Room in the Inn

[An Advent devotional piece written for the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.]

“Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.

But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
His place is with the others for whom
there is no room.

His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power, because
they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed and exterminated.

With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.”
– Thomas Merton

While the weary masses crowded the streets of Bethlehem, filling every inn and household to overflowing, the shepherds were probably the only ones left on the outskirts of town, keeping watch over their flocks as darkness descended and a hush settled over the fields. I imagine it was quite the contrast – the hubbub of a town swollen to accommodate the imperial decree and the silence of what appeared to be another unremarkable night spent watching and waiting. It’s no wonder that a city already over its capacity couldn’t offer a space of welcome or that bleary eyed travelers didn’t have eyes to see the miraculous or that the clamor of the marketplace drowned out the angelic announcement of good news of great joy. After all, we miss a great deal when we’re standing at the center of a story. Those with ears to hear are more often the people on the margins, people with a bit more perspective, people who have a little more room in their hearts for the unexpected.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that when the angels appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them, God chose the lowly shepherds to be the awe-struck audience. “For unto you a Savior is born,” the angels proclaimed. God became flesh and dwelt among us for people just like you, people who find themselves on the underside of the powers and principalities of this world, people who are disadvantaged or oppressed, people who long for God’s justice and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s why the angels began with the reminder not to be afraid. They knew that the One whose birth they lauded would upend our human systems of power and privilege, the percussive politics of domination on which our world turns. As we sing in the Canticle of the Turning (G2G #100): “From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn. There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.” The angels knew there would be a reckoning, and they understood that only those already on the outside would have the nerve to hear such news, let alone call it good. Their words to the shepherds echo through the ages, giving us the courage to welcome Christ into a broken and fearful world as we hear the voices of peoples long silenced and work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. “Don’t be afraid,” they tell us, “God’s begun something miraculous, and believe it or not, you’ve got a part to play!” Amen.

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Deep Roots and Home Cookin’

[A Maundy Thursday reflection written for New York Avenue Presbyterian Church based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-15.]

grandparents

As I stared out the backseat window of my family’s old Plymouth Voyager, watching the highway wind its way through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, I sometimes felt as if these trips to my grandparents’ house were an adventure in time travel. For a Pokémon-obsessed, Nickelodeon-watching, Tamagotchi-toting 90s kid, my grandparents’ Mennonite community, nestled quaintly in the Shenandoah Valley, was something of a culture shock to say the least. Weekends like these meant playing checkers rather than Nintendo, singing hymns around the piano rather than cranking up the volume on my Walkman, and enjoying Sunday supper compliments of Granddad’s garden rather than a McDonald’s drive-thru. But even as I dreaded the slower pace and the “old-fashioned fun” my parents always promised, I inevitably found that the values of simplicity and hospitality struck a chord with me even as a youngster. No place was this clearer for me than my grandparents’ kitchen table. I never knew how she did it, but no matter what she was cooking or who came vistin’, Grandma always managed to have room for one more. She’d welcome you in with a smile and a glass of sweet tea, quickly setting another place without so much as a sigh or a raised eyebrow. After a long car ride, we knew we’d always be greeted with her specialty: meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. It was a meal my great-grandmother would often make for her guests — beloved recipes passed down from generation to generation, a family’s story recorded in flour and egg, potato peels and pie crust.

 
I like to think that Jesus was doing something akin to this when he gathered with his disciples on the night before his arrest. Sitting around a table, he shared not just any meal with them, but a recipe with deep roots – one that connected them to their family history through the foundational story of the Passover feast and the liberation of God’s chosen people. Stooping down to wash their feet, he extended radical hospitality, and in doing so, opened their eyes to a wholly unexpected though profoundly sacred way of living in the world. Christ knew that they would need these gifts to sustain them through the days ahead. In the Gospel of John we read that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world” and “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Out of this great love, Christ offers them bread for the journey and a ritual of remembrance to nourish their grieving hearts. He tells them that these gifts of bread, water, and wine are not just for them, but for those who come after them, the community of saints whom this ancient yet ongoing story has claimed as its own. “So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” he tells them. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Reflecting on this ritual, this feast passed down through the Church in every age, Paul also writes, “For I have received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). In other words, this holy meal, this undeserved hospitality, these final moments with Christ’s most intimate companions, they’re part of us, part of our Christian story, part of what holds us all together and reminds us who we are. This, Christ tells us, is the recipe which nourished our past and sustains our future.

 

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These days my grandparents’ home looks a little different. Years ago they traded in their ranch and its mountain view for a spot in a senior care facility. As Grandma’s multiple sclerosis progressed, standing at the kitchen counter started to become too much, and Granddad, likewise, found that the ache in his back and the shuffle in his steps began to overshadow even the joy-filled perfection of biting into one of his homegrown tomatoes. Each of these little losses felt like a crack in the foundation of our family and an assurance that things will never be as they once were. And yet, as I stand in my own tiny kitchen, in a fast-paced city far from the silent gaze of those mountains which hold such deep history, I don’t have to pull out my cookbook. Four generations later, these recipes are etched indelibly on my heart. As it turns out, grief, seasoned with teardrops and paired with sides of ritual, legacy, and nostalgia, tastes a whole lot like meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. But then again, at least I know what to take with me when I go to visit next time.

