Friday, December 25, 2015


Thank you, thank you.  Our Advent together--there will never be another quite like it.  What a gift for me, and I hope for you.


May the Christmas story that follows bless you as it has blessed me.


With love at Christmas and beyond....


And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.  (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.        (John 1: 13-18)

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, there was a famous monastery which had fallen on very hard times.  Formerly, its many buildings were filled with young monks and its big church resounded with the singing of chant, but now it was deserted.  People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer.  A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised their God with heavy hearts.


On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut.  He would come there from time to time to fast and pray.  Rarely did anyone ever have conversation with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk:  “The rabbi walks in the woods.”  And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.


One day the abbot of the monastery decided to visit the rabbi and to open his heart to him.  And so, after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods.  As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome.  It was as though he had been waiting there for some time.  The two embraced like long-lost brothers.  Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another.


After a while the rabbi motioned the abbot to enter.  In the middle of the room was a wooden table with the Scriptures open upon it.  They sat there together for a moment, in the presence of the Book….Then the rabbi spoke.  “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said.  “You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I will give you a teaching, but you may only repeat it once.  After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.”  Then the rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.”


For a while, all was silent.  Then the rabbi said, “It is time.”  The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back.


The next morning, the abbot called his monks together.  He told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods” and that this teaching was never again to be spoken aloud.  Then he looked at each of his brothers and said, “the rabbi said that the Messiah is among us.”


The monks were astonished by this saying.  “How are we to understand this?” they asked themselves.  “Is Brother John the Messiah?  Or Father Matthew?  Or Brother Thomas?  Am I the Messiah?  What can this teaching mean?”  They were all deeply puzzled.  But no one ever mentioned it again.


As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence, for they knew that the Messiah was among them.  There was a gentle, wholehearted, peaceful quality about them now which was hard to describe but easily noticed.  Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks.  And before long, people were coming to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks and young men were asking, once again, to become part of the community.


In those days, the rabbi no longer walked in the woods, nor among the living.  His hut had fallen into ruins.  But somehow or other, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his prayerful presence.  


And they all lived peacefully ever after. 

(Story adapted from New Catholic World  #222, 1979,  P. 53)

Watching and waiting:  the themes of Advent.  But with the coming of Christmas our long wait is ended, and we celebrate the arrival of the Messiah among us, once again.

The gospel lesson above is the nativity story of John, though there are no angels, no shepherds, no stars or kings.  Simply “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”  

But Jesus’ physical birth is not the end of the story; it is the beginning.  It’s what happens after Jesus arrives that matters the most.  In the same way, in the monks’ story, it is not the information which the rabbi shares which matters the most; it is the way the monks react to the information.

The Messiah comes among us in so many ways:  in the bread and the wine, through the Holy Spirit, in the lives and presence of others—and deep within each of us.   The Kingdom of God is within and all around.  

The Christ light shines within and all around.  We are the light-bearers, and we determine whether it will burn dimly and fitfully, or clear and strong.  For through this light, as John tells us, the world is enlightened. 

“The Messiah is among you,” taught the wise old rabbi.  And the Messiah is among us still.  



Thursday, December 24, 2015


This brief journal entry is from one of my favorite books: 

Word from Wormingford, by Ronald Blythe

We are beckoned into the life of an English country clergyman.  Please join me.  We can be back in time for evening service Stateside.

Christmas Eve.

A small gift for the postmen--they have a rota--on whose endless kindnesses the logistics of this remote farmhouse turn.

My towering holly hedge is snowily tipped with old man's beard but the lower boughs are a glowing mass of orange and dark green fruit and foliage.  Blackbirds hustle out as I cut branches to hang over the pictures and fireplace.

