Monday, December 26, 2011

Thoughts on Simeon

Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation…”  (Simeon, Luke 2: 29-30)

A friend posted on Facebook a photograph of five generations in her family, ranging from her grandmother down to her grandchild and I wondered at the scope of human history and experience represented in the generations looking back at the camera.

Many years ago now my dad sat at the head of a holiday table.  My niece and nephews were still small children.  He looked around at all of us and pressing his fingers together in a gesture my sisters will well remember --- it meant that he was about to say something he had been thinking about and thought important the rest of us to hear --- he said, nodding at the children, “They will remember us far into the next century…” Without a doubt, he was tasting his own mortality then and wondering at what would follow…

It was a warm Saturday in late summer when I awoke early to take a journey I hadn’t especially been looking forward to.  I was driving halfway across the state to pick up a friend and together we were going two hours beyond that to visit a mutual friend who was nearing the end of his battle with cancer.  We knew, without saying so, that it would be our last visit with him, at least in this life.
So it was that Larry and I sat by George’s bed at the nursing home up the street from his home that morning. And we planned his funeral.  Or I should say, George shared with us his plans for his funeral. We just took notes.  He knew the music he wanted sung, the scriptures we were to proclaim:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-56)

He spoke those words which clearly had given him strength his whole life long, but no more so than in those last months.  As we wrapped up our conversation he asked Larry to play the organ and then he very gently asked me if I would preach, if I could.  His voice broke then when he said to us, “Oh how I wish I could be there…”  And then Larry, with his own eyes full of tears replied, “Oh, but George, you will be,” speaking aloud his own certainty of our promised life beyond this one.

It was later that afternoon that I got a glimpse of Simeon in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson for it was then that family gathered: his wife, Mary, of course, and daughter, son-in-law, three year old granddaughter, Danielle, and a brand new grandson named Nicholas.  We placed a stole around this old pastor’s shoulders and a bowl of water  in his hands and holding that tiny baby George  poured the water on that beloved baby's head and spoke words he had spoken thousands of times before, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”  And then in a quaking voice he held that baby close and he spoke words meant as blessing and promise, “And maybe one day, little Nicholas, you will be a pastor just like your old grandpa…”  Straining to see into the future, George was… and commending that little one to the best kind of future he knew --- reflecting, to be sure, some of the great joy he himself had known in this life.

In human families the past is tied to the present which is tied to the future in often wonderful and also, yes, sometimes painful ways. We strain to see and hear and understand connections, the larger meaning behind the usually disjointed experience of it all. And for all of us, at least eventually, we do have an eye to the future. What will come next?  Who and what will follow?  And what does it all mean?

I expect this was some of what was experienced by Simeon in the temple --- I imagine he, too, must have been tasting some of his own mortality.  However, now the yearning to see and experience God at work has finally been fulfilled and he speaks aloud his joy at this when he says that he can now ‘depart’  with a sense of peace, of wholeness, having glimpsed something of God’s promised future in that baby Jesus in his arms that day.   May it also be so for all of us.  May we also be blessed with glimpses of the future God holds: a future shaped by the gift of God’s Own Self in Christ Jesus whose very birth reminds us of God’s great love for us and all the world that he would come to us as one of us. May we be blessed with those glimpses even and especially as we taste our own mortality. Along with Simeon and George and all the people God so loves...

  •  How was Simeon’s experience like that of any person nearing the end of life holding in our arms an infant just beginning the journey?  How must it have been different? 

  • What do you suppose made Simeon (and Anna, too) open to glimpsing God’s future in this way?  Read through the story (Luke 2:22-40) again to see what clues are there. What might you and I learn from them?
  • What do you think you would need to encounter to know that God was at work in the world in profound ways?  What have you already experienced which has convinced you this is so?  What do you find yourself still yearning for that, should it arrive, you would be able to say, “Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace…” ?
  • Saturday, December 24, 2011

    O Little Town of Bethlehem

    Luke 2:1-20

    “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie…”  (Philip Brooks, 1868)

    I took my usual walk this morning.  I hadn’t intended to, hoping to sleep in a while before getting started on a busy day, but my Monday-Friday internal clock got the better of me and so I got up and dressed in the multiple layers necessary to stave off the cold, and I headed down Meadow Lane.

    It was only a little after 5 of course and still very dark.  The first thing I noticed was the brightness of the stars in the sky on this clear early morning.  The next thing I noticed was that I could hear the geese which have traveled no further south this winter --- honking in the distance.  And then I noticed that a good twenty minutes into my walk I had not yet encountered another human being awake and about --- not on foot and not in a vehicle of any kind.  It’s Saturday, of course, and Christmas Eve at that, and of course many find themselves following different routines today, but even so, I know that firefighters and police officers and emergency room nurses are on the job. And a host of others will soon be on their way to work to accommodate all the last minute shoppers who will be on the hunt for that perfect gift they just hadn’t gotten around to purchasing yet.  Soon, now, many of us will be packing up to travel to be with dear ones at a distance for a holiday gathering and perhaps an hour at worship where we will sing the carols we have known our whole lives long and where candlelight and the strains of Silent Night will bear us up, fill us up…  So yes, I was a little surprised at the quiet of that early morning hour.  And grateful for it, too.  For quiet is not often ours to enjoy and to be nurtured in.  Perhaps it never was.

