A Year Without A Christmas?

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I’ve never made any secret of how much I despise the fakery of New Years Eve or the whole new year/new me nonsense. And I’ve had a few years where Advent has been a little more difficult to navigate than others. But I love Christmas. I always have. I’ve tried over the years to make sure my boys have a Christmas that is about a lot more than a tree and some presents. Because the boys spend Christmas Day at their father’s house, we open presents on Christmas Eve morning. That gives us an entire day that is about time spent with family and we end the day with Midnight Mass, by which point the excitement over presents has more or less worn off. We come home and the one of the boys will put Baby Jesus in the manger. But sometimes, life is beyond our control and this was one of those years.

My mom went into the hospital Christmas Eve morning. Even as we opened presents, I knew we were headed there. My sister made sure the gorgeous roast beef I’d picked out was served as planned. And the boys texted me all day and into the evening. I finally came home around 9:30, too exhausted to go to Mass. I reheated my dinner and sat at the table with the boys as they proudly recapped how they helped cook dinner. They had saved the Christmas wine until I got home and we toasted a Merry Christmas that felt anything but merry. By 10:30, we were all worn out and after my younger son declared that this was the year without a Christmas, I had to remind him (and myself) that nothing can ever take the real Christmas away from us.  We talked for a bit and together we decided Jesus wouldn’t mind coming into the manger a wee bit early this year so that we could get to bed and get some much needed sleep.

Come New Years Eve, Mom was still in the hospital, improving slowly, and the rest us at home toasted good riddance to 2017 even before toasting the beginning of 2018. As it turned out, I spent the Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the entire 12 days of Christmas trekking back and forth to the hospital. While the doctors were busy figuring out how to help Mom feel better, I was busy trying to find little ways to brighten her spirits. You’d be amazed at the healing powers of a few bites of homemade ham with pineapple and few sips of New Years punch in a crystal punch cup carefully packed and brought from home. And yes, there were more than few Miss Daisy jokes made during her stay.

Mom was able to come home just in time to celebrate Little Christmas. Last night, I brewed a nice pot of tea for us. We sat at the kitchen table and talked about all that had happened in recent months and especially her stay in the hospital. Eventually, we came around to the subject of trust. My mom is trusting me, as her medical conservator, to work with our family doctor to make sure she gets the care she needs but also to respect her wishes regarding treatment. That kind of trust is one thing when you’re feeling well enough to care for yourself and it’s another thing entirely when you’re really sick, in a strange place, on strange medicines and you’re not even sure what’s real anymore.

This morning as I spent some much needed, albeit very cold, time at the beach, that conversation kept running through my head. It made me consider the way I trust God – or don’t – on a far deeper level. I’m not shy about acknowledging that trusting God is not something that comes easily to me. Yet, over the last ten years, I gradually grew to trust God more than I ever thought I could – not without lot of protests and tears, mind you. But all of the sudden, these last two weeks, trust became something far more visceral. It became about letting go, surrendering to whatever was going to be, and trusting that somehow, someway, whatever happened, I wasn’t going to face it alone. And I didn’t. God showed up in a myriad of ways big and small in family, in friends, in strangers, even in nature as a whopper of a snowstorm gave me a desperately needed day of rest and time with my boys and gave Mom an extra day of excellent nursing care.

This Advent was not an easy one. And it has been said in this house that this was the year without a Christmas. But I don’t believe that. It’s just that this Incarnation stuff is a messy business that doesn’t translate well to Hallmark movies or sappy three-line greeting cards. This year, Christmas was not without miracles. Nor was it without an epiphany.

Joy

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Joy. Third Sunday of Advent. This is the week we traditionally put up our Christmas tree and our Nativity. We usually haul out the old records – yeah, remember records? –  and we sing along, badly. I turn out cookies in big batches. The house is loud and bright and smells like heaven.

Not this year. The tree is up, lit, and decorated but we did it quietly. The Nativity boxes are all stacked in the corner for later. Maybe tonight. Cookies might happen before Christmas Eve.

The traditional Christmas preparations that usually make me feel lighter inside feel heavy this year. The excitement that usually bubbles up in me just hasn’t been there this year. The closer we get to Christmas, the heavier things weigh on me.

