Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Smell of a Stable

These quotes from the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez further inform my experience of our Advent creche at church this year.

"The need to keep awake translates into listening to the clamor for liberation, supporting and empowering our peoples' deepest hopes. Waiting for the Lord does not bring us out of history; it involves us with it since we are hoping for the God who has come and is in our midst. Such a hope is ambitious but it is worthwhile."

"Christmas is a celebration of joy and hope. However, we have to admit that it is not always easy to experience this in today's world. Overwhelmed by the ever-increasing poverty of so many men and women, our shouts of joy at the birth of the Lord seem to choke up in our throats. For many people, bewildered by the difficulty of finding a solution to this predicament, discouragement destroys the energy needed to face this situation.

"Yet the presence of the Lord in our history is a permanent call to return to the sources of our faith. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, surrounded by shepherds and animals. His parents had come to a stable because they had not found a place in the inn. There, in marginality, the Son of God entered history, the Word became flesh. . . .

"During this period of Christmas, people often say that Jesus is born in every family and every Christian heart. But these 'births' must not bypass the primary and undeniable reality: Jesus was born of Mary in the midst of a people dominated at the time by the greatest empire of those days. If we forget this, Jesus' coming into the world can become an abstraction. For Christians, Christmas manifests God's irruption into human history--a Christmas of lowliness and of service in the midst of the power of domination and the predominance of the powerful in this world, an irruption with the smell of a stable.

"God is revealed in Jesus Christ, in him 'the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all' (Ti 2:11). We have to learn to believe from the point of departure of our present historical situation: in the midst of the constant detrioration of the conditions of life of a poor and excluded people, the lack of work and opportunities for so many, the lies and manipulations of the powerful to place a smoke screen over their unjust privileges. From the first Christmas on, we cannot separate Christian faith from human history."

Gustavo Gutierrez in "Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year." (Orbis Books, 1997)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Advent 2005

I've been wanting to write about what we're doing at church this year for Advent. I think I'm finally ready to do that now.

Inspired by a worshipping experience one of our newer members had at Christmas time in Minneapolis some years ago, our worship team worked around the question of recontextualizing the manger scene for contemporary circumstances. We wanted to face the question of where would the Christ child be born today. It feels like a particularly pressing question this Advent, as we come off a year in which the world faced a tsunami, devastating hurricanes, and earthquakes. A year in which the U.S. was faced with our own staggering poverty and systemic inequity that results in the abandonment of the poor, the elderly, children, and racial minorities. If the Christ child were to be born today, we concluded, it would be into one of these scenes of need and devastation.

We talked about the way the manger scene has been romanticized and sanitized--it's a cozy barn, with gentle animals and a warm trough that serves appropriately as a tiny cradle. We have lost the edge of the story--that God-Incarnate was born with nothing. God-Incarnate was born to the poor, not in a wealthy palace, not to Herod, not to the powerful.

So Saturday, for the "Hanging of the Greens," we created our creche scene in response to these reflections. The results are quite moving to me--and I'm sorry I don't have pictures yet to post and show you. (Pictures are now added here.)

We covered the baptistery at the front of the chancel, then built a roof frame out of two-by-fours that come off the wall above the baptistery at unsettling angles. We covered this frame with blue tarps, to create a make-shift roof. We laid a dirty brown ground cloth over the edge of the baptistry and down along the floor of the chancel in front of it. Then we lay out two sleeping bags. We had some chunks of an old brick wall, with morter still visible, and some cinderblocks and we set these along some back edges. We also brought in an old shopping cart that had been abandoned (well away from any grocery store). We tossed some paperbags full of empty cans and a blanket or two in there and set that in the space as well. Someone found an empty glass milk bottle. They put some ugly plastic flowers in that and added that to the scene. We brought in a bucket of dry, brown leaves and scattered them around the scene and on top of the roof.

Coming out of the chancel and into the sanctuary, we hung some old, salvaged, double-hung windows--extending the scene in the front out to the sanctuary itself. We covered some of those windows with newspapers as is common in empty or abandoned buildings. I used want-ads, real estate announcements (obscene house prices listed), and recent headlines to line the windows.

