sure, looking at the details there are always details that only I have, but sometimes things are more common of an experience than I think. And then, on the other hand, it is good to be reminded that what I see in ubiquity is still not universal. Not everyone my age has read The Polar Express, not even my writing partner who I shared this story with first. 

And even in the details, I hope that there are people who have parents who shared their favorite books with them, even if it wasn’t the same book, or for the same reason. Because I love it when books and stories are shared, and I love sharing my favorite books from my childhood with my children. I love it when they love the things I remember loving, and knowing that some of the reason they love the book and the story behind it is because I shared my love with them. 

But then, isn’t that what we do with most things we believe in? Or at least, isn’t that what were should be doing? Sharing our story and our love of the story with those around us so that the love expands? 

Jack-O’-Lantern Christians

I remember carving pumpkins as a kid. We’d get all the tools out, clear the space on the table, and we’d all step back as the master carver made the first cut. Once the top was off, we’d gather around and scoop out the strings and seeds inside. Sometimes we’d save the seeds to toast and enjoy as a snack. 

The rest of the guts were thrown out, though they might have ended up in a compost pile or two. 

The the master carver would set to work, shaping the image that was going to be displayed on our front porch, with a candle illuminating the image from within.  

My least favorite part was always the stringy smelly bits that we had to scoop out. But the thing is, those strings are what held the seeds in place as the pumpkin was growing. You end up tossing the strings out, but if you leave the stringy mess around the seeds, that becomes matter that adds nutrients to the soil as the seed grows. 

The seeds were formed while the pumpkin was growing. You can use the seeds to plant and grow new pumpkins. They are essential parts of the pumpkin. 

If the strings are planted with the seeds they give the growing new plants nutrients, a foundation to grow on and sustenance to create newness and new life.

When you create a jack-o’-lantern you create something that embraces the grotesque. The plant becomes a temporary piece of art that will decay when it is left out on your porch for more than a week. 

This art, no matter how temporary and imperfect it is, with a gaping smile and a jagged grin, lights up the space around it. You create it to show to other people and share with your family.

Even though we throw out the guts, for lack of a better word, they connect the pumpkin while it grows. The guts stream between the seeds, allowing the mystery of creation form the seeds that could fill a new field with pumpkins the next year. 

Sometimes, we wish that the messy parts of us were so easy to discard, cover up, and ignore. But all parts of us are important to our identity. Our past, our frailties, our brokenness, our sin (even), make us who we are. We can’t pretend away our past, no matter how convenient it might be. 

Over and over again we see examples in the Scriptures of the surprising and unexpected being the thing that is redeemed. God creates space for all things to be useful, not the things that we only like but the things that we would rather ignore or would like to cover up or pretend away. Those things of us make us who we are. They make us full human beings created, made, formed, shaped in the image of God. God doesn’t have to carve us up and empty us of all that makes us who we are. God uses who we are. 

That’s what makes us beautiful even when we have guts, and strings, and seeds; those are the parts of us that God constantly redeems in the midst of an ever renewing creation. 

This piece is in response to the following story, which sounds cute… but I don’t do “Cute” theology.

“A woman was asked by a co-worker, “What is it like to be a Christian?” The co-worker[sic: woman] replied, “It’s  like being a pumpkin. God picks you from the patch, brings you in, and washes all the dirt off of you. Then He cuts off the top and scoops out all the yucky stuff. He removes the seeds of doubt, hate, greed, etc., and then He carves you a new smiling face and puts His light inside of you to shine for all the world to see.” —Jim O’Bryon’s version in “I Fail to Miss Your Point” 2008 (Also, as it is ubiquitous on the internet without attribution, I cannot find the original authors.)

Hard to Love

I recorded this one, and you can hear Roar “help” me preach.

Love, the Lord your God 

with all your heart and all your soul

and all your mind 

and love humankind, 

as God has loved yourself 

Love, the Lord your God 

with all your heart and all your soul

and mind and humankind, 

we’ve got Jesus Christ to give

we’ve got Jesus Christ to live

we’ve got nothing to hide

because

we live and abide in love.

John 15:9-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

[Jesus says]

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

This is the Word of God for all people. 

Thanks be to God.

Hard to Love   Rev. Kathy Randall Bryant

This command is the hardest one to follow. 

We can talk about loving someone until we are blue in the face, it is really easy to fall in love with someone, but staying in love is another problem entirely.

We don’t understand the difficulty and importance of this commandment until someone gets really hard to love. 

Perhaps they just stand on the other side of the argument, and you really don’t understand them. 