And yet, joy is not absent.  Joy showed up in the simplest, most unexpected way. A little piece of candy from an old lady’s purse was all it took to brighten my whole world. Earlier this week a new client, whom I had never met, was introduced to me as I was leaving work. As usual these days, I was in a whirlwind with a long list of things I needed to do after work. She smiled and we shook hands. Then suddenly, she reached for her bag and dug out a strawberry-filled hard candy and handed it to me. Everything instantly lightened up for me and it must have been all over my face when I thanked her because she caught my hand, dug out five more, put the whole handful in my hand and then stood up and gave me a big hug. She could not have known but those particular candies bring back the sweetest memories of my childhood. As I walked to my car, I still had a long list of things I needed to do after work but the whirlwind felt … well… a lot less whirly. And I caught myself noticing the way the sunlight hit the snow and the sparrow singing in the tree over my car and how chubby the squirrels have gotten all of the sudden.

The next day, I came into work, still smiling like a little girl over that little handful of candy. There waiting for me was a whole bag of the same candies. After I’d left, the client had gone out to her car and come back in with a full bag and left it for me. That was enough to move me to tears.

I’ve always been one to find joy in the littlest things in life: the way the dew hangs on a spiderweb or a buttercup growing up through a crack in the cement or the way the snowflakes stacked up precariously on the bush outside the kitchen window reflect the light of Christmas lights. The last ten weeks, my mom’s health suddenly declined and I’ve been more and more caught up in taking care of her and running around trying to get the house ready to celebrate the holidays in the way we always have. I’ve been so caught up in all of it that I didn’t even realize that I had started to miss seeing the little things that had always brought me so much joy.

strawberryJoy for me this year was found in the simplest, smallest act of kindness from a total stranger. A little piece of candy and a smile was all I needed to remind me to stop, breathe, look up, look around and remember the innocence and wonder of childhood. Because when God shows up, at least for me, it’s usually in the littlest of ways.

 

 

Peace

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Many images come to mind when I think of the word peace. Quiet. Stillness. A snowfall. An empty beach. An early morning cup of tea. A winter night sky full of stars. But what happens when those things are not readily available, or least not available uninterrupted? What happens when life feels like it has been picked up and shaken around like a snowglobe in the hands of an overeager three year-old – what does peace look like then?

I wish I knew. The best I can come up with is that’s something to hang on to. It’s the wall I find to lean against during a panic attack. It’s the warmth of the sun on my fair or the wind in my hair or the voice of a friend that gives me something to hang on to until everything stops spinning or falling in on me or both.

But here’s the thing – all of those are outside of me. The good images that come to mind when I think of peace and the things I hang to when I’m falling apart – all those are outside.

Peace, true peace, is a gift that lies within. It means digging deeper than surface images and finding something – or rather Someone – greater to hang on to. Or perhaps it means allowing myself to be held. Perhaps the path to peace means letting go and allowing myself to be held by the same hands that hold the whole universe steady. Perhaps true peace can only be found through surrender and trust.

It seems like this Advent, if I’m to know peace, I’m going to have to surrender and trust. And I think I’ve been shaken around enough that surrender and trust are less terrifying now. Ask me again around Christmas.

Hope

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The First Sunday of Advent: Hope

What is hope anyway?

I hope I sleep tonight. I hope she feels better tomorrow. I hope this new medication works. I hope work isn’t crazy on Monday. I hope the new U2 album doesn’t suck. I hope this new recipe turns out to be decent. I hope I didn’t forget to buy milk again. I hope we can get the Christmas tree up without drama. I hope I get the classes I want. I hope we don’t end up in another war. I hope the tax plan doesn’t ruin us.

I hope… I hope… I hope…

It seems like whenever I talk about hope what I really mean is a wish. A wish for the ways things used to be. A wish for the way things ought to be. A wish for things to be better than they are right now. Or sometimes even a wish for a different reality.

But is that really hope?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come.”

Dawn. A new day. But a new day doesn’t mean a new reality, merely a continuation of this one. Maybe things will change. Maybe they won’t. Maybe those things are beyond my control and all the wishing in the world won’t make a damn bit of difference.

