Alternative Advent and Christmas Calendar 2014: Magnify

Enter the Emptiness of Advent

I'm delighted to share the wonderful Advent letter of Pastor Molly Baskett from nearby First Church in Somerville. We met on a retreat years ago and I got on her mailing list for her creative and thoughtful Advent/Christmas calendars which she shares freely.  The theme of her letter and calendar is taken from Mary's song in the Gospel of Luke.  She has a gift for announcing this new season and I take to heart many of her thoughts and actions for each day.  

-Pastor Ross

Alterantive Advent: Magnify

And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Lord: and my spirit rejoices in God who Saves me.
For You have regarded the lowliness of Your handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed.
For You that are mighty have magnified me : and holy is Your Name.
Your mercy is on those that are in awe of You : throughout all generations.
You have shown strength with Your arm : You have scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
You have put down the mighty from their seat : and have exalted the humble and meek.
You have filled the hungry with good things : and the rich You sent empty away.
Luke 1:46-53

One of the biggest spiritual difficulties I encounter in my work as a pastor is people who ache to see and feel the presence of God in their lives, and who just don’t, despite praying, longing, trying, waiting.

One of mother Mary’s greatest claims to fame is the Magnificat: the song she sang when she walked pregnant into her cousin Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth, likewise, was expecting and, womb to womb, both women recognized that something extraordinary was happening to them. They were magnifying the Lord, quite literally, day by day, as their bellies grew with mystical pregnancies.

Perhaps, like those pregnancies, the presence of God in our lives is something that happens without Herculean effort on our parts—instead, it begins with longing, and ends with the willingness to say yes to God—in a sense, letting God take over our bodies and spirits. But be careful what you ask for, as many a woman who has been 39-and-a-half weeks pregnant can attest…

Jesus often described the kingdom of God as something that began tiny—even barely perceptible to the naked eye—a grain of yeast, a mustard seed, a lost coin. Could it be that the raw ingredients of God are lying everywhere around us but require some action on our parts to be made visible, to grow—our assent, our initiative, our union with God—to take root and get huge?

All the prompts in this year’s alternative Advent calendar are about magnifying God with simple actions of noticing, being grateful, starting small, changing our perspective. A writer I love once asked, “Would you rather be an ego or a soul?” Our egos magnify ourselves, but our souls magnify the Lord. Our soul’s one job is to make God look enormous: not to puff God up, artificially, but to make Her more visible, to make all the details about Him stand out clearly.

So much of our ability to see God is about perspective and posture. Small lights can cast huge shadows, when positioned correctly. Mirrors aren’t themselves light, but can amplify and extend a tiny light until it fills a large room.

Magnifying the Lord is less about being charismatic, attractive, successful and magnificent than it is about being empty enough to hold and reflect the great Magnificence. We can’t hold God if we are full of ourselves.

What did God see in Mary? Maybe, nothing—enough nothing, enough empty space within to hold someone like Jesus. Would you like to be big enough to hold Jesus inside of you? Would you like that kind of space within, quiet and large and expectant? Wanting it is a good beginning to having it.

God doesn’t measure our magnificence by how many hairs are left on our heads or how many dollars sit in our bank accounts. Going by the Magnificat, what counts for success with God is the kind of emptiness within that sits waiting for Jesus to take up residence. What counts with God is caring for the last, the least and the lost. What counts with God is bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away—in other words, giving everyone exactly what they need so that they can become souls instead of egos. This Advent and Christmas, you can make a small start, and let God make a magnificent finish.

Bless you, blessers,

Rev. Molly

 

When Freedom Becomes a Burden

Former Intern Keith Anderson shares his sermon with us from last Sunday.  This sermon is featured on Day1 radio.  Keith is at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

"Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

Rest. It's not something we Americans do very well. Studies show that Americans are overworked and overstressed. Even during this three-day Fourth of July weekend, people will be checking their smart phones for work emails, social media updates, and breaking industry news.

Rest--true rest--is elusive.

