The Gift of Christmas

After a long and beautiful day of Christmas Eve services, I woke this morning far too early. Yesterday, surrounded by beautiful music, lovely words, the amazing sight of faces lit with candlelight, carried me through the night and left me wide awake in the early hours before the light had arrived on the newly, fallen snow. Having been up till the wee hours of the morning seemed to make little difference. I was like a child on Christmas morning! As I walked down the stairs, I could see our young neighbors, elementary aged boys, already awake, sitting in their pajamas near the Christmas tree. I remember those days well. A house filled with the excitement of children clambering to see what Santa had brought.

But this morning my heart is filled with another kind of joy. It is the full hearted gratitude of a mother who loves spending time with the young adults who now sleep in a little later on Christmas morning but whose conversations amaze and provide such happiness. Their dreams are bigger than the toy that might be under the tree. I am grateful to be in their presence, in their lives. Such gifts these seasons can bring. Time spent with dear friends whose faces may have a few more lines than last year but are more beautiful to me than I can express. I think it was the sheer blessing of my life which awakened me. Not a bad thing at all.

Christmas Eve services can provide that rush and glow we all long for at some deep level. Those of us whose work is in the church spend hours, days, weeks, months planning and working to create the moments when meaning is made or rediscovered. We all need those touchstones to remind us of the faith we share, the stories that hold our feet to the ground and, sometimes, to the fire. Christmas Eve services can do that. I feel blessed to be a part of it all. To remind people that this God, which is mostly Mystery, showed up in a place long ago and far away and the telling of this holds us, gives shape to our lives and our living.

But each year, as we tell this Christmas story, I am always reminded of the words of the 13th century German mystic, Meister Eckhart. Once I discovered his words and his wisdom, the worshipful acts of Christmas, have never been the same:

What good is it to me
if Mary is full of grace
and if I am not also full of grace?
What good is it to me
for the Creator to give birth to his/her Son
if I do not also give birth to him
in my time
and my culture?
This, then,
is the fullness of time:
When the Son of God
is begotten
in us.

And so, on this Christmas Day, when I awoke far too early and will certainly need a nap, I feel blessed by this challenge as well as the candlelight and the friendship and the glow of a night now passed. I carry the story of 2000 years in my bones but my work is the living of this Christmas story in my time. It is the gift of the season to us all. It is a gift that may just possibly keep us awake at times.

And so with that gift still opening in all of us, may this day bring a blessed Christmas.


It’s a Wonderful Life

A holiday tradition at our home is to watch the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I never tire of it and seem to see something new in it every Christmas season. This story, that to some may seem too saccharin sweet and even predictable is, for me, a great reminder of what it means to travel this earth as a human connected in ways that are visible and invisible to us. George Bailey, the tragic hero who is forever having his dreams dashed, is in so many ways, each of us. George makes plans, dreams big, and then is caught in the net of life that has him sacrificing, giving, and letting go over and over again. In his deep despair over his perceived failures, he tries to take his own life but is rescued by a wayward angel who is assigned to George. The angel’s job? To prove to George the many ways he has indeed had a ‘wonderful life’, one that has impacted countless people in ways that he never knew about.

The climax of the movie has George being surrounded by all those whose lives he has touched. Each person pours money on the table in front of him, recounting how he has been important in ordinary and extraordinary acts of kindness and generosity. The scene never fails to bring tears to my eyes, not only for George, but for all of us who walk through the world never knowing the true impact we make. A kind word here. A generous act there. A smile offered at just the right time. A word of affirmation not withheld but given in its fullness.

Last week our home had what I am coming to see as an ‘it’s a wonderful life experience.’ In true Advent fashion, it came to us as surprise. We received a phone call from a young man we hosted ten years ago as an exchange student from France. It was a short exchange of only two weeks but when language is a challenge and the order of your family life is interrupted, I admit it seemed much longer than that. This young man was doing a road trip across the US and wanted to come for a visit. Our first thought was that this was not a convenient time. My work is very busy at this time of year and both Seattle sons would be arriving for the holidays. It didn’t feel like we could upend our lives to host someone who we remembered as being a less than easy guest.

But something in us said ‘yes’ and we agreed to pick him up at the bus station. In the two days that preceded his arrival, we questioned whether or not we had taken leave of our senses but decided to hold it all gently. Somehow I think, at some deep level, we knew that this was a gift we were meant to receive. At the station, I recognized him right away and he greeted us with such openness as if no time had passed at all.