A ten-thirty 'midnight' at Mount Bures in order that the vicar and myself can get to an actual midnight at Wormingford.  We speed through the black lanes.  Among the new arts of being multi-beneficial is that of appearing to have all the time in the world when one has another church full of communicants three miles and one hour away.  Most particularly at the midnight.  And Mount Bures, such a sacred little temple on its military height, doesn't make this easy.  It is a church to dream in.  Brian plays the organ which commemorates the passing of Queen Victoria.   A starved-looking John the Baptist, the parish's patronal saint, looks down at the Eucharist.  Night has rubbed out the window-pictures.  Joyce's new candles waver in ancient draughts.  I read the Epistle and John 'In the beginning was the Word....'  After the service we stand saying happy-Christmases at the door as though we have all the time in creation.

Then a scamper down Old Barn Hill, past cottages flickering with television, up Sandy Hill, by the Crown and down to St. Andrew's where, mercifully, the only restiveness is in the belfry.  And now, of course, the art of showing no sign that we have said and done all these great things a few minutes before.

It is nearly two in the morning when Gordon drives me home where, now wide awake, I have a whisky and a read.  Lights in the valley go out one by one as the congregation sleeps.

At Little Horkesley matins--crowds of families and famous singing--I preach on time and timelessness, the temporal and the eternal.  I ask the children:

And is it true?  And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

They think about it.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent 24: STORIES

It's a season of stories.

There's the story of Rudolph and of Frosty; there's 'Twas The Night Before Christmas and The Polar Express; and of course there's White Christmas as well as A Christmas Story and inevitably there's National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  Not to mention A Christmas Carol, and The Nutcracker, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.  Just for starters.

These stories are wonderful, offering messages that fit quite nicely under the rubric of "Love thy neighbor" and "do unto others."   They are fun and they are entertaining and they are very often inspiring.  (literally meaning "embodying the Spirit.")

The best of them offers that mystical component that transforms something from earthly common sense into heavenly bliss; what people of faith call Divine Presence.


The Real Deal

Even so, the "true meaning of Christmas"--which these stories often refer to as if they have it all figured out--is more than "wouldn't it be nice if everybody was nice" as Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault points out in her book The Wisdom Jesus.  (Although actually that would be nice; a starting point, anyhow.)

For most Christians, the phrase "Christmas stories" refers to what theologians rather pretentiously call "the birth narratives."

There's Matthew's version (chapters 1 and 2), told with Joseph in the foreground as the primary mover and shaker, King Herod's minions raging around the countryside, and the wise men tracking the star.  Action-packed and male-centric.

And there's Luke's version (chapters 1 and 2), probably better known than Matthew's, thanks in no small part to Linus's monologue in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Luke's story is more of a musical featuring five songs: the opening line of The Rosary, plus the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the Gloria, and the Nunc Dimittas.  Mary is center stage, the holy family journeys to Bethlehem to pay their taxes, and the shepherds keep watch over their flocks by night.  No wise men in attendance and no star glittering above.

John's gospel offers a very different but very lovely nativity story; in some ways it is my favorite:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
(John 1:9)

In their book, The First Christmas, Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan compare Matthew's and Luke's versions of Jesus' nativity, and reach several conclusions.  

* The stories are far more alike than they are different. 

* The stories are penned with the definite intention of demonstrating that Jesus' divine conception is more significant in every way than that of the so-called "divine Augustus" himself. 

* Most importantly, Borg and Crossan conclude that: of divine conception (mean) that 

  this child has brought or will bring extraordinary or transcendental benefits to the human race.  


And therefore, the proper question is not about the biology of the mother, (is she a virgin or not) but about the destiny of the child.  


What is that destiny and, once you know it, are you willing to commit your life to it?

  To Caesar the Augustus, for example, or to Jesus the Christ? 



Your Story; My Story; Our Story

The true meaning of Christmas is something that will never be named in even the most moving of secular dramas, for it is 

the well-coming of God among us; 

our God who has come before--
our God who is here with us now--
our God who will come more fully and more completely--

let us make space within for the divine arrival.

The Advent mystery is
 the beginning of the end 
of all in us 
that is not yet Christ.
Thomas Merton   1915-1968

Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent 23: SHORTCUTS

Pre-stuffed stockings.  Really?  Has it come to this?

Apparently it has.

