Adjusting our Eyes: A Christmas Message

What follows is my sermon delivered at the  Monmouth College Christmas concert and worship service.

[A spot light is turned on me, the rest of the chapel is dark.]

Wow. I can’t see a thing.  It’s so dark out there.  I mean I know you’re there—I can hear you breathing, and shifting in your seats, and laughing….but it’s creepy because I can’t see you.

You know what’s creepier, though?  To be in this chapel alone…at night…without any light. I’ve had to come in here sometimes at night and crawl through the pitch black, in heels no less, to get to the light switch behind the stage.  If I were smart, I wouldn’t rush that walk through the darkness, because I’m clumsy, and sure to trip over something or walk into a wall. But I want to get to that light switch as quick as possible. All my life I’ve been conditioned to believe bad things happen in the dark—Edgar Allen Poe things.  Every horror movie I have never watched is set in the dark. Every monster jumps out from under the bed after the lights go out.  It’s scary here in the dark.

Isaiah 9: 2-7 is read by Christians at Christmas because of its reference to the birth of a baby, born to save a people.  But tonight I want to focus on the darkness inherent in this text. The monsters the Israelites were facing were real—the yoke of foreign oppression; the boots and blood of war.  It was not just a dark time, according to Isaiah, but deeply dark.

Our historical context is far from that of the 8th century, but Isaiah’s words still resonate today. I mean, can you remember a darker Christmas than this? Maybe you can.  But this season, to me, seems particularly bleak: our nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; tear gas and rubber bullets used against refugees; the #MeToo movement revealing what we women already knew; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading.  Then, here in Monmouth we’ve got Thanksgiving blizzards dangerously stranding students on the road, friends and loved ones struggling with their mental health—suicide, dementia, cancer, marriages and families breaking under stress—seriously, our list of dark things could go on and on.

Dear God, I pray every day, save us from the darkness. I want to move through the pitch black as quickly as I can, even in heels, because it scares me. Maybe you’re scared too?

In her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that  “70 percent of our sense receptors are located in our eyes. Those of us who can see rely heavily on our sight.” Darkness is disorienting. It frightens us because we don’t know what to expect of the dark, we don’t know where we are going when we are in its midst, what we will find, or what will find us.

Here in the darkness, though, the prophet Isaiah wants us to slow down; he wants us to give our eyes time to adjust. Even while walking in darkness—he says—there is something to see.

I was recently introduced to contemporary artist James Turrell who uses darkness as his medium. In an essay entitled, “In Praise of Darkness” Heather Lanier describes one of Turrell’s exhibits at a museum in Massachusetts. “You enter,” Lanier writes, “by stepping into a narrow corridor—the only source of light is behind you—which quickly turns 180 degrees to the right. As you get farther along, the walls must be painted black because now the darkness is nearly complete. If you go with children, this is when they’ll start to grasp your hand tighter. If you go alone, this is when you might seek out the handrail, flu season or not. You’ll feel the handrail bend, and you’ll let it guide you through another 180-degree turn. The darkness at this point becomes thick, almost palpable, and if you’re like me, you’ll put your hand out in front of you because you’re certain you’re about to walk into a wall. You’ll follow the handrail until you reach its end, at which point you will have no sense that the space has just opened up into a room. Your hand will eventually find an armrest, which means you’ve arrived at the viewing chair. You sit and wait in the blackness. It can take as long as 15 minutes for the irises to open sufficiently to perceive this work.”

In a James Turrell exhibit, what helps you follow that handrail into the darkness and sit in the black room long enough for your eyes to adjust is the belief that there is something there—something good and beautiful.  You just need to give yourself a little time—you just need to be patient enough and courageous enough to sit in the dark in order to see it. But that’s not easy. Lanier described two college age women who stumbled into the exhibit with her, linking elbows. Standing at the entryway, they whispered that they couldn’t see a thing and refused to take another step. Then one of them drew something from her back pocket, and in an instant the stark light of her cell phone lit up their faces.

Isaiah wants us to know, and believe, that the darkness hold promise, that the darkness is not dark to God, that art and beauty, meaning and purpose can be found even in the bleakest of circumstances. This is, after all, the message of Christmas.  When all that surrounds us feels like death, new life is born. When hate is on the rise, love prevails. When darkness blinds, light illuminates. God is not absent in the darkness. Beauty and meaning are not absent in the darkness. The key is to believe—that something is there—something is here for us—something good and beautiful. Then being patient enough and courageous enough to give our eyes time to adjust.

Eventually, in the Turrell exhibit the art emerges. Heather Lanier describes it as, “A faint, gray amorphous source of light. It’s so faint [at first] you might not be able to place its shape. Circle? Oval? Blob? It’s like a reflection of a reflection of light, like a moon of a moon, like a gray lake’s mirroring of a dulled silver spoon. The art you eventually arrive at varies, according to who you are and how you view the world. But if you wait long enough, there is actually something there.