It was clear time had passed,however, because our guest’s English had improved quite a bit while our French had not moved one word in ten years! His reminiscences began almost immediately as we crossed over the Mississippi. ” Here’s where you showed me the….the…eagles!” These pronouncements continued as he moved from room to room in our house. “Here’s where there were many breakfast foods and the comics in the newspaper.” “Here is where we celebrated my birthday.” This happened over and over until we came to realize that, what we had seen as not one of our finer moments as hosts, had been for this young man a very significant time. After four days, as I delivered him to his bus and the next leg of his cross country tour, he left me with these words: ” You know, it was really because of you all that I wanted to come back and do this trip. It was such a good time.”

I tell this story not because I really believe we were such fine hosts. I tell it because it was a lesson for me that we never know, really know, the impact of our words, an act of kindness or the ways we truly affect another human being. George Bailey was just living his life, doing the best he could with those he met every day. We were just fulfilling one of those parental obligations that happened to come our way. But it was clear to this young man, it had been much more than that.

Perhaps as Christmases go, this will be the one when we remember the year our long, lost French student came to visit and reminded us to be aware, very aware, of our words, our actions, both ordinary and extraordinary. Because we just never know. We just never know. Perhaps this will be the year when we remember once again that it is truly, ‘ a wonderful life’!


Holding Hope

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”
~ Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

These are the days we in the Christian household say are filled with hope. We hope for the celebration that is the coming of the Christ Child, that new birth meant to budge us all off center in the ways of living our normal lives. We hope for peace….in our workplaces, in our families, in our friendships, on the whole of earth. We hope for it, we sing about it, we long for it in some place deeper than deep within us. Some of us hope for stillness, silence, quiet to collect the fragments of our living that seems flying about,just outside our reach. Others hope for excitement or at least a turn from the mundane, dullness of struggle and loneliness of the predicaments that never seem to get fixed.

Hope. It is big and if we forget that it is a powerful force in our lives we can slip down the slope of despair pretty quickly. The knowledge of this has been popping up for me all over the place in the last days. It seems people’s lives, those I know and those I only read or hear about in the wider world, are carrying heavy burdens. Illness. Death. Grief. Loss. Homelessness. Hunger. Poverty. Unemployment or under-employment. The needs seem, at least to me, greater than usual. Have you felt this, too?

Two Sundays ago at church someone said to me:”People are certainly carrying bowls full of tears.” Bowls full of tears. What an image! What a metaphor! As the days and weeks have unfolded, I have seen it more and more. I have wondered if this year is different. Or is it my age that has me seeing and experiencing this in a more profound way? Perhaps. Or are there simply more tears flowing at this particular moment in time?

Yesterday I sat allowing my cold, dry and cracked hands to warm as they hugged a coffee cup. I stared out into the middle distance thinking about the image of people walking down streets, through buildings, in and out of doors, their hands outstretched holding their bowls. Full. It was a prayer of sorts. And then it hit me that in many ways this being awake and aware of these hands, these tears, is actually another gift of Advent. If we truly practice ‘staying awake’ as the scriptures urge us to do, our experience is not just of the ‘Wow!’ moments. Like the amazing, full and brilliant Snow Moon of last night. Or the ways in which people are humming gently under their breath as they move from place to place creating live Muzak all around. Or the smiles that are offered in more demonstrative ways as doors are held open or cookies are passed.

No, being awake, truly awake to the fullness of this wide Creation, to the vast array of humanity, also means seeing the vulnerabilities and the deep hurts we all carry. All the time. Every day. Each season. Sometimes, particularly these days that lead toward a time designed, or at least sold to us to be warm and magical, are meant to be full of more hope than any time any life can produce.

The gift of living, the gift of Advent is to be awake to it all, tinsel and tears, hope and hopelessness, in all its fullness. The Christ Child was born into the harshest of places and continues to be born again and again. In sanctuaries and on street corners. At tables laden with food and those with the staples acquired at the food shelf. In hospital rooms and humble homes.

Perhaps our real work is living inside the hope, holding our own bowl of tears and reaching out to all the others who walk beside us as we wait patiently and urgently for this birth to come again.


