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Dec 26 19

What am I pondering

by davesandel

What am I pondering

Thursday, December 26, 2019

When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

– From Matthew 10

On the Feast of St. Stephen, remember Mary’s Magnificat, her reflection of God’s desire for family, for neighborly-ness, when the high are brought down and the low, raised up.

See Saul standing straight, silhouetted there on the rim of a western hill, killers’ coats all around his feet. Saul’s harassing, biting words drove the Jews into a frenzy and here they are now, defeated in debate but victorious in their kangaroo court. Watch them rush headlong into this killing field. The men, of course. Always the men.

They find jagged rocks and hurl them like simple snowballs at the head of Stephen. They are protecting something – their families? Their traditions? Their God?

But God does not need their help. Nor mine.

Saul called it blasphemy and treason, but it was not. Stephen’s new power to heal, accompanied by words given to him just when he needed them, brought joyful prayer to the mouths of the people. Their hearts turned soft and were filled with the Holy Spirit. Stephen claimed the presence and the grace of Jesus, who was not dead after all, and Saul screamed, “No!”

Years before, Mary pondered all those things that filled her life and would change the world. Saul, so magisterial on the hill in his self-righteousness, will soon be hurled from his beast on the road to Damascus, brought down into the ancient dust to discover God in the words of Jesus. “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” And Saul was blinded by the sight.

When Saul’s sight was restored, he pondered his revelation in the desert for a thousand days.

But Stephen is our hero today.

See Stephen in his cell, candles dead in the darkness, staring in spite of himself into the hate-filled eyes of Saul. But then, this night before his murder, God removes this remembrance from Stephen’s mind.

Stephen prays, Stephen ponders. O Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. O Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner! O Jesus! We can watch him pray all night, as we pray too.

What am I pondering? I see myself, and Christmas bells, which along with their holiday had yet to be invented, and invite Stephen across the centuries to sit beside me while we listen.


These bells that play

On Christmas Day

Their ringing settles me


Deep and wide and wild and sweet

Sounding my soul, listening for

Evidence of Relationship


Sobs, bursts of song,

Long silences sometimes

For kin we are and kin we will remain


Can I claim this brotherhood with Stephen? He’s the martyr, not me. He’s today’s hero, not me. He is the one raised up, in God’s good time, from the devil’s dirt and death invoked in rocks and hate.

Stephen calls out his forgiveness, I call out mine. He joins the family brought together by our Father, neighbors all. There is Herod, there is Saul, there is Peter, there is Paul. Here we are, just smell that turkey! We wait together for our Savior, we wait for Jesus to come and bless his holy family at our meal.

I’m alone today, Lord, and calling out your name. O Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me! My backyard birds fly up in flocks to feed, and fly away again, together. As I sit you fill me with remembrance of all those others too, who sit down too, who love you too, because you always first loved them. We’re in this all together.

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Dec 25 19

On Christmas Day in the morning

by davesandel

On Christmas Day in the morning

Christmas Day, Wednesday, December 25, 2019

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

– From Luke 2

You take the apple, I’ll eat the orange!

Can we have marshmallows in our chocolate, Mommy?

When will daddy get in from the barn?

Can we open our presents now, Daddy? “Settle down right there, kids.” It’s finally time.

I got a chess set and a book to show me how. Johnny got an ‘lectric train, and Mary Kay a grown-up dollie. We made gifts for Mom and Dad, and couldn’t wait to share them. Open it! Open it now! I made mommy a snowflake to put in the window. Johnny made a special sculpture out of corn and straw. He wasn’t sure what it was, but everybody loved it.

Mary Kay made daddy a holder for his pocket pen and notebook. In the spring he wrote down all the kinds of corn and beans he planted, and when he planted them. When he opened it he had a happy smile. “Thank you, Mary Kay,” he said.

Mommy made turkey, and mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole, and the winter sun shone through the west window. Our kitchen was warm as toast. The cows would need to be milked again in not too long, but just now in the lazy afternoon, we let them be.

We Lutherans spent some time in church at Christmas. First, practices for the pageant and then the show itself, starring us, always performed on Christmas Eve. My cousin Jan remembers these nights like I do, we could hardly breathe and then we sang and said our words so carefully, and then, such relief!

