A sermon preached at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC
January 5, 2014
When I began my first year at seminary, it was as a religiously wounded young person who had been spiritually mistreated throughout my youth and young adulthood, in the same way that I imagine many of us in this congregation have been. When I was in high school, my personal salvation had been linked to all kinds of things: I must not drink, I must not be pro-choice, I must not have sex before marriage (in fact I really should not even kiss before marriage), and God forbid that I might come out as queer. During my sophomore year, one of my teachers told the only Jewish student in school, in front of 30 other students, that she would go to Hell if she did not “accept Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior.” To this day, I shake to remember the abuse of power and the anti-semitism inherent to my teacher’s action.
To be clear: there were many things that were perfectly nice about my high school experience, and I also remember parts of those years as more nuanced than the broad strokes with which I’m painting now. But what I felt, I know to be true. And I felt confused and hurt by many of the teachings endorsed by those in leadership at my school. And, despite my misgivings, the psychological, social, and spiritual consequences of challenging these teachings proved to be too stressful for my teenaged self. I feared the wrath of God. So I believed what I needed to believe; I said what I needed to say, and I hoped it would be enough to help me escape the fiery confines of Hell – which, others assured me, was a very real place.
By the time I arrived at seminary, I had done enough processing to know that none of these things would condemn me to an eternity in Hell – I even knew that there were reasonable Christians who doubted Hell’s existence altogether! Nevertheless, on my first day at seminary, I told people that I was “culturally Lutheran” – but I couldn’t quite bring myself to carry the identity of “Christian”. Unable to make sense of how to rectify the pain of my adolescence, I had six months earlier left Christianity behind in frustration and anger, telling myself I was only going to seminary as an academic pursuit.
And yet, by the end of the semester, although I could not yet identify it, and wouldn’t for years to come – and although I could not interpret it, and although I did not know from whence it came, still I knew that a star called to me from out of the deep. And I felt deeply compelled to follow it.
We humans have long been taken with the night sky, searching for answers in the patterns of the stars’ passing, or traversing the oceans with the north star as our faithful guide. We read our horoscopes (albeit with varying degrees of seriousness), predicated by the locations of the constellations at a given moment in time. We tell futuristic stories with characters who are pioneers on space’s next frontier, and we catapult our astronauts and galactic machinery to places like Mars, and the Moon.
The stars hold so much mystery for us, and yet we are surrounded by them. We are hemmed in, crowded, enfolded by all the questions and ideas and possibilities the universe has to offer.
Perhaps for this reason it is something of a shame that our story of the wise men and the star has lost some of its original context. Christian tradition determined long after the time of Matthew that there were three wise men, and that in fact they were kings, named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Lovely though the story may be, the Magi were not kings but royal priests thought to come from Persia, in the East, and they were often advisors to kings and leaders. They were dream-interpreters, sages, teachers, and yes – they were followers of the stars.
Richard Horsley, author of The Liberation of Christmas, claims that the Magi were figures of religio-political importance in the ancient middle east, known for their wisdom, but also for their political role in affirming or denying divine support for a king. The Christmas story we tell – of the Magi’s recognition of the infant King of the Jews in the time of Herod – is at once a political story of rejecting the onerous and oppressive rule of Rome, AND it is a profoundly religious story of reading the symbolism in the night sky and following the star to Bethlehem.
Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong adds his voice to the mix on the topic of the magi. Like Horsley, he says rather than focusing on whether the story of the star and the magi are historically or literally true, as readers of the text we ought to seek rather the truths inherent to the story. In doing so, Spong points to the use of the Jewish literary tradition known as midrash, which expounds upon Biblical stories, often filling in gaps in the storyline, and bringing new meanings to familiar ideas and motifs.
For example, the author of Matthew may have been using midrash when constructing the story of the Magi and the star. By inserting the Magi into the story – these mysterious teachers from a faraway nation – Matthew made new today’s prophetic text, Isaiah 60, which prophesies all nations being drawn to the light of God. Similarly, Matthew gave reference to texts like Numbers 22, which tells the story of a seer from the East who sees the star of David at its rising. The recasting of these familiar stories within a new context was never intended to be understood as literally true. Instead, it was a literary tool, employed to convey a meaning about the world as it should be: a world free of oppression, a world in which love abounds, a world in which an equal number of stars carpets all of our skies.
