Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Graveyard in the Snow

While this year's "White Christmas" was lingering, Sandy and I took a day to go graveyard exploring. Yes, I must be getting old ... I mean, in a "new place in my spiritual development" ... because searching for ancestors and learning their stories gives me a deep sense of context.

What is it about standing on this holy ground that I find so inspiring? It is not about dirt, stone, or bone. It is about story. It's not just their story, but my own story.

We went to Williams Cove near Winchester, Tennessee. Williams Cove is 900 acres that was deeded to my three-great grandfather, Col. Sherrod Williams, by Andrew Jackson for his service in the War of 1812. His grave, along with that of his wife Mary "Poly" Looney Williams, is near the end of Williams Cove Road. It is on the far left of property behind an old white house on the left of the road, just before the last big curve before the road ends at the side of a mountain. I am a descendant of one of their sons, Absolom, whose granddaughter, Louie Williams Hamby, was my grandmother.

I'm pictured here next to Sherrod's grave, with Poly's to my right. One of their sons' graves is leaning nearby. Sherrod was a Welshman and widower who married Poly Looney, the daughter of Michael Looney, a Revolutionary War soldier, and had 18 kids.

On that same road, Goshen Cumberland Presbyterian Church has a graveyard full of Williams and Looneys. Tromping through the snow at the final resting place of many cousins gave me a deep sense of my place on the earth. None of us exist alone. We may not know their names or faces or even their stories, but those who have gone before us are part of the fiber of who we are.

Sherrod's grave is topped with a lengthy eulogy, along with the complete text of the scripture that begins "blessed are the dead who die in the Lord." Poly's grave has a finger pointing up. One expensive and the other simple, these are signs tell me of their faith. They tell me something about mine.

We ended the day swinging by Bridgeport, Alabama, to see the Mount Carmel cemetery where some of the Williams' and Arendale's in the generations between us were buried. The snow got cold and the cemetery is large, so I need to go back and find a couple more direct ancestors we didn't have time for. As dusk came, we dropped by the schoolhouse my grandmother taught in, just across from the entrance to Russell Cave. It was about dark when we got to the house just 1/2 mile past the cave entrance where another family graveyard is back in the woods. Another day. Another time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas "Blessing of the Toys"

This liturgy was published in "The Interpreter" magazine in Advent of 2011. What a serendipity that they found it online, called me, and asked if they could highlight it in their magazine. I'm honored.

Below is my original blog post and brief liturgy.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nothing Can Take the Joy of Christmas Away

This is my devotional that will be published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of the Upper Room.

Suggested Bible Reading: Luke 1:46-55

Key Verse: “And Mary said, ‘my soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden’.” (Luke 1:46-48a, RSV)

A couple of weeks before my mother's last Christmas, she attended a worship service I was leading. When I opened the floor for prayer concerns, she boldly announced "Even though I have been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and the prognosis is not very good, I want everybody to know that nothing can take the joy of my Christmas away!"

Her carefully chosen words are etched in my memory. I was to sing a solo after that, and I barely managed to sing through my tears. Mom had left me with a powerful gift.

Reading Mary's Magnificat each year reminds me that no matter what troubles come, there is a bigger picture to behold. Mary had plenty to pout about, having gotten pregnant as an unwed teenager only to have others assume the worst. She would soon take a long, uncomfortable trek on a donkey's back to find that poverty and lack of connections would lead to giving birth in a messy old barn. Yet for Mary, there was a song to sing because she knew God was doing something. God’s blessing in the midst of her lowly situation reflected a larger movement of mercy from generation to generation.

Claiming Mary's and Mom's magnificent spiritualities would mean that no matter what happens to us, we can’t help but sing. Nothing can steal the joy of Christmas away.

Prayer: Gracious Lord, even when we are aware of life’s struggles during the holidays, may we find that they are indeed holy days. Let nothing distract us from the joy that the incarnation brings. In Jesus name, Amen.

Thought for the Day: Trials put us in touch with the bigger picture of God’s grace.

Prayer Focus: Those who struggle with cancer

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Keeping X in Xmas

Surprised at my title, "Keeping X in Xmas"?

Many statements come out this time of year by evangelical Christians decrying the use of the abbreviation "Xmas". They proclaim our need to "keep Christ in Christmas" and not "X him out". I do understand the desire to keep Christmas faithful to the true reason for the season, of course.

But it's a fairly common abbreviation that you can find on the storage boxes in my attic. Is it unfaithful? Should it be on the forefront of culture wars to keep Christ out of the celebration?

Actually, no. There's a huge misunderstanding about the etymology of this abbreviation that could help us learn about our faith heritage. The use of "Xmas" a remnant of a beautiful tradition in the ancient art of Christianity which is dear to our faith.

Beginning with the ancient church, including times of persecution when Christians met in the catacombs and other secret places, the use of the Greek letter X (pronounced chi in the original Greek) was used to represent Christ because it was the first letter in the Greek word Christos, or Christ. It became a sort of secret symbol, not unlike the use of the fish, the ichthus, in the ancient church to represent the Christian faith. Writing "Xmas" on a box is no more unfaithful than putting the symbol of the fish on the bumper of your car.

You can find remnants of this tradition in almost any sanctuary today. Christmon trees, paraments, and the like will employ the X as a decorative remnant of this tradition in ancient Christian art. Consider the XP (chi rho) on the paraments of many pulpits.

Use of the X in the abbreviation Xmas is not "x-ing out Christ." On the contrary, one could look at it as a statement of faith. Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. As I tell my confirmands every year, Christ is not Jesus' last name. It's his divine title. It means that he is not only the human Jesus who walked the earth. He is the anointed one, the Messiah.

For additional explanation about this, see a good article on the use of Xmas on wikipedia. Here is a gospel cover from approximately 700 A.D. reflecting the ancient use of this symbol of faith.