Dr. Howell's eSeries

Back to top
into Advent, January “revival,” and cyber-requests?

eFindUsFaithful, as a series, is over – although our quest in life to be found faithful is never over. Hopefully what’s next will deepen and confirm our love for God and commitment to Christ.

It’s Advent, and as I do every year, I will reflect in these emails on a few carols – some familiar from childhood, some quite new and lovely – to weigh the simple joys and profound hope of this season. Skim the archives from previous years (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009) if you’d like to reminisce about more of the music of Christmas. And click ‘reply’ and share with me a favorite carol or secular song or word or phrase from this season’s melodies.

Also – and of extremely personal importance to me! – I want to tell you that come January we will have something of a “revival” (using multi-media, online platforms, and small groups), although it won’t look like your grandparents’ revival. We will be asking all of us together to make a serious commitment, or a much deeper commitment, to Christ, to ask questions like How is it with your soul?, to ask Are you happy?, to press people to think Am I 'almost Christian' or 'altogether Christian’? (as Wesley put it), to get lingering questions and reservations out in the open and hopefully move past them into a relationship with God that really is about love and devotion, and gives us life and joy.

There will be events here in our building, but also lots of stuff online, via these emails, but also using those newfangled media. If you’re not into these, don’t worry! But if you are, or want to be, I am inviting you right now to sign up for Facebook, Twitter, and Text messaging. All the content will come from me, we won’t abuse or overuse these – but hope to sprinkle a few thoughts and provocations your way during December, to make the season meaningful, and to prepare us for January and the “revival.”

Facebook: search for the Myers Park United Methodist Church page and join!

Twitter: search for MyersParkUMC and follow! You can also follow me personally if you’d like at HowellPreaches.

Text messaging (devoted exclusively to the meaning of Christmas and the renewal focus of January): go to http://www.broadtexter.com/MPUMC and give us your cell # (and it works even if you don’t have an iPhone).

Thanks. If you weren’t here yesterday, you might find yesterday’s sermon to be helpful as we begin this holy, hectic season: click to listen  or watch.

Blessings on you and yours!

James
james@mpumc.org
www.mpumc.org



Back to top
eAdvent - Yet in thy Dark Streets Shineth

In earlier years I have reflected on several of the elegant phrases of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” such as How still we see thee lie, How silently the wondrous gift is given, Cast out our sin and enter in, The hopes and fears of all the years, and Yet in thy dark streets shineth – and it is to this phrase I wish to return just now.

Just how dark was Bethlehem? Today Bethlehem can be quite dark, then blaringly bright, police spotlights scanning this troubled zone of tension between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank. When Jesus was born, Bethlehem would have been dark indeed, with no more than a few pottery lamps glowing, each casting light no more than a few dozen feet. The most noticeable light would have been the starry canopy, which is almost totally obliterated in our cities due to the flood of artificial light. Bethlehem, in 1865 when Phillips Brooks visited and was inspired to write this beloved carol, was still just as dark.

It is the artificial, purchased, generated light that is our darkness, perhaps. We flip switches, pay Duke Energy, even buy long lasting bulbs – but these lights are all our doing. In ancient Bethlehem, light was all gift, light was precious, light was never taken for granted or mastered. The gentle light of the night sky was not merely pretty; it evoked the very goodness and beauty of God.

The great American historian David McCullough recently told about Christmas 1941, when Winston Churchill was with Pres. Roosevelt (watch here!). The British Prime Minister saw in the small decorative lights of houses around England and America a glimpse of hope in the dreary darkness of the world plunged into war; and on Christmas morning he and Roosevelt went to Church and he heard (for the first time!) “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and was deeply moved.

In December, our streets are unusually bright, the glittering of pinhole lights from trees peeking out the window, candled wreaths perched in windows, even those icicle strings. Perhaps as we take in the lights, or as we simply refuse in the rush to take for granted the beauty of a simple speck of light, we will understand God’s love, and the brilliant beauty of hope in even the darkest days of history, or of our own lives – and see more deeply that everlasting light that shineth in the dark streets.

James
james@mpumc.org
www.mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent - So God Imparts to Human Hearts the Blessings of His Heaven

Yet one more from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: the third stanza with hushed tones suggests and it is “silently” that “God’s wondrous gift is given.” Then the next phrase bears some reflection: “So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.” God does bless us with things: the firm ground under our feet, food that grows from the earth, sunshine, faces and bodies that smile and embrace, even resources we might use to make life good.

