Living through the seasons

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The pots by my front door have sat empty all winter. A recent week of sunny, warm days and blue skies sent me to the nursery to buy flowers to fill my pots. When I took my selection of plants to the register, the woman there said, “Thank goodness you’ve got enough sense to buy pansies. It’s not spring yet!”

This morning I wake to a winter rainstorm and a chill temperature in the 40s. No, we definitely are not yet done with winter, even though we long for spring. And nothing we do can make it otherwise.

Seasons must run their course. My brother died in November and it is still very early in my season of grief. When I think of him, he is alive, and then I must remember again that he is not, and sadness swells within me anew. I want to say, “Wait, that’s not right.” But it is real. Like a harsh winter rain, the pall falls around me.

Suffering, pain, denial, anger – all demand their seasons in our lives. And we must bend to their will. The wisdom teachers of the desert tell us to welcome these hard and bleak seasons. To invite them into our spirits and ask them what lessons they have to teach us. To resist or deny them is only to increase our dis-ease, to multiply our anguish.

By welcoming them – as we might the aunties whose temperaments are sour and bitter and whose breath is rancid – we yield ourselves to a fullness of life we have yet to experience. And we trust that God is in all of it – in the jonquils and tulips when their time comes, but also in the pansies, hearty enough to withstand the cold rain and the gray skies.

Pinned by love

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Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. I am wearing red and one, very special pin.

Several years ago, I was volunteering at our church’s free lunch program, where we feed up to 200 people each day we’re open. The folks who come through the line are a diverse crowd – mothers or grandparents with toddlers, day laborers, seniors, gang members, the infirm, the hopeless.

I was serving on the frontline, dishing up hot casseroles, salad and bread and handing each heaping plate into hands sometimes too shaky to get a grip. Then one of our waiters would came to assist.

On this day, I looked up into the face of a young woman and noticed the pin she was wearing. At first glance, you see it is a heart, but looking more closely, you see the shape is made from the letters GOD.

“I love your pin!” I said to her. “That’s such a great design.” She said thanks, took her plate and sat down to eat.

It’s busy on the frontline. There is always another hand out to receive a plate, and I forgot all about the woman and her pin. But then, I heard a soft voice say. “Here, I want you to have this.” There she was offering me the pin I had admired. “Oh, I couldn’t…” I began, but she stopped me. “I want you to have it.”

Looking into her eyes, I knew the giving of this gift was important to her. The only question was, could I be wise enough to receive it?

It is the only question for each of us as God comes in so many ways and offers us unwavering love. Will I receive this love, or will I protest that I simply couldn’t?

I reached out my hand for the pin. “Thank you.”

We love to give gifts and we would be hurt if they were rejected. Are you rejecting the most important gift of your life?

Receive God’s love. Remember to say thank you!

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Have we lost Christmas?

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I reach a point after Christmas when I arise from bed and know – like the timer buzzer going off in the oven – that i need to get Christmas decorations down and packed away. Today was that day.

I am methodical and organized about this task – or I think I am until the following December when I can find nothing I’ve so carefully labeled and stored.

Taking down Christmas today, I thought of something our pastor says:

As Christians, we have surrendered the meaning of the birth of Jesus to our culture. It is a battle we’ve lost.

As I rolled sparkly tinsel and bubble-wrapped delicate ornaments, I wrestled with that thought. Does Christmas still have meaning for us as followers of Christ? If so, what is it?

I remember the things I told our children as they grew: We give presents because the Wise Men brought gifts to the baby Jesus; Santa is not real but an infant savior is; be grateful even if you don’t like what you got. We bumbled our way through a Ho-Ho-Holy celebration and I’m not sure any of the true meaning of the occasion took hold or made sense.

That’s a reflection on our parenting abilities, I suppose. Yet, with the kids grown and gone, do I have any better understanding of this holiday? Do you?

The gifts the wise men brought were premonitions of the baby’s death 30 years hence. A helpless infant born to save his people still seems less plausible to most of us than a jolly fat man who lives at the North Pole. And we rotely recite the Lord’s Prayer every week without any thought of the gift we really received, much less gratitude for it.

Putting away Christmas makes me sad. Oh I’m well tired of the glitter and sparkle, but the emptiness of the room after the tree comes down reflects the spiritual emptiness I feel in our world.

We didn’t get the gift we wanted, the one that was promised. We got a baby. And nothing changed. The angels left, the star moved on, and the wise men went home.

What would be a better way to remember Christmas? How could we make Jesus’s presence among us palpable every day? How would that change us?

Could we live it?

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Sign for help

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I spent a couple of days recently with our 16-month old grandson, Easton. Each time I see him I’m amazed at the new things he’s learned. But this time, I was also stumped.

His mommy has taught him to sign to communicate. I know the signs for “food,” “more,” “all done,” “milk.” We have the basics covered – or so I thought.

On this visit, I was playing with Easton while his mom caught a few more Zzzz’s. We vroomed cars, read books, sang songs, stacked cups. It was a busy day in this little guy’s world.

