Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Church

The Flowers at our first annual "Healing the Holidays" service

We are getting close now.  Christmas Eve is just around the corner.  Like many congregations we have two services.  The first is at 5pm and features child musicians and readers.  The 7pm also has some child readers but is usually quite a bit quieter.  Both end the same way.  Carols are sung and candles are lit.  It is pretty and will be just as "Chrismassy" as it always is, even in the midst of the monsoon scheduled for the holiday.

However, we have had some other moments in our congregation that have brought out that same spirit.  Advent services have been well-attended. The annual pageant was a particular highlight.  Also, over the past couple of days we participated in two extra-curricular events that are important ones for our congregation.

The first of these is a new tradition.  Donna Vuilleumier, our Affiliated Minister whose regular ministry is in hospice, officiated a "Healing the Holidays" service for those people who were experiencing a sense of loss of emptiness during this time.  We were a small group, but a good one.  I knew all of them.  Stephen, Donna, Rebecca, John, Lori, Sue, and myself were all that could make it.  But it was important.  We are a community that cares for each other.  We reach out both in times of celebration and in times of grief.

The other was our annual caroling trip to the local hospital.  We have been doing this for around six years.  It was started by my then-assistant Matthew Carriker.  He has moved on but the tradition continues with his various successors doing much of the planning.  Each year we look forward to it.  We mess around with the caroling books (our original list didn't have enough "secular" carols).  We recruit pretty much the same kids to play instruments.  Basically we carve out the time and count the days.

Then we hustle to the hospital to sing.  People show up straight from work in their office clothes.  My son rushed there with his uke in between track practice and his band concert.  Others have a more leisurely approach.  Someone (I don't know who and it may be more than one someone) makes sure we have enough Santa hats.

We have been doing this long enough that I, at least, can mark the time by noting who has shown up on which year.  Who will be back next year?  Who will only now be missed and remembered?  As someone whose profession takes him to the hospital, I also remember my visits there without the carolers.  Friends and congregants who have stayed their and recovered.  Some, too, who did not.  The kids get bigger, we get older.  There are new folks who arrive and family visitors from out of town.  "That was the year when..."

This event matters.  It matters as much to those of us who participate as to those we are there to help.  It helps us define who we are as a community that is there for each other as well as for the world.  On Sunday after church, an older member of the congregation took my arm to tell me that she still remembers the time when we visited her in the hospital and sang as one of her favorite holiday memories.  She cannot make it to caroling herself but the fact we do it still brings her joy. This is wonderful.  As with the Healing service, we do what we do for those present and those not present.

To me this is Christmas.  The other stuff is nice, too.  However, in the end the best of the holiday is about building community and demonstrating our love and caring for others.  Maybe the stress of the season even helps us in a weird way.  It makes us mindful of how everyone is doing.  It makes us aware that each of us is struggling against the powers and that together we can create something beautiful.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Morn: Advent's Mental Health Day

I know you want to turn away.  It is a hard image to see that you cannot then unsee.  It will be there with you forever.  Yes, that is a collapsed fruitcake.  I was cooking it.  You may remember that I do that to relax and get into the Christmas spirit or whatever.  It is on my blog.  Anyway, instead of sliding in a charming way from the loaf-pan, it exploded.  A big cloud of steam engulfed both bread and baker leaving these course chunks of leathery defeat.  I can keep this thing forever if I want.  Like the surface of the moon, it is too inhospitable for anything to grow.

I post it today not to celebrate my defeat but because this sad scene reflects the mood of many of us as we stumble toward Christmas.  We began with so many hopes and dreams.  We had lists. We had goals.  We told ourselves that the commercial juggernaut would not have our souls.  We believed that we could in some sense responsibly react to the horrors of the news this month while also maintaining a spirit of peace, hope, love...and whatever that other stupid candle is about.  You know...the pink one!  Grrrrr....

