Archive for December, 2011

Greener Pastures

I was caught by Woody Allen’s most recent film, Midnight in Paris.  In it a nostalgic dreamer, Gil (played by Owen Wilson) struggles with fantasies of living in a better time and a better place – he yearns for a Paris of the 1920’s.  Gil is balanced onscreen by Paul (Michael Sheen) a cynical, if somewhat insightful, professor who pontificates with endless lectures.  Discovering that Gil is writing a novel whose protagonist works in a “nostalgia shop” Paul launches into a condescending diatribe against the desire for the golden age of long ago.  “Nostalgia” says Paul “is just denial of the painful present.”

He makes a good point.  Nostalgia can be quite damaging, diverting as it does our attention from the very real here and now toward the often misconstrued or downright imaginary past. [Spoiler Alert] When Gil is transported one evening, at the stroke of midnight, into the Paris of his fantasies, the 1920’s, and is introduced to the literary and artistic lights of that era, he discovers the perfection he had hoped for.  Yet, as he gets to know the residents of his golden age, he finds that they too are disenchanted with the era in which they reside.  They pine for the turn of the century and the Renaissance and the middle ages.  Gil discovers that there are always greener pastures – always a more golden age.

Of course the church has fallen victim from time to time to this golden age fallacy.  We can enshrine and even try to recreate our nostalgic memories of a bygone era.  It isn’t uncommon to hear around the church – I remember when… Stand in a church long enough and you could get the impression that things were always better before now.  And, of course the opposite can be equally true.  Everything will be better in the future.  When we finally get our attendance or our finances or our mission statement perfected – then things will be truly great.  This is just as true outside the church as in.

I bring all this up because we find ourselves yet again at the threshold of a new year, a time when the whole world takes stock of what has past and resolves to do better and be better in the year to come.  For me, this looking back and looking forward can take on an unhealthy tinge.  Casting my gaze behind me, I remember the earlier me, the more carefree, thinner, more fun, and unencumbered me and I find myself resolving to be that guy all over again.  Or, I’ll look to the horizon and far off in the distance I’ll see the goals and accomplishments I hope for myself in the year or years to come and I’ll find myself resolving to become that guy moving forward.  Golden ages and greener pastures hold the potential of denying, as Paul says, the pain of the present, and in so doing, I would add, missing the beauty inherent in that very same present.  Right now, like before, and like whatever is next, is a complex and humbling mysterious blend of all pain and joy of life.

While as Christians we remain committed to and deeply informed by our history, and while we live confident in a hoped for future, we are called to be present to the very real here and now.  If we learn nothing during this Christmas season (only half way done) let us remember the truth we celebrate – God with us, here, now, in our present reality.  Whatever the pain or the joy or the confusion – God resides in it with and for us.

May you and yours have a blessed New Year!



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I approach vacation time like a Norwegian – well, specifically a Viking (as in we who discovered America, folks, not the other unfortunate sporting reference).  I see a week off as time to attack: my life, my house, my closet, my basement – even the garage since it’s warm out there.  Show no mercy to those messy files!  Sack the junk in those cupboards!  Toss the trash out of the trunk of the car!  Hunt and pillage at those mall sales, showing no clemency to those who can’t keep up!

I suppose it’s a weird conception of leisure.

I do other things, of course, but not with the passion that I bring to my voyages of raiding and trading.

Invariably, something throws the well-mapped plan off course.

Too often it is someone’s pain that provides the wake-up call to slow down and reconnect with gratitude for the moment – why is this?  Again and again I have been called out of my seemingly-secure little world by another’s accident or heartbreak.  I feel badly for them, of course, but mainly I am distraught to be reminded how vulnerable we all are at any given moment.

I had just nailed up (yes nailed – I have never mastered the screwdriver) my new, very large, round mirror over the dressing table, thinking what a find it was and how ‘20’s it looked, and was blissfully arranging the smashing yellow silk forsythia in a crystal vase on the dresser so that one stem of the blossoms gracefully drooped towards the mirror, having myself a fine time, when I saw red lights flashing in the mirror.

I went out to investigate and saw an ambulance in the alley and a patient trolley in my neighbor’s backyard. Sandyis an older woman who lives alone, and this felt ominous.  Saying, “Hello?” I poked my head in the door and saw her on the floor in tremendous pain.  The paramedics said she had dislocated her hip and they’d have to take her to the hospital.  She barely managed to tell me where to find the key so I could lock up the house after they’d all left.

I was ushered out of the door of the small house so as not to be in the way, and waited in the darkening backyard – at least twenty minutes – for them to bringSandyout.  Even though I hardly knew my soft-spoken neighbor and had never been in her house before, I was taken aback at the sight of her in such excruciating pain.  After hours, it seemed, they got her to the ambulance and sped off to the hospital

As I walked throughSandy’s little house to lock the front door, everything looked so normal: dishes on the counter, lights on in the living room, papers on the dining room table.  Yet in an instant, a fall, and Normalcy becomes Crisis.