If we wait long enough and let our eyes adjust something is there…something emerges…

Maybe it’s the dark silhouettes of the people sitting around you, reminding you that you are not alone.

Maybe it’s the exposed wooden beams of this Chapel ceiling, appearing as arms outstretched drawing us closer together as one community.

Maybe it’s a darkness so large and unfathomable that it takes the shape of God.[1]

Maybe it’s a light we hadn’t noticed before.

What we see will vary according to who we are and how we view the world.  But the darkness holds something for us all.

Wendell Berry writes:

To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight, and find
that the dark, too, blooms and sings.

For Isaiah, the darkness blooms and sings about the birth of a child.  God has not forsaken you, Isaiah declares. God has not abandoned you in the darkness. Tonight, let us give ourselves a gift. Let us sit in our viewing chairs, give our irises the time they need to open, and receive what the darkness holds for us tonight. It might…it just might…give us hope.

Now to the God who calls us to this night vision, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

 

[1]This phrase attributed to Sara Miles from her recent Christian Century lecture.

[Feature Image: Billie Grace Ward]

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Is there room for me? A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my sermon, “Is there room for me?” to Monmouth College at our annual                                          Christmas Convocation based on Luke 2: 1-14.

Traditionally, in a Protestant worship service, all the children are invited forward for a special time or message from the pastor.  One Christmas, when I was the pastor of a small church in North Carolina, I decided to involve the whole congregation in my children’s message by acting out the scene where pregnant Mary and Joseph are looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem.  I gave the people sitting on the aisles doors made out of posterboard.  Then I led the children around the sanctuary to knock on the doors and ask if there was room for them to come in and stay.  I did this not realizing how difficult it would be for my church members.

Two-year old-Garrett, clutching his tattered teddy bear, knocked on Leon’s door and asked, “Do you have room for me?” and Leon—well, I could tell that Leon wanted to cave—so, I interrupted, “No, Leon, you’ve got no room for Garrett.  Now shut the door.”  The same thing happened when sweet little Grace in her red velvet dress knocked on Sharon’s door.  Sharon’s a grandmother who never says no to a child.  She looked devastated to have to turn Grace away.  “I’m sorry sweetie,” she said.  Finally, my own 4-year-old, tow-headed, son, Isaac, knocked on Mack’s door, with his sweet little six-inch clip-on-tie and his shirt tail untucked.  Isaac and Mack had a special connection.  They looked for each other every Sunday morning and that Christmas, Mack had made Isaac a toy train out of wood.  So when Isaac asked, “Mr. Mack, do you have room for me?” It was all Mack could do to stay on script, “No, Isaac, I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room for you.”

Every Christmas, as I consider what to say to you at this convocation I try to take the pulse of our community and then respond in a way that I pray is both helpful and faithful.  This year, with race and interfaith relations boiling over, the rescinding of DACA, and our divisions growing ever wider, it seems to me that many of us just feel left out in the cold, or feel left to wonder, is there room for me?

Our seniors getting ready to graduate wonder, “Is there room for me, is there a place for me, in life beyond college?”

The woman living in a society where glass ceilings are yet to be broken and #metoo is trending on twitter wonders, “Is there room for me, for my aspirations and my success?”

The white man, tired of hearing about his unearned privilege and confused over what, exactly, to do about it, wonders, “Will there still be room for me if I let others in?”

The transgender man who just wants to use the bathroom like everyone else wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The undocumented student, who fears her and her family’s deportation, wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The Syrian refugee, whose family is scattered all over the world and whose home has been decimated by violent, warring powers wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The African American student attending a predominantly white college, wonders, “Is there room for me?”

Pondering this question (the question of whether or not there is room) I returned to the text and discovered a detail that I had missed. When I read this story of Jesus’ birth before, I had always pictured a weary Innkeeper greeting Mary and Joseph in the middle of the night, a lantern reflecting their faces desperate for a place to stay and the Innkeeper’s regret as he, reluctantly, followed the script, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room you.”

Well, apparently, I made this whole scene up because there is no innkeeper in this text.  In fact, I learned recently that the word inn would more accurately be translated as “guest room” or “guest bed” in the peasant house or desert cave where Mary and Joseph more likely stopped. This was not a place of business—not some kind of hotel—but family and friends who had come home for the census and crowded in for the night with people and animals sleeping on different levels.  So yes, there was no bed for them, no guest room with a private bath, no luxury to speak of at all.  But there was room.  Mary and Joseph were taken in.  Their baby was born, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger.