But when someone stands on the other side of an argument, if we are not using love as the frame for our reference, love as the lens through which we look, then we will see through another lens. 

Instead of rose colored glasses we see the dirty green tint of hate and jealousy. It sneaks up on us. It might start as a snide comment. Maybe a dismissing remark. 

Soon enough, there is a distinct line between Them and Us. It’s almost too easy. Labels are thrown about and stick far too easily. The dividing line between the camps becomes wider, and it becomes less and less likely that the two groups will be able to see eye-to-eye. 

It’s easy to point to the political divide in our country as an example, but this division can sink in much closer to home.

I am deeply concerned about this. I’m concerned about my own bias because when it happens to me I am sure that it has been affecting how I think about those who disagree with me. It’s become more than merely thinking that those who think differently than me are wrong. I have gone so far into this thinking that I believe that they are misguided, blinded, ill-informed, dupes in a cosmic parody.

It’s not healthy.

I am creating a prison for my mind.

I am sinning. My bias is leading me to sin more.

I am missing out on seeing the image of God in others. I am missing out on the full representation of the body of Christ.

I don’t want to be this way.

Changing my heart will not be easy. I cannot do it on my own.

I struggle with losing compassion, and wanting to take the easy route of not seeing those around me as full people. It would be much more easy to return to my blissful ignorance than to work hard to move past my own biases to see the full image of God of the person in front of me. My love isn’t big enough. My heart isn’t open enough. I need to look through the eyes of Christ in order to love and see deeply enough.

This kind of division can split families, and keep parents and children from speaking for decades. 

It happens far too often. 

And maybe it is because of a complete offense or abuse, but sometimes it happens because someone gets angry, and then chooses to cut their family member off. 

Instead of holding the power of silence over someone, imagine what could happen if we were daring enough to work through some of the most difficult conversations that we are bound to have with someone else. 

Imagine what could happen in the midst of strife if folks take to heart what Jesus says and does by example here in the scriptures: to lay down one’s life for another. And laying down your life is not only dying for someone, but also being willing to not have the last word, to not win each and every argument, to listen, and not to always have your way.

Indeed, we have been loved by Christ, and we are not called servants any longer, no, instead we are friends of Christ. We are chosen by Christ. We have been called up into the family of God and we are now being brought into perfection through the grace of God. 

It is a long road indeed. 

Have you ever heard the story of “Old Turtle and the Broken Truth”?

This little turtle finds a rock, with something written on it: “you are loved.”

He keeps it, then shows it to mother, father, siblings, and finally the chief hears about it.

The village puts it in a place of honor. 

A village from across the river sees it. 

They decide they want it.

War breaks out.

Death, disease, famine, horrible anger and madness follow.

The broken truth changes hands so often that it eventually gets lost again.

Later, Little turtle finds it, but he also finds the other piece that belonged with it. They do fit together, they are part of a whole.

Along with “you are loved” is the rest of the truth, “and so are they.”

Old Turtle And The Broken Truth – October 1, 2003

by Douglas Wood  (Author), Jon J Muth  (Illustrator)

See, after we get so caught up in how we are different, with who has wronged whom, with tallies and scores and who is winning the argument, we lose sight of the full truth. When our fighting grows so strong that we fail to see that there is more to the truth than just the love for ourselves, we break the truth into ever continuing tinier pieces, jagged and rough, dangerous shards of the original message. It becomes a truth that has broken and breaks others.

We are children of God, and like a mother that despairs to see her children fighting, God mourns the ways that we have become divided over so many things. 

The mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and all the mass shootings we keep seeing in our country are signs of this. This brokenness that we have. The way that people have set themselves above other people. 

When I was little, my sister and I used to fight some. We were siblings. My mother, wise woman that she was, and still is, made us hug to make amends after we fought. She would make us hug and just sit there, as we realized what our fighting was doing. 

Granted, it was just in our family, you wouldn’t think that there were any other repercussions. But the lesson has stuck with me, as I have grown and matured. 

I went to Kenya twice. The second time I went with some fellow students from seminary. One of them was Laura, we had been good friends our first year, studying together and hanging out, but I hadn’t really hung out with her recently when we went together. 

And we had a falling out while we were overseas. 

Let me just tell you, fighting with someone while eight thousand miles from home is not fun. 

Especially when you fight like I do, in small jabs and snide remarks. I’m not a very clean fighter. 

But, when we got back to the US, we had another week or two at our host congregation before the end of the summer. And we worked through it. I had more to apologize for than she did. She forgave me. We came together and created reconciliation. 

