Friday, December 27, 2013

Third Day of Christmas

   Enfolded and Embraced

In a still gray moment
in a quiet lonely place,
may God’s gentle mantle enfold you
and circle you with grace.

May Her sweet breath brush upon you
and warm your body through,
Her gracious arms encircle you
like a flower wrapped with dew.

May you truly know within
that you are God’s delight,
and She longs to hold and love you
through your deep, deep night.

Source:  as quoted in 


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Oh little town of Bethlehem: A Christmas Sermon for St. Mary's

It can be difficult to get to Bethlehem. When I was on Sabbatical, one Saturday morning my brother and I drove from Jerusalem, which is in Israel, to Bethlehem, which is in Palestine. It’s about a five mile drive, or if you are a true pilgrim, a 2 1/2 hour walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

To get into Bethlehem, you have to find the place in the wall that has been constructed between Israel and Palestine.  To keep the terrorists out.  At the gate, there are soldiers with guns who check your passport before entering. After passing safely through the gate, my brother and I drove in circles for a while before arriving at Manger Square. We parked our car, and walked toward the Church of the Nativity.

It is a Basilica that was built in the fourth century over the place where Jesus was thought to have been born.  And rebuilt and rebuilt.  Earthquakes and marauding armies do happen. One would expect a very fancy entrance, large and ornate doors, into such an important church. But the door inside is pretty much a hole cut in the wall. It’s very small, so that one has to bow to get through the door that leads towards the manger. Or be a child, short enough to walk through.

I bowed to get through the door, walked through the narthex and through yet another door and into the church itself. For the most part, the church is a very old, very empty space. A large hall with columns around the edges but no seats at all.

At the very end of the hall, in the apse, one sees a small space that is lit by lampas, glass and metal  held candles hanging from the ceiling. It looks like a sky full of stars. Which is a motif that I found again and again in the Church of the Nativity. Stars in stone and metal everywhere I turned.

There’s an altar under that candle-star ceiling. It is built over a cave which is the place that may very well be the actual place that Jesus was born. Certainly the little town of Bethlehem was full of citizens the night of Jesus’ birth, and all of the guest rooms were empty. Bethlehem is full of caves, and the tradition is that animals were housed in those caves, and it was in one of those caves where Joseph and Mary found shelter. 

To get to the actual place of Jesus’ birth, one has to walk down stairs and through yet another door to the small chapel built in one of those caves under the altar. In that chapel is yet another altar, and under that altar is a large fourteen-pointed silver star. In the middle of the star is a hole, and if one bends way down, and touches the center of the star, one can actually touch, with thousands of tourists and pilgrims before us, and thousands more to follow, the stone on which Jesus was born.

I’ll admit that I was pretty cynical during my three week travels in the Holy Land about the veracity of some of the places set aside as sites where this or that happened in Jesus’ life. But I couldn’t help myself—I walked down those stars and into the cave that is now a chapel. I stood at that altar, and then knelt low, and when I placed my hand on the rock in the center of that Bethlehem star, I felt transformed and filled with light.

What a surprise.  I was a believer.

As God would have it, unlike every other Jesus-place that I’d visited in the Holy Land, there was no crowd.  In fact, the church was pretty much empty except for the clergy and women religious and a few stray guests.  Like me. I was able to stay for what felt like a long time bent low in that place where so many other pilgrims had prayed before me.  I prayed for my parish family at St. Mary's, and I could hardly wait to come back and tell them all about it. I’ve been holding this story in my heart to share with them this Christmas for over a year.


The night that Jesus was born, for me the central characters of the story are not Mary or Joseph or even baby Jesus. They are the shepherds out in the pastures surrounding Bethlehem watching their flocks of goats or sheep. Ordinary people doing ordinary things. Probably not expecting anything special that night, particularly from God. God chooses them to be the very first to know, outside the manger, that the Son of God was born, as a baby wrapped tightly in a receiving blanket right after birth, in the place where the animals were kept safe.

What does the angel of the Lord say to them?

To you is born this day in the city of David [Bethlehem] a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Who were Jesus’ parents?  Mary and Joseph. But the angel does not say Mary and Joseph’s child is born this day—but your child. The shepherds and all of ours who hear the angel’s message. Jesus was not only born into his birth family. Jesus was born into each of our lives and hearts. The angel says so!

