A Calendar for the Season

This online Advent calendar is something I created for my parish.  I’m hopeful it might be useful to others as well, and so I offer it to you here as my only entry during this time of Advent.  May the season bring you joy.  (Simply click on the picture to reach the calendar.)


Blessings of the Week

Lest you wonder, this will be the only blog entry until after Thanksgiving.

We sang this hymn in church yesterday.  It’s typically associated with Thanksgiving.  But its history emphasizes a different kind of gratefulness than is our usual focus now.  Here’s its history (excerpted from an article by Melanie Kirkpatrick):

 The hymn, “We Gather Together,” is actually of Dutch origin and speaks of religious persecution that predates the first Thanksgiving.  The melody can be traced back to 1597.  It began as a folk song but was transformed into a hymn dealing with overcoming religious persecution on 24 January 1597.  That was the date of the Battle of Turnhout, in which Prince Maurice of Orange defeated the Spanish occupiers of a town in what is now the Netherlands.  At this point, the Dutch Protestants, who were prohibited from worshiping under the Spanish king, Phillip II, celebrated the victory by borrowing the familiar folk melody and giving it new words.  “We Gather Together” connoted a heretofore forbidden act—Dutch Protestants gathering together for worship.  It first appeared in print in a 1626 collection of Dutch patriotic songs.

How did this Dutch patriotic song get from a Dutch songbook to the American hymnbook?  Dutch settlers brought the hymn with them to the New World, as early as the 1620s.  Dutch Calvinists, like most Calvinists, rarely sang anything in their church services that was not directly from the Bible.  Indeed, they normally put the Psalms to music.  But in 1937, the Christian Reformed Church made the controversial decision to permit hymns to be sung at church and “We Gather Together” was chosen as the opening hymn of the hymnal.  Furthermore, Theodore Baker, an American scholar studying in Leipzig, where the choirmaster had published an arrangement of the hymn, translated it into English in 1894 as a thanksgiving “prayer” to be sung by a choir.  According to the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, which maintains a database of popular hymns, “We Gather Together” first appeared in an American hymnal in 1903.  Over the next three decades it appeared in an assortment of hymnals in the Northeast and the Midwest and in school songbooks.  In 1935 it was added to the national hymnal of the Methodist-Episcopal Church, then the largest denomination in the US.”

Click on the hymn below to hear the hymn:


Amid prayers of thankfulness for good food, friends and family may we also remember our freedoms and commit ourselves to work toward freedom for all.

Blessings of the week to you and yours.

Imagining Reality

Clive Staples Lewis. He died on this day in 1963, though he touches us still through his writings. The Chronicles of Narnia are epic in scope and imagination.  In June of this year we brought a portion of it to life at our Vacation Bible School, based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  The church proper was transformed into Narnia.  Each day we ventured through the wardrobe into that land of imagination where things weren’t always as they seemed.  Together we remembered what it means to encounter the dark side in ourselves and in the world and then to imagine a better tomorrow, where love prevails.

Here now is C. S. Lewis in his own words, together with a few glimpses of the joy his work brought us this summer.

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.”  ― The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
            “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.”
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
“People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time.”
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
“Well, sir, if things are real, they’re there all the time.”
“Are they?” said the Professor; and Peter did not quite know what to say.”
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Thank you, Mr. Lewis.

Stumbling Blocks Reconsidered

“Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!”  (from Matthew 18:1-9)  This quote from the gospel appointed for today is situated in the middle of a teaching about who’s the greatest in the kingdom of God.  Jesus is pictured making a case for humility as the key to greatness, offering the analogy of becoming like a child.  A warning is given to all who would intentionally place a stumbling block in the path of a child, and by inference, in the path of those seeking to be childlike in spiritual matters.  Occasions for stumbling will occur; but woe to those who cause others to stumble.

On the other hand, most anything can cause us to stumble.  Life sometimes seems to be made of one long chain of stumbles.  There is, at least for me, value in those moments when I stumble, skin my knee or turn my ankle, and then sometimes quickly/sometimes slowly get back up and continue on.  I’m different after each stumble.  I see the world and myself more clearly for a moment.  Things settle into a different kind of perspective.  I’m jolted into a different place.

