God Will Not Be Distracted

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As the Fall semester was winding down, I spent weeks working on a unique project for one of my classes. I was in an independent study called Theology & Ethics of Death and Dying. At my professor’s suggestion, instead of a typical research paper, I crafted a pair of prayer services. One was written for patients with a chronic or terminal illness. The other was written for their caregivers. In addition, I included a short paper on why these services were important and should be a regular fixture in the ministry of the church.  This project started off in early October as a way combining what I was learning with my passion for invisible people while at the same time channeling my creative side. it quickly became so much more. It became a way of addressing what I was experiencing at home.

I’m the main caretaker for my mom, who has advanced congestive heart failure. Some illnesses progress in a roller-coaster with dramatic upswings and sudden drops. CHF is more like a Slinky falling down a flight of stairs. It may pause for awhile, but it never goes back up. Over the last year or so, I’ve found most people don’t understand the progression of the disease unless they’ve been through it with a family member. Over the past few months, I have politely and gently answered the repeated question: “Is she doing better?”  with an explanation that no major improvement is to be expected. But after months of this, I find myself wanting to scream “Didn’t you hear me the first 30 times I answered you?”  On one hand, I try to remind myself that the person asking cared enough to ask but on the other hand, I have reached a point in life where I’ve realized that it’s the not the people who ask that I count as friends. It’s the ones who listen to the answers. It’s also the ones who follow up with a question on how I’m doing and won’t accept my favorite lie, “I’m fine. ”

Working on this project gave me a way to acknowledge the isolation and inherent loneliness that comes with a chronic or terminal illness. I chose scripture readings that acknowledged loss but also conveyed hope in God who sustains all things. I found hymns that brought me strength and prayers that offered comfort. But even as I assembled and wrote, I realized I was struggling far more than I was willing to admit. The emotional impact of trying to be a a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend, a good employee, a good student, and still maintain enough detachment to be a good caretaker and medical proxy had pushed me to the brink of burnout. Simple everyday things, some days even getting out of bed, became emotionally taxing. Okay – so maybe I was past the brink. But what was I going to do? Everything still needed to get done and some things simply can’t be delegated.

In the midst of this, prayer had become more difficult. In the same way I felt withdrawn or removed from people around me, I also felt withdrawn from God. I simply had nothing to say and quite frankly, I didn’t feel like listening much either. And yet, God was the only one not demanding my time and undivided attention. Our time spent at the beach every morning became the only quiet in my days and yet even there, I couldn’t quite take a deep breath and relax. I showed up anyway because I really didn’t know what else to do.

As Christmas break approached, I had time to read whatever I wanted and I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison. My younger son questioned my choice of reading materials. After several conversations, he finally said to me, “Mom, you’re going to get your head stuck. You need to stop reading shop [theology and/or religion] and read something like normal people read. You can’t be a good theologian if you can’t see with fresh eyes and you can’t see with fresh eyes if you can’t look away.” And so for Christmas, he and his brother bought me a light, fluffy non-religious novel. I’ll have to admit that it helped to crawl into a book for a few days and escape for awhile. I bought another by the same author, which I also burned through in a few short days.

By the time break was coming to a close, I went back to reading Bonhoeffer, but as my 16 year-old predicted, I read with fresh eyes. At the end of particularly long, difficult day, I read the following:

“I’ve learnt here especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf:

With sorrow and with grief…
God will not be distracted.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to Renate and Eberhard Bethge
Written from Tegel Prison
Christmas Eve 1943

In that moment, after weeks of feeling disconnected, invisible, and often unheard, I suddenly felt very much understood and embraced. While I had been distracted, God was not. God heard every word I hadn’t said, followed every line of thought I’d not dared bring to completion, knew every feeling I’d pushed away and then, ever so gently, God let me know I was not alone.

I’m back in classes as the Spring semester is in full swing. The demands for my time and attention are no less than they were before. I still find myself feeling detached and removed. But my time with God at the beach in the morning has again become the one time and place that I can take a deep breath and relax, even for a little while and I know that I will be heard, even when I have nothing at all to say.

Advent, Music & Memories

Twelve notes. That’s all it took. Suddenly, I was 6 years old again, twirling around the living room with my father.

I took my younger son to see The Nutcracker and The Four Realms last night. I was a little shocked when the opening notes of the overture and the opening scene brought me to tears. Of all my father’s Christmas albums, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was one of my favorites. I still listen to that music every year. He read me the story of Clara and The Nutcracker more times than I could ever count. I knew the movie was a different take on the story. And yet, with those few opening notes all the innocent wonder came flooding back. It was as if I was hearing it for the first time. 

