Christmas, Ministry

Cassoulet for Christmas: a word for cooks and preachers

My father-in-law from the first go-around was a wonderful cook. Creating delicious meals was his avocation. I came poorly prepared into that family-by-marriage, having grown up with a dad who literally did not know how to boil water and a mom who fed us dinner from terrible 1960s recipe cards. (Isn’t that tomato aspic … Christmas-y?) Julia Child was that lady Dan Ackroyd made fun of on Saturday Night Live; and who was James Beard?

My father-in-law had taken cooking classes at Beard’s brownstone in New York City.

My kids grew up eating impressive holiday food, and I learned what I could along the way, until I became a pretty good cook. But this is the first Christmas I will take on a dish that is more of a multi-day project: Cassoulet. I’ve made a detailed grocery list, and I’ve marked out which parts of the preparation need to happen on which days, making allowances for the somewhat inadequate gas power of our stove here at the Manse. (Let’s just say you can’t use the burners at the same time you’re cooking something in the oven, unless you don’t care what happens to the latter.)

I’ve been thinking about it for months, and I have wavered more than once, only to be reinforced in my intention. My former sister-in-law photographed the Cassoulet pages in her dad’s Michael Field cookbook and sent them in a Facebook message. A friend who used to be a caterer offered up her gigantic Le Creuset Dutch Oven, the kind of pot you don’t buy for something you may never make again. A Twitter buddy assuaged my anxiety with a better-explained timeline for the recipe courtesy of Bon Appétit.

And I read the Cassoulet recipe in my circa 1982 copy of Joy of Cooking, which told me that this peasant dish – what? – from France was pretty much a combination of every kind of meat a farm family could have pulled together for a special meal, plus beans. Surely, with proper forethought, I can make this happen. My Cassoulet will not have all “the meats,” but it will have enough, and my sons will stand in the kitchen with me cooking for days, and if all goes well, it will look something like this.

Pastors and preachers bring so many things to the feast at Christmas: our personal histories, and our faith traditions, and our study of scripture, and long-held local practices. We do our best to find a recipe for worship and proclamation that combines revolution with respect, commentary with candlelight, and carefully-planned mood moments with space for mystery to break forth. I know you have done your work, planning the way services will unfold, balancing the words and the music, always considering timing, and taking seriously your responsibility to say enough but not too much about what it means for God to come into the world, in the flesh, to be one of us. In some ways it feels as impossible as the countdown to Cassoulet, doesn’t it?

While I am cooking, I am also praying for pastors and the congregations they serve. I have confidence in you, and in your recipes.

Adapted from a message I wrote for the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader.



Christmas, Christmas Eve

Rumors of Joy – a Christmas Eve Story

It was a cold winter’s afternoon, one of those days when you can hardly believe it could be much darker and still be called daytime. Joe and Mary left Pittsburgh on the Greyhound bus that morning. They were hoping to get to Baltimore, where his family came from, but the bus was late, and they missed the connection at 5:45.

Back at home, people knew that Mary was going to have a baby. And they knew the baby wasn’t Joe’s. That was a hard one for Joe. There were rumors going around about the father of the baby. It didn’t help that Mary told him some story that no guy could believe, no matter how much he wanted to.

Mary said an angel came to talk to her, and the Spirit of God came over her.

Only a foolish person would believe a story like that.

Maybe Joe was a fool for love, then. He decided to take care of Mary, no matter what the real story might be.  He knew for sure they needed a place to stay that night. He figured they could find a room, and if they really needed it, he had heard there was a good hospital in town.

So they checked out the cheaper motels. But they were all full.

Joe’s cell phone was getting low on battery. They were standing near the bus station, wondering what to do next, when they heard the wheels of a shopping cart and the jouncing of bottles and cans.

An old lady pushed the cart toward them. She could see that Mary was very, very pregnant, and she offered to help them. She told them about the place where she pitched her tent and offered to let them sleep in it that night.

After all, she said, “It’s Christmas Eve.”

They followed her to a place down by the railroad tracks, where they were surprised to see a lot of people besides themselves seeking shelter on that dark night.

When they got there, everyone looked a little protective of their stuff. All except one. Her name was Angel. She had an overstuffed backpack, and as soon as she got a look at Mary, she started taking things out, looking for something important.

At the bottom of the bag, she found it. Someone had come down to the day shelter giving out diapers, and she took them, because you just never know what you might need.

At least that’s what she told Mary.

Angel looked around the tent city and started telling her friends about Joe and Mary. She remembered when she had a baby of her own, and she could tell just by looking that Mary didn’t have long to wait. Angel knew there were things Mary would need besides the diapers.

