Category Archives: Religion/Spirituality

Update from Prison: Prayer as Pep Rally

UPDATE: PW had a clarification to the first bullet of holiday advice near the end of this post. 3:47 pm Eastern time, 12/23/14.

The two months at the end of the year are the most emotionally charged among the women who are incarcerated at the jail where we do our card-making project every Monday night. This is as reliable as the tide, and has been for each of the 17 years that PW has been leading this program. This year, these past few weeks have featured:

  • A loud woman who seemed almost boastful about her proclivity for stealing. One night she crowed about having stolen an ornament off the Christmas tree during chapel, “because I’m outta here on Wednesday and I liked the ornament and I wanted to give it to my mom!” The guard who accompanied us that night said, “You’re outta here Wednesday? See you on Thursday!” We haven’t seen her since that night. Yet.
  • Several silent, weeping women, painstakingly making cards for their infant children.
  • A table full of ebullient women who sang “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” loudly, complete with shout-outs:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (reindeer)
Had a very shiny nose (like a light bulb!)
And if you ever saw it (saw it)
You would even say it glows (like a flash light!)

All of the other reindeer (reindeer)
Used to laugh and call him names (like Pinocchio!)
They never let poor Rudolph (Rudolph)
Join in any reindeer-games (like Monopoly)!

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say,
“Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Then how the reindeer loved him (loved him)
As they shouted out with glee, (with glee!)
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, (reindeer)
“You’ll go down in history!” (like George Washington!)

Last night there were five women, one of whom was chomping at the bit to get started.

“I have a lot to do and I don’t have a lot of time! Come on! Let’s go!”

We hadn’t even gathered for our opening circle and her energy was spiraling out of control. PW responded by leading our usual opening prayer as though we were a football team, huddling in the locker room for a rousing pep talk before taking the field. There we were, five volunteers and five incarcerated women, holding hands in a circle, bouncing up and down to this chant:

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
Everyone: POWER!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: FRAILTY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: CERTAINTY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: AMBIGUITY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: ANSWERS!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: QUESTIONS!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: SELF-SUFFICIENCY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: INTERDEPENDENCE!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: PERMANENCE!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: TRANSCIENCE!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: CLARITY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: MYSTERY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE WANT??
All: FANTASY!!

PW: WHAT DO WE GET??
All: GOD!!

ALL: AMEN!!

I don’t know whether PW’s ingenious Prayer-As-Pep-Rally approach was what calmed the women down, but the rest of the night was mostly quiet. Toward the end, I stood at a table counting supplies while three women complained about a particular guard who writes them up for things that they suspect aren’t against the rules.

“She says to me, ‘What’s in your hair?’ I say, ‘A floss loop I bought at canteen.’ She says, ‘That ain’t for your hair. Take it out.’ Damn. I’m pretty sure once you buy stuff at canteen, you can do whatever you want with it. If I wanna decorate my hair with a floss loop, I can! Pretty sure that’s not in the rule book. Why she gotta be so angry?!”

They went on to describe this guard in more colorful language. I didn’t say anything. Finally, one of the women looked up at me and smiled and said to the other two, “I know why she’s so angry. Her pants are too tight!”

Then they all, and I, fell out laughing.

Based on my Monday evenings in jail over the past month, here’s my advice for enjoying the rest of the holiday season:

  • When you sing a song that is intended to be joyful, don’t hold back. PW’s embellishment on this advice: If you smile when you sing “Alleluia,” it will look AND sound like an “Alleluia!” UPDATE:    PW clarified: “What I say about smiling when one sings ‘Alleluia!’ is that it makes the resurrection seem more plausible. (:”
  • Some of your prayers might work well as pep talks, complete with a huddle, shouting, and jumping up and down.
  • If you need to cry, but can’t let your guard down, start coloring something to give to someone else.
  • If you want to decorate your hair with floss, gitchyer floss on. But don’t use it before. Or after.
  • If you’re going to wear pants, make sure they’re not too tight.
  • Savor your freedom.

May your holiday season bring you some measure of joy, even if it’s fleeting and hard-won.

Returning to Freedom

It’s Easter morning. Out the window, I see a woman walking her dog, just beyond the place where all three of our pets are buried. A tiny forsythia is hinting at blooming. The sky is bright blue. I could fill this entire post with the minutiae of things I can see out this one glass square in the back of our house.

