Every Christmas Eve, at our 5:00 p.m. service, I tell a story about a character who I’m sure what at the manger that night so long ago. Here’s my 2011 character – Elsie, the Cow.
Elsie, The Christmas Cow - Tracey Lind - 2011
Of course, I was there. Everybody knew I was there. That’s why I’m in a lot of Christmas carols, and I always make an appearance the Christmas pageant. I’ll bet you’ve never seen one without my smiling face.
My name is Elsie. I was there when Jesus was born. I was minding my own business, enjoying my dinner when all this commotion began.
My owner, the innkeeper, opened the door to my stable. It was dark outside, and he had a lantern. With him were a man and a very pregnant woman. They had a donkey laden with blankets. He had a water gourd hanging off his saddle, and a couple of side bags filled with bread, cheese and olives.
The man was explaining to my owner that they had come into town to get registered for taxes. He wasn’t very happy about it, but there was nothing he could do but comply with Roman law. He said that the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem had been crowded with travelers, just like him and his fiancé.
The man and my owner were talking about those awful Roman officials, watching over the parade with spears and swords – behaving as if revolution was about to erupt.
The man (I think his name was Joseph) thanked my owner for the hospitality, and they parted company. Some hospitality – My owner didn’t give him a room in the inn. He insisted that this pregnant woman (I think I overheard her called Mary) sleep in the barn – my inn, so to speak.
Joseph and Mary, along with their donkey came into the stable and hung the lantern on a peg in the wall. Joseph helped Mary settle in on the floor, taking some of my hay to make her a mattress.
I introduced myself to the donkey and learned that his name was Michel. I offered him some of the hay in my manger and some water from my trough. We were getting acquainted. Michel was telling me how exhausted he was. After all, he had walked for several days on some terrible roads, carrying a pregnant woman on his back. What a beast of burden he had become.
Eventually, everybody settled down. I went back to eating dinner and was interrupted again. Mary started screaming, “The baby’s coming, the baby’s coming.” Joseph went looking for help. Fortunately, it didn’t take him long to find the local midwife, who by way helped me deliver my last baby calf.
Siphrah is a good woman, and a real beauty (just like her name implies). She patted me on the head and asked after my calf, now a grown cow herself, providing milk for a family down the road.
You know what happened next.
Siphrah sent Joseph to get hot water and rags for the birth. She got Mary to squat and begin to push and push and push….
The stable got really hot with all the activity. But who am I to complain. I always have a temperature of about 102 degrees – yes, I’m a warm-blooded lady to be sure. Mary was huffing and puffing, and Joseph (who had never witnessed a birth) was sweating up a storm.
It also got awfully noisy in the barn. Mary was screaming. Siphrah was shouting, “Push!” Joseph was whimpering under his breath. Michel started to bray. A couple of lambs that were sitting in another stall started to bleat. Squealer, the pig started to grunt. And I began to moo.
Then, it happened. A baby was born. Siphrah pulled him out, wiped him off, patted him on the back. He then SCREAMED, startling and silencing the rest of us. His was a greeting that would echo down through the ages: “Hello world, it’s me!”
Siphrah swaddled him in rags and placed him in his mother’s arms. She turned to Joseph and asked, “What will you name this child?” And without hesitation, Joseph responded, “Jesu” (or Jesus as he’s become known to you). Remembering the words of the angel, he said, “Yes, we will call him Jesu,” which means “God delivers.”
After Mary held him for a few minutes, she fell asleep with exhaustion. Siphrah picked up the little baby and held him in her arms, wondering who he really might be and who he might become.
Meanwhile Joseph came over to me and asked for a favor. He wanted to use my manger – my food trough – now half-empty from sharing my dinner with Michel. He wanted it as a cradle or a crib for his newborn son. What could I say, but “Sure.” At least I could offer some hospitality to this little baby. Joseph freshened the manger with new hay and gently laid the infant in it.
As curious as a cow is, I kept looking at his face. In fact, I got so close that my wet nose nuzzled his warm, little cheek. When I looked into his eyes, I just knew he was special. Cows have a special sense of intuition.
And then, this little song came into my head:
Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.
And that’s the story of Christmas from the perspective of Elsie, the cow.
Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland
The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, Dean
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A number of years ago, I received Christmas greetings from an old friend. Attached to her letter was a button of a baby crawling on all fours. She wrote that God appeared on earth as the “most vulnerable and appealing creature imaginable” so that we would take him into our hearts and spread his message of peace and justice around the world.
