Cardiac Conundrum

2017 has been, well, tough. My husband’s job was unexpectedly outsourced in March and we’re in a holding pattern in finding a new one. I awake in the morning wondering how will we pay our bills, and, more than that, what will happen to our nonprofit, A Spacious Place? The grant we’d hoped for, prayed for, fell through. The added stress of job searching coupled with nonprofit and small-business work netted me a respiratory infection that just wouldn’t quit. Hesitant to visit the doctor and add to our bills during the job-free season, I finally yielded as the Christmas holidays approached. I got the kind of surprise you don’t hope for at the doctor’s office.

I came in, expecting antibiotics and cough medicine, but found myself hooked up to EKG wires. (Once you top 60, you get extra scrutiny from medical professionals.) Something, apparently, was amiss. After my exam, the medical community moved at light speed. A little alarming.

Thanks to the antibiotics and cough medicine I’d received along with diagnosis “”heart questionable,” I was feeling better physically. But the wheels were set in motion and I found myself in an exam room at the Heart Hospital, staring at a three-D rendering of a human heart. “”You have a heart murmur,” pronounced the cardiologist. “”We need to do an echocardiogram.”

More money: my grad-school daughters this very year would be completing degrees and starting to pay off student loans. And more waiting: dandy.

My echo appointment was scheduled for 7 a.m. on Dec. 26. Fortunately, the holiday season kept us so busy there wasn’t much time to stew on “what ifs.” Still, it was there, in the back of our minds as we baked cookies, sang carols, and unwrapped gifts. What would next Christmas be like? Would A Spacious Place even exist?

At 7:05 a.m. on Boxing Day, a lovely and professional young woman, kind enough to ask about our Christmas even though her hijab evidenced her Muslim faith, handed me a hospital-blue poncho. As I lay on my left side, she pressed a wand against my chest. For 25 minutes, I breathed out, held it, took a breath, breathed out, held it.

“”You have a beautiful heart,” she said, finally. “”It looks like the heart of a teenager.” And then I breathed easier. When, two days later, I received a call from the cardiologist’s office stating that my heart pumping was normal, it was all-out celebration time.

Celebration time consisted of a sausage biscuit off McDonald’s dollar menu. But, accompanying our frugal feast rang in my head a snippet of a German carol: “How great our joy: joy, joy, joy/Praise we the Lord in heaven on high….” The tune played in my head through the day, particularly the three-fold rendering of the word, “joy.” The word swelled with each repetition until the final sung “joy” becomes joy itself.

We’re still in limbo: still job seeking, still seeking funding for A Spacious Place. But something has changed. A corner turned. A resurrection begun. Looking toward 2018 I’m determined. Determined not to accept the assumption that I should wind down my life because I’ve walked this earth for 63 years. Because the miracle of my journey through a cardiology conundrum is discovering I don’t have the heart of a teenager. I find today, beating in my chest, the heart of a child: eager, open, wonder-filled. And I can’t wait to see what God has in store in 2018. And in all the years to come.

 

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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!

Housing Grief

In our neighborhood sits a fire-gutted house. For months it sat, its yard weed ridden and rodent infected, its shattered windows like eyes into a dead soul. How long would it be left in that state? Why not just tear it down and rebuild?

Then in came the troops. First, the lawn was mown. Then, inside, fresh wood transformed the space from empty into potential. Outside, the crew built additions onto the existing structure. The house was, at its soul, what it had been, but also something new. A resurrection house.

The house reminds me that fires come. They destroy what has been. And we grieve. Grief takes the time it takes. Slowly, we’re opened to hope—not for what was, but for what might be. A resurrection. A soul house transformed.

This Eastertide season finds our family in loss. Last month, my husband’s job was outsourced. The life we’d known, the life we’d counted on, is gone. At 60+, we look out at the world through broken windows. Around us, as we wait and watch for what will be, we see resurrection. In nature. In the lives of others. In fire-gutted houses.

Whatever you are grieving, I hope for you clear evidence of resurrection. And with it, anticipation of fresh, new life.

Carols, Camels, & Clay

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“We Three Kings,” one of the few American carols, is…well…off base. At least portions of it. First, the magi were star students—either astrologers or astronomers or some combination—not kings. Also, there’s no evidence they were three. Why do we picture that number? Probably because the wise men brought three gifts. Also, while we’re debunking myths, they didn’t come to the stable, as we often see depicted. Their journey took months, possibly even over a year, so they came to Jesus’ house. That’s why we celebrate Epiphany after Christmas—to give the magi time to arrive.

So why do I love “We Three Kings?” First, there’s the tune: mournful yet engaging, brooding yet hopeful. I love the way the tune plods upward as we sing: “field and fountain, moor and mountain,” then dances over “following yonder star.”

Second, the lyrics prophecy Jesus’ full mission: birth, ministry, death, and glorification. And they do so with such artistry:

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in a stone-cold tomb,

and

Frankincense to offer have I/incense owns a deity nigh

and, of course,

Star of wonder, star of night/Star with royal beauty bright

Profound. And beautiful.

The carol’s epic scope is appropriate for Epiphany: the culmination of the Twelve Days of Christmas. After all, with the magi’s visit, the Good News went global.

One last reason I love this carol: in the late ‘80s, when Claymation animation was hot, the song was featured in A Claymation Christmas. The “three kings” lead off with the stanzas, then the tune rocks out as the camels take over. That’s right. Camels sporting bowties, awesome footwear, and even a fez. And these dromedaries can sing. You should check it out; it’s life changing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnIFTtW1pko

A happy 2017 to you all. May God gift you will all you need to be all you can be.

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.

 

Sweet Little Jesus Boy

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I can’t recall when, in my childhood, I first heard the spiritual. It’s one of those memories so early and formative, it knits itself into your bones. Since then, I’ve heard “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” sung by church choirs and perfectly inflected by opera stars. The spiritual is a prayer offered to both the baby and the grown, murdered, and resurrected Jesus. It speaks to Him of poverty, of cruelty, and of spiritual blindness.

Sweet little Jesus boy, they made you be born in a manger.

That we would relegate a birthing mother to a cattle cave is bad enough.

We didn’t know who you were.

That we didn’t see the abhorrence of our act, unfathomable. Yet that’s what happened. And to what “Jesus Boy’s” creators could relate. Not to be seen. Not to be treated as God’s children.

Didn’t know you’d come to save us all
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind we did not see
We didn’t know who You were

“Jesus Boy’s” creators knew what it meant to be made invisible, to be treated as “less than.”

The world treat you mean, Lord.

Treat me mean, too…

Felt the pain of cruelty in their bones. Yet…

Just seems like we can’t do right
Look how we treated you
But please, Sir, forgive us Lord
We didn’t know it was you.

They don’t choose to see themselves simply as victims. Owning their part in the need for Jesus’ coming, they ask forgiveness. Asking for anything requires courage, because asking makes us vulnerable. Asking forgiveness takes extraordinary courage, because that kind of asking also requires humility.

You done showed us how you been tryin’

Master, you don’t showed us how,

Even as you were dyin’.

 

Faithful unto death. Can I do that? I don’t know. The song’s creators didn’t, couldn’t know. But, in Jesus, they saw a courage for which they longed. In the Little Jesus Boy, Murdered Man, Resurrected God they found hope.

For me, the song best finds its truth when sung by a single voice. One that’s known some tears.

Check out this rendering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5_w2XpG7DI

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.