Perhaps you know that only about five percent of the universe is stuff that can be directly observed. Ninety-five percent of our universe is essentially unknown to the scientists whose lives are devoted to studying it. So, for the rest of us, it’s probably closer to 99.99999 percent.

I love this kind of elbow room. Going to church, for me, has evolved into the practice of swimming and singing in this 95 percent. Oh, I love the five percent of observable things, too: the taste of the molasses communion bread, the sherry, the smell of beeswax, a beautiful oboe line soaring above a Bach chorale.

It occurred to me recently, after losing a long-time family friend to the plague that is cancer, Joan is free now. She’s free of that five percent of observable matter that was her body. She’s now returned to the freedom of being part of the mystery that is the bulk of the universe around us.

Do I know this for a fact? Hell no. Is truth bound by the knowable five percent of matter that we observe? Never has been. Never will be.

As my bride will say in her sermon later this morning, if you stumble over the word “believe,” substitute the word “belove.” If you stumble over the idea of celebrating the blood sacrifice of a man some 2000 years ago, here’s my trick: substitute the words “life and love” for “body and blood.” In my experience, it’s so much deeper to substitute the word “love” for “blood” any time you encounter it in church. If you stumble over the word “Father” for God, substitute “Author.” Participate in something that stretches you, that makes you think, that inspires you to ask new questions.

In the grand scheme of things, our stay on this earth is a snapshot. My Easter wish is that while you’re here, you participate in all of it, the five percent of what’s known and the 95% of what’s not known.

Happy Easter everyone!

Enough

I used to think that I hated Palm Sunday. It turns out, what I hated was what the larger Christian church has done with it.

I got home this afternoon at 5 pm after a Palm Sunday service that cracked me open, followed by a baby shower for a couple of friends waiting the arrival of their firstborn. I opened my computer to begin sharing the extraordinary day with you, and saw the news of three people being gunned down at Jewish centers in a town where I have quite a few family and friends, some of whom are Jewish.

The word that keeps flashing in my mind is “Enough.” Okay, if I’m completely honest, there are a few expletives thrown in there, too. But, really, ENOUGH.

Today my brave bride stood in the pulpit like the protester known as “Tank Man” in that iconic image from Tianenmen Square. Instead of tanks, PW led the congregation in facing down centuries of the odious Christian tradition of reading the Palm Sunday scriptures like a play, in which the congregation takes on the part of an angry mob and shouts “Crucify him!” repeatedly.

“Tank Man” in front of a long line of government tanks that later mowed down protesters in Tianenmen Square

But that didn’t happen today at Emmanuel. ENOUGH.

Instead, PW stood in the pulpit and our deacon, Susanne, stood at the lectern, on the opposite side of the steps leading up to the chancel. Susanne read the Palm Sunday scripture passages in five sections. After each section, PW offered a brief meditation on that section.

Here’s the opening section, with the scripture first:

11Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. 15Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed.21The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” 24So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”25Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

Meditation I

This year, in conversation with the members of Emmanuel’s Worship Commission, I decided that I want us to abstain from engaging in the custom of reading the Passion Narrative as a play script with members of the congregation taking various dialogue parts, and the congregation as a whole representing the crowd. I cannot imagine how it is edifying – that is, how it might provide moral or theological instruction that would build up the body or how this practice might glorify God in any way. If any of you in the congregation are longing for a greater voice, more participation in liturgy, a deeper involvement in the narrative of salvation history, this turns out to be a most terrible place to start. No good can come from imagining ourselves as members of an angry mob. No good can come from re-enacting the highly implausible scenario that Pontius Pilate or any other Roman authority would have even permitted a crowd to gather in the occupied capital of an occupied country during the time of a great feast celebrating the notion of freedom from oppression, freedom from economic and political enslavement. Nor would a Roman governor give people a vote about whom to crucify.

Biblical scholars have known for a long long time that “the evidence explicitly and definitely points against any representative Jerusalem crowd shouting for Jesus’ death.”1And yet, churches all over the place blithely carry on this libel in the name of tradition or custom or piety. I think that it does not honor God’s Holy Name or God’s Holy People.

