Carols, Camels, & Clay

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“We Three Kings,” one of the few American carols, is…well…off base. At least portions of it. First, the magi were star students—either astrologers or astronomers or some combination—not kings. Also, there’s no evidence they were three. Why do we picture that number? Probably because the wise men brought three gifts. Also, while we’re debunking myths, they didn’t come to the stable, as we often see depicted. Their journey took months, possibly even over a year, so they came to Jesus’ house. That’s why we celebrate Epiphany after Christmas—to give the magi time to arrive.

So why do I love “We Three Kings?” First, there’s the tune: mournful yet engaging, brooding yet hopeful. I love the way the tune plods upward as we sing: “field and fountain, moor and mountain,” then dances over “following yonder star.”

Second, the lyrics prophecy Jesus’ full mission: birth, ministry, death, and glorification. And they do so with such artistry:

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in a stone-cold tomb,

and

Frankincense to offer have I/incense owns a deity nigh

and, of course,

Star of wonder, star of night/Star with royal beauty bright

Profound. And beautiful.

The carol’s epic scope is appropriate for Epiphany: the culmination of the Twelve Days of Christmas. After all, with the magi’s visit, the Good News went global.

One last reason I love this carol: in the late ‘80s, when Claymation animation was hot, the song was featured in A Claymation Christmas. The “three kings” lead off with the stanzas, then the tune rocks out as the camels take over. That’s right. Camels sporting bowties, awesome footwear, and even a fez. And these dromedaries can sing. You should check it out; it’s life changing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnIFTtW1pko

A happy 2017 to you all. May God gift you will all you need to be all you can be.

Hark! It’s Wesley, Mendelssohn, Paul, & the Peanuts Gang!

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It’s become a family tradition. We tilt our heads back, haul in a breath, and, with gusto, sing “loo loo loo, loo-loo, loo loo…” The iconic scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas lifts our smiles and our “loos” each holiday season. Even without the words, Felix Mendelssohn’s tune is recognizable: “Hark the Herald Angels.”  Mendelssohn, a gifted German composer who died too young, crafted a tune accessible to sing, as well. Every note works its magic within the treble or bass’ five bars: a range reachable for all. We’re not sure why Snoopy and crew had to assume that awkward head angle to produce the tune, but it’s their self-expression and who are we to judge?

I will confess that, as a child, the carol gave me visions of an angel named Harold who sported beard stubble and held a half-smoked cigar. A unique view of the angelic presence. And, yep, I was a weird kid. Charles Wesley, lyricist of the song and the most prolific hymn writer of all time, obviously had a different image in mind. Charles, a Latin scholar and Oxford graduate, is credited along with his brother, John, with founding Methodism. Charles also owned a poet’s heart, as we find in today’s carol:

Joyful all ye nations rise/Join the triumph of the skies.

“Hark the Herald Angels’” lyrics echo the poetic message of Philippians 2: 5-11 incarnation poem. Here’s a bit of St. Paul’s poem:

Christ Jesus,

 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

 

Paul’s message and Charles’? That Christ reduced Himself to human form: not to take advantage, not to punish, but to show us the face of God and to draw us Godward.

Light and life to all he brings/risen with healing in his wings.

Healing. Hope. Life.

Wow. That is good news.

We’re invited, via Mendelssohn’s melody and Wesley’s poetry, to lift our heads and voices in good-news song. Perhaps this is what Charles Schultz had in mind with his Peanuts animation.

So, are you ready? It’s not too late—we’re still in the Twelve Days of Christmas. Heads back, voices raised, now—give it all you’ve got! Here’s some inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP37k831y9U.

 

The First Noel

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No well, no well, no well, no well—

We have no water, ‘cause we have no well.

 

I confess this was a favorite childhood rendering of the traditional carol. But I loved “The First Noel” for other than its pun potential. The song’s melody moved along the scale with graceful assurance, coaxing my childhood voice along. The carol’s lyrics captured my imagination: “…a cold winter’s night that was so deep.” I saw the deep blues and purples of a star-drenched heaven, heard the intermittent bleating of sheep, felt the night air’s sharp chill. Beautiful. The alchemy of melody and lyric rendered a holy mystery that, to this day, awakens my yearning for the now and not yet.