I came home subdued, walking more slowly than before.  Finishing my projects seemed less urgent than calling my brother, emailing my daughter, surrendering to the overwhelming gratitude forNormal.

One of my favorite writers, Jungian James Hollis, says that what stops us in our tracks is often considered “an external violation of the soul, an intrusion into a smoothly flowing life, whether from the acts of others, from the fates, or by our own choices.  Yet just as often, it is the soul itself that has brought us to that difficult place in order to enlarge us, to ask more of us than we planned on giving.”

My soul asked more of me today than I had planned on giving. Sandylosing her balance forced me to regain mine.  That is grossly unfair but the least I can do is pay attention, slow the heck down and be very, very grateful.


Barbara welcomes your comments on the blog or at  mailto:barbara.mraz@stjohnsstpaul.org


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Dear Friends in Christ,

With nearly half a year behind us in this new relationship as rector and parish, I can say that St. John’s is beginning to feel very much like home.  As the year winds to a close and as we approach the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord, I am mindful of all the ways you have increased my faith, inspired me to deep gratitude, and filled me with a sense of hope.  God is at work in our midst in truly amazing ways, shedding light and brightening our lives by the presence of his Son.

Because these are busy times, I am particularly conscious of all the many ways that many of you have participated in and edified our common life through contributions of time and talent and treasure during this season of Advent and looking ahead at Christmas.  I want to say a special thank you to all of our choirs – vocal and bell, to the youth and all of the elves that helped green the church, to our altar guild and readers and acolytes who have helped us worship in the beauty of holiness, to our fellowship committee and all those who have decorated, cooked, and baked so that we might eat drink and be merry.  A special thank you is in order to the excellent staff who have worked countless extra hours so that liturgies could be printed, our space cleaned, parishioners visited, and music prepared.

As I write this I can hear the organ warming up for our festal services tomorrow (4PM and 10:30PM) and Sunday  (10AM) and the sounds of the altar being set with beautiful flowers.   It truly promises to be a delightful weekend full of the glory of the incarnation and the celebration of God with us.  I hope these days find you all in the warm embrace of family and friends.

Merry Christmas to all of you!



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During my entire childhood in the yellow house on West Curtice Street, putting up the Christmas tree was a miserable experience. 

It never seemed to fit into the stand without a battle involving saws, sawdust and spilled water on the living room carpet; the large-bulb multi-colored lights took forever to untangle; my brother and I were frantic with excitement and fighting about who got to do what first, and my dad had had a few beers.

Knowing how things always turned out, my hovering mother was nervous, waiting for the first explosion.  It usually came when my dad started the lecture about who the heck had put the lights away like this.  Never a patient man, it only got worse as burned-out bulbs were discovered: “I bought a ton of these last year—where the hell are they?” he would bellow.  “They’re in the box right in front of you,” my mom sighed, in the defeated voice that hurt me inside. 

After the lights were on the tree (each bulb anchored to the evergreen with its own piece of string – “You do a job right”), my dad stomped off to bed, for he was a working man who was up each day at five.  The rest of us, subdued and joyless now, quietly hung the ornaments. 

For a long time, I was embarrassed that our tree –trimming ritual was not like that of other families I imagined.  But one of the worst things we can do is engage in constant comparison.  Not only comparing our unsatisfactory life to the seemingly enviable lives of others, but also measuring present circumstances to how we imagine things should be or could have been, and of course, wondering if we are “living up to our potential”

Our comparisons are faulty because we seldom have the whole picture.  Wildly rich celebrities crash and burn; successful men reach a certain age and regret the decisions that made them successful; brilliant artists jump off bridges.  My neighborhood in West St. Paul was far from a tranquil Mayberry.  My whiskey-loving neighbor sent my brother and me running for cover when he roared at us across the back fence, and my mother’s beloved neighbor Violet died at age 50 of a disease that, had she lived now, could have been treated — the same disease struck me four years ago.

The thing is, comparing deflects gratitude for what we have now, in this moment.  Envy, failure, not measuring up to one standard or another, worry about the uncontrollable future – all clog up our minds and hearts, and dull our vision for what is in staring us in the face.

Pondering things in the bright light of the Christmas Star  – sometimes over many years – can bring us a more complete picture and, subsequently, one of the greatest of Christmas gifts: the beginning of forgiveness — of each other, of our families, of ourselves, maybe even of God. 

         God bless us, every one, with overwhelming gratitude, for what is, what was, and what is yet to be.


 For more on forgiveness please see this fabulous poem: www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175758

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