Everyone in my family gets the same cold the last week of Advent.  It is a tradition.  As I was doping up my son today so he could go to his last day of school before break, I realized how crazy things have been.  I cannot remember the last time I was home at night, for example.  There have been so many things going on.  Some of them were work--Pub Theology, Parish Committee, Bible Seminar--but the real kicker has been the combination of kid stuff and holiday stuff.  I cannot remember a time before holiday planning.  Everything points to the Christmas Eve services now.

Don't get me wrong.  This is a wonderful time.  However, if you are the sort of person who wants to sift through the surface crap of the season to find meaning and sustenance (and I know you are) then you are working an extra job.  It is 24/7, my friends.  It is a time of anticipation and preparation.  This means digging deep sometimes what with all the mess and confusion of what the world throws at us.  We feel that broken fruitcake, don't we.

You may have noticed that folks are a little sensitive these days.  In the past week or so I have seen grown, sane, mature adults get weepy at the slightest provocation.  I have seen people crack under the strain of deciding between green and red...for anything.  I have colleagues who most likely don't remember quite how to get from their homes to their church even though many of them live right next door to work.  Sure, some of my UU compatriots don't seem to know anything big is going on (and--brothers and sisters--you know I love you, right?) but that just makes it harder for the rest of us.  This is an exciting time.  This is a holy time but, dude, we are carrying quite a load right now.

Still, Christmas is a'coming.  It will be great.  We will give the kids their stockings and tell them not to go downstairs until we are good and ready.  Then we will sleep as long as we can.  We will have a big breakfast and sit around in our PJ's messaging folks on Facebook.  Yes, we will celebrate the symbolic (but obviously not actual) birthday of Jesus.  In fact, it will mean more for the struggle of these days.  It will be wonderful.  Christmas is a party after the discipline of Advent.  I, at least, am looking forward to being part of that party.  Twelve. Whole. Days.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I Hate Christmas

I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them...Take away the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  Amos 5:21-24

So it took me about a week of Advent to get to that moment when I decide I am going to quit my job, sell my possessions, and go live in a yurt in Vermont somewhere far, far, away from anything holiday-related.  The moment happened while we were on our way back from the gingerbread house competition at the Worcester Art Museum.  I am not sure what pushed me over the edge.

The gingerbread house thing used to be quite an event when it was held at the now-defunct Higgins armory.  Higgins was an old factory that had been refitted to look like a 1940's idea of what a castle might be like.  Think Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. Inside was an excellent collection of armor and weapons.  It was decorated for the holiday.  There were various musicians of the sort one might expect to see at one's local "Christmas Revels" performance.  The entries tended to lean toward castles (how could they not?) and were done by very talented families, restaurants, and technical school culinary programs.  This year--in its new location--the castles were still there but they were set up in a hallway and might as well have been kids' science experiments for all the presentation they got.  Except for the promotion.  The event was promoted as something...well...better.

Fortunately the trip was saved by the wonder that is the Worcester Art Museum.  If you haven't been, it is worth the drive.  I promise.  The armor was set up in its own exhibit ("Knights!").  Also, they have a respectable permanent collection of European and American art along with a few very special pieces you will have to see for yourself.  The point is, I am not sure that was what caused the funk.

More likely it was the drive in the dark and rain down Route 9 in order to get home.  There are few better examples of how enforced happiness just makes us more vicious.  If you live in the 'burbs (and odds are you do) you know Route 9 even if your Route 9 has a different name.  There are malls and shopping centers one after the other for miles and miles.  There is traffic exacerbated by awkward street lights, weird pedestrian crossings, and eccentric driving from all the people who use their animal brains to get the best deal. People come from other states to research how not to build a road. It is that bad.  In December it is at its worst, because we are at our worst, too.

Anyway, I hit the ribbon candy wall.  I was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and upended.  I sat there in the traffic thinking about all that is going on in the world right now.  We have a whole lot of problems. Yes, police militarization and entrenched racism spring right to mind these days, but do you remember immigration?  How about  those fraternities?  Yet here we all were, on this ridiculous road on a Saturday night generally not coping well. In fact, we were engaged in another illness...rampant consumerism.  My job is to point out the places where God exists in our lives and to point out the powers that keep us isolated from the Divine in ourselves, in each other, and in the world.   I thought of all the places that I am able to see God and Jesus at work--some of them are truly strange--and I felt far, far from any of them.

