Belated Holidays

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The Christian calendar’s two key celebrations came late this year. For me, at least. It all began in November.

During an income-free season for my husband and I, a young ardent doctor listened to my recurrent cough, pointed out that I’ve “had a few birthdays,” and passed me up the chain to a cardiologist. The cardiologist detected a heart murmur and ordered an echo-cardiogram. In the meantime, the cough medicine the first doctor prescribed almost as an afterthought had cured my cough. Nevertheless, I spent Christmas Day wondering what if…

Seven a.m. on Boxing Day found me, despite decades of responsible eating and regular exercise, outfitted in a tent-sized gown and lying on an examination table at the Heart Hospital. The tech–a lovely woman with a gentle, capable demeanor–maneuvered a probe around my chest. While working to the music of my heart’s pumping, she posed questions. I responded, “yes,” when asked if I was active. “I thought so,” she said. “You have a beautiful heart. It looks like the heart of a teenager.” Aw shucks. Also, in addition to being massively relieved, I’m giving myself permission to be extra moody.

My husband and I sailed home to tell our daughters, both home on vacation from grad school, that I’d been given the all clear. We had an all-out Christmas celebration on Dec.26.

Fast forward to spring, with my husband and I still seeking employment in hopes of supporting our pay-free nonprofit work (think St. Paul’s tent making). Enter another health scare.

A bit of pertinent history: all four of my grandparents died from digestive-system cancers. Their dying was ugly and made a lasting impression on me as a child. I’d adopted a healthy lifestyle as a result.

When I hit sixty, my primary physician, peering at my family history, basically asked if I’d assent to a colonoscopy or simply be irresponsible. Girding my metaphorical loins, I had the test, which revealed four polyps. The surgeon removed them and scheduled a retest three years hence.

The date of reckoning arrived, but with our current insurance challenges, I’d decided to delay that directive. In March, I developed intestinal issues which, to be delicate, were anything but (delicate, that is). It was pretty scary. I first tried to ignore the symptoms, then tried home remedies recommended by that font of global wisdom: the Internet. The symptoms worsened.

I contacted my primary physician, who set me up with a surgeon. A colonoscopy was calendared: for two days after Easter. Good times. I skipped the Easter meal with friends, uncomfortable with the attention my restrictive pre-op diet would prompt.

And here’s the source of my excessive resistance: I am an anesthesia lightweight. The first colonoscopy left me with no memory of the doctor’s remarks, of getting dressed, or the ride home. I had to rely on my husband’s second-hand reporting of the diagnosis. And while he’s a great guy, reading body language and verbal tones are not his strong suit. And just let me say, I tried to tell the medical team. Several times. In fact,I told everyone who attended me. If the guy who trimmed the hospital lawn had given me a chance, I’d have told him. It didn’t help. I was loopy for hours. Now I had to go through all that again, wonder if those polyps had had babies, and, worst of all, wonder if I’d regain consciousness.

With our finances in dire straits, our daughters trying to complete their graduate degrees and find employment to start paying off students loans, and our nonprofit in limbo, my relocation to Twilight Town would traumatize all the people I love. I was quaking in my boots the day before, but I was doing the prep directed. That’s when, late that afternoon, the surgeon’s business office called to say our insurance refused to pay any portion of the procedure.

What happened when I hung up the phone was not pretty. There was screaming. And tears. Things might have been thrown.

My husband insisted I have the procedure anyway: do it for our family. We’d pay out of our savings. I was not happy. In spades. My prayer life went into hyperdrive.

On the day of reckoning, David and I arrived at the surgery center, signed in, and paid (ouch). I was called in, weighed, questioned, and outfitted in a stylish gown and matching bouffant cap. And let’s not forget the flattering camel-tan footies. IV in. And…wait.

Finally, delivered of my wedding ring and eyeglasses, I was rolled into surgery. David and I had told everyone on the medical team about my anesthesia sensitivities. They promised to be kind. I’d heard that one before.

But I’d done what I could. I had to trust the surgical team. And God. Nevertheless, in the operating room, I made a Herculean effort to hang on, at least a bit, to consciousness. For about five seconds. Next awareness: a nurse in the recovery room. My first words: “What did they find?”

“You’re clear this time.”

I heard her words with my own ears. I shivered in reaction to the anesthesia, but I was awake–and lucid. David texted our daughters, now back at their respective schools, with the news, and we had a family cyber-celebration.

This life of mine–it’s been one of hard knocks, even before this recent season of surprises. I’d begun to wonder what I could trust God to do: to wonder what faith looks like with the experiences I’ve had. I still don’t know how we’ll find paying jobs or what will happen to the nonprofit that is my heart.