Each year on the first weekend in March, I participate in the National Day of Unplugging, an initiative of the Reboot network, a Jewish organization, which works to help people reclaim the practice of Sabbath and re-appropriate, as they say, "our ancestors' ritual of carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones." Participants in the National Day of Unplugging turn off all electronic devices at sundown Friday evening and turn them back on at sundown on Saturday. It sounds easy enough--just twenty-four hours with no texting, email, social media, or working on the computer--and a third of those hours are spent sleeping. And yet, it is surprisingly difficult. I'm usually fine for the first few hours, but then I keep wanting to check my email, Facebook, and Twitter. By Saturday afternoon, I'm downright jittery. And its not that I actually want to do work, exactly. It's more like I just want to know what is going on in the world. I want to know if I am needed. I feel the need to be productive in some way.

For me, the challenge of unplugging is not so much about unplugging from the technology, but about unplugging from work. This annual experience, which I try to reclaim with mini-technology Sabbaths during the year, helps me step outside my daily routine, recalibrate my rhythm of life, and gain a renewed perspective. And it's in these moments that I recognize that the things that promise to set us free can also have their own sort of tyranny over us; they can also become burdens. For instance, the great freedom of being able to be reached at any time and of being able to work from anywhere on our mobile devices can also weigh on us as we are continually on call. The thing that promises to set us free is that which ultimately burdens us.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel reading from Matthew. Here Jesus issues one of the most beloved and welcome invitations in all of Scripture, saying, "Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest," inviting us, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, to "learn the unforced rhythms of grace." Rest and grace: free gifts of God's love. They sound so good, and yet, paradoxically, they are so hard to accept. The reasons are different for all of us. Perhaps it's because we find our self worth in doing, or we justify ourselves by the hours we work, or we locate our identity in our talents and abilities. Or maybe the promise of free grace and blessed rest just seem too good to be true. After all, not much else in life works that way. Or perhaps we feel we have little choice but to work so much and so tirelessly at a time when the job market is still so fragile and companies are trying to do more with fewer employees--employees who are working harder and longer just to keep their jobs.

So whatever the reason, it is a heavy yoke that we carry. But Jesus offers a different kind of yoke--one that is easy and light.

In the context of this passage, Jesus is contrasting his yoke with the yoke of the religious law, which promised freedom from sin and ritual impurity, and yet, had become a heavy burden for many. Jesus wasn't rejecting the law per se, but he recognized that even religious systems that promise us freedom can come to weigh heavily on us.

Indeed, they can and they do. We often apply our experience in the workplace to our spiritual lives as well. And thus, being a "good Christian" can mean overextending ourselves in the service of our faith communities, so that the very church that promises us grace and rest becomes yet another place we feel squeezed for time and energy.

It seems like no accident, then, that Matthew follows this invitation from Jesus with two stories about keeping the Sabbath. In the first story, Jesus and the disciples are walking through a wheat field and they are hungry, so they pluck heads of grain to eat, which as some religious-types point out, is forbidden on the Sabbath. Later that day, Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand and heals him, which, again, he is not allowed to do. The rules of Sabbath keeping, as they had come to be interpreted, prevented nourishment and healing, the very things that God intended for the day of rest.

In another controversy over the Sabbath in Mark, Jesus says, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." That is, the Sabbath should be a time of rest and indeed healing and nourishment and not just another burden and requirement to be fulfilled. Jesus understood how the weight of obligation had created a heavy burden for Sabbath keepers.

At first this invitation of Jesus, "Come to me and I will give you rest," sounds like something from a memory-foam or scented oils commercial or maybe the latest and greatest smartphone app, but what Jesus offers here is something different.

One of my favorite books about spiritual rest is a guide to Christian contemplative spirituality by Martin Laird called Into the Silent Land. And in it Laird writes this: "When the mind is brought to stillness, and all our strategies of acquisition have dropped, a deeper truth presents itself: we are and have always been one with God and we are all one in God."

