Monthly Archives: December 2021

Not the Christmas I Expected


Jeremiah 31:7-14

Psalm 144:12-20

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:1-18

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.

Christmas for Sesle and me did not go as we expected. Our plan was to host the holiday festivities at our house in Wellfleet with my son, his wife and our two grandchildren. Though she suffered a severe spinal cord injury in May of this year that left her nearly completely paralyzed, Sesle was making a remarkable recovery. She was walking again and had regained the full use of her hands. We were looking forward to a joyous and celebratory observance of the Nativity.  But on the evening of December 1st, after an active day of cooking, worship and visiting with  friends, Sesle began to experience severe chills, high temperatures and slipped finally into unconsciousness. She was rushed to the hospital by ambulance where she spent a week in the ICU fighting for her life against septic shock. She was discharged from the hospital two weeks later to an acute care facility-otherwise known as a nursing home-where she is now undergoing physical therapy to reclaim the progress she fought so hard to achieve since her accident in May. So we spent Christmas together in a double occupancy room opening our gifts, listening to our church’s online service and chatting with our children by telephone.

I have been reflecting a great deal on the Word made flesh this season during which I experienced two very different manifestations of flesh. One version came to me through our roommate’s television set. She was watching a station showing non-stop, back to back Hallmark Christmas movies. The flesh on the screen was nearly perfect. Petite women, immaculately groomed and airbrushed to perfection shared the screen with equally well endowed, dressed and made up men acting out tales of romance, family drama and the magical effects of Christmas that seem somehow to make everything come out right. This was flesh seemingly immune to aging, deformity and imperfection. These were people who inhabited an enchanted universe of Christmas trees, ugly sweaters and skin as white as the snow falling in nearly every scene.

The flesh on our side of the screen looks a lot different. On our side of the screen flesh is frequently paper thin with age and ravaged by disease and bed sores. The flesh surrounding us is wracked with pain and often inhabited by confused and terrified minds crying out for attention from a medical system too strained to be attentive. The flesh we meet on a regular basis is worn by nurses, CNAs, therapists and other nursing home staff overworked, underpaid and often treated abominably by their corporate overlords. The flesh I have seen this Christmas resembles more the wounded body of the crucified Jesus than the fresh and tender flesh of the newborn Christ child.

I take comfort in knowing, however, that God is incarnate on my side of the screen and that I have indeed seen his glory. I see it in the devotion of frazzled nurses and aids who, exhausted as they often are, still find time to go the extra mile in caring for their patients. I see it in the face of a woman who seems not to recognize even members of her family, but still wears a tender and welcoming smile for them and for all who come into her orbit of attention. All around me I am witnessing “glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Just as the wounds of Jesus become in his resurrected body the beautiful symbols of God’s love for the world, so the suffering flesh in our nursing home community is aglow with redemptive moments through which the gentle reign of God shines through. The Word has indeed become flesh, remains flesh and will redeem all flesh. Joy to the world. The Lord has come.

This Christmas was not the Christmas I planned. It is not the Christmas I would wish on anyone else. But it was the Christmas I needed and perhaps the most wonderful I will ever know.

Here is a poem by Jane Kenyon about a Christmas disrupted by illness.

Christmas Away From Home

Her sickness brought me to Connecticut.
Mornings I walk the dog: that part of life
is intact. Who’s painted, who’s insulated
or put siding on, who’s burned the lawn
with lime—that’s the news on Ardmore Street.

The leaves of the neighbor’s respectable
rhododendrons curl under in the cold.
He has backed the car
through the white nimbus of its exhaust
and disappeared for the day.

In the hiatus between mayors
the city has left leaves in the gutters,
and passing cars lift them in maelstroms.

We pass the house two doors down, the one
with the wildest lights in the neighborhood,
an establishment without irony.
All summer their putto empties a water jar,
their St. Francis feeds the birds.
Now it’s angels, festoons, waist-high
candles, and swans pulling sleighs.

Two hundred miles north I’d let the dog
run among birches and the black shade of pines.
I miss the hills, the woods and stony
streams, where the swish of jacket sleeves
against my sides seems loud, and a crow
caws sleepily at dawn.

By now the streams must run under a skin
of ice, white air-bubbles passing erratically,
like blood cells through a vein. Soon the mail,
forwarded, will begin to reach me here.

