12.25.2013

at dawn

Last night I played this one more time, from Heather's celtic Christmas album:
O come, O come, Emmanuel


Thinking about a Christmas haiku this year, I kept remembering the first one I wrote, about fifteen years ago. I was in the novitiate then, on a path to be a priest with the Dominicans. But this feels even more appropriate for this year:

At dawn the star fades,
the barn filling with birdsong
to waken the son

12.24.2013

12.23.2013

st. nick

The inspiration for Christmas gift-giving (and for Santa Claus) is St. Nicolas of Myra. Not a whole lot is known about him, but this story seems to be the reason for his reputation:

A poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of their plight, Nicholas decided to help them but being too modest (or too shy) to help publicly, he went to their house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window. One version of the story has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age." Invariably the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead.

People soon began to suspect that Nicolas was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.

A pretty inspiring example. But right away I notice that his giving was very different from our Christmas gift exchanges. Take each point I mentioned yesterday: Nicolas gives without expecting anything back; he gives to someone who most likely can't pay him back (as Jesus taught us). Nicolas gives quietly, anonymously, avoiding praise. And he didn't give for the sake of a holiday; he gave because he saw someone in need right then, and he responded to that need. That's real gift-giving. So very different from our Christmas distortion.

Where I'm living right now, in a Christian intentional community, Christmas gift-giving has been moved to Epiphany, or "Three Kings Day." To try to connect the traditional gifts with the wise men's gifts, something more meaningful than Santa. But the distortions of gift-giving are pretty much the same (a public, seasonal exchange, among people who don't really need anything).

And what of the wise men? Again, their gift-giving is very different. They give to someone in need, a poor family from Nazareth, who cannot repay. And it wasn't any holiday. They gave when God moved them to give. We made a holiday of it because their giving was truly beautiful.

But why don't we follow their example?

12.22.2013

2 days, 15 hours, and 7 minutes...

Heather's parents are coming (from France) and her brother too (from Thailand) right after Christmas. So Christmas gift-giving came up again, though without too much fuss. It reminded me of these old favorite entries, from years ago:


I stepped away from of Christmas gift-giving gradually. My first confused questions started when I was a teenager, wandering around a crowded mall trying to complete my gift list. And the questions persisted, growing more and more bold, until I finally stopped giving Christmas gifts altogether about ten years ago.

Ironically, during that same time it was becoming more apparent to me that gift-giving was central to the Christian life. I was coming to believe that everything we do should be a gift to others, just as it was in Jesus' life. When I could finally specify clearly what I disliked most about Christmas gift-giving, it was that what happens at Christmas is almost the opposite of what true gift-giving should be.

As Jesus taught, gifts should be given without expectation of anything in return. That's basically the definition of a gift. Yet at Christmas there is definitely an expectation of something in return—we don't give gifts, we exchange. Jesus also taught that, when we give, we shouldn't make a show of it or expect recognition. "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." But what have we made of our Christmas gift exchange? The biggest show of the year, a show in every home ("OK, this one is from Aunt Lily..."), a parade of charity emblazoned on billboards and full-page newspaper ads.

Perhaps the part that confused me the most when I was younger was how to find the inspiration to give gifts suddenly at a certain time of the year. Now I think I understand love better. Love doesn't appear out of nowhere at Christmas like Santa Claus; it doesn't count the days until it can express itself. Love gives when the need arises. Love appears when we encounter someone that God wants to touch and we let that healing touch work through us. But this doesn't happen according to the calendar. And we don't have to scratch our heads trying to figure out what to give. When God shows us someone in need, and we're paying attention, God also shows us what to give.

This is all lost when we make gift-giving a seasonal event, and gifts become meaningless trinkets destined to clutter someone's closets and garage (and storage locker, etc)—because no one we know really needs anything. Such a show is not a beautiful celebration of gift-giving. It is a twisting, an undermining, of the true meaning of gift.

Tomorrow: But what about St. Nick?

12.18.2013

"my spirit rejoices"

Our reading for prayer tonight, from Luke 1:

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

And Mary said,

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

"He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

12.10.2013

12.05.2013

God is gracious

Just sent this to friends and supporters:

We were grateful this Thanksgiving to have our boy with us, Ian George, born just a month before. It was an all night labor, but Heather did great. Hard to believe that was seven weeks ago. Now he’s starting to give us some smiles, which I really appreciate. It’s nice to finally get some positive feedback!

Ian is the Scottish form of the name John, meaning “God is gracious.” And God has been very gracious in providing for our needs this season. A playpen left by a neighbor that was easily converted into a bassinet. A friend that helped Heather make cloth diapers. Many gifts of baby clothes handed down from Ian’s future playmates (and a good car seat, too). A breast pump passed on by another friend, which is now starting to allow Heather some extra freedom. And the many blessings offered at the baby shower (because we didn’t need any more gifts!). Oh, and then there was the driver of the public transit bus who’s gotten to know us during many trips to see the midwife—when he heard what Ian’s name meant, he quietly slipped me $50.

I’m not exactly sure when we’ll be ready to offer retreats again, but probably by next summer. Our friends from Emmaus Ministries came in the fall instead of their usual winter retreat (it was much more peaceful here in September). We hope to introduce our boy to friends old and new during coming retreats, examples to show him what it looks like to trust our gracious God in the hardest circumstances.

Peace and hope to you this Advent season.