There’s a brown paper bag with an orange, and chocolate candy, and sometimes a quarter. There was a card just for me. My favorite teacher Mr. Read handed us our bags. His usually quiet smile burst out into his cheeks. He talked and talked in Sunday School, but tonight he just smiled at me and said, “Merry Christmas, David. Jesus loves you.” That was enough for me. I felt so happy in the dark, sitting side by side by side with Mary Kay and John in the back seat of our car.

Then next morning, after all those gifts and Christmas breakfast, we went to church again. We sat still in the wooden pews and sang the songs of Christmas, our Lutheran songs: All My Heart Again Rejoices, From Heaven Above to Earth I Come, We Praise You Jesus At Your Birth, and a bow to the Methodists, “Joy To The World,” with a just a few changes in the words.

Of course our cows got milked. Dad wore his barn coat and rubber boots. Lowell Thomas read his Christmas news from the fly-speck radio. I helped milk, and sometimes so did John, and the work was done. Our Grandma Brummer Christmas dinner beckoned. Grandpa sat in his huge wood rocker and Aunt Mary gave us great hugs and sang “Let me go! Let me go!” while she held on tight.

More presents! And more wrapping paper. On the day after Christmas, I loved to burn the trash and watch flames scorch the colored paper, and turn it black. It was warm beside the burning barrel, and warmer still because my back was cold.

Christmas has come again this year, and my memories rise up, shadows in the fireplace flames, along the edges of my rushing mind. It’s good to ponder them, learning to think like Mary did, letting God do what God does, and wonder about it all.

After the madhouse comes this quiet, Lord. Now I can ask questions and take time to listen to what you say to me. I feel so much warmth and love from you as I remember these family things. I want to carry that on and out to others. How, for me, is that to be, Lord? Will you show me how, and then again?

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Dec 24 19

Mass in the morning

by davesandel

Mass in the morning

Christmas Eve, Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Zechariah, John’s father filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; for he has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant David.

Through his prophets he promised of old that he would save us from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us.

He promised to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant.

This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hand of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

– End of Luke 1

On this fine, final day before the Day, some of us will go to 7 AM mass, and many more to another Christmas Eve service at a more civilized time, and we will sing the songs as Zechariah did, full of hope and future glory. The words will echo in the church, like a bell ringing even louder in the silence between its peals. And our hearts have every right to open, because this is the dawn on high. The light of Jesus breaks upon us.

The holy family is moving on, away from the attentions of Elizabeth and Zechariah and the months of Mary’s preparation. These barely-grown-up Hebrew children who bear God’s child turn down the path to Bethlehem, being from the house of David. Along with their relatives, they must travel days to sign their names in the presence of a Roman accountant. They must render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

And to God, what is God’s, because it is in the palm of God where they read their heritage and their future. Zechariah’s words sing to them with every footstep. God “sets them free from the hand of their enemies, free to worship the LORD without fear, free to be holy and righteous in God’s sight all the days of their lives.”

Can this be always, always true? Are we too indeed set free?

I know I feel darkness in my dwelling place. I sense the shadow of death, never far from me. I am afraid. But Zechariah’s words challenge these close illusions.

The breath of this priest’s sudden words strengthens my soul.

My fears and schemes and desperate grasping hands, all these phantoms fade in the tenderness of God’s promises. With a whisper, with a gentle touch, my father guides my feet onto the path of peace.

My controlling spirit takes a step back today. My friend speaks of choosing happiness rather than getting her own way, even when her own way matters. She just needs a moment.

I hear her, I learn from her, I can make that choice myself. The armor of the Lord is never designed to protect my ego, but my spirit.

On this day we can wait together beneath the tent first of sun, then stars. Outside the little town of Bethlehem, we sit together on the cold ground, that ancient dust from which we came, and share our own sweet stories of God’s compassion, the gift that rests on all of us, in time and time, forever more.

Above our deep and dreamless sleep, your silent stars go by. But in our dark streets, shining, your everlasting light, our hopes and dreams, of all the years, are met in thee … tonight.

 *           *           *

And on a somewhat different note, you might like to watch 4 or so minutes of the best Christmas pageant ever (to steal a phrase), from Southland Christian Church in Kentucky:

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Dec 23 19

I will send you Elijah

by davesandel

I will send you Elijah

Monday, December 23, 2019

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard
that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.

When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.” But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” So they made signs, asking his father what he wished the baby to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed.

Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.”

