Christmas Eve, 2022

Originally delivered at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana

Moving here from Dallas, I’ve enjoyed such a different relationship to local, national, and even international news. There’s a much greater focus on what’s happening on the ground here, locally, in our area, rather than out there, in the greater reaches of the world. Of course, things in the past year like the invasion of Ukraine have loomed large even in our eyes and ears here, but if Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, has had any more wine and cheese parties, I have no idea – and I really don’t care! It’s so freeing to keep the main thing the main thing in so many ways here. 

But here’s my question for us tonight: would we have heard about Jesus’ birth? If Jesus were to come again in as quiet and small and unimpressive a way as he did the first time, are we in a community, in a text thread, in an environment that would have known right away about Jesus’ arrival? 

Surely we would want to get that sort of news as soon as possible, right? We don’t want to be behind the ball on the arrival of God in Jesus Christ! Don’t leave us out of the news alert of this birth! But the first time around, to whom did the angels go? Where did the heavenly host appear to announce this holy birth? 

It will not surprise you that the shepherds were not the, erhm, most desirable crew in the first century. They were the farm hands, the stinky, 24/7, low-wage workers. The heavenly host showed up to the farm hands. The angels told the hourly contract workers first. When God came to earth, the people on the margins knew first. 

What would it take for us to be part of the communities that got this sort of news first? One way is providing coats and warm clothes to refugees. Another might be providing food for people who are food insecure. How else might we, secure and privileged as we are in so many ways, form real, lasting, sharing-news sort of relationships with people who are today’s shepherds? 

It’s a big question with no quick and easy answer. But here’s my challenge to you this Christmas night. What might it take for you to have a clearer answer, an embodied practice, even, by Christmas 2023? Assuming that we want to be part of the communities that would receive the news of Jesus’ return first, how could we sit with, and learn from, and make friends with, and build relationships with, these people who may feel uncomfortable at first, but might also be God’s chosen people to reveal himself to us? How might our hearts be transformed and transfigured in 2023, if we humble ourselves just a modicum of the way that God did by coming in Jesus Christ, poor newborn of a young mother and a carpenter?  

A Dream

Advent 2

Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana, December 4, 2022.

Have you ever experienced a dream come true? Perhaps you have longed for years for a child, and either of your own body, or through adoption, or through another means, your desire for a child to love and to be in your life is finally, one day, fulfilled. 

Maybe you spent years, or decades, moving toward your vocation, whether as a doctor or lawyer, as a priest or a journalist, as a parent, or a spouse, or perhaps one of the most challenging vocations of all: truly believing that you are a beloved child of God. 

Our collecting prayer this morning affirms that the prophets tell us the truth and share with us the dreams of God. We ask in that same prayer to have the humility to accept and live those dreams, which are the way of life and joy. And today, Isaiah preaches to us of a dream coming true. In the beginning the wolf did lay down with the lamb, the nursing child could have played over the hole of the asp with no danger, and on all God’s holy mountain, in the beginning, there was no evil or darkness or destruction, there was no division or waste or abuse or aggression. 

This is a lovely picture, exactly what one might call “a dream.” But I might mean that in a pejorative sense, rather than a sincere one. We might scoff at such a dream. We might wheedle our way around a different interpretation in order to avoid the discomfort of claiming such a dream. Isn’t it just fairy-language to think of such a thing? Isn’t it just ignoring all of reality to consider such a thing to even be desired? Isn’t that what children think is possible? Not us grown ups, surely. We know. We know the ways of the world and the harsh realities of life and the awful truth of existence. What a dream.

There’s a book I love called, “Learning to Dream Again,” by the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, out of St. Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, and he talks in that book about how so much of our hurt and grief ends up making it just too painful to dream. We even lose our ability to dream because our hurts and disappointments are so plenteous and powerful that we can’t use our spiritual imaginations in the way we are made to, since the scar tissue holds us captive. 

This is a way in which I find that children are often more free. Just as their bodies don’t carry the scars of living for a long time, their spirits and souls are less affected by wounds, too. They just haven’t been as battered by the evil of the world and by disappointed expectations. They, like the children in the Chronicles of Narnia, have the temerity to hope. They have the courage or naivete to consider enemies lying peaceably together to be a possible dream. 

And that brings us back to the passage from Isaiah this morning, for what does Isaiah declare about this promised coming leader: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” This longed-for shoot of hope finds truth not in what his eyes behold in a broken earth, or what his ears hear in a war-torn world, or what his body touches in a dark and lonely place. His delight is in God, his attention is focused on the power of the Lord, his righteousness is from the truth of God’s Word, based not on anything tangible or of this world, but on the God who is known in Jesus Christ. 

