Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

Ash Valentine’s Day

This year, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day both fall on February 14.  The two are unlikely bedfellows, so to speak.   

Ash Wednesday is a day for Christians to face our mortality head-on and clear-eyed, to gaze into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace.  It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged.  Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry. 

Valentine’s Day, on the other hand, needs no explanation.  For most of us, it involves the giving and getting of various treats.  It’s a day for indulgence, not denial. 

To Lenten sticklers for self-abnegation, the concurrence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day will likely pose a conundrum.  To deny or not to deny?  Chocolate or no chocolate?  Dessert or no dessert?  Wine or no wine with that special Valentine dinner?  Perhaps a compromise:  to begin the denial process on February 15? 

I’ve written several times about Ash Wednesday.  See: Looking into the Ashes (March 1, 2017), and Saved from the Ashes (February 10, 2016).  I’ve tried Lenten self-denial in the past, but I forgot the larger purpose.  I neglected the season’s truly spiritual pursuits–prayer, Bible reading, penitential introspection.  A couple of times, when I renounced all things sweet, my Lenten journey became little more than a period of dieting.  I wince when I recall certain instances of self-righteous forbearance that must have made me a most disagreeable companion.  See Mindful Eating, and a Mindful Lent (March 24, 2012). 

The purpose of Lent is to try to become more like Christ.  Instead, in our singular focus on denial, we become more like the Pharisees, those elite Jewish leaders who prided themselves on following every iota of the Mosaic Law.  They were probably among those Jesus denounced for ostentatious fasting:  “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting.  I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get.” (Matthew 6: 16, New Living Translation)  Jesus called out the Pharisees for their empty, showy arrogance and for the stumbling blocks they set up for others:  “You shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.  You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” (Matthew 23: 13).  Overly zealous regarding trivial details, they missed the big picture:  “You are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law–justice, mercy and faith.  You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. Blind guides!  You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23: 23-24).   

On this Ash Wednesday, I look into the dark ashes and contemplate Jesus’s supreme sacrifice.  I give thanks that his unimaginable love lifts me from the depths of destruction and despair. 

On this Valentine’s Day, If I know my husband, he’ll come home with a big box of Russell Stover’s candy.  

During Lent, I will try to take Jesus as my role model.  I will keep my Bible close at hand.  And I will eat some chocolates.  I may also swallow a few gnats.  But I hope to avoid the camels.  

Happy Ash Valentine’s Day!

Hold onto Your Hope (Happy New Year 2018)

 

On this first day of the new year, as I look back to 2017, I must say “Whew!”  Last year was packed to excess with major life changes for our family.  It felt like a Netflix series with too many unlikely, simultaneous subplots.  I’m hoping that in 2018 I’ll have time to appreciate the scenery and enjoy some quirky character development.     

The stressful process of selling and packing up my mother’s Atlanta home, buying the Virginia house, the complicated logistics of the relocation–that’s all behind us.  Now Mama is next door, mere steps away.  While the two weeks following her surgery were perhaps even more miserable than her surgeons had expected, she can now move without excruciating pain, sometimes without the aid of her walker.  She made the trek on Christmas day from her place to ours and back, as I had hoped. 

The anxiety surrounding my daughter’s college decision is fading into the mists of memory.  After a period of adjustment, she’s very happy at the University of Virginia.  We all appreciate the fact that she’s a pleasant two-hour drive away from home.  An additional plus is that when she’s here, she has a greater appreciation for her parents (and grandmother).  Those mundane, homely comforts–my cooking, her own room, Kiko sleeping sweetly–all 0nce taken for granted, are now recognized as the luxuries they are.  And time zips by.  The breaks–fall, winter, and soon, spring–are upon us before we know it.   

When I was searching for an appropriate New Year’s photo, this one of my daughter as Glinda the Good Witch in her last high school musical, The Wizard of Oz, came to mind.  Glinda looks into the distance towards a vision of the glowing Emerald City, which, with a little help from her white magic, has just been revealed.  She’s about to send Dorothy and friends off on the final leg of their journey to Oz.  So in a way, she’s looking into the future.  Toward a new year. 

Glinda sings this song as she points toward the bright horizon:   

You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark,

You’re out of the night.

Step into the sun, step into the light.

Keep straight ahead

For the most glorious place on the face of the earth or the sky.

Hold onto your breath, hold onto your heart,

Hold onto your hope. 

We all get lost from time to time in the metaphorical woods.  But may you start out this new year on a good path, heading toward a good place, in good company.  When you wander off track, may you find your way quickly back into the light.  And may hope and love go with you. 

Another Christmas Eve Among the Friendly Beasts

As has become our custom, our family spends the latter part of Christmas Eve afternoon at our church’s live nativity.  The day was chilly and gray, the ground muddy, as usual.  The friendly beasts were in attendance–the stocky little burro, the hump-backed ox with the coat of gray velvet, the fluffy, disheveled sheep, a variety of curious goats.  