Now, I hit that wall pretty early.  However, that is probably also work-related.  You see this season is something I start planning for pretty early in the year.  Also, most of what I do in Advent has something to do with the holiday.  There are no TP reports in the ministry, after all.  Anyway, I got better because Sunday happened.  We had church.  I got to preach on that ancient Occupy-protester known as John the Baptizer.  I talked about fruitcake.  In fact, I was in a good enough mood to go to the Elm Bank Festival of Trees and check out the electric trains at the "Snow Village".  Very cool.

So I don't hate Christmas today.  Tomorrow, of course, I may change my mind.  That is how it works sometimes.  I suspect that everyone will hit the wall at least once this holiday season.  The struggle for all of us is what we do when we do.  For some folks it is best to step back, stop listening to carols, read a book about something else, start thinking about baseball season.  Others can go all in and surrender to the craziness of it all.

For me it is always an issue of redefining the holidays.  For most folks this is a secular holiday with a vaguely religious veneer.  The absence of actual spiritual meaning is filled up with some pretty shallow stuff.  My problem on Saturday night essentially stemmed from being confronted with the Christmas that I don't believe in.  That Christmas I hate.  For me this is a time when we take our spiritual beliefs (whatever they may be) and try to live into them.  We try to be the sort of person we once aspired to be.  We try to be the one we are called to be.  All the decorations and rituals are there to remind us that life is more than what we see.  That our divine connections are what are most important.  Fortunately I have church to remind of this even when it isn't Christmas.

I hope your acts of redefinition are going well.  I pray that you have found an Advent discipline that keeps you grounded and committed.  If you need a hand, let me know.  We all have times when this season starts to look like a long party that has ceased to be either interesting or relevant.  If this happens to you and you want to talk.  Drop me a line.  You know where to find me.

Friday, December 5, 2014

About that "Advent Calendar Posts 2014" Section...

So you may have seen the tag on the right of this page implying that I am doing some sort of virtual "Advent Calendar".  I am.  However, I am doing in on Facebook.  Some days involve lengthy essays.  Some days involve videos (sermons and music) and articles shared from somewhere else.  The collection on this page is for columns from this blog that appear this Advent on the FB page calendar.  If you want the other stuff, then it would be best to "like" BP on Facebook.  I post around 7am every day during Advent.  Then it gets very quiet....

Anyway, I am not hard to find.  There is a link to the Facebook page on the right as well...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

My Advent Racism Post

I went over to the coffee shop downtown today and bumped into my neighbor Rob.  We got chatting about the season and--knowing that I am prone to do this sort of thing--he asked me what I am "giving up" or taking on for Advent.  I told him I was struggling against my own racism.

It is true, but I hate to say it.  It sounds like just the thing a caricature of a liberal Christian minister would say.   It sounds holier than thou.  Perhaps it even appears a bit more pointed.  "Look at me!  I am doing minister-purification stuff! What are you up to?  Just having coffee?"  It is easy to tune out things like that.

However, I don't feel that pure.  I am a Calvinist (albeit a liberal--Universalist--one) and my racism--like many of my faults--stands out to me as a power to be fought.  I first truly clued in to being a racist while I was in high school and working for the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign.  It turned out that over the years of my upbringing, my whiteness (or, really, pinkness) in a white community had instilled certain assumptions within me, certain feelings, certain fears that required (and still require) my attention.  I am a racist.  This is how I see it.

Now, neither you nor I are likely the kind of racist that immediately springs to mind.  We get angry at those racists and we should.   We may even feel a certain superiority.  That, my friends, is the problem.  Charles Blow in today's New York Times writes, "racist is the word that we must use.  Racism doesn't require the presence of malice, only the presence of bias and ignorance, willful or otherwise." Liberals have biases, too. We need to remember to be vigilant.  