Today I wonder without the weight of dread on my shoulders. I’ve been cleansed, made new. I no longer own the faith I had before entering the valley of the shadow. This new faith is somehow both deeper and lighter.

I hope I celebrate next Christmas and Easter on their calendar dates. And on the far side of this income-free season. But I can’t be sorry for this year’s belated celebrations.

I share this snippet of personal history in hopes that if you’re cooling your heels in God’s waiting room, you’ll prescribe for yourself a healthy dose of grace. Rant you need to; throw a tantrum. In short, just hang on; it doesn’t have to be pretty.

And remember: belated simply means at the needful time.

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Sleeper Carol

It’s a sleeper carol. When I tune the radio for my yearly fix of holiday tunes, I rarely catch it. I have, however, survived a dozen renderings of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Since we’ve now realized men shouldn’t sexually prey on women, could we stop including in our holiday festivities a song that celebrates a man liquoring up a woman to seduce her ? Please? Pretty please?

Conversely, my sleeper carol lauds a woman who, through her own choice, “bore sweet Jesus Christ/To do poor sinners good.”

“The Holly and the Ivy” employs traditional English holiday decor as a metaphor (I love metaphor!) to celebrate Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth. The lyricist compares the holly’s bearings of blossom, berry, prickle, bark with the holy person Mary bore. But the song doesn’t stop there. We are led through the birth its pressing need.

The lyricist, or lyricists (unknown) begin with the holly flower—its whiteness depicting Mary’s purity. Mary’s was a purity of purpose: an single-minded allegiance to God so staunch she was prepared to endure a life-long reputation as Nazareth’s scarlet woman. And that was if she didn’t get stoned to death first.

The holly berry portrays Jesus’ shed blood and its leaves recall the thorns that speared His brow. A holly bush grows in our yard, and its leaves have drawn my blood more than once. Holly leaves are unusually thick and rigid, so its pointed edges pierce the skin like thorns. Last, in the holly branch we taste the bitter gall offered to Jesus as He hung, dying, between heaven and earth. I don’t know who decided to munch on a holly branch and, thus, discovered its foul taste, but I hope there weren’t additional unpleasant after effects.

But here’s the thing about the sorrowful lyrics: they’ve woven into the merriest of tunes. It’s as if the composers wanted us to know, in the singing of “The Holly and the Ivy” that Mary’s sacrifice and Jesus’ suffering are a prelude. That the minor chords will resolve in a glorious culmination. That happened was terrible. And necessary. But it’s not all there is. We’re invited to a rollicking party—date TBA. But Jesus and Mary are hosting and our names are written on the guest list.

So instead of cheery tunes about sketchy seductions, let’s tune up “The Holly and the Ivy” and belt out its lyrics. As I feel sure the lyricists and composers hoped we would do.

Follow this link to enjoy a beautiful rendering of “The Holly and the Ivy”: https://youtu.be/57l6dSbVppM.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

And in despair I bowed my head;

”There is no peace on earth,” I said;

For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

As he penned the poem that would become a beloved carol, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had good reason to despair. His wife had died in a freak fire; in seeking to save her, Longfellow was so badly burned he could not attend her funeral. The resultant scar tissue made shaving impossible; Longfellow wore a beard for the rest of his life. The grieving widower and father of six then watched his nation turn against itself. His son, a Union Army soldier, now lay at home, wounded: doctors warned that, due to the path the bullet took, paralysis was a real possibility. On Independence Day the July prior, over 4000 soldiers lay dead following the Battle of Gettysburg. Their families would meet Christmas Day wearing mourning.

So on that Christmas day in 1863, Longfellow sat down and bled his soul into a poem. Later, John Baptiste Calkin gave melody to the words. The alchemy of lyric and melody resounds through our bodies like the deep sounding of bells. The tune feels weighty, austere: a cold winter beauty that shocks the heart.

Knowing Longfellow’s story lends potency to his final verse. Here is faith forged in the fires of harsh reality. No fair-haired cutesy angels or quippy platitudes here. Rather a resolute belief in Something larger than a single life, or even of a single lifetime.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead, not doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”*

 

I don’t know about you, but this Advent season I could easily bow my head in despair. In addition to personal concerns with job loss, health issues, and a tax “reform” that sinks our grad-school daughters already drowning in student loans further into debt, the global and national picture looks bleak. Mass murderers wage war on anyone not like them. No canons this time: its planes and cars and backpacks. This Christmas Day families across the globe mourn.