Then he tried to open a lid on a toy but it was stuck. He kept pulling on it but it wouldn’t budge. He looked up at me and patted his chest with his palm. What was this? He clearly was signing me, but I didn’t know this one. He signed again, his look impatient. So, I gave him a sign – the universal shrug of the shoulders to mean “I don’t know.”
He gave up on me, and that toy, and moved to his blocks.

Later, when I asked his mom what the sign was, she said, “Oh, that’s the sign for help.”

How brilliant! Talk about communicating a basic need.

I wonder how many of us know how, or are willing, to do that? Help, I’m overwhelmed. Help, I’m sad. Help, I don’t know what to do. Help. Help me.

Expect less. Much less.

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If I could give one piece of advice about this season of overblown, over commercialized expectations it would be this: Have no expectations.

The most effective way I know to stem that mental tsunami wave is through centering prayer, a spiritual practice of quieting your mind and opening yourself to God’s presence. Think of your mind as a revving engine and centering as slipping that engine into neutral.

You are in the moment. When thoughts come up – did I add Aunt June to the gift exchange? Maybe I can pick up dry cleaning after I go to the post office – let the thoughts go. Just sit, breathe deeply and relax into God’s presence – which is constant and totally reliable.

Trust me on this one: No one cares if the turkey is dry or the baby is fussy or if the cat hawks up a hair ball at your “perfect” holiday gathering. Just because Norman Rockwell didn’t paint it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Envision your perfect holiday happening as a Chagall or a Picasso and all the pressure will be off.

Practice your “presence” muscle in these weeks leading up to family dinners and events. Give yourself, and everyone around you, that present. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

Candle of Hope in world of despair

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I am a person prone to despair. I do not like this about myself. I especially felt contrite last night at worship when the first advent candle – hope – was lit.

You really can’t call yourself a follower of Christ and not live in hope. There is no such thing as a hopeless Christian. We profess that our hope is in the Resurrected Christ.

So, you see my dilemma.

There is so much wrong and evil and inexplicable in our world that with every new headline, I ask God, “How long? How long?”

When babies are born with rare brain malformations, when addicted mothers get clean and try so hard but then relapse, when 3-year-olds use the F-bomb as easily as they use their fists – I am prone to despair. And those are incidents just in my own circles.

I relate more to the author of Ecclesiastes, it seems, than to the Good News.

It’s easy in this season leading up to the remembrance of Jesus’s birth to confuse “wish” and “hope.” Wish is Santa Claus but hope is Jesus, as our pastor said last night. Children have a hard time waiting for Christmas morning. As Christian adults, we must live by Romans 8:25: “But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

So, I light my Hope candle at home. This is not the world I want, nor is it the one its Creator wanted. In these weeks, it is a world covered over in glitter and tinsel while the world of Mary and Joseph was one of straw and manure.

Look into the night sky past the multicolored lights along the eaves and search for the star. Wait for it. Patiently wait for the light. It is our beacon of hope.

I’m taking back the scriptures.

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“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The actor Peter Finch famously shouted this line from the windows in the movie “Network,” released in 197?. His breaking point was about how ratings drove the bastardization of television news. If he saw what passes as objective news reporting today, his character might well fling himself out of that window.

But this is about my breaking point and what I will no longer sit quietly by and wait to right itself. That is about the hijacking of sacred scriptures to authorize and defend bigotry, hatred, exclusion and political machinations.

To extremists of any ilk: Just because you shout louder, talk faster, and don’t come up for breath, does not make you right. To extremists who have hijacked holy scriptures and what it means to be church: You’re a bully on the Sunday School playground and no one is holding you accountable for your behavior or your content. Well, Bucky, I taught 5-year-olds, sponsored youth trips and held my own with the silver-haired saints who claimed the church parlor as their classroom. You don’t scare me.

I love the scriptures, these sacred words given to us as guidebook, not as science textbook or as Robert’s Rules of Order. I respect and honor them as the living, transformative work of the Holy Spirit among and within us, as fresh and vital today as they were in ancient times. We should stand – or bow low – when we read these texts.

I love the church and its steadfast attempt to bring people together in reverence as they struggle with the hard work of “being” church. Not many of them get close to becoming the Body of Christ for the world today, but they don’t give up. The Trinity was the first faith community, and as such, we continue to believe that in community we will learn how to live the Gospel, i.e., love one another.

Scripture and community are elements suspended in delicate balance by generations of people who “seek justice, ….and walk humbly before the Lord.”

Humbly . That’s a word those of you who have the unmitigated gall to think you know and own truth, might want to ponder. The Bible is not a Word document from which you can cut and paste at will. Altogether, Old and New Testaments, the comforting passages and the confusing ones, and especially all the really hard ones (such as “the first shall be last,” “neither a gatherer or a hoarder be,” and, again, “love one another”) weave together in a beautiful tapestry. Pull one strand too hard and you ruin it.

So stop it. Right now. I am putting you in time- out until you can recover your quiet, inside voice. Those of us who study the Bible, rather than use it to justify our personal agendas and worst behaviors, have had enough.

We’re taking the church and the scriptures back.