First: Do What You Know, Even If You Don’t Believe in Angels

If someone were to ask you, “Quick! Recite something from a Psalm,” you’d likely go to “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23)
Or if they asked you to (quick as you can!) recite a prayer that’s not a table grace, you might start off, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallow/ed be thy name…” (Mtt. 6:9-13)
This week was another one of those “Quick!!…DO something!” kind of weeks, and I’m sure you’ve already had your fill of what happened and why, election this-and-that. I choose not to write about that part, but rather… the fear, the mourning, the healing we pray for.  It is the time to be galvanized, connected, and ready to continue creating the change we need in the world.
I do not agree with the prognosticators saying, “Don’t curl up in a ball.” “Don’t run away.” If you need to do that for however long it takes, go ahead! I certainly did, and I loathed the idea that someone should tell me to “just cheer up” when my body and my spirit wasn’t ready to do that.
Take as long as you need.
Your friends, your supporters, your caregivers, your prayer chain and assembled group of “we are thinking of you and remembering your grief,” we are here, and we are ready to proceed when you are. What’s the rush in getting it all back in order?
I’ll get more into shock reactions and the darkness I felt later on, as the memory of all that becomes less raw. I will keep politics out of the mix, and I will not preach any particular sort of salvation.
Ours is – after all – just a pause.
My first go to, when I was able to have prayerful thoughts again, was to turn to the Order of Compline in the Episcopal prayer book. It’s my favorite of all the services in the book. Not because it’s so short (you can get through it reading aloud in under 20 minutes) but because it is concise with extremely lyrical prayers about how we ask for God’s protection during the over-night, until the next day arrives.
One of the prayers speaks of angels, and that one sounds out to me today, because my first prayer I could say out loud was
“Protect me.”
I didn’t feel my safety was at risk even though I fear that for others around me. I prayed that because of what another Compline prayer describes as the changes and chances of this life. That is kind-of what’s going on right now. The prayer goes on to remind us of the eternal changelessness of God. Whatever awful, stupid crap happens around us, this one part of our experience with the universe never changes.
The prayer that popped to my Quick! reaction is this one:
Visit this place, O LORD, and drive far from it all the snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessings be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
 – Amen
Protect me. Protect us all. Guide us away from wrong choices if that’s possible and if not, help us to learn quickly from our missteps.  If angels aren’t your thing nor this whole Christian gig, think of that phrase as: show us all our better angels. Show us that there is life beyond today, and that it is our vocation to live it.
If I can go to sleep and rest in that great changelessness (faith), then tomorrow, just maybe, the day will be a tiny bit brighter than today (hope.) 
Be good to each other and be there for each other. Give folks time to step into sunlight at their own pace. What’s the hurry? Healing comes as it comes and will not be rushed.
Keep the faith!
 – Amen
A little song from my Sunday School days that I didn’t even realize had verses. I have certainly sang the refrain all my life.

Angels Watching Over Me.

All Night, All Day,
The Angels, Keep A Watching Over Me (My Lord)
All Night, All Day,
The Angels, Keep A Watching, Over Me
You Can Accuse Me,
You Can Even Abuse Me,
You Can Drive Me From The Cold
(The Angels, Keep Watching, Over Me)
You, You Can Crucify This Old Body,
Oh, But You Can Not, You Can’t Touch
My Soul…
(Yes, The Angels Keep Watching… Over Me.)
I Haven’t … Been To Heaven
But… I’m Surely, I’m Surely
On My Way… Oh, (Background)
I Am Walking… With My Jesus
Every Night… And Every Day..
(Yes, The Angels, Keep Watching… Over Me.)
In The Midnight, When I Get In Trouble
When I Lay, Me Down To Sleep, Oh….
(The Angels, Keep Watching,… Over Me)
I Don’t Wonder, And I Don’t Have To Worry, For I Know The Lord, My Soul He’ll Keep.
(The Angels, Keep Watching… Over Me)

Fine and Dandy – purity, burdens, and little church Christmas plays

Here’s an addition to the usual small church, usually children’s, Christmas play. Not from one of those big churches with live camels marched in to poop all over the carpet plus a real baby playing the part of Jesus who cries all the way through the best parts. This is that little hometown church children’s nativity play with little boys all costumed up with dad’s red plaid bath robe tied around them, and a white cotton terrycloth towel on their head, tied with a piece of rope: that kind of Christmas play.

You know how the story begins.

Eveybody had to go to their own hometown to be counted and taxed. No excepptions, and you didn’t get out of it even if you were so far along with a baby that you were about to give birth. We can imagine that the towns were full of folks like Joseph and Mary, along with gigantic families with little children running around like crazy while Moms try to keep everybody herded together and out of the way of the Romans.

Grandmas who had to pack up and go along even though they’d just put dear Grandpa to rest and the last thing you’d want to do after that  is set out on a long trip to pay more taxes.

Preachers and singers, liars and thieves, the young and the old.


That’s the way the story starts and it’s where we jump in, just as we get to that part where the innkeeper has said that there’s no room for Joseph and Mary and he slams the door in their face. Count to two and the innkeeper opens his door again looking a little embarrassed, and he tells them to wait. He knows the two won’t find any other place in town to lay down their heads and rest. The befuddled man feels a little embarrassed as he offers them his barn – for free. He’s not even sure why he did it. Still, that’s all the man has to give.