I also spray painted large pieces of plywood with flourescent orange paint. One with the words "Save Us" another with "Need Water" and a smaller one with the word "Help."

We also hung a dark blue banner with scattered mirrors upon it, some of them (broken fragments) formed into a large star that hangs over the scene. It is, in some sense, the only beautiful element in the scene.

Oh, and the Advent Wreath? This is front and center for the whole scene. We constructed it out of an empty, thirty(?) gallon oil drum set on top of some newspaper. We placed a round, metal tray over it and set out the four Advent candles around that. In the center, we turned over an empty, (label-removed) stew can. We placed tea lights around and on top of the stew can, to create the effect of a fire coming out of the barrel, as you'll often see folks warming themselves around. These tea lights remained lit during the service. On Christmas Eve we'll replace the tea lights on top of the stew can with the tall Christ candle.

The effect, with all of this together, in a worship space that is usually transformed into something serene and inviting at Christmas time, was astounding to me. After it was complete, I wanted to simply sit there and take it in. For me, this is the very reality that the Word-Incarnate has something to say to.

I was very nervous about the reception of this scene by the congregation. I worry that some folks will think we did it only for the shock value. And yet, I don't think that is true at all. Honestly, I couldn't get a read on the congregation. From my perspective, there was a sort of roaring silence about it all. But other folks asked people directly about how they felt about it and they seemed to be taking it in stride. Is this a good thing?

For my own worshipping experience, I decided to pray with my eyes open through the whole service. I felt as though I was being asked, in this Advent season, to keep my eyes open to God's world, the world God loves.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Day After

Yesterday was a full and wonderful day, a great success.

The fun really started on Wednesday, though, when we enjoyed a visit from some good friends from P. It's always great to see folks out here that we've known for more than two years. Although I think we've made some good friends in this area, there is something very different about getting to spend time with people who have known you for a long time. E especially has been friends with M since the two of them were about a year old. They are remarkably similar--both have always been articulate from a very young age. When they are together, they just seem to "get" each other. They have one of those friendships that seems to pick up wherever they left off. Unusual for their age.

Matt introduced us to the music of Sister Gertrude Morgan while he was here. In fact, he and D walked over to T. Ave to one of the record stores there and bought her album. She's a force to be reckoned with! Sister Gertrude died about twenty-five years ago while in her eighties, I believe. This recording, "Let's Make a Record," features her powerful voice accompanied only by her tambourine. She sings evangelical songs, most of them spontaneously written and a couple old familiar tunes like "Take My Hand, Lead Me On." My favorite tracks are "Power" and "I Am the Living Bread." Honestly, her singing reminds me of Janis Joplin--soulful, raspy, raw. Check her out here: Sister Gertrude Morgan.

With the visit from our friends, though, I wasn't able to get much of a headstart on my preparations for the Thanksgiving meal. So that made yesterday quite a full and busy day.

I did make the three pies as I'd hoped. Because I'm always nervous about making a good crust, I actually bought the pillsbury pie crusts as a backup plan in case anything went wrong! This was just a way to take the pressure off myself in case everything fell apart on me. :)

I wasn't able to get pie cherries for the cherry pie, but did have some frozen bing cherries. I made a crust with shortening for that one and it turned out, well, excellent if I do say so myself. The deep-dish apple was quite tasty with the cheddar crust. For the pumpkin pie I compromised because of time and made it with one of the premade crusts which are basically tasteless. The pumpkin part of it, which I can take some credit for, was yummy. I made a brandy sauce to serve over the pumpkin pie, but that was a bit of a disappointment.

Oh! And I served the Benziger Muscat Canelli (2004) that my brother gave us after his visit this past August. It was a fabulous, delicately sweet dessert wine. I'd been saving it for just the right occasion, and last night really seemed to be it. Excellent.

We had nine total for the meal. All but one of us were together beginning at 1:00 when the Denver-Dallas game started. (We had one Dallas fan in our midst. Blech.) We also played the game Apples-to-Apples, a really fun, basically non-competitive word game.

