Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Songs of The Season: Good King Wenceslas

Waiting for a bag of food at GLIDE today

 Technically, it's a little early for this carol. Good King Wenceslas tells the story of a king and his page encountering a poor peasant on the feast of St. Stephen (December 26). But it seems a fitting song, given what is unfolding outside my office window.

Today is GLIDE's Grocery Bag giveaway. Thousands of people are waiting in line to get a bag filled with groceries: turkey, potatoes, bread, vegetables, and lots more. Thousands of volunteers are filling bags, handing them out, and helping folks make their way home. It is an amazing day of generosity.

The carol Good King Wenceslas tells a similar story of generosity:

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen,  
when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. 
Brightly shown the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,  
when a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me. If thou know it telling: 
yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?"
 "Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain, 
 right against the forest fence by Saint Agnes fountain."

"Bring me flesh, and bring me wine. Bring me pine logs hither. 
Thou and I will see him dine when we bear the thither."
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together  
through the rude wind's wild lament and the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger.  
Fails my heart, I know not how. I can go no longer." 
"Mark my footsteps my good page, tread thou in them boldly:  
Thou shalt find the winter's rage freeze thy blood less coldly."

In his master's step he trod, where the snow lay dented. 
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.  
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, 
ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing

Wenceslas was an actual person who was eventually sainted by the Catholic Church. A royal member of Bohemia (in part what is now the Czech Republic), Wenceslas was known for his kindness and generosity who was murdered by his brother.

This song tells of Wenceslas' kindness. Upon seeing a poor peasant, he tells his page to gather not only kindling, but also food for the man. The page weakens in the bitter cold, but the king tells him to follow close behind in his footsteps. Sure enough, by staying close to Wenceslas and following in his footsteps, the page finds himself warmed and able to continue on the path to the peasant's abode.

Today, volunteers at GLIDE came face to face with the elderly, with poor families, and with many in need. They followed a path set out before them which warmed them from the inside out, as they offered bags filled with food. 
Bags ready to be given out
There was a joy that was palpable throughout the building. Smiles lit the faces of volunteers, staff, and those awaiting food. Truly, blessings were in great abundance. 

The words of the song came to life today:

Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

Performed by the Roches

Monday, December 17, 2012

Songs of the Season: In the Bleak Midwinter

As the joy of the season has been replaced with the choked cries of grief since the Newtown shootings, I find I have reached for my hymnbook to find songs of the season that won't gloss over the despair and helplessness I am feeling. Is there room in the manger for me, for us, this Christmas?

In the Bleak Midwinter is perhaps the most melancholy of Christmas carols (if you know another, do let me know). It was written by British poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894).  Rossetti's father's physical and emotional health deteriorated when she was barely in her teens, resulting in instability and financial hardship for her family. She herself suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 14 and had to leave school. She battled with depression for the rest of her life. At the age of 42, she was diagnosed with Graves' Disease and later, in 1893, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died a year later.

Rossetti wrote the hymn around 1872, at the request of a magazine. The depiction of a cold world, snow on snow, snow on snow, reflects my mood today. There is a moan in my body longing for escape, an uncharacteristic bleakness to my spirit as I ponder the unspeakable horrors we humans inflict on each other.

Yet into this harsh and violent world, God comes. An infant. Vulnerable. Needy. And in spite of all heaven heralding the baby's arrival, it is his mother, in all her humanness, who cradled him in his arms and offered him what he most needed: love.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden's bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

Oh what can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb?
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part?
Yet what can I give Him, give my heart.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds may move
Earth stood hard as I am, water like the storm
If I were a Wise Man, would I do my part?
Yet what can I give Him, give my heart. 

 Is there room this year for me in the manger? Can I bring my tears as I face this broken world? Can I bring my weariness? Can I bring the fears I can barely utter aloud?

Yes, God comes: not because all is right with the world, but because in spite of all that is wrong, God desires love to prevail. God comes, not because I am prepared and ready to rejoice, but because God knows my need for healing. God comes.

Into the bleakness of my world, God comes. And while it feels as if I am but an empty vessel, there is nothing I have to do, just open my heart and let the healing warmth of God enter in.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Songs of the Season: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

It is still 11 days from Christmas, yet I am drawn to this song on a day filled with unspeakable horror as a man entered a school in Newtown, CT and gunned down more than 2 dozen children, teachers, and administrators. Suddenly, the joy of the season is filled with the weight of grief as the entire nation mourns with the families of Newtown.

While at first glance it would seem as if Christmas is reserved for joy and laughter (after all, we always precede a Christmas greeting with "Merry" and LOL becomes Ho Ho Ho) and have little to offer us as we sit at our desks and TVs weeping this day, it is time for us to tell the whole story of Christmas, the one that is often skipped over. We all love the stories of wise men and shepherds, of the baby Jesus away in a manger on a silent night, holy night. We keep singing louder and louder as if to convince ourselves, of "tidings of comfort and joy." But there is a part of the story that is neither comfortable nor joyous.

It is the slaughter of the innocents.

