The Face of Emmanuel

I think it’s genius! This season is so rich in spiritual meaning that over the years it has become a fantastic tapestry made up of humanity’s various threads of hunger for meaning and vitality in a confusing and harsh world. A bit narrower than that, I think it’s genius how Christmas was paired up with a date that was already deemed of cosmological significance prior to Christianity’s arrival. And a bit narrower still, I think it’s wonderful how that ebb and flow of darkness and light has played out in my own life, and maybe it is time to marvel at my own awareness of it.

Let me just take this to a personal level here for a bit. Bear with me. I’m not a woman and I don’t really speak in church. But I’m married to one wonderful woman who sometimes does speak in church, and who, ten years ago, became the return of light to my life, with a couple pivotal dates falling just about solstice time in 2001 and our subsequent embrace of our newfound relationship in 2002, even after we’d known each other for over a decade before that. I’ve spilled a lot of pixels on my blog about the details. For our purposes here, I just want to celebrate this in a place where I know it would be appreciated—both among people educated and attuned to the special nuances in this kind of story, and among friends of hers who know her personally.

The state of things a decade ago was one of massive dysfunction on the family front. In a lot of ways, the light had gone dim. That year Kelli and I shared grief around the murder of an old friend, and September 11 was a crisis that forced everyone into mourning and (hopefully) deeper questioning. It did for us. The overlapping disasters that constituted the year 2001 drove me back to a life I was familiar with but that I had left for about a decade. Kelli was a lifeline to that world during that time. But in late 2001, I was beyond my own means to make sense of the world. Kelli and I grew closer and I began to attend church again where the deeper stuff of life was the lingua franca. What resulted was a decade of constant change, but now with a devoted partner with a vast depth of character and compassion. Kelli’s presence did not stop the change or the turmoil, but she did make it safe to face it with new resolve.

This Christmas Eve, with the waiting and the hoping almost exploding in us after weeks of Advent’s buildup, I recall that time one decade ago when the light was going out, out, out—until the glimmers led to flickers that led to an increasingly steady flame. Kelli embodies the solstice for me. Light will follow darkness. Or, using the language of Christianity, she’s the face of Emmanuel for me. Her presence in my life is as clear a sign as I have that God has smiled on this speck of dust too, who a decade ago used to scoff at God-talk and such silly notions of the miraculous.

It has to be the stuff of miracle. Nothing I did earned this. Nothing I knew or believed mattered. This is grace, folks. At Christmas, the great gift is given indiscriminately to all by the shamelessly generous Giver, who doesn’t really care what you were, what you used to believe or not believe, or how you used to think. Just like none of us can stop the solstice from happening, none of us can stop God’s compassionate giving of the divine Self. And, I might say that Christianity’s enhancement of an already-great festival written into the cosmos is that whereas the solstice is just an annual event in a given hemisphere, Christmas isn’t limited that way. Every day is Christmas! Every day can be the day when the God-gift can be given and received. But for me, having such a great thing happen in my life at solstice time will always make this season special upon special.

Merry Christmas to my beautiful wife Kelli who has opened my eyes and softened my heart, and to all of you. Thanks for your submissions to this special series. It’s not over yet, though! Read on through Epiphany, and then stay around to see what follows.

The Unholy Family of Christmas

As long as it’s Advent/Christmas season and you’re over here to read encouraging and uplifting articles on this special season, let me bring one more thing to the table.

Over at Jubilee Economics Ministries, another site I do extensive work for, Lee Van Ham has now posted two complete series of blog entries that take some interesting looks at Christmas as told in Luke (from 2010) and Matthew (this year). You can find them within a category called Unwrapping Christmas. The series on Luke explores the cosmological breakthrough of Christ into a world that would be Caesar’s. (Lee gives the grown up Linus answer to Charlie Brown’s question.) This year’s series, dubbed The Unholy Family of Christmas, is actually rather much a topic that should be on this very site for the way it looks at the women of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

Lee is a retired pastor of 32 years (Presbyterian) and brings not only his clergy background to explaining the texts, but also his post-retirement passion for helping people open the Bible and to discover the economic themes that bind it together. He is working on a book about “One Earth” economics and the stories that get us there, i.e., the Creation-centered stories of the Bible, in contrast to the Civilization story of empires and superpower nations, which have done much to diminish the former. In this Advent series, Lee looks at the notable women that preceded Jesus, and found how their stories harkened back to the Creation story, and their actions were rejections of the systems that would see them hemmed in by patriarchal laws that might even lead to death if not for the bold life-saving rejections that made these women notable.

While much would be familiar to you as clergy, and as women, for many folks, this is a great new way to unhitch Christmas from the commercial extravaganza it has become, or even to put some power back into the story, leaving the tame little pageant imagery behind. Feel free to share it around as an extra resource with your friends and congregations.

While you’re looking into Jubilee Economics, why not subscribe to The Common Good Podcast too?