Just before meal time, we welcomed the last person to arrive. This was a woman I had never met before, but invited because a friend told us she had no where to go. Turns out she is an international student from India who knows a couple of my former professors! She spoke especially fondly of B who spent a sabbatical semester in India teaching at the UTC (I think) when she was a teenager. What a small world! Very cool.

Folks finally straggled out at about 9:30. D cleaned up for awhile, then we settled in and watched The Human Stain, a riveting and well-crafted film with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, based on a Philip Roth novel.

Well, guess that's about all you can stand to hear about now. I need to get some lunch going. Not having made the turkey, we only have leftovers of the sides. :) Oh well, no turkey sandwiches for lunch.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Preparing for the Feast

I'm starting to get excited about our Thanksgiving feast tomorrow! This morning I've been making my grocery list for my contributions to the meal. I'm most excited about the pies. I think I'll make three: pumpkin, deep-dish apple, and cherry. I've gotten out my Mommom's pie pan for the pumpkin pie, I think. Using her pan will surely impart good karma to my pie-baking endeavors. I'll use the beautiful blue pie pan my brother gave me some years back for the cherry pie. And I think I may use a casserole dish for the apple. A deep-dish pie, I learned this morning, is baked only with a top crust--no bottom. The recipe won me over for giving it a try, though. There's cheddar cheese in the crust (yum!), and raisins and brandy in the filling (in addition to other tasty ingredients). I'll just be using Joy of Cooking recipes for my pies. Of course this doesn't have the same romance as using an old family recipe. Alas. But I've made Joy of Cooking pie recipes before to much satisfaction, especially for some great blueberry pies. Hmmm. I do have blueberries from this summer still...

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Venturing into the Great Unknown

I screwed up my courage this afternoon and dragged myself into the University library. D says this is such a strange thing for me to be afraid of--I usually love anything to do with books! But this place is so intimidating to me. I get awfully disoriented in there. And it all seems terribly IMPORTANT. :) I'm so much more comfortable in my little seminary library. That's on a manageable scale. The University's library is, well, too much of a good thing.

But I could put it off no longer. So today I went in, renewed my card, got my little map of the library's layout, and ventured into the recesses. Recesses is the right word for it, too. One of the reasons the place is so disorienting to me is that it's built down into the ground, not up like normal buildings. And to go down, you have to descend a huge spiral staircase. Today, as I wound myself around, desperately clinging to my little map, I felt like I was being spun 'round for a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey! Only I was the one feeling like the ass. :)

Comps proposal? Nah. Nothin' to it. Big Unknown Library? Terrifying.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Finding Treasures

Well, we thoroughly enjoyed the movie on Saturday. It was great to see it all together, now that all three of us have read the books. I do agree with the PG-13 rating, but I didn't feel as though it was nearly as violent or intense as the last Star Wars movie. We took E to that because he'd been so into the Star Wars films for a long time, but it was too much. He was shaken up by it at the end, (understandably so!) and I felt awful for that. Maybe by the time we get to the end of the HP movies, they will be equally as dark. Of course, E will be old enough to handle it then . . .

Today I was finally able to take the break I've been needing. I wrote up the interview from Friday afternoon and sent that off to the church. And I made those few changes to my comp proposal and sent that to my advisor for one final check before submitting it to the dean's office. Then I closed things up and took the rest of the day off. So wonderful.

We walked down the block for lunch. Got a great green curry with tofu from the Thai place. They have the most delicious red rice. Have you ever heard of that? I need to find out about it.

Things are gearing up for Thanksgiving. We're co-hosting with some new friends who moved into our building this year. L wants to cook her first turkey. I'll contribute my sister's-in-law famous blue cheese cole slaw and mashed potatoes for dinner and pies for dessert. So far there will only be seven of us. We'll have the first half of the party down here, watch the football game and play board games. Then head upstairs for the feast. I'm getting excited about it.

I went through a time, for a number of years, when I hated holidays. Seemed like forced frivolity to me. Now, I feel like I get it. I think we need the rhythm of feast days built into life. I think I finally started to get it as I learned about the liturgical year. Yes, I do love feast days now.