Knowing this, now I wish I could go back in time, back to my church in North Carolina and back to the Christmas when I led all those children around the sanctuary.  I wish I could go back and give my church members the right script.  I’d tell Leon, go ahead and cave. Let Garrett in. Sharon, it’s okay, you’ve got room for Grace.  And Mack, you can make room for Isaac, just like I know you would for any child of God.

In today’s world, it seems like we’ve been operating under a script that tells us there just isn’t enough—there’s not enough room, not enough resources, not enough jobs, not enough alternative sources of energy, maybe even not enough love to conquer the hate or good to overcome the evil.  This belief in scarcity arises out of fear and anxiety.  I get that.  I know that fear too.  But this belief in scarcity only leads us to hoard in excess, to isolate ourselves, build walls, choose sides and arm ourselves to the hilt to protect our own.

The birth of Jesus Christ flips this script.  It proclaims the good news of great joy for all the people.  No one is left out in the cold.  Nor is anyone left out as Jesus grows up and purposefully reaches out to those who have been left out: the women, the children, the stranger, the sick, the poor, even the despised tax collector.  Jesus apparently believed that what God has given, God has given in abundance. There is enough.  There is room for us all.

There is room for the graduating senior and the woman with career aspiration.  There is room for the privileged and the underprivileged.  There is room for the lgbtq, for the undocumented, for the refugee, for the minoritized. There is room for us all.

The angel Gabriel wasn’t kidding when he said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”  A Savior born in an overcrowded house among the animals because the good people there believed they had enough to make room.

This Christmas, may we know this Savior and this salvation when we too make room for all of God’s people.

[Feature Image: Wbeem]

Keep Walking–A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my Christmas Convocation sermon, “Keep Walking,” to the Monmouth College community, based on Isaiah 9:2-7.

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If Tim Kramer, our college’s videographer, were to set his camera to film all of us walking the slick sidewalks of campus this winter, I imagine he’d get a pretty good blooper reel. A few weeks ago (when the sun was still shining) I was walking and talking with our new Associate Chaplain, Jessica Hawkinson, along the sidewalk above the Stockdale parking lot. Jessica accidentally stepped off the pavement, lost her balance, and then just sort of rolled down the hill. It happened so fast. One minute she was there and the next she was gone.

I wouldn’t embarrass Jessica, though, if I didn’t have my own story to tell. My first winter here in Monmouth I slipped and fell down the stairs of the Weeks House, shouting out a very unchaplain-like word as I went. This would have been bad enough, but my fall happened right as the men’s track team was running by.

I’m sure these little spills don’t only happen to the clumsy occupants of the Chaplain’s Office, though. You’ve got your stories to tell too. I know you do. Now that winter has set in here we’re all going to be tripping and slipping our way around campus.

The prophet Isaiah opens his passage to us today by describing a people who weren’t unfamiliar with treacherous paths. Isaiah’s people walked in a time of darkness. They were living in fear. Neighboring superpower Assyria had been systematically taking over the entire region surrounding Israel and Judah. The people didn’t know if they should join a coalition that was preparing to fight Assyria or if they should try to avoid the bloodshed by giving in and giving up their rights and their freedom as an independent nation. Isaiah’s people were walking in an uncertain and frightening time. Perhaps we can relate.

I recently read an Advent sermon by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber in which she described the year 2016 as apocalyptic. And she meant this literally. The Greek for apocalypse means “to uncover” or “to unveil.” Many things were uncovered this year, many things that we probably would have rather left veiled. All the horrific shootings, the mounting evidence of police brutality, the racial and socio-economic tension and divisive political rhetoric did not create the anger, fear, bigotry and biases among us, it just uncovered what was already here. And that uncovering has been devastating. So devastating that it makes it hard to carry on. I mean what do we do in the face of all that 2016 has revealed? What is a pastor to preach this Christmas to offer any kind of hope?

I confess that on Wednesday, November 9th, I was among the 50% of our country that woke up despairing over the news that Donald Trump would be our next President. I drove to campus that morning wondering how I could be the Chaplain for such a diverse community as ours when I was personally feeling so broken and beaten. I attended all the meetings I was scheduled to attend that day, but I couldn’t focus on anything. So I abandoned my to-do list and just started walking. I came across a student who had recently come out as gay. He laughed at the absurdity of the election, the surreal feeling that this couldn’t possibly be life as we know it. But tears welled as he spoke, spilling freely down his cheeks and onto the sidewalk we shared. I caught a professor outside of the mailroom, he too in tears. How do I teach today, he asked? How do I just go on? Then, I started knocking on dorm room doors. (I do that sometimes. You all should know.) But I wanted to see my Latina students whose families are still in the process of becoming citizens. And our Syrian students whom I have grown to love. And the African-American student whose rage lit up Facebook, his fiery words highlighting his feelings of betrayal, once again, by White America. Then I ran into a white student whose views, I know, are more conservative than mine. He was afraid too. Not in the same way as our Latino students, and African American students, and Syrian refugee students. But he was afraid, nonetheless, that if people knew what he believed and who he voted for, he would be treated like some sort of monster to be shunned and disdained. I listened to him too.

