Saturday, December 30, 2006


The last day of the this year is also Epiphany Sunday, a day I find appropriate to celebrate all the ways I've seen God at work this past year, and a time to resolve to pay better attention in the coming year.

Just what is Epiphany?

I explained it to my Sunday school class something like this:

Epiphany is really about two things. The first is honoring those wise folks so long ago who strapped their treasures to camels’ backs, climbed on and journeyed toward something––a king they suspected––because they had an inkling, saw a sign in the stars. They weren’t sure what to expect, but they knew when they found that child, Jesus. He was the one they’d set out for.

The second part is recognition. The wow-this-baby-has-a-royal-purpose-this-baby-is-part-of-God’s-plan recognition that we can experience in our own lives. We call these God moments Epiphanies.

So, do you get it, about Epiphany? I asked and summarized. It’s the holiday when we celebrate those wise people finding Jesus (and when we can finally pack away our nativity sets) and it’s the aha moment, when you realize God is there doing something important, something that will change your life, or the way you understand life.

“Wait,” one girl said. “Let me get this straight. If God is everywhere, and in everything, then isn’t every moment an Epiphany?”

Aha! And we wonder why God sent a child.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Gift of Words

Jesus, like the magi, and the little drummer child, I bring you a gift. I pray it will be of use in this world. The wrapping isn’t fancy, the package not designed to sell. What I have are words, words that I unfold before you. Words about a life, mine, that has been transformed by a life, yours. The words of epiphanies, of God moments that have changed me from Herod––fearful and wanting control because I never really had it––into a mother Mary, willing to say yes to God even when I don’t understand how the plan is to come about.

I bring to the manger words you will need when you are older, words that will thread you to humanity and to your divine essence, words to balance you between worlds. I bring you words that are the story of struggle and triumph of each person who has made their way to you.

I drop to my knees under the weight of them, wrapped in a tattered cloth I have tied around my arm like the Shema of my ancestors. Then one by one I tuck words like Thank You into the corners of the straw around your sleeping frame. Your little fist opens for a moment, reaching for a word to hold tight to your chest. You choose Love.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Kneeling At the Manger

For twenty-one years I have knelt at the manger, my heart bowed before the infant Jesus. Before that, for me, Christmas was a present exchange a time when holiday cheer, pumpkin pie, decorations and department store Santa Clauses were supposed to be enough. But choruses of silver bells and gifts of clothing were never rich enough, full enough to set my spirit singing.

I remember the first Christmas after God laid claim to me; it finally became meaningful. That cold sunny morning I sang carols to myself, and it was as though God pushed into my wounded heart and held the pain, letting me know I wouldn’t have to heal alone.

That’s how it was when God sent Jesus the first time, a helpless infant born to bring healing. But who would listen? Would he be able to lead us to reconciliation without having to give up his life? And what kind of God would require such a sacrifice from a beloved child? I couldn’t see back then that there were gifts in death, that the living can be healed by the life of those gone before, and of this particular one, Jesus, somehow still alive.

Growing up I knew loss but I didn’t know how to let something die. I carried my losses as though they were treasures. My life was held together with scotch tape and band aids, wounds were all I had to make me me.

That is why I needed the manger, a place to stop trying to be perfect, a place to kneel and give over the things I carried. At first, all I could offer was brokenness, a mosaic of myself made from shards of abandonment and fear. That is what I gave God.

And this is what God gave me––a husband who loved me and didn’t leave like my parents and step-parents had and babies, two babies to hold and tend. Holy infants who touched their tiny hands to my cheeks, who cooed and smiled and cried. Infants to cuddle and rock and sing to. And while I did this, God held me and sang to me and wiped the tears from my cheeks. God slowly, year by year, took every wound, every hurt and helped me mend and polish and overcome. Then ever so gently, God suggested I leave those things at the manger along with all the gifts from wise people.

Others might lay their burdens at the cross, but my gifts belong at the birth scene. My awe and gratitude begin not with sacrificial death, but with amazement that such hope was born at all. Such hope in the form of the infant Jesus, such hope inside myself that I scarcely believe it.