A few weeks ago I came across an article published by Biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan that he wrote when I was a little girl. He was writing at Loyola University in Chicago, just a few miles from where my family lived when my dad was in seminary. My guess is that my seminarian father knew about Crossan’s work because I grew up understanding it. The article is about Christian anti-Semitism. Crossan wrote, “the often-repeated statement that the Jews rejected Jesus and had him crucified is historically untenable and must therefore be removed completely from our thinking and our writing, our teaching, preaching, and liturgy.” Yet, here we are, 50 years later – the Passion narrative being proclaimed throughout Christian churches, today and this coming Friday, during our Holy Week, with scant attention to the libelous and deadly consequences to Jews. Indeed, it’s their blood which is on our forebears and on us. Let’s not get it on our children. Let’s agree to stop using guilt as a motivation to love.

The entire sermon is here, and I urge you to read it. Enough of the old Palm Sunday traditions. If clergy won’t face down the tanks of centuries of “historically untenable” readings going by without challenge or comment, then at the very least those of us in the pews should demand it. Palm Sunday is March 29 next year. There’s a lot of work to do. Get busy.

Video

“Spread over us a shelter of peace. Repair us with good wisdom. Save us.”

If you don’t know about The Epichorus yet, you should. I insist. The lyrics for this first video are the title of this post.

And this one, Na Gibor. One thing I have learned about the Hebrew word “Na” is that it means “Please.” In the Hebrew Bible, the Holy One frequently says “Na” when interacting with humans. As far as I can tell, this aspect of the Divine does not make it into any of the English translations of the Hebrew Bible, which is beyond regrettable to me. The plaintive repetitions of “Na” in this song give me chills. Every time.

“we beg you
with the greatness and power of your hand
untie our knot
receive the song of your people
lift us make us pure

please mighty one
those who expound your oneness
keep them as the pupil of the eye”

Update from Heretic School

If you’ve been walking The Crooked Line with me for awhile, then you know that what I call “Heretic School” is more widely known in our popular culture as “Bible Study.” Maybe one of these days I’ll settle into calling it by its popular name. I did, after all, settle into calling myself a Christian after many years of running from and then wrestling with myself.

J.S. Bach

But I really love “Heretic School,” both the name and the practice of it. During the odd numbered months, at 7:30 in the morning on Tuesdays, we gather for Heretic School in the Emmanuel Room. That’s right: the God-With-Us Room. A large portrait of Bach watches over us from one wall. He looks a little like he’s sucking on a cough drop. Or a lemon. Mostly, I think his expression is a warning that the soundtrack for the path we’re on is less like the predictable, sing-songy “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” and more like the difficult, cell-rearranging Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor.

Generally, the passage we discuss at Heretic School is the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday as outlined by the Episcopal Lectionary, which is a riff on the Revised Common Lectionary. For the past three weeks, we’ve been working our way through the 10th chapter of Luke, the very heart of this particular evangelist’s telling of the Jesus story.

Two Tuesdays ago, we worked on the story of the Samaritan who helps the beaten and robbed man by the side of the road. Last Tuesday, we took on the story in which Jesus appears to praise Mary at Martha’s expense.

Being the contrary Bull-girl that I am, reading these uber-familiar stories makes my brain paw the ground and snort in the face of what centuries of preaching and teaching tell us they’re about. I have no patience for how these stories, or any Bible stories for that matter, get used. What I want to know is how can the stories use me? That’s much rockier territory, and I love a good scrabble over uneven and uncertain terrain.

The reason I’ve said, “Okay, I’m in.” to Christianity is because I want my assumptions to be challenged. It occurs to me just now that the appeal of “Heretic School” for me, the reason it turbo-charges my Tuesdays in odd-numbered months, is because what I come to this particular well for is to strip away the importance of Believing so I can focus on Beloving.

What I noticed in the story about the Samaritan this year was Jesus’ reminder (from Leviticus 19) that the way to be one with Love (which is how I make sense of the notion of “eternal life”) is to show mercy by loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s not selective mercy, parceled out to people we already know or whom we already love. It’s mercy to anyone and everyone.

Far too often I’ve heard preachers talk about the story of the Samaritan and chide the priest and the Levite who pass by the beaten man. In the story of the Samaritan, yes, of course, we are being reminded to be merciful to the beaten man by the side of the road. Duh! But it’s clear to me that we are not to stop there. When Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” he means we are also to be merciful to the priest and the Levite who passed the man by and, for whatever reason, did not help. We are also being reminded to be merciful to the lawyer whose testing of Jesus gives us this beautiful story.