Isaiah did not know that God would arrive as Jesus, a baby in Bethlehem, but Isaiah was told, and did share the dream of God that peace would reign and that all things broken or destroyed or cast aside would be brought back and made whole and set together again. 

I wonder if there’s a situation in your life that feels irretrievably broken. I wonder if there’s a relationship you’ve lost hope in. I wonder if there’s a person you love who has been so given up to evil that you cannot imagine what redemption might look like for them. I wonder if there’s a piece of yourself that feels unforgivable, or just gone forever. I wonder what the God in Jesus Christ might have to say about that relationship, or person, or you, when all is gathered to his holy mountain. 

There’s another way in which children reveal something important to us about what it means to have faith in God. They tend to have a great spiritual imagination because they haven’t seen as much or heard as much, so they haven’t been so bombarded by the messages of darkness and brokenness that can so easily fill our vision and make our lives noisy here and now. They also haven’t been in as much schooling as we have, they haven’t read and learned as much with their knowledge-brains as we have, so their minds and hearts are easily attuned to a different sort of knowledge, what Isaiah calls “knowledge and fear of the Lord” (11:2). Children tend, because they don’t have as many facts and figures filling up their heads, to have a better sense of awe, of humility, of curiosity and imagination, than adults often do. 

And I wonder if that’s part of why the Christmas season is something that’s often thought of as a season for children. The make believe of Santa Clause and the Miracle on 34th Street, and the dream of George Bailey, and the magic of snow, these all reach at and poke around the sense of awe and joyful possibility that is so natural to children. 

Could it be that this is what the God in Jesus Christ calls us to through Isaiah today? God shares the dream which he has had since the beginning of creation, the dream which he, by his might and power, and by his mercy and love, will bring to fruition in the day of Christ Jesus  (Php 1:6). By coming to be with us, Emmanuel, God makes good on his promise to do the impossible, and he finishes that work on the cross, when the powers of darkness intensify and the greatest bad thing ever threatens to tear God apart from the inside, and still Jesus stays. Jesus stays right through death and into resurrection. Who could have imagined such an outcome? How could anyone think up such a dream except God himself?

We know God’s dreams because he caused them to be written for our learning (Rom 15:4), and not just our book-learning, though that is how we often hide God’s Word in our hearts (Ps 119:11), but also for our soul-learning, for being formed in the awe and fear of the Lord. 

One thing that children often do not comprehend is what it takes to get to a dream come true. I used to pray for faithfulness or for gentleness, or for patience. I used to expect that these virtues would tumble out of heaven on a waterslide of clouds, and fill my heart up like it was an empty bowl, transforming me into a vessel of fluffy spiritual gifts. 

Now, I pray for such gifts only when I’m very, very desperate. Because I have found that patience is not something that pops up in my heart like a bubble of gum, but something that is gained inch by painful inch when my children won’t go to sleep, or when the traffic, and the grocery store line, and the doctor’s office voicemail, and the household chores all conspire against me on the same day. 

Dreams are not easily won, so far as I have found. And so we live in a paradox. We live being called to not judge by what our eyes see or our ears hear, but by the truth which God tells us and the dreams which he has set out in his Word for us to believe. We also find that sanctity is a life-long pursuit and sometimes a slog, it is always more than we bargained for, but as Peter says, it is the way of eternal life, what else could we do? (John 6:68) 

And so we are called to live with the awe and the imagination of children, to live with the unguarded hope which they show us. We are called to apply that hope to the dreams which God reveals in his word, clinging to the truth which is made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Repetitions Count

Jacob Anthony

We know that in physical training, or in learning to read, or in perfecting the skills of a new job, that repeating the same work over and over helps us become more adept, helps us move our skills toward muscle memory, helps us master our craft.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule, my high school track coach made us run 200 meter dashes 20 times in an afternoon, experiencing the same disagreement with my husband over and over has started to teach us how to communicate with one another better.

I’m finding the same is true with babies, and maybe with the things I read and filled my mind with during pregnancy, too.

This is the third newborn I’ve cared for, the third trial-by-fire-first-two-weeks-of-life. I keep hoping for a birth story that doesn’t include medical hurdles, but I haven’t been granted one yet. They haven’t turned out to be major or scary (no heart defects or babies stopping breathing), but each one has helped me to be more equipped for the next.

My first was put in the NICU about 12 hours after birth for rapid breathing. He spent almost a week there, and it was heartbreaking to leave the hospital without my baby when I was discharged. But no cause or problem was ever found. He came home, and by the time he did, I didn’t feel anxious about having a newborn alone at home, I felt so eager to finally bring my baby to our family.