Do you know what the word Bethlehem means? House of Bread.

Not many of us get to travel the long road to Bethlehem in Palestine. But week after week we come to a House of Bread at St. Mary’s. It has an altar, and it is the place where our gifts of bread and wine are offered and blessed, and given back to each of us. When we cup our hands to receive the bread, it looks like a little manger. Every time that bread is placed in our manger—hands, Jesus is born again for us. Every time we take that baby Jesus bread and put in our mouths, and eat it, and swallow it, Jesus is born again in our hearts.


On one of the doors in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a sign:

We are hoping that if you enter here as a tourist, you would exit as a pilgrim.  
If you enter as a pilgrim, you would exit as a holier one.

Our prayer for all of us who gather tonight in this Bethlehem, this House of Bread is that if we have come as a tourist, showing up because it’s a place to visit, that we will exit as a pilgrim. Someone seeking the truth of Jesus who was born in a cave 2000 years ago.

For those of us who entered as pilgrims, may the mangers of hearts be filled with the True Bread, the Love of God, and may we be transformed once again into the star-filled Light of Christ.   AMEN

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent Prayers

When I travel for vacation or on retreat, a part of my spiritual practice is to pull out my St. Mary's directory and pray for every member of the parish by name.  In the back of my directory, I always make a note of when and where I've prayed, and even when my directory is out of date and gone to the shredder, I tear out that page and hold onto it.  Those pages have become a kind of prayer journal.

While I was on my Advent trip to New Mexico, as I wrote notes to those who had made a money Stewardship pledge, I'd prayed already for a good number of the congregation.  It wasn't until I was seated on the plane getting ready to fly home, that I realized I hadn't prayed for the whole parish from start to finish.  I opened up my directory and began to pray.

The sun was beginning to set as we took off from Albuquerque.  It was one of those rare plane trips where I had a whole row to myself, and I moved from my preferred aisle seat to the window so I could enjoy the changing light.

I glanced out the window, and there reflected on the vesper light was my St. Mary's prayer list.  Since we were flying west, my list stayed bathed in the sunset through the very last name in the directory.

O Gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving God in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God:  Holy and Undivided Trinity.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Word of God, O Giver of Life, and to be glorified by all the worlds.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Advent Traveling Mercies

The long day of journeying back to the rectory is nearly half way through. As much as I love to visit places away from home, I still struggle with the anxiety of the uncertainty of travel. I tend to do pretty well, usually, with the changes and chances of ordinary daily life;  I like to think it's because I trust God for pretty much whatever happens. Travel that involves airplanes has countless opportunities for disaster, most of which are out of my control. 

The fact that I would use disaster for most of those things that are simply inconveniences speaks to a place for continued spiritual growth.  When the anxiety mounts, I try to remember to pray. I've also been learning to do a mantra of reminders--did I ever not make it to where I was going?  Did I ever die?

Of course not. 

The other place that God and I are working on is the inconvenience and uncertainty of delays. Somewhere on this trip I heard something about the gift of delays.  They give us a time to slow down; to even be a kind of Sabbath. 

This reminds me of the joke of not praying for the gift of patience because we might not like the answer to that prayer.  If I'm honest I'd prefer not to have the opportunity to practice the gift of delay. 

So here I am at the Albequerque airport with time to spare--extra time to visit with my best friend before we get on our different planes. There was even time to stop at our favorite coffee place in Santa Fe, Downtown Subscription, where we shared one of the fabulous local donuts (ahh vacation).

After 9 days of snow, my coat, hat, and gloves are packed until my next trip. For today, I am always, ever learning the truth from the One who has never, is never, will never let me down, and learning that the inconveniences and delays may often contain the very best surprises. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent stillness

My last full day away;  tomorrow I begin the long trip home made a little sweeter by an unexpected first class upgrade on the flight home. 

Still not feeling as well as I'd like to feel, the pace has continued to be slow. I try not to think about the speed that my life will take come Sunday morning. 

I've had to carefully pick and choose what is the very most essential thing to do each day.  Slowed down I also paid more attention to each moment that filled my  day. 

Morning toast with butter and local honey. 

