Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

Good Friday: It Is Finished. Let Life Begin.

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Charles Wesley eloquently summed up the message of Good Friday in the words of the following hymn, which he composed in 1762.
Its title comes from the last words of Christ from the cross,
as told in John 19:30: It is finished.

‘Tis Finished! The Messiah Dies

Tis finished! the Messiah dies, cut off for sins, but not his own.
Accomplished is the sacrifice, the great redeeming work is done.

The veil is rent; in Christ alone the living way to heaven is seen;
The middle wall is broken down, and all the world may enter in.

‘Tis finished!  All my guilt and pain, I want no sacrifice beside;
for me the Lamb is slain, ’tis finished! I am justified.

The reign of sin and death is o’er, and all may live from sin set free;
Satan hath lost his mortal power, ’tis swallowed up in victory.

Kiko’s Close Call

During our visit to Rochester, we left Kiko alone with H’s parents one afternoon while we went out.  We felt no anxiety about leaving the dog with them. I don’t think I even gave a single thought to Kiko while we were gone.  Grandma and Grandpa are worriers.  They are careful.  They visualize every possibility of disaster, no matter how remote.  They looked after our two-year old daughter for ten days when H, my parents and I went to France.  Everyone was fine.  They should have no problem dealing with Kiko for an hour and a half.
When we returned, Grandpa came quickly to the door.  He was clearly shaken. We knew something was up.   Everything’s alright, he said, breathlessly.  It’s all OK. . . . But Kiko got out.I was immediately beset by panic, even though Kiko was right there, looking up at me, perfectly fine, intact and unharmed, a bit sleepy.The story unfolded.  Shortly after we left, Grandpa decided to get the car washed.  With Rochester’s constant snow and never-ending salt and slush on the roads, car washes are a routine necessity.  He looked into the living room and saw Kiko asleep on his bed.  In the kitchen, he pressed the garage door opener, as he always does, before going out the side door.  It was then that he was aware of a reddish flash behind him.  Kiko was already in the garage and dashing out into the driveway.  Grandpa lunged for the dog, managing to grab his tail, which  looks very much like a curled handle, as on a teapot.  But Kiko was moving too fast, and the tug on his tail merely caused him to yelp and move even faster.Our brilliant dog turned left at the end of the driveway and bounded down the very center of the street.  H’s parents’ live on a busy road, where cars speed by with dependable frequency.  This was no quiet neighborhood cul-de-sac.  Oh no.

 

 

Fortunately Grandma heard Grandpa yell and was alerted to the situation.  I had showed her Kiko’s bag of treats and left them out on the table.  Thinking quickly, she got a treat and rushed out in pursuit.  By this time Grandpa and the dog were well down the road.  Kiko would stop occasionally and look back, then fly off again playfully.  He was evidently thinking,  This is a great game!.  When he heard Grandma yell pleasantly, Kiko, treat!, he paused long enough to allow Grandpa to catch up and grab his collar.  Luckily, I hadn’t removed the collar as I usually do at home; this dog is as slippery as an otter.  Kiko was saddened and stunned to see the game ending so quickly, and he did all he could to resist returning home.  He splayed his legs, put his head down resolutely, and managed to make his compact 26-pound bulk feel much heavier. But Grandpa was determined, and mustering his strength, he corraled our little runaway beast.

Considering that Grandpa and Grandma generally don’t move especially fast, it is a near-miracle that they managed to catch our speedy dog.  Evidently the adrenaline rush fueled their unusual alacrity.  The real miracle, according to Grandpa, was the absence of a single car passing by during the entire episode.

We all visualized various grim alternate endings:  Grandpa collapses in the street with a heart attack, Grandma slips on the icy road and breaks a hip, and Kiko is still flattened by a Suburban.

We would all be awash in blame.  The whys and the what-ifs would be dizzying and relentless.  Why didn’t we ask Grandma and Grandpa if they planned to go out?  Why didn’t we warn them about the garage door?  What if we had taken Kiko with us?  Grandpa would regret that car wash for the rest of his life, as H, D and I would regret that day’s outing.

Here, I am, close to tears, again, imagining the sad trip back to Virginia, without Kiko.  Or with his inert little body packed in ice in the back of the car? I doubt we could have buried him in the frozen Rochester ground. We would have had to gather up all his stuff–his bed, blanket, food bowls, treats, Foxy, his little coat.  Oh, his little plaid coat, the coat he wore only once!  And now my heart is breaking for parents who have lost children (and I do mean human children) who must confront  the tormenting evidence–the forlorn toys, the clothes, the snow boots–that screams: She’ll be back!  She’s at a friend’s house.  He’ll be home from school at 4:00!  How do such parents answer, without going insane: No, pretty red dress, my baby won’t be home again.  No, boots, he will not use you for this snow, or ever.   Only with God’s help.