It has been an interesting and informative Advent in lots of ways.  

Because of this blog--what am I going to write about?--I've been listening more carefully and paying much closer attention to what's going on around me.  Which of course is a very good thing--mostly.

It's amazing what you can pick up from odd conversations, overheard in a coffee shop or on a TV talk show, or over lunch with friends.

Here are the Top Ten Tips I've gleaned for managing the holidays gracefully--shortcuts to a streamlined holiday season.   See what works best for you.

1.  Do all your shopping before Thanksgiving; there's more selection and fewer crowds.

2.  Take advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  The prices are amazing.  (Isn't there some new Green Thing that's recently been added?  Maybe you want to check that out, too.)

3. Alternatively, avoid Black Friday and Cyber Monday and that Green Thing like the plague:  the prices only seem low because they're over-inflated in the first place; plus, people have actually been injured just trying to walk into those stores.  At dawn.  After camping out for three days.

4.  Do all your shopping online:  it's quick and easy and they'll wrap and ship for you.

5.  Never shop online:  it's always best to see an item "in the flesh" so to speak--and it's a real pain if somebody needs to exchange something.  Plus you save the shipping costs.

6.  Wrap your gifts the minute you get them in the house if humanly possible; this saves oodles of time toward the end when every second counts.

7.  Pre-stuff each stocking as you go; only then will you know when to stop shopping to be sure you haven't overbought.

8.  NEVER pre-stuff the turkey.  Again, people have been injured.  Well, gotten really sick.

9.  As you decorate your house, go slowly, add a few things each day; stop immediately when it starts to feel "done"; then leave the rest in the attic till next year; or the year after; or forever.

10.  Be sure to pick up a few spare boxes of good chocolates because you KNOW you will get stuck without a gift for somebody who pops up with something for you.  This strategy can keep you from being embarrassed and, more importantly, from hurting someone's feelings.  Plus, if that scenario doesn't actually happen, you can still eat the chocolates.

Great stuff, right?  At least some of it.  Okay, maybe only tiny bits of it.

But nevertheless....

None of us can argue with the need for some common sense help at this season. 


Actually, spiritual sense is what's needed most of all, because with all the hype going on around us, Christmas can easily become more like an addiction than a celebration. 

As an antidote, here are my own favorite Two Tips for Managing the Season with GRACE--grace being used in the fullest sense of the word. 

1.  Set your cell phone's timer to go off four times each day.

Early Evening

And each time it goes off, stop what you're doing--just for 45 seconds, that's all the psychologists say it takes to completely reset and redirect yourself--and offer thanks for something, or say a prayer for someone, or just look around you with eyes wide open and love in your heart.

2.  If you are one of those people who doesn't carry a cell phone, there is a simple alternative.  Wherever we go, there are people saying, "Jesus!" or "Jesus Christ!" because they are surprised, annoyed, or upset in some way.  When you hear the Name, use it as a cue: say a silent blessing or prayer or thanksgiving for that person.  And for anybody else who needs it.  You'll be surprised and a little shocked at how much this increases your prayer time....

Not sure what to say?

How about God bless us every one?  That would work nicely and is quite within the Spirit of the Season!   (Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol)

For some things there simply are no shortcuts--

like having a baby, 
developing a friendship, 
or waiting for seeds to sprout.

And at the end of the day, here's what crucial to remember:

Some things, like Christ, are well worth waiting for.

Sunday, December 20, 2015





May God,

who sent his angels to proclaim the glad news of the Savior’s birth,

  fill you with joy and make you heralds of the Gospel!

God bless and keep you now and always. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent 25: AND NOW WHAT?

The only problem with anticipation is, what do you do when the thing you've been anticipating comes to an end?  

What do you do when the Big Day has come and gone?  What then?  With Christmas only a couple of days away, it's worth considering.

We all know the stories about how people get depressed every year after Christmas because they suddenly feel like there's really nothing to look forward to.   

And it's actually quite easy to understand how this could happen. After all, for weeks we have all thought and talked and planned and acted with one central focus in mind: the holiday celebration.  It seems natural, even inevitable, that a sense of letdown might follow such an outpouring of energy.

