Watch for Light 3

Third Sunday of Advent (yes, I'm a little late.)

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

It's that time of year again ... donation request letters, clothing drives and toy drives and food shelf bins, Santas ringing bells and those folks with the funny hats shaking tins.

Why do we give money or goods to charity at Christmas, anyway? That end-of-the-year tax deduction? Tradition? Because the Magi brought gifts to Jesus? The cold outside, and the fundamental sense that people should, at least, be warm? Or maybe it's because there's something about celebrating that brings out our hospitality, and we don't like the idea of other people lacking food or gifts or a tree. If we're happy, we want to imagine other people happy as well. We may not actually invite them to our table, but we'll make sure they have food on their table. And there's probably at least a little guilt in there too, or maybe just a sense of fairness--if we're going to spend so much on luxuries for ourselves and our kids, it's only right to give some away.

I suspect it's a mixture of all of these, for most of us. I daresay I've never thought of it as a way to prepare for Christmas, a way to prepare my heart, as John says in this week's lectionary reading.

John the Baptist, remember, is the one who came before Jesus, to help people get ready for the Messiah. And this is what he says about how to prepare: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise." I suspect that what he's talking about isn't just a one-time deal, but an ethical shift. A shift in what we think we need, a shift in how we see those around us.

It's easy for me--and a lot of people I know--to get caught up in all the ethics around giving. And it's likewise easy to feel a bit cynical about the solicitation requests ... it all mingles together into a loud voice of marketers and advertisers wanting my money, telling me that I'll be happier and more at peace if I just give them my money.

John, however, is nothing if not direct, and he simply says that if we have two coats, we should give one away. He doesn't promise that it will change someone's life or even that it will make a difference. And there's something about the simplicity of this that is compelling, convicting and hard.

So what does giving have to do with preparing? Everytime we give something away, no mattter how small, we are relinquishing control, letting go of some measure of security, and stepping a bit more into a place of trust and dependence on God. Giving opens our eyes to vulnerability, and this is where God lives, after all. Jesus came and still comes in vulnerability. He comes to the hungry, to the poor, to the needy, and to that place of need inside each of us.

The baking and decorating and merry-making that we do can be wonderful, especially for children. Joy opens us to vulnerability too. But these preparations can so easily become distractions and lists and pressures and end up numbing us to God's presence more than anything. Matt's and my most consistent observation about watching for light? It's easiest to do when you get enough sleep ...

So even if giving money away is already part of your tradition at this time of year, I invite you to think of it not as just one more to-do, but as preparation, as a way to prepare your heart to see God, to watch for light.

And the pictures throughout this post? They are my friend Krissie's, from her several trips to India. She sells these prints as a way to raise money to support various projects in India, from wells to an orphanage. If you still have shopping to do, may I commend to you her website, with lovely prints from India and elsewhere, ready to be framed and hung? She'll be going again in January, and would certainly appreciate the support.


Watch for Light banner

Done! Of course the plan was to finish it before Advent started, but as it turns out, the process of making was a good one, and I'm glad I let it take its time. The tree took considerable time to cut out, and while I cut the dark felt--the negative space--my mind wandered. I thought about cross-country skiing by moonlight in Maine, and warm blueberry muffins baked by a woman who has since died of brain cancer. I thought of a man, her husband, who taught us to "live without fear and love without reserve" even while watching his wife die.
I thought about a child learning to share and parents learning their child has cerebral palsy. I thought about families and weddings and blizzards and cozy warmth, and I thought about the God who is making the heavens and the earth and who knits all things together for good. And I thought about the Leonard Cohen lyrics:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.


HK Alphabet :: D

D :: Dumplings

Mmmm... dumplings in steamer baskets, dumplings on pretty plates, dumplings in a bowl of noodles and broth, dumplings in my wok, even dumplings in styrofoam containers from the take-out shop. I love them all. Our go-to favorite are the pan-fried variety, usually with a filling of pork and cabbage. Any dumpling place worth its salt has a guy in the corner making dumplings, and these can be bought frozen to cook at home. It's our Hong Kong version of the grilled-cheese-and-tomato-soup-night. But the swoon-worthy, intellectually-satisfying variety are Shanghai-style xiao lang bao, commonly known as "soup dumplings." The idea of a dumpling filed with soup--how preposterous! Absurd, even. A trembling, delicate skin holds a bite of minced pork and a mouthful of hot fragrant broth. Served with vinegar and shredded ginger, it is no easy feat to transfer the dumpling from the steamer basket to the mouth without losing the precious, steaming juice and without burning your mouth. But, oh--the bliss.

(How do they do it? It's all due to the miraculous ability of good stock to gel. The dumplings are filled with meat filling and a cube of chilled stock, which becomes soup when the dumpling is steamed. Simple. Brilliant. )

(The top three pictures were all taken by my brother Chip. See more of his pics here. And sorry, no pictures of the soup dumplings. I always eat them way too fast to even think about a picture.)