For almost a decade, I’ve kept that button on my own little altar next to a simple wooden cross, a tiny painted icon of the face of Jesus, and a rock in the shape of a battered heart. Together, they remind me that the heart of God poured into the world through the birth of a helpless and vulnerable baby, who grew up to be a courageous and faithful adult. He proclaimed the reign of God, was executed by those who were threatened by his message, rose again in the broken hearts of his followers, and lives on in the witness of the church around the world.
Like many great ideas, necessity was the mother of this invention. It was 2008, the stock market had plummeted, and everyone was feeling strapped and not wanting Christmas to be too costly. So we came up with some simple rules for family gift giving – every present had to be under $10, recycled, or homemade. Once the rules were communicated and agreed upon, everybody went to work.
Christmas Day arrived and we had the best time. My mother made fudge, and then we wrapped up her barely-used collection of purses for every woman and girl in the family, and to the men she gave a slightly-used briefcase or backpack. Emily’s parents gave away very special items from their home, and the room filled with shouts of glee as sons, daughters, grandchildren and in-laws unwrapped precious books from childhood and special pieces of family furniture or silver that had been lovingly polished anew. The farmers in our family presented frozen pork chops and sausage from Ralph the 4-H pig, dilly beans from their garden, figs in earl grey tea, pickled quince and fresh eggs from a new flock of chickens. I gave photographs in recycled frames, and Emily made incredible batches of olives brined in a secret recipe of spices and oils. And nobody spent more than $10 on any gift.
We set up a table for a CD Exchange, and what was one person’s tired music became another’s great discovery. And then, over eggnog and olives, we had the funniest Yankee Swap and watched a family of girls fight over a Jane Austin CD collection that ended up being a box without the CD’s (we just found those last week in the attic).
Financial necessity changed our family Christmas. The holidays have become more creative, thoughtful and less hectic. Christmas changed our family attitudes about consumption and gift-exchange.
10RH = Christmas -> Try it with your family.
Reprinted from The Cathedral Connection, December 2010
Just got my assignment as Chaplain and Preacher for the 2012 season at the Chautauqua Institution.
I will be preaching WEEK EIGHT — AUG. 12–18
The topic is Radicalism: Burden or Blessing?
“Radicalism” invokes both positive and negative responses. Religious perspectives have often been considered radical. The Interfaith Lecture Series this week seeks to examine both the positives and negatives of radical thinking – historically and currently – to discern when it produces burden – and when blessing.
I’m looking for any and all good resources – books, films, music, essays, podcasts, prayers, etc. as inspiration and homiletical hay. So please send it on to me. Thanks!
Occupy Wall Street on Columbus Day 2011Occupy Wall Street
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As I suggested in my sermon last week, there were three prophets, or schools of prophets, named Isaiah. Isaiah the First confronted a nation in power. Second Isaiah, or Isaiah, Jr., (as I like to call him) comforted this same people living in exile and captivity. Isaiah III encouraged them as a newly liberated refugees returning to their homeland crippled by years of warfare and neglect.
Like his predecessors, Isaiah III was a prophet of hope and challenge. He was anointed by God to announce good news to the oppressed, the broken-hearted, and the despondent. The Spirit rested upon him and commissioned him to proclaim the year of God’s favor and the day of God’s vengeance. Isaiah III was called to declare to a beloved and chosen people: the Holy One, the maker of heaven and earth, would provide, deliver, and take charge; and that in doing so, something new and wonderful was about to happen.
Isaiah III heralded the creation of a new heaven, the birthing of a new earth, and the building of a new city – the New Jerusalem. He declared it as a city in which there would be new life. In the New Jerusalem, there would be no more weeping or crying over infants dying of malnutrition and disease, over young men dying of violence on the streets, or over young women bearing children for calamity. In God’s new city, there would be no more hunger, homelessness, poverty, or exploitation.
Isaiah III proclaimed that, in God’s new city, there would be no hurt or destruction: no more wars, no more torture, and no more Missing in Action. Instead, there would be peace. Like the wolf and the lamb, former enemies would sit down and eat together.
Five hundred years later, there was another voice sent from God. His name was John. When political and religious authorities asked, “Who are you?” John simply responded, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”
John was a voice crying out in the wilderness of life words of justice, decency, and honor. He declared the fiery passion of God’s righteousness. He said the time had come to get right with God and neighbor. Quoting the words of his spiritual and prophetic ancestor Isaiah, John insisted clearly that the time was NOW!