Knowing what we do about the Magi, I like to think of them not as followers of just one star, but as perpetual star-chasers. What dreams, and whose dreams, had these Magi divined before discovering this infant, Jesus? What mysteries unfolded in their minds as they gazed up into the star-studded sky? And as they departed along their way, what new star guided their path?
The gleaming star of Bethlehem represents so much more than a pretty story. Depending on how the story is told, if we are lucky, the star can be the voice of God, calling us to the place where human life encounters the Divine;
Or, depending on how the story is told, the Star may also be portrayed as the single beacon of truth leading all of humanity to one and only path to salvation.
That might not sound so bad, unless you overlay it with memories like I have from high school, or other experiences you might have had in your life. For those of us who identify as inclusive or progressive Christians, we often struggle with the knowledge that some parts of our tradition intentionally, even hatefully, exclude others. We struggle with the categories of “saved” and “unsaved” – perhaps we might even wonder where we would fall on the spectrum. Certainly I am Christian. But do I “accept Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior?”
The question reads more as a cultural signifier than a confession of faith.
And so we are presented with more questions: What does it mean to be Christian today? Who is it that we say we are, and how should we communicate that identity to others? What role does the title “Christian” assign to us – in what ways does it restrict us, and in what ways does it release us to be who it is that we say we are?
The answers to these questions are as varied as the stars in the sky. Each one can lead us to a infinite number of places, to magnetic black holes and cream milky ways and gleaming northern lights. One could get lost amidst the deep.
And yet, here we sit, all together, on this very frigid January morning. The temperature today will not make it above zero, and school is cancelled statewide tomorrow because it’s so cold. Our church has no parking lot, and exposed skin can get frostbite in less than ten minutes in these temperatures – and still – here we are, gathered together today.
What star compelled you here this morning?
Was it the star of hope, that small but steady flare that rises early in the twilight, climbs high into the atmosphere, and does not fade ‘til dawn?
Or was it the star of grief? That star which originates in a big bang!, streaking hot across the sky, pummeling downward with breakneck speed until it settles – but never coming fully to rest?
Was it the constellation of community, which weaves its graceful dance across the night, twinkling like a cluster of festive flames across the universe?
Or was it the star of wonder, peering out from the darkest depth of the most velvet black, the light of it having traversed millions of miles and eons of years to find its way, right here, right now, to shine down on just
For our lives our rife and ripe with a vast carpet of stars. They are beyond us and behind us and within us and between us, each one glinting a clandestine whisper of love.
Like the Magi of the East, the stars we chase are multiple. There is not only one star in the Universe, waiting ominously to be discovered. No, there are infinite quantities of constellations, each with its own meaning as they splash their way through the night.
The stars lead us to each other. They lead us to the Sacred. The stars lead us home.
Five years ago, in the first winter of our relationship, I knit my lover a pair of mittens.
They were perfect.
I bought the wool, hand-spun, from a vendor at our Farmer’s Market on Broadway in New York City. It was a blustery October day, and I bought more of that grey yarn than I needed. And so began the meticulous process of crafting something for the one you love: Edging the gloves with a simple ribbing, two by two. Making them fingerless, with a top that flipped down. Fastening on antique leather buttons. Inside one of the flaps, I sewed a tag, upon which was neatly printed, “Handmade by Alison J. Killeen.”
He loved them, and even better, he used them. Over the years, predictably, they began to wear. The neat little slit in the thumbs, meant for texting and for pulling out his metro card, was the first to go. And so I unraveled the tops of the thumbs and re-knit them, reinforcing them with a stronger thread. But it was an impermanent solution. The palms wore thin, first from grasping at railings on the train, and later, the steering wheel of the car. Moths munched on their edges while they sat idle in summer. Last winter, they found their final days as the thumb slits tore again and unraveled before I took care to mend them, my lover’s triangle-tipped thumbs exposed to the cold.
This fall, five years later, using what was left of the hardy grey wool, I knit him a second pair of mittens, almost identical to the first. Perhaps it was sentimental, but before we discarded them, we held a little ritual for the first pair in our kitchen. I held the mittens in my hands, and my lover held my hands in his. Together, we spoke of the warmth they had provided to the wearer, of what objects they had held between their palms, of all the coffee spills they had endured. As we examined the wear and tear the years had brought to these woolen miracles, they began to whisper of all that has lapsed since we first found one another.