But true hope is more than a wish. Hope in the dawn is understanding, as Dr. King said, “That the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate.” Hope is a belief that God can and will bring good out of the realities of this life. Hope is rooted in faith. Hope grows in trust. Hope thrives in perseverance. Hope holds fast in the darkness. Hope is that which carries me when wishes no longer matter. Hope is that which sustains me when reality seems more than I can bear.

Advent reminds me to stay rooted in faith, to trust, to persevere, to hold fast in the darkness. Advent reminds me to hope for God has promised me that the dawn will come.

“The King shall come when morning dawns 
And light triumphant breaks, 
When beauty gilds the eastern hills 
And life to joy awakes.”

The King Shall Come 
By: John Brownlie

 

Advent & Old Movies

This time of year always brings with a mix of feelings I could do without – a hint of nostalgia, a touch of melancholy, a touch of sadness – all things that come up when the Thanksgiving table is set and there are empty chairs that once were occupied. Some years are harder than others. This is one of those years.

stuffingI was put in charge of Thanksgiving dinner this year. It should be said that I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. I recruited my sister and my younger son to help me. Note to self: offering a 15 year-old boy the chance to wield a large kitchen knife is a terrifying, yet highly effective, incentive to get him take on the role of sous chef. My mom, who usually presides over two days of baking and then preparing Thanksgiving dinner itself, sat this year out entirely. Aside from helping us figure out which of the three faded, smeary, barely legible versions of ‘Grandma’s Stuffing Recipe’ was actually the right grandma and the right stuffing, she left it up to us to figure it all out. In the end, we pulled the whole thing off quite nicely. Despite talk of keeping things low-key, there were four pies, two kinds of cookies, a decent-sized turkey, two kinds of stuffing, and enough side dishes that the leftovers will have us playing refrigerator Tetris for the next week.

With Thanksgiving over, Advent is fast approaching. And in my house, the approach of Advent is steeped in fond memories of my childhood. Some years that brings comfort and other years – well – not so much. This year – yeah – not so much.  Being in a position of splitting time between two churches, and still being considered a newcomer in both, is hard. This year it is a bit easier than last year but being a welcomed outsider still feels like being an outsider. After a last minute decision to pop in to my old Catholic parish on Thanksgiving morning, I learned of the coming retirement of the priest who was my pastor for the better part of thirty years and the only confessor I ever really trusted. I knew that was coming sooner rather than later, but it still caught me off-guard. The feeling that home is no longer home just became a bit more intense. The feeling that time is slipping by too fast also became a bit more intense.

casablanca-1.0.0Maybe that explains the sudden desire to lose myself in old movies. The last few weekends, I’ve curled up with my favorite blanket to be swept away by Doctor Zhiavago, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind. I have Citizen Kane and To Have and Have Not and a few others in the watchlist. I know every line of dialogue and every note of the score and yet, here I am, tissues in hand, sniffling over the same old movies I’ve watched a hundred times.

Like an old movie, I know the music of Advent and every line of the story. I know what will make me smile and what will have me in tears. Some years, Advent is deeply spiritual. Some years, it’s simply a bit nostalgic. This year, the coming of Advent has me wanting to stop time, even for a little while. That’s not exactly a new feeling. The last few years, Advent has been rough. I know each passing day brings that the long emotional slog of January to March closer. I dread those weeks that bring up dark memories and old nightmares. Some years, I can let myself get caught up in the quiet of Advent and I find great joy in the Christmas season (the real one, not that fake Hallmark crap) and that  joy carries me very well through those dark months. This year, I’m struggling already and I know damn good and well nostalgia isn’t going to cut it. Either I’m going to have to intentionally let myself be swept away by the season of Advent and all the feelings it calls up or Christmas will slip through my fingers, leaving me with little to carry me through my darkest months of the year. Before there can be hope, peace, joy and love, there has to be trust and surrender. I have a week to come to grips with that and it feels like I need a month or two.

Scary Conversations

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Death and dying. Not the topic most people would choose to spend their Saturday discussing but that is precisely how I spent yesterday. I had the opportunity to attend a conference on palliative care at Sacred Heart University. Attendees including students and working professionals from across several disciplines including doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, and hospital chaplains as well as caretakers and family members from the community. What struck me most was that one of the biggest obstacles to obtaining palliative care for patients is fear. In the medical community, there is fear that referring a patient for palliative care means giving up and that “it’s too soon” – an attitude which often means patients suffer needlessly. For families, there is a fear that the suggestion of palliative care means death is imminent, which is often not the case. While education can dispel the myth that palliative care is the same thing as hospice care (it’s not), I’m not quite so confident that it can easily dispel the fear.