If Jesus was the Word of God come among us, John warmed up the crowd. If Jesus was the keynote speaker, John introduced him. If Jesus could be compared to the bridegroom, then John was the best man. If Jesus was the appointment, then John was the alarm clock. If Jesus was the carpenter, John was the demolition contractor. If Jesus was the door to God’s warmth and light, then John was the doorkeeper standing in the dark and cold. Like the prophets who came before him, John was a voice of hope and challenge. Read the rest of this entry »
Richard Rohr writes, “The word of God confronts, converts, and consoles us—in that order.” (Daily Meditation: Advent – November 28, 2011)
God’s living and active word comes to us as a voice crying in the wilderness, a two-edged sword, a kiss of peace, water to quench our thirst, and food to satisfy our hunger. The divine word can be both tender and tough, plain and complex, threatening and safe, provocative and reassuring, challenging and comforting. One thing I know for certain, or at least I believe for sure, is that God has spoken and is still speaking, even or perhaps, when we least expect to hear God’s voice.
This word of God challenged the prophet Isaiah to cry out to his people. When asked, “What shall I cry out,” God responded, “Lift up your voice with strength…and say: ‘Here is your God’ who like a shepherd comes to feed the flock, gather the lambs in his arms, carry them in her bosom, and gently lead them on their way home.
These words of confrontation, conversion and consolation were spoken by an anonymous prophet living amongst his fellow Jewish exiles in Babylon in the middle of the sixth century BCE. The powerful empire of Babylon captured Judah in 597 and destroyed Jerusalem in 587. Most of the city’s residents were deported to Babylon, where eventually, they were permitted to live in community – much like the settled refugee camps of Thailand, Palestine, Darfur, Kenya, and Nepal. The elders would have remembered the former days of freedom, but two generations would have been born and raised in exile, some in relative comfort and even privilege, not knowing of the land of their parents and grandparents. Over this sixty year exile, the Babylonian Empire weakened, and former ally Cyrus, king of Persia, became an enemy. In 538, without much struggle, Cyrus occupied the city of Babylon, and soon thereafter, issued a decree that the Jews were free to return home to Jerusalem.
The prophet Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah the Second or Isaiah, Jr.) probably wrote to his fellow exiles shortly before Cyrus’ occupation of Babylon. His message was nothing less than a promise of complete restoration: a homecoming after a long exile, a return to power after a long season of subordination, and a message of hope to a people who had grown complacent and hopeless.
Comfort O comfort my people. What did “comfort” mean to this exiled community? The Hebrew word for “comfort” literally means to “prepare” or “turn away from suffering.” After two and one-half generations of life in captivity and exile, many had forgotten or deferred the dream of freedom. So Isaiah was compelled to tell his people that there was a better way.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem Isaiah had to “speak tenderly” lest his complacent and disillusioned people would not open their hearts to his message of hope and promise. He had to convince his exiled community that there was an alternative reality to the one they had come to know and accept. So the message, spoken tenderly, was nonetheless confrontative and challenging. To get his brainwashed community to think, act, and speak differently, Isaiah (like many prophets) employed and provoked what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, calls “poetic imagination.”
In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Contrary to popular opinion, the highway is not a modern invention to accommodate automobile travel. The highway was a special feature of the city of Babylon. According to archeological findings and Babylonian hymnody, Babylon was characterized by its great processional highways, broad avenues for the gods and rulers to triumphantly enter the city. Every resident of Babylon, native or foreign-born, would have first-hand knowledge of the majestic highways of the city that were as commonplace as our modern freeways.
The wilderness and the desert were equally familiar images in the mind of the exiled Jewish community. The story of the Exodus the wandering of the Hebrew people in the desert wilderness of the desert for forty years. was then, and remains to this day, the formative event of the Jewish people. Every Jewish man, woman and child could recount and imagine it.
The prophet Isaiah, a good and faithful Jew, took a symbol associated with the might of the oppressor and subverted it with sacred memory to empower the oppressed, insisting that God is more powerful than any imperial rule. With that literary technique, he got the people’s attention.
The gospels borrow this imagery to introduce Jesus to us. He is our highway through the wilderness of our lives and our road out of exile and captivity to the powers and principalities of sin and death. When John the Baptist (also a faithful Jew) announced, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make the path of the Lord straight,” he was speaking to a people, again living under the yoke of oppression, and thus reminded them of their sacred memory.
It was a different time (500 years following the Babylonian exile), a different place (first century Palestine), and a different empire (Rome), but it was the same oppression. Once again, a Jewish prophet reminded a Jewish people of their history – the story of exodus, exile, and homecoming. Again, invoking poetic imagination, he “comforted” a beleaguered people by telling them to convert or turn away from oppression and prepare for something new that was about to happen. The Word of God, more powerful than any imperial rule or economic-military might, was about to be enfleshed and come among them and baptize them with the power of its divine Spirit. Empowered by the Spirit and encouraged by the Word, one could begin to imagine the miracles that would transpire, the wonders that would happen, and how the world might be turned upside down.