As I walked campus that Wednesday and met people on the sidewalk, in the dorms, in their offices and at the mailboxes, I had no words of reassurance, no explanation that would make everything okay, no wisdom, not even any prayers. All I knew when I got to campus was that I needed to be with you and I needed to walk.

I recently discovered a poem called “Walker” by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. In this poem Machado writes: “Walker, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”

I’ve been considering this poem lately. The first part, “Walker, there is no road,” resonates, because right now, with the state of our government and our nation and our communities embroiled in tension and hostility, it feels as if there is no road forward. Seriously, where do we go from here?

The latter half of the poet’s phrase, “The road is made by walking,” offers a charge to which I know I should adhere. The poet suggests that there is no road forward until we take the steps to create it. It’s up to me, the walker, to forge the path. And, whereas, this sounds quite empowering—kind of like “be the change you wish to see in the world”—I’ll be honest, it also sounds exhausting, maybe even a bit overwhelming.

I’m sure you understand. I mean it is December 6th—the week before finals. If Will Ferrell were here he’d describe this end-of-the-semester time as like riding a bike, except the bike is on fire, and you’re on fire, and everything is on fire, and you’re in hell. Yeah, we’re just trying to survive.

So this is when prophets like Isaiah come in handy. You see, their job is to fuel our imagination with an alternative reality, a motivating vision of what God wills for our lives. Isaiah paints this picture as a time when the yoke of the people’s burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor has been broken. It’s a time when all the boots of tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood are burned as fuel for the fire because there is no longer a need for a military, no need for war. It’s a time ushered in by the birth of a child, a new King, who will rule with justice and righteousness—a Prince of Peace—whose authority will grow because of his love and respect for all people, most especially those who are poor and vulnerable. This is the vision the prophet Isaiah holds before us today.

Walking our campus with this vision in mind, it’s amazing what you will find, literally, just steps away.

A few weeks ago, I walked past Wallace Hall and paused to take in the chalkings. Affirmative statements such as, YOU BELONG,  YOU ARE LOVED,  YOU ARE WANTED, filled the plaza’s cement.

Mujeristas of Monmouth College

Teri with the Mujeristas of Monmouth College

This past Wednesday I walked into the Weeks House living room to sit and listen to Diana Rubi’s Mujerista Theology study group. Latinos are projected to be the majority population in our country by 2050. Holding this vision before them, Diana’s group discussed their responsibility to the world. How can they ensure, they asked themselves, that today’s oppressed do not become tomorrow’s oppressors?

Friday afternoon I walked to Hewes Library for a coffee from Einstein’s and passed a student reviewing Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” for an ILA exam.

Saturday afternoon I walked into Room 273 of the CSB to attend the Empowerment Workshop led by Neddy Velez and her group, People of Change.

Saturday night I walked here, to Dahl Chapel. The lights set by our theater students made it feel like you were walking into a fairy tale. Then, I sat down and was moved to tears by the beauty of the music performed by our chorale, and our orchestra, and our wind ensemble.

I, like you, walk this campus all the time. It’s what we do. When we walk, though, with the prophet’s vision before us another kind of unveiling occurs. It’s an unveiling of care and compassion for others, an unveiling of art and beauty that will move us to tears, an unveiling of people who seek to do good and make a difference with their lives, an unveiling of young lives being shaped for the future, our future—and it’s this unveiling that keeps me walking.

If, as the poet says, the road is made by walking, then I want to make this road by walking it with all of you— because you inspire me. You encourage me. You give me hope. If this Christmas Convocation leaves with you anything, I hope it is the knowledge that though the road ahead may be dark, it is well lit by walkers with their candles held high—walkers inspired and illumined by a prophetic vision of the world to come—a world we are to see into reality, guided by the grace and love of God. So keep walking, my friends. Keep walking.

[Feature Image: Renaud Leon]

Another Holiday Party

77906706_230622b507_oCarefully making my way in the dark, I climb a steep set of cement steps to a glowing house and my fifth of seven holiday parties. Entering a home unannounced goes against all my parents taught me—ring the doorbell, knock, don’t walk in as if you own the place, be a good guest—but at this house I know I am simply expected to enter. My hand on the doorknob, I hesitate. Without someone there to greet me and pull me inside I am offered a moment to reconsider, to imagine myself on my couch at home, under a fleece blanket, reading a novel, sipping a steaming mug of ginger lemongrass tea. Mmmm. The thought that I am expected here is the only thing that pushes this isolationist urge from my mind. I turn the brass doorknob, open the door, and walk myself into the party.