The words “neighbor” and “mercy” rolled around in my head all week after Heretic School on Tuesday, July 9. So when I woke up on Sunday, July 14, to the news of the Zimmerman verdict—which did not surprise or shock me but rather made me feel sick and sad—I thought, “Shit. The story of the Samaritan is challenging me to show mercy even to George Zimmerman.” Shit indeed. What in the world would it look like to show mercy to maybe the most notorious and least neighborly Neighborhood Watchman of all time? How do I show mercy to someone who believes it was God’s plan that he kill Trayvon Martin?

I turned all this over in my head and thought, “Ugh. I hope I never meet George Zimmerman.” In fact, I don’t even want to know anyone like him, much less show them mercy! But of course I already DO know people like him—people who are very afraid of others who are different from them and think that guns will protect them. Or people who are very afraid and think that mass incarceration will keep them safe (see The New Jim Crow). Or that keeping poor people out of their neighborhoods (or their churches) will keep them safe.

With all this rattling around inside me, I took the plunge today and showed mercy to a guy who told me at least 20 times that he spent 25 years in prison for things he will only hint at. He’s probably a lot like George Zimmerman—suspicious, fearful, with a violent streak (though he insists he’s “not like that any more.”) We went for coffee and I gave him some money. The whole hour we spent together felt incredibly uncomfortable and slightly crazy. When I handed him $60 fresh from the ATM to help him get through the next nine days until his Social Security check arrives, his eyes popped and his mouth fell open. He sputtered, “I promise I’ll pay you back.” I told him I didn’t want him to pay me back; I want him to help someone else out someday. He said, “But I don’t know anybody good besides you and [PW].” I said, “Well, the person doesn’t have to be good. They just have to be someone who needs help you can give.” “Yeah. Okay. Well, God bless you,” he said as he hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek (which I accepted, despite feeling queasy).

Now, I know I can’t be giving 60 bucks to everyone who begs from me (though I usually give something). But while the details of this particular mercy are not sustainable, the posture and the intent can be if I stay connected to communities that support me in it. Which is one of the reasons I go to church. I don’t know if there’s a god, but I know what it feels like to love and be loved back, and I know I feel like a better version of myself when I lean into that. And I also know that I need mercy every bit as much as the guy I had coffee with today.

Like Mary Gauthier sings:

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
And every single one of us could use some mercy now.

Like the rabbi says, “Go and do likewise.”

Apocalypse How Now Brown Cow

PW and I have been talking a lot about dark matter, dark energy, the Higgs boson, stuff like that. We like to pretend we’re theoretical physicists, being the thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies that we are.

And behold! We’re at the Winter Solstice, the day of the longest night in the Northern Hemisphere. Bazillions of folks who don’t care (or even know) what the Mayan calendar says about any other day of the year are suddenly going on about the end of the world. I bet the folks in the Southern Hemisphere can’t wait for our world to end so we’ll quit our bellyaching about all this darkness.

I have to say, I’m a fan of the darkness. Don’t get me wrong; I’m right there, complaining about how few hours of daylight there are; I can’t wait for more daylight hours. And. This morning–as I was walking to the bus in the close and cloudy damp, through the wind that was blowing everywhichaway, playing chicken with the occasional burst of raindrops–I thought, “Come on, darkness. I’ll dance with you.” Maybe that’s what happens when you get into one of those theoretical physicist grooves.

Once I was safely planted in my plastic bus seat for my commute into the big city, I decided I should share a few Solsice-y things with my Crooked Liners.

First, did you know that the “cataclysmic event” definition of the word “apocalypse” is a modern invention? I didn’t. The word originates from the Greek apokalyptein, which means “uncover, disclose, reveal.” Its general sense in Middle English was “insight, vision, hallucination.” I copied that from etymonline.com, so you know it’s true. Couldn’t we all use a little more insight and vision, maybe a GOOD hallucination or two? And isn’t it possible that some of the best insights and visions come to us under cover of darkness? I just re-read those two questions in a voice that parodies how Mike Wallace asked questions on 60 Minutes, and I encourage you to do the same.