Oh! I trash-picked another chair today! :) I completely fell in love with it. It's quite unusual. It has claw feet, wrapped around glass balls. Then the seat is like an old piano stool, that rotates so its height can be adjusted. But this one has a back to it, too. The chair is really not in bad shape. Although, I think it does need to be refinished. I started to walk away from it, saying glumly, "Gosh, I wish I knew how to refinish furniture." Doug jokingly said, "I'm sure you could learn how in your free time." But as I walked along, I thought about how I taught myself to knit last January and I figured, "Why not?!" So we walked back down the block and put the chair in the trunk of the car. Surely I can teach myself how to refinish it . . .

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Harry Potter Day

Yesterday was every bit as busy as I thought it would be. I came home around five and completely crashed. Then this morning got to sleep in until 8:40 -- which is an unbelievable luxury!

Today is the day we've promised to take E to see the new Harry Potter movie (even though it's PG-13). We're gonna walk downtown around 11:30 and get brunch at Mel's first. Then see the movie in one of the theaters nearby. The screens are small at our downtown theaters, but I am very smitten with the romance of walking to the theater. And it's good to support the smaller theaters, rather than the huge megaplexes.

It was quite an experience to interview the woman from our church yesterday who is about to turn 100. I was astounded the first moment I saw her. Sue looks like she's about 80 years old, if that. She walked down the hallway to greet me. She had me stand close so she could get a good look at me, explaining "I have macular, you know." Then we walked into her apartment where she offered to make me a sandwich. I said no thank you. But accepted a cup of coffee, which she poured for me and brought over in a cup and saucer.

It was humbling to meet a person who is just that old. Sue spoke about her mother, and growing up just outside of Boston. She said her mother's parents settled in New Brunswick when the English were fighting the French and the Indians. That's where her mother was born. Can you imagine? That's a long time ago!!!

Sue spoke of her children. One of her son's died of lung cancer at age 42 (in 1983). Her husband, a graduate of MIT, with a doctorate from Cal, died with alzheimers one year and three days after their son died. "September was an unkind month," she told me.

She showed me each of the pictures that "people" her small apartment. In fact, getting her to talk about her past was difficult. Her family is vibrant and clearly keep her fully involved.

I asked her, near the end of the interview, "What gives you hope as you look toward the future." She paused for a moment and answered in a somewhat indirect, but beautiful way: "Every morning I sit in that chair where you're sitting now. I pray for every one of the people in my family. And I pray for the people of our church. I call my friend, Laura, most mornings. And, although I can't sing for the life of me, I do. I have all these songs inside me, you know. And I sing some of them." Later, again speaking about hope, Sue referred to one of these songs that she has inside her. She said, "I do not believe in the end of the world. I do not believe God would ever do that. I believe in the song where we sing, 'world without end.' You know the one." The picture she created was a beautiful one: a woman, deeply connected to her family and soulfully connected to her church, at home, praying and singing her songs, drenched in the morning sun. Simple and inspirational. It says a lot about how we all can have hope as we look to the future.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


Yesterday's meeting was fantastic--way better than I would have ever dared to imagine. The only changes made were one minor wording change on one question and a few additions to my bibliography. I was even complimented on the proposal as well as my presentation of it. And I was actually commended for one of my questions. Unheard of! It is a great way to enter this next phase. I never expected it would go so well.

I spoke with someone today who received his PhD from here a few years ago. He said that he thought the Comprehensive Exam Proposal was really the hardest part of the whole process. Here on in it's all follow-through. That makes a lot of sense to me. And it's sort of a thrill to think of it that way.

I haven't really had a moment to sit and think about all of this since it happened. Had to rush off to church immediately after the meeting. D & E took me out to celebrate afterwards. They split a pepperoni pizza and I had tiramisu. :)

Today I was out all day with the Together in Ministry group. We took a tour of a church and neighborhood in O. Very, very similar to G-town in the feel of the neighborhood. It was a strange experience for me to walk around there, feeling as though it was all very familiar, and yet not, at the same time. From there we went to a museum of California History and were led on a tour by a docent that focused on History of Religion in California. Fascinating.

