Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

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.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

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Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing ye heavens and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once he died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

–Christ the Lord is Risen Today
words:  Charles Wesley, 1739
music: Lyra Davidica, 1708

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Our Good Friday God

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On Good Friday, we give thanks to a loving, compassionate God who suffers with us.  Our God is not a remote, impassive being who rules from on high.  He came down to our level; he entered into the midst of our messy lives.  Jesus, our brother, gave his own life to save us, his unworthy siblings.  He died for us while we were yet sinners.  He knows our worst pain, because he has endured it first-hand: betrayal, sorrow, humiliation, physical agony, and death.  God the Father knows intimately the terrible reality of losing a child.  Our God continues to suffer as we suffer.   He grieves as we grieve, because we are his.  We are family.  Our God surrounds us with his Holy Spirit, as close as our own breath, to sustain and comfort us.

Good Friday is good because our God is good.  This day commemorates the completion of Jesus’s mission.  From the cross, he cried out, “It is finished.”  The perfect sacrifice has been made, salvation has been accomplished, and we are redeemed.

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Palm Sunday: Everyone Loves a Winner

On Palm Sunday Jesus was hailed as a celebrity, a military and political hero-to-be.  As he and his disciples entered  the city of Jerusalem, adoring, cheering crowds greeted them.  The news was out: at long last, the King of Israel was here.  He was the chosen one sent by God to restore power to the Jewish nation.  He rode on a donkey to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9:  See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.

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It was a time of great rejoicing for the people of Israel.  A new day of freedom and empowerment was dawning, thanks to the advent of the conquering Messiah.  The palm branches they waved were emblems of Israeli nationalism.

In just a few days, though, the tide would turn. The admiring throngs would scatter when it became clear that Jesus was not the kind of king they had desired and expected.  Even his dearest friends would desert him.  He would be betrayed by one of his own, turned over to the Roman authorities and crucified. On Good Friday, it would appear that this man was no winner.

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Good Friday, however, is not the end of the story.

Mindful Eating, and a Mindful Lent

In Lenten seasons past, I have denied myself some treat that I take for granted. Or I haven’t, and I’ve felt guilty about it. Either way, the result was less than inspiring.

One year, I avoided all desserts, including chocolate, ice cream, cake and candy. I stood firm in my abstemiousness. My Lenten sacrifice was technically a success, and perhaps it was worthwhile. It showed me that I do possess a measure of self-control. But spiritually, there was no real gain. Looking back, I see that I was at times a sanctimonious kill-joy. My husband’s family came for a visit, and I made a beautiful cake. But I didn’t eat a single bite, and I let it be obvious that I wasn’t eating. This, no doubt, did nothing for my own or anyone else’s spiritual edification.

Another year I tried to turn Lent into a diet. I may have lost a few pounds; I can’t even remember. Possibly I became lighter, but no more enlightened. It was during this time that I realized Sundays were not included in Lent. This prompted me to overindulge every Sunday, making Monday’s austerity even harder to face.

This year I’m not giving up a specific treat. Instead, my goal is to observe a mindful Lent. There is much talk these days of the benefits of mindful eating, a Buddhist-inspired practice whereby in savoring a single almond or three raisins for a half hour, we discover a more abiding pleasure in food. I will not go to this extreme, but I will try to be far less mindless in my eating. On most days, at least, I will count out my twelve cancer-fighting cashews (recommended by Dr. Oz), instead of grazing thoughtlessly from the container. And on all days, I will try to be thankful for the bounty of nourishment that is within our easy grasp. I will cook healthy meals for my family, and consume in moderation.

I will try to be mindful not only in eating, but in living. The Biblical basis of Lent is the forty-day period of prayer and preparation that Christ spent in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. Remarkably, he fasted the entire time, and even in his physically weakened state, he resisted repeated temptations by Satan. That forty-day fast was certainly a serious endeavor, so much so that it tends to make us forget about its greater purpose. We trivialize Lent when we turn it into an exercise of nothing more than our willpower over food. Christ’s forgoing of food was not the point; it was one aspect of spiritual preparation, of renewing his connection with the Father in order to be effective in his ministry.

After the example of Jesus, Christians are encouraged to strengthen their ties to God during the six weeks before Easter. By following a more disciplined program of Bible study, prayer, introspection, good works and moderate or sparing consumption, we are better equipped to fully appreciate the power and the glory of the resurrection.

Maybe I’m taking the easy way out this Lent. It’s true that I hate the thought of giving up chocolate, for example, when we have Russell Stover’s candy remaining from Valentine’s Day. (I also hate waste.) But simply giving up on a certain food hasn’t helped me recharge my spiritual battery in the past. Instead, my goal will be to live each day of Lent mindfully, prayerfully, and humbly. I probably won’t succeed every day, but I will keep my sights on the brilliant blessing of Easter that awaits. This will give me a fighting chance.

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Not off-limits for me this Lent, but to be savored (mindfully)!