A Christmas Story

a few years ago I was asked to preach at a little interfaith community in Seattle on the topic of Christmas for Christians….this is what I said:

It has been said that a community is a group of people who tell the same stories.

And this story—this Christmas story—is a central story to the Christian community.  And even if this story isn’t factual—and it isn’t—it is True for me, and for Christians around the world.  It is a story that discloses much about God, about our world and the people in it, and about the ways we are supposed to live our lives.

So what is this Christmas story anyway?

It is a story of angels and shepherds and kings from afar.  It is a story of a poor couple doing the best they can under some very difficult circumstances.  This is the story of Emmanu-el—God among us.  But most of all—this is a story about an unlikely baby who came most unexpectedly and changed everything.

This central Christian story tells us something amazing about God and about the power of God.

For God’s power is not the power of conquering armies.  God’s power is not wealth or position.  God’s power is like the power of a baby.  We often think of babies as powerless—and in some ways that is true.  We must hold and feed and change and care for a baby in a hundred ways or the baby will die.  On the other hand, babies are powerful.

They come into our lives and change everything—God’s power is like that!

They often come when we least expect it—God’s power is like that!

A baby comes along and poof—you’re a mother, poof, you’re a father, poof you’re a sister, poof you’re an uncle, poof you’re a grandmother!  Babies have the power to make us something new—even something better—God’s power is like that!

Babies enter our lives and sometimes we find it in ourselves to be a little more patient, a little more forgiving, a little more generous—God’s power is like that!

Babies smile and our hearts are filled to overflowing with love—God’s power is like that!

Babies cry and our hearts are broken with tenderness—God’s power is like that!

God comes into our lives like a little baby and changes us forever.  A child is born and nothing will ever be the same!

Now I want to point out another feature of this Christmas story.  God’s messengers are everywhere.  They appear to Zacchariah, to Mary, to Joseph, to shepherds, to kings!  And every time they appear they say:

Fear not!

Which gives you some idea of what they look like!

Fear not!  Do not be afraid.  I have heard that these words appear 365 times in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures—once for every day of the year.

God’s message?  Do not be afraid!

I know I am asking a lot. Do not be afraid!

I know this isn’t what you planned.  Do not be afraid!

I know this will change you, turn your life upside down, and that nothing will ever be the same.  Do not be afraid!

The Christmas story reminds me—reminds us all, to choose love over fear.  To let love come into our lives and change us—forever.  Do not be afraid—say YES.  Say yes to the impossible or at least the improbable.  Say YES to me, the creator of the universe, and let me be born in you today!

That brings me to the final thing I want to point out.  Steven asked me here today to talk about the Christian perspective on Christmas.  As if there were ONE Christian perspective on Christmas.  And I have shared a couple of things this story, this celebration—this Holy Time of the year means to me.  But I also want to share this with you.  Not just keep it for the Christians.  In fact, the story itself goes to great pains to point out that this story—and this baby—belong to everyone.  This story is for everyone, the baby born in a barn is for everyone, God is for everyone.  God’s power and love as disclosed in this newborn child—came to a poor couple, an unmarried couple, a couple who would soon be refugees.  But Jesus didn’t come just to Mary and Joseph.  This baby came to poor shepherds, to rich foreign kings, to those who had no room in their inns…God is here among us—all of us, the rich and the poor, the Jew and the gentile, the foreigner and the neighbor.  God is here for everyone!

And watch out!

This will change everything—will change us inside and out—if we take a leap

And like Mary, say Yes to God

Yes to a most unexpected calling

Yes to having our lives turned upside down

Yes to the power of Love to melt our stone hard hearts and bring out the very best in us              Yes and Yes and Yes!!!     AMEN!