A pile of shoes lay strewn by the door. I add mine even though my stocking feet feel cold and insecure on the hard wood floor. I scan the room of partygoers, clumped like grapes in threes and fours around the living and dining rooms. A woman approaches me. I know her. I like her. I feel myself both welcome and recoil from her company. I need a party partner. It’s too awkward to stand alone. But I just don’t feel like carrying on a conversation about anything to anyone. My introvert switch keeps getting flipped at these parties, leaving me to shut down socially like a robot that is unceremoniously unplugged. I do my best to chat with the woman for a while. I feign interest until an appropriate moment arises to excuse myself, saying I need a drink. The kitchen is crowded. Lots of people need a drink, apparently, or need to be near the drinks. After a brief search, I find a clean glass and a half empty bottle of white and take my time pouring.

Now that I have a glass in my hand, I feel myself relaxing a bit. Maybe it’s the alcohol. Or maybe it’s just having something for my hands to hold—like a magic party feather. The wine buoys me enough to mill about, move in and out of a few clusters and search for my husband who I know is here somewhere.

When I find him I am not surprised that he has removed himself from the crowd. I sit down next to him on a soft, two-seater couch in a far corner of the living room and am rewarded with a rare gesture of affection as he stretches his arm across the back of my shoulders. We are not alone for long. Others eventually move to sit with us, in our cozy removed corner. But the warmth of my husband’s body next to mine softens my jangled, need-to-escape nerves. The golden liquid in my glass reflects the light in the room. Laughter and conversation bubbles up and breaks around me in a spirit of merriment.

Our host calls for our attention so he can make a toast. I admire the beauty of his dark, Pakistani skin—extremely rare in our small, central Illinois part of the world. Joy radiates from his face in the form of tears that silently, yet without shame, escape to streak his cheeks. He lifts his glass to friendship, to the tiny midwestern community that welcomed him, to love offered and accepted, and to the hope born within all of us whenever we are received as a cherished guest.

 

[Feature Image: Tony Blay]

 

Following a Star–A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my sermon, “Following a Star” from our Monmouth College Christmas Convocation based on Matthew 2:1-12.

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Writing a sermon for me is like following a star that has suddenly risen in the night sky. When I begin this journey, scripture text in hand, I have no idea where I am being led. I have to write my way in, following the thread of inspiration, and carefully guard my spirit so I don’t get distracted.

This is terribly difficult, however, because I have to forget about how badly I want this sermon to go well and how badly I want to offer you something beautiful today. I need to set aside my desires as well as my fears. I have to stop picturing myself preaching in front of our new President and the Dean and all you scary faculty types and all you college students who are so good at looking so bored. I need to meditate in order to free myself from these distractions, and I have to pray and attend to my soul and… I drink a little.

The acclaimed poet William Stafford likened his writer’s journey to following a golden thread. Stafford “believes that whenever you set a detail down in language, it becomes the end of a thread…and every detail—the sound of the lawn mower, the memory of your father’s hands, a crack you once heard in lake ice, [a star observed rising]—will lead you to amazing riches.”[1] The stance for the writer to take, then, is one of being “neutral, ready, susceptible to now. Only the golden thread knows where it is going, and the role for the writer is one of following, not imposing.”[2]

So I began this sermon not by writing, but by observing. And yes, a star. (I walked out into my backyard, laid myself down in the grass and watched and watched…until it began to snow) and I thought about the three men, or three Magi, who chose to follow one particular star in their sky far from Monmouth College. I’ll admit that I find these men attractive. I don’t know why biblical characters are always portrayed as old, gray-bearded, and grizzly. I don’t see why these guys can’t be athletically-built with olive skin and big brown eyes. Three tall drinks of water.

Really, though, I find these three men attractive because they were open to discovery, susceptible to the now, and ready to follow wherever life’s path might lead them….even if that path was unexpected and unconventional.

Post-biblical tradition has given them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Interestingly, they weren’t Jewish, so there wasn’t any expectation for them to go and pay homage to the new King of the Jews. They weren’t aware of the Jewish prophecy of where the Messiah would be born. All they had was a star way off in the distance to guide them. And yet, in spite of this, they decide to make the journey. So it didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to go with them. I mean, who knows what I might discover in such attractive company?