But Phillip Brooks’s carol suggest that God has “blessings of his heaven,” and that they are imparted “to human hearts” – not to my bank account, or to my accumulated pile of things, or even to human hands. God is quite involved in what is tangible, but God’s real passion is for the heart. The heart is that marvelous, elusive part of me that loves, longs, hurts, connives, wonders, dreams, pouts, believes.

Blessings are not things, inclined as we might be to think so when the Thanksgiving table is crammed with stuffed turkey, or when the presents won’t all fit under our expansive tree. Blessings are deeper, richer, more lasting goods than what we eat or drink or buy or wrap or wear for a few seasons. Blessings are love, promises kept, tender affection, hope in God’s future, the belief that we are not alone in the universe but that there is a God, the one sung about by angels and children dressed for Christmas pageants.

When we think about the blessings that indeed are in heaven, we pray with confidence, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Whatever heaven will look like, and we may quite safely assume heaven will exceed our grandest expectations and visions of what eternal life might be, we are invited by our Lord to ask that that perfect, wonderful reality begin to take place now, on earth: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So we expect peace, love, and certainly hope!

Since Jesus said “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:2), and since the world debunks meekness as absurd silliness, I like that the carol sings, “Meek souls will receive him.” Not proud souls, or vapid souls, or even achievement-oriented souls, but meek souls, humble, open, grateful souls. To such, the “dear Christ enters in.”

James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent - O Come to Us, Abide with Us –

So many of the songs we sing at Christmas ask the Lord to “Come”: “O come, O come Emmanuel,” “Come, thou long-expected Jesus” – and the final plea of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” O Come to us, abide with us.

God already came – or, God can’t really “come,” since God is everywhere, and so to “come” implies God might be gone and needs to travel to us. If anybody needs to move, it would be us back toward God, right? And yet in the Bible it is the Lord who comes. Ours is to wait. And we sense somewhere deep in the marrow of our being the sense that the Lord isn’t here but might come; oh, how we need the Lord to come to us. There is a hollow place, and no matter how zealously we fill that place with things or busyness, the gap is still dark, and wide – and we look out the window into the dark and ask with yearning and at times a bit of desperation: O Come to us!

The peculiarity of Christianity is that we know God is everywhere, all the time, and yet we believe God stunned everybody and embarked upon the impossible: coming to us, deciding not to remain simply everywhere, or up in heaven, but to come to us, down here, and not as a thundershower or a meteor or a vast invasion of an army, but as one of us, a small one of us, just a baby, and not in a sumptuous palace but into a ramshackle, cold place in the middle of nowhere, to a bunch of nobodies.

We can spend a lifetime contemplating the wonder of this: how good of God to love us enough to put on our very life and show us God’s tender heart by having a heart like ours. How would we have had any clue otherwise? We would always have thought God was invisible, omnipotent, infinite, everywhere – but I find I don’t need God to be everywhere; I need God to be here. I don’t need an infinite, ineffable God; I need a God with a heart who loves. O Come to us.

Abide with us. The saddest words I remember from childhood holidays came in my grandparents’ living room – when all the presents were unwrapped, the cleanup nearly done, and my dad tapped me on the shoulder to say “Son, let’s go; Christmas is over.” But we know better. We sing not only O Come to us, but also Abide with us. Linger a bit longer, after the presents and food, when I’m back in the routine, at work or school: Abide with us. After all, Lord, they said your nickname would be Emmanuel, meaning God with us. John Wesley’s last words before his death were “The best of all is, God is with us.” O Come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.

James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent - There is Faint Music

A friend introduced me to something lovely: “There is Faint Music,” by Dan Forrest; click here for a gorgeous performance you’ll enjoy. The lyrics are lovely in their simplicity yet depth: “There is faint music in the night, and pale wings fanned by silver flight; A frosty hill with tender glow of countless stars that shine on snow. A shelter from the winter storm, a straw-lined manger, safe and warm, And Mary singing lullabies, to hush her baby’s sleepy sighs. Her eyes are fixed upon his face, unheeded here is time and space, Her heart is filled with blinding joy, for God’s own Son her baby boy!”

Is there “faint music”? Our culture’s observance of Christmas is rather noisy, a constant stream of piped in music, advertisers pitching, toasts and chatter. But the first Christmas was indeed, as many carols suggest, silent, hushed, quiet, still. An old medieval tradition suggested that for an hour after Jesus was born, not a sound was heard; no dog barked, no one snored, no wind rustled – as if all creation and humanity listened in awed stupor. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:8).