When we finally slow down, if only for a day or an hour, and let go of our striving and reaching, our "strategies of acquisition," of accomplishment or recognition, status, acclaim, or more stuff--none of which are bad in their own right, though they can insidiously drive us to exhaustion--when we let go and enter into the rest that Jesus offers, what we find is that we are already God's beloved people. Loved, not for what we do, but for who we are, or better yet, for who God is, because God is a God who loves us just as we are. We are known completely and we are loved completely. Nothing to earn, nothing to prove, no need to, as if we could, justify ourselves to God.

Laird says that this rest is not "like a piece of software we can install in the computer of our spiritual lives," and not something we have to do; but rather, it is the discovery of what we already are, what we already possess. In Sabbath moments we see our true reality--a life already and always lived in God.

The rest that Jesus offers is not somewhere we have to get to, not something we have to earn. It is already ours. We just have to slow down long enough to see it.

Today, Jesus, who is gentle and humble in heart, invites us to lay every manner of burden, especially those disguised as freedoms, down at his feet and to be with him and know his peace, grace, and love.

Breathe deep, dear friends, and know that they are already yours. Amen.

Find-A-Grave

I was recently introduced to Find-A-Grave, a website that offers far more than I imagined. My wife, Sharon, has been active in our family’s genealogy for several years. As trees took shape, I found that I began to share her interest, but there was little I could do to add to the process.

In the course of her research, Sharon accessed many websites that have acted as valuable tools in uncovering information; some very important, some only marginally so. I would look on and absorb that which interested me, until the next interesting thing was discovered and noted.

Everything changed about a month ago, when she finally became a contributing member of Find-A-Grave. For those of you who aren’t “in the know”, this is a website that catalogues cemeteries and all the information they hold, through volunteers. Some volunteers transfer information that is already online and can upload a cemetery’s complete burial records. Others, like my wife, prefer to actually visit a cemetery and photograph headstones by request to upload to memorial pages.

At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this – or if I felt anything at all. I didn’t really give it much consideration, as all of the genealogy stuff had been done from the comfort of our home, until now. It didn’t really hit me until Sharon asked if I would like to go along when she attempted to find her first headstone. It sounded interesting, as long as the weather cooperated!

Before I go any further, I know that some might wonder why anyone would want a photo of a headstone. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that my wife uses these pictures on the internet site that houses the family tree – along with photos of the deceased relative, when possible. The headstones provide names and dates, but more importantly, an actual view of a final resting place that might not otherwise be seen; something concrete to replace the picture in one’s mind.

Our first mission ended badly, as somehow some wires got crossed and we were looking for two headstones in the wrong cemetery. The second time around, we were looking for an infant’s stone. And this is where I became hooked. We found that little stone marker, flat on the ground, under a few inches of water. We were so disappointed at not being able to fulfill this wish, that I grabbed an empty water bottle from my truck and began sucking up the water with it. As quickly as I removed it, the water seeped back in to cover the stone. I removed my sweatshirt and tried to sop up the water, just long enough for Sharon to snap a photo. It was not to be. We left cold and defeated.

In contacting the woman who requested the photo, we learned that the child in the grave was her baby girl. Born in December of 1983, she was called home shortly after, in February 1984. Her mom had left the area in 1988, but wanted to once again see the grave marker that she had chosen to lay above the tiny casket. My wife and I put ourselves in her shoes; how does anyone survive the loss of a child? This child was born perfectly healthy with ten fingers and toes. As her mother explained in an e-mail, she contracted an unidentified virus that her tiny body could not overcome. We felt her anguish as we thought about our own children, and how lucky we know we are to never have faced anything like this tragedy.

