So Hard to Believe

13th century manuscript illustration of picking cherries.

“When [Jesus’] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” – Matthew 1:18b

It’s all very well for me, you know.
He gave the plot away, the evangelist did,
for all his readers to know what Joseph could not:
Mary told the truth.

I feel no gut-wrenched shock, no rising fire,
no heart-destroying grief and pain
to close my mind against the simple fact that
Mary told the truth.

“Hey, Joseph,” I whisper over the centuries,
“What need of angels visiting in dreams
if you could only hold your faith and trust that
Mary told the truth?”

What need, indeed? Except that I rely far more
upon my keen discernment of the world’s
condition. It took Matthew to assure me that
Mary told the truth.

Officiously I do declare that voices often
silenced – women, children, refugees –
should be attended, but: would I have trusted
Mary told the truth?

For love, perhaps. For faith, perhaps.
For trust, perhaps. For God, perhaps.
For obeisance of a cherry, then:
Mary told the truth.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 1:18-25, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for Year A, Fourth Sunday of Advent.

Christmas Eve 2017

Bebe_(Nativity)_Gauguin_IMG_7276“If I had Gabriel here
I’d slam my fist upon his nose,”
she thought (though did not say).
“He promised me the King of Kings
and here I lie, exhausted,
in the courtyard of the noisy inn
with my newborn son
whimpering in his sleep
where the spear-tipped straw
of this poor manger cradle
has pierced the blankets once again.”
She thought, and thought again:
“Well, no, I wouldn’t hit him.
Angels aren’t for messing with.
He’d deserve it, though.”

The inn had settled down at last
from raucous greetings shouted by
familiar travelers to their regular
companions, settled down from
moaning of the mothers, ministrations
of the midwife, helpless loving
sounds from father inarticulate
with worry, settled down from newborn
baby’s wail soon smothered on
his mother’s breast, settled down from
traveler and sojourner and nosy neighbor
come to see exhausted mother,
anxious, wary father,
child outraged
to be deprived
the comforts of the womb.

The inn had settled down at last
when new uproar approached
and scattered Mary’s thoughts of angels
(impious though they be).
A band of men, their faces sleepy,
peeked through each courtyard gate
along the street, in search of… what?
the weary mother wondered.
She could not see expressions
shadow-shrouded, but could see the waves
with which they summoned all
their comrades through the crowded
courtyard and approached
the manger bed.

“Forget angels,” Mary thought,
“What good is Joseph if he cannot
keep these wandering herdsmen
from us and this child?”

Now words emerged from mouths
less agile than an angel’s,
words of (really?) angels
praising God upon a hillside,
dispatching them with messages
of God’s over-arching favor
into Bethlehem to see a child
(o come, they’ve seen a child before)
laid sleeping in a manger.

Once started speaking, they could not
be stopped, repeating in their
rasping voices promises of glory,
wonder, all the Earth’s salvation,
to all its peoples, peace.

Much later, when they had run long short
of words, had taken their eager
wishes of good fortune, their ragged habits
(if not the lingering smell of sheep)
out of the courtyard, back unto the hills,
Mary’s weary mind returned to thought.

They had not been the royal messengers
of old, like courtiers of David, no.
But they had brought the message
loud, and strong, and clear.
Emmanuel. God is with us.
Sleeping now, still fitfully,
still irritated by the straw.
Emmanuel. Yes, God is with us.
Even here in noisy Bethlehem.
Even now in this no-comfort place.

Emmanuel. Yes, God is with us.

Even here.

Even now.

The image is Paul Gauguin’s painting “Bebe” or “Nativity of Tahitian Christ.”

Two Roads

flucht_nach_agypten_liebieghaus_898abIf you find yourself wondering why I’m trying to capture what was a very visual worship experience this morning on text, well, I’m ahead of you. What made it work was the real interaction with the participants, some of them children, some of them adults. I’m not going to attempt to quote any of their contributions here, but instead indicate them by my responses.

Wish me luck.

All right. For the story today, I need some help. I need some folks with energetic feet this morning (I realize this is a rough day to ask for that). But come on down now. Right here. Join me.

No, don’t sit down. We’re moving about today. That’s why you need your energetic feet.

