Friday, December 31, 2010


Congratulations go out to both Stanford University for beating the University of Connecticut last night ending their 90 game win streak, and to UConn for putting such a streak together. I do not think they have gotten the credit they deserved for this remarkable run, and it is because lots of people still do not respect women's sports.

Gene Auriemma, the coach of UConn, came out and said that he didn't think his players were being respected because many thought they should be in the kitchen, and was then routinely criticized by some reporters who should know better. I certainly heard comments being made on ESPN, although not by ESPN reporters, that I considered disrespectful.

Can you compare the UCLA run of 88 games and the UConn run of 90 games? I don't know, but I don't think it matters. It's not like UConn did this by playing no bodies, which is often how powerhouses like to pad their stats. In those 90 games, which included two runs through the tournament to national titles, they played 31 teams who were ranked. 1/3 of their victories came agains the best competition available.

They don't turn away from competition; they will play anyone who wants to play them and for that by itself they should be applauded. If major college football programs will schedule the same way college bowl games would look a lot different, and to be honest the game would be better for it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Being Joseph

This is my sermon for last Sunday, based on Matthew 2:13-23.

In my Christmas Eve service, I asked people to picture their nativity sets. Today, rather than thinking of the whole scene, I just want you to picture Joseph. Do you have him pictured in your mind? Now that you have him pictured, now I want you to think about whether he is really necessary for the scene. That is, could you still have a nativity scene if Joseph had stepped out to get some fresh air, or perhaps had gone out for a cup of coffee? I believe you could. If Mary or Jesus were not there, people would definitely notice and ask what was going on. If the shepherds weren’t there, people would wonder if they were still out in their fields watching their sheep. If the wise men had not shown up and laid their gifts at Jesus’ feet people would notice and wonder where they were. But what about Joseph? While Joseph is certainly nice to have around, he is not crucial to the scene. He is the wall flower of the story. He is like Jesus in the old spiritual about his crucifixion. Joseph never says a mumbling word. Joseph is totally silent. In neither Luke nor Matthew’s gospel narratives, the only ones who say anything about him, does Joseph say a single word. Isn’t that a little odd?

Now the truth is we know very little about Joseph. We are told that he is a righteous man, which is how Matthew describes him. We should hear that to mean that he is a devout Jew, one who obeys Torah. Matthew is also the one who tells us his occupation. The problem is, the Greek word translated as carpenter is tekton, from which we gets words like technical and technology, but its meaning is a little ambiguous. It can mean someone who works in wood. This can be someone who is skilled, such as a ship builder, but it can also refer to someone who is less skilled, like those who make yokes and ploughs, which is what Justin Martyr, one of the early church fathers, says that Jesus does. But, tekton can also refer to someone who works in iron or stone. In other cases it simply refers to someone who is basically a day laborer. So we can’t even say for sure what his occupation was.

We are told that Joseph is of the Davidic line, and in Matthew his father’s name is Jacob. This should send off some bells for those are remember the stories in Genesis, which we will get back to in a little bit, so remember that Joseph’s father is Jacob. While Luke also claims that Joseph is of the David line, he says that Joseph’s father’s name is Heli. We also know that he lived in Bethlehem and Nazareth. Luke has Joseph with Mary and Jesus at the Temple when Jesus is 12, but that is the last that we hear of Joseph being around. And that is all that we know about Joseph from scriptures. The Gospel of John only mentions him as being Jesus’ father. Mark does not mention him at all, as Jesus is referred to as Mary’s son, nor is he mentioned in the earliest Christian writings which come to us from the apostle Paul.

With the later development of Marionology, which is the elevation of Mary to theotokos, God bearer, the church developed a theology which said that Mary not only conceived as a virgin but that she remained a virgin the rest of her life. Joseph was chosen only to look after and protect Mary, rather than to be a true husband, and so the marriage was never consummated. Now in order to give justification for the scriptures referring to Jesus as having brothers and sisters, they said that these were step-siblings from Joseph’s prior marriage. If Joseph already had several other children, they also speculated that Joseph must have been much older when he married Mary, which would not have been all that unusual for the time. This also helped to explain why Joseph was not around during Jesus’ ministry. If Joseph was older, then he could already have been dead. But there is no scriptural backing for any of this. Indeed, much of what we hear or believe about Joseph comes from non-canonical works.