 

A Chaplain’s Hospital Holiday

[Based on Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”]

Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the hospital,
our patients were struggling with things theological.
The pager was hung on my lab coat with care
in hopes that the number of calls would be spare.
As patients tossed and turned in their beds,
spiritual crises played through their heads.
The evening drew on with nary a mishap,
and I longed to relax and grab a quick catnap.
When, suddenly, the pager went off with a beep,
it startled me out of a momentary sleep.
Springing out of the plush chair, I flew like a flash,
flipped open the log book and recorded the night’s first car-crash.
As I ran to the ED, I uttered a prayer
for God’s presence to be felt in the midst of despair.
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
but a patient whose injuries would soon prove severe.
With x-rays, CT scans, and of course, needle sticks,
I knew that this visit would not be too quick.
But rapidly, then, the pages they came
and summoned me elsewhere (in a ten minute time-frame).
To STICU and CICU! CSICU! MRICU!
From TCU right down to trauma bay two!
From a death to a code to another crisis call,
I dashed frantically down nearly every hall.
After sitting with patients and offering support,
I scurried away to make my report.
So, on to my spiritual assessment I flew,
and this one was charted a crisis of faith, too.
And then, in a twinkling, I came up with a plan,
I’d call in my backup to lend me a hand!
As my energy faded and I started to tire,
I turned toward a power eternally higher.
“My God,” I said, “I am so overwhelmed,
but to this ministry I’ve been compelled.
So fill me with strength from my head to my toe,
that your grace I may always continually show.
Help me to listen, to hear with intention,
so that I can provide the right intervention.
Remind me again that what patients most need
isn’t for me to take over the lead.
So, instead, let’s walk alongside them in love
as your Holy Spirit descends from above.”
With a whispered “Amen,” I grinned like an elf,
knowing I could rely on much more than myself.
So with a deep breath and a promise of coffee ahead,
I soon realized that I had nothing to dread.
Without another word, I went to my work,
not even an advance directive did I shirk.
As morning descended, the next chaplain arrived,
and I shouted, “Oh, wow, praise God, I survived!”
My one last remark as I drove out of sight:
“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Engaging Mystery

There are days, O God, when your ways elude me.
Moments when your Advent promise to make straight paths for your people
is so obstructed by hairpin turns and hazardous road conditions that I cannot see beyond my own two feet.
Just when I think I know where I’m going, you detour my course.
But the signage on this new route is woefully inadequate,
and I quickly find myself lost and bewildered,
far from home in a foreign land.
No maps in-hand to guide me home.
No compass to steer me in the way that you would have me go.

There are days, O God, when “I don’t know” is the most authentic confession of faith I can muster.
I don’t know the way forward.
I don’t know where you’re calling me next.
I don’t know how this world you say you love keeps on spinning amidst all this violence.
I don’t know. I can’t fathom. I won’t even hazard a guess.

O Mysterious God,
I believe.
Help my unbelief.

Father, Son, and Pumpkin Spice

As we approach the holiday season, many people choose to engage in some sort of gratitude practice. For my family, this has traditionally involved going around the table before holiday meals and giving thanks for something that has brought us joy in the past year. Often the things that we list are familiar and expected: friends, family, health, enough food to eat, a warm place to sleep, and good books to read. Other times people express gratitude around the transitions of life: the birth of a child, the love of a newly married couple, the support and care of friends and family in times of loss. We remember that even these simple, everyday blessings are not universally shared among all people, and we pray for the day when no one will experience hunger, everyone will have a safe place to lay their head, and all people will know what it means to love and be loved in return. Most years, I never devote much attention to this practice. More often than not, I find myself sitting at our holiday table without having given much thought to the things that I have been most grateful for in the past year. However, as I felt the pressure of the holiday season beginning to push in from all sides this week, I couldn’t help thinking about this tradition.

Tuesday evening, as I wrestled grocery bags and struggled to get my key in the front door, the stress and strain of the season suddenly descended. The weight of obligation wearied my spirit as I remembered all of the deadlines and commitments, the preparation, the cooking, the cleaning, and all the other responsibilities vying for my immediate attention. As I flicked on the lights, stacks of dirty dishes and piles of laundry greeted me. The disheveled assortment of books, papers, highlighters, and coffee cups splayed across the living room floor, which Stuart has fondly termed my “study nest,” welcomed me home. I quickly realized that I had forgotten to set the chicken out to thaw, and my best laid plans for that elusive, Pinterest-inspired, quick-and-healthy family dinner had been thwarted once again. Staring down the face of what promised to be a long evening of seemingly endless tasks, I felt totally overwhelmed and unsure of where I should even start. I sat down right in the middle of all the mess and surveyed this dismal scene. I won’t say that I cried, but we can all just agree that my contacts got a little messed up.