Our chickens are very instructive in this regard.  We incubated 7 of our hens’ eggs this past spring.  Four hatched–two pullets/two cockerels.  We re-homed the cockerels before they became full-fledged roosters.  The pullets are just about to become full-fledged hens now–a huge moment in their lives.  But because of their age and size, they’re currently at the bottom of the pecking order.  The other hens put stumbling blocks in their path every day, pushing them away from feed and water until they’ve had their fill.  Two days ago, one of the almost-hens (her name is Beatrice) was being unduly harassed.  Instead of fleeing (as usual), she flew atop one of the waterers.  The older hens stared in disbelief and then moved to the other side of the field, as though in the presence of one possessed.  Who’s the stumbling block now?  The pecking order is now in the process of revision.

Change is almost never welcome.  We seem to prefer the familiar, the predictable, the known.  When we stumble, we sometimes change.  The civil rights movement, the ordination of women (finally, women bishops will be permitted in England…), the quest for marriage equality, the abolition of slavery, the American Revolution all came from stumbling blocks placed intentionally by others.  And, in turn, these events/movements are stumbling blocks for others.

Perhaps the step after the stumble is more significant than the stumble itself.


Oh, Those Marauding Heathen

Oh my, the citation for today’s appointed saint (from http://satucket.com/lectionary/), Edmund of East Anglia, fascinates for its labeling:

“When the heathen Anglo-Saxons invaded Christian Britain in the 400’s, they eventually established seven kingdoms: Essex, Wessex, Sussex (East Saxons, West Saxons, and South Saxons), Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia, and the Jute kingdom of Kent. Under the influence of missionaries from the Celts and from continental Europe, these peoples became Christian, only to be faced themselves by a wave of heathen invaders. Edmund was born about 840, became King of East Anglia in about 855, and in 870 faced a horde of marauding Danes, who moved through the countryside, burning churches and slaughtering villages wholesale. On reaching East Anglia, their leaders confronted Edmund and offered him peace on condition that he would rule as their vassal and forbid the practice of the Christian faith. Edmund refused this last condition, fought, and was captured. He was ill-treated and killed. His burial place is the town of Bury St. Edmunds.”

While I understand the formal definition of “heathen” refers to someone not part of a major world religion,  the heathen of my childhood were usually those folks not behaving as my mother thought they ought.  It was a pejorative, judgmental term.  And while I realize not all missionaries use questionable methods to persuade the heathen of the eternal reward awaiting them if they’ll just accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior (oh, my), it’s fair to say not all missionaries practice their own best teachings.  I guess that’s true for all of us from time to time.  So, while today’s lectionary reading about Edmund of East Anglia points toward his life we remember today, it also points toward the ways in which we war with one another–verbally and physically.

Yesterday was caught up in a whirlwind of events that seemed to occur rapid fire:  Senator Creigh Deeds was assaulted by his son (who took his own life following the assault), a student at Liberty University was killed by a security guard in a dormitory there, two people dear to me and my parish had surgery, a cow (Elsie–pictured below with her calf) whom we’d loved on our farm for 6 years (and 6 months ago sold to another farm) died, and a rocket carrying 29 satellites blasted off from Wallops Island Flight Facility to the delight of our godchild (and his mother).  It was all at once a sad, messy, joyful day.  An emotional roller coaster of sorts.

But in morning’s light, what I see is the need to stop stereotyping  or labeling experience, as though labels somehow restore order, and instead simply to live it…in all its raw intensity.   Because that’s what it means to be here…now.  No more marauding heathen.  Just experiences along the way that can allow us to love more deeply, when we choose that path.


Little things matter, too.

Princess Elizabeth of Hungary, whose feast day it is today, had deep compassion for the sick and poor.  She used her dowry money to help provide for their needs.  In the spring of 1226 Hungary experienced heavy flooding and subsequent famine and disease.  Elizabeth sold her jewels to provide for disaster relief and to build a hospital.  We remember her today for her example of compassionate action.

Present-day disaster response teams and first responders allow us to offer immediate relief with skill, order and precision.  We’re grateful for the work they do.

I’m grateful, as well, for moments of unorganized, spontaneous compassion that we show one another.  It’s that immediate “oh no” when we hear of the plight of another followed by some outward expression of “we care” that can make all the difference….both for the one receiving the care and the one giving it.  Small gestures of caring matter more than we may think at such moments.

A while back we lost most of our flock of hens to a fox attack.  We were heartsick.  They were our first flock.  But we replaced behind them and tightened security a bit more.  Then there was a possum attack and we lost a few more.  I posted something about it on Facebook.  Within the hour, our godchild (then age 4) and his mother arrived with flowers from their garden.  It made me want to weep and laugh all at once to see Adam running toward us, flowers in hand.  That gesture of spontaneous compassion didn’t bring back our chickens, but it said to us, “We care.”