We do know, according to Matthew, that when Joseph heard that Mary was with child, even though he had no known her in a biblical way, he wanted to dismiss her, but was told in a dream by an angel that Mary was having a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he should take her as his wife, and he did what the angel said. Then he was told in a dream by an angel to take Mary and the baby and flee to Egypt because Herod was looking for Jesus with the intention of destroying him, and so Joseph does what he is told and flees to Egypt in order to save Jesus’ life. Good thing that Egypt did not have strict illegal immigration policies in place.

After they’ve been in Egypt for a while, although we don’t know how long or even what they did there, another angel appears to Joseph in a dream and he is again told to take Mary and the child and to return to Israel because Herod has died. And so Joseph does what he is told, only this time he does hesitate a little bit because he hears that Archelaus is ruling over Judea and so he does not feel safe in returning. If Herod was tyrant enough to have ordered the killing of children, and he certainly was, although he was not all that unusual of a leader in the ancient world, Archelaus was over the top. He was actually removed from power by Rome because of his atrocities, which was almost unheard of. Rome tended not to care what you did as long as you kept the peace, and Archelaus kept the peace by killing anyone who might be in opposition to him or his policies. This included killing 3000 Pharisees who revolted in the year 6 CE, under the leadership of a certain Judas of Galilee, which would make for another interesting sermon, but not today. Anyway, Joseph in this instance hesitates the follow the angel’s direction because of his fear of Archelaus, but then an angel appears to him in a dream and confirms his hunches and so he does not return to Bethlehem but instead goes to Nazareth, which is where Jesus grows up.

Every step he takes, Joseph seems to be obeying someone else’s commands. To Joseph, the angel is like EF Hutton: When the angel speaks, Joseph listens. Now the problem with that joke is there is at least one if not two generations who won’t get it, because they don’t know who EF Hutton is. But, in seeing Joseph and his relationship with God, I believe it is appropriate to stop and ask if this is someone we should be trying to emulate? Should we hold up Joseph as a role model for proper behavior as a Christian? Is that what discipleship is supposed to look like?

In order to begin to understand this question, we do need to look at some of the stories of ancient Israel being referenced by Matthew in this passage. Joseph, the person married to Mary, is the namesake of Joseph, best known to us today for his amazing Technicolor dream coat. Besides for his coat, does anyone remember one of the things that Joseph was famous for? He was able to interpret dreams. Any light bulbs going off yet? Joseph is sold into slavery, and where does he get sent into slavery? Egypt. See you’re catching on. So Joseph goes to Egypt where he rises in power because he successfully interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, and as a result also is able to save his own family who go to Egypt because Canaan, where they live, is suffering a drought. Joseph takes them in, and they remain in Egypt, but we are told that later Pharaoh’s forget Joseph and become concerned about how many Israelites there are and so all male Israelite children are ordered to be killed. Do you see what Matthew is doing here? And who was it who was saved from this death decree when his mother put him in a basket in the Nile? Moses. I don’t have time to go into everything that Matthew is doing in setting up Jesus’ life story, but if you want to learn more you can take my class on the Gospel of Matthew on Wednesday evenings beginning January 12. But I do have a point here as well.

So we’ve set up how Joseph relates to the older Joseph, now what was Joseph, who is married to Mary, father’s name? Jacob. Now, just one more piece of information as an aside, Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah. Rachel is referenced in today’s scripture coming from the prophet Jeremiah, as she weeps for her children and Rachel is the mother of Joseph Now in what town would you find Rachel’s tomb. I’ll give you a hint; it is directly related to the Christmas story. That’s right it’s Bethlehem. Are you seeing all the connections?

Now, I know I’m taking forever to get to my point, but there is one event in particular that is even more important for us today. Jacob spends the night wrestling with an angel, and when the sun comes up in the morning, Jacob is renamed Israel, which means something like, “contended with God” or “wrestles with God.” At the very heart then of Israelite history, and then name itself, is a struggle with God. Throughout scripture, people contend with God, from Abraham to Moses to Jacob to Job to Jonah, to name just a few. As Rabbi David Thomas of Congregation Beth El here in Sudbury recently said to me, “Jews don’t really have a conversation with God; we have an argument with God.”