After a couple of moments and quite a few deep breaths, I got up and did the only thing I thought might help: I lit a candle. Candles, in general, are one of my favorite things. If I’m at home, it’s rare that I don’t have a candle lit. I have all different styles and scents of candles, but my absolute favorite are the pumpkin spice candles. We buy them by the dozen in the fall so that my stock does not dwindle throughout the year. Because they are my favorite, I usually save my pumpkin spice candles for special occasions. When work is done, deadlines are met, the house is clean, dinner is cooking, and everything is in order, lighting a pumpkin spice candle is like putting the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae. It is the finishing touch, a sigh of relief, and a pat on the back. To light a pumpkin spice candle in the middle of a chaotic, imperfect, stressful evening is anathema. Nevertheless, I lit my candle, said a prayer, and put a single dish away. Pretty soon, I had finished a whole sink-full of dishes and the first load of laundry. In the light of my pumpkin spice candle, everything started to look a little more manageable, a little more hopeful. Slowly, my anxiety began to dissolve, and one by one, I found myself completing tasks that had appeared formidable just a few moments before.

There’s nothing magical about pumpkin spice candles. They can’t write a paper or put away the groceries or tackle the laundry or the dishes. But there is something magical, maybe even sacramental, about choosing to light a candle even in the midst of the mess. Choosing to take a deep breath when life feels overwhelming, choosing to practice gratitude when life is burdensome, choosing to honor the process when everything feels incomplete, choosing to start wherever you are even when you are yet far off, this is what fills even our mundane, stressful days with light and hope. This year, as we go around the holiday table, giving thanks for our many blessings, I can honestly say that I am grateful for pumpkin spice candles and all the ways that grace meets us in the mess.

Wading in the Water

[A reflection from my pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine.]

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Today we visited Beth She’an, the Jordan River, and the Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem, but the experience that stood out to me most was our time at the Jordan River. To get there we drove from Beth She’an through the West Bank. Along the way, we traveled through checkpoints that reminded us of the harsh realities of division. We passed burned-out mosques and settlements of Palestinians whose basic rights, including the right to travel freely, have been taken from them. We drove by synagogues flying Israeli flags, with memories of crematoriums still all too present. We walked alongside areas with landmines left by people fighting over the same land that we call holy, and we saw Israeli soldiers casually toting semi-automatic weapons even in the midst of this sacred space. It is in this context that we gathered at a muddy river bank to remember our baptisms in the same place that a dark-skinned man from a poor little town under the shadow of Empire came to the water and began his ministry.

As we read the familiar story of Jesus’ baptism and sang “As I Went Down to the River to Pray,” we looked on as people from all over the world – all ages, all races, all nationalities – followed in the footsteps of our Lord and came to the water. Some jumped in eagerly and submerged their whole body without even a moment’s hesitation. Others stepped timidly and maintained a white-knuckled grip on the handrail throughout the entire experience. Children played. An elderly woman emerged from the water overwhelmed with emotion, tears flowing freely. And as our group looked on, voices shook as we prayed together.

Stepping into the cloudy water, I can’t say that I was thinking anything particularly holy. My inner monologue was more along the lines of “I wonder if there are snakes in here” and “Oh, these steps are really slick. I hope I don’t fall.” Like countless pilgrims before me, I smiled and had my picture taken and maybe even had some passing thoughts about Jesus, but the enormity of the moment didn’t hit me until much later. Much like my own baptism as an infant, I didn’t realize what had just happened until what felt like years later. My heart didn’t catch up with my head until I was sitting clean and dry in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus watching the Jordan River fade into the distance.

As I reflected on the experience, I realized that the first words said to me as I emerged from the river – the first human voice that I heard before the water had stopped dripping down my legs and before I even set foot on the bank – indicated that I had “done it wrong.” I felt deflated. How could I have done something so important and sacred wrong? How could something freely given be so complicated that I could manage to mess it up? But beyond my initial reaction, I began to see how common this perspective is among people of faith. I thought about how much of our history we have spent fighting about the “right” or most theologically-appropriate way to do things. We expend so much of our time and energy arguing over who is right and who is wrong, who is included in God’s plan of salvation and who is not, whose truth-claims we give credence to and whose we don’t. Contention and strife run rampant not just in Israel-Palestine, but in our Church, our denomination, and in our hearts, and even baptism cannot insulate us from this human reality. In fact, just as Jesus was immediately sent into the wilderness following his baptism, we too must confront the brokenness and hostility of the world around us as a ministry that begins even before the water dries.

As I walked back to the bus and shared these experiences with a friend on the trip, she assured me that I need not worry about “doing it wrong.” Her gentle reminder that “we don’t have to be Presbyterians here” helped me to see that whether we’re sprinkling, pouring, making the sign of the cross in water on our foreheads, or just jumping right in, dry clothing be damned, we all proclaim one Lord and one Baptism, and that’s what really matters.