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Some Thoughts on Communion

God has been present to me in so many ways—in moments of prayer, in the natural beauty all around me in my North Bend home, and sometimes, in the rituals of the church.  God shows up in surprising places and in surprising ways, and in God’s wake there is love, healing and transformation!  Traditionally Christians have experienced the Mystery in communion.  But for me, communion has historically been problematic.  Growing up unchurched in the Bible Belt I often was invited to attend church with friends who were genuinely concerned for the state of my immortal soul.  I attended several churches, but I was bewildered by the people and the services.  What stays with me even now is the distinct memory of being excluded from communion.  It was like being invited to a birthday party, then being told I couldn’t have a piece of the cake.  Going to church just highlighted the fact that somehow I didn’t belong to God.

Years later, when my husband and I started attending church, I was terrified of communion.  Once I figured out the schedule—communion on the first Sunday of the month—I overslept or came up with excuses to skip church on those Sundays.  But sometimes I forgot to pay attention to the date and arrived at church on a communion Sunday.  Upon entering the sanctuary and seeing the bread and the wine, I would think, “Sh*t!”  My stomach would churn, and my body would vibrate with anxious energy.  I could not listen to the service, I could not enjoy the community, all I could do was try to plot my escape.

Finally, one Sunday I figured out that communion happened after the Passing of the Peace.  Halleluiah.  Now my escape route was clear.  I would simply exchange signs of the peace, moving ever closer to the exit, and then listen to the rest of the service from the narthex.  I was so stealthy that my husband didn’t even notice that skipping out on communion was my regular pattern.  I was able to come to every service, and I would even “force” myself to try to partake a couple of times a year.  This continued for a couple of years, and might have continued to this day, had it not been for my girls.

At family church camp, we celebrate communion with the whole community together.  On that Sunday during camp, there was fresh baked bread, and the delicious smell added to the general joy and excitement of everyone there, especially of the little kids.  Our kids are usually in church school during communion, so for them this was a very special treat.  My little girls grabbed my hands, almost jumping up and down with excitement.  They practically danced up the aisle.  I was clearly not going to be able to escape this time, so I started to steel myself for what was to come.  And then, something happened.  I looked at my happy daughters, and around at the smiling faces of this community I had come to love very much, and I thought, “What if I could do this in the same spirit as my girls?”  We got to the front of the line and following their lead I took a generous hunk of the fresh bread, dipped it in the wine, and I ate, flooded with joy instead of fear.  My youngest daughter turned to me and asked, “Are there seconds on the Bread of Life?”  I threw back my head and laughed and told her yes, indeed, there are seconds on the Bread of Life.

Over the years my comfort with communion increased, but it remained a source of mixed emotions until my internship at St. Paul’s in 2003.  When I got to St. Paul’s, I meant to talk to Tim, the minister at St. Paul’s, about my shaky relationship with communion.  Really I did.  But what with one thing and another, the topic never came up.  Then, one Sunday morning—first Sunday in October—I arrived, practiced with the choir, then came down to get ready to give my first sermon ever.  Tim said, “Tamara, I forgot to talk to you about communion.  You and I will serve.  I will do the bread so you can hear everyone’s name, and then you do the wine.”  I managed a nod.  But inside I was cringing.  This was clearly not the time to mention that I was allergic to receiving communion and probably wasn’t a good choice to be offering it!  I might have gotten myself all worked up, but just then the organ sounded and it was time for the opening hymn.   I started to sing and I started to pray and I said, “Okay, look what You’ve gotten me into NOW.  I hope You know what You’re doing!”

And you know what?  God did know what She was up to.  Because I fell in love with communion that day.  And I fell in love all over again with God and with God’s people.  As I had the privilege of serving, offering the cup of blessing, I was healed and transformed by the sheer love of it all.  God’s love.  My love.  St. Paul’s love.   God was present to me in communion, and that presence loved, healed and transformed me.  Long ago I wrote in my journal:

What I want most is to be at home in God’s loving arms and to be of good heart and cheer, and to go out into the world and do what Love would have me do.  I want to follow my first calling to make a family, to make a home and I want to let God make more of me, let that calling make more of me than I would have made of myself.  Let that call keep working it’s transformation—not get scared, sit down, and say “this is far enough, God, can’t go any farther.”  I want to keep going even when I say I want to quit.  I want to let God keep expanding my definition of love, home, family, generosity. 

