Friday, December 20, 2019

The Very Best Nativity Ever

Last year I did a Christmas story round-up thanks to a parent who asked me what the best picture books are for teaching the Christmas story. After having lived with a number of those books, I can report that I stand by the list. But I also keep coming back to my favorite, The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas. The text is from the King James Bible and if I have one critique of the book it's that a different version of the scripture would have been preferable. But I just substitute my own words when necessary and that fixes that. Below are the reasons I love this book this even more than ever, including one you might not expect, and which came as a surprise to me.

1) The beauty of the illustrations in general but especially of the animals and the angels. They are rag-tag and colorful. The angel's wings have holes and they wear combat boots. Gabriel sits with Mary over tea while a chicken hangs out under the table. In the announcement to the shepherds, angels ride the sheep (below). In an illustration after the birth, an angel is cradling the infant Jesus while Mary struggles to get back up on the donkey. 

2) And speaking of people holding the baby, this book contains the only image I can think of in which Joseph holds the infant Jesus. Pictured above, Joseph cuddles the little one, while Mary slumps on his shoulder. In ever other nativity scene, a kneeling Mary looks down at her little one beatifically while Joseph stands over them, possibly with a staff. And also here, there are more chickens!

3) And finally, naked baby Jesus. I never anticipated that the Christmas story would be the thing that prompted the "where do babies come from" conversation with my child, but why not, it's the nativity after all. And sure enough. Adorably naked baby Jesus seemed to be Orie's cue to ask, "How did the baby get out?" And so together we talked about uteruses and vaginas and labor and his own birth story. And no, he won't ever be able to have a uterus but he could have a partner who has one. It was a beautiful conversation.

Thank you Jesus and Julie Vivas for providing this opportunity to talk about bodies and birth. Merry Christmas, everyone. May you too lean into the surprising opportunities of the season.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Comfort Y'all, My People

The following was my brief reflection in response to the theme question of our Advent season at SMC: "What are we waiting for?" and the theme word, "Comfort" drawn from the the text, Isaiah 40:1-11.  It wasn't quite the sermon, but it has a lot of sermon qualities.
Like, me, I’m sure that many of you, when you hear the text of Isaiah 40, “Comfort, O Comfort my people” hear music in their heads, whether that’s, "Comfort, comfort O my people, speak of peace now says our God,” or the much more tricky, “Comfort ye, my people” from Handel's messiah, followed by the warble of “every va-a-lley sha-all be exa-alted” I’m sure we hear and sing this text more than we read the scripture from prophet Isaiah. Especially at this time of year. Especially if you, like me, have ever spent any time in a choir.

But these words were prophecy before they were set to music for Christmas, long before there was a Christ or Christmas to celebrate. These were words spoken to a people who had been in exile for a generation or more. People who had been through some stuff - seen their city and homes destroyed, been taken into exile, wondered if God cared for them - whether God was even there any more.

And here comes the prophet with the words of God. Not, “Take comfort” not, “I comfort you,” but, “Comfort my people.” Or, as the tenor sings, “Comfort ye my people.” (Not, as apparently some people grew up hearing, “Come for tea, my people.”) In any case, these are instructions. Plural instructions. So who is God talking to? There’s some consensus in the academic community that God is speaking to the divine counsel. Speaking to the community of heaven to get out there and let the people of Israel know that this is it. Their wait is over, their deliverance is at hand.

Indeed we see later in the writings of Isaiah that the Persian king Cyrus will restore the exile to home and land and temple. Making a way through the hills and valleys of the wilderness. But at the moment of this prophecy that is still to come and God is speaking - possibly to other divine beings. But maybe God’s instructions to be comforters are for the very people who are in need of comfort.

As a Canadian I grew up thinking of the word/phrase “y’all” as a very American, very southern expression. Maybe still (?) that’s the impression. Certainly it’s not Canadian in usage - some Ontarians say ‘yous’ in a similar way. But I’ve started to find y’all handy. As I try to be at least somewhat more gender neutral in my language, I’m using “y’all” instead of “you guys” to indicate a plural “you.” Also, now that I’m a passport-carrying American citizen I feel I can rightfully adopt it as the language of my new people.