In addition, the threat of nuclear war has reemerged. And we’ve seen, yet again, the powerful prey on those less powerful. Cutesy angels and quippy truisms just won’t cut it.

But Longfellow’s poem? That’s my challenge. I am grieved that a man with such a heart had such a life. And I am deeply grateful he put his pain—and his hope—onto a page. For those who know something about despair.

And who yearn for a reason to hope.

*Check out Longfellow’s poem in its entirety. It’s well worth a Christmas read.

 

Joy to the World!

Each week of Advent and through the Twelve Days of Christmas, which end on Epiphany, I’ll again share my ponderings on the beautiful alchemy of lyric and melody in some Christmas carols. I promise at least one posting a week, and I hope to hear your carol thoughts as well.

This time of year, the word, joy, meets us everywhere: mailed to us in cards, strung along the street in lights, and, of course, sung to us in carols. There’s “Hark, the Herald Angel Sings” (joyful all ye nations rise), “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (oh, tidings of comfort and joy), “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel). And, of course, “Joy to the World” (not the Three Dog Night version, though that one’s joy packed as well)

C. S. Lewis described Joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Though joy is both a delight an ache, “anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” Lewis concludes, “I doubt that anyone who has tasted it would ever…exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”

If you’ve ever peered through a keyhole or a crack in a fence, you know something of joy. You can see just enough to long for a fuller vision, maybe even to walk into the space you see. At the same time, you’ve a limited perception of what’s out there. But it looks mighty promising; if you could just get there…

During the holidays, we have available—alongside the frustrating grocery lines, the crazy traffic, the scary bank balances, and the lights that won’t light on one side—ample opportunities for JOY. It might be that holiday song that wrenches our hearts, lights that transform us into children, a cherished family tradition (ours is driving around to view lights while belting out holiday tunes), or surprise snow IN AUSTIN, TEXAS! Even mundane tasks can, unexpectedly, overwhelm us with joy. In the midst of folding laundry, we glimpse the now and the not yet.

Joy, in the present, promises much more in our future. Joy is a delight that aches. It’s a wonder and a mystery. And I wish for you this holiday a season of joy.  In the words of the carol: Joy to the world—that includes you and me!

Hark! It’s Wesley, Mendelssohn, Paul, & the Peanuts Gang!

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It’s become a family tradition. We tilt our heads back, haul in a breath, and, with gusto, sing “loo loo loo, loo-loo, loo loo…” The iconic scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas lifts our smiles and our “loos” each holiday season. Even without the words, Felix Mendelssohn’s tune is recognizable: “Hark the Herald Angels.”  Mendelssohn, a gifted German composer who died too young, crafted a tune accessible to sing, as well. Every note works its magic within the treble or bass’ five bars: a range reachable for all. We’re not sure why Snoopy and crew had to assume that awkward head angle to produce the tune, but it’s their self-expression and who are we to judge?

I will confess that, as a child, the carol gave me visions of an angel named Harold who sported beard stubble and held a half-smoked cigar. A unique view of the angelic presence. And, yep, I was a weird kid. Charles Wesley, lyricist of the song and the most prolific hymn writer of all time, obviously had a different image in mind. Charles, a Latin scholar and Oxford graduate, is credited along with his brother, John, with founding Methodism. Charles also owned a poet’s heart, as we find in today’s carol:

Joyful all ye nations rise/Join the triumph of the skies.

“Hark the Herald Angels’” lyrics echo the poetic message of Philippians 2: 5-11 incarnation poem. Here’s a bit of St. Paul’s poem:

Christ Jesus,

 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

 

Paul’s message and Charles’? That Christ reduced Himself to human form: not to take advantage, not to punish, but to show us the face of God and to draw us Godward.

Light and life to all he brings/risen with healing in his wings.

Healing. Hope. Life.

Wow. That is good news.

We’re invited, via Mendelssohn’s melody and Wesley’s poetry, to lift our heads and voices in good-news song. Perhaps this is what Charles Schultz had in mind with his Peanuts animation.

So, are you ready? It’s not too late—we’re still in the Twelve Days of Christmas. Heads back, voices raised, now—give it all you’ve got! Here’s some inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP37k831y9U.

 

The First Noel

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No well, no well, no well, no well—

We have no water, ‘cause we have no well.

 

I confess this was a favorite childhood rendering of the traditional carol. But I loved “The First Noel” for other than its pun potential. The song’s melody moved along the scale with graceful assurance, coaxing my childhood voice along. The carol’s lyrics captured my imagination: “…a cold winter’s night that was so deep.” I saw the deep blues and purples of a star-drenched heaven, heard the intermittent bleating of sheep, felt the night air’s sharp chill. Beautiful. The alchemy of melody and lyric rendered a holy mystery that, to this day, awakens my yearning for the now and not yet.

