Monthly Archives: December 2012

Updated for Christmas, Day 6: the call of the wild goose!

A Plate Full of Crazy

(If you are catching up, please see the original post, and the first four days of Christmas, here.  You can read Days 9-12 here.)

Christmas, Day 8–Happy New Year as well!–even on New Year’s Day, those eight maids must go a-milking. Because cows won’t wait.milkmaids

In the more agrarian society of the carol writers, it was often the case that the locations of churches were determined by how far they were in walking distance from the farms and barns where cows would need regular milking–even on the Sabbath.  It was not until a dairy herd was imported to the Jamestown Colony in the early 1700s that the colonists really began to thrive; in the words of the 19th century essayist William Cobbett: “When you have a cow, you have it all.” (Ron Schmid, Green Living Journal).

There are many biblical references to milk:  the Old Testament promise…

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12 Days of Christmas (a devotional, Days 5-8)

(If you are catching up, please see the original post, and the first four days of Christmas, here.  You can read Days 9-12 here.)

Christmas, Day 8–Happy New Year as well!–even on New Year’s Day, those eight maids must go a-milking. Because cows won’t wait.milkmaids

In the more agrarian society of the carol writers, it was often the case that the locations of churches were determined by how far they were in walking distance from the farms and barns where cows would need regular milking–even on the Sabbath.  It was not until a dairy herd was imported to the Jamestown Colony in the early 1700s that the colonists really began to thrive; in the words of the 19th century essayist William Cobbett: “When you have a cow, you have it all.” (Ron Schmid, Green Living Journal).

There are many biblical references to milk:  the Old Testament promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, for example; in the New Testament, Paul uses the image to describe how he provides instruction to those new in the faith:  giving them “milk to drink, not solid food, because you weren’t ready.” (1 Cor. 3:12)  Milk thus often signifies spiritual blessing and the nurturing care of God for his people.

On this New Year’s day, remember that God is nurturing and blessing you, even now.

Christmas, Day 7–oh dear. Here’s another one where there’s so little helpful mention in the Bible:  Leviticus and Deuteronomy both list the poor swan among the unclean birds of kashrut, or kosher laws.  No one could or should eat them. But that’s about it.  This explains why I won’t be asking my sweet baboo to pass the roast swan!

Merry Christmas.

More helpful, perhaps, are their long symbolic associations in mythology, which certainly would have been known to the carol writer:  prophecy (especially of death); royalty; music and poetry; fertility and fidelity (they mate for life); the bridging of the eternal and the mortal worlds.  Thus, “seven swans a-swimming” would focus into one beautiful image: seven-swans

  • the creative arts that flow from the celebration
  • the blessedly fertile womb of Mary
  • the fidelity of Joseph
  • the kingship of Jesus
  • the divinely perfect nature of the holy child
  • the perfectly human nature of the holy child (and that divide forever bridged)
  • and the prophecies that hover over both His birth–and His death.

Consider the swan.  Consider its gifts and its graces.

Merry Christmas, indeed.

Christmas, Day 6–“as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.” Isaiah 10:14

This one was a bit of a stretch, as there are not any mentions of geese themselves, and not too many of eggs! Eggs have a rich history of biblical symbolism–the womb, the tomb–but all is apocryphal and not really based in scripture.  In Jewish tradition, the closed shell of an intact egg becomes a symbol of mourning, as it signifies the mouth of the mourner, closed in grief. And of course, the roasted egg of the Seder plate serves as part of the ritual remembrance of the night of the Passover.

Wild_GeeseI am particularly intrigued, though–since we’re being all symbolic and apocryphal–by the Celtic church’s image of the wild goose as Holy Spirit.  Early Christians in the northern lands drew all kinds of spiritual lessons from these wild creatures, moving purposefully on paths in the air, paths only they could see.

Preachers love to preach on the lessons of the wild geese.  Communal, mutually supportive, watchful seekers of justice who pursue the unseen call home, wild geese are a lovely object lesson. They serve as the guiding image for the Wild Goose Festival, an annual gathering of  contemporary Christians seeking to find a new way for, a new conversation within the Church by evoking their characteristics of “unpredictability, beauty, and grace”.

