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Archive for December 2011

Did God Act?

In 1999, author Fleming Rutledge wrote an insightful article in Christian Century entitled “God’s Entrance.”

The angel Gabriel, according to St. Luke, burst into the life of an ordinary young woman without permission, terrifying her. Every angelic appearance in scripture causes fear, because the angel mediates the searing intrusion of the living God. But the angel said, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give him the throne of his father David and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Is this literary truth? mythological truth? historical truth? or no truth at all? What really happened, and does that matter?

The one thing that matters, I think, is that we ask ourselves about the single most fundamental affirmation in the story. Did God act? That question has two facets: Did God act? and did God act ? Do we see here an event set in motion by spiritually precocious human beings with divine aspirations, or do we see the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? And second, do we see a God at a remove, watching over events as they transpire, or do we see here the definitive entrance of God upon the world stage as he reclaims lost human nature for himself? If a stele were to be found in Bethlehem saying, “Here was born Jesus bar-Joseph,” would that make a difference? Wouldn’t most of us still want to convert thestory into a pretty, painterly scene of an angel and a maiden, suitable for ornament?

Karl Barth wrote that the church’s creedal affirmation of the virginal conception is “the doctrine on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas.” Matthew and Luke have both posted guards at the entrances to their Gospels: “Danger, God at work.” Are these purely literary devices? Did it “really happen”? If not, what do we need to know?

And the angel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son. For with God nothing will be impossible.” As the millennium turns, this Christmastide will be another blessed opportunity for bearing witness unashamedly to the church’s ancient faith that very God of very God really happened here. “The Incarnation is like a dagger thrust into the weft of human history.” (Edwyn Hoskyns). Let not the celebrated literary power of the stories themselves obscure this truth: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the God, full of grace and truth.”


Michael Piazza
President, Hope for Peace & Justice

Click here for 12-28-11 Newsletter

The First Gift

My grandfather, a man of few words and fewer wants, was about to receive shoes for Christmas.  According to his 5 year old daughter (later on my mother), they were the ugliest shoes in the world: they had square toes.  Square toes!  She tried to talk her mother out of buying them, but to no avail, and there they were, wrapped up, stored in the back of the closet, just waiting to be placed under the tree.  As with most depression era Christmases, he was getting just the one wrapped present, and it contained a pair of horrible, square toed shoes. 

After stewing about the shoes for several days, she waited until her mother went out one evening, and taking her father by the hand, she led him to the closet.  She pointed out the box, placed on the shelf above her head, and explained the problem.  Listening patiently, he removed the box, took off the wrapping paper, and solemnly agreed that the shoes really were ugly.  The two, father and daughter, made a plan:  they would take the box of shoes back to the store, exchange them for a different pair (with pointier toes), re-wrap the box, slip it back onto the shelf in the closet, and when he opened them on Christmas morning, all would be well. 

And so it went as planned.  Jodie and her dad made the switch, planted the shoes, and waited for Christmas.  When the morning finally arrived, he unwrapped his present and was absolutely delighted with the fine pair of shoes he received! A good looking pair of black, pointy toed shoes.  What a gift!  His enthusiasm and his daughter’s deep satisfaction almost made up for my grandmother’s confusion – until she realized what had happened.  She had a choice: be mad for the rest of the day or accept that, in spite of all her good intentions and efficient planning, something unexpected had occurred.   She chose the latter, and the gift of the transformed shoes went down in family history.

Gifts don’t always turn out the way we plan them, do they?  Sometimes we hold them too tightly, expecting perfection and feeling that lingering disappointment that comes because nothing is ever completely perfect.  Sometimes we stress that we haven’t given enough, or that we’ve given more than we can afford.  Gift giving can be a form of obligation or competition, even, and stir up resentment.  It can be complicated, indeed.

As Christians, our saving grace (quite literally) is the reminder that every gift we give, great and small, is a reflection of the first gift:  God’s love.  When God’s love became incarnate in a human being, the small and powerless baby didn’t look all that impressive, I’m sure.  We hear that angels and shepherds and even Kings came to the stable, and who knows what xpectations they had to shake loose before they could receive the gift that was being offered.

This year, may every gift you give and every gift you receive lift you out of your expectations.  May each interaction be an opportunity to be surprised by the goodness and love that are in your life.  It doesn’t always look the way we anticipate, but God’s love is always there.  Search for it, listen for it, and let yourself be touched by the unexpected blessings all around you. 

Thanks be to God!  


Click here for today’s Newsletter   12-21-11


“I want to set up a website to organize people who want to help you,” said my friend Rose last July.

No thanks, I demurred.  I don’t need help.  I’m just fine.

“Well, actually, you’re not just fine.  You have cancer.”

Okay, there’s that.  But I don’t need help.  Thanks anyway.

“Yes, you do.  But if you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for us.  We need to do something for you.  Let us give to you.”