OK. We are now the magi, the wise men who went to bring gifts to the newborn Jesus. So. We’ve read the stars in the sky, and we know that there’s a new king that’s been born in Israel. But… Where do we go? The stars aren’t telling us that much.

Where can we go to find a newborn king?

The North Pole? Well, yes, I suppose so, but that’s awfully far and I doubt we’ll find a King of Israel there.

Well, where do you usually find a newborn King?

That’s right, in the palace in the capital. So we’ll go to Jerusalem!

Follow me up the aisle. Here we go. Now we cut through this pew here, and then up that way. Some of these valleys get pretty narrow.

All right. We made it. Now, can I get somebody to be King Herod? We’ve got to ask him. Great. Thank you.

So, King Herod, where do we find the newborn King?

Perfect. That shrug was absolutely perfect. Folks, this is exactly the shrug that King Herod used when the magi came to visit, because he didn’t know, either. He had to ask.

And the person to ask would be a religious professional. Hm. Are there any religious professionals in the house?

Well, yes, we can ask the Chair of the Board of Deacons, but I did have somebody else in mind.

Me? Why, yes, I am a religious professional. And so, King Herod, I tell you that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.

Oh, you’d like me to tell the magi that? Now that’s delegation for you!

All right, magi, now we’re off to Bethlehem. Which is down this aisle, and between these pews, and gets a little rocky when we get back up to the front of the church. Everybody here? Great!

Who brought the gifts?

You’ve got one? What did you bring? Spices? Hey, that’s cool. You’re right, they are worth their weight in gold.

Say, gold. What a good idea. Did anyone bring any gold? Wonderful! All right, we’ll leave the gifts here. And it’s time to go home. But… wait.

Now we need somebody to be an angel in a dream. Great, we’ve got you. What’s your message to us?

Not to return to Herod? Because he’s going to do this baby in? Right. Back home by another road.

Now we’re switching roles. We’re still in Bethlehem, but we’re no longer the magi. We’re the Holy Family – granted, a rather bigger Holy Family than three, but that’s great, the more the merrier. And we need our messenger angel to come in a dream again.

What’s that you say, messenger angel? King Herod is after us, and we should go to Egypt?

Oh, you don’t want to go to Egypt? It doesn’t sound safe there, huh? Well, I have to agree with you. But still. We’ve got two options: stay here with King Herod, or go to Egypt. So which is it: Herod or Egypt?

Right. Egypt it is.

So. Up this aisle, and cut across, and down the other way, and across again, and here we are in Egypt.

Yes, I know it looks a lot like Bethlehem.

All right. So, we’ll spend some time here, and watch the baby grow – wow, look at how big he is! – and we’ve got some news that King Herod has died. We can go back home! Joseph’s got family in Bethlehem, so we could go there.

Except that… Herod’s son Archelaus isn’t any better than his father. We’re not going to be safe.

OK. Scratch Bethlehem. Where else can we go?

Nazareth, you say? Well, why not?

With another trip up and down the aisles and between the pews, we’re safely in Nazareth, and Jesus will be safe here.

And it should feel rather like home, since it looks so much like Bethlehem, and, for that matter, Egypt. And like Church of the Holy Cross in Hilo.

I thank you so much for coming up and helping. I hope it’s given you a sense, if not of how far everybody traveled, at least of some of the difficulties they faced, and the roads they followed. I hope you’ll all travel your roads with God’s help all along the way.

One final note: the lay leader observed that reading the Matthew 2 text after this “story” was a tad anticlimactic.

Christmas Prayer 2016

img_1767When Christmas falls on Sunday, it’s not just any service. It’s not just any Sunday service, and it’s also not just any Christmas service. Though every worship experience should connect with the heart and soul, Christmas truly demands it, and it also demands that we step outside the “usual” – since God did precisely that by coming to Earth in Jesus.

Thus this song, which was the pastoral prayer this morning. Mele Kalikimaka – Merry Christmas!

Come to us, Christ Child
With the wailings of a newborn
Interrupt our sleep with an infant’s shrill demands.
Let us clothe your flailing arms with hope for all tomorrows.
Let us feed your hungers for deep peace around the world.
Let our arms enfold with the tender love of mother.
Let us sing a lullaby of joy
As our Christmas prayer:
As our Christmas prayer.

