Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas morning 2016

Probably surprising no one who read last night's blogpost, this morning's sermon also seemed banal to me. The presentation of Jesus at the Temple (Luke 2:22ff) -- which is more appropriately next Sunday 'cause circumcision is 8 days after birth (it's right there in verse 21) but okay, I can roll with it (and the preacher pointed out that this scene actually happens 40 days after the Nativity -- which I can believe is the purification period law, but I would have appreciated an explicit nod to that*).

When we imagine the baby Jesus, do we see Jesus the way that Simeon (and Anna) did? One could actually do things with that, but I felt like the sermon was so blah blah blah. Like, even if I agreed with the preacher's theology (which I don't entirely) I don't think I would have felt nourished by the sermon.

A couple times he quoted Simeon's line to Mary "and a sword will pierce your own soul too," but he didn't talk at all about how it can be difficult to follow in the Way of Jesus, to have one's life transformed by accepting the promise of salvation/redemption/restoration that God offers us in Jesus. He talked a little about how Simeon and Anna were the only people to recognize Jesus out of all the adults and all the babies in the Temple that day, but he didn't talk at all about what it might have been like, for example, for Simeon to spend his whole life waiting for this promise to be fulfilled -- did he ever doubt? So many opportunities to make this story relevant to contemporary U.S. Christians, even without getting into national/global politics, and none taken!

I didn't feel like I came out of the sermon with any real idea about who/what Jesus "really" is, other than some vague nods to the Crucifixion and Jesus as savior of the world. But "seeing who Jesus really is" was the whole point of the sermon, so that feels like a total preaching fail to me.

I just, I don't have the ability to talk for 5-10 minutes (I didn't time the sermon) and basically say nothing, and I don't understand how someone can draft a sermon like that and think it's acceptable.

* My HarperCollins study Bible on verse 22 referred me to Leviticus 12, and the purification period for the bearer of a child assigned male at birth is 33 days (verse 4). But it also asserts that the periods are consecutive ("For seven days following the birth of a male child and fourteen following that of a female child, no conjugal relations are allowed. For an additional period of thirty-three and sixty-six days respectively, contact with sacred spaces and objects is proscribed.") so 7+33=40.

Christmas Eve 2016

Every year, I go back to my parents' for Christmas and go to Christmas Eve service at the church I grew up in -- which has a different pastor now but a similar centrist non-political vibe. So it's not like I was actively expecting critique of our nation's slide into a fascist dumpster fire, I just -- the service is roughly Lessons & Carols, with the pastor offering a brief "meditation" after each reading, and each reading/meditation I found myself hungering for something substantive, something connecting the ancient story to the present day ... and it was just so banal, like why are you even bothering? Christmas Eve and Easter are the two most attended church services in the year, so those are your big chances to really speak to people, and if you want to let the texts speak for themselves I can understand that choice (who wants to have to come up with something new to say about the Christmas story?), but if you're gonna offer commentary, then actually say something!
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
-Luke 1:26-37 (NRSV)
It's really difficult for me to hear this story afresh, so I zoned out, and in the meditation the pastor talked about Jesus is the savior of all but came first to the Jews, fulfilling a promise God made to Abraham centuries before, and I worried there was gonna be some awkward supersessionism or something, but there wasn't, and I was hopeful that this would segue to opposing the rise of anti-Semitism ... but it didn't.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
-Luke 2:1-7 (NRSV)
So, the census made me think of the idea that's been floated of a Muslim registry. And hey, Syria! Or you could talk about how this positions Jesus in a specific political and historical context, that we don't exist separate from the political structures of our world.

Instead, the pastor talked about how each Gospel has a different author and is written to a different audience, and Luke is writing to Gentiles, to Greeks, and so he's situating the story with references they would recognize, but these men who were the most powerful political figures of their time are dust now (while Jesus is not). Which, okay, true, but systems (racism, capitalism, etc.) persist -- and this comes uncomfortably close to implying that it doesn't really matter who the earthly political leaders are because ultimately Jesus is Lord.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
-Luke 2:8-16 (NRSV)
The pastor wondered what that experience must have been like for the shepherds -- and said that's nothing compared to what the experience of the Second Coming will be like. Really, that's where you're going with this? The message of salvation comes first to some of the lowest people in society, and the message is PEACE -- days after the President Elect Tweets about a nuclear arms race, and all you have to say is to close out the service bringing us full circle from God's promise to Abraham to the eventual Second Coming? You have made glancing mention of the Crucifixion and the salvation you believe was enacted in that, but beyond some vague cosmic ideas you have given me nothing about why I should still care about this ancient story or what God has to say to the present moment. I get that most people show up to Christmas Eve service because (a) they already care, or (b) it's just What You Do, or (c) their family dragged them, so probably no one else was unhappy with this service, but I just don't understand how you can be a theologically engaged person (which this preacher is; my mom really appreciates how much Scripturally engaged his Sunday morning preaching is), and honestly just a person living in the world today, and ~preach such an empty service.

Friday, December 23, 2016

picture book recs (round 2)

Nibling turns 6 months old today, and I've definitely gotten far fewer picturebooks read in the last 6 months than I did in the preceding 6 months (~50 vs. ~150). I also feel like I've been excited by fewer books (understandable, as I've gotten through most of the obvious recommendations).

Books I'm excited to recommend:

Second tier:


Initially, I was particularly interested in books about the African-American experience, because my (white) nibling was going to be growing up in St. Louis, southwest of Ferguson.

Then about 4 months post-birth, my brother got a new job and they started planning a move to Florida, and the Hispanic/Latinx/Caribbean(-American) experience felt to me most relevant (with Cuba particularly in mind given Fidel Castro's death while we were visiting for Thanksgiving) -- and yes, I know that Afro-Caribbean is very real.