Fast forward to a different time, place, and empire. People are oppressed, nations are at war, cities lie in ruin, the environment is at risk, and many of the faithful are living in exile from their own religious traditions. Are we not living in circumstances akin to that of our our spiritual ancestors in ancient Egypt, Babylon, Palestine, or Rome?
About 18 months ago, I was confronted with the Word of God, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) spoken by a community organizer from the Industrial Areas Foundation. He challenged me and other faith leaders in Cleveland to invoke our poetic imagination so that we too might confront the powers and principalities of our day with the might of our sacred memory, the strength of our prayer, and the peaceful force of our collective action. Out of a combination of hope, despair and agitation, I and other clergy agreed to set aside our parochialism and differences; our limited self-interest, cynicism and hopelessness; the mistakes of our past and fear of failure in the future; and instead, made a commitment to rise together and build power for social justice.
One year later, we gathered over 2,000 people of faith and made a public vow to be a prophetic voice for achieving a more just, prosperous and peaceful community for all our citizens. We imagined a place where people are healthy, children are well educated, workers are employed in good jobs, nobody goes hungry, everybody feels safe, and all are treated with dignity and respect – a place that would thrive because all of its abundant resources were working together for the common good. We committed to work together on five broad issues of common concern: education, jobs, healthcare, food accessibility, and criminal justice. We pledged to unite people across lines of race, class, religion and geography to promote public, private and civic-sector actions that we believed would strengthen and improve the quality of life of our communities. As people united in faith and vision, we asked our public officials and private sector leaders to join us in this pledge of cooperation and accountability.
Our faith communities came together to dig deep into our common values and beliefs to lift up the principles of stewardship, justice, love of neighbor as self, repair of the breach and restoration of the streets. We intended to seek the welfare of the city, and demonstrate compassion for the least among us. Organizing across sectarian lines, we promised to work for a common vision based on a common set of values. We pledged to promote understanding of the region’s assets and challenges, carefully research the issues, and build broad support for strategies and public policies that would cause a new vision for the place we call home. We believed we were standing in what the ancients called a “kairos moment,” an appointed time when God was drawing us together to write and realize a bold, daring and enduring vision of city and suburb working together to be made anew.
As people of faith, we united in the desire to see our communities thrive, and we recognized that we have an important role to play and responsibility to fulfill in the making of a just and compassionate future. We knew what God required of us, and we were prepared to honor the promises of our faith traditions.
As we began our work together, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District announced an intention to balance this year’s budget by eliminating funding for early childhood education, high school transportation, summer school, athletics and more. After listening to many voices, including students, teachers, parents, administrators, funders, and advocates; and following private meetings with the Mayor, the School District CEO and the Teacher’s Union President, we called for an education assembly this coming Thursday to state clearly our opposition to such cuts, and hold those charged with educating our children accountable for finding a mutually agreed-upon way to solve the problem without eliminating such services and programs.
In case you haven’t heard the news, I am pleased report to you that on Friday night, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the Cleveland Teacher’s Union responded to our call and struck a tentative deal that will restore the proposed funding cuts. By all accounts, our work preparing for our education assembly on Thursday (and the subsequent media attention) created a sense of urgency that allowed this tentative agreement to take place.
It is more important than ever that we pack Olivet Institutional Baptist Church on Thursday evening, December 8 at 7 p.m.
First, we need to celebrate the leadership of CMSD and CTU for making tough decisions that are in the best interests of the community. When leaders respond, we must recognize them as vigorously as we would hold them accountable. Second, we need to ensure that this deal sticks. We can’t let this slide backwards. Finally, we need to communicate the message loud and clear that we do not want to be in this position again next year. All of us — school districts, unions, public policy makers, tax payers, business and civic leaders, and yes, the faith community — need to work together to address the long term structural problems facing our public education. Both CMSD Superintendent Eric Gordon and CTU President David Quolke will be with us on Thursday evening to explain the agreement and talk about what comes next for the school district and how Greater Cleveland Congregations might participate in building a strong, just and sustainable school system for our children.
As we live into this season of Advent, I am again reminded of the power of God’s living word to confront, convert, and console God’s people, and I am grateful for its two-edged sword of challenge and comfort. The Psalmist is astute in his observation: “God will indeed grant prosperity…our land will yield its increase…righteousness shall go before us…and peace shall be a pathway for our feet.” So let us go forward preparing and walking in the way of the Lord. Thanks be to God!