Sure enough, the baby was born that night. They never got to the hospital. A small group of people gathered and heard his first cry.

Soon, from the edge of the crowd, a man came forward. He was one of those guys whose looks made you want to steer clear, a silent giant with a pack of dogs and a grim expression. He rarely talked to anyone.

He came right over to Mary, and Joe looked worried.

But then the man said gruffly, “Here, take my blanket. I’ll huddle up with my dogs tonight.”

Then they had a visit from a man who thought they might need a little something else while taking care of the baby. He was one of those guys who always has a lot to say on every subject, full of opinions. Kind of a wise guy.

But on this night, he quietly offered them his lantern. “You may want some light,” he said.

Surrounded by new friends, the little family spent their first night together.

JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

When he looked at the baby, Joe was glad he had stood by Mary.

Mary said nothing, but her smile told him how joyful her heart felt, even in the dark, cold place where the baby was born.

You may find it hard to believe, but it’s a true story that they all felt warm that night, even the ones who didn’t have blankets.

It’s a true story that the baby’s face shone even before the lantern cast its light.

You may have heard about it.

People may tell you it was only a rumor. But you should always listen to rumors of joy.


This is an update of a story I wrote in 2006 as a Christmas Pageant presented by adults at Stevens Avenue Congregational Church UCC in Portland, Maine.

This version © 2014 The Reverend Martha K. Spong


Christmas, Reflectionary, Slaughter of the Innocents


When #2 Son was a 10th-grader, we went to hear a Student Reading by his classmates. Here’s part of a blog post I wrote that night in 2007, which came to mind in light of Slaughter of the Innocents, in the Revised Common Lectionary for tomorrow.

Poets speak their words, telling stories of parents who divorced, aunts who are dying, exploited workers overseas, refrigerator magnets and unicorns running softly over fields. Our boy hurriedly reads the beginning of a stort story and leaves us wanting more.

Then it is Ekrim’s turn. In this group of mostly privileged white children she stands out with her dark skin and head scarf. Her offering is a memoir, illustrated with posters. Her life began in Somalia. By the time her family reaches Nairobi, mothers weep openly. Two friends help with the posters. They hold up a picture labeled “Sadness,” which pictures a beautiful little girl in a colorful dress, arms outstretched.

Ekrim sometimes stumbles over her text, but as she tells this part of the story she hesitates not because she has trouble reading what is written but because what is written is unspeakable.

“People were so poor they had to give their babies–”

Her voice breaks. She stops and tries to collect herself. She begins again and stops again. I wonder where the teacher is? Then I see her in my peripheral vision, walking calmly to the front of the room. She stands with Ekrim, whispers something to her, wraps a consoling arm around her shoulder.

“People were so poor they had to give their babies away.The parents left their babies in the street because they could not feed them. They dressed them up as beautifully as they could so people would want them. We saw the babies crying in the street until someone took them.”

Her family went on to live seven years in a desert refugee camp before escaping to the U.S. two years ago. Every day of her young life contained fear: that the men in her family would be killed, that the girls would be taken, that she would be separated from her mother. Teachers in the refugee school beat children for being late. Police abused rather than protecting the helpless. When her family’s cottage caught fire, they feared going out into the camp at night. Fire held less terror. All this she told us, but she cried only when she remembered other people’s babies.

After each reader, good or bad, we all applauded, but when Ekrim finished her story, filled with gratitude for her life here and hope for a future including college and creative pursuits, we rose to our feet while her friends embraced her.

My son went away to school the next year, and I don’t know what happened to Ekrim. I never knew her last name. But today I consider the ones who survive all the trials and threats of life, the provocative storytellers and the chosen redeemers, and I remember Ekrim and the way her innocence was slaughtered.


First blogged here: Student Reading.

Advent, Christmas, Prayers for Pastors

Let Your Face Shine (a prayer for pastors)

01abf20dc041d9c5c9b732144d6d4811e2a254ec50Around the middle of the tree
the lights have gone dark.
We’ve checked all the bulbs,
but cannot find the problem.
How can we get the lights on?

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

From church comes a call.
The organist has (choose one):
a) broken a limb;
b) gone to the hospital for surgery;
c) attempted a coup.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

The Weather Channel sends an alert.
Ice is in the forecast,
an inch will coat the roads.
Travel is dangerous, and church
should probably be cancelled.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

We have worked so hard,
prepared so faithfully for
this last Sunday before
Christmas, 4th Advent,
day of Love and Light.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Some of us will preach to seven people,
and some to three hundred, but whether
the congregation holds scholars who unnerve us
or people who have never opened the Book themselves,
give us a good word to say.

