May God grant us eyes to see the beauty that surrounds us, Feet that will stop long enough to take it in, Minds that will revel in its splendor, Hearts that are always willing to share it And all the good gifts given to us. Amen.
2011 was a busy year. Between building a new building, moving in, and then carrying out our mission of knowing and sharing God’s love in new ways within it, there hasn’t been a lot of time for vacation. We managed a couple days with the whole family in our beloved hills of western PA, and then Linda and I managed a couple more days in Maine before officiating at a wedding in Boothbay Harbor.
I’m not complaining; to the contrary, it’s been a very good year. I’ve personally seen God work in ways that I haven’t seen for a very long time, and it has been good for my soul.
My intention was to more or less take this week off. But with a twenty-something retreat to lead (a very special time!), an upcoming annual leadership retreat the first weekend of January to prepare for, a newspaper article to write, and the usual post-Christmas crisis counseling, it has sometimes been less than more.
But that’s OK too. There’s still been plenty of time to relax. I’ve stayed away from the office as much as possible. Other than writing that article, I kept my computer off for most of the time, which in itself is a huge time saver. That in turn has given me time to watch the blue jays eat peanuts, do what is probably the most challenging jigsaw puzzle I’ve ever done, play games with the family, and have good conversations over warm cups of freshly brewed tea.
I only wish this week would last longer. I think this is the fastest a week has ever gone, and I haven’t even started any of my new novels from the library (I think Michael Crichton’s Micro will be first). Ah well, that just gives me one more thing to look forward to in the New Year!
I wondered this year if there would be fewer Christmas letters. It seemed like at least a possibility that if people are better connected through social media like Facebook, Christmas letters would be superfluous.
But no, there seem to be just as many as in years past, and I for one am glad. I still like things we can hang on our real wall, things that provide a constant reminder of the people we love without distracting us from them through constant updates, so many of which are--let's be honest--mundane.
And I think that's what I really like about Christmas letters--they still force us to decide what is really important, what actually matters. Since we can't include everything, like every single song we listened to throughout the whole year, we've go to make hard choices about what we will include. These choices have a way of capturing the essence of a person, which in turn generally reminds me of at least some of why I love them.
Another thing I love is how well written and creative some of letters are. Generally this means they make us laugh, and Linda and I always love anything that makes us laugh. Like this:
"Instead of taking an exotic vacation this year, we took a number of short trips and stay-cations to decrease expenses and increase the variety of family activities and events. This turned out to be an excellent decision since Virginia experienced a moderate earthquake, a small hurricane, and an early snowstorm all in the same year! It was as if we went to California, the Caribbean, and Colorado without having to pay anything extra to fly our overweight selves suitcases. Also, we could always count on having enough traffic to ensure a long car ride independent of the distance."
When we celebrate Christmas, we are not just celebrating some cold historical fact. We don't simply celebrate Christ's birth 2000 years ago - as important as that is - but also that Jesus continues to be born anew in the hearts and lives of peple ever since. The Christmas story is not one that ended "A long time ago in a land far, far away." It's a the story of God's great love for the world, and it’s still going on today.
The Christmas story is the story of how much God wants you to know that you are deeply loved. He wants you to know how precious you are, and how very much you matter to him. He wants you to find the forgiveness, hope, strength and healing that all of us need.
And then he wants us, one and all, take our place in the story, joining with people across the whole wide world and down through all of time in filling this season, our homes, this world, with Love.
He was born in an obscure village The child of a peasant woman He grew up in another obscure village Where he worked in a carpenter shop Until he was thirty
He never wrote a book He never held an office He never went to college He never visited a big city He never travelled more than two hundred miles From the place where he was born He did none of the things Usually associated with greatness He had no credentials but himself
He was only thirty three
His friends ran away One of them denied him He was turned over to his enemies And went through the mockery of a trial He was nailed to a cross between two thieves While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing The only property he had on earth
When he was dead He was laid in a borrowed grave Through the pity of a friend
Nineteen centuries have come and gone Of all the armies that have ever marched All the navies that have ever sailed All the parliaments that have ever sat All the kings that ever reigned put together Have not affected the life of mankind on earth As powerfully as that one solitary life
Who knows how the awareness of God’s love first hits people? ... Some moment happens in your life that makes you say Yes right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen. Laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks. Waking up to the first snow. Being in bed with somebody you love.
Whether you thank God for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you try to turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to Business as Usual, it may lose you the whole ball game. If you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul. ..
“God is a woman and she is growing older. She moves more slowly now. She cannot stand erect. Her face is lined. Her voice is scratchy. Sometimes she has to strain to hear. God is a woman and she is growing older; yet, she remembers everything.”
So begins a sermon by Rabbi Margaret Wenig. She goes on to picture God sitting at her kitchen table, paging through the Book of Memories, and remembering the children she longs for but who no longer have a place for her in their lives.
Adapting that image to my own tradition, I think of God sitting at her kitchen table, reading the Christmas cards we have sent, looking at the pictures of how our kids have grown, and catching up on what we’re up to through the year-end letter.
"'They now can fly faster than the winds I send,’ she says to herself, ‘and they sail across the waters which I gathered into seas. They even visit the moon which I set in the sky. But they rarely visit me….'"
"'Come home,’ she wants to say to us, ‘Come home.’”
Of course, Rabbi Wenig does not intend for this image to be taken literally, any more than we take the image of God as a Rock or Jesus as the Vine literally. God is Spirit; and as such all classical theologies teach he has no form or gender.
No, this image is not meant to be taken literally. It is meant to be evocative; to help us see something of heart of God who never stops loving us, never stops longing for us, and never stops hoping that beyond just sending a card, we’ll actually take the time to come home and visit.