I think this right here is a “y’all” situation. God is saying, not “Comfort ye,” (or even "Come for tea") but “Comfort y’all, my people.” You, God is saying, you all are a people who have been through some stuff and you are in need of comforting. You have experienced loss and trauma and you need to be consoled. But also, y’all, you’ve seen and experienced some stuff so you know how to offer comfort to each other. Be comfort and consolation for your kindred. Offer care where you know care is needed. You know better than anyone how to do it.

I believe these instructions might be the encouragement to God’s people to keep on keeping on as a community who supports and consoles each other through trauma and loss. We can receive it as encouragement as well. Any community that experiences loss and goes through some stuff - which is to say basically every community, y’all be there for each other. Show up for each other. Care for each other. Pray for each other and hold each other. What are you waiting for? Comfort y’all, my people.

Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Write This on Your Doorposts

In the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses receives the law and presents it to the people, he follows up with instructions: Repeat God’s commandments often - when you’re getting up and sitting down, going out and coming in - and bind them to the door post and gate in order that you may see them often and be reminded (Deut 6.) Some Jewish families take this instruction literally by posting mezuzahs, little capsules attached to a doorway which hold the first commandment to worship God alone. A concrete reminder to make God a priority.

In recent reading I’ve been challenged by author Natalie Frisk to think about whether I “have physical reminders of the good news message of Jesus around the house and in life” in the manner that’s encouraged by Moses’ instructions regarding the law. When I look around my house, I realize that I have plenty of religious themed art - both Christian and not, often mementos of travels to other places - but nothing that speaks specifically to the good news of Jesus and the call to walk in his footsteps.

In her book, Raising Disciples: How to make faith matter for our kids, Frisk talks about how important it is to make our faith visible, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our children and all who enter our space.  If we internalize what is most central to our identity as Christians how will we pass it on? She inspired me. I thought about which of Jesus’ teachings are good news to me and which I seek most to follow and pass along to my own children.  Which do I want to be reminded of every day?

I’d been looking for something to hang in an awkward spot in my kitchen with weird dimensions and an oddly placed electrical panel.  No painting or hanging has been quite right. Neither of the quilts purchased at the MCA fit the spot and as I thought about making a quilt to cover it I’ve drawn a blank.  Until now.

Now our family will have Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the peacemakers” hanging before us as I cajole the kids through breakfast before school and as we eat dinner together as a family. Each Sunday as we light our peace lamp in worship we pray for a just peace for all creation. I hope that these words of Jesus in the kitchen will bless us to be that peace-filled presence.

In my own childhood home, our dining room wall held a framed quotation of Menno Simons.  Words which are drawn from Jesus and which may be well known to some in our congregation.  Word which have inspired me to a faith that shows itself in action: 
True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant, it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it binds up what is wounded; it becomes all things to all people.
That’s just a little too long for a quilt.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

I'm Thankful For...

No thanksgiving themed content this week, except by way of a little roundup of some things that I'm personally thankful for this week. In addition to the things listed below, I am oh so grateful for y'all and for the ministry of preparing worship and formation for children, youth and families. Here are some things I'm giving thanks for:

Music of The Brilliance especially their Advent music volume one and volume two. It might be a smidge too early for Christmas music (although I do not begrudge anyone who is seeking that joy) but I'm ready for Advent and I love this music written especially for the season. Their version of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," one of my Advent faves, is so lovely (on vol 2). The Brilliance will be in Seattle at Chop Suey in a couple week and I can't go! Bummer.

Finding Fred Podcast - This podcast asks the question: why are we obsessed with Mr. Rogers? Why the current cultural fascination? I have especially appreciated host Carvell Wallace's exploration of Mr. Rogers and race and theology. But the way that he approached the development of children and their needs for care and empathy is still unlike anything else that TV has ever offered.
I find Carvell Wallace really compelling. He's sincere and brings a lot of his own questions and struggle to his work. So I looked up some of his other work too, including a parenting advice podcast for Slate called 'Mom and Dad are Fighting' (as yet unlistened) and a podcast called 'Closer than They Appear.' "If America is an estranged family, this podcast is our awkward holiday dinner." He digs into his own complicated history of being a black kid in a mixed race family and the implication of that on parenting. I've only listened to the first ep, a conversation with Mahersalla Ali and so far, so great.