In my teens, I learned to appreciate the song’s tenor line, especially the fourth “noel” of the chorus, in which the notes soar above the uppermost score and send voices into flight. Gave me chills. I heard a soprano take that flight an octave higher and, gaining courage, tried the run myself. Wow! “The First Noel” deepened my appreciation for four-part harmony and prodded me to take creative risks. A life-long gift.

Plus, I felt for the shepherds: stuck out on a hillside in the dead of night, prying their eyes open against insistent sleep, keeping those weary eyes peeled for predators or for hapless, wandering sheep.

Then, into that deep quiet blasts a nuclear-explosion of light. The deep dark sky burns with brilliant light. A voice—but so much more than a human voice—speaks words these regular joes can scarcely take in. Now, row upon row, battalion upon battalion of blinding beings join in, giving praise to God.

How does angel voice sound to the human ear? How does a host of such voices resonate against its bones and blood? No wonder the shepherds were sore afraid. Nothing in their experience had prepared them from such a message delivered by such messengers. Yet, instead of trotting off to the nearest pub, instead of agreeing, “let’s just keep this between us, okay, guys?” the shepherds went. They sought out the child, offered up their honest, awkward homage, and then buttonholed the townfolk to share the news. The shepherds probably got a lot of weird looks.

I’ve learned, since childhood, that Jesus was probably born in spring, when shepherds were more likely to take their flocks into the hills, and that scripture describes the angels as saying, rather than singing, their message, as so many carols depict. Okay. Not a cold winter’s night, but a deep one. And I’ve no idea how the angel message sounded to the shepherds’ ears. What I do know from the carol and from the scriptures it celebrates in song, is that God sees big. Bigger than our social systems. For God messaged blue-collar shepherds and foreign dignitaries with good tidings of great joy for all people: “a Savior has been to born to you.”

All of you. Each of you.  It’s enough to make anyone sing!

Sweet Little Jesus Boy

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I can’t recall when, in my childhood, I first heard the spiritual. It’s one of those memories so early and formative, it knits itself into your bones. Since then, I’ve heard “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” sung by church choirs and perfectly inflected by opera stars. The spiritual is a prayer offered to both the baby and the grown, murdered, and resurrected Jesus. It speaks to Him of poverty, of cruelty, and of spiritual blindness.

Sweet little Jesus boy, they made you be born in a manger.

That we would relegate a birthing mother to a cattle cave is bad enough.

We didn’t know who you were.

That we didn’t see the abhorrence of our act, unfathomable. Yet that’s what happened. And to what “Jesus Boy’s” creators could relate. Not to be seen. Not to be treated as God’s children.

Didn’t know you’d come to save us all
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind we did not see
We didn’t know who You were

“Jesus Boy’s” creators knew what it meant to be made invisible, to be treated as “less than.”

The world treat you mean, Lord.

Treat me mean, too…

Felt the pain of cruelty in their bones. Yet…

Just seems like we can’t do right
Look how we treated you
But please, Sir, forgive us Lord
We didn’t know it was you.

They don’t choose to see themselves simply as victims. Owning their part in the need for Jesus’ coming, they ask forgiveness. Asking for anything requires courage, because asking makes us vulnerable. Asking forgiveness takes extraordinary courage, because that kind of asking also requires humility.

You done showed us how you been tryin’

Master, you don’t showed us how,

Even as you were dyin’.

 

Faithful unto death. Can I do that? I don’t know. The song’s creators didn’t, couldn’t know. But, in Jesus, they saw a courage for which they longed. In the Little Jesus Boy, Murdered Man, Resurrected God they found hope.

For me, the song best finds its truth when sung by a single voice. One that’s known some tears.

Check out this rendering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5_w2XpG7DI

Filthy Rags & Faithful Treks

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Growing up, each Wednesday night and three times on Sunday, I got told I was a sinner. More than that, even my “righteous acts were as filthy rags” to God. I got the distinct impression my preachers and teachers thought Jesus erred in judgment when He came to save me.

For a sensitive child leaning hard toward perfectionism, the words were toxic. Shame soaked my soul; to this day I battle its dreary chill.

Recently, I heard a Ted Talk speaker share results of her research on human connection. Shame, she discovered, disconnects us from relationships: well-connected persons believe they deserve love. That’s a profoundly different message from the filthy rags exhortation.