As the days grew longer and the sun became stronger, we were able to revisit the cemetery, carefully clean the baby’s marker and send a picture to her waiting mother (thousands of miles away). In the meantime, we visited several other cemeteries and snapped more photos to fulfill other requests. One was from a woman who asked, in broken English, for a picture of her grandfather’s headstone. She had never met him. I think about being the bridge for this, and other connections, and am humbled. Walking among the headstones, pausing to read and wonder about those for whom they were erected, is a special journey. In the span of an afternoon, sorrow is replaced with contentment when we find an amusing epitaph or a hearty soul who lived well into his nineties. It is a time of connection; not only with the requester and the deceased, but also with my wife. Conversation is initiated, thoughts provoked. There is time to reflect and be thankful. We intend to continue our grave-hunting, as we affectionately refer to it, for the foreseeable future. We certainly come away with more fulfillment than we could ever provide.

 

- Dennis O'Brian, Property Manager

C.P.E. Bach 300th Birthday Celebration

             On March 8, 1714, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born in Weimar to Johann Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach. This was before the family moved to Leipzig, where his father would become Cantor at St. Thomas’ Church and write some of the greatest church music ever written: the St. Matthew Passion, the Mass in B Minor, 200 cantatas, plus motets, concertos, trios, and organ music. While today J.S. Bach is considered by many to be the best composer in music history (read about it here), his second son had a higher reputation than he did in the eighteenth century. Indeed, C.P.E. Bach spent almost 30 years in the service of Frederick II of Prussia, accompanying the king in concerts at the palace and writing a text on keyboard playing that is still read today. His music attracted the attention of older composers like Johann Adolf Hasse and Georg Philipp Telemann, as well as younger composers like Haydn and Mozart. Eventually, C.P.E. Bach succeeded his godfather Telemann as music director of the Lutheran churches in the city of Hamburg, where he spent the last 21 years of his life writing and arranging cantatas for weekly services much as his father had done at Leipzig. It was only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that his reputation was eclipsed by that of his father.

            Many of the members at St. Paul know that our family moved to Boston from Madison, Wisconsin in January 2000 so that I could take a job as managing editor of the Complete Works of C.P.E. Bach (check out here). The original expectation was that this edition would be completed in time for Bach’s 300th birthday, but we had not counted on the recovery of the Berlin Sing-Akademie archives, which turned up in Kiev after having been given up for lost after World War II. This collection contains many unique sources for the vocal music from C.P.E. Bach’s Hamburg years, and so the edition grew from about 75 volumes to 115 or more. Little did I know at the time when I took the job in 1999 that this was going to be a much longer and more difficult project than I had expected. But we are making good progress with over 60 volumes published and many more in the works, though we will not finish next month!

            St. Paul’s music director, Kira Winter, and I have organized a service with special music for March 2, the last Sunday in Epiphany, to celebrate the life and music of C.P.E. Bach. This will include familiar chorales that he arranged and performed in Hamburg, organ music, songs, and a motet “Veni, sancte Spiritus” that probably has not been performed in more than 200 years. In addition to St. Paul’s Adult Choir, there will be many musicians from the congregation, including soprano Anne-Louise Klaus, and everyone is encouraged to sing along on the hymns. (In fact, the congregation did sing along with the chorus on chorales in the Passions performed each Lent in Hamburg.) This will be a time not only to reflect on the life of a faithful church composer, but also to appreciate and experience the rich heritage of Lutheran church music.

            Each year we commemorate J.S. Bach, Handel, and Heinrich Schütz on July 26 (the death date of J.S. Bach in 1750), but falling in the middle of the summer and not often on a Sunday, we don’t often get to focus on these major composers. Of course we hear their works in concert halls and recordings regularly, and works like Messiah and the St. Matthew Passion are loved by believers and non-believers alike. We should not overlook the fact that C.P.E. Bach preserved much music by his father, he wrote his obituary, and shared much material with Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who wrote the first biography of J.S. Bach (found at Amazon). In many ways, C.P.E. Bach was a transitional figure in music history—a composer who built on the tradition of learned counterpoint and improvisation perfected by his father, while striking out in new ways with original and daring modulation and harmonization. He took the psalm literally and “sang to the Lord a new song.”