This prayer has been answered.  And it is my prayer today as well, as I move forward toward ordained ministry.  Because I still get scared.  And I often want to quit.  But I also want to be healed.  I want to be transformed.  I want to be radically available to God.  I want to live in God’s love, now and forevermore.   I want to say YES to God with my life.  I want to see where this journey with God goes next.

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You can read part one here.

I am filled with gratitude for God’s freeing power and grace.

At the same time, I don’t want to gloss over how hard living into some of this liberation has been.  The liberation that has come from my work to re-member my childhood, for example, came only after a dark time in which I felt anything but free.  At the end of my second year of seminary, a discussion of sexual abuse hit me like a blow from behind.  I felt a hot tingling sensation running through my limbs, my feet got very jumpy, and I had trouble taking a deep breath.  I spent the rest of the day trying to stay present, trying to breathe and hoping I wouldn’t completely “lose it”. My physical symptoms stayed with me into the next week.    For over a week I was very distracted and would occasionally feel a bolt of fear surge across my center.  Finally I called my minister and asked to see him.  I had known Dave well for over seven years and usually going to talk to Dave is one of my favorite things to do, but not so that day.  My physical symptoms returned and I was aware of a strong desire to “forget” my appointment.  As I walked up the stairs to his office, my legs were shaking.   As I told him what had happened, I felt sick to my stomach.  I heard myself blurt out, “I am tired of being blindsided by this thing, I want to go out and meet it head on.”  Immediately a second voice in my head screamed, “What?  What did you just say?”

Dave recommended a counselor at Presbyterian Counseling Services and I called to make an appointment.  When Kay called me back, she asked me to explain what was going on and why I was looking to see someone.  I was able to explain things to her without much physical discomfort.  I told her I would like to see her the 5th of June as I would be out of town for the next three weeks.  I said, “Now that I have this appointment, I am just going to bracket this whole thing and enjoy my trip.”  Kay agreed this was a good plan and asked where I was going.  “To France!” I answered happily.  I hung up feeling very pleased with myself for having taken care of that difficult chore.

Two days later, as I packed for my trip, my symptoms returned worse than ever.  What I had conveniently “forgotten” was that I was scheduled to spend four days at my mother’s home on the way to France.  As that reality came into focus, my body just quit.  It was as if my body said to me, “You can go on if you want, but I’m staying here.”  I called Dave, hoping he could give me some tools to help in bracketing.  When he called me back thirty minutes later, I was utterly miserable.  I could hardly talk.  As Dave later said, “I think this is beyond just giving you some tools!”  I remember saying, “What am I going to do?”  Dave said, “Maybe you don’t have to go on this trip.”  I resisted and he suggested I say to myself that I didn’t have to go to Dallas.    As I said it to myself, half of my symptoms disappeared.  I was amazed.  Dave said, “Your body is so wise.  That is what I think is meant by ‘made in God’s image.’”  We talked for a while longer.  I remember two other things vividly:  one, I remember how my anger at my mother was in my hands—that was what made me realize I couldn’t go to see her.  Two, I remember that, at the end of the conversation, Dave said, “Your body is telling you that you can work on this now.” And the rest of my symptoms melted away.  I repeated it to myself and was restored.

Thursday morning, we sent our girls off unaccompanied minor to their grandparents home, and, on Dave’s advice, I called Kay to try to see her at least once before I left for France.  That Thursday was the hardest day I can remember.  My symptoms had returned with a vengeance about thirty minutes after my phone conversation with Dave the day before.  A huge hot weight settled in my stomach and I felt bands constricting my core, making breathing very difficult.  I barely slept that Wednesday night.  Thursday, I was scared and exhausted and so very uncomfortable.  All my regular tricks to comfort myself—a warm bath, a cup of tea—were very little help at all.   I called Dave every hour and a half as I waited for Kay to call me back.  I remember just trying to swim through each hour, just get through one more hour.  Kay called at noon and agreed to see me that evening at 5.  I asked Dave if I could come and see him before that because I was afraid I would chicken out of my appointment.  Finally the time arrived and I managed to get myself dressed and to drive to Dave’s office.