Every new journey is exciting at first. Just remember how you students felt on move-in day of your first year. So what if it was 98 degrees and raining, and your room wasn’t much larger than a small prison cell. College was awesome! Waving goodbye to Mom and Dad and your pesky little brother was liberating! You walk down Broadway for your Freshman walkout, again in 98 degree heat, hot slices of pizza in hand, getting free stuff, following a bunch of bagpipers who I once heard you describe as “totally badass!” I mean, it couldn’t get any better. The possibilities for your college journey were endless. New experiences, new friendships, new love interests, new ideas. It was all just so exciting.

My journey with the Magi began the night I lay in the grass observing the stars. I started to picture myself riding one of those camels and, for the first few miles, chatting with my new companions. They are astrologists, so they enjoy pointing out the different constellations, what they had learned from the night sky, and how they know that the star rising in front of us is the sign of a new king. My mind is racing with all the possibilities for this journey. I wonder who we’ll meet? Or, what kind of wisdom I might glean? Maybe I’ll learn some really cool survival skills out here in the desert and get a really great tan?   Here, at the beginning, anything is possible.

As it happens on long journeys, though, the conversation between us eventually lulls. And in the growing silence I become aware of my feet that hurt my lower back that aches and that star—well, it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Just how long is this journey? I wonder to myself.   And when might we take a break?

This point of the journey reminds me of Midterms. All the new excitement has worn off, and suddenly you’re like, “Oh CRAP, college is really HARD!”

When the Boys and I do finally take a break, it is out of necessity. The sun is rising and our star has vanished. We sit down beneath a grove of olive trees and my three companions quickly doze off, but I can’t get comfortable. The arid heat is crawling all over me and my mind won’t let me rest because my Type-A, got-to-have-a-plan-self, is starting to panic. What am I doing here all alone with three strange men? What would my mother think? Or my practical-minded father? I can hear him clearly, “Teri, what’s the point of this whole adventure? Where are you headed with this? What are your goals?” I can’t answer my father’s questions, though, because they are mine as well. I have no idea where I am headed. So I start thinking about quitting and heading home to be somewhere safe and comfortable. Somewhere where I can control my surroundings and my life and leave all this mystery behind.

When journeys get difficult—as they always do—our minds quickly begin to look for alternatives. When my sermon writing is faltering and I am panicking and picturing myself standing up here with absolutely nothing to say, I find myself being tempted by alternative paths. I turn to my husband and ask, “Dan, do you think Farm King is hiring? They have some really cool stuff there. Or Subway? I think I could make sandwiches for the rest of my life.”

Maybe after your first college midterms you started to ponder some alternatives too. So just how much does a stock boy at County Market make? Maybe living with my aging mother when I’m 36 isn’t as terrible as I originally imagined it?

If you’re here today, obviously you didn’t give in to the alternatives. You’re still on the journey and so am I. Not everyone sticks it out, though. For some, it is too tough. So what’s so different about us? Why are we still here? Well, I imagine, that you, like me, are here because we have hope, perhaps even a little bit of faith, in what lies ahead.

Hope is an extraordinary gift. Not everyone is so blessed to have hope. We don’t know what lies ahead. We can’t know. But we hope that it’s something good. So we keep going, even when the going gets really difficult.

The climax of our journey narrative today comes, of course, when my wise friends arrived at the house above which the star had stopped. When our 2-year-old Isaac met his baby sister, Ella, for the first time in the hospital, all he could manage to say, was “This?” “This?” Maybe the wise men had the same question. This is what we have been searching for? This tiny, fragile baby is the King of the Jews? This is the one King Herod is so scared of? Does this make any sense?

But you know how sometimes you know something is right because you feel it is right—even though all rational explanations tell you it is wrong? Well, I imagine that’s what happened here—because these foreigners who had no reasonable connection to this baby, were overwhelmed with joy at finding him. So overwhelmed that they knelt down in homage to him. Something must have clicked within them when they saw this child. Something must have told them that they had come to a place of discovery.

There is no greater joy, no greater feeling of exhilaration than to discover whatever it was that was waiting for you along the golden thread. William Stafford describes it as “amazing riches” and that’s how it feels. It’s the place of epiphany, and of revelation, and of a profound knowing that this was what was meant for you.

So, the moment I discovered what this Christmas sermon was about, I was running on the treadmill at our local YMCA.   I’d been journeying with those Magi for a long time—two weeks to be exact. I’d grown weary of their company and was contemplating lots of alternatives when— right in the middle of all these people exercising around me—it came to me. It’s about the discovery! Yes! It’s about the discovery on the journey! And suddenly I feel as if this huge weight has been lifted—because I know now where I am headed. I have at least discovered the direction. And so I start to bounce a little as I run…and I punch the speed button up…and I pick up the pace…and I turn the volume up on my Ipod…and THEN I am still so excited that I start jamming my fists in the air to the music in my ears! And yes, people are looking at me, but I don’t care, because I am feeling so much joy. I am overwhelmed with joy! Thank you, God! Thank you, baby Jesus. I have a Christmas sermon!!!