It seems to me that time passes so illegibly. Despite our best attempts to keep things just as they are, in the end, we are helpless to the powers of the universe: to gravity, to change, to chaos, to love.
Most years in November I settle in for the long winter, reveling in my double-pointed needles and indigo-blue dusks. I cut the nights with candlelight, quell the snow with stardust, calm the cold with steaming hot tea.
But this year has been different. This year not only have the nights been long, but my heart is long as well, stretched low as an anchor grazing the bottom of the sea. For whatever reason, though no one close to me has been in danger, I am feeling the losses around me more keenly. A friend’s husband dies, then another, and another. Yet another friend’s mother is slowly losing her battle with cancer. A loved one struggles with addiction. Relationships around me disintegrate and break. And the dark blue night thickens, exposing a bruised and ashen world.
Then last Friday, in Newtown, Connecticut, a gunman overtook sweet Sandy Hook Elementary School, and like the rest of the country I am blindsided. I am struck dumb by the absence of mercy, by the presence of carnage, by the hot iron of an expired rifle, the tiny bodies riddled with bullets, the silence and the sobs, the blood, the innocence, the flesh, the grief.
Time trods on. The night expands. A star moves across the deep. Our hearts break, our worlds implode, and we are left to ask: what will come of this?
Part of the pain of tragedy is the need we humans have to seek out the meaning in suffering. As one who finds little existential comfort in “eternal life”, I look for a way to make meaning of what is happening in the here and the now. Even a father who believes his child will live on in paradise might not be comforted by his belief. The child is still gone, and he is still left to sift through what to make of a world in which 20-year-old men kill six-year-old girls, and nineteen other children, besides.
In the face of such tragedy, even hope at times is too much to ask. It is too much to petition grief to turn about so sharply, to reverse the path of mourning, to wait for hope, to hope for life.
No, I want mending of a more earthly kind. As a knitter darns a tear, as a physician sutures a wound, so must we go about the process of grief. Slowly and methodically we go, taking care to don the thimble and pin the fabric. Perhaps we set down our work for a time and come back another day. Perhaps we rip it out and start again. We work, knowing our piece will never be as whole as it was when it was new. We work, knowing that it will be prone to tearing again, even in the same spot in which we mend. But the thread and needle must keep working, ever tenderly, slowly onwards, if our hearts are ever to beat again.
The deepest, bluest night of the year is but days away. With the winter solstice will come the shifting of our planet’s tilt, a change so incremental we will hardly notice it, but it will be massive in its power. Such a tiny step lengthens the day by mere minutes, but it has the power to alter the seasons, to melt ice and ignite fire, turn branch to leaf, seed to sprout. Yes, we will hardly notice it. But its shift will lay the groundwork for our whole world to change.
I don’t know how the parents and children of Newtown will fare in the coming days and years, and what awaits our country in the coming months is yet to be seen. What I do know is that our first task must be to tend to our grief, for by threading the needle, by tilting a twirling planet, we act out our trust that hope will return to us one day. Perhaps hope is found just in putting down that very first stitch.
So I turned 30 this year.
It was a lovely day. I slept in, kissed an apple-cheeked baby, ate good food, and spent the evening with friends. But after sleeping in, and before holding my best friend’s beautiful daughter, I walked out to my front porch with a cup of coffee, sat down to greet the morning rain, and I cried.
My tears confused me, because as far as I can tell, I’m not sad about getting older. I greet my thirties with mostly enthusiasm, knowing many undiscovered things await me in the next decade. But as the dawn of my life breaks to late-morning sunshine, I’m left to wonder: as new opportunities open up, which opportunities are closing to me?
Never again will I have the opportunity to be fascinated by fireflies, to turn cartwheels without turning my stomach, to live unconsciously in wonder of the world around me.
Childhood used to feel near at hand. Now it is more of a feeling than a memory.
That morning on the porch, I made a mental list of Things I Should Have By Now–now that I’ve breached the cusp of that 3-0 barrier. When I was 20, for example, I assumed that at 30, my life would have all the benefits of being A Real Adult. Of course I would have a husband, a house, a garden, perhaps even an apple-cheeked baby of my own.
But I don’t have any of those things. My life looks nothing like I would have expected it to at 20. I have a Master in Divinity and a churchy career. I rent a two-bedroom apartment. I hardly ever drink martinis (and they’re never dirty). But I do have a sweetly loving partner, a bright blue front porch, and a very cranky, very hilarious cat.