Now I'm honestly exhausted--though I have a full day again tomorrow. All day out at church: planning for Advent, then interviewing a woman who is about to turn 100 (!), then having a Logos meeting. Good grief. I could use a day off . . .

I'll write about our plans for Advent soon.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


I was just going to put a link up about this, but decided I wanted to tell you a little about it, too. One of the books that D was editing recently referred to a song by the band eastmountainsouth. I was curious about the song, so googled it. Turns out they have recently broken up, but one of their songs (Hard Times) was picked up for the soundtrack of Elizabethtown. I love their sound--moody, rich, searching, earthy. Looks like the male part of the duo (Peter Bradley Adams) has appeared on the World Cafe a couple times. I'm partial to Kat Maslich Bode's voice, actually. Check them out:! The website is cool because it just automatically starts playing their music.

This is the Day

As unfocused and restless as I was yesterday, today I feel the opposite. I woke up about 5:45 this morning and felt propelled out of bed. I do want to enter this day feeling present to it. Aware of the years I have already put into this endeavor, aware of the passion I bring to the subject, aware that I have been blessed by my communities of faith to pursue liturgical studies from a free-church perspective. I want to be open to improvements that the Area may suggest today. I want to be able to defend my proposal without getting defensive. I want to feel the weight of this day without feeling crushed or intimidated by it.

At orientation, the Dean shared a TS Eliot quote with us that I have found very meaningful throughout my time here:

Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.

That is the spirit with which I want to live into this day. I used to be better about carrying that stillness with me, when I was in spiritual direction. Now, I find there is much more of a humming energy to everything, the restlessness I felt yesterday. The busy-ness of academic life, its aquisitiveness, does not lend itself to stillness very well.

But I remember learning, while in spiritual direction, that stillness is carried within. It's always there. I remember learning to recognize what I used to call "surfacing"--when I would come too close to the surface, I would feel the disruption and lose a sense of peacefulness. Funny, this had to do with wind, too. I began to learn it while lying in a hammock on Cape Cod. The wind was blowing wildly that day, too. But unlike yesterday's wind, this time it was high up, only in the tops of the trees, swaying them furiously. Where I was, down in the hammock, everything was calm.

I thought of this yesterday, actually. Because I noticed that the wind was blowing at the very tops of the palm trees (they're astoundingly tall) as well as on the ground, with strong enough gusts to kick over parked motorcycles!

The memory of the wind on Cape Cod that October (1998!) has ever since been an image for me of a life centered in prayer. When you are centered, you can perceive the wind, God's spirit moving, the life-giving as well as the violent disruptions and energies ever-present in life. But you are able to exist in the midst of it with a sense of giftedness, wellness, wholeness, peace.

I don't live a life centered in prayer right now, though. So the image beckons me. Even this, I recognize, is gift.

I think this time, going back to P. reminded me a little of who I am. And I think I can carry that into my day today.

This is the day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Blustery Day

I guess if you're going to feel dis-placed somewhere, this is the place to do it. It's a beautiful, almost hot day today. And there is a marvelous, blustery, fall wind that's blowing dry leaves across the pavement. Our windows are open and the curtains are getting caught by the wind, too. The cat doesn't know where to look! Windy days are full of adventures for him. Always movement to catch, exciting new sounds, great bursts of energy. The palm trees at the top of the hill are swaying like mad. Beautiful day.

I spent the morning in the library, finding books for my RA work. Now I am finding it difficult to settle in. I don't know, exactly, what I most need to do to prepare for tomorrow's meeting. Getting some reading done would be wise, I'm sure. But the anxiety about the meeting makes me restless. Reading is difficult.

Hmmm. Restlessness and a windy day . . .

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Spinning Thread

Here is the story E wrote about a caterpillar for homework tonight:

There once was a catterpillar [sic] who could not wait to become a butterfly. He was surrounded by sticks so he could just imagine himself curled up, inside a cocoon. He quickly, not carefully and slowly, shed his fourth and final skin. He then calmed down and carefully spun a beautiful thread around himself. The End.