But then I was going through the picturebooks remaining on my To Read list on GoodReads and yeah, I'm still interested in All the books.

I went to the Fathom Events broadcast of George Takei's Broadway musical Allegiance earlier this month, and I want more books about people of Asian ancestry, including historical books. (Including history that's not American history -- I recently read Haruki Murakami's novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and was aware of how little I know about the historical context of the Asian portion of WWII.)

And in looking at my GR to-read list, I was aware that many of the African-American books on there are biographies -- which is great, but I also want to have plenty of books about regular people today, that makes people-not-like-me part of the reader-child's natural world (thinking of my own nibling; obviously it's also important for kids to see themselves reflected), not just distant figures in history (this is especially true for Native Americans, who we tend to forget still exist).

I have said before that I'm grateful to be picturebook shopping at a time when there are so many well-written well-illustrated picturebooks by and about people who aren't the unmarked default of white, straight, cisgender, Christian, economically comfortable, etc. And that's certainly true, but I'm also conscious of how few books (available in English in the US) there are about kids from India, how few books there are about kids with disabilities (especially ones that aren't aimed at teaching Valuable Life Lessons to non-disabled kids), etc., etc. I'd guess there are the most picturebooks about default-setting kids; followed by African-American; followed by Latinx; followed by East Asian-American; then I'm not sure the breakdown of Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Indian, disabled, Deaf, other identity categories I'm not thinking of...

[2016] The Christmas Revels: An Acadian-Cajun Celebration of the Winter Solstice

I took my mom to Christmas Revels tonight.

I wasn't expecting Revels to be explicitly political, but the Introduction in the program from Artistic Director Paddy Swanson said:

One might think that the grim underpinnings of this year's Revels would make for a gloomy Christmas celebration. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paradoxically, the darkness of this story sets off the brilliant light of the Acadian spirit.

At this time, with over 65 million displaced persons adrift in the world, the historical fate of the Acadians who were expelled from their homeland by the English in 1755 may seem a relatively small tragedy, a sad story that humans seem doomed to repeat generation after generation. At the heart of the story, however, embedded in their music and customs, is a unique Acadian lesson in survival and change that remains as powerful and topical as ever. This is an example of a community that endured and adapted and in the end created an alternative identity for itself as Cajun, Music was the thread that tied together the Acadian people's experience of pain and joy. If they had to walk, they would fashion a walking song. [...]

And when David Coffin was teaching us the songs at the beginning, he told us we were to stand for the third and final verse of "The Sussex Mummer's Carol," saying, "These days, you've gotta stand for something -- or you'll fall for anything," and yes a lot of people groaned at the old joke, but I also felt like the first half was really pointed.

The scene where the British soldiers come to the Acadians [in what is now Nova Scotia] and basically tell them that this land is under British control now and they can leave or they can stay -- on the condition that they sign a loyalty oath, their practice of their religion might be outlawed in the future, etc. -- felt really resonant in this current historical moment -- a new regime that you didn't ask for takes control, and you don't know if you're safe in your homeland anymore.

I had been excited to see in the program


Warsan Shire is a Somalian writer based in England who distills the refugee experience into haunting poetry. Her work has recently achieved popularity as the poetic underpinning of Beyoncé's latest album Lemonade.

but I still wept as I watched two adults tell a child a to leave.
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
[I think the fragment the Revels scene closed with ended with "leave" repeated, transitioning to "go," but the rest of that verse, which closes out the full poem, is so powerful.]

The next piece was the "Lord of the Dance," which always precedes intermission, and which felt jarringly upbeat after that low-light recitation, but that song is a story of the Christian triumph over death, so it also felt somewhat appropriate, that defiant joy even in the midst of so much loss and sadness and uncertainty.

So much walking happens, and the little girl says she hates war (they've been evicted from their homeland because the British and French keep fighting over it), and then we sang "Dona Nobis Pacem" (which we sing almost every Revels) and introing it, David said something like, "Let's make a little peace, at least for this moment."

The Acadians learn of land in Louisiana available from the Spanish and travel down there. The little girl wishes for a proper Christmas, and her companion asks what she wants, offers her a make-believe Christmas. The first thing she says she wants is a house, and I started tearing up again.

The Three Kings show up (one played by a woman, I was pleased to note), in Mardi Gras aesthetic, and Caspar says to her, "In your time you may be Ah-cadians, but in our time you're just Cajuns," and says that she's already either "home" or "family," I forget, but I was really touched. I'm not into blood connections as inherently meaningful, but the idea of those connections across time and space, of people finding each other, of people welcoming each other as family...

In The Mummers' Play, King Rex fights King Alligator, and at one point the Alligator says something like, "I could defeat you with one hand tied behind my back," and King Rex makes a comment about his small hands, and the audience laughs, and Rex stays paused, like, "You get it?" and I suspect most of us got it the first time, but people laughed again. After Rex defeats the Alligator, he chases him offstage saying something like, "Get out of here or I'll drain your swamp," and the Alligator says, "Promises, promises..." So yeah, Revels, not afraid to use humor to punch up.

After the Sword Dance and the ritual killing of the King, someone asks if there's a doctor in the house, and enter Dr. John (in an outfit like this one, minus the bone necklace -- Revels photo here) and The Dixie Cups (with elaborate headdresses such that I first thought they were doing a drag queen aesthetic). It felt like the most contemporary music/dance I've seen in Revels.

After we sang The Sussex Mummer's Carol (the end of the show), the band played upbeat music for a while, and it felt really good and important. The annual reading of Susan Cooper's poem "The Shortest Day" (which comes right before that song in the program), listening to it this year I was thinking about the fierce reveling against the darkness, keeping the light alive.