My second spent an extra day in hospital, with me, and then, 12 hours after being discharged, spiked a fever and we ran back to the ER in the middle of the night. His fever raged for another two days, and then he was fine. He came home, too.

My third, this one born two weeks ago, was exposed to COVID in the first 12 hours of life, and I ended up catching it. He’s had a cough and congestion, though he hasn’t tested positive. I’ve been so grateful for the experience of keeping a little one’s airways open, the “reps” I’ve gotten in with long nights and monitoring baby breathing, the practice I’ve logged with nursing. I can come to this maybe-COVID journey with what feel like tools, like confidence, like trust, to walk with this baby through his illness (and mine).

This reflection made me wonder, too, about the reps I’ve been getting in with Julian of Norwich this year. I’ve spent most of 2022 reading and wondering and writing with Julian and her own themes (maybe they’re repetitions — training — too). She repeats over and over that our perspectives are skewed and veiled, we cannot ever see the whole picture that our God has before him, and our work is to trust the hand that created and sustains us. She tells her readers again and again that our trials and suffering are real and present but that they are not the whole story, she urges her disciples to regard them as lightly and as little as possible. Julian reminds us continually that we are glorious creations of the living God, dwelling places for the Divine, made to be light-filled particles of the image of God.

Often when I was writing and recording my podcast episodes, my mind would visualize the hospital where I’d give birth. I’d never been in it, but, if you’ve see one hospital room, you’ve seen them all, right? I’m not sure why my mind kept bringing that image up as I sat with our teacher Julian, but I wonder if it was a way that Julian, as one of the communion of saints, through the power of the Holy Spirit, was able to pray with me over the birth and infancy of this little boy, whatever trials may arise.

The episodes from my podcast from the first weeks of this month (May) speak especially to Julian’s views on prayer; I encourage you to take a listen if you’re curious about what prayer might be, and if you have questions, leave a comment here, and I’d love to talk more.

Why I Hate to Miss Church (and Why Online Church Doesn’t Help Me)

I grew up going to church because my parents brought me. Later, I went to church because it was the right thing to do, and also because the boy I liked went there. In college I didn’t go to church for awhile because I had freedom, and then I ended up back in the pews as my intellect prodded me to dig and dig and dig into the meaning of the world and existence and truth.

For the last 10 years, I’ve not-gone-to-church about 15 Sundays, total. It’s pretty ingrained. And yet, a Sunday “off” from church doesn’t feel like freedom anymore, it feels like an emptiness, I mourn it. Like, every single time. And yes, the pandemic brought this realization into even sharper focus for me.

When I go to church, it’s not the on-fire preaching that draws me, or the rapturous music, or the gaggle of BFFs eager to chat. Church is the physical place where I go and practice the truth for an hour — it recalibrates me from the habits of my week.

I need to experience again the truth that I cannot do everything on my own, that I need to be poured into, that I need to face my shortcomings and choose a different path, that I am not self-sufficient, that I do not always have the right answer, that the world is too much for me to save and I’m not meant to do it anyway, that I am not alone, that my suffering is not unique, that I do have gifts to offer, that I have value.

No where else in my life does all this. The yoga mat might provide a few, affirmations or drinks with friends might provide a few more, reading or writing or a course might give me some others of these truths, but no where in my whole experience confronts me with all the truth all at once in an overwhelming tidal wave of surrender, conviction, forgiveness, peace, and joy.

And online, I’m way too distractible — I have the privilege of a healthy body and access to transportation, and I just haven’t found that I get tidal-waved if I’m staring at a screen. The truth is too easy for me to ignore, the attack from all sides which forces my re-focus on truth is easily averted by organizing my desk while church is “on” in the background. I need the accountability of a community, the disciplined drive of an order of worship, the inconvenience of a pew and the expectation of silence; these drag me toward the path of truth and I’m stuck there at their mercy — where my transformation begins.

Hey, I Launched a Podcast

Now, I don’t know much about podcasting, and I don’t know much about Julian of Norwich, but I do know that we’re in a real tough moment as a society and world, and that I’ve found a lot of wisdom in listening to my forebears in faith, and that my brain and spirit have been much soothed by the habit of meditation (I’ve also been told for years that I have a great voice for radio, haha!).

So I thought I’d just dive in and see what happens — I’m reading a bite-sized chunk of Julian’s writings every day and offering thought or reflection question to help you dig a bit deeper if you want to engage it. Grab it below, or look it up on Apple Podcasts or Spotify!

https://rss.com/podcasts/emilyhylden/