Making Meaning

There is great gift in the observance of the seasons of the church year. I was reminded of this over the weekend when I read an article in the Star Tribune about what they called the ‘Sunday blues’. This was a new concept for me. The writer outlined research and used interviews to explain the phenomenon that many people have of feeling blue, depressed, as Sunday arrives and draws their weekend to an end. The article spoke of the dread of Sunday and how some people even feel physically as well as emotionally ill on this first day of the week.

I read this article with a great sense of surprise and some sadness. As one who looks forward to Sundays, to seeing many loved ones I have not seen all week as they arrive at church, this concept was completely out of my range of understanding. I tried mightily to get inside the psyche of the stories of those in the article. And while it might be easy to go to the ‘well, they just ought to be in church’ place, that’s not where my heart went. Of course,I and many I know would miss the church gifts of singing,stories, prayer,I know that is not what others necessarily long for.

Instead what I read into the subtext of the article was some innate desire for a rhythm, a pattern, that gives form and meaning to the living of our days. When our days are defined only by our work, preparing to go there, being there, coming home from there, no matter how important the work, something seems to be missing. It becomes easy to forget that we are a part of something so much larger than tasks and duties. No matter how noble. No matter how vital.

For me, the ebb and flow of the seasons provides this. Being present to spring, summer, winter, fall, sets the stage for reflecting on the meaning of the work I do in the larger context of new birth, growth, living, dying and back to rebirth. I can make meaning out of that sacred circle and it keeps me humble.

The same is true in the rhythm of the church year. The Sundays in Advent feel much different than those in Lent. The season of Pentecost has its own spirit and Epiphany has such a sense of fulfilling light. Christmas…..well, what can you say? Joy! And then there is the long, winding, unfolding season of Ordinary Time which always seems anything but ordinary. Each of these seasons accompanied by a particular color…Advent blue, purple Lent, Epiphany white, Pentecost red and Ordinary green….give form to my days. I would miss this if I didn’t have it and might search for something to make sense of the give and take of my days.

Of course I don’t know the circumstances of those interviewed, those who feel blue on Sundays. All I know is that reading the article caused me to be filled with gratitude for the ways I have been blessed to observe these seasons and to use them to make meaning in my life. It seems a gift of some ancient time, some deeper wisdom.

As the Advent days continue, we will light the candles, one by one, until Christmas(joy!) arrives. In the blue of the candles and the darkness of the days, I will once again hold the tension of light and dark and the gifts of both. I will place myself in the larger story of the unfolding Universe and remember that the tasks I accomplish in a day are important but not necessarily earth-shattering. It will be a good reminder to hold it all gently.

And being gentle in Advent, with both ourselves and others, is a very good thing.


Something Amazing

The Incarnation is, of course, the prime example of God’s “coming down.” But every time God brings life into spaces we imagined were dead, with nothing left to offer, we experience another moment in which God comes down to inhabit us.
~Enuma Okoro,Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent

It seems the scriptures of both the Hebrew and Christian households are filled with stories of those who long for children. The scriptures of Advent have two central stories of birth. One is to an older couple who is surprised by an angel telling them they will give birth even in their old age. Miraculous. The other is, of course, the story of Mary, a young unmarried woman who is also visited by an angel telling her she will have a child. Miraculous, again. Both of these births are Holy Spirit work but then again, most birth is.

Here we are in the second week of Advent. I have been continuing my daily reading through the book Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent and was taken with the two sentences above. It is easy to focus our whole attention on this birth of one particular child born more than two thousand years ago. But the lncarnation, the in-breaking of God in the world,goes far beyond that. “Every time God brings life into spaces we imagined were dead, with nothing left to offer, we experience another moment in which God comes down to inhabit us.”

The stories of birth in the scriptures almost always seem to come by surprise. They may be longed for, waited for, hoped for but their actual occurrence is brought about by some miraculous in-breaking of the Spirit. The same is true today, isn’t it? We see situations in our world where it didn’t seem possible anything new could happen, any good could arise, and then some movement shifts the balance and everything changes. New life. I thought of this with the death of Nelson Mandela this week. Apartheid ruled a nation and for those who were under its thumb, there was nothing left to offer, no choices to be made. But his faith, his patience, his belief in the gifts of all humanity and his ability to unite a people brought life to places imagined dead. Miraculous.