What were the first sounds after the birth of Jesus? The baby’s cry, to be sure – which Madeleine L’Engle imagined sounded “like the ringing of a bell.” Probably a sigh of relief, the escaping breath of joyful excitement, from Mary and Joseph. We can be sure that Mary, like all other mothers throughout history, spoke tender, whispered words to her infant Jesus; we talk to them, thinking they comprehend – and although they do not yet know language, they must feel the love, and a new invisible umbilical cord of affection is tightly strung between mother and child.

“There is faint music” – not a loud, booming orchestra or stereo jacked up high. The music – whether the song of the choir of angels, or Mary’s own first song to Jesus – would have been faint, and would probably make us faint out of sheer delight. Dan Forrest’s piece speaks of “Mary singing lullabies.” If we ask someone to sing Mary’s part, we never pick a powerful soprano with undulating vibrato; the voice must be soft, gentle, the way a mother barely coos a song, not so quiet as to be inaudible, but not so loud as to awaken the resting baby. What beauty Mary’s voice must have intoned.

Forrest’s lyrics then portray Mary’s eyes “fixed upon his face; unheeded here is time and space.” Jesus was born into an unspeakably large universe that only the mind of God can comprehend; a baby today may nap in a large house in a big city. But how much space is required for the only love that matters? The zone of awareness, when a mother like Mary cradles her newborn, is trembling small, isn’t it? Maybe 3 feet by 2 ½ feet, or a sphere a bit smaller, just the curve of arm, shoulder, head curled over, infant snuggled but not too tightly – a charmed circle, the wonder of all grace and the stammer of the greatest love all encapsulated in “unheeded space.”

And “unheeded time.” When your mother held you on the first night of your life, what time was it? Midnight? 2 am? 5am? or is it noon already? What time is it? Does it matter? There is faint music in the night… Unheeded here is time and space, her heart is filled with blinding joy.”

James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent – embarrassed to talk about God?

Thinking toward Revival2011… (more later! but put January 9 on your calendar and keep asking How is it with your soul? Have I ever really decided to be serious about the life of faith? Am I missing something? – and pray!). I have written a little blog entitled Not Embarrassed to Talk About God” – and I’d like you to read it, and then (this would be a huge favor to me!) click “reply” and tell me something about God, your sense of God, what God has meant in your life, what you might like to say to someone else about God, why it’s hard for you to talk about God, questions you have, etc. I’ve carved out time to read your responses – so let me hear from you! I hope to start a conversation… and get all of us thinking and helping each other toward God.
James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent - Carol of Joy

Another beautiful, brilliant new Christmas choral piece by Dan Forrest is this: the “Carol of Joy,” click here for a memorable performance you’ll enjoy. Sometimes music is quite simply beautiful – and Christmas is a season devoted to beauty, with the lingering hope in Dostoevsky’s thought that it is Beauty that will save us. What could be more beautiful than the Christ child, cradled in Mary’s loving arms?

Sometimes music is not merely pretty, but rises to that more haunting, deep level of beauty – and I think I mean it carries the freight of profound meaning in not only the words but the very harmonies, pacing, undulations and intonations. “Carol of Joy” captures the truth we might overlook: that Christmas happens at the time of year when “green leaves are all fallen, withered and dry…” The “dim winter sky, lengthening shadows, dark closing in… night tarries long… a cold barren hillside” is the woefulness of late December, when we have the least sunlight all year. And the death is not only the frigid frost and colorlessness of the landscape: these mirror the condition of the soul, our mortal life, and the brokenness of the world.

Yet it is precisely to that broken, chilly, lifeless world that the news of Christ’s birth, and therefore hope for new life and eternal blessedness, comes. Forrest’s lyrics distill the paradox that is the Gospel: “Dark closing in… Then! through the stillness, carols begin! Oh, fallen world, to you is the song… Jesus is born.” Not to you who can solve all your own problems, in sunny moments of grand achievement and fun, but to you, fallen world, where dark closes in.

The carol continues with the image of a “deep, empty valley veiled by the night… Hear angel music – hopeful and bright! Oh, fearful world, to you is the song – Peace with your God, pardon for wrong, tidings for sinners: A carol of joy! A Savior is found! Earth wrapped in sorrow: lift up your eyes! Thrill to the chorus filling the skies! Look up, sad hearted – witness God’s love! Join in the carol swelling above! Oh, friendless world, to you is the song – you who are lonely, laden, forlorn, to you a Savior is born.”