But then we have Joseph, who we are told is a devout Jew, who would know scripture, who would know that plenty of people have questioned God’s actions in the world, sometimes questioning them directly to God’s face, but Joseph never says a word. Every time God tells him to do something he simply does it, no questions asked. He does this even when what he is asked to do contradicts Jewish law. He is a righteous man, meaning he follows Torah, but when asked to violate it by the angle he complies.

Katherine Mitchell is a Methodist minister in southern Massachusetts. I was her seminary husband and she was my seminary wife while we both attended BU because we spent more time with each other during those three years then we did with our own spouses. Before coming to seminary Katherine had worked as an emergency mental health counselor, and so she is very good at always being able to be in control of situations, telling you exactly what she is thinking and what is going on because in many cases her life depended on that ability. If you are in a group and wonder who is going to be in charge, you can bet that Katherine will be one of the first to step up and take a leadership role.

Recently she was asked to participate in a program similar to dancing with the stars to help support one of the community groups in the town where she serves. At the time she agreed to it, she assumed she would just have to show up on the day of the event do some dancing and then everyone would vote on who was best. But shortly after saying yes, she received a call from Arthur Murray dance studio asking when she wanted to come in and start her dance lessons. She put if off for as long as she could, came up with as many reasons as she could, in other words struggling with the commitment, before she finally had to give in and go.

Now, Katherine is in her upper forties, stands maybe 5’5” and as I said, fully in control of her life. When she showed up for her first lesson, she was assigned to a dance instructor who was 23, although she side he looked like he was 15, and he was shorter than she is. They danced for their hour appointment, and when it was over he said to her, “you have the skills and the ability to be a good dancer, but in order for this to work you are going to have to let go and let me lead.” And Katherine’s response? She said “now look here little man, do you have any idea who I am. I am Pastor Katherine, and I’m the one in control.” To which her dance instructor said, “You’re a minister, aren’t you used to following God’s lead, this should be easy for you.”

Now as you might imagine, this floored her and she had to look deeply at what she was doing and how she was living her life, and what she found was that she was not so good at following and so she made a conscious effort to let go. This decision has not only radically changed her relationship with her family, her relationship with her congregation, but most importantly it has changed her relationship with God. Since that day she has had some life altering experiences that she knows God has led her to, that she would never have had before, because she would never have to let go of what she wanted to do long enough to allow them to happen. For the first time in her life she now feels as if she is truly being guided by God, everyday of her life from the time she gets up to the time she goes to bed, and sometimes even in her dreams, because she was willing to let go and let God lead the dance of her life.

How are we doing? Are we able to let God lead, or are we fighting and trying to be the one who controls where, when and perhaps even what dance is being done? I would have to say that I am not very good at this myself. I have trouble giving up and giving over to God. Even though some of the most profound experiences in my life have occurred when I have turned myself over to God to be led, I have to say that normally I am closer to having an argument with God rather than a relationship, and there are definitely times for that. I do not think that we are called to be fully like Joseph.

Being a dancing partner requires both parties to be involved and participating. Dancing is a give and take relationship. If one person does nothing but let the other person do all the work, then they are like a rag doll and that does not make a beautiful dance. Instead, both partners need to be in relationship with each other, working with each other, but one person has to be in control, and if that person is us then the dance is not as beautiful as it could be.

All of us could use to be more like Joseph than we are. Joseph was willing to trust and to act, to listen and to do, and most importantly to have faith and depend on the word of God that everything was going to be okay, knowing that god would uphold Go’s word and would guide and lead him. May it be so in our lives. Amen.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Not So Silent Night

Here is my sermon from Christmas Eve. The title comes from a sermon preached by Rev. Adam Hamilton, but the core idea is from a sermon I preached for Blue Christmas three years ago. The scripture lesson is Luke's birth narrative.