The hope started small, like a baby, so I come crawling to the manger. I look into the straw at the beautiful child then ask, because I need to be told, “Are you sure? Is this for real? Dare I believe?”

“Yes,” answers the mother, Mary, who is younger and more confident than I am. She strokes Jesus’ head and pats my hand.

“Yes,” answers Joseph who has built a fire, changed the straw and found blankets for Mary and the baby.

“Oh, yes,” answer the wise men and women who kneel around the barn, unwrapping their satchels, revealing herbs, ointments, jewels, presenting all gifts precious and fitting.

“Oh yes, we’re sure,” they say. “We’ve been watching, we’ve been waiting, paying attention. This is definitely it. The beginning of something incredible.”

They take down their cooking pots and provisions. The savory smell of their cooking begins to compete with straw and hay and animal and smoke. “Will you stay and eat with us?” they ask.

I look around the barn crowded with strangers, their skin alabaster and copper and twilight, shining in the lamplight. The straw is scratchy under my knees; the lip of the manger is brittle and splintered. I am nobody, just a girl in a faded dress looking for a reason to hope.

“Yes,” I say. “Oh, yes. I will stay.”

©Cathy Warner 2006

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hark, What's With Those Angels?

I was an enthusiastic choir member in elementary school, performing in concerts and singing at Leisure World each December. I even had a solo in the Christmas concert on the second verse of What Child is This.

At home, we had a set of paper angel ornaments, in pink, yellow and blue with fuzzy flocked dots on their dresses. They stood about two inches high with yellow curls stapled to their paper heads and gold paper wings stapled to their backs. They held guitars or autoharps, or my favorite, white microphones with red tips in their outstretched pipe cleaner hands.

Sitting cross-legged on our beige shag carpet, I placed the angels on risers made of empty ornament boxes, separating the altos from the first and second sopranos. Then I sang for them, a one-girl Mormon Tabernacle choir belting out every Christmas carol I knew.

I had all the popular carols like Joy to the World, Silent Night, and Angels We Have Heard on High memorized to the fourth verse, including one verse of O Come All Ye Faithful in Latin. I was alone, waiting for my sister to come home from a friend’s and my mom to come from work. Singing that hour, I didn’t feel alone, I felt as though I was part of something. It was a great concert.

By my enthusiastic refrains, you would’ve thought I was a true believer, a girl who shined her Sears’ catalog shoes, dressed in her best corduroy jumper and walked the three blocks to the Assembly of God, collecting attendance stars at Sunday school and memorizing Bible verses by the score. You would’ve been wrong.

I went to guitar mass sometimes with my Catholic friend across the street. Less often, I rode in the rear-facing station wagon bench with my neighbor on our way to a Presbyterian church somewhere across the freeway. All I knew about church was that I didn’t belong. About God, I knew even less.

When I grew up, my mother divided the old ornaments between my sister and me. When we got to the faded paper angels, she divided the mandolin and harp-playing angels in two equal piles. As a child, I hadn’t guessed the instruments quite right; that was okay. But when we got to my favorite angels, the microphone angels, both she and my sister said they were holding candles. They said the painted red tips were obviously flames.

After that, the angels lost their appeal. I’d begun to realize there was something missing in my life. The kind of thing a college degree, political activism, good deeds and a good husband couldn’t satisfy. The kind of thing that belting out Christmas carols hinted at.

The angels hung from my tree, holding only candles. You have to get really close to a candle to see much. You have to be brave and intentional to get that close to an angel, or whoever, is holding the flame. It’d be as scary as walking into a church alone and uninvited looking for God.

I wanted angels with microphones, a dozen of them, flying around the neighborhood, singing out good news and giving me direction from a safe distance. I didn’t want to get too close or personal.

But that’s what God does at Christmas, gets down in the straw and muck and has the nerve to insist on birthing something new and wrinkled and helpless smack in the middle of our overburdened lives. You can’t get more personal than that.