When Herod hears the murmurs of the people, talking about the birth of the "King of the Jews", he dispatches 3 wise men to find out where this newborn king is, and then get back to him with the news.  We all know about the 3 kings, bearing gifts, having traveled they are in awe of this babe, lying in a manger.

They aren't called wise men for nothing. They know that Herod fears an early coup in the making and wants to know the baby's whereabouts so he can kill him and reserve his status and power.  The wise men decide to take a route home that will allow them to avoid Herod.

Joseph has a dream that warns him of the danger facing his child. Under the cloak of night, Joseph and his family run from Bethlehem into Egypt. So not only was Jesus born homeless, but he also becomes a refugee. The family remain in Egypt for several years until Herod's death.

Herod isn't aware of the Holy Family's escape and, upon learning that the wise men have not kept their promise to return to him with information as to Jesus' whereabouts, orders every male child under the age of 2 to be killed. The Gospel of Matthew uses a passage from the prophet Jeremiah to describe the pain of those whose young sons were murdered:

"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

Tonight, there is weeping and great mourning in Newtown, mothers and fathers weeping for children who are no more.

Tonight, we all are grief-stricken at the loss of innocents, those who, as President Obama said today,
"had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own." We mourn the deaths of those who taught and nurtured these children. We join our tears with those in Newtown.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the song, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Written in 1864, it reflects both societal and personal grief that Longfellow was facing. With a nation gripped by the Civil War, Longfellow knew intimately the grief we are experiencing today, as parents wept for lost sons in the war. He lost his wife in 1861 as the result of a fire in which he was badly scarred himself, having failed at extinguishing the flames that had engulfed her. He was so despondent that a year later he wrote: "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace." As Christmas 1862 approached he wrote: “A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” 

Against Longfellow's wishes, his son Charles enlisted to fight in the war, and was severely wounded and returned home to recover. As 1864 drew to a close, Lincoln was re-elected and it looked like the war might soon be over, Longfellow wrote a poem "Christmas Bells", which became the words to the song.

Unlike many Christmas songs, this one does not shy away from acknowledging that humans do awful things to each other, that we experience much pain and suffering. There is death, weeping and tears. Yet, God does not leave us desolate. The God who came in the form of a baby continues to come into our world to set things right. 

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Songs of the Season: Breath of Heaven

Yesterday I was invited to pray at a holiday meal for the women who are a part of GLIDE's Women's Center. I looked at the faces of the women sitting around the table..women who were survivors of domestic violence, who were struggling with addictions, who were working hard to maintain sobriety, who knew homelessness, who resided on the margin's of society's vision, and my thoughts turned to another woman, long ago, who, although residing on the margins as well, took center stage.

I couldn't help but see Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the women who sat around the table.

Mary knew something about the trials and tribulations these women faced. She became pregnant before marriage and married a carpenter who must not have had a thriving business, because he couldn't buy or find he and his laboring wife a hotel room anywhere. Homeless, she would up giving birth in a barn, amongst the animals, their scent and stench filling the air.

With so much stacked against her, Mary opened herself up to God's possibilities. While she might have "won God's favor", as the scriptures put it, she didn't exactly win the favor of those around her. Folks surely talked, tried to overlook her swelling body and, eventually overlook her altogether.

Yet, this woman wound up birthing into the world something so unusual, so precious and blessed, that the world would never be the same again. Who could have imagined that Mary would bring forth the Savior of the world?

As I looked at these women, I wondered: What possibilities does God hold for them? What is it they are carrying, that the world desperately needs to have be born? What is theirs, and theirs alone to labor over? What hope for us all do they hold?

We are approaching Advent III, which is traditionally known as Mary's Sunday (the candle color even changes, from purple or blue to pink for this third Sunday). "Breath of Heaven" by Amy Grant isn't a congregational song. Yet it is one that I believe resonates within all of us, at one time or another. For we are all asked to carry God's yearning for the world in our lives. It is frightening, overwhelming. Yet, there is something precious within each of us, that yearns to be born. Can we, like Mary, open ourselves up to God's possibilities and bring forth God's blessing for our lives and world?

What are you carrying, that God is asking you to birth into our world?

I have traveled many moonless nights Cold and weary with a babe inside  
And I wonder what I've done Holy Father, You have come  
And chosen me now to carry Your Son
I am waiting in a silent prayer I am frightened by the load I bear 
In a world as cold as stone Must I walk this path alone? 
  Be with me now, be with me now
Breath of Heaven, hold me together Be forever near me, breath of Heaven  
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy  
Breath of Heaven
Do you wonder as you watch my face If a wiser one should have had my place? 
But I offer all I am For the mercy of Your plan  
Help me be strong, help me be, help me
Breath of Heaven, hold me together Be forever near me, breath of Heaven  
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven, hold me together Be forever near me, breath of Heaven 
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy  
Breath of Heaven, breath of Heaven  
Breath of Heaven

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Songs of the Season: The Bells of the Season

I was raised in a church (Babylon United Methodist Church, on Long Island in NY state) that sang Christmas Carols from the first Sunday of Advent up to Epiphany. And we didn't just sing them. We belted them out. We sang every carol as if it were blaring from the radio of a car (except "Silent Night", of course). I think the rumble of the organ and the timbre of the voices of friends have made their way into the very basic parts of my body and soul.