The sermon itself –like the Wise Men’s journey— is a place of discovery! A place of epiphany! It is such a high!

I hope you’ve known such moments. I hope you’ve known the overwhelming joy of discovery. Maybe it’s happened for you in a class, or a deep conversation with friends, or at a program you attended, when seemingly disparate thoughts and ideas came together in your mind to reveal—suddenly and inexplicably—something NEW about your life, or your future, or your perspective on the world. And then your mind explodes with possibilities and your body flushes with energy because of this new discovery! You discover your life and the world anew! These discoveries, these epiphanies, are what await us all along the journey.

I hope you’ve known such moments, because they remind us that the journey is worth it. They reveal that—as tiny, and fragile, and fearful, and vulnerable, and insignificant as we oftentimes feel—our lives are not meaningless. There is wisdom to be found along this road. There is joy to be found and love and beauty and grace. And—especially at Christmas—we are reminded that God is to be found here as well. God is not removed from us and from all this. God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. God is within each discovery.

So let’s take this moment, this sacred and holy moment, to open ourselves to the journey. This Christmas, let’s begin once again. Let’s follow our stars.

Now to the God who calls us on this sacred journey, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.

 

[1] From Robert Bly’s introduction to Stafford’s selected poems.

[2] Ibid.

Do Not Be Your Fear–A Christmas Message

fearWhat follows is my sermon from Monmouth College’s Christmas Convocation on December 10th, 2013.

I’m going to begin today with things I am afraid of.  It’s sort of a random list, but here we go.

I am afraid of:

  • Change
  • Global Warming
  • Snakes and Large Spiders
  • Faculty

I am afraid of:

  • Deep Water
  • Rejection
  • Speaking in Public
  • Looking or sounding stupid.

I am afraid of:

  • Something bad happening to my children.
  • The power I possess and how it can change me.
  • The power I do not possess and how it can change me.
  • Being all alone when I am old.
  • Stomach bugs that wreak havoc on my household
  • Disappointing people
  • My car breaking down far from civilization on a moonless night. A pick up truck pulls in behind me and a man gets out. He’s carrying an axe.

This is my random list.  I could go on.  But what’s on your list? Maybe the things on your list are far different from mine, but I’m wondering if your list is just as long. I was struck recently by the words of Quaker and teacher Parker Palmer who writes about the dominant role that fear plays in our lives.  Palmer says, “It is no accident that all of the world’s wisdom traditions address the fact of fear, for all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy. And all of these traditions, despite their great diversity, unite in one exhortation to those who walk in their ways:  ‘Be not afraid.’”[1]

When I first read Palmer’s words, I suddenly remembered that the scripture text from Luke that President Ditzler just read—the story of Jesus’ birth, the story of Christmas—included this exhortation.  “Do not be afraid!” the angel said to the shepherds who were “terrified” by this heavenly vision.

Which is extraordinary, if you stop to think about it, because what could really scare a shepherd?  Dan and I live just outside of Monmouth—which means we live five minutes away.  It’s beautiful out there, though.  I love it because it really feels like I am getting away when I go home. This area outside of Monmouth is Carhartt country, because our neighbors are farmers and day laborers—men and women who I see working out in the fields on bitter cold days, with their hoods pulled up over their ears, their Carhartt jackets zipped to the neck. I drive my son to school with the car heater blaring and I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work.  When we first moved to Monmouth from North Carolina three years ago in the bitter cold month of December, Dan and I ventured over to Farm King to equip ourselves for our new climate.  My amazing, talented, brilliant husband tried on a Carhartt jacket and—no offense, honey—but that thing swallowed him whole.  Carhartt’s are not made for men with professions like my husband’s.  Carhartt’s are made for shepherds.

Yes, this is who the angel appeared to on that cold 1st century evening.  The shepherds were the day laborers, the field workers of their time.  With their wind-chapped faces and dirt-stained hands, they were hardy and strong, able to work long hours outside in the bitter cold. Their job was to protect their flock from wolves and bandits and all types of evil that only appear when the night is darkest. They’d seen it all.  Until an angel showed up surrounded by the glory of God.  And these shepherds, these strong, hardy, fearless men were, suddenly, terrified.  Which reveals that no matter who we are, no matter our profession, or our life experience, or our temperament, fear lives in all of us.

Last week as I was feverishly preparing for this Christmas Convocation our son, Isaac, came down with a stomach bug.  We were up all night on Monday.  Then on Tuesday the bug bit our daughter Ella.  She got it worse than Isaac, which meant Tuesday night was, well, quite frankly, hell.  As soon as Dan and I fell asleep, Ella called out for us again.  She just got sick and sick and sick some more.