God's Pronouns - Speaking of language and gender, an internet friend shared this hilarious but oh so relevant piece about God sharing their pronouns on McSweeny's this week. I was like, "I just preached on that!" I wasn't as funny as Kathleen O'Mara and Jay Malsky.

The Butterfly Mosque - I heard G. Willow Wilson speak at a writers festival in Portland last month. I'd read one of her books before - Alif the Unseen - but primarily knew her as the writer for Marvel's reboot of the Ms Marvel series, featuring Pakistani Muslim American hero Kamala Khan. I knew that Wilson was Muslim but none of the back story. The Butterfly Mosque tells her story of conversion in college just before 9/11, the years she spent in Cairo shortly afterward, and the relationship with the Egyptian man who became her husband. And I just learned she lives in Seattle so I might stalk her.

Supporting Indigenous Economy - I'll be volunteering at the Duwamish Longhouse at their annual art sale - support indigenous artists and craftspeople with your holiday shopping money! And btw here is the holiday placemat that Megan mentioned in worship this past Sunday.
If you live in the north end and want to support a Native-owned business, I recommend the new coffee shop in the Burke Museum, called Off the Rez. The cinnamon sugar fry-bread is Orie-approved. They started as a food truck, which is still going strong and could be parked in a neighborhood near you.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Advent is Here!

candles in the dark against a backdrop of unfocused twinkly lights

Hey folks. Advent is around the corner! And thanks goodness. Orie has been asking me LITERALLY EVERY MORNING for the past week if today is Christmas. It didn't help that my mom sent a package for the kids to open to get ready for Advent - I mean come on! At least when Advent starts the calendars will be a vehicle for counting the days. Yikes!

So here we go. Below are some new and some tried-and-true Advent ideas for you to take a look at. And maybe try! I would love to know what your traditions and family practices are related to this season of waiting for Jesus.

Chocolate Calendar - Divine Chocolate is my go-to treat-based advent calendar both because it's fair trade chocolate and because there's a little bit of the Christmas story in each window. I just went ahead and got one for everyone in my family because then no one gets left out. I chose the dark chocolate version for myself.

Do-It-Yourself Nativity - This Paper Nativity by could be printed and put together each day of advent little by little. Or just all at once as an activity. And if you're feeling creative, you could make your own or have kids make different pieces of it.

Tiny Image and Devotions: Thomas Mousin's tiny devotions calendar is a down-loadable one-page calendar with a brief verse and mini-picture for each day. In this years (he does one each year) you need to do a little searching to find each day. Could be colored in as the days go by, or just used as a prompt for reflection and conversation.

Praying in Color: In a similar vein, Sybil McBeth at Praying in Color does a new Advent fill-in-with-color calendar each year, which is more free form and person/child directed. I've sometimes done this myself as a little personal devotion for Lent or Advent and value the few minutes of mental space it creates. Explore the website to learn more about how to pray in color if you get stuck.

Advent Word: For the more online-inclined, join others around the globe through #AdventWord, an online advent calendar which chooses a focal word each day and encourages followers to post their own reflections, images and prayers inspired by that word and share with other followers through social media platforms. More at or by searching #adventword on social media. I did something similar to this once on instagram and often see others doing so. It's fun to see what the different words inspire.

The 99c Advent Wreath - I am skeptical this this will really be 99 cents, but the supplies include glitter, modeling clay and birthday candles, so it's definitely affordable. Children can create it themselves and if each child in a family has their own, perhaps the competition over who gets to light/blow out the candle will be eliminated (my hope, anyway).

Living Advent Wreath - this wreath made of actual children pretending to be candles is probably not something any of us are going to do at home - I just thought it was a really cute idea. Maybe we can figure out a way to do this in worship some year.

Advent Devotions - Common Word, a resource from Mennonite Church Canada creates a family-friendly downloadable advent resource. This seems like it could be used daily or occasionally or weekly, whatever works for your family. This year it's called, "Waiting and Wondering"

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Creating a Culture of Generosity

When I was a child, my family went to a church that operated on a pledge system. Each family was strongly encouraged to pledge an amount that they would contribute as a household over the year. I don’t remember this being talked about in my family, but I do remember the little pledge envelopes that my parents’ checks were tucked into and which in turn were shared in the offering plate as it passed us on Sunday morning.
When the offering plate (or quilted bag, as the case may be) passes us nowadays, very few of us tuck something into it. There are a lot of reasons for this: many of us give electronically, either through our banks or using the very convenient ‘donate’ button on SMC’s website; we don’t carry cash and checks anymore as a matter of course; we might give in a planned way in bigger chunks a few times a year; we don’t have a regular giving practice; we don’t feel as if we have the money to give. Some churches are getting rid of the act of offering during worship all together because they are experiencing the same thing.