The last decade of my life I have lived in Quito and New York City, and I have visited Barcelona, Hong Kong, and Tromso. I have lived accomplishments and blunders, awkward encounters and transcendent moments. Life has provided me with a dramatic and privileged opportunity to glean all I possibly can from this world. How could I be disappointed by all that I have learned and experienced?
And yet, how could I not feel grief at the conclusion of such a decade of opulent discovery and reckless joy?
I do not fear the future, but I do mourn the loss of the present, of each moment as it passes. It skirts our grasp as we hold it.
(Perhaps the reason we have so much trouble staying in the present is because it is always leaving us, and because it takes so long to arrive.)
At the center of realizing that I am now 30 is the understanding that I will never be 12 again. And even though I am happy, sometimes all I want is to stare into the belly of a firefly and have no idea how it works, or how any of it works, and to be captured by the wonder of life
without consciously knowing that is it already passing me by.
there is not. enough. time. (is it really june 7? REALLY? really now.)
a visual summary of what’s been up with me in the past month:
We went back to New York. I stalked my old seminary (did any of you see me there? I was being shy. I’m sorry) and marveled that it’s been A YEAR since graduating. (not. enough. TIME!) We ate the $26 burger (not as good as expected), ate again the shake shack burgers (perhaps better than remembered?), walked old haunts, shadowed our former lives, reminisced. It felt familiar, comfortable, sweet, easy. The trip eased my fears about our having left New York a year ago: it’s still there, and still waiting for us.
I’ve started taking aerial arts (read: circus arts) classes, a four-week session in May-June, which has elicited interesting comments from everyone in my life from my boyfriend to my boss. Mostly people tend to be worried for my safety, and I can’t say I blame them… I’m not among the most graceful of people. But, in only two weeks, I’m already feeling tremendously stronger, and it’s jump-started new life into my running routine! Ever finding new projects, I’ve sketched out a little running plan for the next few months. We’ll see how that goes… we all know that I haven’t started anything even with worms yet.
I’ve quit coffee! Or, maybe I should say: I’ve started tea! For the past few years, I’ve only been able to drink coffee when laden with sugar, cream–anything to get that golden caffeine into my veins. Now, I’m not saying I won’t refuse a nice creamy cold press or dark mocha latte if offered, but the truth is, I’ve been consuming more cream than I think is healthy for one person. So I’m making my own iced tea, and I’m liking it.
Lastly, perhaps the main reason I’ve been neglecting this fair space more than usual is that I’ve been reading, one of the goals that I’ve set forth for myself. From Lolita to the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I’ve been reading a lot and enjoying it immensely. It’s a weird reaction that in reading more, which I’ve been doing in hopes of encouraging myself to write, I’m actually writing quite less. I’ll have to figure out a way to balance those two tensions.
Some more reflections, and a follow-up to some projects, to be posted soon!
It would be a kind of hell to select one memory only from the entirety of your life, to carry with you into eternity.
…which memory would YOU pick?
This seems the ultimate question in Hirozaku K0reeda’s 1998 film After Life. In the imagination of the movie, following death, people head to a kind of purgatory in which each person has three days to select one memory from life to carry with them into the after life. A pilot selects the image of puffy, two-tiered clouds suspended in sky as he glides past. A young girls picks a moment with her head in her mother’s lap, smelling of fresh laundry in the sunshine. An old man wants to remember an ordinary conversation with his wife on an ordinary day in the park.
Called “After Life” in the most pragmatic of ways, the title seems more like a contradiction in terms than a helpful tool in understanding the film. The purpose of the movie, it seems to me, is not to help the viewer think about his or her death (or afterlife), but rather how best to live one’s life. Accompanying me last night throughout watching the entire movie was the question: which memory would I choose? Would I select a hot summer day at my parent’s cabin, filled with childhood, bratwursts, algae-green water, sunbursts, grass-stains? What about the quiet evening walks that characterized my time living in Ecuador, a volcano leaning over my shoulder, and silver-lined clouds passing me by? Perhaps I might choose a moment of joyful, electric discovery in seminary, writing something ferociously in the quad in New York City?
And then: what do these memories say about us? Comprised together, who do they say that we are, what do they say about our lives, and what do they say about what (and whom) we value and care about the most?
So long as the movie is focused on memories, it is not making commentary on death. It’s purpose is to incite us to reflect upon life.