In Between

For some reason, coming back from P. this time around, I feel more dis-placed than ever. I don't know if it's a function of being here just long enough that I don't feel like I quite belong in either place? If it's merely a passing mood? Is it that I somehow realized on this trip that we're probably not going to stay here after all? My roots feel too close to the surface here. Someone once told me that you should not water the garden early in the day, because the roots will reach up toward the water then get scorched as the noon sun bears down. Is that what this most recent trip did?

I wonder how much it has to do with anticipating my comps proposal this Wednesday. I want to anticipate the worst, so that I can have thick skin. Don't want to be taken by surprise. Want to expect acrimony, academic brutality. But how to live into these days with these expectations?

Yesterday, along with two others from our congregation, I was "licensed for the Gospel Ministry" at my church. I didn't have a big investment in the rite itself. I wasn't familiar with it. Felt as though it was going to be something done to me, more than something I was a participant in.

But the experience was more meaningful to me than I expected. In the text of the rite, the moderator of the church says, "This license represents not only our recognition that you are engaged in your theological studies, but also our declaration of confidence in you and our way of assuring you that in your preparations and discernment of a specific area of ministry, you have our continuing blessing and prayers." Then, the moderator asks: "In accepting this License to Minister, do you promise faithfully to serve God and the church both in your study and ministry?" To which we replied: "I do, trusting in God's grace for help."

The pastor then prays a "Prayer of Consecration" as follows:

"Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on J, T, and J. Consecrate them each for the work of ministry. Give them wisdom to discern the mind of Christ, compassion for human need, and love toward all those to whom they are called to minister. Strengthen and nourish their faith. Make their study meaningful and their work in your church fruitful. May God's Spirit be theirs in this day and throughout the whole of their lives. Amen."

Then the pastor concludes:

"In the name of Jesus Christ, and on behlaf of SRCC I declare that J, T, and J are licensed for the Gospel Ministry. My dear friends and colleagues in Christian ministry, let your faith remain strong, your love complete, your hope resiliant, and your compassion pure. And let your commitment to help bring to pass the reign of God's Shalom in this world and to all people be unyielding as long as you shall live. Let all who are assembled here say together, 'Amen.'"

After this, we were each presented with beautiful stoles sewn by a member of the church. I knew ahead of time that we would be given the stoles and worried that it would seem we were doing a sort of mini ordination. But it didn't feel that way at all. In fact, it was the reception of the stole, immediately after the words I've printed above, that made the experience feel real to me. The stole was something tangible for me. A way of feeling the weight of the words--but the weight was comfortable. Like a heavy blanket on a cold night. Just right.

It was strange to go through this rite while I was feeling in between. Only returned from the East Coast a matter of hours, and I am experiencing this. I talked with someone briefly after the service and told her I was feeling dis-placed, not quite anywhere yet. She seemed to immediately understand. "You wonder," she said, "did I dream that world? Or am I dreaming this one?" Yes.

Neither, of course. And I do know that. But my spirit still needed to catch up with my body, in a way. And here I was being integrated and blessed on Sunday morning. Receiving my first stole.

That is one part of it. The other is this--I am anticipating this frightening academic meeting in a couple days. Like I just wrote, I want to anticipate the worst. And yet. I've just promised to faithfully serve God and the church both in my study and ministry. That means Wednesday, too. And in the days leading up to Wednesday.

I think this is what I'm feeling: I thought I would be going into Wednesday's experience mostly alone. My advisor (and advocate) would be there, sure. But for the most part, I would be on my own. Now, I realize I shall go in with a sense of God's spirit and as a member of my church community. I think I am only getting this as I write it now. At this point of my academic career, I have received the blessing of my church community. This means precisely that I am not alone.

I had a strong sense of this through most of seminary because of the strong, long-time support of CBC. But I realize now that this is the first I've felt it here.

How will it change things? The weight of the stole (my burden is light), trusting in God's grace for help, in between, make their study meaningful and their work in your church fruitful . . .

I began writing about shallow roots. It seems to contradict where I am ending this entry. But I sense that both are true, somehow.