– From Luke 1

Joseph came for Mary a few days earlier, and they returned together to Nazareth. Now the time was accomplished for Elizabeth to bear her son. Her midwife told Zechariah how to help, and he brought hot water, he warmed cloths, he prayed and worried and listened to the unheard-of noises from the next room. The baby squalled and Zechariah heard. He began to cry. The midwife beckoned him, and he went in to Elizabeth.

“Here is our son,” she said to her husband still mute. “Here is our child from God.” He touched the baby’s cheek with his ancient fingertip. Zechariah’s breath came quickly, and at last he began, with his wife and son, to rest. In the darkness alone, now, they slept.

In the morning the neighbors came. The women oohed over the new baby, and the men smoked cigars, perhaps, with Zechariah, who remained still, who spoke not a word but whose proud smile spoke volumes. They brought food, and all of them laughed together, amazed that God had given these old people a brand new baby.

Then it was eight days later, there in the hill country only a few miles from Jerusalem, as the flowers bloomed and olive branches waved in the summer breeze. Now it was time for the baby’s first surgery, and for his christening. But the name seemed wrong, at least to everyone except Elizabeth and her husband.

Then it was, at last, when Zechariah’s clear obedience to the words of Gabriel broke through the long silence. As he wrote the words, his mouth also began to move, the words rise up in his throat, the sound of joy bearing that new name, “His name shall be called John!”

Yes, John, just as the angel had said, the same John about whom his cousin Jesus would say, “Elijah has already come,” Malachi’s prophesy accomplished. This tiny baby boy will prepare the world for Jesus, for “the day of the Lord, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24).

“What, then, will this child be?” the neighbors ask, eyes wide. God bides his time, but not for long. The morning is about to dawn, even in the middle of the night. Songs of joy echo in the hill country.

In this time, Father, time of quiet and stillness too, let me listen to your birds sing, as they always do in their joy and satisfaction. As your times are accomplished and your babies born, life is brought to fruit, and we’re made whole.

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Dec 22 19

Joy of their coming

by davesandel

Joy of their coming

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019

The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit hat this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

– From Matthew 1

Despite Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph heeds his dream and takes Mary for his wife. This brings him peace and great joy, and patience with the gossip of his family and neighbors. Mary, though, has a tougher time with the wagging tongues, so while Joseph works, she travels to the house of her relative Elizabeth. As she arrives Elizabeth sings for joy and the baby within her jumps for joy. At last Mary can relax and know her own joy. She sings from the bottom of her soul, praising and glorifying God:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

 for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.

 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful

 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. (From Luke 1)

Mary’s was not a visit for the afternoon. She stayed three months before returning to Nazareth. I guess there was no hurry. They told their stories, they made bread, they harvested olives, they dried fish, they ate and slept and ate and slept.

Zechariah might have been a bit of a scholar. He was a high priest. He read his scrolls. His prayers might have been longer and more complicated. He offered no complaint about Mary spending time with Elizabeth. Their meals were pleasant and rich with conversation.

Nobody had to put their phone away when it was time for dinner. There was nothing on TV to watch as the house grew dark, no radio shows, no newspaper. Their conversation covered the events around them, what was happening to the people in their community.

And then … perhaps at times all three were caught up in remembrance, those shocking, amazing words brought by Gabriel. They did not make this up; the babies he left behind made that clear as clear.

All this was illuminated in Mary’s song of liberation and equality. They followed after their Father, and hope filled their hearts.

Did these mothers expect their sons to become Nazarites, join the strange men of the desert who ate locusts and honey, let their hair grow like Samson, and dedicate themselves to God by leaving the city, leaving the world?

As their babies grew inside them, did they imagine these boys growing and teething and crawling and rolling over? Of course they did. These mothers already knew the names God picked out for their boys, and in their minds they watched them walk, and play, begin to read the Torah, ask questions about the words of the prophets, listen to the old men and dream their own young dreams.

Jesus and John would grow in stature, and in God’s own good time move the mountains of their Hebrew world, ushering in a new one. “I am the voice of the one calling in the wilderness,” John called. “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus cried out.

All this will come. For now the sun sets, the moon rises, the stars shine bright and cold in the night. The candles are extinguished, covers pulled up to their chins. Pray, sleep, wait, wonder. And each day, awaken once again.

I’m free, Lord, to remember your morning even in the darkness of my night, to feel the warmth of your arms, the gentle embrace of my God. Even as sleep falls, so too do dreams come, so too do you whisper in my ear. Not sweet nothings, no, but joy and joy and joy.

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Dec 21 19

Hark! My lover here he comes

by davesandel

Hark! My lover here he comes

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Mary set out in those days and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb.

Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

– From Luke 1

Zechariah looks out their window and sees Mary walking up the path to the home he shares with Elizabeth. He’s seen very little traffic on their path since the moment of the angel’s visitation, that moment in the Holy of Holies when he stirred the incense and offered the sacrifice. On that strange amazing day he staggered out of the temple, looked more than a little wildly around him, opened his mouth, and could not speak. His priesthood has never been the same.

Now, he hasn’t spoken for months. Zechariah is learning both the skills of silence and the art of listening, now that his words must be written and therefore few. Perhaps Elizabeth is grateful, too, for the silence. On the other hand, she may just have more words to say than Zechariah, and who better to speak with than her sweet cousin Mary, walking up the path.

But Elizabeth is interrupted. Of course she has stories to tell, but the baby within her is kicking, or rather leaping and laughing and praising God. And when her baby speaks, Elizabeth listens.

(Who is the first person to celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus? I think that must be the baby dancing in Elizabeth’s womb, the boy soon to be named John.)

Stories in the Song of Solomon (part of today’s texts and source of the devotion title) are all about the mysterious, palpable loving Touch between God and us. Elizabeth felt that Touch when Mary came in to her home. Zechariah, who of course does not speak, may well have felt it too.

I sometime call that Touch “safety.” The calm that comes to me sometimes as I settle into sleep, it radiates all through me, and I feel the Touch. God’s love is close, and protective, and offers me rest. But Mary, recognized by Elizabeth to be carrying in her womb a spiritual revolution, knows so much more than safety.

C.S. Lewis described his lion Aslan: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Something bigger, newer, stronger and much more than “safety” rises up in these women and between them. Call it love, call it goodness. Not safety, but God’s goodness. As a white male professor who speaks wisely about these women said, “call it neighborliness,” the strength of mothers to walk in God’s plan for the rich to be brought down and the poor to rise up, his unimpeachable plan for us to simply see each other as brothers and sisters, as family finally and forever.

Again, I imagine Zechariah watching, like I might be watching if I couldn’t speak and had been communing in silence with God for months. He’s in no hurry. Zechariah smiles and loves his wife, as he watches those two amazing women come out of their isolation and storm the gates of heaven. Except they don’t need to storm. God has opened wide the gates.

Both these mothers take after your own heart, Lord, and their children will change the world and bring Kingdom, bring neighborliness, bring freedom, bring family. They beckon us to follow them, serve God as they do, care for those God has blessed unto us as they will care for Jesus and John.

C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, a volume of The Chronicles of Narnia, p. 73

Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” from The Christian Century, March 24, 1999


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Dec 20 19

The babies are coming

by davesandel

The babies are coming

Friday, December 20, 2019

Gabriel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest will hover over you. Therefore, the child you bring to birth will be called Holy, Son of God. And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”

And Mary said, “Yes, I see it all now:
   I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say.” Then the angel left her.

– From Luke 1 (The Message)

Mary’s encounter with the Holy Spirit, from which she came away pregnant, is unquestionably unique, but it is also representative of the way we are all filled with the Spirit.

All God asks is that I say something like, “Yes, I see it all now. I am the Lord’s. I am ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say.” And then the angel can leave, and I can be on my way.

Perhaps to Mary, as the angel leaves her alone, God seems far away on his mountaintop. She knows Joseph will be very confused (read Angry). Her mom and dad will have trouble believing her story. I think that right now, Mary may feel very much alone. But Gabriel surprises her with something.

Just outside Jerusalem, only a good long walk away from Nazareth, her relative Elizabeth is carrying her own child! When Gabriel tells young Mary this, he soothes her and smooths her path. He makes it clear that she is NOT alone. And what’s more, Elizabeth will not be skeptical, disbelieving, angry or confused.

Elizabeth will welcome her with open arms! Her womb will be extended, and the hug may be a bit restrained, but their unspoken kinship will strengthen them both. They have both experienced a Visitation. Their babies are communicating from within their wombs. We’ll hear more about that tomorrow.


Late tomorrow evening, by the way, the winter solstice will arrive. Tomorrow and Sunday bring us the shortest days and longest, darkest nights of the year. Hope does not seem to spring eternal when I’m alone, walking in the dark which seems to never end, and unsure about even my very next steps.

In times like that, as my friend John said a few days ago, “I tend to answer my own prayers.” Yes. My patience is fragile, and my willingness to just let go and let God lead is weak.