But our ending, this time, was a happy one.  I don’t think God held back the cars that day.  Nor do I think he assigns guardian angels to dogs.  But maybe God did give Grandpa and Grandma the unaccustomed speed they needed to catch our escaped monster.  And maybe he looked after them so they did not get hurt in the process.  Maybe he helped Grandma remember that a treat might work magic. And maybe luck was simply on our side.

Today, safely at home, my Kiko is warm in the sun.  I will cuddle him, and give thanks again.  And I will say a prayer for those wrestling with an unhappy ending.

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 Kiko sleeps in the March sun.

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Now Grandma and Grandpa have signs like this one on all their doors,  just as we do in our house.

Ashes to Ashes

On Ash Wednesday, we are urged to face a stark truth:  we will not live forever.  The certainty of our mortality should be evident as we daily confront our society’s latest egregious incidents of violent fatality.  Where was today’s shooting?  At a mall, an office, a restaurant, a church, or, most horrifically, at a school? Who were the heroes and innocents who died senselessly this week? Firefighters, doctors, nurses, teachers, small children, infants? Depending upon where you live, you may be mourning a different tragedy than the one that preys on my mind.  There are so many tragedies in our world. Every day it becomes more difficult to say It can’t happen in my neighborhood. 

Yet despite the ongoing exposure to such dire events, our culture is constantly blaring the message that if we spend enough on miraculous health and beauty products, if we make the right lifestyle choices, we can prolong our lives indefinitely. It promises us, repeatedly, that it’s in our best interests to extend the look of youth far beyond our youthful years.  One of the worst things we can say about a celebrity is this:  She’s looking her age. How shocking!  How pitiful!  Not enough botox, or botox gone bad.  Excessive collagen, or inadequate collogen.  A facelift that failed.  A fanatical exercise regime that no longer does the trick. Her arms were once buff; now they’re stringy.  The more beautiful one is in youth, the sadder seems the diminishing of that beauty with age.

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Yesterday I caught a brief snippet of a TV soap opera that I admit  I used to watch, on occasion.   Well, not really watch.  It happened to come on at a time when I needed a rest.  It offered a distraction as I  sat down to fold laundry, leaf through piles of papers and magazines for recycling, make get-well cards. Sometimes it lulled me to sleep, I have to say. This particular soap opera, even sillier than most, if possible, requires minimal attention, because it’s always the same. During my most recent viewing, it was immediately apparent that the same small group of characters was still soldiering on in scandalous banality, divorcing, remarrying, swapping spouses and children, re-betraying one another in bizarre ways.  At a glance, the old gang looked very much the same.  There was not a wrinkle, not a gray hair to be seen.  Bodies were svelte, as always.  But the faces were altered in odd ways:  eyes slanted at more extreme angles, lips overly puffy, cheekbones higher, chins more pronounced, foreheads immovable as those of marble statues.   The characters continue to behave in sophomoric, stupid ways, so it is fitting, perhaps, that they appear young.
In real life, though, is maturity so terrible?  If we learn from our mistakes, we are not cursed to repeat them endlessly, like soap opera characters.   As we mature mentally and spiritually, we will age, and our age will show.

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I’m not saying I’m immune to the horror of growing old.  I’ve begun to avoid harsh lighting,  I’ve noted, with acute dismay, what an awkward turn of my head can do for the skin on my neck. The magnifying mirror is my frenemy.  I silently bewail the effects of gravity.  Just as the classic birthday card line attests: Old age is not for sissies.  It’s for the the wise, the well-adjusted, the truly mature.
On Ash Wednesday, we are called to confront the fact that no magic potion or surgery will keep old age forever at bay.  And while death claims the young, as we see all too often, most of us are granted the bittersweet privilege of aging in this lifetime.  This is, indeed, a gift; it allows us  the opportunity to grow toward wisdom, toward maturity.  It means the chance to come to terms with the hollowness of our culture of vanity, and to learn to live accordingly. The visible effects of age are reminders that death awaits us, unavoidably. The physical body decays even as we live, earthly beauty is fleeting, and material possessions are transitory.  Once we acknowledge these truths, we are free to recognize the real value of what will not pass away:

 
And now, these three abide: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.  –1 Corinthians 13: 13

 
On Ash Wednesday, we thank God for not leaving us to eternal decay.  Through the love of Jesus Christ we are rescued from the dust, from perpetual darkness.  Our future, as God’s beloved children, is one of light and glory, of joyful wisdom that, in its zeal, perfection, and yes, its maturity, will remain forever young, forever beautiful.