I could say that I am a "person with racism" and label it like the disease it is.  However, I worry that it will let me off the hook. "Don't worry about Adam.  He has racism.  He can't help it."  

OK so...why is this struggle my Advent discipline?  This year, it is hard to figure out how it wouldn't be.  For work I think about Advent.  I also pay attention to what is going on in the country.  My days swing between these foci.  Fruitcake...then Ferguson.  Planning worship...then Michael Brown.  Practice the Nutcracker on the ukulele...then Eric Garner, who was 43, exactly my age.  How could I not be thinking about race in this country?  How could I not wonder about those assumptions once again.  How could I not wonder how my daily existence differs from Eric's?  How could I not want to do something about it?  I believe racism is a disease that can--ultimately--be cured.  You need to work at it, though.  Everyone has caught the bug and there is no pill.

A couple years ago I was stopped by the police while walking through my neighborhood.  Someone thought I looked suspicious.  When closer inspection revealed my harmlessness the police wrapped up pretty darn quick.  Back then I wondered what would have been different had I been someone other than Rev. Dr. Adam Tierney-Eliot, pastor of that church down the street.  I kinda knew, frankly, but right now the illustration is stark.

Is there hope in all this?  Yes.  I think there is.  Many of my colleagues are reporting disagreements with people over various aspects of these cases.  I am not surprised.  Folks are at war with each other because they are at war within themselves.  People are struggling with their own deeply embedded notions of their own goodness.  I have received push back, too.  However, I have also been amazed by the outpouring of anger concerning these verdicts and concerning the underlying institutions that make them possible.  I am glad folks are waking up.  After centuries of generally ignoring the unequal response of our society toward people of color--the historical record is embarrassingly clear--we are fighting back against our own dogmatic slumbers.   It is painful but it has to be done. 

The trouble seems to arrive when we have to examine ourselves.  Not everything is holly and ivy and mistletoe after all.  The world is still ugly even when we look away.

Again, why deal with race during Advent?  That is easy.  The Advent story is about oppression.  It is about displacement.  Christmas may be a party but Advent is not. Right now is the best time to take a look at that story in the Bible and to live our way way into it.  The Hope of Advent isn't a hope to maintain things as they are.  The Peace of Advent isn't about hushed silences, carols and hot chocolate but about equal justice.  This isn't a time to ignore the violence we do but to face it.  It is also time to acknowledge our own complicity and to act in the midst of our flaws.

One.  More.  Time.  This is the moment for white people--even or especially the purportedly liberal ones--to acknowledge our complicity.  It is time for the white church--perhaps particularly the suburban one--to acknowledge its (our) complicity as well.

This is the season of preparation for nothing less than the birth of God.  Perhaps we will never be pure as individuals or as a society.  However, we cannot afford to throw our hands up in despair.  This holiday season it is time to fight the racism we see in our institutions and in ourselves.  Let us talk.  Let us march.  Let us act in ways large and small before the moment is lost.

Here is the article that I quote from Charles Blow.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

XMas Buyer's Guide: Making Things

There is an assumption I am making here.  It is part of my theme for this Sunday's sermonizing.  One of the great challenges we face when we try to re-claim the holiday for ourselves is the simple fact of an overblown gift culture.  Simply put, Christmas has become about getting stuff you want and giving people stuff they want.  As an economic engine this may have some merit.  As a spiritual one, however, it makes little sense.  It changes the conversation around what is important.  Both adults and children grade their holiday experience based on how much loot they received.  They are bothered when they don't get what they want.  The people doing the giving (and, yes we are both the giver and the receiver this time of year) are quite appropriately tense about the gifts they give being accepted.  This is not a healthy arrangement.

As it currently stands holiday gift giving is a test of our wealth and our love.  It creates a general anxiety that makes us feed the machine, spending a great deal and then demanding the same.  Instead of bringing families together, it can drive them apart. The dominant emotion on Christmas morning in many households is not joy but relief that it is over.  That is too bad don't you think?