God came to me in the shower, which is almost as strange as showing up in a manger. It was as though the angels set aside their microphones, grabbed some buckets, filled them with love and poured them down. Once that happened, I had no choice but to believe.

God’s message of love is everywhere right now. It’s on radio stations 24 hours a day interspersed between I’ll Be Home for Christmas and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. It’s in the voices of those holding candles in the dark and singing on Christmas Eve.

Throughout time, we who walk in the darkness are given hope of great light. May that light, however and in whomever it is revealed, shine brightly.

©Cathy Warner 2006

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Let Every Heart Prepare Some Room

I was up against the deadline last year, delivering groceries and “Stocking gifts” to Valley Churches United Missions. The donor parking spots were full as was the parking lot. Driving up the unfamiliar street all I saw was No parking. No room anywhere. I pulled into VCUM’s parking lot half blocked with orange cones and No Parking signs, hoping to ask one of the volunteers if they knew where I might park. I’m in luck, I thought, recognizing four of the five.

I rolled down my windows and before I could say, “Hi, Mrs. X,” she snapped, “You can’t park here.”

The man I didn’t know approached the passenger window. “You can’t park here,” he yelled.
Then Mr. X pushed his way forward yelling, “You can’t park here. We’re expecting a truck.”

Shocked by the yelling, surprised they didn’t recognize me, I said “I just need to turn around,” and shaking inched my minivan forward.

Then a woman I call Ma yelled to Mr. X, “She can’t park here.”

“I’m just turning around,” I said loudly at the same time he said, “She’s going to turn around.”

“No she’s not,” said Ma, “she’s going to hit the posts.”

My fight or flight response kicked in and said Fight and Flight! I put the car in reverse and in my nastiest most facetious voice, I shouted, “You know, your welcoming attitude really makes it easy for people to make donations!” I punched the gas pedal, flew backward into the street, then took off up the street, ironically named Love Creek Road.

I desperately wanted to go home, but I had to deliver the groceries and gifts. I parked several blocks away, clutched my bags and marched down the street, chest heaving, gulping between sobs. I was deeply ashamed of my outburst and walked past the parking lot fast as I could, staring straight ahead. I delivered my bags, filled out my donation form and left the building thankful the episode was almost over.

As I walked back on the far side of the street, Mrs. X called to me cheerfully as though greeting a long lost friend. I was shocked. How could she possibly, after what they’d just done?

“Hi,” I said, a mean bitter Hi with no trace of friendship or forgiveness.

Driving home I tried to figure out how decent people––the volunteers and me––out to do good deeds for strangers, failed to extend care and compassion to people not on our lists. I needed a little grace in that parking lot, a little understanding, a little room to maneuver, a little time to think. Who knows why I didn’t receive it, maybe I was the 50th car that’d disrupted their preparations. Maybe they were too cold and cranky.

I thought about complaining to VCUM or writing Mrs. X and telling her why my “Hi,” had been so malicious, but I wanted to get beyond my hurt without blaming others. I didn’t want to hold onto the wound and to the way it made me feel sick in the bones. I needed to extend a little grace, so I prayed and took my Relaxed Wanderer Chinese herbs, and calmed down eventually.

Later I called a friend, who, in her usual wisdom said, “God always reminds us that we’re human.”

When I think about Christ’s coming, I think of a line in Joy to the World, “Let every heart prepare him room.” If Christ was there in the parking lot, and I’m sure he was, I did a rotten job of preparing room. Thankfully God has more hands and feet in this world than mine, and thank God I’m not alone in my failings.

Our ancestors in the faith were just as human and imperfect. Folks back when Jesus arrived were expecting a different kind of Messiah and overburdened Innkeepers were turning away lodgers left and right. Mary and Joseph needed a little grace when they arrived in Bethlehem to pay taxes, tired and hugely pregnant. They got very little grace, a tiny bit of room, a cow stall out back. It was the best that Innkeeper could do, and because God can take our little and make it more, it turned out to be enough.

As we journey toward Christmas with all the busyness and stress it can bring, let every heart prepare some room, and may that some be enough.

©Cathy Warner 2005