As we give up the practice of giving during worship, that physical and visible act of putting something into the collection, where do we and our children find opportunities to practice and discuss living generously? Everywhere I read about creating a culture of generosity within a family and community I see modeling as one of the top ways to pass along this value, as well as talking openly about giving and reinforcing generous behavior with gratitude and praise. I think that’s likely as true for adults as it is with children. Doing it, talking about it, reinforcing it.

Last year we made a commitment through our Jubilee discernment to putting our Jubilee values into practice through our giving. I’m excited to be a part of a congregation that has done that important work of discerning that God's call to us is to increase our household giving in order to be responsive to Jubilee. Like our Jubilee document, our budget tells a story. It’s why we moved from a line-item budget to a narrative budget. Even the money spent on staff or facilities tells the story of the ministries that we are committed to as a congregation. While our commitment to greater giving isn’t yet bearing out in practice, I look forward to seeing how your money will continue to write a story of forming people in the way of Jesus, celebrating in worship as a family of faith, supporting people experiencing homelessness, partnering with people in wider church and repairing brokenness created by ancestors.

I have been so grateful to see our grade 3-5 kids walking around with offering pails after worship in the past few weeks. Grateful that they are talking about giving in Sunday school and grateful that they’re challenging us adults by making giving a visible part of our fellowship. I experienced a twinge of panic and guilt when I didn’t have anything to put in the waiting bucket and while I don’t want to return to what might have been a pressure, shame and guilt based system of giving, the very public nature of their campaign caused me to commit to having some change in my pocket next week. I pray that as a congregation we can live into the challenge we’ve given ourselves to be generous and to continue to tell out loud the story of how our money is following Jesus.

Here are a few of the on-line resources that I looked at around children and giving:

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Citzenship of the Saints

I've been thinking a lot about identity this week.  I became a naturalized US citizen this week. This was after a wait of almost a year and a half after I first made my application.  The wheels of bureaucracy turn extremely slowing in this administration. So while this has been a day I've been anticipating for a long time, it's always been with deep ambivalence.  Unlike so many people who come to this country, while this was a choice for the sake of marriage and a job, it was also not something I had ever sought or dreamed of or aspired to.

As much as I have loved Seattle, I have also prided myself a little on my identity as an outsider, and particularly as a Canadian outsider.  Especially in these days when progressive Americans are crashing the Canadian immigration website with their interest in leaving the country, I think I've even felt a little smug.  So to add "American" to my identity has felt not so much like an addition but somehow like it's canceling out both my other identity and my identity as "other".

And that's a problem.  Not that I feel like American-ness is canceling out my identity as Canadian, but that I've been as tied up as I have been in my identity as citizen of any nation over what should be my primary identity as a disciple of Jesus.  If I am a citizen of anywhere it is of the Reign of God.

As I prepare my message for All Saints Day and think about the beloved saints who have shown me the way, I don't think about good citizens, I think of good disciples.  Sometimes they are one in the same, but sometimes, good disciples are troublemakers and rabble-rousers.  Sometimes good disciples don't follow the laws of the land (as I had to promise in my citizenship ceremony) but protest laws that are unjust.  Sometimes good disciples are noisy and nosey and get in the way of governance for the sake of peace.  Jesus was not a good citizen. And when I think about my own kids and the little ones whom we will dedicate in the way of Jesus on Sunday, I hope that they will be better disciples than they are citizens too.

At this time of year All Saints and Veteran's Day (Remembrance Day in Canada) converge to make me turn to the people who I remember as witnesses for peace.  (I've written about that before here and here). I hope that as I continue to figure out what it means to live as a citizen of two countries, I'll keep remembering the people and identity that root me in my identity not in nation but as God's beloved child.
me and my freshly minted citizenship certificate