And in that moment – with his embarrassed pointing them toward the place where cattle sleep in hay – that was likely what we could call the first gift of Christmas. Not gold or frankincense, no angels shouting all over the sky. It was the free use of a barn because that’s all the man had.

Little church nativity plays are usually a musical thing. Back when I was in that church and in that story I remember at this point a lady stood up and sang some song about how the innkeeper had no room for the little family. The song asked if we – all listening – have room, in our heart to share with Jesus. I suppose you expect something similar in that spot because there’s not many hymns that fit right there. The nice part is that Christmas plays don’t always need hymns to bring home the story.

Today I heard another song and it took me to this scene – before shepherds and kings show up and before we sing lots of Alleluia! Christmas morning songs. It’s from an old Broadway play and it just made sense to me.

It goes something like this.

As the little family goes off stage left in the direction the innkeeper pointed, the focus changes to the center of the stage where a raggedy sort of woman ambles into the scene. She once was very pretty, once upon a time. Maybe even 10 or 15 miles back.

Her clothes, once pretty and lacy, and bright colored, are now a bit ragged and care-worn. She has a couple of bundles with her as if everything in the world that she owns is in those bags. Maybe little tufts of cloth sticking out from the one or two other dresses she still owns that are worth wearing.

Just like the little family, there’s no hope of her finding rest in this town. It might have once been hometown to her. Now that she’s on her own, there’s nobody left in Bethlehem who either knows her or would admit to knowing her. Maybe the light reflects off an out of place sparkle in her hair, or a bit of rhinestone that used to be her belt.

To drive home who this woman is, she stops and lays her few little bundles down beside an old well. She pulls a dipper off a nail beside it and draws a sup of water as if she’s not had a drink of clear, clean water in a long time. Closes her eyes and smiles for just a second, cherishing the sweet taste of such a pure stream, and she begins to sing.

Hey, she sings, maybe I’ll dye my hair….

It’s that end of the show tune from Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and she is the infamous woman at the well from the Bible stories. Years later, a similar woman at a similar well will offer a grown up Jesus a drink of water. In return, Jesus says he will offer her the water of life.

Every story as good as that one needs a little foreshadowing, here in the dusty streets of late-night Bethlehem just as magical things begin to happen.

Maybe I’ll move somewhere….

The woman, at that moment of being alone, she is us and we are her.

Kicked out of wherever she was before, on the road with all she has, she’s been sent to this specific little town for sure but after that….? Who knows. It is at the same time both exciting and scary to be thrown out of her usual life. It was embarrassing before, to have someone point out to her in whatever town she came from, they whispered about whatever sin or imagined or made-up sin she had. After taxes are paid, they murmured, don’t bother coming back.

And so the song goes on. We sit and listen to the lady singing the song and suddenly we are some place that is not only the Christmas play. We spend a few minutes living inside a story that is not just the one that we have read in the Gospels. Or not the one that some do-goodie forced down our throats every year with no explanation of why or how. No example year-long of what it all means.

Her song is a story of us, and of how we relate to the purity of this particular night in this particular story. We – the woman singing by the well – we come to this moment of absolute perfection and we bring with us all our wrongs, all our sins, and all our neglects, all tied up in little bags.

We have no place else to go.

She sings the whole song, and our mind is caught up on every word (including the part about drinking apple wine!) After it’s over and she wanders on into the darkness, after her little rest by the well: we remember her last words, “I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.”

And won’t we all.

Burdens. Troubles. Sins. Even getting kicked out with no place to go by the people you thought (expected!) loved you. We come to that night of most perfect calm, to a night when we can leave our parcels in the dirt by that well. We leave the heavy stuff and keep going on our way singing, “I’ll be fine.” and a little stronger: “I’ll be fine.”

The story continues on its way, and we are back in the small hometown church, watching our kids dressed as Mary and Joseph and Angels and cows. And when the play gets to that part when everybody sings, Silent Night, it somehow means something different than the first million or two times we’ve sang that song.

Heavenly peace. Heavenly peace.
You’ll be just fine.

Keep the faith!
– Amen




Hard Candy Christmas

By Dolly Parton

Hey, maybe I’ll dye my hair
Maybe I’ll move somewhere
Maybe I’ll get a car

Maybe I’ll drive so far
That I’ll lose track
Me, I’ll bounce right back
Maybe I’ll sleep real late

Maybe I’ll lose some weight
Maybe I’ll clear my junk
Maybe I’ll just get drunk on apple wine
Me, I’ll be just

Fine and dandy
Lord it’s like a hard candy Christmas
I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let
Sorrow bring me way down

I’ll be fine and dandy
Lord it’s like a hard candy Christmas
I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let
Sorrow get me way down

Hey, maybe I’ll learn to sew
Maybe I’ll just lie low
Maybe I’ll hit the bars
Maybe I’ll count the stars until dawn
Me, I will go on

Maybe I’ll settle down
Maybe I’ll just leave town
Maybe I’ll have some fun
Maybe I’ll meet someone
And make him mine
Me, I’ll be just

Fine and dandy
Lord it’s like a hard candy Christmas
I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let
Sorrow bring me way down

I’ll be fine and dandy
Lord it’s like a hard candy Christmas
I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let
Sorrow bring me way down

I’ll be fine and dandy
Lord it’s like a hard candy Christmas
I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let
Sorrow bring me way down

‘Cause I’ll be fine
(I’ll be fine)
Oh, I’ll be fine.