This weekend, I suppose, must have been intended to drive me to reflect on living life. I arrived to church this morning–late, as usual–just in time to listen to my pastor’s sermon, the centerpiece of which was a poem called A Blessing, by James Wright. Similar to many of the characters’ choices of memories in After Life, the poem creates meaning around that which is often experienced and interpreted as ordinary: dusk; a pair of ponies on the prairie; highway in Minnesota. This simple experience brings the narrator an undeterred joy: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”
What if this is what it means to live life well? I find it hard not to collapse into the well-worn rhapsodies of live life to the fullest and carpe diem and other stuff of legendary proportions. But if we are to believe Hirozaku Koreeda and James Wright, isn’t that a little beside the point?
I think each of them would say, in their own way, that if we spent every day living life to the absolute fullest, we would actually lose our worn, everyday beauties. These are not moments to be seized upon–they would be gone the moment they became intentional. The pieces of life that linger precious to us are those that are unconscious in their contentment; simple by way of nonchalance.
S0. When all is said and done, what moments will you hold most dear?
welp. i’m still tired/emotionally drained from this whole learning-to-be-a-grown-up thing. (i don’t know exactly what i mean by that… perhaps something along the lines of rolling with the punches?)
i’ve been thinking a lot this week about the whole action vs. language thing that first i, then morgan and leslie, and finally atom weighed in upon. all three have really interesting, thoughtful, heartfelt responses to things that i’ve been haphazardly (exhaustedly) throwing up on my blog because of my whole blog-every-day-in-february thing. it’s funny: when i imagined myself blogging, prior to starting this blog, i don’t think i expected to receive the kind of support and pushback that i would get from my friends who follow along with me here. if i blow off steam in a way that’s less-than-mature, self-mocking, or illogical… y’all are calling me on it. i really appreciate that generous support that also challenges me to be more than who i feel like being at some particular moment.
i do think words–in the form of a vigil or not–contribute an action that is valuable and necessary, especially in a democracy. and, i’m proud of the words that i wrote, and that the group spoke them in our vigil. our voice overcame the buzz of the crowd and echoed up into the rotunda of the capitol building, as minnesota veterans, legislators, citizens, and advocates filed past us. yes, we were preaching to the choir, as leslie pointed out, but more than that: we were making a public, faith-centric statement about the value of human life and the government’s responsibility to protect human dignity when no one else will. THIS IS what i went to seminary for: to speak justice to improper power, to name indignity, and to challenge the world and people (and myself!) to live more responsibly, more respectfully of one another. i feel lucky to do this in the state where i grew up, and to do it on a local level, where change feels more concrete, and problems are on a smaller, more seemingly-manageable scale.
did the vigil help? cynicism about one’s ability to make change is rampant among those who fail to act in our massive democracy. my experience of going to d.c. to protest the probability of an iraq war in 2003 illustrated what i thought i learned: that the people’s voices are often ignored; that those in power will do what they want either way. but morgan pointed out that making our voices heard, or engaging in debate, does not always have the end goal of changing the other’s mind. registering one’s position is important. the u.s. may have invaded iraq regardless, but history will not forget that our population was divided on whether or not it was a good idea.
did the vigil help? was one person changed walking away from that experience? actually, i can answer that question: YES. i was changed. i found that having the courage to speak words of faith and of vision in the capitol rotunda changed the way i see myself as a citizen and as a person of faith. speaking out loud, in a small community of like-minded people, amidst a larger community amongst and around us, recommitted me to doing this work that i might now be claiming as my vocation. who knows, maybe someday soon i will actually gear up the courage to call it a CALL. (that’s very god-y language, there, folks. let’s get comfortable with the uncomfortable. oy.)
did the vigil help? was anyone BESIDES me moved by it, forward, in a direction that upholds the dignity of all people? god. how can i answer that question? what i can say is that it was part of a larger movement, and was a piece of a whole, in that one-body-many-parts kind of way. any one piece of a movement, apart from the others, might not amount to much. but put together? that can amount to real change.
so what contribution does a vigil have to real, meaningful social change? i’m thankful for my friend abby, with whom i spoke about this today over tea. when i told her what that crazy mean person emailed me about the civil war, slavery and “little vigils”, abby laughed, looked at me and said, “What! Has that person never heard of the Civil Rights Movement?!”
How did I not think of that?