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I noticed today that some Lenten roses (Helleborus Orientalis) are already in bloom , although barely visible among winter’s dead leaves.

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For further discussion of the meaning of Ash Wednesday, see last year’s post: What’s with the Ashes?, February 22, 2012.

Moving On, Into a New Year

It’s the seventh of January, 2013.  Epiphany has been celebrated; the Christmas season is officially over.  The electric candles in our windows have clicked on and off for the last time this winter. Tonight’s early January dusk will have to stand on its own; there will be no soothing, quasi-magical boost of simulated candlelight. We are back in ordinary time. Yet again, the days sped by too quickly.

 

This is the dreaded week of my Christmas clean-up.   I began the day by wandering remorsefully through the house, wishing we hadn’t put up six trees, wondering where to start the process of un-decoration. As always, I will resolve this year, for a change, to find the right boxes for the packing-up.  When I can’t manage that, I will vow to locate an actual working marker to label the boxes.  When even that proves undoable, I will tell myself that I’ll remember what I put where.  Eleven months from now, I will be standing in our frigid attic, muddled and confused.  The box that professes to contain miniature trees will be full of stockings and bead garlands.  Where did the box of white lights go this time?  Some crucial item, usually one of our star tree-toppers, will have vanished completely.

But it’s a new year, and it’s time to move on. The trappings of the holiday season have undergone an unmistakable, unsavory shift in essence. Five weeks ago, they were the stuff of joy and hope. Now they are clutter. The blue spruce is droopy and dry, its needles as sharp as steel.

I look forward, past the mess, envisioning the uncluttered, restful simplicity of mid-January.  It’s an illusion, a vanishing mirage, of course.  With a vengeance, this first month bursts with the business of everyday life.  A glance at the calendar reveals an exhausting proliferation of church meetings, school volunteer meetings and appointments with doctors.  All that and all the Christmas debris, still here.

Yet the reality of the new year brings a clearer, if starker, light.  It gladdens my heart to think that the shortest, darkest day of the year has come and gone. The earth is turning, tilting toward spring. The leaves of the rhododendrons in our back garden shrivel in the cold, but their blooms are set, ready and waiting.  Nature’s optimism and foresight promises renewal.  It really is time to move on.

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A rhododendron bud stands by for spring.

We’re All Family Here

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I’ve noticed that when TV sit-coms and the annual crop of heartwarming holiday movies attempt to address the “real meaning of Christmas,”  it often comes down to this lukewarm message:  It’s about family.  Not wanting to offend the secular audience, or those of other faiths, there is never a mention of Jesus, Christ, the Savior of the world, Emmanuel, or the Messiah.  As a Christian, I wish this were not always the case.

But after some thought, I realize, the TV explanation isn’t completely inadequate.  Christmas is about family.  It’s not just about trying to tolerate, for one day or a long weekend, the nuclear and extended family that gathers with us for the annual gift extravaganza.  It’s about being the family of God throughout the world.

God loves us so much that he sent his only son to live among us as a little baby.  He came down to our level, took on a human body and human frailty, so he could show us how to live, how to give, how to share.  Because he became one of us, we needn’t doubt that he understands our fears, our weaknesses and our shortcomings.  God knows what it’s like to be mocked, unappreciated, mistrusted and reviled.  He knows what it’s like when even our closest friends betray and abandon us.  He understands suffering and death.  He knows what it’s like to lose a child.  He truly feels our pain.

God has made us his children.  We are neither slaves nor possessions.  It is not our own worthiness that has granted us this favored role, but his unfailing love and forgiveness.  Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are heirs to God’s eternal kingdom.  As grateful heirs, we are to respond to his grace by cultivating the seeds of love he has sown within us.

Christmas reminds us that we are all God’s children.  No matter how vast our differences in circumstance, appearance or culture, we are brothers and sisters.  We’re all family here. 

The Light Shines in the Darkness, No Matter What Happens

 

Light Shines 004 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

 –Luke 1: 5

As I contemplated a post for Christmas Eve, I realized that the one I wrote last year still expresses my thoughts for the day.  I modified the end somewhat, in response to recent tragedies, including that in Newtown, Connecticut.