The second thing I want to share with you is this excerpt from a poem by Yehuda Amichai. I’m willing to forgive his notion of God as male, because the ideas here are so refreshing:

from the poem “Gods Change, Prayers are Here to Stay”
by Yehuda Amichai
from the book Open Closed Open: Poems

I don’t want an invisible god. I want a god who is seen
but doesn’t see, so I can lead him around
and tell him what he doesn’t see. And I want
a god who sees and is seen. I want to see
how he covers his eyes, like a child playing blindman’s bluff.

I want a god who is like a window I can open
so I’ll see the sky even when I’m inside.
I want a god who is like a door that opens out, not in,
but God is like a revolving door, which turns, turns on its hinges
in and out, whirling and turning
without a beginning, without an end.

I declare with perfect faith
that prayer preceded God.
Prayer created God,
God created human beings,
human beings create prayers
that create the God that creates human beings.

That poem just changed revolving doors for me

Third, I stumbled across this Rose Cousins song yesterday. The chorus of “The Darkness” is from Wendell Berry’s beautiful little meditation on darkness.

To Know The Dark
by Wendell Berry

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

I think Wendell Berry would be pleased with what Rose Cousins has made of his poem. Happy Solstice to all, and to all a dark, apocalyptic night–in the original sense of the word.

Plea. Gift. Sign.

It’s my turn to offer up some thoughts about Advent and/or Christmas music, as part of a blog chain started by my pal Harriet the Spy. Here are the other links in  this blog chain:

Harriet at spynotes
Hugh at Permanent qui vive
Jeanne at Necromancy never pays
Cranky at It’s My Blog!
Dr. Geek at Dr. Geek’s Laboratory
Lemming at Lemming’s Progress
Readersguide at Reader’s Guide to…
Freshhell at Life in Scribbletown
edj3 at kitties kitties kitties
My Kids’ Mom at Pook and Bug
Yours truly
Magpie at Magpie Musing
Dave at The Ideal Dave
and then Harriet at spynotes will do a wrap-up

I love being in the company of such a groovy group of writers and thinkers, and I’m a little baffled at how I stumbled into this gang. I hope you’ll go read their blogs if you don’t know about them already. There’s very cool stuff happening out here in Internetville.

The Little Drummer Boy
How much have I always hated this song? Let me count the ways. Nah, rather than count, I will tell you that I have hated this song with the intensity of a thousand supernovas, ever since I can remember. For a host of reasons, this song has always been like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. Until a couple of years ago.

In 2010, PW’s friend Ana Hernandez released an album of Advent and Christmas music called “An Unexpected Christmas,” in which Ana’s arrangements of some familiar songs, as well as some original work, are sung by the Virginia Girls Choir from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA.

The first track on this album is The Little Drummer Boy. Cue Joybells’ rolled eyes, the “Oh geez, I can’t believe they’re beginning the album with THAT!” I had my finger hovering over the fast forward button, but then this unfolded:

I love the layers of percussion, with Ana’s tight harmonies shimmering above. And mostly I love the persistent minor-key-ness of it. And now it’s an earworm that I welcome.

Once in Royal David’s City

Yeah, yeah, this is an old holiday chestnut. Except when it cracks you open as if YOU are the nut.

At PW’s previous church, I sang in the choir–mostly tenor. Five years ago was the last midnight Christmas Eve service for PW and me, before we moved on to Emmanuel Church. So it was already emotionally loaded for me.

The music director, A, and his wife, L (who was also the soprano soloist for the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City) had a six-month-old baby girl at the time. As the choir was lining up in the hallway outside the sanctuary getting ready to process, L was trying to get Baby E to fall asleep before the service started. It was late and E was so tired she was cross-eyed. But there was a lot of energy in the hallway, and she just couldn’t get over the edge into sleep.

As the organ prelude began to wind down, I told L, “Just give me the baby. You’ve got to go sing that gorgeous solo. We can’t start without that.” So L put her restless daughter in my arms and I threw a blanket over E’s to try to reduce her visual stimuli.

I found my place in the line and bounced E in my arms (that always worked with GForce, before she got to be six feet tall!) Then from the back of the sanctuary, L began to sing that soaring melody, unaccompanied: “Once in Royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed…” By the time she got to the second line of the hymn, her voice hovering over our heads in the hallway, E was limp–sound asleep in my arms.