Kiko was obstinately determined to sniff out every furry friend.

 

The sweet-tempered camel was there, of course.  A gracious celebrity, as well as a commanding and unexpected presence in the DC suburbs, he posed patiently for photos. 

He even gave out a few kisses.

Humans took turns in the roles of the Holy Family, angels, shepherds and kings.  Baby Jesus, to the disappointment of several young families, was played by a doll.  Sometimes Mary and Joseph were fourteen, sometimes forty.  Occasionally the costumes fit well, other times, not so much.  Hems tended toward the mud-stained.   Gender was fluid.  One of our shepherds, in his attempts to drum up even more attention from passers-by, appeared to be hitchhiking. 

It wasn’t a flawless performance piece, by far.  But it didn’t need to be.  Who else but ordinary, imperfect people does God use to do his extraordinary work?

The rushing Northern Virginia traffic was forced to slow down, if briefly, as it passed our live nativity.  Many people even put their Christmas Eve plans on hold, parked their cars and explored the scene first hand.  Most left with a camel selfie.  Some, we hope, caught a glimmer of a greater truth.   

He is born, the holy Child, play the oboe and bagpipes merrily! He is born, the holy Child, sing we all of the Savior mild.

Through long ages of the past, prophets have foretold His coming, through long ages of the past, now the time has come at last!

O how lovely, O how pure, is this perfect child of heaven, O how lovely, O how pure, gracious gift to human-kind!

Jesus, Lord of all the world, coming as  child among us, Jesus, Lord of all the world, grant to us thy heavenly peace.

Il est né, le divin Enfant, jouez haut-bois rèsonnez musettes! Il est né, le divin Enfant, chantons tous son avènement!

  –18th Century French carol

For previous Christmas Eve live nativity posts, see here, here, and here. 

Favorite Christmas Posts

Since I began Wild Trumpet Vine, I’ve written about forty Christmas-themed posts. Back in December of 2011, there was so much to cover, but now I run the risk of repeating myself.  And during this holiday season, time for writing will be limited.  My mother’s spinal surgery has been scheduled for early December.  Her doctors have emphasized that the recovery will likely be difficult and painful.  I’m grateful that Mama is here with us in Virginia as we face this challenge together.  I’m also very thankful I have no career or young children to neglect as I care for her. 

My mother and I certainly won’t be creating any handmade decorations this year, as we did during my childhood.  See Working Like Elves (December 8, 2011).  But I hope that as she heals, she’ll occasionally feel up to laughing about our shared adventures and misadventures of Christmases past.  Maybe we’ll revisit the question of the hideous tree we chose our first year in Atlanta (Oh, Eww, Christmas Tree, December 18, 2013). 

Around mid-month, our daughter will be home after finishing her first semester at the University of Virginia.  She’ll want my mother’s new home to be cheery for the season, so I expect we’ll unpack some of the old decorations we moved this summer from Mama’s Atlanta attic.  Maybe she’ll persuade her grandmother to reminisce about long-ago Christmases in central Kentucky.  See Unsilvered WWII-Era Ornaments on a Kentucky Cedar, and Uncle Edwin’s Silver Stocking, (December 23, 2015). 

I haven’t begun to think about Christmas gifts; I don’t know if I’ll even get around to shopping.  It’s reassuring to know that if I don’t, my family won’t hold it against me.  H and D will make sure there are presents for everyone under the tree.  Creative gifting and innovative packaging are among their talents.  See several posts on Exercises in Extreme GiftwrappingBy the time Christmas morning dawns, maybe Mama will be able to walk across the grass from her house to ours without the pain that assaults her now with each step.  That’s the only gift on my wish list this December.

From years past, a few more of my favorite Christmas posts:

We’re All Family Here (December 25, 2012)

Lighting up the Night for Christmas (December 7, 2012)

The Holiday Newsletter Quandary (December 16, 2011)

Little Old Christmas Treasures (December 23, 2011)

Cape Cod Shell Angels (December 20, 2011)

Just in Case . . . (December 4, 2016)

On This Mother’s Day 2017

If Mother’s Day is here, then Father’s Day can’t be far behind.  On both days, Daddy’s absence will be keenly felt, more so than usual.  If you lost a parent in the last few years, you know the feeling. 

I give thanks that I was born to my warm, loving, smart and funny mother, who is still very much with us.  Before long, she will be closer still, when she relocates from Atlanta to Virginia.  And I’m thankful that we had Daddy with us for so many years.  I’m immensely grateful for the happy, comfortable life my parents worked so hard to build together, primarily for my benefit. 

And on this first Mother’s Day without Daddy, I say a prayer for my mother, and for all the mothers, young and old, who are facing yet another day without their partner. 

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1965

On the steps of my parents’ married housing apartment at UNC

Paris, 2002

For so long, it was the three of us.  Now we’re two, but our hearts are fuller because we carry Daddy with us always. 