In my teens, I learned to appreciate the song’s tenor line, especially the fourth “noel” of the chorus, in which the notes soar above the uppermost score and send voices into flight. Gave me chills. I heard a soprano take that flight an octave higher and, gaining courage, tried the run myself. Wow! “The First Noel” deepened my appreciation for four-part harmony and prodded me to take creative risks. A life-long gift.

Plus, I felt for the shepherds: stuck out on a hillside in the dead of night, prying their eyes open against insistent sleep, keeping those weary eyes peeled for predators or for hapless, wandering sheep.

Then, into that deep quiet blasts a nuclear-explosion of light. The deep dark sky burns with brilliant light. A voice—but so much more than a human voice—speaks words these regular joes can scarcely take in. Now, row upon row, battalion upon battalion of blinding beings join in, giving praise to God.

How does angel voice sound to the human ear? How does a host of such voices resonate against its bones and blood? No wonder the shepherds were sore afraid. Nothing in their experience had prepared them from such a message delivered by such messengers. Yet, instead of trotting off to the nearest pub, instead of agreeing, “let’s just keep this between us, okay, guys?” the shepherds went. They sought out the child, offered up their honest, awkward homage, and then buttonholed the townfolk to share the news. The shepherds probably got a lot of weird looks.

I’ve learned, since childhood, that Jesus was probably born in spring, when shepherds were more likely to take their flocks into the hills, and that scripture describes the angels as saying, rather than singing, their message, as so many carols depict. Okay. Not a cold winter’s night, but a deep one. And I’ve no idea how the angel message sounded to the shepherds’ ears. What I do know from the carol and from the scriptures it celebrates in song, is that God sees big. Bigger than our social systems. For God messaged blue-collar shepherds and foreign dignitaries with good tidings of great joy for all people: “a Savior has been to born to you.”

All of you. Each of you.  It’s enough to make anyone sing!

Filthy Rags & Faithful Treks

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Growing up, each Wednesday night and three times on Sunday, I got told I was a sinner. More than that, even my “righteous acts were as filthy rags” to God. I got the distinct impression my preachers and teachers thought Jesus erred in judgment when He came to save me.

For a sensitive child leaning hard toward perfectionism, the words were toxic. Shame soaked my soul; to this day I battle its dreary chill.

Recently, I heard a Ted Talk speaker share results of her research on human connection. Shame, she discovered, disconnects us from relationships: well-connected persons believe they deserve love. That’s a profoundly different message from the filthy rags exhortation.

“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”                            

Joyful? Triumphant? Could God really want that for me? If so, where does such joy abide? Over what might I triumph?

“O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

Dame Julian of Norwich described sinning as falling in a ditch, the benevolent Christ reaching down a hand to draw us out. What a compassionate image of sin—who would not adore such a Lord?

That’s the joyful journey: to live Godward, to adore Christ. I can do that. I want to do that. Sure, I’m going to foul it up; I’m going to sin. But that’s not the big story. For Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

“O Come, All Ye Faithful” depicts faith as a journey to seek and then to adore the Christ child. Along the way, there will ditches to fall into, brambles and ambles to divert and distract. But as long as I get back up, or turn around, or clear away the rubble, God is waiting with a hand to help me up. Not to slap my face.

As an adult, I wonder and I worry about the motives of my early teachers: did they truly want me to struggle with self-loathing all my life? Or were they, too, soaked in shame? If so, I hope they, too, discovered Jesus’ gift: life to the full. Because, wow, that’s cause for joy and adoration.

Prayer: Jesus, it’s a confusing journey down here. I’ll sin. Lose my way. Forget my first love. When I fall in a ditch, reach out Your hand; I will gratefully grasp it. And adore You. Amen.

Hard Times & A Holy Night

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Our car, affectionately dubbed “The Dude” after our nonprofit’s icon, has quite a story. An enraged woman keyed its driver’s side, stem to stern. For months I drove the car, sickened by the violence pressed into it, praying for direction. I didn’t want to hide the scar—I wanted to transform it. In the end, the gash became part of a living tree from which dudes, created and named by our spacious folks, blossomed. I even took the art up onto the car’s roof, painting a dude cloud formation. More spacious folks joined the fun, creating personalized dudes to sail among those clouds.

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“The Dude” has been, for years, integral to our nonprofit’s ministry: trunk crammed full of supplies to inspire creative expression; wheels traversing the miles from our place to the places we serve; interior transporting children, safely buckled, to clubs and camps.