It is easy to make this unfolding story of Advent a singular telling of this Christ Child. But this invitation to be present to the in-breaking of God is ours to live each and every day. At least that is the message I hear on the lips of the One whose birth we will soon celebrate. Jesus,over and over, pointed the people away from focus on him and toward the care of the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the lost, the left out. He continued to focus people’s eyes and hearts on the places believed to be dead with nothing left to offer saying:” Wait a minute. Something is going to happen here. Watch for it.”

Today, in this second week of Advent, our own waiting continues. There are places around the world that need our prayers and our attention. Places that seem impossible, with nothing left, no hope. There are also people who seem at the end of their rope, all the choices used up, no place left to go. As the dark blanket of December continues to fall, you may be finding yourself in the midst of one life’s barren places. There are institutions and organizations that have hit the wall and can’t seem to find a way to move in any path of goodness and creativity.

The invitation of Advent continues. Keep awake. Watch for the ways light is born from shadow. Prepare our hearts with mercy and kindness. Wait with patience for the in-breaking of Spirit. It will bring something miraculous. Something amazing.

It always has.


One Evolving Day

There are days so full of gift they take your breath away. Yesterday was one of those days. It was a day slow to evolve. This was partly driven by the snow that filled the skies and overflowed onto the roads and sidewalks. To have moved quickly through this would have been unwise. Sitting in a chair, watching the silent fall of flakes, created a mantra of unfolding that was not to be rushed. Since I had chosen to work from home, to not battle the elements or the other drivers, I had the luxury of allowing the day to arrive in its own sweet time. It seemed a very Adventy thing to do.

After much paperwork and a long list of phone calls had been made,I prepared myself for the gift of the afternoon. It was my privilege to attend the swearing in ceremony of one of our dear ones who was taking on the mantle of citizenship of these United States. I had only attended one of these some time ago when family friends welcomed their adopted Korean son into full citizenship. He was just a youngster and the event happened on the steps of the State Capitol. It was near the Fourth of July and had a very festive feel, steeped in the heat of summer. Many children were a part of this experience. It was wiggly.

Yesterday’s event was quite different,housed as it was in the midst of a mini-snowstorm, on a day that was quite unlike days many of those being sworn in had known in their native lands. We arrived just as the ceremony was beginning and came into a room packed with people, beautiful people,in all the various shades and hues humanity can clothe itself in. Those being sworn in filled the front part of the large courtroom. Those of us who came in support, love and admiration, took up the back of the room. There were babies and grandparents, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, partners and friends. The room seemed almost too small to hold the emotion and excitement. The very walls could have been breathing in and out with the expectation.

As I sat there looking out over the room, I was reminded how often I travel in a world where people look basically like me. Most of the places I go, restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters, even church,is made up of people who look fairly similar. And yet this is not how the world is! The world is so much more beautiful, so much more varied and colorful, than my little, tiny slice of it. This amazing palette of people, created in the image of the One who breathed us all into being, is an ever birthing piece of artwork and I am wise not to forget it.

I tried to imagine the life stories of the 71 people who had worked so hard to be sitting where they were. The forms they filled out. The books they studied. The questions they answered. The facts they memorized. Where had each come from? What did they sacrifice to be here? What do they hope for? How will this citizenship change who they are and set a course for their lives and the lives of their families in a new way? So many questions. So much to admire. I was filled with humility in the face of it all.

The judge who presided over this ceremony reminded these new citizens that they each had much to offer their newly adopted country. Their offerings were grounded in all they had brought with them from their natives lands….their music, customs, clothing, traditions and faith traditions. She impressed upon them that these gifts they have to offer is what makes this country great. By this time the tears were streaming down my face. I wanted to stand and shout: “Amen! Preach it, sister!”

Sitting as I did yesterday in the midst of this rainbow of humanity, I was reminded of so much. The freedoms I often take for granted. The beauty of this land I love. The way I often live small, forgetting the fullness of the family I have been born into. The human family. Those who walk upright and speak countless languages. Those whose skin is similar and very different than mine. Those who sacrifice and scrape and save to make a life. Those whose joy spreads across smiling faces and tear stained cheeks.

As Advent days go, this one was fuller than I could have imagined. And for that I am grateful.


Invitation of Silence

Several weeks ago, a colleague shared a book of Advent writings with me. The title is Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent. The author is Enuma Okoro. It is a lovely little volume that uses the story, not of Mary and Joseph,the usual stars of the Christmas telling, but that of Zachariah and Elizabeth. These early entrants in the unfolding scripture story that leads us to Christmas are the parents of John the Baptist. Their story is in many ways as unlikely as the other characters whose names are more familiar and is as equally filled with the work of angels. I commend both their story and this book to you.