Your family fled from Herod
So we pray for refugees
May the ones oppressed by rage and fear
Soon shout that they are free.
You were given gifts by magi
So we pray we might be wise.
When we turn away from suffering
Redirect our eyes.


As you grew from child to teacher
So we pray for all to learn
The depth of your compassion
And the love for which we yearn.
From your first hours in the manger
To your triumph over the grave,
Give us hope and confidence
You were born on Earth to save!


Let us sing a lullaby of joy
As our Christmas prayer,
As our Christmas prayer,
As our Christmas prayer

Christmas Eve 2016


Photo of a mosaic in the Greek Catholic Church and monastery of the Basilian Friars in Warsaw by Loraine – Own work, GFDL,

We have heard the stories. We have sung the songs. We have lit the candles. We have shared Christmas greetings. We have shared Christmas treats.

Now comes the silence which comes so rarely in this busy technological world. Gradually, the excited children will succumb to the fatigue excitement brings. The wide-eyed stares of anticipation will relax into dreams, whether there is snow outside to cushion the anticipated sleigh or not. Ears tuned to the clatter of reindeer will be disappointed, once again, to find that the miracle happened while they slumbered and could not warn their owners that the moment had arrived.

Two thousand years ago, there must have been such a moment. I doubt it lasted long, babies being babies, but there must have been a moment when the exhausted newly-christened mother dreamed, and when the wondering father slumbered, and when the infant made only the soft snuffling sounds that reassure anxious parents that their child breathes.

In that moment, God could appreciate the miracle new-wrought in Bethlehem, and make whatever cosmic sound we imitate with a contented sigh. The miracle new-wrought, alive, and growing.

Have a blessed Christmas.

The Box



This story is about a family that was having a difficult December.

Mostly, they were doing OK. Everyone was healthy, and their home was a happy one. But some bills had to be paid just as the month began, and their savings dipped. There was still plenty to offer their daughter plenty of presents, though, and to have a festive meal.

They came home one day, however, to find that the kitchen refrigerator had stopped humming. Their first clue, I’m sorry to say, came when they opened the door and two things happened: (1) the light didn’t come on and (2) a really sour smell came out. All the food in the refrigerator had spoiled when it stopped working.

They called a repair person, but that worthy individual just shook his head and said, “That’s it for this one.” The family had to buy a new refrigerator just before Christmas.

That brought their savings down quite a lot, and replacing the spoiled food made a big dent in what was left. The parents knew there wouldn’t be many Christmas presents for their daughter that year, and a sadness crept into their holiday smiles.

On Christmas morning, however, their daughter showed no disappointment when fresh fruit rather than toys filled her stocking. She peeled her orange and promptly stuck one of its sections into her mouth whole. When she peeled back her lips in an impish grin, the fruit section smiled orange for her.

Beneath the tree, the small stack of boxes mostly contained clothes – she was growing, of course, and truly needed the new outfits. She showed now disappointment at the lack of toys, though. She glowed with pride that she was probably the only girl in her class who would have Spider-man pajamas.

As the last box passed from wrapped to unwrapped, the parents glanced at each other sadly at how little she had to play with from her Christmas morning. Their daughter, however, didn’t hesitate at all. She made a beeline for the kitchen, where the cardboard box for the refrigerator still stood beside its former contents.

“Can I play with this?” she asked.

Over the next few hours, it became a house, then a castle, then a cabin on a mountain, then a mountain itself, then a boat, then a treehouse, and finally something that she called a “creaturecrater” and refused to explain to her parents, solemnly informing them (with a giggle in her voice) that it was a secret.

For the next week, and all through the holiday break, she was the most popular child on the street, as all her friends filed through to play in the house, or on the mountain, or in the boat, or amidst the “creaturecrater.”

But this story isn’t about her, nor is it about her amazing big box. And it’s not about how she made a lot of fun for herself out of something ordinary, or about making the best of things. All those happened, but that’s not what this story is about.

This story is about the smiles on her parents’ faces as they held hands on the sofa and watched her play with the box. This story is about their fears that they could not give their daughter joy at Christmas – and how, instead, she gave theirs back to them.

I think we all can help those we love find joy at Christmas. Do you?

You do, too?

Then let’s do it.