I remember two things strongly from that hour with Dave.  One, I remember how far away my good life seemed to be.  I wrote in my journal:

“Everything good and dear to me, all the joys and love of my life were far away.  I had never imagined that anything could take from me my good life, so hard won, but this pain pushed it all far away—way beyond my reach.  I could only vaguely remember it and, like a remembered childhood fairy tale, I did not believe it was true.  After all, everyone knows fairy tales aren’t real.”

The second thing I remember is how much my body hurt.  I knew that my discomfort was from the feelings and memories being stirred up inside of me, but the pain was so physical.  I kept saying, “I can’t believe how much this hurts.”

From Dave’s I went to my appointment with Kay.   I could barely make myself talk to Kay.  But, as before, my body took the lead.  My feet would not stop moving.  Kay asked, “What are you trying to get away from?”

“I don’t know,” I answered.  “Pain—it just makes the pain a little less.”

“Are you breathing?”

“NO!  Breathing hurts!  I don’t want to breathe.”

“Well, how about making the movement with your feet a little bigger?”

“That’s a bad idea.”  I replied.

I was being stubborn.  I told her so.  Kay answered, “I bet being stubborn has served you really well.”  I laughed and agreed it was so.

I knew Kay was right.  I knew I needed to move and to breathe.  I was terrified.  I fought it and fought it and then I realized I was running out of time.  I knew if I didn’t take her up on her offers I would definitely keep feeling this awful.  Kay pushed gently one more time, so I got up and started to pace the room, trying to breathe.  Then I was falling and screaming and terrified and hitting out.

That was the first of many, many times.  Kay calls them “kinesthetic flashbacks.”  They were not something I could think my way around or through.  They were (and sometimes still are) in my body and do not readily express themselves in words.  They are terrifying and painful and they are my guides.  My body is wise, Dave says.  This is what it means to be created in God’s image, he says.   So I have had to learn to trust my body, to listen to my body, to learn from it.  Sometimes, this way of communication seems far too painful and difficult.

“Why couldn’t my body just send a telegram?”  I asked Dave.

When Dave said, “It is trite, but this is the only way through it.”

“But why?”  I asked, “Why do I have to go through it?  Can I speak to the Management?  Surely we can come to some kind of accommodation.  This can’t be the only way to get the results we need.”

But there is no better way.

My tradition tells me that I am created in God’s image, that embodiment is messy, but that God did not make a mistake when creating me.  Our bodies may be messy, but they are also very wise.  My tradition would further claim that our bodies are one of the myriad ways God speaks to us.  In my home church we covenant every week: “to seek and respond to your word and will, made known and to be made known.”  My tradition understands that although heeding God’s call can be terrifying, it is ultimately transforming.  My tradition reminds me that Jesus called together companions for the journey as he began the ministry he heard God calling him to, and that I need not—nay, must not—go it alone.  My tradition gives me many tools, many images, many understandings to help me see God working in my life, and to help me respond faithfully.

The sticking place for me is my childhood.  I wanted so much to feel God’s presence, God’s love.  But I did not.  My tradition affirms that God does not cause the tragedy and trauma of the world, but indeed that God’s heart is the first to break.  My tradition tells me that God was with me in the war zone of my childhood.  But I did not know it, although I would have given anything to know it.  Living now as I do—as I have done for over twenty years—held fast in God’s overwhelming love, I do not understand God’s felt absence long ago.  I do not understand.  As I remember my childhood, as I open myself again to the pain and terror and shame of those years, I look around for God.  But I do not find what I seek.

I remember hating the poem “Footprints” when I was a child.  I had no use for that message.  Nor did the 23rd psalm speak to me.  I needed the words at the end of the 44th psalm which Eugene Peterson translates:

Get up God! Are you going to sleep all day?

Wake up!  Don’t you care what happens to us?

Why do you bury your face in the pillow?

Why pretend things are just fine with us?

And here we are—flat on our faces in the dirt,

held down with a boot on our necks.

Get up and come to our rescue.

If you love us so much, Help us!

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