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Our church’s candlelight Christmas Eve service is one of the highlights of the year. Each person receives a small white candle upon entering. Toward the end of the service, the sanctuary goes dark. The acolytes assist the congregation with the lighting of the individual, hand-held candles. Gradually, while we sing Silent Night, the light grows. By the final verse, the sanctuary is brightly glowing, as each member of the congregation holds high a lighted candle.

The process is a beautiful expression of God’s love. Into the darkness of the world, God sent a light. It appeared dim and insignificant at first. But soon it grew brighter and kindled countless other lights. When we allow the light of God’s gift to come alive within us, we glow. And we, in turn, have the power to spread the light. Our combined light is a mighty force. The darkness will not overcome it.

The source of the light is one baby, born to an unknown young woman and witnessed only by her trusting husband and perhaps the animals of a stable. In an unlikely juxtaposition, a multitude of angels announces the birth not to the ruling elite, but to shepherds in the fields outside of town. (This is nevertheless appropriate, because the baby’s great ancestor David was a shepherd boy when he was hand-picked to be king.) Before long, the birth of the child has attracted the attention of wise men from distant Eastern lands. Led by a singular star, they embark on a long journey to find the humble family. They bow down in awe before the baby and present him with rare and costly gifts.

God’s great gift turns the world upside down, upsets its expected order. There is no room in the comfort of any inn for God’s only son. Angels appear to lowly shepherds, and kings worship a baby. Allowing God’s light to shine within us may lead us to unexpected places. The tidiness of our lives is likely to be overturned. This is the difficulty in letting our inner light shine. Its power may summon us to go where we would rather not venture. It may be more convenient to quench that light, to hide it under a bushel. But knowing that the flame that dwells within us is from God, the light of salvation, ever-present, we can have the courage to go where it wills us.

The darkness of our world may seem impenetrable at times.  When innocent children and their caring leaders are massacred on a crisp Friday morning two weeks before Christmas, our world appears almost unimaginably dark.  It would seem that God turned his back that day in Newtown, Connecticut.  What about the angels some say he sends?  Where were they that day?   No one, not the most learned theologian or the holiest, most enlightened human, can adequately explain why such terrible things happen. Certainly I can’t.  But it helps me to realize that we lack God’s all-seeing perspective.  We see through the glass dimly; we can’t grasp the big picture.  Maybe God did send angels that day, but they didn’t work as we might expect.  Maybe those who died in Newtown were needed elsewhere; maybe they were promoted early to a place of honor and privilege somewhere we might call heaven.

Despite the evil that is abroad in the world, God’s love is stronger.  We are never alone; he is with us even in the worst of times. He is there to lead us to the light, out of the depths of despair.  On this Christmas Eve, I pray for the light to be kindled and nourished in hearts throughout the world.  And I pray that we will have the strength to let the light be our guide.

Do not be afraid; for see—I bring you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

–Luke 2: 10b-11

Little White Lights, for the Season of Light

 

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I prefer to avoid overhead lights whenever possible.  They  scream institution: school, office, hospital, the DMV, and perhaps worst of all, the department-store fitting room.  They drone on of chores and unpleasantness.  Best to use them, I believe, under only three circumstances:

  • 1.  To quickly (and briefly) illuminate a dark room upon entry (to avoid falling over the dog or some misplaced, unexpected obstacle).
  • 2.  When cleaning, as in vacuuming, scrubbing floors and dusting.
  • 3.  In case of emergencies.

Nothing makes a room or its inhabitants look sadder and more forlorn than a ceiling light casting its cold and dismal glow.  The light is either too harsh or too dim.  The angle is all wrong.  I suspect there are untold numbers of people unwittingly suffering a diminished quality of life because they persist in flicking on the overhead switch, and leaving it on.  

Were they to employ a decent-looking table lamp instead of the ceiling light, a space that once appeared mournful and dejected might become cozy and pleasant.  They might find themselves inexplicably cheerier.

I’ve acquired lots of lamps over the years, mostly at flea markets, yard sales and antique stores.  Others were gifts from my mother, from whom I acquired my distaste for ceiling fixtures.  Our house probably has too many lamps.  In December, some of these are relegated to the basement.  Christmas demands a softer, warmer, more festive glow than most lamps can offer.  The outside of our house gets its special holiday treatment, and the inside is not neglected. 