I, however, am reminded of some traumatic times during my college years, when the walk between the dining hall and my first lecture was a gauntlet of terror: migratory geese had settled on campus for their nesting, with their favorite nursery spot right along the very route I needed to take to get to class.   For birds clearly out of their normal seasonal homes, they were fabulously, terrifying territorial, defensive giants with wings and beaks and a raging claxon honk . . .

Those were my sprinting years.

Let today’s image from the old carol remind you of the powerful movements of the Holy Spirit in your own experience–bringing new life, protecting and guiding you–calling you, always, towards home.

5RingsChristmas, Day 5–“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Luke 15:22

There are golden rings in the Bible that signal authority:  Pharaoh places his signet ring on Joseph as a sign both of royal favor and the extension of his power to the young dreamteller.  People will argue about the purpose and scriptural nature (or not) of wedding rings.
Always they represent wealth and status.  But this verse, part of the beloved and (when read closely) deeply troubling parable of the Prodigal Son, speaks to the conferral of sonship by a father.

The younger brother has demanded that his inheritance be given to him early.  In the social structure of the time, he has essentially declared openly his wish that his father were dead–you’re lingering too long, old man, fork it over now.  The father complies, and waits. Does he know from experience or the wisdom of long observation that his rebellious son’s new wealth will bring him no happiness?  We don’t know.  He watches the road, and waits.Prodigal

And after long months, he sees a familiar figure on the road–beaten down, haggard, broken–no longer proud–his son.  Though the young man has rejected the ties of family, separating himself in a way that violates them both, the older man has continued to regard him during this long absence as his son.

An embrace, a kiss; a robe, a ring.  And then the feast.

So may it be for us.


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Shortchanging Christmas?

I have written before about the disappearance of the season of holy waiting that is Advent.  In making it my intention to observe the Advent season, I cannot help but notice how quickly Christmas, once it comes, is unwrapped, cleared away, swept up, and put in storage for next year.twelvebanner

Whatever happened to the Twelve Days of Christmas?

Interestingly, many people employ that familiar old song as a countdown to Christmas, starting mid-December or so.  But really, it is intended to begin on Christmas Day, with each day of gifts becoming more and more extravagant, for twelve days until . . . oh, what’s this?  it ends on January 5, the day before Epiphany?  You’d think someone had planned it that way!

Ummmm,  yeah.

It’s not really anyone’s fault in particular:  many churches in America and around the world have detached themselves from the traditional liturgical calendar which marks seasons and days of remembrance within the life of the church itself.  And many people outside the church celebrate Christmas–if they celebrate it at all–merely as a secular holiday of Santas and tinsel and party clothes and food.  And stuff.  Lots and lots of stuff wrapped up in bright paper.  Credit card debt, five extra pounds, and a partridge in a pear treeEverybody sing!!

For me, though, a Christmas disconnected from its historical, liturgical roots is a diminished, sorry thing, something made frivolous and fleeting.  I don’t have time for that, me and my crazyplate life.  I’d pack it up quickly, too, if that were all Christmas was about.  Heck, I might not even bother with it to begin with!

But I do have time–will make time–for a central mystery of our faith. Mystery. Something hidden from view until God reveals it in its time. Like a beautifully-wrapped gift.  Like a babe in the womb.

Frankly, twelve days is not long enough to wrap my head, or my heart, around this one: how the One who shaped the universe, who with a word sprang light and oceans and the grandeur of the stars and the struggling-for-breath mud of my little life into being, would choose to enter that life himself, walk alongside me.

My heart is not big enough to contain it.  The days are too short and too few to speak of it. An eternity might suffice, but twelve days?

Well, we have to start somewhere.

So I’ve been writing a little each day, considering and reconnecting the gifts given in that much-loved carol to scripture, and to the extended observation of Christmas which the season–the mystery–deserves.  Will you walk with me through Christmastide?

Christmas, Day 1–this day stands on its own!–NOW you may begin singing The Twelve Days of Christmas. We’ve enjoyed the partridge-ey one; now for the rest, one by one. Christmas teaches both patience and extravagance in love, no?  Next up: two turtledoves!