It’s funny how much music is tied to memories. The Rolling Stones and baking endless batches of chocolate chip cookies. U2 and hanging Christmas lights. Pink Floyd and writing end of term papers. And of course, it wouldn’t be Advent without O Come, O Come Emmanuel and my father’s alternate lyrics inducing church giggles.

I have so many good memories of Advent and Christmas. And yet, as I sit on this dreary first Sunday of Advent, I find myself feeling a little off. Last year, the holidays were a time of great apprehension. This year, things are more stable but there’s that part of me that constantly asks, “For how long?” Last year was the year without a Christmas. I don’t want to be so afraid of a repeat occurrence that I miss out of what good can be this year. So, I’ve tried the last couple days to listen to some of my old Christmas favorites. I mean the really old childhood favorites from my father’s collection. These are the songs I asked for over and over that have nothing but good memories attached to them. This is my attempt at being hopeful. The Holly and The Ivy, The Coventry Carol, What Child Is This?, Carol of the Bells, and The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns lead the playlist. Yeah, I know, I was a weird kid with a great love of pipe organs, bells, and big choirs. 

What I’m finding is that trying to be hopeful is not really possible. Either I can cling to hope… or not. Either I can remain haunted by ghosts of unhappy Christmases past or I can let go and experience one full of joy, love, and wonder. The opening notes of the Nutcracker Overture caught me off guard in that movie theater last night because I went in not knowing what to expect. I was ready for something new, something unexpected, something wonderful and I was not disappointed.

Can I approach this season of Advent with that same kind of hopeful expectation? I suppose I shall have to wait and see.

Come to Me

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Come to Me

 

Come to me when you’re stressed out,

When you’re overwhelmed,

When the burnout has set in,

When the anxiety grips you,

When the exhaustion never seems to end,

When tired is the only word you know to express the emptiness you feel.

 

Come to me when the responsibilities keep growing,

When the demands are more than the resources,

When you feel like you need six of you and, at best, you’re only at half-power.

 

Come to me when the thoughts won’t stop racing,

When the words won’t stop coming,

Even when all you want is to be quiet,

Come to me and I will listen to it all.

 

Come to me when you are angry and full of rage,

When you want to rant and scream,

When you are full of hurt and trying to keep a lid on it so as not to hurt anyone else.

Come to me and let me be angry with you and for you.

Let me soothe the hurt inside.

 

Come to me when the words run out and all that is left are the tears.

Come to me, for I understand the language of tears.

Come to me and I will give you space to breathe.

I will give you time to cry.

 

Come to me when you are surrounded by people and yet you feel so very much alone.

Come to me and I will sit beside you.

Come to me and I will embrace you.

 

Come to me and I will give you rest,

I will give you peace,

I will give you silence,

I will give you stillness,

I will give you space,

Come to me and I will give you healing and strength.

 

Take my yoke upon your shoulders,

Let me share your burdens.

They weren’t mean to be yours alone.

Let me help you carry all that is heavy in life.

 

I am gentle, kind, and patient.

I am love and compassion.

I will teach you and support you as we walk.

 

We will bear these burdens together,

You and I,

Every step of the way.

You are not alone in this.

You never have been.

You never will be.

I am here.

 

Come to me.

Let me give you rest.

Knowing When to Shut Up

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The remnant of Hurricane Michael passing south of Long Island. Do I see the storm or do I see the sun rising?

About a week ago I was talking with a friend about Job. I have a great fondness for Job, especially when life gets overwhelming, which it has been for awhile now. It seems like every few years, God and I circle back to this space where all I can do is shoot my mouth off about everything that is going wrong and when I get like that, it’s easy to lose sight of what is going right. Eventually though, usually after a much needed kick in the ass, I’ll end up where Job ended up:

Then Job answered the Lord and said:

I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.
 “Who is this who obscures counsel with ignorance?”
I have spoken but did not understand;
    things too marvelous for me, which I did not know.
“Listen, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers.”
By hearsay I had heard of you,
    but now my eye has seen you.
Therefore I disown what I have said,
    and repent in dust and ashes.

 

Or in my own paraphrase: I shot my mouth off about stuff only God can understand and I’ll shut up now because I know God better now.