I have written about this part of the holidays a few times and no doubt will again.  There are a variety of ways to get things under control.  Setting a budget is one way.  So is narrowing down who gets gifts in the first place.  Another adaptation used for many years by parents and spouses--one that gets a bad rap--is when people buy things that need to be purchased anyway and then wrap them. Think socks.   Similarly, buying your own gift (and letting him/her reciprocate) can be the perfect gift to a spouse.  You get what you want.  They get the satisfaction of knowing you got what you wanted without the threat of failure.  Yeah, these sound silly, but, really, it frees you up to celebrate in other ways.  It isn't your birthday, after all.  Presents shouldn't be central.

If I am on the ball, I will provide a few updates on gifting this Advent. However, I want to start with another time honored tradition that might just make life a whole lot easier for you.  Namely making gifts.  They cost less.  They show you thought about someone.  They also let you observe the holiday in a non-commercial way while taking care of some of those pesky obligations.  Here are some ideas...

Baked goods have been the currency of the holidays since forever.  They are a casual-yet-not-casual  way to say that you are thinking about someone.  Baking takes time.  At least some of that time is spent thinking about the holiday and about the person on the receiving end of the gift.  It also makes the house smell nice.  You can turn on some music.  There are plenty of free resources online that you can grab to figure out a new thing. Alternatively, you can go with an old classic recipe that you try to perfect over the course of years and decades.  That makes it special.

Check out the previous post for that pseudo-fruitcake recipe.  Cookies are also great this time of year. Here is a link to today's New York Times to get you started on cookie making.  Bacon Gingersnaps anybody?

You can check out the link but don't forget to return.  After all, there are plenty of people for whom baking something would be inappropriate.  What will you do for them?  How about...

No, really.  I am bad at throwing parties, but I love to go to them.  When I am invited (whether I manage to attend or not) I see it as a gift.  You can get your friends together and share the responsibilities, or you can dominate the planning yourself.  Either way, you have done something special and it should count.  Just let them know that is what they are getting.

Also, you can combine the party with some other low impact gift.  After all, that is what the time honored "cookie swap" really is...

Making a Book: Notice I didn't say "bookmaking".
When the kids were younger, my wife and I had them make books that we could give to family and friends.  The first was "A Christmahanakwanzakah Companion" (an alphabet book).  The next was "The Christmas Ride of Paul Revere" which told the story of Paul Revere and his apparently inebriated sidekick William Dawes rescuing Santa from himself by delivering presents to "every Middlesex village and farm".  Both involved photographs and drawings.  Plenty of tape was used.  Then we had it printed and bound at Staples or some similar place.  It.  Was. Awesome!  Just as with baking, there was plenty of time to think about the holiday.  Also, the kids got into it in a way that they don't when it comes to cookies.

Making a Plant Press: 
This is a plant press.  It got quite a bit of use during the year I was homeschooling Son #2.  I did not make it.  My brother's family did and gave it to us as a Christmas present.  It is the sort of thing you cannot pick up at the mall.  It is fun to talk about.  It makes me feel like I am a 19th Century intellectual.  Which is to say that it makes me feel at home.

I do not have mad skills in the making-stuff-with-wood-and-nails department.  However, if you do,  figure out a cool project like this.  It will be worth your while.  again, there are plenty of resources.  You can find a plan to make pretty much anything online and there are books as well.  Try something out!

Mix Tapes:
You remember mix tapes, right?  I realize that technology is super-cool and whatnot.  However, there was something great about the idea of somebody compiling a group of songs that they like and giving it to someone.  These days you could even add an original performance or composition to the collection.  I say "why the heck not?"  If you do this, though, try to use a concrete medium.  The web is fine and convenient.  However, the holidays are old-fashioned (see "Plant Press" above). Why not be old fashioned, too?

Art in General: 
Do you paint?  Do you sing?  Think about what other creative thing you can do.  There has to be something.  Use your imagination and come up with a unique gift that people will appreciate!

Final Notes:
There are two of these...