If they stay home
(the congregation we expected)
because of the weather,
or leave early for vacation,
please bless them anyway.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Give us patience for the small tasks,
for turning on the lights.
Give us courage for the hard ones,
the judgment calls and anxious scrambles.

Remind us that in the end,
Christmas will come.
Christ will not be stopped
by a failed string of lights,
or a missing worship leader,
or a weather emergency.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.*

*Psalm 80:19, NRSV

Christmas, Love, Marriage, Orientation

The Gift of the Magi

If you know the story of Della and Jim, you will remember this scene.

Jim stepped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of a quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, not disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stare at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on her face. (O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi – Read the whole story here.)

Sadly, out of print.
Sadly, out of print.

A family friend, a young man who worked for my father, gave me this copy of the story as a Christmas present in 1972. I was 11, and the story made a deep impression about what it meant to love and what it meant to give. Ever since then, I’ve been a good giver, and I’ve watched and waited for others to give to me the same way. I’m not saying I always get it right, but I’ve honed my intentions and tried to pass them on to my children. I’ve watched them take pleasure in finding just the right thing for each other and for me. They would have to tell you when I’ve gotten it right and wrong, but let me tell you of their successes:

This year, Mr. Dimples approached Santa with a list in his pocket, to be sure he didn’t forget anything. kzj asked about the age when the emphasis turns away from receiving and toward giving. I reassured her that at his age, LP demanded a new American Girl doll and, even though she got Nellie as a companion for Samantha, reacted in fury when Snowman got a TV. (A TV which everyone a little older knew was less expensive than the doll, and which did me the favor of getting video games out of the living room.) It takes time and maturity; for each of them came some moment, not immediately identifiable, when giving became the better part.

How do you teach that, she wondered?

I told her what I told them about my philosophy of receiving gifts. I never look at a gift and wish it had been something else. I am the least likely person to exchange something. It’s not the material item that matters; it’s the feeling behind the gift. It matters to me that the other person cared enough to want to do something for me.

I guess I’m saying it’s the thought that counts. (And I freely confess there was one year recently I managed to make that the worst pressure of all. I am a reformed sinner.)

Our stockings

This is the first Christmas kzj and I will be together on the day. We have exchanged our greetings by phone in the wee hours of Christmas Day after finishing our work and worship for the night. We have celebrated 2nd Christmas on the 27th or 28th after long travel days and a second Christmas vigil. So rightly, this is a very happy and exciting Christmas for us! We will worship together, with our children, and we will wake up on Christmas morning and Mr. Dimples will be the Stocking Czar, and we will take our time opening and admiring all the gifts, large and small, currently secreted away in places I will, of course, not mention in this public forum.

The other night, while I wrapped gifts for the Beantown side of the family, I glanced up to see kzj holding her iPad with a look on her face not unlike Jim’s. An email informed her that an order would not be coming due to “System Cancellation.”

Erik Blegvad, illustrator
Erik Blegvad, illustrator

Jim rallied to embrace Della, to assure her that there could be nothing “in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that make me like my girl any less.” Her hair for his watch-chain, his watch for her hair combs, they gave away the treasures of their house in an act O. Henry described as “the wisest.”

It may be that tears were shed at our house about the present that will not come, but not by me. For you see, I’ve never had a surer proof of care than the look on her sweet face.

It’s the gift I’ve wanted all along.

Christmas, Orientation, RevGalBlogPals

An envelope with no return address

It came in the mail yesterday, an envelope with no return address.

It came addressed to me, but in care of Kathrynzj’s church.

I have to tell you that although she hasn’t made a fuss about it, an envelope with no return address coming to the church has, in the time since she came out, brought the kind of mail you show to the security team and put in a file where you don’t have to see it again unless more comes and you might need to call the police.

An envelope with no return address has also carried the kind of mail both our denominational execs refer to as “non-existent,” because that’s their policy for anonymous complaints, although I have some ferociously brave colleagues elsewhere who have read such letters aloud in church or posted them for all to see, letting anonymous bullies know that fear will not help keep their existence a secret.

An envelope with no return address, and a blurred postmark, worries us.

Kathrynzj brought it home gingerly and stood beside me while we steeled ourselves, and I opened it.

Here is what I found inside.

Anonymous Donation


Well, then.

Well, then! Whoever you are, thank you!

At Kathrynzj’s suggestion, we are keeping the $20, given that the RevGal bank account is in Texas, and making a donation to the RevGalBlogPals Fundly campaign in honor of Anonymous, who showed us that sometimes an envelope with no return address holds good news. Sometimes, even when you’re expecting the worst, grace prevails.