Watch for light, 2

Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Monday afternoon, Nov 30, the first day actively "watching for light."

The line is long. My kid's rope is not, or at least, we've already found its end. Apparently Mondays are a popular day to go to the bank because the line is snaking through the lobby and out the door. I struggle with the push-chair up some stairs and through a door before joining the narrow line, praying that the books I've brought will successfully entertain Finn. I consider coming back another day, but Hong Kong is primarily a cash society, and we really need the money. So, I wait.

The line moves slowly. People shuffle along, mostly quiet, except for the occasional cell phone and the not-so-occasional outburst from Finn. I am impatient, wanting to get to the park, willing my son not to kick the legs in front of him.

It's getting close to our turn. And then some woman comes from nowhere and goes straight to a counter. I don't know what she says, but she succeeds in getting several of the tellers to attend to her problem, and I go from impatient to fuming. Who is she, to just cut in line like that? Why is she so important? The line isn't moving at all now, and it's not quiet anymore. Lots of us are sighing, murmuring, unhappy.

I see a beautiful slice of light coming in the window, and for a moment I think about how lovely it would be at the park, what perfect photography light. And then--oh yeah. I'm supposed to be watching for light. It's funny how often it takes literal light to remind me to watch for God's activity. Funny and wonderful.

So where's the light in having to wait in line for an hour at the bank? Well, nowhere, unless I remember that Advent is really all about waiting. We devise elaborate devotionals and light candles and talk about waiting for God, but nothing can make me feel less spiritual than a line. It's lovely and mysterious to sing O Come O Come Emmanuel, but waiting in a traffic jam is a different story.

I recently heard Adele Diamond speak about neural development. Just as we really learn to drive by driving, or to cook by cooking, we learn skills like reflection and empathy by doing them. We have to practice morality and ethics, and it makes sense to me that every line, every time I'm put on hold, every traffic jam is a chance to practice waiting, a chance to reorder and remember that the world does not revolve around my needs--in short, a chance to experience Advent.

By the tender mercy of our God, 
the dawn from on high 
will break upon us, 
to give light to those who sit in 
darkness and in the 
shadow of death, 
to guide our feet into the way 
of peace. 

Luke 1:78-79 

This one's for the Lutherans ...

Actually it's for anyone, but only the Lutherans are likely to have a copy of The Lutheran around ...  I have an article in there about spiritual needs during pregnancy and ideas for alternative showers. I'd like to invite (encourage!) you to join in a discussion at The Lutheran this next week if you have suggestions, stories or other thoughts to add. Also, if you look at the article online, there is a list of suggested readings/music/prayers along the right-hand side of the screen. It's not very obvious, so you 'll have to look for it.
And to give a little back story, this piece was born out of conversations with several friends about what they loved or lacked during their own pregnancies. Erinn Tubbs, a friend from OSLC, is the one who first mentioned to me the movement of "mother blessings" and other alternative showers. During my own pregnancy, I was blessed to be supported materially by a very generous shower held by our church and numerous meals after Finn's birth, but also spiritually from my EFM (Education for Ministry) group. A passing conversation with a church member's daughter led to thoughts about the church's lack of comfort with Mary's physical pregnancy. She was married to a pastor, and often made seasonally-inspired stoles for him to wear. She always got great feedback about the stoles until Advent came along. She portrayed Mary with quite a bump, and got not one comment about the stole.
And--full confession--currently in my own church, we do absolutely none of this. I am part of a mom's group and have known several pregnant women, but my only contribution to encouraging any sort of spiritual reflection has been in personal notes and gifts. So I know from experience that this can be hard to start if it's not already part of the culture. My hope is to talk to the other women in the mom's group about what we could incorporate into our celebrations for the pregnancies and babies.
So, I'd love to have you join the conversation!


Of pumpkin pie and cranberry muffins

Today, while getting shoes on and balls gathered for our daily trip to the park, Finn suddenly yelled out "punkin!" He ran to get his hat--and by "hat" I mean the instrument of torture foisted upon him on a certain holiday known for cruel rituals associated with clothing. (This would also be the hat that I spent weeks knitting ... not that a toddler-size hat should take weeks, mind you. The first time was too small so I ripped it out and started over, and I'm still such a beginner so I'm slow ... it's too big now, but not too too big.)
But oh! He wore it! Happily, and of his own volition. Nevermind that it wasn't actually cold enough to need a hat. I'll take what I can get. I suspect that his newfound love of pumpkin pie has something to do with this, and that's just fine with this baker mama.

And then tonight at dinner, he cried earnest tears over the disappearance of the butter from his fresh-from-the-oven (read: hot) cranberry muffins. We kept trying to explain that the butter had just melted, but oh, he kept calling for "butt-er" though his tears, until a demonstration was necessary. (Twist my arm, son. We can double-butter everybody's muffin, if that helps.) (How does he not know this? We eat so much butter ... )
If what they say is true--that the difference between a good chef and a great one is a pound of butter--then we're going places, folks.