It appears that the secret of the “real meaning” of Christmas will forever elude us until we begin with the fact that it is dark, the leaves are withered, a chill rattles through the soul, the world broken, and we are sad hearted sinners, lonely, heavy laden. It is then, and only then, that carols truly begin. It is to you, and all of us in this fallen, fearful, friendless world, that carols come, and matter, and stir life, and light, and mercy, and joy in us.

Fra Giovanni, five centuries before Dan Forrest, wrote a stunning Christmas letter; its wisest thought is this: “The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!”
James

james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent – wish list?

What do you want for Christmas? When I was 7 I could rattle off a list of things; decades later I can’t think of much of anything… but I have learned that what I really desire, what would really matter if I could get it, would be things more elusive, profound, lasting, tender, un-possessable yet possible, maybe.

Click reply, or tell a friend, or even better – tell God. James, the brother of our Lord, wrote “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Dare we ask? … ask God for mercy, hope, a sense of embracing presence, a richer life, a cleaner slate, perhaps even joy? … or ask one another for love, or healing, reconciliation or a renewed existence that makes more sense?

Speaking of others: we wonder at this time of year what to get her, what to buy and wrap up for him. What would you really wish for that other person? Your friend, your parent, your spouse, your child? Parents get giddy when a child unwraps the hippest toy – but what would we really want for a child or friend that would be way better and matter ultimately? A passion for God’s will, a generous spirit, some conversation about things that matter, mercy, peace, perhaps even joy?

Could it be they do not have because you do not ask? I wonder if we can pray, and not merely for safety or a fun time or even good health, but for the greatest goods imaginable? It might just be that if we pray for the ridiculously deep things that God might surprise us with something even better?

James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent - Mary, Did You Know?

All the stars cash in on Christmas – as virtually every pop singer tries to bring a special wrinkle to various Christmas songs that were never intended for glitzy crooners to perform, but for bundled up children to sing on doorsteps around the neighborhood, or for Church families with candles raised in a darkened sanctuary.

And yet occasionally the money makers popularize something fresh, and profound. I first heard “Mary, Did You Know?” in a worship service, and was surprised to learn later in the day that Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd had a top selling cd – and since then, Clay Aiken, Kathy Mattea and others have inquired, “Mary, did you know… that your baby boy would someday walk on water? and save our sons and daughters? This child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you… When you kiss your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God.”

Did Mary know? How could she? Only 14 or 15 years old, illiterate, certainly full of faith, and having enjoyed (or endured!) an encounter with an angel, she must have been dizzy with a sense that her journey was special somehow. But could she begin to fathom the scope of what this child’s life would become, not just over the next 30 years but over the centuries? and the way her son’s fate would shatter her own heart?
She could not know – but she let it be, she waited patiently, carrying on with the mundane tasks before her, feeding, caring for a growing son, nursing his scrapes and fevers, cleaning, cooking, sewing, weary most days, enduring the death of her husband, keeping the lamps burning in the dark, gathering supplies, fixing little leaks in the thatched roof, wondering when her son might come home, realizing that in her mid-forties he was gone for good, others were celebrating and a great body of believers scattering around the globe in his name, but she alone felt the sorrow of missing the one she’d held so close and known before and better than anybody else.

She let it be. That’s how the story began, when the angel showed up with an inexplicable message; her reply to Gabriel? “Let it be” (Luke 1:38). She didn’t block Jesus; she didn’t let her wishes shackle him. God’s great adventure is like this – always, for all of us. Most of it is mundane, vacuuming, the grocery store, picking up a prescription, raking, stuck in traffic. Can we know what it’s all about, what it all will mean? When we look at children – and Christmas seems to be a season for children – can we know, in the round of busy activities or just goofing off, what the scope of a single life might be, and what God has envisioned?

Can we know? Of course not. But we can trust, we can believe, we can “let it be,” and then wait, and see, and perhaps never understand, but yet find ultimately that the richness of the life God has given us is in the mundane, and our tiny part in the longterm plot of God bringing all creation to its fulfillment seems insignificant – but only as insignificant as Mary putting a little oil in a lamp late one night so she could wipe the brow of her seven year old with a stomach ache, or trading a couple of coins for some grain to bake a loaf of bread, or just staring out the window, wondering where he’d gone. Mary, did you know?

James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent - shepherds, why this jubilee?