And so it came to be that a website was set up with the sole purpose of helping me.  Nothing was required of me – I didn’t need to write updates, I didn’t need to call people, I didn’t even need to write thank you notes.  I just needed to graciously receive help offered in the form of meals, driving, and endless tasks.  I just needed to let people love me, without earning it or requesting it.  That’s all I had to do, but it was huge.   I  had to learn, in a very concrete way, that receiving is a choice that requires humility and grace.  In truth, it is a spiritual practice that can deepen one’s relationship with self, others and God.

The final candle on our Advent Wreath this year is Receiving.  As we listen this week to the scripture in which Mary is offered the gift of Jesus, we confront the many complex feelings we have about receiving from others.  Last week’s candle was for Serving, and that one is easier for most of us.  But receiving – that requires a recognition that we are somehow vulnerable and in need; it is an admission that we are not always in control, that sometimes we need help.  Perhaps this is the most important spiritual practice of all, for it illumines the very nature of our relationship with God:  we are held and loved not because we are strong and have earned it, but because we are in so much in need and still unconditionally cherished.  At the most powerless time of my life, I learned that my own strength was not the only thing I can count on.  I can count on the love of family, friends and the constant, all-encompassing love of God.  I learned that God never leaves, no matter what. As I received all that was offered, instead of feeling “less than,” I felt empowered to go forward, leaning on arms that never let me go.

I hope you will take some time this Advent to find ways to practice Receiving.  Let others give to you.  Please.  Do it for them, if you must.  Because every time we open our hearts to receive from others, we open our hearts to our own vulnerability and thus make more space to receive what God has for us:  the gift of unending divine love, given freely and generously.  Don’t worry about earning it.  Just open your hands and your heart and receive it.

Merry Christmas!


Click here for the 12-14-11 Newsletter

Carol Sing at Casa de Redwood

We Welcomed the Holiday Season

With Fun & Fellowship


Casa de Redwood

Twenty three of us from FCC and seventeen Casa residents combined our voices to sing Christmas Carols  last Sunday.  We were treated to special music  by Annette Howitt and Carol Chivers  and by Jessica McDermott who led us in a special rendition of Rudolph as she “signed” the song for us.  Then we all gathered for punch and cookies and conversation.


One of the beautiful traditions of the season leading up to Christmas is the lighting of the  candles around the Advent wreath.  Each candle around the circle represents a Sunday leading up to Christmas day, and each candle traditionally represents a value or aspiration for Christians.  Peace — Love — Hope — Joy — often words which we contemplate week by week.  Sometimes the candles can represent for us the characters involved in the Christmas story, as each week we remember Elizabeth, Joseph, the shepherds, or Mary.

This year our Advent wreath is centered around Spiritual Practices, those intentional actions in our lives which lead us into deeper spiritual relationships with God, ourselves and others.  What we know about practice is that it is repetitive and cumulative.  Any musician will speak of the hours of practice that prepared them to play the music they do today; athletes practice their skills over and over on the way to mastery.  Likewise, in the spiritual life, integration of the things we most value in our lives comes from the on-going commitment to practice the life we want to live.  Our Advent candles are reminders of some of these practices, and as we light the candles each Sunday, we recommit to centering our lives around the values of our faith.

The first Sunday we lit a candle for “Waiting.”  This may seem like an unusual spiritual value, but we listened to the words of Isaiah that week, who reminded us that “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.” (Is. 40:31)  As we listened, we thought about all the times we felt frantic and hurried — standing in lines, waiting on phones — and all the ways in which we missed the present moment by hurrying on to the next.  Waiting with patience, trusting that we have enough time to be here now, is a wonderful tonic in a chaotic world, and practicing it helps keep us centered, no matter what is happening around us.

The second Sunday we didn’t have our wreath with us because we were sharing a Carol Sing at Casa de Redwood.  The light of that Sunday’s candle shown through each person at the event, however, as we spent the afternoon “Celebrating” the small joys in our lives.  As we head toward Christmas day, everything just seems to get bigger and bigger — the trees, the sales, the expectations.  Last Sunday, we sang simple carols and ate delicious homemade cookies.  Not a multimedia, multi million dollar event, to be sure.  But we celebrated with one another the small blessings of life that make it so rich, and that, too, is a spiritual practice.

This Sunday we will light the candle for “Serving.”  Now this is a spiritual discipline that every person I have met in this congregation understands well.  And most would agree, I think, that serving is not something we do once or twice, as an add-on to our lives, but is rather an on-going commitment to a way of life.  A spiritual practice.  Part of our gathering time will center around the opportunity to give to Church World Services Blanket Program (see page 14).  I hope you will join us, as we light the candles and re-dedicate ourselves to finding ways to “…love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:18)

As we walk the path toward Christmas again this year, we are offered so many opportunities to grow as a community and as individuals of faith.  May the light of our candles and the light of our shared fellowship reflect the true Light that is leading us, every hour and every day. 

Thanks be to God.


Click here for today’s 12-7-11 Newsletter