Am I ready to shut up now? Am I ready to stop trying to justify the things in my life that aren’t going well – or more precisely as well as I’d like them to be? Can I stop coming to prayer with my scorekeeper’s math of working half time and going to school three-quarter time and trying to find time to shop, cook, and do laundry? It’s not like God doesn’t know already. Can I now come to prayer and shut up and let God speak to me with the love and encouragement that God knows I need?

Maybe. Maybe it’s time for the perfectionist honor student to sit down and listen for awhile. Maybe it’s time to remember why I went back to college at 41. Maybe it’s time to remember it’s a miracle that I was able to go back to college at 41. Maybe it’s time to take a look at the people God has brought into my life, including an incredibly loving and supportive church community.

Part of looking around at the mess around me means taking a look over my shoulder at how far I’ve come and then taking a look ahead to see how close I am to the next steps in life. Instead of focusing on how College Algebra makes me feel incredibly and unbelievably stupid, I can focus on the renewed energy I’m finding in a uniquely creative assignment for an independent study in the Theology and Ethics of Death and Dying.

I’m thirteen months away from graduating. There was a time, not all that long ago, that I could never have seen myself in a college classroom. So yeah – life is a mess right now. But maybe where I see a mess, God sees something more. And maybe if I can shut up long enough, God might be able to show me just a glimpse of what God sees in that mess.

A Step Back

beach roseOne of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the personal chaos of the past nine months is that I need to know when to step back and breathe. And it’s not always easy to know when to take that step. It’s easier for me to double down and keep going than to have to explain to others that I need a break, some room to breath, time to process or decompress. Perhaps the aspect of that lesson that alarmed me most is that because I’ve trained myself to keep trudging until I fall on my face, sometimes I’m blind to the fact that I need to step back.

Two weeks after Easter, God called me out. I’d spent two full days reading for my theology class and making notes in the margins as I went. God is real. The experience of God is real. The stories are real. These same themes kept popping up for me as I read. Then as Sunday afternoon wound down, I went back to my former parish on a whim hoping that maybe Fr. Tom, my former pastor, would preach the 6:00 evening Mass. I was not to be disappointed. He stepped up to the pulpit and began his homily: “God is real. The experience of God is real. Especially those experiences of God’s love for you.” I damn near fell out of the pew. If God wanted my attention, believe me that worked. I cried through the rest of the Mass. Not a stray tear or two either but full-on thank-God-I-have-tissues-with-me waterworks.

That was a serious wake-up call. I’d been submerging myself in my schoolwork because it was an escape from the chaos of taking care of everyone else and it was an escape that was somehow respectable. What I’d caught a glimpse of during my time on Cape Cod had now come into sharp focus. I was hiding out not only from the people around me, but also from God. I wasn’t happy with where I was on my journey. I wasn’t happy with myself for a variety of reasons. And somehow, I was going to work myself out of that dark space all by my lonesome. So after chewing on this for about a week, I instinctively did what I do best: I sat down to write about the experience. I spent the next three hours alternating between staring at a blank screen, typing a sentence or two and then deleting the words in disgust, and staring out the window wondering why the words just wouldn’t flow like they usually do.

I realized as I sat there in front of the blank screen that nothing was going to flow out of me because I was spiritually running on empty. Even the fumes had burned off. I knew something had to give. Over the next ten weeks, I stopped trying to write publicly. I stopped trying to explain myself to anyone. I started taking extra time out to spend in prayer, even if that was simply ten minutes of sitting on the back porch watching the birds in the afternoon while dinner was cooking. During those ten weeks, I had some incredibly reassuring God moments, which is good because when I read through my journals for the past year the one theme that appears over and over ad nauseam is a sense of being overwhelmed. And if I’m not taking that extra time to stop, breathe, pray and write privately, I lose track of those God moments. When I submerge myself, either in the chaos that is my life right now or in my schoolwork, I intentionally let myself drown when I have a Savior who walks on water and calls me to walk with Him. Sometimes that walk means taking a step back, standing still, and catching my breath.

Lighten Up

Come away by yourself to an out-of-the-way place and rest awhile. Mk 6:31

The last few months have been rather intense. Short-handed at work, deadlines for work and school, juggling three classes, and taking on an ever-deepening role as caretaker for my mom – it was all piling up to overwhelming levels of stress and anxiety. Six days away on Cape Cod was a desperately needed break. Me, being me, packed light…well sort of. I brought my usual beachwear of ragged jeans and ancient hoodies, wool socks and boots but I also brought three books, my laptop, my bible, my journals (there’s two – don’t ask why) and some reading material from my pastor. Somehow, I had it in my head that although I was going away to rest and take time alone to deepen my connection with God, ponder the questions of my Lent, and to ground myself again, I was also going to write a paper on Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith and still have time to read two books and walk the beaches. Yeah – I needed a reality check and bad.