Christmas, Day 2–“The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” Song of Solomon 2:12

Lovely to think about spring approaching, especially today when all is snow and ice. Lovely to think about singing at any time, but especially lovely to think of a “time of singing”, when song becomes speech, worship, loving, connection. Lovely to listen for the Beloved’s voice over the chaos and monkeymind.


Christmas, Day 3– ” . . . how often I have longed to gather you together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings . . . ” Luke 13:34

My dad raised chickens on our little farm in Arkansas–endlessly entertaining birds, which was good, since we had only two or three TV channels coming in over our aerial antenna! I could watch them for hours, and laugh my head off at their squabbles, competition for bugs (and the rooster’s attention), and clumsy attempts at flight.

Things got deadly serious in the chicken coop, though, when the shadows of wings passed overhead. A few sharp clucks, and all the little ones knew to run to Momma. She would hunker down and spread out her wings, and her brood would run underneath. One steely eye to the heavens, and the message was clear: “Don’t mess with my babies!”

I love images of God that include the feminine experience: babes at breast, cradled tenderly in the palm of His hand, the mother in the stable–weeping at the foot of the cross. Today’s image, though, is more fierce than tender, a mother to be reckoned with: the hen gathering her chicks for protection against imminent danger.

As we continue to celebrate Christmas, and approach a new year either with dread or with hope, we can know that God as mother hen is watching over us, offering us a place of refuge.

Christmas, Day 4–“Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them.” Luke 12:24

This one takes a bit of explanation. The 4th Day of Christmas line that we commonly sing–“four calling birds”–is actually a bit of a muddling over the years of the actual line, “four colly birds”. A colly bird is the colloquial name for the European blackbird–perhaps four of the four-and-twenty who will later be baked into pies? (Did I lose you right there?)  There weren’t a whole lot of European blackbirds in Judea and points east back in the day, but there were many mentions of their larger cousins, the raven.

Ravens did not have a good reputation; because they are part of nature’s “clean-up crew” of carrion birds such as buzzards and vultures, they have often been considered omens of evil to come. So why would Jesus mention the raven at all?

Perhaps to emphasize that God is not just for the fortunate and lovely among us–the sparrows and the lilies, if you like. Each of us, no matter how commonplace or off-putting or unwelcome, has a purpose, and work to do. Even a baby born to nobodies, to common folk–an unwed teenage mother, a scared young carpenter in a barn. Even the raven was given holy purpose: Noah used one to seek out dry land, and God sent the raven to feed Elijah in exile.

God makes provision, makes a place at the table, for all. Should we not do the same, this 4th day of Christmastide?

To be continued . . .


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For the Turning of the Year

ImageThis Friday, December 28, will be the final full moon of the year:  the Full Cold Moon, or Long Night’s Moon, as named in native tradition. As has become tradition for me, I will be walking a labyrinth under the full moon: to reflect upon the good this year has brought, and to release what has been painful or unfulfilled.

Walking the labyrinth regularly and intentionally throughout the year has become an important part of my spiritual life, and never more important than at the turning of year.  The singular, circling path makes tangible the many cyclical ways our lives run:  the cycle of seasons, the round of months and moons that return regularly–always the same, always different. The path I will walk on Friday is the same path I have walked in months past–and yet because my heart is full of new questions and experiences, it will somehow be a brand new path.

A year ago, I returned home from the Full Cold Moon labyrinth with a poem circling in my head.  I had embarked the previous December on an ambitious and terrifying attempt at changing my health and life for the better–and indeed, the year had seen me through many, many changes.  I walked that path at the end of 2011 in absolute wonder and gratitude for the encouragement and love of my family, and for the strength to change that seemed to have come from somewhere–from some higher or deeper source than my puny, fearful spirit.

The changes have continued into 2012, and I look back upon the year with the same gratitude.

For those whose lives have changed dramatically–for those who yearn for but see no hope of change–for all those who face the turning of the year with dread, or with hope, I offer it here again.

Year’s End Moon

I saw the circle of this passing year reflected tonight,
bright-face, in the Long Night Moon–

saw its meandering steps traced in that sacred path, lined
in stone and light trembling through endless turnings, passages–

saw at each turning the choice–the fear–the dark corridor
where failure’s familiar chuckling voice waited in welcome.