(Well, unless you're one of those people who is so absolutely sick and tired of the whole holiday season by now that frankly you can't wait to pack it all in and get back to normal.  If that's you, you may want to skip the rest of this post, since obviously you need no coping mechanisms for post-Christmas blues.  And there's the silver lining you've been looking for!)

For the rest of us, though, the ones who come crashing back to earth and find the return to the mundane somewhat jarring--and maybe on top of it we have a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)--not to worry, nil desperandum....

Remember those signs that say "Today is the beginning of the rest of your life"?  Well, they're absolutely right.

After all, Advent is merely a human-made construct intended to help us focus INTENSELY, during these few weeks, on what we actually should be focusing on ALL the time:  living our lives more thoughtfully and with more awareness in the presence of God.  For Christians, this means opening our hearts to God in Christ at Christmastime--and then practicing that openness through all the days of the year. 

Advent is meant to help us start up our engines if they've been idling. Or to tune up our engines if they need it.  But it is definitely not a season that says once you've got everything up and running smoothly it's okay to shut it down. Quite the opposite. 

Here's the good news:  Life is a never ending process.

Here's the bad news:  Life is a never ending process.

Our life-long learning never ends, it just begins again in another form.  Like a circle.  Or a spiral. 

And that's a comforting and even exciting thought.

In the middle of winter I discovered in myself an invincible summer.  
~  Albert Camus

From the day we arrive on the planet 
And blinking, step into the sun 
There's more to see than can ever be seen 
More to do than can ever be done 

It's the Circle of Life....
~The Lion King


Advent 21: SAVOURIES

A savoury is the final course of a traditional British formal meal, following the sweet pudding or dessert course. 

I've never partaken of a formal British meal, except vicariously through Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey and the like.  Tom and I did eat at Simpson's in the Strand once, the famous carvory in London, but that's more about show than it is about following all the courses of an actual traditional meal.

The British term for dessert, which is "pudding," delights me.  I'm not sure why, but probably just because I'm such an anglophile.

Apparently, back in the day, the English upper crust ate desserts (haha, the upper crust ate desserts, get it?) that were international in scope: mousse, pastries, fancy cakes, etc.  The poor folk, though, were confined to cheaper desserts, such as rice pudding or Spotted Dick.  (Another term that delights me. I will never forget sitting in a pub in Stratford-upon-Avon with two of my sons, and looking at their crimson faces just after the waitress had offered them Spotted Dick for dessert.  Suet pudding with dried fruit, by the way.)  Anyway, eventually the word pudding became synonymous with dessert.

The thing about desserts is, sometimes the raging sweet tooth is more titillated than satisfied by the sweet course.  And thus the savoury course was born.   

Escoffier, the legendary 19th-century French chef who invented veal stock, felt sure that a savoury fifth taste was the secret of his success, but everyone was too busy gorging on his food to take much notice of his theories. 
~Amy Fleming, The Guardian

A few salty bites of something--cheese, nuts, anchovies on toast if you're a Brit--with, say, a glass of port--these are supposed to soothe the taste buds, leaving you to push back from the table and walk away satiated; assuming you can still walk.

Maybe that theory is why we Americans like the darker taste of tea or coffee with dessert?

This season of the year is a lot like a big feast.  

I started musing about Advent as a banquet because a good friend of mine recently commented that I was always so busy, so productive, but she wished I could just stop and savor all that I did more often.  A very insightful comment.

During this overly busy time of year, I hope each of us can find ways to add a "savoury" to our feast. 

A time to sit back, enjoy, and be at peace with all the world.


My brother, Jesus.
It happens every year.
I think that this will be the year that I have a reflective Advent....
All around me are the signs rushing me to Christmas
and some kind of celebration that equates spending with love.
I need your help.
I want to slow my world down....
I need Advent, these weeks of reflection....
Help me to feel it in my heart....

  ~Taken from a prayer from Creighton University's Online Ministries