C.S. Lewis wrote a much acclaimed book, A Grief Observed, reflecting on his bereavement following the death of his wife.  Spontaneous compassion, like that of Elizabeth of Hungary or of our godchild, allow us the comfort of “a grief shared”.  Little things matter, too.


Living Intentionally

Today is the feast day of Hilda of Whitby who died on November 17, 680 CE.  She’s remembered as the wise and politically astute founding abbess of a monastery in Whitby, Northumbria.  The abbey was based on the Celtic monastic model, with members living in small cottages clustered together.   Men and women lived separately, but shared worship and meals together.  Hilda’s monastery was chosen as the site for the Synod of Whitby (664 CE), where it was decided to use Roman practices (regarding the calculation of the date of Easter and the garb and hairstyle of monks) rather than Celtic practices.  Naturally there was disagreement about the decision. Dissenting monks in the Synod withdrew to Iona (from Lindisfarne) and then eventually to Ireland.

Intentional communities of all sorts give us a window through which to view our souls.  How shall we live together in peace?  How shall we support one another?  How do we address differences?  Political systems, neighborhood agreements and religious covenants all work to provide blueprints for how to get along with one another.  The questions each system attempts to address are the same.  Answers vary, as do outcomes.

Nelson County is home to several intentional communities.  The one I know best is the one contiguous to our property:  Shannon Farm Community. It was formed in 1972 and established in 1973.  By their own description Shannon “is a cooperative intentional community, home to over 60 adults who range in age from the 20s to the 70s and over 30 children from infants to teenagers. Together, we share 520 acres of mountain forests, pastures, and river-bottom hayfields at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Our spiritual values are based on concern about the well-being of our community and each individual member; sustainable stewardship of our land, dwellings, and infrastructure; and respect for the right of each member to hold their own beliefs without harm to others. While committed to our intentional community, we remain connected to the wider society through jobs, friendships, and individual interests.”  So, does it work?  Yes, and here’s why:  the community is committed to its core values.  While individuals may come and go and disagreements may arise (because humans disagree from time to time), the community itself survives.  It takes work to stay focused on being intentional.  It takes a willingness to hang in there with one another.  The members of Shannon Farm do just that…better than many.  I’m grateful to call them neighbors.


“The Rapture of Being Alive”

Apparently Norse mythology predicts the world will end February 22, 2014.  It won’t be pretty. Today’s appointed gospel reading (Matthew 16:21-28) runs parallel in referring to a time when the “Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of the Father and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”  The shared thread seems to be a human hope for divine retribution.  If we can’t exact our personal versions of justice now, then the Creator God must do it later.  It’ll be horrifically magnificent and a much-awaited finale for those righteous ones who are (apparently) without blemish or who have repented sufficiently to earn a special ring-side seat.

Won’t I be surprised if that’s the way it all turns out.

I prefer Joseph Campbell’s view.  He says (in The Power of Myth), “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

The “rapture of being alive”, as an experience, reframes our focus.  If the world as we know it does end on February 22, will it be a mistake to have lived fully and deeply until then?   The vistas, the people, the smell of the earth and the season changes here in Nelson County help nudge the soul toward the rapture of being alive. So does the smell and taste of good coffee.  (Thanks, Trager Brothers, for bringing that present-moment rapture wake-up call to us early each morning.)  L’Chaim!


Enough Said.

The gospel appointed in today’s Daily Office (Matthew 16:13-20) contains one of my favorite verses.  The author of Matthew is describing a conversation between Jesus and his inner circle.  The disciples are telling Jesus about who the crowds think Jesus might be–maybe a prophet, maybe John the Baptist.  But then Matthew’s author gives Jesus these words to say, “But, who do you say that I am?”  The answer given in the text is, for me, unimportant.  Rather, the question can be daily and life-long for many of us.  Answers vary with time and life experience.  It seems to me the less we worship Jesus and the more we follow his example, the clearer it becomes that we can incarnate love, seek truth and cherish beauty…or not.  Jesus on a divine pedestal seems to get us off the hook.  When we emphasize sin (whatever that may be) and point to our unworthiness (because we’re not divine like Jesus, so this line of thinking goes), we disenfranchise our souls.  And that’s just wrong.

The beauty of Nelson County and its people remind me over and over again that we are worthy…just the way we are.  Enough said.