            In addition to the special music on March 2 at St. Paul’s, there is an exhibition at Houghton and Loeb Music Library at Harvard University focused on C.P.E. Bach’s life and legacy (check out here) through April 5, and on Friday, March 28, there will be a symposium and performance of his oratorio The Israelites in the Desert at Memorial Church by the Harvard University Choir and Baroque Orchestra.

Happy 300th Birthday, C.P.E. Bach!

-Paul Corneilson

Spirituality in Movement

 

“Incarnational ministry happens to runners in the great outdoors. The idea is to name God in what’s already going on in people’s lives. ‘This is not just about physical fitness, ... Gardening could be your prayer life.  Computer programming matters in the life of God.  A life well lived is when you start to recognize that, hey, God is in all of this.’” - George Linney, pastor of Tobacco Trail Community

About a month ago I read an article by Jess James DeConto in Christian Century on a new form of worship evolving around the U.S. It was all about running as worship. Running groups are forming that see and engage their running time as a worship practice. These groups are introducing elements of liturgy and patterns of worship into their running ritual. The concept of it made quite a lot of sense to me. Understanding and envisioning worship outside of the building and Sunday mornings is something that I’ve embraced for a long time, yet extending that to the inclusion of physical activity took me by surprise. It was pretty much an ah-ha! and a well duh! moment at the same time. Physical movement has long been understood by health professionals to positively impact mental and physical health but I think it could also have an impact on one’s spiritual health as well. I know it has on mine.

I have always understood there are two constants in my life where everything else changes. One is participation in sports or other physical movement activity. The other is theology in some shape or form – either participation in church or by pursuing religious studies. These two driving aspects of my life are occasionally balanced, but it is not uncommon for one to override the other. Particularly when I was on a competitive team, it was not uncommon for my sporting activity to take precedence over church attendance. Neither I, nor my father (who is a Lutheran pastor) questioned the impact of my spiritual life and health or the role that Christ had in my life. I wasn’t until I was injured and set on a long road of rehabilitation that I felt the full impact of how movement keeps me healthy in more ways than just bodily health. Looking back on the time that I was restricted from running, rowing, hiking, and doing basically anything that required much movement, I can see how this impacted not only my mental health but also my spiritual health also. It marks the start of a period of spiritual unease for me, one that didn’t really end until I added a running regimen back into my weekly schedule.

Prior to joining the staff at St. Paul, I was interviewing for another church and one of their concerns was that I would be working during worship and how would that impact my spiritual life? I hadn’t considered that question before they asked it and I didn’t consider it much afterward. I am delighted to wake up Sunday mornings and come to St. Paul. I love to see Godly Play and Sunday School happening, I love to engage the kids in Children’s Church and connect with parents, families and other parishioners between and after services, but the responsibilities can take me away from being able to be in worship. This is the reality of a church worker and one that we accept and embrace as part of our calling to serve the church. The question to ponder as a person serving a worship community is where do you find worshipful space if not in the worship service with the community. I am beginning to realize that my answer has to include running or at least some kind of physical activity.

This isn’t really a new concept. There is a long history of people engaging physical practices to encourage connection to the community, appreciation of the natural world, and transcendence and connection to the divine. What is new to me is the notion that the two largest parts of my life don’t need to be segregated. Not only that they do not need to be but that they shouldn’t be. Lent is just around the corner and I have decided to use this time of reflection and preparation to consider this connection between movement, worship and spiritual health. Between Ash Wednesday and Easter, I will be engaging an exercise regimen that includes my typical running schedule of 3-4 times a week, adding yoga and a random other form of movement (swimming, hiking, dancing, biking, tbd later). The intention is to focus on the how these practices and the general habit of movement is a positive spiritual and worship practice rather than merely a good health habit. This is not meant to suggest that physical movement is THE new form of worship for everyone.  But consider for yourself where you find yourself worshipping. Are there other places than just worship services that you feel worshipful? Do you have a place that you meet God?

-Megan

Worship

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