I want you to think about a nativity set, it could be the one in your home now, or the one you grew up with or one you saw somewhere. Picture it in your mind. I’m guessing the image is pretty serene. More than likely, Mary is either kneeling at the side of the manager, or perhaps holding the baby Jesus, while Joseph stands on the other side also with an adoring look on his face. Meanwhile, barnyard animals idyllically lay or stand watch over the babe, while the shepherds and wise men, also looking idyllic, offer worship outside of the barn. St. Francis, better known for his love of animals, is widely credited with creating the first nativity scene in the year 1223. In order to keep from being “accused of lightness or novelty” and therefore earning a rebuke by the Pope, St. Francis determined, in the words of Bonaventure, “to keep it with all possible solemnity.” That “solemnity” of St. Francis’ scene has impacted how we have viewed and seen the birth of Jesus ever since, from paintings to hymns to Christmas cards to movies -- we see a beautiful, calm, peaceful, and tranquil scene, but it’s not realistic.

Instead imagine a young girl, maybe no older than 13, engaged to be married to an older man, and before they are married the girl becomes pregnant with all the attending issues and entanglements that come in such a situation. As the pregnancy progress, I’m sure there was some excitement, but also, like with most pregnancies, some trepidation and fear as well. Would the baby be healthy? Would she survive the delivery? Would they be good parents? And then, just at the time that the birth is approaching she is forced by an authority way beyond her control to travel at the very time she should be surrounded by the women in her life, those who can assist her in the birth, be there to comfort her, to tell her everything is going to be okay. She is taken away from the other women who would have helped her deliver her child just at the time they are most important and instead begins a journey with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of some 80 miles, at least a four day journey.

Now in our stories, we always picture Mary riding on a donkey, but the scriptures don’t say anything about a donkey, and because Joseph and Mary are poor there may not have been a donkey. Mary may have had to have walked that distance. Can you feel her exhaustion? The way her feet and back must have ached? The way the weight of the baby bore on her and wore her out? And just like every woman I’ve ever known who is nine months pregnant, she was probably just ready to be done with the whole thing.

And then to make matters worse, when they finally arrived, probably late at night, Mary already in the midst of labor pains, they found that all of the places to stay were full. Bethlehem must have been buzzing with activity with all of the other people from throughout the region who also had to come to Bethlehem in order to register, and so they found themselves without a place to stay. Mary ready to give birth with no place to call her own, with only Joseph by her side, and let’s face it guys, when it comes to the birth of children we are just about useless. When my first daughter was born, I was grateful for our doula who assisted us, because I simply did not have enough hands to do all of the things that Linda needed me to do for her, and yes I do have permission to tell this story, and unlike Joseph I didn’t need to worry about the actual delivery because there were doctors and nurses there for that. I didn’t have to worry about how the labor was progressing, or what was coming next, or what to do if something went wrong, nor did I worry about disease, or cleanliness or even where I was going to put the baby when she was born.

What did Mary have? Did she have anyone there besides Joseph to comfort her? To wipe her brow, to calm her fears and tell her everything was going to be okay? Can you hear her crying out… Oh Joseph, help me, make it stop?... What do I do Joseph?... When’s it going to be over?.... What’s happening?... “My God, my God,” she might be saying, “why have you forsaken me?” Can you hear her crying out into the night? Can you hear her crying while all around her is the bustle of the town which is teeming with life and energy? Does she feel alone and isolated, abandoned and forgotten? And then in the midst of this we are told that the child is born, and if you don’t believe in miracles then you have never watched a child being born, because if you have ever seen a newborn infant, and held it in your arms, then you know that not only are miracles possible but that they happen every day…

And Mary takes the child, Can you hear him crying out into the night, and she wraps him in bands of cloth and because there is no other place to put him she lays him in a manger. Mary did not have a crib, or bassinet in which to place her child. All she had was what was near, and so she placed him in a common, ordinary feeding trough, which is what a manger is. (PAUSE) Now in our story telling we imagine Jesus being born in a stable, but the scriptures don’t tell us that, instead all we are told is that he is laid in a manger. But even if Jesus was to have been born in a stable, this image too has been sanitized. If you’ve ever spent any time in a barn, or around farm animals, you know there is, how shall we say, a certain odiferousness that accompanies them.

I don’t think we imagine that in our vision of the nativity. But, because all we know is that he was laid in a manger, it is just as likely that he was laid in a feeding trough outside of the inn, in the mud and muck of the street. Can you picture it? Can you hear their cries? Can you feel the mud? Can you smell the manure? And then, out in the fields, the shepherds are watching their flocks in darkness, but then the darkness is shattered and they are blinded by a bright light, and surely they yelled out in terror, and the angel Gabriel says “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you” to you, to you and to me “is born this day in the city of David a savior who is the messiah, the Lord.”

The Gospel of John says that for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, and the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. God breaks into this world through the birth of Christ not in spite of the muck and the messiness and the smell, but because of it. Just as Mary cries out to God, so too we cry out. Our souls long to be filled and nurtured. We live in brokenness – we are brokenness – we long for something deeper, something more meaningful, something to overcome the darkness and despair that surrounds us, something more than the messiness and the brokenness of our lives. But it is in all of that stuff that God works.

Christ comes because of the messiness and the brokenness, not in spite of it. In the church we often say that Jesus’ ministry begins when, after he is baptized, he proclaims “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near,” but that is not when his ministry began. His ministry and his meaning for us begins with the lonely wail made by a cold, scared, vulnerable infant, born into the broken world in the darkness of night, who is laid in a feeding trough by his mother because she doesn’t have anywhere else to put him. That is the beginning of God’s presence here on earth in the person of Jesus, it is as one of us, a small crying infant, a cry breaking through the chaos and a light shattering the darkness.

We live in a world that’s messy and broken, and yet into this world a child was born, a child which caused the angels to sing and rejoice, that in the midst of despair and disappointment came a miracle, and there was joy and hope, promise and fulfillment; in this moment God was doing something extraordinary and becoming one of us. This is the story of the birth of our savior and it’s smelly, it’s noisy, it’s painful, it’s chaotic, it’s lonely, it’s aching, and it is also joyful, and exciting and awe inspiring and wonderful, it is a miracle and it is the story of a broken world redeemed and given new hope, new life and a new promise. God was not doing this in spite of the messiness and the brokenness, God was doing this because of those things. Christmas happens not because life is idyllic and always full of joy. If life was like that we wouldn’t need Christmas. We need Christmas because are a broken. We need Christmas because life is messy.

In your bulletin, you have a card which on one side says “Hope, Peace, Love and Joy,” and the backside is blank. Take that card out now. At the center aisle end of the pew you will find a basket full of pens. In a few moments, we are going to pray together, then the choir is going to sing, and what I invite you to do is to take a pen and write on the back of your card something you need to lift up to God. It could be an area of brokenness in your life, an illness, a loss, a job needed; it could be some of the messiness of your life, a relationship that needs help, or some situation that is out of your control that you need to turn over to God. Jesus said “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” This is a time to give your burden over to God. Or perhaps, right now what you need to offer up is a celebration, a joy, a miracle, or a thanksgiving for family or God’s abundance in your life. We all come here tonight carrying different things, and with different needs, so what I invite you to do is to offer up to God what you feel you need to lay at the feet of the manager, because the good news is for you.

After you have written out what you need to offer, I invite you to come down the center aisle and like, the shepherds, worship the Christ child by laying what we would like to turn over by placing it at the feet of the manger, and then proceed back to your seat by the side aisle. If you would like, I would invite you to kneel as you are able at the altar rail and offer up your prayers to God, before returning to your seat.

What Christmas reminds us is that our God is not a God who is distant from us, who is out there somewhere. This is a God who knows our name, who cares what we are doing, who wants to be in relation with us, and who loves us so much that he gave us Christ, who was born like us, who lived like us, who died like us and who was raised from the dead so that we too might have eternal life. That is the Christ child we accept into our lives on Christmas, that is the savior we are worshipping lying in the manger, and the Lord to whom we make our prayers.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Speed Linking

  • Here are the top Christmas songs selling online. I mention selling online because Bing Crosby's White Christmas is not number one, although it is in the top ten.
  • Maybe you're like me and have been thinking about how wonderful your life would be if you had an Ipad (I could even preach from it), but here are ten reasons not to get one.
  • Charity Fail: Gap was selling bags to help feed people in the US. They claimed the bags were made in the US, but only some of them. The rest were maid in China.
  • Someone damaged books on gay and lesbian issues in the Harvard Library by pouring urine on them.
  • I am old enough not only to remember the debut of MTV, but to remember when they actually played music. They now are officially past the music scene and have removed "music television" from their logo, and as a result their ratings have actually increased.
  • Since I spent some of my professional career before the ministry as a manager in the resort industry, I thought this story of some of the "weirdest hotels" was interesting.
  • Sometimes getting to a bowl game is not what it's cracked up to be. UConn may end of losing money for their BCS game appearance. The fact that they should not be in a BCS game at all is another discussion.
  • As part of the Advent Conspiracy, I have been talking a lot about the cost of Christmas, but sometimes we forget the hidden costs of some presents.
  • Tired of Christmas items appearing in October? Well how about Easter candy appearing in December?
  • Turns out, a lot of the things we think about Poinsettias, including that they are poisonous, are not true.
  • Drop-side cribs have been outlawed.
  • And finally, here are the five worst ways to propose. I violated rule number one, since my proposal was done at a baseball game.

Now that Christmas is over, I hope that I will finally have time to start posting regularly again. I hope you all had a blessed Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Webpage Fail

I recently finished The Big Red Fez: How to Make Any Website Better by Seth Godin. One of the things he emphasized time and again was making your site as customer friendly as possible, and making sure that you were not getting errors on the page, especially ones that made you look ridiculous. Well here is a recent screen shot from Samsung's page.

I had clicked an add for them from another site in order to look at a projector, and this was part of the page: Now I'm guessing that this should be saying something like "click here and let Anna help you find what you need." Instead it makes Anna out to by a cyborg, or worse. It certainly does not reflect well on them.

They had already captured my attention, knew that I had taken an extra step to get to their website, but did nothing to keep me there. They information they provided about the projector, which was said to work without being attached to a computer, was extremely limited. They didn't even list the programs the projector could use, or how it used them, so I was already inclined to leave the page. This just verified that if I was interested I should go somewhere else for information and to buy the product, or to stumble upon someone else's product and buy it instead. In forms of web retention this was a fail.

One interesting tidbit from the book, when Geocities was online and one of the biggest websites in the world, do you know what there number one page hit was? It was their error page, which I certainly encountered quite a bit. What he says is that Geocities should have had some customer friendly way to get you out of this page and quickly back to what you needed, which they of course didn't.

While I think Seth Gordin could have done a lot more with his book, as it gives examples of things done wrong then it does on how to make it better, it is a very quick and interesting read. I will certainly think about websites I am visiting differently, and it has also sparked some ideas for how church's might do their websites differently, which I might write more about later.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Princesses Are Tough

This is a conversation I recently had with my oldest daughter. To set the scene she was running around the house in her Snow White dress:

Daughter: Daddy, do princesses sometimes slip and fall down?

Me: Yes.

Daughter: Why?

Me: Well because princesses are just like us, and sometimes they fall.

Daughter: Can they scratch up their knees?

Me: Yes.

Daughter: Well what do they do if they scratch their knees?

Me: Well, princesses are tough and so they just let the wounds princess heal.

Daughter: They don't get princess band-aids?

Me: No, they don't use band-aids.

Daughter: Cause princesses are tough.

Me: Yes princesses are tough

Daughter: Like vikings?

Me: Yes.

Daughter: And Mermaids?