Very few words have made the long trek from the Hebrew spoken in Bible times to the English we speak today. A lovely one is jubilee (and its kin, jubilant, jubilation). Originally the Hebrew word signified the ram’s horn, which was blown to gather the people for worship, to celebrate grand religious festivals. Later (as we read in Leviticus 25), the Scriptures provided for a “year of Jubilee,” in which, every 50 years, that horn would be blown, announcing that all debts were remitted, all slaves set free, land restored to those who had lost or been forced to sell.

We can imagine the raucous delight of such a day! … well, for the poor, at least. For those who had snapped up land or owned slaves or were owed money, it was a day of sorrow. The Bible always has this leveling, this great reversal, this peculiar bias toward the poor and needy, this determination that all will have enough, quite apart from who “deserves,” and who doesn’t.

The word has passed into English with only the joyfulness and celebration intact. The jubilant are full of jubilation: what stronger words can we conceive for giddy, full-bodied delight? The shepherds, in “Angels We Have Heard on High,” are asked, “Why this Jubilee?” Why indeed: for the poor nobodies who never mattered, except to a handful of bleating sheep, the very angels of heaven performed the greatest concert ever – and to those impoverished, even despised men whose homes were rocky, grassy fields, out in the cold, exposed to the elements, Christ came before to anybody else.

Our Church has, with great wisdom, retained this word Jubilee in our mission giving. We lift up the poor, we share from our plenty, and it’s not an onerous burden to do so, but a pleasant delight. Paul said “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7) – and the word translated “cheerful” is hilarion, as in hilarious. We laugh, we revel in the joy of giving. It is a jubilee, and we are jubilant, when our lives, and resources, matter – and are used in sync with God’s very purpose in coming down to earth. Once he was grown, Jesus would say “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3).
If you are at year’s end, give jubilantly to your church or some charity; if you are grateful for these free emails, and are looking for a place to express the hilarity of generosity, give to our Jubilee Plus! fund, which goes 100% to mission outreach. And then you’ll know the answer to Why this jubilee?

James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent – seeking closeness

Advent is a season of seeking, asking, yearning and even going – not for things but for love, for hope, for deeper meanings. We are preparing our hearts, not only for the coming of Christ, but for Revival2011 – which is all about closeness to God, and a life that meaningfully knows God, and experiences joy in God.
So keep wrestling with questions: how is it with your soul? Am I determined to follow Jesus in all aspects of my life, not just a boxed segment of time? Am I happy? Can I take a big step closer to God? and not procrastinate? 

I wrote a blog about closeness – with a little thought on Santa Claus (with funny photo…) and how we think about God. Read it if you can – but even more importantly, decide to pray, for your soul, for others, for Revival2011, and decide that this is the year you will get very close to God.

James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent – some children see him

James Taylor favored all of us by recording “Some Children See Him,” one of several lovely carols written by Alfred Burt – who died in 1954 without having achieved any commercial success.

The carol’s insight is simple: “Some children see Him lily white.. with tresses soft and fair,” and yet “Some children see Him bronzed and brown, with dark and heavy hair.” Still other children “see Him almond-eyed, with skin of yellow hue… and ah! they love Him too!” This is the Gospel, quite simply: “The children in each different place / will see the baby Jesus’ face like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace, and filled with holy light.”

How shrewd of God, to ensure that the holy birth took place at the intersection of multiple continents, not in Africa, or Asia, or Europe, but at the meeting point of them all. How wise of God, not to be white, or black, but of a hue kin to all of us. This is always how we meet God: God comes to us where we are, as we are – but not merely to bless us where we are and as we are and leave us be. No, God comes “bright with heavenly grace,” to transform us, to take us somewhere.

The great missionary (and former agnostic!) Lesslie Newbigin wrote that the Gospel comes to us in this way or not at all: we hear first in our own tongue; God shows us our own face in His holy face. God does this to stop us in our tracks, and understand that many of our even treasured convictions are just plain wrong, and we’ve missed out on all the joy. This U-turn of the mind then becomes our conversion, which isn’t good intentions, but a kind of miracle wrought by God – the God who is infinitely flexible to meet each one of us where we are, because God’s love is just as infinite, and miraculous in its effects.

James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent – to show God’s love aright – a rose

“Low, How a Rose E’er Blooming” was published over four centuries ago, originally in German, its elegant melody set to harmony by Michael Praetorius. I’ve revisited this lovely carol recently because my daughter Sarah devised an updated arrangement and wording, which you can see and listen to here.