“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”                            

Joyful? Triumphant? Could God really want that for me? If so, where does such joy abide? Over what might I triumph?

“O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

Dame Julian of Norwich described sinning as falling in a ditch, the benevolent Christ reaching down a hand to draw us out. What a compassionate image of sin—who would not adore such a Lord?

That’s the joyful journey: to live Godward, to adore Christ. I can do that. I want to do that. Sure, I’m going to foul it up; I’m going to sin. But that’s not the big story. For Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

“O Come, All Ye Faithful” depicts faith as a journey to seek and then to adore the Christ child. Along the way, there will ditches to fall into, brambles and ambles to divert and distract. But as long as I get back up, or turn around, or clear away the rubble, God is waiting with a hand to help me up. Not to slap my face.

As an adult, I wonder and I worry about the motives of my early teachers: did they truly want me to struggle with self-loathing all my life? Or were they, too, soaked in shame? If so, I hope they, too, discovered Jesus’ gift: life to the full. Because, wow, that’s cause for joy and adoration.

Prayer: Jesus, it’s a confusing journey down here. I’ll sin. Lose my way. Forget my first love. When I fall in a ditch, reach out Your hand; I will gratefully grasp it. And adore You. Amen.

Hard Times & A Holy Night

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Our car, affectionately dubbed “The Dude” after our nonprofit’s icon, has quite a story. An enraged woman keyed its driver’s side, stem to stern. For months I drove the car, sickened by the violence pressed into it, praying for direction. I didn’t want to hide the scar—I wanted to transform it. In the end, the gash became part of a living tree from which dudes, created and named by our spacious folks, blossomed. I even took the art up onto the car’s roof, painting a dude cloud formation. More spacious folks joined the fun, creating personalized dudes to sail among those clouds.

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“The Dude” has been, for years, integral to our nonprofit’s ministry: trunk crammed full of supplies to inspire creative expression; wheels traversing the miles from our place to the places we serve; interior transporting children, safely buckled, to clubs and camps.

I got rear-ended last week. And, due to The Dude’s advanced years, he’s history. Just like that.

For me, the wreck and the unexpected costs it incurred just piled onto months and months of hardship and loss.

Too much.

And right at the beginning of Advent.

 

I share this story, because, sooner or later, we all get piled on. Overwhelmed by hard times and their attendant emotions, we cry with the psalmist, “How long?”

For me, faith isn’t reconstructing reality to match a smaltzy Christmas movie (but don’t we love those?). Faith is choosing God no matter what life throws my way. Driving around in a rental, a snatch of the carol, “O Holy Night,” struck me: “…till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Those lyrics describe what Advent anticipates. They also reminded me why we do what we do at A Spacious Place: through creative expression, we help souls know their worth.

A Spacious Place moves forward with deep gratitude to The Dude. I won’t paint our new car—at least not at first. There needs to be a reason. But she—I’ve a feeling this one’s a dame—needs to be blessed. In this season of hope and expectancy, will you join me in blessing The Dame with best hopes for her years of service?

Whatever life is for you this holiday season—Wondrous, Even-Keeled, or Hard Timed—I hope you will come to know your soul’s worth.

 

Thank you for your service, Dude. We love you and we’ll miss you. So much.

Carol Lovin’

carols-smallChristmas Carols are, in some theological circles, frowned upon. Considered musica non grata, if you will (my apologies to Latin speakers everywhere). But this God geek loves carols. Loves them. In carols, the joy, the wonder, the hope of the season finds voice.

During Advent (which starts today) and through the Twelve Days of Christmas, which end on Epiphany, I’ll share my ponderings on some carols. I promise at least one posting a week, and I hope to hear your carol thoughts as well. Just no carol hating, okay?

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel…

 

Emmanuel: “God with us.”

As a Christian, I believe the long-anticipated Emmanuel became flesh in the person of Jesus. A Messianic child born into poverty, Jesus walked our earth, showing us the face and the heart of God. Still, I find myself still seeking an Emmanuel for right now.

Specifically, I yearn for an Emmanuel to save our nation: someone to embody God qualities our beleaguered country needs.