Early in the evening I took the general health precautions—washing my hands after every time I touched her or anything associated with her.  But by four in the morning I was so tired I just sort of gave up trying to keep myself clean because at that point puke and poop were everywhere.  It was in that 4:00am moment of exhaustion that I started to freak. As much as I was concerned for my baby girl who was so sick, I couldn’t keep my mind from reviewing my calendar and all the things I had to do—things that really could not be put on hold if I got sick.

So I started picturing myself on stage at Saturday night’s Christmas concert praying and puking.  I pictured myself here today preaching and puking.  Everywhere I went in my mind that night I was puking.  Puking on the President.  Puking on communion.  Puking all over Christmas at Monmouth.  As it will in 4:00am freak outs, my mind raced.  My chest felt tight.  My breathing grew rapid because I was afraid.

Isn’t it funny how fear doesn’t make rational sense?  I mean what good was my anxiety serving in my 4:00am freak out?  If I was going to get sick, I was going to get sick.  There was nothing I could do about it.  So why be afraid?  And why were the shepherds terrified when the angel showed up? Sure, they’d never seen anything like that before.  But did that mean it was going to be bad news?  They had no idea why the angel had appeared.  We just have such a hard time, we human beings, when we don’t know, when we can’t predict, when we aren’t in control.  Fear rises in all of us when we face the unknown.  (By the way, how are you students feeling about final exams?)

“Everyone has fear,” Parker Palmer writes.  “’Do not be afraid!’ does not mean we cannot have fear. Instead, ‘Do not be afraid!’ says we should not be the fear we have.”[2]

“Yes we have places of fear inside of us,” Palmer continues, “but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith.  We can choose to [live] from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety.”[3]

The morning after my 4:00am freak out, I wrote an email to a friend in which I shared all my anxiety about the week ahead.  In this email I mentioned that ironically my Christmas sermon was all about fear.  My friend didn’t think it was ironic, though.  She thought it was perfect that I was led to write and preach on fear in the midst of an anxious week.  “All of our expectations of what ‘should be’ throw us off,” she wrote in her note back. “What is happening is happening. You just need to find the place inside of you that can help you navigate.”  I wrote most of this sermon after receiving that email.  The panic was fresh, so it was easy to describe. And the act of writing helped me move my fear to its proper place within me.  From that moment, I moved forward in faith. What was going to happen was going to happen.  I would navigate and negotiate.  And I would not be my fear.

Some of you may be wondering…so how’d all this turn out?  Well, I did get a little queezy last Friday.  But that was it!  Today I’m good to go!  President Ditzler, you are SAFE sitting beside me!

Getting back to the shepherds, though, they also overcame their fear.  Out of their trembling, they moved from a place of panic to a place of faith, and hope and trust.  Which led them to a baby.  The Christmas story is a story of new birth, yes, but it’s also the birth of a new way of being.

A new way of being, that to fully understand, we must acknowledge the context of fear into which Christ was born. A context that poet Madeleine L’ Engle describes as:

A land in the crushing grip of Rome

A people betrayed by war and hate

Honour and truth trampled by scorn

The inn was full on the planet earth.

This was no time for a child to be born.

And yet Love still took the risk of birth.[4]

With this birth, a way of being was born that brought people together rather than pushing them apart.  A way of being was born that inspired people to courageous, revolutionary acts, rather than crippling them with anxiety and panic. A way of being was born that commanded we care for the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, rather than a fearfulness that built walls and fences and deep-rooted prejudices to push away all who were different.

Yes, the Christmas story is a story of new birth, but it’s also the birth of a new way of being.

So let’s revisit my list and wonder for a moment about who I could be if I were not shaped by my fear of change, or rejection, or of disappointing people?

Who could you be if you were not constrained by the fear of making mistakes, or of following your passion, or of asking yourself the hardest questions?

Who could we be if our fear of loss, or of being wrong, or of not having enough did not rule our lives and our world?

Who could I be?  Who could you be?  Who could we be if we lived not from a place of fear, but from a place of faith, hope, and trust?  Well, we’d be a people made new.

Christmas is always a beautiful time of year.  It is even more beautiful when we understand it as God’s invitation to us, once again, to be born into a new way of being.  “Do not be afraid!” The angel cries.  Do not be your fear.  For unto us a child is born.

Now to the God who invites us to this place of new being, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, (Jossey-Bass, SanFrancisco, CA), pg. 93.

[2] Ibid, pg. 93-94.

[3] Ibid, pg. 94.

[4] Lines taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s poem, “The Risk of Birth”, The Ordering of Love, (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2005) pg.155.