    In fact I found myself thinking of that little town of Bethlehem we sing of every Christmas Eve.  And I wonder at how ‘still’ it really was…  I mean from the little we are told in the old familiar story, the town was filled to capacity and beyond by the out of town guests ---- those many, many distant family members who were forced to make this journey ‘home’ to be counted by the occupying government.  We know the story well, of course --- that there was literally no place left for Mary and Joseph to settle in that night --- even in Mary’s precarious condition ----and so it is that the crèches which adorn my home this season all hold not just Mary and Joseph and a new born baby, some traveling royalty and some shepherds, but also a cow, a goat, a sheep….  I doubt the stable itself was that quiet that night.  I’m fairly confident the town of Bethlehem wasn’t either… although maybe, for those who were awake and paying attention, maybe at 5 am for a little while a kind of stillness could be found.

    Even so, I imagine even then that most had no idea of the wonder that had taken place in their own back yard.  And for those who did, perhaps they simply looked with pity on this young woman who was forced to give birth to this baby in such unlikely circumstances so far from home.  I wonder now how many had the stillness of place and time and heart to take notice.   No, I don’t expect it was especially quiet in Bethlehem that first Christmas … perhaps it was only that Philip Brooks, the writer of the familiar carol, imposed his own experience upon the story.  In fact, it is said that he penned these familiar words in 1868 after taking a trip to the Holy Land --- after finding himself looking down at Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at some distance… no doubt it looked ‘still’ from there, but down there in the middle of it all?  Probably there was not much stillness to be had.

    And so I found myself grateful today that I got up anyway and took the walk I always take.  I was grateful for the unexpected quiet before this busy day which I had better get moving on or I’ll be late…  I was grateful for the time to pause and wonder at this ancient story which means everything to us still … to consider again how God works in times and places and ways unexpected…perhaps especially in moments of stillness when we expected only noise…

    My hope for all of you is that there will be some moment of stillness in this busy day for you.  May you know the stillness of mind and heart and spirit which enables you to receive the true gift of Christmas which was intended for you.  Indeed, may the love and the peace of the Christ Child embrace you now. 

    Thursday, December 22, 2011

    A Story for Christmas Eve

    The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me: he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion--- to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (Isaiah 61:1-3a)

    And so I am remembering now one of the first Christmases I served as a pastor. I was young, of course, all of 28 years old and I found myself not quite settled into the role or even into my life as an adult. To be honest, I was struggling then with what to do with holidays where I had to work and couldn’t just ‘go home’ to where Christmas had always been provided for me, and so it was I found myself a little bit at loose ends … And while it’s no excuse, I was tired, for this was, at least in that setting, still in that time, when Advent was filled with one pre-Christmas gathering after another with every committee, every women’s circle, every choir, expecting the assistant pastor to show up --- an expectation I did my best to fulfill. It so happened that Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday that year. I had participated in three worship services that morning and was looking ahead to several more that night and another one on Christmas Day. It was Christmas Eve a little after noon and I was letting myself in through the back door of the parsonage to hear the phone ringing. I went to pick it up and was told that Glenn, a member of our congregation, was dying… his wife Edna was with him… they couldn’t reach the Senior Pastor (in that age before cell phones) and would I please come.

    And so I did… trudging back out into the late December chill, I went, carrying all of my weariness with me. I made my way past the front desk at the nursing home and paused to listen to the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” being played on the trumpet by another local pastor who was leading the service that afternoon

    The strains of that trumpet followed me as I made my way down the hall and entered Glenn’s darkened room. Edna sat next to him, stroking his hand, watching him breathe. I quietly sat next to her and together we listened to his labored breathing until he didn’t any more. I hope that I prayed with her… I’m certain I must have, but it’s been so long now that I don’t recall… After a time then, Edna gathered herself up and headed for home. I followed her in my own car and went with her into her apartment which bore no signs of Christmas. Rather, a pile of laundry and unopened mail sat on the kitchen table --- clearly her whole heart had been at Glenn's bedside in that nursing home during those weeks which would normally have been devoted to Advent Preparation. She called a nephew and we sat together until he arrived. When he came he sat beside her, too, and he said to her then, “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.” He meant to comfort her, I know he did. He wanted all her future Christmas Eves not to be tainted by this. As if she could ever forget.

    After a time then I made my way home. It was a while yet before I had to head back to church and so I took a moment to call my mom. I dialed the phone, pretending even to myself that I was calling to see if she needed anything for our family gathering the next day. Really, I expect I just needed the sound of her voice then.

    And so I told her about my day. Perhaps I sounded sad; I expect there was an edge of complaint in my tone for this was not how I had pictured Christmas at all. When I was finished she very quietly said to me, “But Janet, don’t you think this is what Christmas Eve is for?”

    Three things keep returning to me these many years later.
    1. The sound of that trumpet playing “O Come, O Come Immanuel” … and I wonder about how music shapes, informs, and nurtures our understandings of such days… Surely the pastor playing that day would have no idea that 22 years later I would still remember. And I wonder at how the small things we do are recalled by others. How with our gifts we shape one another’s journeys.
    2. Edna’s nephew’s comment… “Aunt Edna, Christmas Eve is just another day.” I didn’t argue with him then, but I’ve been shaping my response ever since. I understand his intent, but I believe he was so very wrong. What do you think? What would you say to that?
    3. And of course, my mother’s gentle prodding, “But, Janet, don’t you think this is what Christmas Eve is for?” She didn’t use the words of the prophet, Isaiah then, but that was surely the point of her question…. We who follow the Suffering Servant are also called to comfort those who mourn. Even on Christmas. Perhaps especially on Christmas as we worship the One who was sent with that Promise of comfort for all the world. And so yes, I knew she was right, of course, and in that moment I began to come to a deeper understanding of what it is to follow Jesus every day in perhaps unexpected ways… What do you think? Was her question one of judgment or gift or both? What do you think Christmas Eve is for? What do the words of the Prophet Isaiah call us to?