I look to our history: With artistry and hope that resonated God power, Thomas Jefferson inscribed the vision of a new nation onto parchment. Abraham Lincoln risked all to unify a deeply divided nation: his rectitude demonstrating each human’s God-given potential. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with eloquence in both word and deed, challenged us to live into Jefferson’s words, “All men are created equal.” King knew full well what his stand would cost him, and it did. That’s God courage.

We need that kind of leadership today. Right now. I’d hoped for it. Prayed for it. But leaders like that come rarely, and I am left with my prayers hanging in empty space. Or so I feel.

But it occurs to me that when we our leaders do not embody the God qualities our nation needs, we are called upon to cultivate those characteristics in ourselves. We become what we hoped for in another. And, in the pages of my Bible, I have the ultimate mentor: an Emmanuel for all times, including this one.  Jesus.

I ached for a leader I could watch on today’s news. Instead I am challenged by a timeless text: the life, the death, and words of Jesus.

And I find that I need more courage than I currently possess.

Prayer: O Come, Emmanuel. Give us courage to live into Your best hopes for us— and for our nation. Amen.

Clown Fear

Follow the Clown

Well, I’m distraught. What’s with this rash of scary clowns? Below, I offer my reason for creating a book series that features a holy clown.

A clown as a God figure? Seems like an iffy choice, right? As one book reviewer put it, “My only thing is a personal one….I find clowns to be very creepy, so I was not really thrilled that this is the way she chooses for God to present Himself to the characters.” I get it: I find snakes creepy myself. In fact, I created a snake art piece in an effort to face down my revulsion! But I digress. The reviewer makes a good point, and since I’ve chosen to write a whole series with a clown God figure, I’d better explain myself.

First, let’s give clowns their props. After all, they’ve been around in one form or another since ancient times. We have evidence of clowns in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and among the Aztecs. In the Middle Ages, court jesters carried scepters and wore tri-pointed, belled hats. Clowns figured as key characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Plus, we have the French Pierrot and the Italian Pantaloon; we have Whiteface, Auguste, and Character clowns made popular by the English & American circuses. And did you know that each clown’s face is her or his property and is not to be copied?

But here’s the thing about clowns: we don’t know what’s going on behind all that greasepaint. Sure, they look jolly on the surface, but that’s painted on; who knows what’s beneath? Could be outright diabolical. What’s hidden tends to unnerve us. And there’s another thing about clowns: they’re supposed to be innocent, much like dollies and puppies and little kids. Folks working in the horror genre have discovered a market in transforming that which we expect to be harmless and innocent into personifications of evil. Nothing sends the heart racing like being ambushed by what you never expected to have the capacity to do harm. Hence, films and books and video games about evil dolls, evil kids, evil clowns. I don’t know of any evil puppy stories, but it’s my idea, so back off. Point is, casting clowns as instruments of evil twists & perverts a clown’s true purpose: to delight us and to speak truth.

In contrast, hiddenness is right in line with a clown’s true nature. Behind the greasepaint, the wig or hat, and the huge, distracting clothing, we really can’t see much of the clown’s self. We have to wonder what his motivation is, what is she really thinking? Well, if we’ve spent any time in relationship with God, if we’ve walked around in the world very much, we are moved to wonder at times what God is up to as well. If your life thus far hasn’t brought up some question about God’s goodness and love, just give it time. That might not sound encouraging, but there it is. Sooner or later we discover that God is in many ways confusing, that God is hidden, that faith is WORK. Sooner or later we choose whether or not to give God the benefit of the doubt. Because we can’t see it all. At least, not yet.

Here’s a third thing about clowns: They’re foolish. It’s a bit iffy to portray God as foolish, right? Well, let’s take a look at that. The medieval court jester’s antics amused crowds at regal gatherings. But the jester had a second vocation: he alone was allowed to speak truth to the king without fear of reprisal. I think the art of stand-up comedy, at least when that comedy speaks hard truths, descends from the vocation of the medieval court jester. Painful truths go down easier with a spoonful of humor.

Plus, what do clowns do? Make fools of themselves. Literally. Whether they’ve cavorting around the ring in enormous pants, being chased by a bull, or throwing a bucketful of confetti into the crowd, they’re just unabashedly goofy. Right out in the open. In them we see ourselves: not the “put-together” image we present to the world, but our whole selves, complete with our inadequacies, our awkwardness, our confusion, our doubts. And we find, smiling at the clown’s bumbling, that those very things can be endearing, even loveable. Clowns invite us to love the whole of ourselves, even the stuff we hide beneath our greasepaint.