With the fourth nor’easter in three weeks coming up the coast, I was up and on the road to the Cape well before dawn. That first night, I was exhausted from the drive and just life in general. I had unpacked and settled into pajamas, snuggled up with a blanket and my phone on the couch to leisurely scroll through social media and blink… BLINK… PITCH BLACK. Yup, the lights went out. I swear to you in that moment I heard God laugh. It was the kind of laugh you get from an old friend who has just pulled off an awesome prank. After the initial shock, I started to giggle at the absolute absurdity of driving nearly four hours only to sit in the dark while the lights – and the heat – were still on back home. After about ten minutes, I shrugged and decided an early bedtime wasn’t such a bad thing. I used my phone for a flashlight and turned down the bed. No sooner did I slide under the covers than the lights came back on. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.

The next day was gray with rain, sleet, snow, and lots of wind. So while the water heated for my tea, I dragged a big chair from the living room into the bedroom. I positioned it to face the bedroom chair, planning to put my feet up and enjoy a lovely day of staring out the sliding glass doors, watching the wind stir up the water, and listening to the rain and sleet ticking off the windows. I got my tea, gathered up my journals, my bible, and my pen and as I settled myself into that big chair, it suddenly hit me that I had just walked into my morning prayer time the same way I would walk into a classroom. I was mentally in full-blown honor student mode, ready to make good use of my time and accomplish something. I had the first completely unscheduled morning I’ve had in over a year and instead of putting my feet up and soaking up the silence, I was ready to make intelligent observations and take copious notes.

And right there in that instant the full weight of everything I’d been carrying for the last six months came crashing down. All the expectations I had shouldered, some put on me and some I’d put on myself, were suddenly way more than I could carry. Add to that all the guilt I was carrying for not being able to do more than I’m already doing. And on top of all of that, I had planned to go to confession the night before I left and didn’t go because, well – life happened. I crumbled and over the rest of the morning, I cried six months worth of pent-up tears while God picked through the load of stuff I’d been carrying. God patiently sorted through it all.  This isn’t yours. This isn’t yours. This is yours. Where did this even come from?! Definitely not yours. Don’t need this. Put that down. No! Don’t pick it up again! Yes, that’s yours but it’s heavy. Let me help you with that one. Oh sweetheart, please don’t do this to yourself. You aren’t meant to carry the whole world on your shoulders. That’s my job. 

I spent the rest of that day watching the wind move over the water, listening to the rain and sleet tick off the windows. This was time to let God do God’s thing, some of which consisted of telling me to lighten up and let go and some of which – no, actually a lot of which – I don’t even understand yet. Two of my books, my paper, and my laptop sat mostly untouched for the rest of my time on the Cape. I read one book, slowly, soaking in it.

I came home in the middle of Holy Week and so much needed to be done at home. It would have been so easy to pick up where I’d left off, carrying things not meant for me. But somewhere in the middle of the Holy Thursday liturgy, as the community prayed for wisdom, courage, and strength, I remembered to let go. I remembered that it’s okay to be small, to be weak, to be vulnerable – in other words, to be human in need of a Savior.

During my days on the Cape, I had wandered my favorite beaches. God Himself had washed my feet in the cold Atlantic ocean that I love so dearly under a sky that was my favorite shade of blue. The Spirit moved in the wild March winds and carried the reminder of my baptism in sleet and snow blown in off the waves. In all the world, there is no finer cathedral to be found than this. But just in case I’d started to forget any of it, as I left the Easter Vigil, the moon was rising over the church, a stiff March wind was blowing, and I could hear the waves crashing on the beach nearby. And in that sound there was a voice that said, Lighten up kid, I love you.

Questions for Lent

 

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There are a lot of good things I could do this year for Lent. There are books I could read, church events I could go to, reflections I could write… well you get the idea. But this year seems to be a year full of questions. And not the kind of questions that are going to have some sort of formulaic answer. I can’t answer Question A by reading Book 1 and writing answers to discussion questions 1-5. It’s just not that simple. And that’s okay.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve reached a point where I’m okay with just knowing the questions. And maybe this year, Lent isn’t about looking for answers. Maybe this year, Lent is about just sitting with the questions.