To contemplate Mary, with Jesus, and to conceive of a rose: straightforward, factual language fails us when we try to describe the transcendent, when we attempt to portray tender beauty, overflowing with love. What could be more beautiful than young Mary, making herself fully available to God, risking her secure future with Joseph, feeling sickness and fatigue, then a slight stirring within, the new life inside her growing, eventually kicking… then the pangs of labor, the baby’s first cry, cradling him, nursing, counting his fingers?

Why did she so humbly bear this child who would never totally be hers, but God’s? As the hymn intones it, “to show God’s love aright she bore to us a savior.” To show God’s love “aright”: how often is God’s love shown a-wrong? We might fantasize of a God who is indulgent, not minding at all how we live; or God’s love might be thought of as stingy, remote, difficult to access; or God’s love has often been depicted as a blanket of sweet protection against any difficulty, as if the divine love simply erases human sorrow and shields us from difficulty. But all these images show God’s love a-wrong.

To show God’s love aright? Mary “bore to us a savior.” Mary’s delicate love, the child’s fragile splendor: like a rose, the most praised of all living things, perfectly symbolic of beauty, and vulnerability – and yet peril and pain. Roses, hard to grow, the petals such thin wonders, striking awe as we hover to shelter the blossom, yet with the thorn that pierces. Is Mary the rose in the carol? or is it Jesus? or the two of them, the way a mother and her infant are really one, not two? And who was pierced? Jesus, yes – but also his mother.

But that is to leap ahead thirty years. At Christmas we sing of the birth. Christina Rossetti picked up on the hymn’s image in a lovely poem about Mary: “Herself a rose, who bore the Rose, She bore the Rose and felt its thorn. All Loveliness new-born Took on her bosom its repose, And slept and woke there night and morn.”

James
james@mpumc.org

Back to top
eAdvent - Round yon virgin, mother and child

Who better than Rembrandt to capture to stillness, light and shadow, love and adoration, holiness and revelation surrounding the infant Jesus’ first moments? On Christmas Eve, we begin lighting candles as we sing these familiar, moving strains of “Silent Night” – “holy night, all is calm, all is bright” … maybe not in our normalcy, where nights are busy or exhausted, and hardly holy, and darkness intrudes no matter how many lights we switch on. Where is the night holy, calm and bright? “Round yon virgin, mother and child.” When else in the year do we say “round” meaning “around”? and when else would we say an oldfangled word like “yon”? And yet on the night of all nights, we sing with tender affection and joy both “round” and “yon.”

Mother – and child. Fathers know they are mere onlookers to the most intimate bond two human beings could have: mother and child, the child having taken up residence not near but actually inside the mother, for a very long time, growing, being nurtured invisibly, loved before even being seen, causing considerable discomfort and yet eliciting immense hope.

Who cut the umbilical cord between Jesus and Mary? A young woman trying to be helpful in that stable? Joseph? The umbilical cord may be cut but the deep bond of mother and child is unseverable. Or is it?
I found myself reduced to unexpected tears when I saw the film version of Anna Quindlen’s lovely novel, One True Thing. Ellen (played by Renee Zellweger) has left her life and career to come home to care for her mother (played by Meryl Streep), who is dying of cancer. They attend the community Christmas tree lighting – realizing it will be their last Christmas together. The choir sings “Silent Night,” and Ellen’s mother joins in with what strength she can muster – and it was the poignancy of the moment when they sing “mother and child” that touched me.

…and made me sad, and happy all at once. Life is a paradox, shadow and light – like the Rembrandt painting. Especially at Christmas we may know an intensity of joy and hope, but also a peculiar kind of sorrow, a sense of loss, for who isn’t there, loves lost or that never were. In One True Thing, after her mother died, Ellen was asked, “Did you love your mother?” Her reply? “The easy answer is yes. But it’s too easy just to say that when you’re talking about your mother. It’s so much more than love – it’s, it’s everything, isn’t it? When someone asks you where you come from, the answer is your mother. When you’re mother’s gone, you’ve lost your past. It’s so much more than love. Even when there’s no love, it’s so much more than anything else in your life. I did love my mother, but I didn’t know how much until she was gone.”

I wonder if we can conceive of all who have ever been mother and child as round yon virgin, and near the Christ child, during this season – and hence experience by God’s Spirit a sense of healing, gratitude, a lost past recovered, love redeemed?

James
james@mpumc.org

Web Site Design & Web Development by E-dreamz