Source Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon (c. 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon; pub. by Graywolf Press). Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in her hometown and completed her master’s degree there in 1972. It was there also that she met her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire where she lived until her untimely death in 1995 at age 47. You can read more of Jane Kenyon’s poetry and find out more about her at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Of Roots, Fruits and Repentance


Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Prayer of the Day: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the preaching of John, that, rejoicing in your salvation, we may bring forth the fruits of repentance; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Luke 3:8.

John the Baptizer does not mince words. “Think you’re special because you are a descendant of Abraham? A baptized Lutheran? A charter member of the congregation with deep roots in the community? God doesn’t give a flying fruitcake for your roots. In fact, the ax is about to fall on the roots of all fruitless trees, however deep, noble and well established those roots. It’s fruits, not roots that God cares about.”

Small wonder John’s audience is shaken to the core. “What shall we do?” they cry out in despair. John’s answer is almost too simple and direct. He does not direct them to a set of spiritual exercises, call them to a life of strict asceticism or the performance of some difficult heroic act. This isn’t rocket science. Share your food and clothing. Stop using your position of power for exploitation and personal gain. This sounds like simple common place morality.

But it is in the common place that one most frequently feels the pinch. The pastor of the congregation in which I grew up used to tell the story of a young man eager to join the communist party. The party leaders asked him a series of questions. “What would you do if you owned two houses,” they asked. Without hesitation, the young man answered,

“I would live in one and donate the other to the party.”

“And what if you inherited one million dollars?” they asked.

Again, without hesitation, the young man answered, “I would keep only what I needed to live on and give the rest to the party.”

“And what if you had two pairs of shoes?” they asked. Now the young man was at a loss for words. Obviously, he had two or perhaps more pairs of shoes and was not eager to part with any of them. If there is a moral to this tale, I suppose it is that we find it much easier to make great hypothetical sacrifices than real ones, however small they might be. Those, however, are the ones John is calling for: the extra coats in our closets, the food stuffed in our pantries, the income we frequently refer to as “discretionary,” the extra bedrooms in our homes, the excess real estate, endowments and funds held by our churches and whatever else we can unburden ourselves in order to fill the valleys of poverty, level the mountains of excess wealth, dismantle injustice and smooth the way to equity and wellbeing for all people. See Luke 3:5-6. That is what repentance looks like.

Repentance bears fruit. If it doesn’t, it isn’t repentance. It isn’t enough simply to confess one’s sins and feel sincere regret-though that is often a starting point. God knows that we white American Christians have good reason to regret our historic complicity with our nation’s legacy of slavery and the continuing curse of systemic racism left in its wake. We have good reason to lament the disparity in wealth, employment opportunity, access to health care and educational access between ourselves and the increasing number of impoverished people among us. But that is only the beginning. As author Marlena Proper Deida Graves points out in her reflections on this gospel lesson, … “producing fruit in keeping with repentance, as John compels us to do, means making amends. With the Holy Spirit’s help it means refusing to continue down destructive, death-filled, and toxic paths. It means choosing life in all its vulnerability, fragility, and glory-life in Christ. Such a life is a full life (John 10:10). Repentance in all its forms brings us life, healing, shalom. When we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, we will be healed (James 5:16).” Christian Century, December 1, 2021, p. 20.

We and our churches have a tremendous capacity for producing fruit. There is, I know, a lot of hand wringing and consternation in mainline churches over the drop in regular congregational giving, loss of membership and increasing costs of maintaining our institutions. But these problems are more apparent than real when you recall that the original church could fit itself into a single room and that the only material stuff the church needs is a Bible, a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and access to water. The rest is just frosting on the cake. Looked at from that perspective, my own Lutheran Church is filthy rich. Our concern should not be that we will run out of money, lose our sanctuaries or be forced to dismantle our institutions. Our concern should be that Jesus will return and catch us with money still sitting in the bank-along with that extra coat in the closet and all those cans of expired food in the pantry.   

So what shape might repentance take among us? What would John the Baptizer say if we had the temerity to ask him, “and we, what should we do?” We might try to explain to John that simply divesting ourselves is not a simple and easy task, that there are substantial legal, financial and operational obstacles to carrying out his radically simple demands. I suspect John would reply, “Who said anything about simple and easy? Since when has God ever called us to do what is simple and easy?”  

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes that speaks of freedom and liberation with the same passionate impatience we hear in the voice of John the Baptizer.


Freedom will not come
Today, this year
            Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
            To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
            Is a strong seed
            In a great need.
            I live here, too.
            I want my freedom
            Just as you.   

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).