Which is why, once I was seminary-trained, I found it so frustrating to wait on these carols, like we were taught to do in Worship Class. Oh no, Advent was a time of preparation and waiting for the birth of Jesus. Don't rush through it! Keep those Christmas carols for Christmas!

The problem, I soon found, was that there really wasn't a whole lot of music for the weeks preceding Christmas, so I took matters into my own hands.

I wrote my own Advent song.

Sung to a familiar tune (TRURO, LM, often used for "Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates), "Bells of the Season" was written for a four week sermon series I did one Advent when I was pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church in San Francisco. From a young age, bells and Christmas seemed to go together (and I never even watched "It's a Wonderful Life" until just a few years ago).  Bells cause us to pause, to reflect, to listen up. In some communities, bells ring out warning as well as communal celebrations. Bells remind us of how fleeting time is. Bells call us to attention, to stay alert.

What are those bells that call to us
To open up our broken hearts?
Bells that connect, bells that unite
Bells of the season, ring so bright.

What are those bells that call to us
To open hands to those in need?
The bells of justice, God's new day!
Bells of the season, help us pray.

What are those bells that call to us
To dance, to laugh, to embrace life?
The bells of joy, for God's great gift.
Bells of the season will uplift.

What are those bells that call to us
 To praise the Christ whose birth we sing?
The bells of faith, our Savior's come!
Bells of the season, bring us home.

(This hymn can be found in Shaping Sanctuary: Proclaiming God's Grace in an Inclusive Church, ed. by Kelly Turney)

What are those bells that call to you? What are they calling you to?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Songs of the Season: There's a Voice in the Wilderness Crying

In this season of Advent, the words of the prophet Isaiah take center stage, foretelling the birth of Jesus. Isaiah 40 calls out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God"

This call is a warning, perhaps, of how Emmanuel (God-With-Us) will turn our world upside down. Not only did the savior's entrance take everyone by surprise by coming to us as a child, but then, as the child grew to adulthood, he continued to shake up social norms: the outcasts were the ones who God favored, the last shall be first, and the chains of oppression shall be broken.

James Lewis Milligan wrote the hymn "There's a Voice in the Wilderness Crying" at the creation of The United Church of Canada, when the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches united in 1925 (and yes, I do find a bit of humor in the fact that this song, using text about wilderness, was written for the establishment of a church in a country that has lots of wild places).

There’s a voice in the wilderness crying,
a call from the ways untrod:
prepare in the desert a highway,
a highway for our God!
The valleys shall be exalted,
the lofty hills brought low;
make straight all the crooked places,
where the Lord our God may go!
O Zion, give voice to good tidings,
ascend to the heights and sing!
Proclaim to a desolate people
the coming of their King.
The works of pride all perish,
like flowers they shall decay;
the power and pomp of nations
shall pass like a dream away.

This song calls me, in this season of Advent, for the coming of the one is not only radicalizing the world, but also my life, inviting me to enter into a holy time of preparation. God comes into our world and lives in surprising, unexpected ways. Am I ready? Am I ready to experience the power of love, liberation, release, and joy that God offers? 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Songs of the Season: Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

Today was the first Sunday of Advent, and in homes and churches around the world, the first candle of the Advent wreath was lit as a way to mark our journey to Christmas. This is a season of waiting and preparation, as we live expectantly into the hope of Jesus' coming.

"Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" is an Advent hymn written by Charles Wesley. Charles Wesley (1708-1788) was a hymn writer of epic proportions. Charles was the brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. In many ways, the spread of Methodism can be credited in part to Charles, whose lyrics imparted Methodist understandings of God's love and grace and the way of salvation.

"Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus" was written in 1744 and included in a tract of his hymns called Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord.

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.

I find this a very comforting hymn. In Christ lies our liberation. Yet, the one who liberates is not a mighty warrior-king but a child who dwells in our hearts, offering our souls a blessed rest.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Songs of the Season: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

While technically we will be starting the season of Advent tomorrow, and aren’t really in the Christmas season yet,  I can’t help but cue my iPod to my Christmas playlist. Christmas songs tend to capture as a photograph my memories, feelings, and experiences. So each day this year, I will be reflecting on a song of the season.

Advent comes from the Latin word adventus which means “coming”. Beginning four Sundays before Christmas, Advent is a time to prepare as we wait for the coming of Christ which we celebrate on Christmas.  

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is perhaps the chart topper for the Advent hit list. This familiar song is several centuries old. The chorus (“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel”) is an antiphon from the 8th century. The rest of the lyrics were written around the 12th century. They were translated into English in the mid-19th century:

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.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The word Emmanuel means “God with us”. This hymn is rooted in biblical passages of anticipation of a Savior (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23).  Each verse reflects various names used to refer to the Savior. Throughout the song, there is reference to the weight of oppression and human misery and the anticipated arrival of a Savior, a God who is with us, providing hope and liberation.

When I sing this song during Advent, I, too, await with anticipation the birth of love and liberation in our world once again. I join my voice with those across time and space who have sung this song with the assurance that God loves us enough to become one of us. 

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel