So it is that time of year once again. The annoying time when people pledge their current baby-steps to self-realization. A part of me doesn't really believe in resolutions because a part of me doesn't believe that the stroke of midnight tonight is anything other than the changing of another arbitrarily measured day.
However, a part of me really does believe in resolutions, or at least the practice of it if not the timing. After all, I do believe in setting yourself a code to live by. As a clergy person there are whole books about expectations concerning my behavior. More generally, my job has a lot to do with finding ways to apply scripture to daily life. It is also not just my job, is it? It is life for human beings trying to walk a path of faith and/or of hope.
Also, ever since I was a little kid, I experimented with personal oaths and codes. Back then a lot of them sounded like they came from the Paladin section of the D&D Players Handbook. Now? Well...they still kinda probably do...
Anyway, I am updating (or applying) that code--I guess--as I always try to do at New Years and Lent. Do I fall short? Yep. Every. Single. Time. But I do believe that being a good person in God's Creation necessitates mindfulness. So--contextually couched in four decades of the study of scripture and the PHB--here is my resolution work-in-progress for the year. There will be a Lenten tune-up as implied...
A Cloud O' Resolutions 2019
If I am blessed to see another year after this, I want to be able look back at the time between then and now and say:
I have learned more Spanish
I was almost always at 10,000 steps
I have eaten less and enjoyed it more
I drank less alcohol but more water and Moxie
I gamed all the games I wanted to game
I preached the sermons that needed preaching
I did my best
I played the music and enjoyed it even when I messed it up
I have edited so much video...
...and am now a YouTube celebrity to 12 people
I have practiced love
I have practiced forgiveness at least when I have failed to practice love
So, not very deep, huh? What did you expect? That is the point. It is a practice and practices are like that. Depth comes with repetition. Anyway, that is my nerdy work-list for the year. Good luck on yours!
I realized that I had made an awkward mistake in my Advent calendar planning. I was so busy updating the “Ukulele Buyer’s Guide” that I forgot to answer the holiday-gift questions I am most asked these days, “What do I get for the D&D player?.” Well...that is a good question, my friend.
As many of you already know, I am a big fan of roleplaying games (RPG’s) as a tool for recreation and self-discovery. When I started playing in my pre-teens it was the only real “team” I was on that didn’t see me as a burden. So I learned about cooperation and teamwork. Later (once I was firmly ensconced as a theater kid and member of the “Worst Cross-Country Team in Maine”) it still served as an outlet for creativity. My theater skills came in handy at the table. So did math but I prefer to think about the theater skills. In short, it was part of being social and learning about other people. It was also fun.
However, what was most important throughout that whole time (and up to today when I am able to get some sort of game going) was the ability to imagine another world. I have written and preached about this. Frequently the way we grow as a society and as individuals is to try on different ways of being. In the game you can be evil or good or just out for your own gain. You can see what it is like to be the sort of person you would never want to be. Alternately, you can practice being the person you want to become. All of this is done in the context of shared storytelling and myth-making. It is actually a pretty spiritual experience whether you are playing a divine caster or not.
Anyway, that is my way of being supportive of the RPG players in your life. Back in the bad old ‘80’s even calm, rational parents-who-should-know-better would worry a bit that their kids were turning to Satan by rolling those dice and there is still a lingering whiff of societal condemnation. I mean, now it is more likely to be considered vaguely nerdy more than threatening. I think that probably has to do simply with the fact that it is hard to make an adult controlled youth program out of it like you can with soccer or baseball.
The game is good and fine. It does all the things that other youth activities to do. Also, it is not just a youth activity! You can play it as an adult with other adults. Trust me. The most active game I am currently playing is entirely made up of clergy. Everyone needs to get out of their own crap every once in a while and imagine being somewhere else.
Definition of Terms:
Okay, let's get back to the purpose of this magnum opus, namely answering those questions you might have about what to get for the tabletop gamer in your life. The first thing that you need to know is that when we say “Dungeons & Dragons” to non-gamers we are using it as shorthand. The fact is, we may not actually be playing Dungeons and Dragons at all!
For example, if someone asks me where I grew up, I will frequently answer “Maine”. However, I do that because most people haven't been to Maine and certainly haven't been to the part I am from. If they turn out to have a connection there, I will start to narrow it down. I will say “the Lewiston area, but I went to college at the University of Maine in Orono.” If they still seem to know what I am talking about, I tell them I grew up in Lisbon Falls.
What usually happens, though, is that I get a blank stare and the person starts to rattle on about Bar Harbor, Freeport, or the Sunday River ski resort. So here is the first and perhaps most important thing to know about buying things for a tabletop gamer: Dungeons & Dragons is the Bar Harbor and Sunday River ski resort of tabletop games. It is the one everybody knows and if they have visited RPGs just once in their lives, this is the one they have played.
However, the situation is much more complicated than that. while people might make a different count, there are at least seven distinct rulesets for Dungeons & Dragons alone. Also, D&D is just one company (owned by Hasbro through their subsidiary Wizards of the Coast who make the Magic the Gathering card game)! Many people play other games, like Warhammer, Pathfinder, or Starfinder, or even things you can't find at the Barnes & Noble. That clergy game I mentioned uses a set of rules called ”RISUS” that takes up four pages of paper and is free. All of this is to say that it is a complicated market and that if you don't know what you are doing, it is best to stick with some generalities. I am talking about gift certificates here.
So, What I am going to do is suggest a few items that are universally appealing and then a couple of web pages for the purpose of safe gift certificate giving so they can order from the system they actually use. Also, gift certificates at any of these web pages might the way to go if your gamer is particularly finicky.
Here are some things that are of general use for the most part. Everyone needs a good set of dragon dice. They usually come in sets of seven and consist of one 20-sided die, one 12-sided die, two ten-sided dice, one 8-sided die, a six-sided die (“the normal kind”) and a 4-sided die. They probably already have a set if they play and certain systems don't use these dice. However no one minds nice dice in the RPG world so I might suggest something special.
The best basic purveyor of dice is Chessex. I have POUNDS of their dice as dice have a tendency to roll into corners and run away. They are also good for the basic extras like dice mats (to keep your dice from escaping) and dice towers (for fun rolling).
If you want to go in big, there are metal dice. I do NOT recommend stone dice for anyone who is going to actually use them to play. Metal is better and they are Metal if you catch my drift. They look cool and they feel great. I have a metal D20 (runs around $7-$9) and I actually feel a bit strange when rolling something else now. The easiest way to get them is through Easy Roller Dice. For other fancy kinds you can check out some of the more general pages I will list in the next section.
Top of the line for those accessories you can get cheaper (but way less cool) at Chessex is Wyrmwood Gaming. They have all the stuff you need in rare woods and gemstones (see above about the stone dice, I always fear chipping)
Dice bags are also good gifts. There are basic ones that come with the standard set but cool ones are cooler than basic ones. Google searches will reveal an Etsy empire of dice bags. Chainmail bags are a current thing as are bags made to look like cute versions of iconic monsters.
Also, if your gamer is identifying as such in public, then there may be some fun clothing options as well. However it's good to check how they feel about that sort of thing. These can be obtained at the publisher web pages and third party sites. Finally, A little bit of conversation might indicate whether they enjoy watching live stream tabletop games on Twitch or YouTube. Channels such as Geek and Sundry, Critical Role, Penny Arcade, and Web DM (there's seem to be Patreon only) all sell funky products--including t-shirts--that contain the usual in-jokes that form the social capital of we nerdy types.
Also worthy of note: Penny Arcade runs PAX, which is a gaming convention that features both video and tabletop games. They come to Boston--"PAX East"--so tix might be appreciated by some.
Easily the two most dominant games are Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder/Starfinder. I love them both. If you know that one of these is what they play (and that they play the current edition), Then perhaps a gift certificate directly from the publisher would be your best bet. They can then pick the thing that they are looking for.
These pages are also useful for miniatures. I am not qualified to discuss them since the last time I used miniatures seriously they were made of lead. That was a long time ago...
If your gamer is more adventurous however, then I have one recommendation. You should get them a gift certificate to DriveThruRPG. This is the page used by most third party and smaller designers. If you are into things like RISUS or the new “old school” games based on clunkier but endearing RPG rule sets, this is the place to go. It is what I use for fun stuff It contains things like modules and one-shots made by semi-pros and very specific scenarios that a game master might just find themselves in need of an hour or two before a session. Much of their stuff is in PDF form but there are hard copies of many things and you can always wear out your printer if you are old like me.
One note, there is always the risk that the thing at Drive Thru isn't as good as you wished it was. That is the risk. The reward is making it better.
The Gift of Tabletop online:
If you are old like me, then you remember the bad old days when it was hard to get a game going because people thought we would all get lost in the sewers after failing to raise a demon. It is still hard. As I alluded earlier. This is not a hobby that responds well to "leagues". The groups are usually best kept around 4-6 people and it is still not something that lots of people are into in a public way.
In addition, people are super-busy! So even if they think gaming is cool and fun it is hard to get a group together. Fortunately technology has helped with that. Easily the most active groups I am in play online on a web page called Roll20. To set up a membership is free (if you are a player and not the Game Master) but a membership for that GM might be appreciated. There are also virtual books and adventure paths that work only on the platform that cost money.
It may not be ideal to meet virtually but it really beats not playing. I am thinking about cracking open this option for my church group. We have met only once this year and even though we live just a few miles apart, it is hard to get together in person. Sitting down at the computer after work and homework are done may make a lot of sense. For adult groups it is almost a necessity these days. It cuts down travel and chitchat so people can get in and out of the game and then on to whatever else they are up to with no fuss.
Incidentally, I am on Roll20 and would love to get a game going if anyone is interested.....just let me know!
Long ago, back when Burbania Posts was on blogspot, I wrote a series guiding the reader through the process of finding and purchasing a ukulele for someone they love during the Christmas season. Back then, they were all the rage. Wherever two or more hipsters gathered, you could find three ukes. I had learned how to play right before the “big boom” and had started a ukulele orchestra at the church. The band grew and expanded into other instruments. Today its former members are in other bands but still play in church when they (we) can.
In fact, this is the season of the Carol Sing. Ukuleles will provide backup for the congregation when we go sing at the nursing home on the 17th. Also, we will be playing at the Advent Service on December 23rd, leading carol's for the congregation.
That said, things have calmed down a bit for the most part. The market has moved on to other things. The people in the ukulele band that weren't in their 40s are mostly in college now. However, ukuleles are still fun and still worth checking out if you have a folk musician--or a budding folk musician-- in the family. Unlike many instruments, they do not feel intimidating. They are also portable in a way that many are not. If you can still find a good one that is relatively inexpensive, you can still feel comfortable bringing it wherever you go, just like a real Folkie.
Therefore, I will link once again to those original columns but there are some updates I would like to add...
Unfortunately, they cost more than they used to. The flip side is that quality has improved substantially. This is true for certain accessories as well. That said, they are still cheaper than a guitar and much less expensive than many other stringed instruments. The brands in the original posts are for the most part still going strong. Kala, in particular, has a solid entry-level collection. However, I still firmly believe that the biggest bang for your buck comes from the Magic Fluke Company. My go-to ukulele has been a concert size Fluke for years. If you are comfortable with non-traditional materials and appearance, I highly recommend them.
Actually, my opinion on strings has not changed. A good set of strings is the most important thing you can do to improve the sound of your ukulele. One thing that has changed, however, is the proliferation of varieties. They fall basically into two separate groups; the mellow ones and the jangly ones. For mellow, almost "classical" sounding strings, it is worth checking out Aquila Nylguts that are sized for your particular ukulele (ukulele sizes are covered in the original posts). These days you can find them frequently already on the model. Still, it may be worth getting new ones. There are other Nylgut makers and those are also fine.
Fluorocarbon strings are the jangly kind. if you are looking for the classic ukulele sound, these are the ones to get. I would recommend Martin strings ( again, sized for your Uke). There is actually a great deal of variation. Right now, for example, I am using fluorocarbons on my smaller wooden ukuleles and Martin Premium "polygut" strings on my Fluke. Martin actually developed these in consultation with Aquila as an attempt to combine the best qualities of the mellow and the jangle. I find the Premiums to be a bit brighter than nylguts, Each note in a chord feels a trifle more distinct and single notes cut through in a group more easily. They also have a different feel They are less slick to the touch.
Of course, my experience may be subjective...like a shamrock shake tasting like mint. If you buy your first set of strings from either Martin or Aquila, you will be more than fine. Then you can try others to get the sound you want.
When I first posted I wasn't that keen on ordering online. I am still not. However, if you're looking for something more than the standard, online it will have to be. Do your research. A simple Google search usually will suffice. Then order from the company if possible or a reputable distributor. Here are links to the company's I have mentioned in this article.
Here is my fave uke company's web page: Magic Fluke USA
Also, Fluke-guy's brother-in-law is a ukulele deity (Jumpin' Jim Beloff). His page is probably the best place for ukulele-themed stocking stuffers, books (he writes them), straps, strings, etc... Flea Market Music.
Both of the above companies are based in Massachusetts so buy local when you can! :-)
If you want a more traditional looking uke that won't crush your wallet, check out these guys: Kala Brand Music
And the Martin Page...because it is pretty
Finally, the two articles that will make this one make more sense:
So You Want to Buy An Ukulele for XMas Part 1
So You Want to Buy an Ukulele for XMas Part 2
Well that is it for me! Happy Advent and happy uking!
FYI, this is a Makala "Dolphin" ukulele ($50 new) with basic Martin flourocarbon strings ($5). It may not be all you want but it is all you need for a good ukulele time. :-)
I usually keep the Ukestra videos somewhere else on my page but I wanted to put this one here. Recorded under a variety of names, this song began life as a poem by Woody Guthrie to commemorate the (at that time) anonymous Mexican victims of a plane crash in 1948. The song was set to music by a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman and it has been sung ever since. The passengers were migrant farm workers being transported back over the border to Mexico. Reports at the time did not feel the need to mention their names.
A name is important. It has practical uses, of course. It is also a recognition of our existence as holy children of God. To erase someone's name doesn't really erase their existence or their holiness, However, it makes it very hard to tell their story. What is happening today is a willful ignorance--a gross perpetuation--of our past and present injustices. It is suppression and oppression of people. It is an attempt to erase the reality of our shared humanity to comfort the status quo.
We cannot stand with the status quo. We cannot allow the victims of today's crackdown on immigrant families--separating them from each other and in some cases "losing" their identities--to become mere numbers. We cannot allow ourselves to be numb. We must know their faces and their names and speak them loudly to the powers and principalities of this world.
Obviously, this song still has meaning for us today. Our nation--both before and since the plane crash at Los Gatos--has grappled with recognizing the humanity of people who do not fit a "traditional" (that is, white) concept of "America". We played this song on Sunday in recognition of past and ongoing acts of injustice. It is a reminder that the more things change the more they stay the same.
One postscript to the story is that years later, thanks to some diligent work, the names of the victims of the plane crash were discovered. Here they are so that they are not forgotten again....
The 28 Mexican Citizens Who Died in the Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos January 28, 1948
Miguel Negrete Álvarez. Tomás Aviña de Gracia. Francisco Llamas Durán. Santiago García Elizondo. Rosalio Padilla Estrada. Tomás Padilla Márquez. Bernabé López Garcia. Salvador Sandoval Hernández. Severo Medina Lára. Elías Trujillo Macias. José Rodriguez Macias. Luis López Medina. Manuel Calderón Merino. Luis Cuevas Miranda. Martin Razo Navarro. Ignacio Pérez Navarro. Román Ochoa Ochoa. Ramón Paredes Gonzalez. Guadalupe Ramírez Lára. Apolonio Ramírez Placencia. Alberto Carlos Raygoza. Guadalupe Hernández Rodríguez. Maria Santana Rodríguez. Juan Valenzuela Ruiz. Wenceslao Flores Ruiz. José Valdívia Sánchez. Jesús Meza Santos. Baldomero Marcas Torres.
There were prayers this Sunday as well. Our Congregational Associate prayed for the displaced people of the world. I closed with a prayer for the dream of that Commonwealth of Heaven, or as Woody Guthrie put it in one of our readings, "One Big Union."
Prayer for the One Big Union
Yes, we do all believe in “One Big Union”
We may not call it that
We may use terms like “The Just Society”
Or the “The Utopian Ideal”
Or the “Commonwealth of Heaven”
But what draws us together in places like
The Eliot Church
Is the dream of something greater
The will to oppose inequality
To find a home for the displaced
And to see the humanity of the stranger
We also gather here to recognize the call
In the words of the prophet Micah
To do Justice, Love Mercy, and walk humbly with God
We know that this new world
This new society will not come
Without the sacrifices and labors
Of those who envision it
And we know that we need help
To maintain our vision
And so we pray:
We know that we have fallen short
Of the call to equality, peace and justice
To the building of a world
That is free of violence and oppression
That give to each according to their needs
In the spirit of radical welcome that Jesus
And other prophets taught
We know this and we are sorry
And promise to commit ourselves
To the One Big Union again
Dear God please give us the strength
To keep on traveling down that road
A road with many distractions
Many struggles and discomforts
Please give us the assurance
That (even though we may never see the day
Of the Commonwealth here on Earth)
Please give us the assurance we need
To still work toward that day
In Faith, in Hope, and always in Love
ADVENT 18, 2017
Well, I have to admit that things have been a bit stressful lately. I bet they have been for you, too. as you know, I have been worried about the Christmas and Christmas Eve stuff. However, I am also concerned about the future of the church--Eliot Church and the church at large--and more than a little stunned by the state of the world. Maybe that is why I made last night the time to read the first chapter of Luke in The Tyndale Bible. I will probably move on to another chapter tonight and then to Matthew so as to get the whole story (at least in the scriptural sense) covered.
Actually, reading it isn't that hard if you use one of the contemporary "translations" of this first translation of the Christian scriptures into English. Those have standard modern spelling and punctuation. We use that version at the 7pm service on Christmas Eve so we don't get lost or confused. What I read last night was the facsimile of the 1526 edition.
I bought it years ago when I first got into Tyndale. I am a nerd and get super-enthusiastic about certain things. Every once in a while I crack it open. Reading it turns out to be a challenge. For starters an "s" looks just like an "f" and sometimes a "j' will be rendered as an "i". Words change their spelling in the midst of the same paragraph. Then, of course, there is a different vocabulary and sentence structure. Oh...and there is the font. My modern and aging eyes have trouble figuring out certain differences so "houffe" (house) looks like "bouffe". Also my brain tries to fill in words too fast so that the fairly straightforward "bleffed" (blessed) comes out as "baffled" when I read. Baffled is, of course, my condition in those moments...not Mary's.
That said, I like to do it sometimes. It requires concentration. The Advent/Christmas story is pretty familiar to me at this point and it is easy to stop paying attention to the words. Bending over this thing, puzzling it out, keeps me focused. There is also the history of the document. This would be the first book many people encountered in their lives. Certainly in 1526, it would be the first Bible they could read themselves. They would have had to puzzle it out, too. Literacy wasn't widespread. They also would have taken it very seriously.
After all, their actions were illegal. In 1535 the authorities caught up to William Tyndale. In 1536 he was strangled and burned for the crime of this translation. Turns out these hard words have power greater than their use as "lessons" between carols on Christmas Eve. Those who actually had their own power worried that if anyone could read it, their power would be diminished.
When I read this translation I cannot help but wonder--as its original readers must have--what it was that made the church, the governments, and the rich so scared. When I read this version, concentrating on getting every word correct, the answer is obvious. Jesus so clearly sided with his fellow poor and oppressed. He claimed lordship from his lowly post and said that the world we move through does not belong to the ownership class. Nor does God's world.
Back then the Bible was viewed--at least by those whose position was threatened--as a document for the purpose of revolution. It was dealt with in the ways the rich still deal with such things. It was repressed. Today we would say that people were granted "unequal access" to it. We see the same strategy in action when the concept of equal access to money, education, employment, healthcare, housing, marriage, and compensation (among others) is challenged, Even more recently, we can add the internet to this list. Just as with the Bible, deregulation is an attempt to restrict the flow of information.
To believe in these things--that all people should be able to have their fair share of the resources and that equal access is the same as equal opportunity--is to mark yourself off as part of the fringe, a dreamer, a progressive. To believe that the wealthy and powerful need to surrender their wealth and power sounds downright unchristian to contemporary ears. Yet that was what Jesus, his family, and his friends were all about.
Over the centuries there has been a concerted effort to declaw Jesus' actions and teachings. It saves wear and tear on the furniture. There is a feeling in many parts of Burbania that to live by your faith in the public sphere is somehow rude. The problem is, the public sphere is so large that this idea reduces faith to a thought exercise. We are expected to generate happy thoughts at certain times and sad thoughts at others. No wonder people don't go to church! So much of the season is about warm fuzzies, joy and light, Jesus would be a Grinch at his own birthday party.
I am pretty sure I don't agree with Tyndale theologically on some points (quite possibly many). Also, a modern Bible scholar could debate his word choice in a number of places. Still, there is Jesus, for the first time in accessible English, laying the groundwork for a massive upending of the social order that has yet to be fully realized. Today some churches fear stirring the pot and appearing as something other than pillars of the established way. In the Evangelical world there is much soul-searching about how some (but certainly not all) people in that community have abandoned long held beliefs to stand in the current political "winner's circle". Others--both individuals and congregations of many theological stripes--do step out and speak out. Sure, there are penalties for that. However, this has been quite a year for the Religious Left.
On Christmas Eve in this country we will probably think we are reading a nice religious story that will reassure us. In fact, it probably will provide solace in a difficult time. It does, in fact, contain a personal meaning. Yet the radical message is still there, too. I, at least, will be praying that it enters our hearts in such way that on Christmas morning we feel that call to build a just a peaceful world. I pray we build (using today's words, not Tyndale's) the Commonwealth of Heaven.
I am running a Facebook "Advent Calendar". You can find it by searching for "Burbania Posts". many of them don't translate well to this format, but when they do I will post them here...
ADVENT 12 2017
I find myself highly susceptible to Facebook roaming today. There is so much going on. Roy Moore appears in my feed quite a bit. The post-election analysis continues. However, Roy also makes an appearance with Harvey Weinstein et. al. on a list of the "worst people of 2017". It has been quite a year, hasn't it? Let's work toward a better one for next year.
Of course, for me, all this heaviness forms an unwelcome (if sadly familiar) backdrop to a time when we try to look to that better world. The holidays are an exercise in imagination. We tell ancient stories in the hope that we can live up to their promise. In the midst of a sometimes grinding, often dehumanizing reality, we must make space for those Advent values of Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace.
Here in the Advent-prep world we are quickly moving toward Pageant Sunday. This is one of my favorite services of the year. Right now we have a bit of an "innovation" to contend with. Thanks to logistical concerns there will be a few adults filling in various roles. It will be fun, though. It is always fun.
I leave the casting concerns in the capable hands of the pageant's longtime director. My job today is to begin to nail down the sermon. It is a strange one to preach as it comes after the pageant cast has left for their "party". This year it will be about embracing the festive elements of the season. "Let's Talk About Santa" is the title. I will try it out at the local nursing home this morning.
Actually it is a good pageant topic. The pageant story is, of course, the traditional one. It's a classic mashup of Luke and Matthew. That said, Santa (or his representative) briefly makes an appearance and the costuming is frequently non-traditional. Also, in our church at least, the actors lean toward the comedic rather than the somber.
Not a problem. We learn the story in ways that make sense to us. A pageant changes the medium from scripture to theater. The goal is to put life in the static words. The lives that enter them (and that those words enter) bring their own stories with them. The actors, audience, writers, and directors are bound to make their own interpretations.
The solemn scripture reading will come at the late services of Christmas Eve. The early one will be ukuleles and carols mostly. There will be a time for the hushed silences. I know a lot of people are looking forward to it.
However, for me that is next week's concern. Now we are connecting to the wonder in a different way. We are letting the light in on this week of Joy--liturgically at least. We are keeping the faith that the world can and will be redeemed. That is worth a party.
I am running a Facebook "Advent Calendar". You can find it by searching for "Burbania Posts". many of them don't translate well to this format, but when they do I will post them here...
ADVENT DAY 11, 2017
I haven't managed to bake anything this holiday season. On the good side, I haven't burned anything! On the bad side, I really should. Baked goods are a tradition. I usually give them to fellow church-staff and volunteers. I will get right on it...maybe...
My barriers to baking joy are the classic ones. First, there is time. This year, Christmas Eve is on the fourth Sunday of Advent. This creates a compressed holiday for church leaders. Second, there is expense. I could probably by a house--granted, somewhere cheaper--for the amount of money I have spent on fruitcake ingredients. I don't mind being a renter but...wow...that is a steep price to pay for flour, nuts and apricots.
Actually, even though I haven't baked anything, I did roast some chestnuts last night. We put up our Moravian star (since fallen down) and the tree is decorated. When this happens I do the hot chocolate and chestnuts thing in the evening and sit in front of the Christmas tree to edit (again and again) the various orders of service for the next couple Sundays.
Chestnuts are affordable. They are the "fiddleheads of the winter" in that they are tasty but of limited interest. Chestnut roasting is easy. Heat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut an "X" in each chestnut (usually the round side) and place them in a single layer on a tray of some sort. Wait 25 minutes. Are they exploded? They are done. However, they are also 425 degrees! Be careful out there...
This year I will hopefully make gingerbread. It is simpler. Then the wife and I can take the savings and retire to a nice trailer in the woods. Of course I still have that fruitcake recipe. Here it is...
Fruit-Nut Bread of Advent Awesomeness
It should be noted that I am not a great baker. This recipe is modified from a couple of cookbooks that I usually use. One is the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that my parents bought me when I got an apartment in college. The other is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. If you know someone who does not have a copy. Get them one for Christmas. There is also a vegetarian one.
This is for two loaves because no one makes just one. That is silliness.
1 stick of butter
2 cups white flour
2 cups wheat flour
2 cups sugar (a small amount (1/4-1/3 cup) of this can be brown sugar if you are a New Englander)
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
1.5 cups mulled (heated with cinnamon and cloves) apple cider
(other juices in a pinch but I actually will use a strong herbal tea first and it really should be cider)
2 cups dried fruit
1 cup walnuts chopped
About the fruit: Sure, you can use what you want, but if you asked for my recipe, the cider and the fruit are key. I use a small amount (1/4 cup) of crystallized ginger. Then I hit stuff that feels Biblical to me. I use apricots, dates, figs, cherries, blueberries, and cranberries usually. All in their dried form and then steeped in the hot cider (I also add the butter) for about 45 minutes. The steeping gives them enough time to mingle and then cool before adding the eggs, which you do not want to cook too early. The rest is easy, put the dries in the liquids. Stir gently until it is a sticky mess. You might need a teensy bit more cider. Put it in the loaf pan and.
Cook it at 350 Fahrenheit for 1 hour! Don't make the same mistake I did...
I need to do tasks today. Some are Advent tasks others are "so we don't starve" tasks. I try to front load this month as time becomes its own precious commodity the closer we get to the "big day". This is true for everyone. However church is one of the places we see this pressure the most.
Whether we are members of some sort of congregation or not, we want some religious and spiritual element to the holidays. For those of us who celebrate Christmas, we want to feel it, not just buy it. There aren't a lot of places left where you can do that anymore. Therefore, people bring these desires with them to worship. Some people--just as with Christmas shopping--wait until the very last moment. The first and only time we see them is at Christmas Eve. That is OK. Still, it poses a challenge for the church. Frequently, the ones for whom this is true carry unrealistic expectations about what can be done in 50 minutes on one December night.
On the 22nd of December we usually start getting calls from people "shopping" for a Christmas Eve service. They always ask the same question. It isn't theological. It isn't even expressly religious. What they say when we pick up the phone is "Do you light real candles and sing Silent Night?"
The answer of course is "yes." It would be like Springsteen--after three hours of every song he knows--forgetting to play Born to Run. We love the candles. We love how they make us feel. It is a favorite moment of many members in the church. Yet members aren't the ones calling the office. They already know the answer. The ones who call are searching for something in their season that they haven't found yet. Many of them aren't entirely sure what it is. To them church--any church--might be the sort of place that will have it in stock.
I don't mean this in a bad way. We love to have visitors in church any old time. In fact we would love to have them cease to be visitors and become friends. Besides, why wouldn't you ask about the candles? It's an important part of our holiday experience. I mean it as an observation of the simple fact that there is something...lacking in the lives of many people. There is a quest for meaning that is with us all year. However--for some folks--it is only in the crazy mixed-up holiday season that they can recognize it.
We recognize it by it's absence. On the one hand there is a story of a poor baby born to an unwed mother under trying circumstances. This child and his parents are part of an oppressed minority. Strangers in a strange town, they are repeatedly rejected by people who could help them until, finally, they settle for the corner of a barn. On the other hand we are told to mark this moment by buying sparkly things, toys, and food. We commemorate their suffering by engaging in our conspicuous consumption. Whether you believe the literal truth of the story or not, the contrast is jarring.
I am just going to say it. The Christmas Eve service--as lovely as it is--is a strange part of church life. It is where religion slams right up against consumer demand, creating a tangled mass of emotions and desires for people. There are competing constituencies. Partly we are a religious community gathered for a service of religion. Partly we are putting on a show for the secular holiday that dominates the culture. The people who call are sincerely interested in the religious and spiritual dimensions of the season. They merely using the language of the season, which isn't religious. It's transactional. "Do you have the thing I want?"
Make no mistake about it. Christmas is mostly secular. One of the two major stories is religious but in that "Jesus vs. Santa Claus" battle, Santa dominates the series. There are plenty of folks who will tell you that it is the "holiest day in the Christian year". If they tell you this, it is a sure sign that they aren't paying attention. As a church holiday, Christmas is in the first rank of the second raters. Easter is number 1. What comes next in the holy-day importance varies by sect and personal preference. However, in the clergy parlor game of holiday ranking, Christmas rarely gets higher than 6.
That's OK, though, right? Of course it is! Solstice celebrations pre-date Christianity for a reason. We need a party. It's all good. Yet, it is also important to know what we are looking at. Christmas is a Hallmark event. It's like Valentine's Day. Someone figured out you could boost the economy while singing carols, lighting candles, and putting a tree in your house.
Essentially there are two holidays on December 25. They use many (but not all) of the same symbols. One is spiritual. One is commercial. Each of us has to do the math as to how much of each we will participate in.
I engage in the commercial holiday, of course, and I often enjoy it. That said, I am also firmly "team Jesus". After all, Ol' Nick is considered a saint because he punched out a proto-unitarian (look it up). This is why the holiday I like best right now is Advent and not Christmas at all.. Advent is harder to monetize, so of that is your holiday, you are pretty much left alone. It has an added benefit, too. Since Advent is explicitly religious and minimally co-opted, I can prepare my self for actual Christmas (which begins--but doesn't end--on the 25th). That is, I can stay spiritual on Christmas Eve. I love it. However, I try not to make too many demands on it.
Part of the reason that my own tradition didn't really start celebrating holidays--including Advent and Christmas--until the 19th Century was because they believed (and still believe) that every day is equally holy. So, as with other holidays, Advent is a practice for me. It doesn't usher in a more sacred time but helps me to see the sacredness that is always there. Christmas Eve is also a practice, one made more effective because I do not require my spiritual life to come at me in one big dose.
Those callers, though. Sometimes they get me down. We do, in fact, have the thing they want. The problem is, we don't get it from a one-off worship service. It comes from years of walking a path of discernment in a community of fellow travelers trying to live their ideals.
Are houses of worship the only places these communities can be found? No. However, at least at Eliot Church, that is what you find. It is what we do every single week. The spiritual or religious experience doesn't come from a holiday. It rises from a practice.
Sometimes, however, these calls excite me. As I have already said elsewhere this Advent, we are on a journey that starts with a single step. Christmas Eve is an awesome first step to have. We gather together--friends and strangers filled with a vast wealth of experience and stories--to push back the dark and bring our own warmth in the midst of the cold.
So yes, of course there will be candles and Silent Night. Please come join us for that sacred and holy hour. Then--if this is the only time you ever visit--maybe after the New Year, when life returns to somewhat more mundane pursuits, you might want to drop back in. We will still be here to help you find what you seek.
I am running a Facebook "Advent Calendar". You can find it by searching for "Burbania Posts". many of them don't translate well to this format, but when they do I will post them here...
ADVENT DAY 5, 2017
The tree at the parsonage is finally up. It isn't decorated or anything, but baby steps have been achieved, which is a relief. Today I will search for lights and decorations in the attic after I get back from the office.
Yesterday, while I was kicking around the kitchen post-tree, I put on some Frank Sinatra. Most of the time when I listen to Christmas music it is from Sufjan Stevens or the somewhat less "high concept" Trekky Yuletide Orchestra (that is Trekky Records, not Star Trek). In both cases the work is set against a backdrop of our conflicted and anxious era...our own. Of course, Old Blue Eyes calmly crooning in his smooth, effortless style surrounded by the chaos of the Second World War fits this same theme nicely.
At Christmas time we talk about peace like it is here, even though evidence points to the contrary. Sometimes it feels like we are being aspirational. At other times it feels delusional. In the comments section I will put a video here from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It is an arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" they call "Christmas in Sarajevo". There are smoke bombs and lasers. It is discordant in places. What did you expect?
TSO began their career as the prog metal band Savatage. As a long-time fan I can say that this discord is intentional. They are placing a big, fat question mark on one of the major themes of the season. How much can we celebrate peace if we do not work for it? How much do we truly want to live in harmony with the earth and our fellow humans? Right now it isn't all that clear.
I am putting another song here before the comments. It is from that 9:30pm Christmas Eve Folk Service of a couple years back. Walker and I are playing a Frank Turner song. Turner is a well known atheist and has written some beautiful songs that can really only be considered hymns. This is one that we like to pull out sometimes. It addresses (perhaps more quietly and with--at least on my part--reduced technical talent) the same question. What does this holiday mean for us in our own doubt and our failure to meet it's lofty goals?