I got rear-ended last week. And, due to The Dude’s advanced years, he’s history. Just like that.

For me, the wreck and the unexpected costs it incurred just piled onto months and months of hardship and loss.

Too much.

And right at the beginning of Advent.

 

I share this story, because, sooner or later, we all get piled on. Overwhelmed by hard times and their attendant emotions, we cry with the psalmist, “How long?”

For me, faith isn’t reconstructing reality to match a smaltzy Christmas movie (but don’t we love those?). Faith is choosing God no matter what life throws my way. Driving around in a rental, a snatch of the carol, “O Holy Night,” struck me: “…till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Those lyrics describe what Advent anticipates. They also reminded me why we do what we do at A Spacious Place: through creative expression, we help souls know their worth.

A Spacious Place moves forward with deep gratitude to The Dude. I won’t paint our new car—at least not at first. There needs to be a reason. But she—I’ve a feeling this one’s a dame—needs to be blessed. In this season of hope and expectancy, will you join me in blessing The Dame with best hopes for her years of service?

Whatever life is for you this holiday season—Wondrous, Even-Keeled, or Hard Timed—I hope you will come to know your soul’s worth.

 

Thank you for your service, Dude. We love you and we’ll miss you. So much.

Carol Lovin’

carols-smallChristmas Carols are, in some theological circles, frowned upon. Considered musica non grata, if you will (my apologies to Latin speakers everywhere). But this God geek loves carols. Loves them. In carols, the joy, the wonder, the hope of the season finds voice.

During Advent (which starts today) and through the Twelve Days of Christmas, which end on Epiphany, I’ll share my ponderings on some carols. I promise at least one posting a week, and I hope to hear your carol thoughts as well. Just no carol hating, okay?

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel…

 

Emmanuel: “God with us.”

As a Christian, I believe the long-anticipated Emmanuel became flesh in the person of Jesus. A Messianic child born into poverty, Jesus walked our earth, showing us the face and the heart of God. Still, I find myself still seeking an Emmanuel for right now.

Specifically, I yearn for an Emmanuel to save our nation: someone to embody God qualities our beleaguered country needs.

I look to our history: With artistry and hope that resonated God power, Thomas Jefferson inscribed the vision of a new nation onto parchment. Abraham Lincoln risked all to unify a deeply divided nation: his rectitude demonstrating each human’s God-given potential. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with eloquence in both word and deed, challenged us to live into Jefferson’s words, “All men are created equal.” King knew full well what his stand would cost him, and it did. That’s God courage.

We need that kind of leadership today. Right now. I’d hoped for it. Prayed for it. But leaders like that come rarely, and I am left with my prayers hanging in empty space. Or so I feel.

But it occurs to me that when we our leaders do not embody the God qualities our nation needs, we are called upon to cultivate those characteristics in ourselves. We become what we hoped for in another. And, in the pages of my Bible, I have the ultimate mentor: an Emmanuel for all times, including this one.  Jesus.

I ached for a leader I could watch on today’s news. Instead I am challenged by a timeless text: the life, the death, and words of Jesus.

And I find that I need more courage than I currently possess.

Prayer: O Come, Emmanuel. Give us courage to live into Your best hopes for us— and for our nation. Amen.

Jesus Is Come

Prepare

Jesus is come.

I saw her even before the season began

In the folksy yellow blossoms of a tulip gift.

 

Jesus is come.

I opened Skype one morning and there she was—

Struggling with grad school overload, hanging in.

 

Jesus is come.

He grinned at me, needing front teeth for Christmas:

The rest tarred and tangled. But how he grinned!

 

Jesus sang “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” with gusto if not with pitch,

And moments later swayed and gentled to “Silent Night.”

 

His child’s expectancy belied the violence that landed him in shelter;

Her shy teen smiled reached me behind locked gates.

 

Jesus sparked from yards seen from outer space

And pulled me close to feel His heart when the nightmares came.

 

I buttered her toast as she headed off to the work of need;

She paints magic to recoup.

 

Like me, Jesus has to eat, find shelter, balance work and refreshment.

 

I expect Jesus’ coming,

I open eyes wide,

strain ears for the sound of a distant motor,

sniff for change in the air.

 

I wait.

I am met.

 

But…no.

I’m not ready.

My house is a wreck.

I’m way too tired.

My relationships—muddled.

 

But Jesus is come

On the insistent dawn of this Christmas morn.

 

And I sit in mismatched jammies

Eyes wide, ears straining,

aching to touch the deep magic.

 

Jesus is come.

 

Here I am…