It is the title that has been one of the most intriguing set of words for me so far in this Advent journey. Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent. Silence? It is not a word we associate with this season, one that comes bound up with color and sound, masses of people and frenetic pace. Silence….that absence of sound, of words, of even the ever present melody of carols that seem to accompany every step. Is it even possible to find silence in these darkest of days?

Zachariah’s story is grounded in silence. After he is less that convinced with the angel telling him that he and Elizabeth will have a child in their old age, the gift of the angel to him was silence. The angel basically makes him unable to speak. As a priest, the ability to speak was a pretty big deal. But the message of the angel was even bigger.

Rereading this story, or more truthfully paying greater attention to this story, has me thinking about the invitation of silence. It is not an invitation I RSVP to in the affirmative very often. I am more likely to be filling the air waves with either the sound of my own voice or someone else’s as I keep company with radio, iPod or other purveyors of sound. And frankly, the idea of being unable to speak makes me short of breath!

But as Advent goes, I do see the beauty of an inviting silence. In silence, I can be more attuned to the longings that are coming to birth within me. In silence, I am able to rest in the way the light is lessening with each day. In silence, waiting for the Light seems more possible, more hope-filled. In silence, I am able to be present for how the Holy shows up despite the distractions that dog my days.

There is gift in being unable or unwilling to speak our mind at every turn. We are charged with a deeper listening, filled with a wide-eyed and open-hearted approach to the world. Perhaps the angel knew this when it touched Zachariah’s lips and stilled his speech. From that moment on, Zachariah’s only work was to wait, listen and prepare for this miracle of birth that had been his life’s longing.

I wonder…….what might the invitation of silence bring to each of us in these Advent days?


Change of Season

On Saturday I stopped into our neighborhood coffee shop for a little jolt of caffeine. The Thanksgiving festivities had created a certain frenzied glow that I was still wearing but the familiarly of this ritual of a cup of joe reined me in and planted me in the present moment. Earlier in the week I had asked the barista what was planned for his holiday and he remarked that his wife’s family was coming to their house, twenty-five in all, and he was a little concerned that their home which is filled with three young boys was not always the neatest. I assured him that the eventual end of any Thanksgiving gathering rarely included an account of how clean the house was. We agreed on this and then I said “And, of course, we have the first Sunday of Advent to content with.”

This barista and I often share little church anecdotes. I learned some time ago that his college degree is in church music and in addition to making a splendid latte he also is a church musician. To my Advent comment, he replied: “It’s good to have a change of season, isn’t it?” I smiled at all that comment held. There was the relief that what we refer to in the church as ‘Ordinary Time’, the longest season of the church year, is finally over. Depending on when Pentecost lands, the season of Ordinary Time can go on for months and months. With the season of Advent, we are offered the quiet, moody music of the days that lead up to the big, colorful sounds of Christmas. This lead-up music is often in minor keys and filled with a poignant longing, words about preparation and images of waiting for the Christ Child to be born.

Longing. Preparation. Waiting. All words illuminate what the season of Advent is about. But there is still one more primary message of this season: Keep awake! This is my favorite part of the celebration of Advent. All the scriptures seem to pinch and poke us to ‘stay awake’ to the ways the Holy is showing up today, now, in our time. Many of these ancient words carry wild and explosive images that jar us off center…..not the very warm, fuzzy Christmas stuff that comes our way in popular culture.

This year our church’s theme for Advent is ‘Awaken to Amazement’. In many ways it is a very challenging theme. How do we awaken? What will it take? Why am I asleep? What will happen in this awakening? What will be required of me if I am ‘awake’? What would it take to bring about amazement? How might living an amazed life transform us?

So many questions to begin this season. I have no real answers but then maybe that is another gift of this short, dark and holy time. If I can be awake to the ever increasing darkness of these December days, I might be more aware and ready for the light that will return on the Solstice. If I can embrace the waiting, preparation, the longing of these four weeks, I might be more open to the ways the Christ Light is being born again and again right under my nose.

The poet Mary Oliver writes: ” When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” And so it is. This change of season comes and the gift is held out once again. Stay awake. Be amazed.

Who knows what this particular change of season might bring?