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.