Nobody Can Change the World

A nobody can change the world—
It has happened many times.
But the best one so far was when a baby was born
On the fringes of the world
From folks no one knew
(With a bit of scandal to boot).
They were from a town of no consequence
Good only for their taxes and labor;
Forgotten by the senators and priests
Except when it was time for taxes and rituals.

A nobody can change the world?
It isn’t just for the big names in history—
Those who wield the money and power
Or who sit at the right hand of the king.
An itinerant preacher set the world ablaze with love and mercy
In a way that few saw coming—
Coming to a heart near you!
That is, if it hasn’t already rushed into you,
Consuming with unquenchable fire helped by a gust of wind!
But starting with the still, small, tired voice of Mary,
Who sang her child to sleep
Amidst the very few who were more lowly than they that evening.

Mary labored one night,
But Heaven labored much longer with the question:
How to penetrate the hearts of a troubled mankind…
When the answer came it was quite unexpected;
A marvel to be sure!
A baby who was born, lived, and died as a person of no consequence,
Except for the magic he wrought when he dared show us how to love—
First because he was innocent by the standards of the world,
And later because he was guilty by the standards of the world.

Where in the world tonight will that baby be born anew?
In that forgotten place?
Under the boot of the mighty empire?
Into slavery to the desires of the rich and well connected?

Nobody can change the world?
—One thought that must itself be changed!

As We Forgive Others—Rev. Kelli

Rev. Kelli mugging at the marquee at church with her name on with "rev." painted in after the fact

Uh, that's "Rev." if you please...

Kelli just delivered her first sermon since being ordained in May. It was delivered at CCCPB on August 14th. Since it ran past YouTube’s 15 minute rule, it had to be cut into two, and at least at the time of posting, this is how we gotta do it. Back at YouTube, you can view it as a slightly more graceful playlist that will auto play in series.

Rev. Kelli looks at food insecurity in the time Joseph, a Hebrew in Egypt, and the dire situation in Africa (and lots of places) today, and introduces the UCC Mission 1 campaign.

Chaplain for a New Century

In my work for Jubilee Economics Ministries, I record audio podcasts with Rev. Lee Van Ham and a monthly guest. For our August episode, we recorded an interview with his daughter Lauren, and on this occasion I decided to capture a bit of video too. If you like what you see and hear, please go listen to the full length (about 30 mins) audio podcast. This video is only about one-third of the program.

Lauren is an interfaith chaplain with an interesting background that doesn’t suggest she was originally from Nebraska! She is the Dean of Chaplaincy at the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley. She goes into quite some detail about her professional formation and how she understands the role of the chaplain in society today.

Lauren plans to contribute to Women Who Speak In Church, and the timing is such that this bit of video serves to provide a great introduction to Lauren, and if I might be so bold, it gives a taste of the JEM podcasts too. This video is posted to the JEM YouTube channel where a number of other clips feature Lee, who himself is a retired pastor of 32 years. No doubt he set a good standard for Lauren to follow 🙂

Ordination!

You can call her “Rev.” now.

Kelli beaming with ordination certificate finally in hand.

One relieved girl!

We just got back from the festivities following Kelli’s ordination today—long awaited, and taking just a bit over six years since she was accepted to seminary in April 2005. You can imagine this is a huge victory to claim. After our dinner, she was wiped out, so here I am, ever the journalist for the family…

Held at the church where we both were born into and where we have been baptized and married in, this is a particularly notable day in the history of CCCPB, as Kelli is the only of that congregation to have started so young and followed the long and winding path of faith and formation, all the way to this point.

In attendance were members of CCCPB, Mission Hills UCC (where she interned), other churches in the local UCC Association, friends from United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Unitarian Universalist, and Presbyterian worlds. Friends from the world of chaplaincy, poetry, and plain ol’ good friends were there to support her too. (A few of the ladies might not know it but they might be contributors to this very site, once the dust settles here!)

For the week, Kelli’s mom Kay Taylor was in town, and brought her autoharp with her. She sang a heart melting rendition of God’s Eye is on the Sparrow for the offertory in the ordination service. We just happened to have a mic on her too!

Over 100 images from the day are now on my Facebook page, and concurrent with all this, we are starting the WomenWhoSpeakInChurch page on Facebook too.

To save you a trip to YouTube, check these out:

Kelli in the midst of the clergy laying hands.

Laying on of hands, clergy and lay folks

Kelli looking sharp with robe and stole.

Kelli after being robed, and having just distributed the bread in her first communion

Kelli serving communion for the first time.

Kelli serving the wine at her first communion as "the Rev."

Off to dinner with MHUCC friends and mama Kay.

Kelli and a number of us from Mission Hills Young Adults, out to dinner to celebrate

Kelli's new chalice and plate for communion

Kelli's new chalice and plate for communion, made from solid stone from Pakistan

Thanks to Phil, Tara, Margie, and Amanda for heroic help.