In a breakout group that focused on the spiritual aspect of making end-of-life health care choices, the same theme came up over and over. Families are terrified by the prospect of talking about death, whether it’s at the beginning of a serious decline in health or when death is staring them in the face. In some cases, families will do anything to keep a patient alive, despite knowing that death is inevitable. Some families want to extend life as long as possible,  holding out for a full physical healing miracle to happen. Their prayer can become so frantic that it is less about a relationship with God and more of a magic ritual. In such cases, families cannot seem to accept that the miracle may come in the form of a peaceful death. People who believe so deeply in a God who heals seem to struggle when it comes to believing in a God who is waiting to welcome their loved ones who will be released from their illness through death.

After listening to the war stories told by several of the chaplains and social workers, each one of them questioning how we change a culture that is so hung up on death avoidance, one of the young nursing students spoke up. She said that she’s of Finnish descent and in their culture, death is accepted as a unique part of life. Death is talked about and embraced as part of life from childhood. No one tries to hide from it or avoid it. People talk about their final wishes with family, including young children. She went on to say that her grandmother had called her last year to let her know that she had taken a woodworking class with another family member. The grandmother had designed and built her own casket and she wanted to make sure everyone in the family knew where it was being stored so when the time came, she could be buried in it. This is clearly a lady who is at peace with the reality that she will die one day.

I have to admit, as I listened to that story, the image that popped into my head almost immediately was of the third brother in the Tale of the Three Brothers from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  (If you’ve never seen it you can watch the short clip here.)

The third brother didn’t see death a power to be wielded or as something to be conquered. Rather, he lived his life well, knowing that death was inevitable, and when the time came, he greeted death as an old friend.

If we truly believe in the God we say we believe in, the God of everlasting life, isn’t that the way we should live? Let’s be honest here, death is inevitable for every single one of us. Wouldn’t it make more sense to talk about it? Rather than kicking and fighting death all the way to grave, wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge that death will come? Wouldn’t it simply be sensible to plan for the care we wish to receive to keep us comfortable and to maintain the best quality of life for as long as possible, while knowing that quality of life is not about extending life as long as medically possible. Admittedly, it’s much harder when illness strikes a young person, but knowing that death comes for every single one of us, why are we so afraid to accept it, to embrace it, and to talk about it?

As tends to happen with a really good conference, the questions asked raised more questions to take home and ponder for awhile. The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: How do we change the culture? One point that every professional and every speaker drove home was the same one: We need to start talking about these things. We need to help people understand what end-of-life care looks like before they get to that point. And in order to do that, we need to meet people where they are, which for many is stuck in a fear of death and dying. I think, for many, ultimately the fear of death is not so much a fear of the end of life as it is a fear of what comes next. And for Christians, what comes next is a face-to-face with God.

At the end of the day, I went home and, in classic introvert fashion, changed into pajamas, brewed a good strong cup of tea, and curled up with a new book. Eleven pages in, I came across this:

“I was afraid to make decisions for my life that would lead to greater happiness because I was afraid I’d get it wrong and end up on the wrong end of God’s wrath…

For those of us who get stuck in fear, we reach a point where indecision is no longer a plausible option if we want to truly live. The months and years of running from fear and abdication our full engagement with faith and life have a way of catching up to us. Eventually the walls close in. The trail ends. The sun dips below the horizon. We reach a point where we either have to close our eyes and spend the rest of our lives pretending we’re not dying or we need to embrace a bold authenticity about who we are and what we believe. We need to embrace life itself.”  [Benjamin Corey, Unafraid]

And it struck me that if we’re really going to meet people where they are when it comes to end-of-life care, we need to start talking about fear. Fear of illness. Fear of weakness. Fear of pain. Fear of dying. Fear of death itself. And especially, fear of what comes next. Because as Christians, we say we believe that God is love. And if we truly believe that, and if we truly believe that God walks with us through any illness, pain, suffering, and even dying, then we can trust that God will help us overcome our fear of talking about death. We can help our families to overcome their fears by talking about our own. And if we find that the fears people have are not just fears of dying but of God’s wrath, of hellfire and brimstone, then we need to start talking about that too. Because all of this fear is keeping people from living well and from dying well.