A sunlit walk in a labyrinth partially covered in snow. 

Making my annual bead ornament with my best friend. 

One last short walk around Taos. 

God has been a good travel guide. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent Blessings

The gift of doing without is that it can enable us to see how full we actually are--and as emptiness is filled, each drop is full of richness and light. 

For the first time this week, I woke up feeling good. This morning I am enjoying my first cup of coffee since Monday at the airport. There is a fire in the fireplace, and for the first morning this week I am enjoying my morning quiet and Bible reading sitting in front of it.   Later today it will get to the high 20s--warm enough in the sunshine to walk into town--the first time this week I've felt well enough and warm enough to do so. 

Yesterday I felt well enough to start my Advent cards. Creating cards is a tradition my best friend and I have practiced for nearly all the years we've traveled together.  I'll make less cards this year because there's something else I want to do. 

I am so very grateful for my St. Mary's family and all they have given to me. My administrative assistant printed cards (and bonus return labels, too) with our 2014 money stewardship mission, Love All, logo on it.  I'm adding some personal touches and writing a note to the 100 folks who've made a 2014 pledge. I'm three days behind because of getting sick, and I may not finish on this retreat as I'd planned. I'll spend the morning seeing how far along I can get. 

Meanwhile, I hold in prayer today all those who are cold and have little hope of being warm. 
All those who have no appetite. 
All those who are hungry and have little hope of bring filled. 
All those who are sick in body and have no one to care for them. 
This morning I give thanks to God for having a warm place to live and warm clothes to wear; 
for once again enjoying food, especially my morning coffee; 
and that I have so many, many folks who care and pray for me.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advent Sickness

 I know I'm sick when I don't want to take photos or eat; I know something is amiss when I go out to eat at a northern New Mexico restaurant and order chicken soup instead of blue corn cheese enchiladas.  

Monday I started feeling achy and tired and nauseous. By Monday night I knew that I was really ill and went to bed the minute I arrived at my casita in Taos.   On Tuesday, I already had an appointment with Bonnie, a massage therapist with healing hands, and since I was pretty sure it was altitude sickness and I wasn't contagious, I kept the appointment.  

Her diagnosis?  With the severe cold (below zero since I started traveling last Thursday) along with altitude change from Houston (49 feet) to Bend (3700 feet) to Denver (mile high) to Taos (7000 feet) plus coming on this trip worn out from this past autumn, I had a good dose of altitude sickness.    

One of my daily devotionals for Advent is one written by Jan Richardson with her husband Gary,  "Illuminated  2013:  An online journey into the heart  of Christmas."  In today's blessing there is a line: for the older woman who "feels in her flesh the measure of her days."

When we are younger, we look back on our lives and delight in all of the things we used not to be able to do that now we can. There's another point in our lives, if we are given the gift of years, that we are aware of the things we used to do but now can't. 
This itinerary of  Advent travel would have been little challenge a few years ago, but this year it has laid me flat. However, I find myself not grieving this change. I can float and dance with the things that I can't do and be aware of the many gifts of life that God continues to pour down on me. 

Meanwhile, I have a beautiful place to rest and my best friend has fetched me bland foods. It is really too cold to spend much time outside, and we have a tablefull of crafts we brought to do. I am hour by hour feeling better and the slower pace is most appropriate for an Advent rest of waiting. 

In a little bit we'll drive to a potter friend's for tea and tomorrow it will be warmer. This may not be the trip we'd planned but it is perfect for today. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent in Denver

On my way for Jonas' #1, I'm over half way through a seven hour layover at the Denver airport. Thankfully thankfully thankfully I had a pass for the United Lounge with comfortable chairs and free snacks and wifi.

Working on pictures and music; praying for those I love. It's 70 degrees colder here than when I left Houston. Putting my Advent wreath on my front door before I left, I had to swat the mosquitoes away. Now all I see outside the window is snow.

The word for today on one of my iPhone Advent devotionals is:


Julia on Norwich said,  "The best prayer is to rest in the goodness of God, knowing that that goodness can reach down to our lowest depths of need."