Can I accept that God sees something in me that I don’t?

Do I absolutely, positively need to see exactly what that something is?

Or can I accept – and I mean really, truly accept – that it is more than enough that God sees it?

I was driving home from spiritual direction on Friday when these hit me. That last one was enough to make me pull over for awhile. Driving and pondering is a brilliant way to end up in a tree.

So this year, for Lent I’m writing down the questions as they pop up and just letting them be. For every question I write down, it seems like ten more pop up that are related to it. And instead of indulging my perfectionist inner honor student, I’m not trying to come up with the right answers. I’m just writing them down. Answers will come in time.

My Refuge

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Trust.

Ah, the great dreaded T word. I don’t like that word. It makes me twitchy all over, inside and out. Why?

<Sigh>

Trust.

I don’t like the word trust because for me, it’s not just an abstract or a feeling. It’s very real and it has had some very real consequences in my life, not all of them good. It’s not that I don’t trust God because I do … now … most of the time… I think. Okay, honestly, are there people in my life that I trust? Yes. Do I trust God? Yes. But it takes a lot of self-reflection for me to be able to say either one of those things.

I get so hung up on that one stupid word because I have seen it misused and abused, both in word and in action. It’s easier to say I have trust issues or that it takes a damn long time to earn my trust. But that’s the thing about God: God has all the time there is … or ever will be. God has been perfectly content to wait me out. And despite all my mouth, gradually over the last ten years I’ve been moving to a place where, if I’m really honest with myself, I trust God more than I ever believed was possible.

Do you have any idea how hard that was to admit out loud? And yes – I do mean out loud because I talk to myself when I write.

Refuge.

I never really had feelings on the word refuge. It was an abstract idea for me. It made sense on some intellectual level, I suppose. It’s a strange feeling when something you’ve been reading your whole life, something you think you get, suddenly becomes very real and very tangible.

You see, lately, I find myself in a place when I have more roles to fill than I have of me to go around. I’m a parent and a caretaker, an employee and a student, and most days I have to be all of those things simultaneously. Everyone is demanding something from me every waking moment of every day. It’s like I’m juggling knives…except I never learned how to juggle.

I finally hit overload. The stress and fear I’ve experienced over the last few months finally caught up to me. What I refused to grapple with in my waking hours took over my sleep in the form of nightmares. After several weeks of nightmares, it progressed to night terrors. If you’ve never experienced that particular horror, count your blessings. The dream continued even though I was awake. I knew I was awake but I wasn’t sure where I was, what was real and what wasn’t. It wasn’t until I had walked through the entire house, checking on everyone else and finding them all sleeping peacefully, that I was finally able to calm down. I was awake the rest of the night. That’s the kind of night that makes me afraid to ever go to sleep again. I can assure you, that would not have been a good time to ask me if I trust God.

And yet… the following night when I went up to bed, I prayed. I asked for refuge for the night, a safe place to rest. You see what I mean about trust? That’s not the kind of request you make of someone you don’t trust.

Refuge.

An odd choice of wording. But that was what came out of me in that moment.

Refuge.

That word comes up a lot in the bible and, up until the other night, I don’t think I ever really understood it. I mean, I knew what the word meant, obviously. But I don’t think I ever really connected God, who I can’t see or touch, with something quite so solid.

That night, as I slept, I found myself in a yet another dream. Rather than anything scary, this time I was in a big, old building with many rooms, like an old tenement apartment building only beautiful and well-kept. All the doors were closed as I went up the stairs and wandered the hallways. Waiting for me was a room that I had all to myself where I was quiet, alone, and most of all, safe. It’s a decidedly strange thing to lay down and go to sleep in a dream but that is exactly what I did. When I woke up around midnight, I rolled over and went back to sleep and had the same dream, only with a twist. I was back in the same big, old building with it’s many rooms but now all the doors where thrown open. People wandered in and out of rooms and congregated in the hallways and open spaces. People from every walk of life had sought and found refuge here.

I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d finally gotten the rest I so desperately needed. As I sat at the beach that morning, I was a little startled to find myself able to be still. It was the first time in months that I’d been able to sit and be still. When I took the time to write down my dreams, I realized as a I wrote that God wasn’t in the building. God was the building. God was that safe place where I found rest.

God is my refuge.

I know what that means now.

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.