Where were you? Hide your eyes.

Life is full of those “do you remember where you were and what you were doing when….” moments. I have no recollection of the assassination of President Kennedy, but I was watching television – while playing on the floor as a child – the morning that Lee Harvey Oswald was killed. I don’t remember the Kennedy event, but I remember great running and crying of the adults around me. Running and crying.

I remember very well where I was on the morning of 9/11 as it was happening. I remember folks running around the office to find televisions and turn them on and try to get some sort of a decent signal in our non-networked building. Those memories and how I felt weren’t as strong to me as a few minutes I spent with a good friend of mine – just recently passed – who was in our office on business that day. She was a New Yorker. A native of the City. A saw with her a few minutes with her, staring in shock at the television. There was nothing to say, no conversation necessary. We sat in silence and watched the TV. That memory – that moment of off-business bonding with a business associate – that is the one that has stuck with me over the years.

Fast forward 14 years to the recent anniversary of the date. Everything is still fresh and raw to our memories, even after a decade and a half, it’s almost as if it happened last week. Almost. It is a day that we believe – and teach to the next generation – will live in infamy. There were moments of silence all around the country. There were tributes. There were readings of the names of the dead, as if we had been to some great war, and now in solemnity we remembered our fallen comrades and kin.

This 14th anniversary is likely one I will remember because when all the anti-celebration was going on, I overheard something that stopped me in my tracks.

At the time, I was on my way up the elevator at the Duke Cancer Center for my 3rd (of 4) chemotherapy infusions. That has nothing to do with the story other than explain where I was at the moment. In the waiting area for infusion patients, there are two large televisions on either end of the long room. The one nearest to where I walked in was tuned to ESPN and their coverage of the day. The sound was low but it was easy to see from a distance that their cameras were in New York City. I walked off the elevator at 8:45 that morning which was 2 minutes before silence fell over our country. In the rush to get to the Cancer Center, I had forgotten the significance of the date and time, until I heard bagpipes and drums on the TV.

stephen foster - american song writerThe song was an old Stephen Foster tune from the time just before the American Civil War, called Hard Times Come Again No More. The theme is very much what you expect: things are terrible here, maybe the worst we have seen. These are the Hard Times. And having recognized the hard times and how terrible it all is, with the weak and weary fainting all around us – go away. Don’t come back. It’s as if Foster is saying that even in that huge division in our country that our countrymen will move on beyond that loss and that terror, and will build another America, better than the one we have before.

It’s an interesting analogy to apply to the events and after-events of 8:47 am on September 11.

I felt the need to cover my eyes.

Not from fear or shame. What comes to mind in moments of great prayer like that – even in musical prayer of a 19th Century parlor song – what I feel then is that need to pray, to concentrate on my prayers, and to be very contrite in what my prayer is saying.

In the Hebrew tradition, when they say the greatest prayer of all prayers, it’s necessary to cover one’s eyes to avoid distraction and to fully concentrate on the conversation with their G_d. That prayer is the Shema.

Hear, O Israel              Shema Yisra’el

The L_rd is our G_od    Adonai Eloheinu

The Lord is one!          Adonai ehad

– Amen

I’ve seen the prayer many times and the practice has stuck with me in my own moments of contrition. I began using the rubric in the time that I most need to concentrate on what I am saying, and on what is happening as I say it: the Confession and Absolution.

I feel the need to not only shield myself from distractions and to stay on track with that prayer, but at the same time to be so very sorry for the mis-deeds I have done (or not done) that it is necessary for me to hide my eyes away in humility, as I come to my own Great Spirit to ask that I be given yet one more chance to do better.

[…] for the things I have done – and left undone – I am heartily sorry and I humbly repent [….]

The key word there is heartily. I am sorry beyond any words that I can say, yet You know my heart, and let it call to you my great sorrow.

At the end of this particular Christian version of confession (there are many), it’s good to recall one of the most-remembered passages in the book of Matthew:

Call upon me, all who travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (I will give you rest.)

So there I was, getting checked in and getting my beeper for when it’s my turn to go to the next step, trying to stand, wanting to close my eyes, and knowing for sure: look around because that moment will stick with me, even as memory and circumstances fade away on other, less important things. I cover my eyes and share the sadness. I open my eyes and demand that hard times will come no more.

Keep the faith!

– Amen




Hard Times Come Again No More
by Stephen Foster (1854)

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

‘Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
‘Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

*Stephen Foster – “the father of American music” died in poverty on January 13, 1864 at the age of 37. His worn leather wallet contained a scrap of paper that simply said, “Dear friends and gentle hearts”, along with 38 cents in Civil War scrip and three pennies