And Brother Curtis said on the SSJE Advent Word for the Day, which today is Desire:

Listen to your desire. Our capacity to desire is God-given. No matter how flimsy our desires, no matter how conflicted or shadowy or duplicitous or even wrong our desires may be on the surface, they are connected to something deep within our souls that really demands attention, and that is good.

If you want to hear what The Rev. Barbara Crafton has to say on this first Thursday in Advent, you can follow this link.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent One: Expecting unexpected joy

Keep awake, be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.  Matthew 24. 42, 26

This past August,  I was in Oregon for my grandson's third birthday.

By the time we’re three, we are really, really excited about our birthdays and the gifts and the cakes and the party.  My grandson was no exception.

The morning of his birthday, and of his party day, too, he and his mom made birthday cupcakes.

I was looking at the photos of their cupcake baking, and was struck by how very, very present my grandson was in the task of making cupcakes. He wasn’t focused on the birthday party or the presents or even eating the cupcakes later that day. He was completely engrossed in each step of the cake baking as if all he had to do in the world was to bake cupcakes with his mom.

There is probably no other time in the year than in these days before Christmas when we have more distractions--certainly at least as many as a three year old on his birthday.  During Advent we have an opportunity to reframe those distractions and to approach them, live them, from a place of being fully present for the unexpected joy that God loves to pour down on each of us.  Of having nothing more important in our lives than finding God in the present ordinary moment.

It's being like a three year old making birthday cupcakes.  Not eyes focused on the seemingly bigger events later in the day (or the week or the month), but on whatever moment God has placed in our lives at the very present time.  When we do, when we are, we will sooner or later be surprised by joy.

And we might even get to lick the bowl.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Rain makes applesauce, and apple crisp, too

The very last tree that my dad planted on his farm in Chambersville was a golden delicious apple. When I was visiting my mother at the end of summer, the tree was full of apples and we picked as many as we could reach.

They were pretty hard and not particularly delicious for eating raw (it turns out that part of the reason was that we were picking them before they were completely ripe).  I took a big load home and froze them for later enjoyment.

My very favorite way to eat an apple is when it's a good, crisp, juicy, sweet raw apple--my personal favorite right now being a honey crisp.  My second favorite is apple crisp--apples sliced and baked with cinnamon and topped with a crumble of oats, flour, butter, and brown sugar.  I especially enjoy it warm and topped with Greek yogurt.

Yesterday at church we had our money stewardship ingathering, and to celebrate we had a big Thanksgiving lunch after the 10.30 service.  Sonya and the St. Ann's ministry moved the tables to make long rows for family style sitting together, and then decorated the tables with beautiful decorations.  Every one brought a dish to share--heavy on the desserts, dressing, and macaroni and cheese--and Traci roasted a turkey.  We were full of joy--and delicious food.

I decided that making a crisp from the apples picked from my mom's tree was what I wanted to share.  I hadn't peeled the apples or dipped them in lemon juice before freezing, so they weren't the prettiest apples ever; in fact, one parishioner complemented my plum crisp. Still, with a little extra honey and cinnamon, it passed the taste test as far as I was concerned.

When my daughter, Lisa, was a little girl one of her favorite books was Rain Makes Applesauce.  Turns out that it now has a Facebook page, and you can even read the words of the story on the internet.  I never cook with apples that I don't remember the joy it was reading that book together and saying the refrain, "And rain makes applesauce.  Oh, you're just talking silly talk." My son and I read it, too, and I now read it with my grandsons when I go to visit them.

Later this week I'll go to my mom's for Thanksgiving.  Both of my brothers, one of my nephews, and one of my brother's friends will be there, and the friend is cooking the turkey.  It will be a small gathering, and I know that I'll miss my children and grandchildren, my other nephew, and our extended family of cousins.  My mother has said she has a hankering for some apple crisp, so I'll make some for her to enjoy.

It's cold and rainy today but I feel warm inside--thinking of happy memories of my children and books and family gatherings with both my birth family and my church family, too.  I'll warm up a little leftover apple crisp in a bit and top it with yogurt.  My heart is full of thanks--for a warm home, and enough food to share, and so very much love in my life.

As Julian of Norwich says,

Thanking is a true understanding of who we really are.  With reverence and awe we turn ourselves around toward the working  that our Good Lord incites us to do, enjoying and thanking with our real selves.   True thanking is to enjoy God. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Until we meet again, know you are loved

Until we meet again, know you are loved.  