During the Christmas season, the optimal sources of interior illumination, I believe, are strands of small clear white lights.  To some degree, they mimic the effect of candlelight.  Yet compared to candles, they involve considerably less mess and threat of fire.  I discovered the charm of such lights one year as we were preparing for our annual holiday party.  Now we decorate for the party and keep the lights up through Epiphany, January 6. 

White lights peek out from the ivy at the feet of the large nativity figures occupying the tops of the TV armoire and the adjacent bookshelves. They’re entwined in garlands on the stair banister, atop the secretary in the living room, the sideboard in the dining room, and sometimes on top of the piano.

They adorn our big Christmas tree in the living room, typically a blue spruce.  In the first years of our marriage, before a child came along to distract me, I spent the better part of two days wrapping nearly every branch with lights, for a total of about 1,300.   Now, I lack the time to be so obsessive (at least in that regard). 

White lights decorate our several small artificial trees, like the alpine trees above in the dining room. ( I found that one of these trees alone appears bedraggled and pitiful, but a grouping of three is just right.  We hang our homemade pinecone and cork creatures, pasta and seashell angels on these trees.  See posts from December 2011.) 

Around 5 PM each evening, as the winter night settles in, I start plugging in the many strands of lights.  (Unfortunately my husband has not developed a one-switch system, as he has with the electric candles in the windows and the exterior spotlights.)  Our rooms begin to glow, as if enlivened by tiny stars.  I am reminded that we are in a special season, a time when we focus on the miraculous light that God sent to shine in our dark world. 

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The manger scene atop the bookshelves.

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The nativity figures are so large that the magi and their well-dressed camel occupy the armoire on the adjacent wall.

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White lights add a warm glow on the dining room sideboard.

Lighting up the Night for Christmas

One of the things I love best about the Christmas season is the chance to light up the darkness with light. My husband and daughter feel the same way.  Like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (which we watch every year), H has a vested interest in exterior illumination, although he takes a somewhat more subdued approach. There is no stapling of a thousand strings of lights to the roof, no plastic Santa and reindeer; only some carefully placed spotlights and a candle in each window to highlight the wreath above.

 

During the day, it’s evident, at least under close scrutiny, that our home has many needs: it needs painting and new siding. We really should do something about the windows at some point.  (But I like the old, wavy glass from 1920, as well as those costly to replace “true divided lights.”) None of this matters, though, as dusk falls every evening in December.  With the click of a switch in the basement, the house gleams newly white and clean. Instead of highlighting flaws, the light, like the true light of Christmas, makes them disappear.  All dreariness, all weariness, is erased. The effect is simple and pretty. One month each year, we get to live with light in the darkness. And we decide, yet again, that no home improvements are necessary for a while.

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Out of the Blue: A Prayer for 9/11

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The weather is beautiful today here in northern Virginia.  The sky is clear and blue, the sun is bright, and the crisp, fresh promise of fall is in the air.  Eleven years ago, September 11 began just as gloriously.  We had no idea what was coming.

This morning, as I typically do on every September 11 since 2002, I find myself keeping an eye on the clock as 8:46 approaches.  Anything I might say about my memory of that day runs the risk of sounding trite or self-important, so I won’t attempt it.  All I can do is offer my prayer, in hopes that its power will be magnified as it joins and rises with the great cloud of kindred prayers around it.

On this September 11, I ask for God’s blessings on all those whose lives were irrevocably and tragically altered on that terrible day.  For the thousands who died, and for the many more loved ones who grieve for them.  For the children who grew up without a parent, for the spouses whose partners never returned, for the grandparents who became parents to their lost children’s children.  For those whose pain still pierces, and for those who suffer guilt because some healing has taken place, because cherished memories have dimmed.

I give thanks for the many heroes who sacrificed their lives or endangered their health on that day to save strangers.  For the firefighters, police and rescue workers who bravely answered the call to duty.  For unlikely individuals, like the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who rose to the daunting challenge.

I give thanks for the unity we feel as a nation each year on September 11.  I pray that it might outlast this one day.  In the poisonous political atmosphere of this election year, may it inspire us to set aside our bitterness, for a while, at least, so that we might work together.

And, most of all, I thank God for the good that always comes from bad, even if, in our sorrow and anger, we may not see it until months or years later.

May we be especially receptive to the vitality of God’s blessings on this September 11.  I pray that we will feel God’s mercy and love descending on us all, from out of the blue.

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The lower Manhattan skyline seen from Liberty State Park, NJ on August 19, 1991.