If God has my back, has Mary’s back, has Elizabeth’s back, well … that may be, but it’s difficult for any of us to spin around to see.

Can I just have faith, Lord? Just speak up, like Mary, and say, “I’m your servant, Lord. Let it be unto me as you say.”

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Dec 19 19

Unto us a child is born

by davesandel

Unto us a child is born

Thursday, December 19, 2019

When the whole assembly of the people was praying outside, at the hour of the incense offering, the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.”

– From Luke 1

What prayer has been heard? Did I pray? Am I, high priest for these many years, going to ask for a child now that we’re too old to care for it? Elizabeth would make a terrific grandma, but she doesn’t have the energy to keep up with a child hour after hour every day. Is this your idea of a joke, Lord?

Of course Zechariah, high priest offering sacrifice in the holiest of holy places, didn’t say any of this. He might have thought it, though. No wonder he was afraid. First an angel appears on the right side of the altar of incense, then God reads his thoughts and finds them surprising, to say the least. So then the angel offers Zechariah the gift of sealing his mouth, so he can’t do more damage. Shut up, man!

And in truth, as Paula said this week in a talk at Restoration Urban Ministries, this heavenly silencing might have saved his marriage, and maybe even his life! After all, those two had been married for awhile. They already had plenty to say to each other, plenty of bones to pick, and now … Elizabeth pregnant?

How could Zechariah NOT put his foot in his mouth? Watching out for everyone and everything when he could really do nothing and Elizabeth surely had things well enough in control. Having a baby might have been new to her, but she had friends. What did she need the harping of a husband for?

So Zechariah was given the space to be still, to pray and rest in the love of his Father, and grow in grace. I imagine him becoming more beatific, hands folded over his belly, sitting quietly and watching, praying, smiling as the months roll by. God’s miracle, God’s gift, God’s words of blessing. Elizabeth’s womb is full.

Over the next few days, the lectionary texts share the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. There is much joy, as well as some trepidation, in these passages. I want to let them wash over me, and share that holy bath with you.

Can I get to know you better through these stories, Jesus? So many generations of desert-dwellers preceded John, and you too. Prophets prayed and swayed, fainting in the heat of your touch, calling out your words to their generations. Call out your words to us, Lord, and open my ears to hear.

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Dec 18 19

Come on, ring those bells

by davesandel

Come on, ring those bells

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. Take Mary into your home. It is through the Holy Spirit that a child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

– From Matthew 1

It’s a week till Christmas. We’re entering, voluntarily, what Evelyn Underhill in “The Light of the World” called the “mingled homeliness and mystery of the Christian revelation and of our own little lives, full of family pictures and ideas.”

Where were you born? Not in a manger, but where? Can you remember yourself as a little person, a single soul in the “small, fugitive, imperfect creation” we call mankind?

God so loved the world to give us the deepest essential thoughts and secrets of his heart … and how does he do this? Through the baby. A baby like we all have been, baby boy, baby girl. Goo-goo.

It is reasonable for us to wonder about all of this, swarmed into surrender by songs from on high and celebrations of donkeys and sheep, led by the ox, dancing around the stable. The bleak mid-winter of our quiet, desperate lives is thoroughly interrupted by this celebration in the stars.

We don’t get to plan any of it. Neither comfort nor reason play into any calculation of the “unmeasured outpouring of divine life into the helplessness of babyhood.” Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given … given … given!

Underhill thinks perhaps “human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass or prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet.”

Perhaps we can’t help our passion or our prejudice. But pushing them apart, the baby is born anyway, laid in the manger. And along with those donkeys and oxen, we fall on our knees before him.

*           *           *

Just three weeks before Christmas, 1875, a steamer named Deutschland, full of immigrants, foundered near England. 157 died, mostly from hypothermia, when rescue took far too long. A few weeks after, Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins memorialized five Franciscan German nuns on the ship, headed to work in St. Louis hospitals, all gone.

Hopkins struggled to hear “the unmeasured outpouring of divine life” in all this death. He wrote, as always, in joyous strains that are hard to read unless you almost sing them. Here are parts and portions of his poem:

Thou mastering me

God! giver of breath and bread;

World’s strand, sway of the sea;

Lord of living and dead …

I am soft sift in an hourglass


Manger, maiden’s knee;

The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat …

Yet did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing

Not vault them …


Into the snows she sweeps,

Hurling the haven behind,

The Deutschland, on Sunday; and so the sky keeps,

For the infinite air is unkind,

And the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,

Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow

Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

Dame, at our door

Drowned, and among our shoals,

Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward …


Now burn, new born to the world,

Doubled-naturèd name,

The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled


Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!

Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;

Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;

A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.

 Underhill closes her Christmas essay with an understanding of what the wondrous idea of “union with God” might really mean: that “every bit of our human nature be transfigured in Christ, woven up into his creative life and activity, absorbed into his redeeming purpose, heart, soul, mind and strength.”

(In It’s a Wonderful Life, Zuzu Bailey sees a falling star. And she says to the papa so recently restored to her, “O Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets their wings!”)

Ms. Underhill says about this elusive “union with God,” that “each time it happens it means that one of God’s creatures has achieved its destiny.”

Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.

 *           *           *

Even in the darkest evenings, Lord, the poet writes and singer sings, “It is well with my soul.” Nowhere, now or then or ever, is there anything to fear. You are the God of us.

 Evelyn Underhill, “The Light of the World,” from Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, December 18. Online at

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” 1876

It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, 1946



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Dec 17 19


by davesandel


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham … Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah, the Christ.

– From Matthew 1

Chris our son is not quite 40 today.

A few days before he was born, we bought a small (like him) live tree for Christmas. After he was born and everyone celebrated his arrival, along of course with that of Jesus (Christopher’s name means “Christ-bearer), we planted that tree in our yard. We lived there for six more years, and each year they both grew and grew.

Along the way one of Chris’ very favorite books became The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Chris was a giving boy, and I think he appreciated Silverstein’s willingness to tell that story about the giving and giving, on and on, of one of God’s other creatures, until there was nothing left to give.

When Chris was twelve he put on his “purity” ring after steaks at the Beef House. He lost it (the ring), but it got replaced. During that Protestant “Bar Mitzvah” year we read a chronological Bible together, compiled by an attorney who sorted out the Old Testament laws into highly readable categories. We went on four overnight retreats, to have fun and also read and draw various pictures assigned to us from Lynda Madaras’ book, The What’s Happening to My Body ! Book for Boys.

Although we were in Urbana by now, Chris returned to his home church in Waynesville, Illinois to be baptized and party just a little more with those friends he loved so much.

Chris and Melissa were married in 2004. Jack was born in 2009, and Aly in 2012. Now their family has a 5 foot tree in one corner of the family room, a “Generosi-Tree,” lit with small white lights.  Along with those hundred points of light, the tree is decorated with dated ornaments:  2012, 2013, 2014, etc.

Each year Jack and Aly are given $25 each to do something for someone else. So one ornament represents a cow they bought for a village Christmas outreach party in Myanmar; another, tennis shoes for students at a local school; another, poinsettias they delivered themselves to folks living in a nursing home. Last year they combined their money to pay for a sight-saving eye surgery for someone in a developing country.

It was hard to find an eye-chart ornament, but they tracked one down!

One of these days (but not this year!), Chris will turn over the “40” leaf. His life has been rich and full. He and Melissa have offered their kiddos the gift of giving, which they’ve accepted. That makes us all so happy.

It’s often difficult for me to receive the gifts God pours out, not to mention those offered by those around me, even friends and family. Our mutual imperfections can easily block the joy God intends for us when we love each other, give and receive from each other.

In The Giving Tree, the boy comes back over and over to the tree he loves, and the tree gives him all she can. He needs more and more, and at last she offers her branches to build a house, and then her trunk to build a boat to take him far away. The tree is happy.

“But not really.”

The boy returns to his loving tree at last an old, old man (older even than 40). And the tree apologizes to him. “I have nothing left to give you.”

My apples are gone. “But,” the boy said, “My teeth are too weak for apples.”

My branches are gone. You can’t swing on them. “I’m too old to swing on branches.”

My trunk is gone. You cannot climb. “I am too tired to climb,” said the boy.

I am just an old stump now. I am sorry.

 “I don’t need very much now, just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.”

Well! said the tree, straightening herself.

“Well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down.”

Sit down and rest.

And the boy did.


Melissa’s mom Jan, Margaret, and I watch Chris learning all his life to give and also to receive, and we watch as he and Melissa pass that on to Jack and Aly, and my heart bursts with joy.

The Lord is good to me. And so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain … and the apple seed. The Lord is good to me. (Come on, sing it!)

Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree, 1964

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