1) One note has to do with the giving.  You need to be clear with people what you are doing.  They need to adjust their expectations.  Also, you can start gradually.  Pick your hipster friends and family first.  They will get it.  They have probably been dying to make you a mix tape or a spinning wheel (out of tuna tins) for some time.  You will make them happy.  Save the difficult cases for another year when enough folks have said positive things in their presence. A good buzz like "I sure hope Adam will give us his fruitcake recipe this year.  I sooo look forward to it" will help break the ice.

2) This one has to do with receiving.  Son #3 asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  I told him to make me something.  He said, "I would rather get you something you would like".  Heart. Broken.  I thought I was doing a great job of appreciating his crafts.

We as receivers need to be helpful about what sorts of crafty things we like.  We also need to be encouraging and supportive to the people who make us something.  If we are not, they will go back to buying expensive crap and we will miss out on  a profoundly spiritual way to address the gift giving this season.

That is all for now.  Be good givers and good receivers.  Like I said earlier, there are a variety of ways to go and I will try to hit a few others before we are through...

Monday, December 1, 2014

I Burned the Fruitcake...and a Recipe

I burned the fruitcake.  That is why there is this attractive picture of a snowy bush instead.  I had planned a victorious photo of the first fruitcake of the season.  The bush is gone thanks to re-landscaping at the parsonage but the picture remains to help console me after today's baking disaster.  I am not quite bereft.  But, still...

Actually  it isn't really a fruitcake at all but a fruit-nut bread because I see no reason to drown it in booze like you are supposed to.  Also, I use fruit found in nature.  Still, the bar is so low for fruitcake that when people try it they are sure it is the best fruitcake they ever tasted.  Who am I to correct them?

Whatever it is, I burned it pretty bad.  I make a lot of these every year.  It gets me in the Advent mood and then I can give them to people.  This year I had some challenges that I previously didn't need to deal with.  First, we have a new stove.  Second, I was running around doing too many things.  Third (and crucially) I misread the cooking time.  Things weren't turning out right.  The outside was OK but the inside was still goopy.   Instead of blaming myself,  I blamed the stove and turned up the heat...

Anyway, you can write your own conclusion about taking time for the holidays, mindfulness and whatnot.  I am too depressed.  I will freeze one of the poor things and have it for breakfast later in the season.  The other I will start munching tonight after I practice the Nutcracker on the ukulele for Sunday.  I am sure that it will get me back in the mood...

Every year when I churn these things out, some folks ask for the recipe.  When not burned they are quite yummy and worth the effort.  Just pay attention to those cooking times!

Fruit-Nut Bread of Advent Awesomeness

It should be noted that I am not a great baker.  This recipe is modified from a couple of cookbooks that I usually use.  One is the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that my parents bought me when I got an apartment in college.  The other is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.  If you know someone who does not have a copy.  Get them one for Christmas.  There is also a vegetarian one.

This is for two loaves because no one makes just one.  That is silliness.

1 stick of butter
2 cups white flour
2 cups wheat flour
2 cups sugar (a small amount (1/4-1/3 cup) of this can be brown sugar if you are a New Englander)
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
1.5 cups mulled (heated with cinnamon and cloves) apple cider
(other juices in a pinch but I actually will use a strong herbal tea first and it really should be cider)
2 eggs
2 cups dried fruit
1 cup walnuts chopped

About the fruit:  Sure, you can use what you want, but if you asked for my recipe, the cider and the fruit are key.  I use a small amount (1/4 cup) of crystallized ginger.  Then I hit stuff that feels Biblical to me.  I use apricots, dates, figs, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries usually.  All in their dried form and then steeped in the hot cider (I also add the butter) for about 45 minutes.  The steeping gives them enough time to mingle and then cool before adding the eggs, which you do not want to cook too early.  The rest is easy, put the dries in the liquids.  Stir gently until it is a sticky mess.  You might need a teensy bit more cider.  Put it in the loaf pan and...

Cook it at 350 Fahrenheit for 1 hour!  Don't make the same mistake I did...

There ya go, my Advent gift to you.  By the way, I am now eating the pseudo fruitcake and the middles are fine...