That's a line from the blessing song that the Sisters of Our Lady of Grace always sang to the Women Touched by Grace at our final worship together.  The Sisters' arms outstretched to the 30 women clergy who had finished yet another ten glorious day retreat, it's a tune that is often in my head whenever I say goodbye.

In less than two hours I begin the airport shuffle back to Houston.  I've sung Noonday Praise with the Sisters one last time, I've had my last meal, I'm nearly packed up, and I've done a final walk around the Monastery which included my final labyrinth walk.

I've walked the labyrinth each day--in cold and colder; wind, snow, and rain; sun and overcast.  Today was the first day that I didn't need a coat, and the sky was bright clear blue and the leaves were even more technicolor.  As I prayed while I walked I became aware why this retreat was especially sweet.

I came here from another retreat, the Episcopal Diocese of Texas Clergy Conference at Camp Allen, and I'd had good worship and food and fellowship and intellectual stimulation and affirmations and rest.  I left there full of joy and came to this retreat already in a very good place.

While I was here in Beech Grove, I started the six week Well to Serve program, and it's always a surprise how good walking 10,000 steps each day and eating healthy, especially giving up sugar, makes me feel.  But I think that it was the openness of my time that gave me true rest.

My ordinary daily life is very full and scheduled, and here there was very little required these past five days, and much free time in between those very few events that I felt like I was floating in a large, warm lake. Because I wasn't running to the next thing, I was able to accept invitations to stop and chat or share a meal. On Saturday night I went to the Knights of Columbus with three sisters, where nuns eat free (I got to as well!).  It was the best gift not to hurry.

My heart continues to be very full of gratitude.  I have another song in my head, a hymn we sang yesterday during the Eucharist:

Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers' arms
has blessed us on our way

with countless gifts of love,

and still is ours today.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mary all around the monastery

For most of my life, Mary was pretty much a prop for good stories about Jesus.  It wasn't until after I was ordained, and began to face more deeply what it meant to be a woman called to serve God, that I began to search Scripture for tips, and ended up doing quite a bit of study about Mary.  When my son went through some hard times in his teens and early twenties, Mary became a companion for me, one mom with another.  I believe that all those who have gone before us intercede, in some mysterious way, for and with us in heaven, and I expect that Mary has a special affinity for moms with challenging sons.

It's no real surprise that I became rector of a parish named for Mary, and that when I became a Benedictine oblate, that I made vows with the sisters of Our Lady of Grace (one of many, many names for Mary) Monastery.

On Saturday evenings, it is the practice of the sisters to end Evening Praise with a hymn to Mary, the Salve Regina, whose ancient words are sung in Latin. Most Roman Catholics are very familiar with it, and high Episcopal churches may add it to their liturgy.  I don't think I'd ever sung it until I started coming to the monastery eleven years ago.

Queen, mother of mercy:
our life, sweetness, and hope, hail.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To you we sigh, mourning and weepingin this valley of tears.
Turn then, our advocate,those merciful eyes toward us.
And Jesus, the blessed fruit of thy womb, after our exile, show us.
O clement, O loving, O sweet
Virgin Mary.


There are images of Mary all about the monastery.  It makes me wonder what inspired someone to place each particular image of Mary in each particular space.

Tree Stump Mary standing guard on top of the last bit of a chopped down tree next to the monastery.

Mosaic Mary in the midst of a garden.

Near Her Son Mary as one of the Stations of the Cross that surrounds the Sister's cemetery, 

and On Her Lap Mary as another Station.

At the Foot of the Cross Mary next to John the Beloved Disciple is in the very center of the Sister's cemetery and the surrounding Stations of the Cross.

Our Lady of Grace with welcoming arms to all at the entrance to the monastery.

Stained Glass Mary at the entrance to the chapel of the Benedict Inn, the guest house of the monastery.

Stairwell Mary watching over our going ups and coming downs.

And Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner Mary who is there to bless our meals.

Blue being the preferred color of Mary, perhaps the Mary I've been most grateful to see this retreat Full of Grace is Blue Sky Mary; it makes Mary's words sing in my heart:

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.