Reformation

sparrow

Four years ago, I wrote a post titled Ringing Hollow. I wrote, in part:

“I can’t seem to put the laws and practices of this [Catholic] church together with the Jesus who chose to hang out with the most broken and rejected people of his time. The more I’ve come to accept that it was never God who rejected me, the harder it becomes to stay in a church who rejects so many. More and more, it all rings hollow to me and I’m starting to wonder, is it time to walk away? To finally accept that this relationship cannot be salvaged? I don’t know yet. Emotionally, I’m running into the same feelings I had just prior to filing for divorce. Spiritually, I feel like I got dropped into a briar patch. It hurts to move and it hurts to stay where I’m at.”

It has taken me those four years to really even begin to work through the grief that comes from having the religion I grew up with completely unravel in my hands. Long about the time I think I’m doing okay, I find myself in a situation where I am most definitely NOT okay.

One of the greatest lessons, I’ve learned since my divorce is that I tend to prefer my own company. I jealously guard my time alone. But there are times, typically very sad times, when I think maybe having a partner to lean on would be nice. A couple of months ago, I attended the funeral for my friend’s 21 year-old daughter. She had fought a short, heartbreaking fight and I was heartbroken for my friend. I had a five-hour ride alone to contemplate the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. It didn’t take all that long to run through the basic facts of my life. I don’t have strong connections in either my Lutheran or my Catholic parish. My connections at the university are limited. Between work, school, the kids, and homework, my schedule is such that it’s hard to find time to spend with the friends who know me best. And now, here I was driving through tears and I was so keenly aware that there was no one to make that drive with me.

No one except Jesus.

Trust has never been my strong suit. That morning, I felt like a bird who had flown into a window: too stunned to fly and more than a little scared by everything I was feeling. Something changed in my relationship with Jesus that day. I’ve had some powerful experiences of presence before but this time was different. It was quiet. It was just a sense of not being alone. It was as if a pair of strong, steady hands had picked me up and would hold me until I was ready to fly again. For the rest of the drive, throughout the funeral and as I stopped for a cup of tea before driving home, I felt that quiet, steady presence. And that is new territory for me.

This past Thursday, I found myself at another funeral. This time for a dear, sweet old lady from my former Catholic parish. She had visited my dad many times when he was in the hospital dying of cancer and was a source of comfort, joy, and laughter in some of my family’s darkest hours. During the years that I attended Mass every day, she was a fixture there, always quick with a smile and a laugh that was infectious to say the least. I was completely unprepared for the waves of emotion that came over me at her funeral. I cried the rest of Thursday and a good chunk of Friday. There was something final in this particular visit to my old parish and it took about a day or so for it to really sink in. To be in that space, surrounded by a community that I had once called my own, to pray hand-in-hand with people I used to see every single day could have have been a source of comfort. Instead, I felt quite intensely that I was a visitor to a place that was no longer home and no amount of hugs or handshakes or warm greetings is ever going to change that. It was like visiting the home of a friend – pleasant, but definitely not home. I found myself again finding my only refuge in that quiet, steady presence.

Saturday night, I had the opportunity to see Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at an Episcopal church in Greenwich. Having read both of her books, many of her sermons, and having seen or read many interviews with her, I was still blown away by her honesty and her passion to understand people wherever they are. It was a powerful thing to see so many women clergy present, some of whom I know from Twitter.

This morning, despite the stormy weather, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than in my Lutheran parish. I find joy and love there that I don’t seem to find anywhere else. To hear a woman preach and to hear a woman proclaim the consecration affirms something deep within me. I feel like I’ve found home.

So on this Reformation Sunday, 500 years after Martin Luther found himself with the religion he grew up with unraveling, I find myself with my own faith being formed and re-formed, expanding in ways I’d never dreamed possible. I don’t know where my own re-forming will lead me, but I do know that I won’t be alone. More than ever before, I know I can trust the hands that hold me steady.