A Different Kind of Easter, 2017

The first year following the death of a loved one, every day brings a loss that must be faced anew.  Holidays, especially, those days of expected celebration, are tough going.  Absence becomes a heavy, all-suffusing presence, a thick cloud of anxious dismay. 

This would be the first Easter without my father.  

And it wouldn’t be only my father’s absence that would make this Easter different.  My daughter was, at long last, in the final stages of college choice.  She was in the process of comparing the  schools to which she’d been accepted.  Over spring break, she’d come with me to Atlanta and we’d tour Georgia Tech. On Good Friday, she’d fly to Rochester to meet my husband.  They’d spend Easter with his side of the family.  She’d take last looks at the University of Rochester and Union College in Schenectady, NY.  I’d stay in Atlanta.  It would be the first time I’d ever spend an Easter away from my husband and daughter.  But it was being present with my mother, in the face of Daddy’s glaring absence, that took priority. 

I didn’t like to think about what the day would bring.  The words of that hymn, God of Grace, and God of Glory, kept echoing in my head:  Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.  On Easter morning, around 10:25, Daddy wouldn’t be standing by the back door, jingling his keys, looking spiffy in his navy suit and perfectly knotted tie.  He wouldn’t be close beside me as we sang the beautiful resurrection hymns in church.  Mama and I would certainly need wisdom and courage to face that hour. 

We’d need our faith.  And with it, we’d find comfort in Charles Wesley’s words in that perhaps most frequently sung of all the classic resurrection hymns, Christ the Lord is Risen Today:

Where, O death, is now thy sting? 

Once he died, our souls to save,

Where’s thy victory, boasting grave?  . . .

Made like him, like him we rise,

Ours the cross, the grave, the skies. 

We’d envision my father, free from the chains of illness that had gripped him at the last.  His unique spirit more beautiful than his earthly presence in the prime of his life, he soars now where Christ has led.  The message of Easter would see us through.  It would give us strength for the living of these days. 

What, I wonder, would we do without our faith? 

Easters Past

When I envision the perfect Easter day, I think of one spent in Atlanta with my parents, my husband and daughter.  Most Easters during my daughter’s childhood found us in that well-loved and familiar place. 

My daughter’s first egg hunt was at my home church in Atlanta.  She was not quite three, and her public persona was quiet and timid.  I feared that in the wake of louder, bolder children, her basket might well remain bare.  She was neither quiet nor shy with family, however.  Should the hunt not go well, my husband and I would experience the full force of her fury afterwards.  So we coached her.  We practiced in my parents’ yard:  When you see an egg, pick it up and put it in your basket.  Don’t take an egg that someone else is about to pick up, but don’t wait too long, either.

 

Mama cared little about the Easter egg hunt; she preferred to stay home, cook the ham and devil eggs.  But Daddy loved being with his granddaughter for the hunt.  He gloried in walking along beside her, cheering her every find.  He didn’t have to muster fake enthusiasm, as many grandparents diligently try to do.  He simply had it, and it bubbled up and out.  When it came to his granddaughter, his cup runneth over.  Until it suddenly ran out, and by then, both he and my daughter were grumpy and ready to go home.  They’d snip and snipe at one another like siblings.  My daughter rather appreciated that aspect of Papa’s personality; he became the brother she would never have. 

 

We needn’t have coached our toddler on egg-hunting strategy.  Every church bunny in our experience has been exceptionally generous and not particularly inclined to hide eggs, preferring instead to scatter them abundantly in plain view.  Every child left with an overflowing basket.  Our daughter and her surrogate brother were pleased.  My husband and I were happy and relieved:  another milestone community event successfully completed.    

 

On Easter morning, our daughter would find her basket on the dining room table, filled with goodies.  There would be a reply from the Bunny to the note our daughter always left him. 

After church on Sunday, we typically took the annual photo of our daughter on the steps of the rock garden by the azaleas.  These pictures document her growth from baby to teen. 

The perfect Easter day that I see in my mind–that’s no longer a possibility. 

Things change.  This Easter would be different.

 

Looking into the Ashes

On Ash Wednesday, Christians are encouraged to look into the darkness and face the grimness of what could have been.   With each passing year, the weight of that darkness becomes more palpable to me.  This year especially, as I think of my father’s death, as I consider the yawning void of his absence that greets my mother every morning in the house they shared for forty-nine years, the ashes of Ash Wednesday seem very real indeed. 

Fortunately, thanks to God’s saving grace, we are not left in the ashes.   We are invited out of the gloom and into the light.

Nearly every year I write about Ash Wednesday.  At this point, I’ve said about all I can without redundancy.  Last year’s post, Saved from the Ashes, covers the ground.

I can only add this bit of advice:  confront the darkness of the day.  Maybe, for the first time, attend a church service and get that smudge on your forehead.  If you prefer, you may not even need to get out of your car; many churches are providing drive-by ashes these days.  But think about what the smudge means.  Only by looking into the ashes can we fully appreciate the opportunity to be lifted from the dust into new life.    

And look around you.  Chances are, the promise of spring is already at hand.