Me: Yes, princesses are tough like vikings and mermaids.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Speed Linking

We've been incredibly busy at the church, and so have not had time to make any posts, even putting up speed links. So, this covers the past two weeks:

  • NASA announced the discovery of a new type of life-form which survives on arsenic, although this too has its critics.
  • Remember the Super Bowl Shuffle and wondering why you can't find it on youtube? Here's the reason.
  • Among the documents released by WikiLeaks was a cable which said that American film and television is a greater impact in lessening terrorism by dissuading young people from being jihadists then anything else being done.
  • Tomorrow is the annual Army-Navy football game (Go Navy!). Did you know the first use of replay in a football was the Army-Navy game in 1963?
  • We hear of athletes thanking God all the time for helping them win the game. It's pretty rare to ever hear anyone blame God for losing the game, but that's exactly what Steve Johnson did. At least he's honest.
  • The Congressional Tea Part Caucus, who say they are opposed to ridiculous government spending, particularly through earmarks, took 1 billion in earmarks last year. (Yes, you read that number correctly)
  • As bullying changes forms through the use of digital technology, parents are often finding themselves well behind the technology and left wondering what to do.
  • Unusual baby names are now becoming the rule rather than the exception. What does that say about us and our children?
  • A federal judge has ordered the last two residents out of Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing complex.
  • Is the era of point and shoot cameras upon us? With just about everyone having the same technology in their phones it appears that we might be seeing that very thing come to fruition.
  • Keith Fitzhugh was recently offered a job by the New York Jets, but has turned it down for the steady paycheck he receives as a train conductor.
  • First Sen. McCain said he would support repeal of Don't Ask-Don't Tell if the average soldier supported it. When that happened, he said he would only support it if the brass supported it. When that happened he said he would only support it if a study was conducted saying it wouldn't have an adverse effect on the military's operation. Now that has happened, and so McCain has said the study is flawed. What will his next position be? Stay tuned.
  • Last year the square footage of the average house actually decreased for the first time in a long time. Now there is also a trend for micro houses (smaller than 100 feet micro).
  • A rare Birds of America by Audubon was recently sold at auction for $10 million, making it the most expensive book ever.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Ceremony of Carols

Traveling by ship between the United States and England in March of 1942 was not the easiest or safest thing to do. Although the trip could have long bouts of monotony, with u-boat activity at its height, it could also have times of terror as well. But that is where composer Benjamin Britten found himself after having spent the previous three years in America, after following frequent collaborator, poet W.H. Auden, across the pond.

Britten, a well-known opera composer of the time, was working on two pieces as he entered a Swedish cargo vessel for the return home. One was a song for Benny Goodman, and the second was his last large-scale collaboration with Auden, Hymn of St. Cecilia. But, on the supposition that the music might contain secret codes, the works were confiscated by customs officials, leaving Britten with a little more time on his hands that he originally intended.

During a stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten purchased a book of medieval poems. Using these poems as his inspiration, during the voyage Britten created a work entitled Ceremony of Carols. He also recreated the Hymn of St. Cecilia, although his work for Goodman has been lost.

His original piece consisted of seven carols based on five of the works printed in the book of poems, and another that was hand-written on the flyleaf and back cover. He added other movements based on other poems and songs, including a plainsong procession and recession using the medieval chant Hodie Christus natus est. The procession and recession may have been influenced by Gustav Holst’s earlier work Hymn to Jesus.

The work is not your typical “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” Christmas music, but instead is focused on the mystery of Christmas story and deeply influenced by medieval theology and practice. Although Britten evokes things that are familiar, such as the cold of an English Christmas, much of the world it suggests is very different from ours, or from Britten’s.

Some of this is accomplished through the use of complex and unusual melodies and harmonies Britten created, and other parts come from his unusual choice of accompanying instrument, the harp, an instrument not usually combined with choral music. Britten had been studying the instrument in order to write a concerto for harp, but instead incorporated that work into this arrangement. The piece was also originally scored for a boys' choir, who were the first to perform it, but composer Julius Harrison later created a score for an entire choir.

One commentator remarked, “This piece is incredibly atmospheric – it really is the sound of winter. When Britten wants you to feel cold, you feel freezing. When he wants you to feel enchanted, you do. For many choral singers, this is the piece of the Christmas repertoire.”

Now the purpose of all this background is to get you excited to hear the choir’s presentation of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols this Sunday. The choir has been working very hard, as they always do, and so I hope you will join us to hear them perform this work. And, unlike the past three years I have been here, there is no call, as of yet, for significant accumulation of snow for the Sunday they are presenting their cantata (although I wouldn’t put away your snow shovels quite yet).

Hope to see you all there!