But my feet know a different dance at the turning of this year.
Sister Moon witnessed my steps tonight: at first hesitant,

then stronger as memories carried me, surer as I moved
from strength to strength, smiling up into her brilliant light.

I am, and am not, she who stepped into the circle a year ago–
a new song sings me now into the dance, under the full cold moon.

tls-Dec 2011

Friends, where has this passing year taken you?  Where will the path in the turning of the year lead you?

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Challenges and Motivation

Did I mention that I was never the athletic type?  Somewhere in the shoe boxes full of photos of my childhood, there is one of me as an infant, a cloth diaper and a smile my only clothes.  I hope that photo stays lost, because the last time I saw it, my eyes slammed shut to protect themselves:  I was a BIG baby.  I grew up chubby and stayed chubby, even when I used that word as a euphemism for what I really was in my head, and, increasingly, on the outside as well:  obese.

But I did have some moments:

I remember a footrace that all the kids in my second or third grade were taking part in, setting off across a broad Texas field behind our school.  I had that feeling you get in dreams sometimes–I love this feeling!–when your feet have wings, and you can just run forever and never get winded.  I should clarify:  I had this feeling for the first half of the race when I was running ahead of everyone! But then I got to the turn, saw everyone coming up behind me, and lost some of my steam.  I didn’t win the race, but I sure never forgot that feeling of running so freely in first place!

That sweetness had to spread over a lot of years.

I also have a lovely memory of hauling hay one summer with my dad, a small farmer in Arkansas where I was a teenager.  Usually my older brothers were his workers, but they had both headed out to start their own lives, and there was just me left behind.  Despite his disappointment in having “just a girl” to help him, he loaded us up and headed out to the field.  Imagine the surprise both of us felt when I managed to keep up with him, bale for bale, throughout that long hot day and night.  I wrote this memory into a poem that has been well received and published in a couple of places.  If you’re into poetry, please read and see if you can feel the pride I felt at being strong that day.

One last:  I spent a senior semester abroad at the University of Salford, England, and I walked.  And walked and walked and walked.  That was one of my  healthiest semesters in college, and I loved the fact that I didn’t need to worry about bus schedules, cab fares, train tickets or waiting on someone else–shoes on and out the door I went, and England was my map!  Very fond memories of walking the Lake District, walking the ancient wall of the city of York, walking past Morris dancers and children, walking into my favorite tea and book and chip shops, walking to class, walking home–walking just to breathe in, drink in this whole new life.

So I’ve been reconnecting to these long-buried memories of health and exercise and strength in recent months, and I’ve come to realize that I am highly motivated by challenges.  The challenge of beating all the other kids.  Being as strong as my brothers, and sufficient to a very big task.  Being independent and curious and sufficient on my own in a new country.  It just seems to make something go “click” in my head, and my body seems to follow.

So I’ve begun to take on some training challenges in my kettlebell work as well.  In November, for example, I had two challenges going on simultaneously:

  • Josh Hillis’s 21-Day Kettlebell Swing Challenge–21 consecutive days of nothing but kettlebell swings in various combinations and progressions.  Oh, there’s some bodyweight work as warm-up/cool-down–lunges, push-ups, planks.  But mainly I swung.  A lot.  I needed a chance to focus on some corrections in my swing, and this challenge was perfect to let me do that.
  • Kettlebell Inc.’s 3000-Burpee Challenge–100 burpees a day for the 30 days of November, 3000 in all.  This took some planning and dedication, lemme tell you.  I ended up loving burpees.  Who knew?

So, all done, now it’s going on mid-December.  What am I doing?

Yes, I know.  I’m nuts.  I’m not sure I’m going to survive this one, but we’ll see.  It’s fun, it’s healthy competition with others, and again, it allows me to focus on one or two really foundational movements.  As a relative newcomer to health, strength, and kettlebells, I need and appreciate that intense focus.

It also saves me from succumbing to the temptation–all the rage in some corners–to engage daily in “acts of random variety”, as one strength coach has famously warned.  Focus on core moves that engage large groups of muscles–get the technique right to stay safe–get stronger.

Sounds like a pretty good prescription for getting and staying healthy, now that I think about it.

Go strong, friends.

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