And clowns make magic. With their over-the-top wardrobes and wild antics, they delight and entrance. Clowns transport us to a place in which we are free enough to laugh aloud in delight rather than in derision. And, despite her costumed and grease-painted hiddenness, we know that the magicked world the clown creates is the one for which we yearn, because the clown’s world is more powerfully real than any status-quo security. In this world of deepest magic, we can be, at last, who we really are. And so we follow the clown, grease paint and all.

Which brings me to the Clown of my books. Following a Clown—that’s really foolish, right? At least to those who see that Clown as a mere buffoon. And yet there’s an unseen wisdom to our followship, because we are choosing to live in a joy-filled reality that erupts from time to time into the bland status quo, and we can be part of making that happen. To live for anything less is, well, just foolish.

So I hope my readers will see that “creepy” is not in a clown’s true nature, that clowns serve as holy metaphors, because their outward goofiness opens us to an earth-shattering wisdom hidden beneath the greasepaint—that we are loved just as we are, and that God intends to delight us, and to delight in us, for eternity.

 

 

Votes & Hopes

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Voting as a spiritual practice? Well…yes! A spiritual practice is an act intended to strengthen our relationship with God. If our vote expresses our lived faith, then yes. It’s a spiritual practice.

This year our faith vote is crucial. Before we enter the voting booth, let’s consider the purpose of a vote and how our vote reflects our values.

  • A vote is an act of hope: Jesus taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our vote can help answer our own prayer; we can move our world—the world we leave to our children and grandchildren—Godward. We help create the world of God’s best hopes.
  • A vote is an act of awareness: We vote open-eyed: aware of the hard realities of greed, abuse, and hatred; aware also of more prevalent acts of generosity, inclusiveness, creativity, and love.
  • A vote is an act of global connection: Today’s connected world makes isolationism obsolete. A strong vote creates positive connections between ourselves and others in the world community.
  • A vote is an informed act: From a diversity of sources, we learn what we can about issues and candidates so our vote is thoughtful, reasoned, and hopeful.
  • A vote is an act of faith: Fear is a powerful, sometimes needed, force. But a spiritual-practice vote is one of faith, not fear. Of inclusion, not exclusion.

We cast a vote: what a strong verb! While we may simply pushing buttons to register our vote, the impact is both phenomenal and enduring. So let’s go out there and rock our faith vote.

A Mother’s Day Beyond the Plastics

Small Justices

A local radio announcer—a male radio announcer—is touting a unique Mother’s Day gift. Since birthing and raising children ruined Mom’s body, treat her to some Mother’s Day plastic surgery!

All other issues aside—and there are many—I’d like to be a fly on the wall when this particular gift is opened.

Mother to Child:  “So you’re saying your birth makes me look fat?”

Father to Child: “Just look what you’ve done to your poor mother. But, at least you’re trying to fix it.”

Child to Father: “How come you got off so easy? And what excuse do you have for that gut?”

Daughter to Self: “Motherhood = stretch marks and baggy breasts. I’m never reproducing.”

Sounds like a delightful family bonding time. Happy Mother’s Day, everyone! Hope we’ll be speaking to one another by the next one!

Thankfully, the commercial brought fury fire to my daughters’ eyes. You go, girls! Don’t let the Man take you down!

Still, the hawking of Mother’s Day plastic did put me in mind of mothers I find beautiful. These moms live in a country that speaks another language. It limits their work options: usually to service jobs. The pay’s small, but it’s honest work and they take strong pride in what they do. Many raise their children alone—some because they chose single-parenting over violence. They love their children enough to insist their offspring treat themselves and others with respect. In so doing, these moms break a cycle of violence in their growing sons. These boys respect their strong mothers.

These beautiful mothers celebrate their children’s present—birthdays are a big deal—and their futures—school and study and really big deals. The moms pray for, hope for, love their children. And, yes, they seek to look their best. Clothes are clean and neat; hair is styled; smiles at the ready.

They’re not saints; they’re fully human women who, like me, make mistakes and learn from them. They won’t be accessing the services Mr. Radio touts. But they don’t need plastic.

These moms walk in beauty.

And it’s not just skin deep.