As the choir began to process in on the second verse, I tweaked that gorgeous tenor line by singing to E, “She came down to earth from heaven…” We sang and processed slowly through the candlelit sanctuary, and the baby slept through the whole thing. I sang my heart out, tears welling up and then spilling over. And as I looked at the congregation, most of the people I saw were also weeping. Afterwards, people asked me if we had staged it, my carrying the baby during the procession. But, in a distillation of one of the messages of the Christmas story, what began as a purely practical solution became an entirely magical moment, and now I can’t hear or sing that song without remembering the weight of slumbering possibility in my arms.

The Infant King (Sing Lullaby)

In the weeks leading up to that same service where I processed carrying the sleeping baby, I made a CD of all the songs we were going to be singing so that I could practice in the car. I had never sung “The Infant King (Sing Lullaby)” before, and I was a little worried because every time I practiced it I couldn’t get through it without crying.

Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now reclining,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Angels are watching, stars are shining
Over the place where he is lying.
Sing lullaby!

So far so good in terms of the lyrics, but the intertwining of the parts is so evocative for me. The first verse is an exquisite set-up for the heartbreak that sneaks up in the second verse. The first verse is such a great musical and lyrical painting of this moment: it’s the wee hours of the middle of the night after I’ve just given birth to GForce, and the nurse has brought her to me, wrapped tighter than a burrito, after they’ve taken her to the nursery to bathe and swaddle her. And it’s just the two of us. She’s sleeping. I’m staring at her. Will I ever sleep again? Do I even care? Look at what I made! Everything’s all “La la la happy happy happy.” And then the second verse comes along like a sucker punch.

Sing lullaby!
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
Then in the grave at last reposing:
Sing lullaby!

The first time we read this through in rehearsal, I thought, “WHAT?! We’re singing THIS on Christmas EVE?? Nails? Piercing? Can’t we celebrate the miracle of birth for more than 30 seconds before we move on to humiliation and execution?” But isn’t that exactly how it is with parenting? Bliss and abject fear intertwine. As soon as you bring a child into your life, you set yourself up for a lifetime of this. It’s maybe the only love affair we have where, if we’re doing it well, we’re getting our hearts broken over and over again. And, perversely, we hope that we get to live for decades with this parental bliss and fear.

Sing lullaby!
Lullaby! is the babe a-waking?
Sing lullaby!
Hush, do not stir the Infant King.
Dreaming of Easter, gladsome morning,
Conquering Death, its bondage breaking:
Sing lullaby!

I love the melody and harmonies of this carol so much that my theological disagreements with the specifics of its lyrics are irrelevant. This carol is the distillation of my journey to becoming a Christian. For me, worrying about whether anything in scripture [f]actually happened is completely missing the point. What matters to me is the arc of these ancient stories. The details don’t have to be factual for the arc to be fundamentally true. Any storyteller worth her or his salt knows this. And the arc of scripture bends toward redeeming Love. Relentlessly.

The arc of this carol is the same as the arc of what it means to me to be both human and Christian: we begin with the wonder of birth (of life, of a dream, of an idea, of hope), to the crushing of dreams that is death (not just physical death, but any humiliation, brutal defeat, exhausted resignation, senseless violence), to the resilience and redemption of Love, which never lets death have the final word. Never.

I’m writing this on Sunday night, after watching President Obama address the community of Newtown, CT, the latest town torn apart by a mass shooting. I’m writing this a week after hearing of the sudden death of a long-time friend, mentor, and colleague of PW’s and mine. I feel “hemmed in by death,” as PW described it to a friend early last week, days before Newtown became shorthand for unspeakable violence and loss.

And yet.

I watched a video Saturday night of one of the parents of a six-year-old girl who was killed in Newtown. Here’s one view of how Love conquers “death, its bondage breaking.” I urge you to watch the entire thing, if you haven’t seen it already.

Connecticut Shooting Tragedy: Robbie Parker | Video – ABC News

I’m going to let the brilliant poet, Christina Rossetti, have the last word here. I couldn’t find a choral rendition of this carol that I liked, so I’m going with Shawn Colvin’s version. That’s like settling for Paradise instead of Nirvana. This carol’s beauty can mask the urgency of its rousing charge. It’s not a lullaby; it’s a commission: Whatever we do, don’t miss any opportunity to testify to Love. There will always be senseless violence and brokenness in the world. There can never be too much Love. Let Love and Beauty be our tokens. May Love and Beauty bloom wherever we are–as plea, gift, and sign.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and [all of us]
Love for plea and gift and sign.