One of the images that she used in being thankful that we had come through our argument and ended up on the other side is that of a stone smoothing another stone by grinding each other’s rough spots. 

The Peace we had and continue to share afterwards is so much more valuable because we came through conflict in order to reach it. 

Peace came from our loving each other through the hard parts. 

We weren’t afraid to serve each other and learn from each other. 

We are called and chosen as children of God. 

God mourns the fighting of God’s Children.

And fighting is not the fruit of the love of God.

No, the fruit of the love of God is the peace that passes all understanding. 

John writes about this in 1 John 4:7-12  (NRSV)

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (NRSV)

We don’t love because we are afraid of punishment,

we choose love because God’s love is perfected IN US.

We don’t love perfectly on our own

God acts so that we can know that God views us with the same love as God views God’s son.

Love is from God.

To know love is to know God.

The only way we love as God loves us is to allow God to love THROUGH us. 

Love shows us what is broken.

Love is what we need to heal.

If God is love, then love is: past, present, and future. 

Love is. Love has been. Love will be.

Christ invites us, chooses us, desires for us to live in, remain in, dwell in, ABIDE in his love. 

Jesus says: at the beginning, I chose you, and now I choose you over and over again. 

Christ expressed the greatest love, by coming to be with us, to descend his life to ours. 

Jesus speaks more than words to us, Jesus has displayed how deep his love is for us. 

We are invited to bear the fruit of living in God’s deep and abiding love. 

It won’t be easy. Sometimes the folks we are most called to love are the hardest ones TO LOVE. 

Love is hard. If nothing else, being a parent for over four years, staying married for over eight years and in relationship for ten years will teach you that. 

Love. is. hard.

And for those of you who have been together for longer than My husband and I, you know that. 

But you really can’t teach it. 

It is only something you can learn from experience. 

And then, once you think you’ve got it down one week, the next month something will change, and then there are new people and new relationships and new things to learn.

God says you are worthy of love. God says you are worthy of friendship and welcome and grace. It is part of your intrinsic being, no matter what you do or say. God loves you and wants you to share that love with those around you, so that you can experience even more the way that God loves you. And I want to keep learning about how God loves. 

God knit you together in the womb of your mother and loved you and said you were very good. Supremely good. God loves you and we are all working on learning from God. 

God is the only one who is perfect. God is the one who gave a perfect son to show us how love can be perfected in life here on earth, and I am working each day to be made perfect in love. I don’t expect to get it right today, tomorrow, or next year, but that doesn’t give me a reason not to work at it right now. I’m trying to love the way God loves. 

We won’t always get it right. We will make mistakes. We have scars and wounds and memories of times when we didn’t feel loved. 

Jesus always leads by example, 

loving his dense, misguided disciples, 

loving those who accused him of horrible things

loving those who spit in his face

loving those who nailed him to a tree.

Because Jesus has chosen us as his friends and fellow brothers and sisters, his siblings together in love, we are able to strive to live into these commands that he has for us, to love those around us with the same kind of daring that he demonstrated over and over and over again. 

You are loved because you are made in the image of God. Each of you. You are worthy of love.

God calls you to live into this love, loving others as God loves you. 

Love, the Lord your God 

with all your heart and all your soul

and all your mind 

and love humankind, 

as God has loved yourself 

Love, the Lord your God 

with all your heart and all your soul

and mind and humankind, 

we’ve got Jesus Christ to give

we’ve got Jesus Christ to live

we’ve got nothing to hide

because

we live and abide in love.

And so we love, as best we can, though the power of God. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Three Year’s Grief

It has been three years since my cousin, Harper, died by suicide at age 14. She would be starting college this fall. 

I was in Florida with Mom and Dad and Rebel, visiting family, including Harper’s parents, and even spoke on the phone with Harper the night before she died. 

We learned later that she had mapped out the night she would die, she had unstrung her violin, she had said farewell to her Instagram personas. 

The depression lied too loudly.

And now we grieve. 

If depression is lying to you, please get help. 

I wish, I so strongly wish, that Harper had asked for help. 

I wish I had been able to tell her about some of the dark valleys I have gone through. 

I wish that I could have shared her burden, so that her load would not have been so heavy. 

We journey in grief after losing her to depression. The lies can sound so much like truth. 

If you need help, call me. Or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a resource that has people who are trained to help, available at all times. 

I wish Harper was still here. I want you to still be here. I pray that whatever valleys you are facing, that you ask for someone to walk with you, to lend a hand, to shine a light in the darkness. 

You don’t have to do this by yourself.