Things past, present, yet to come

Snow day, again: I’m enjoying the warmth of another fire and the glow of the Christmas tree lights as I watch the snow fall outside. We set out for an important appointment this morning and turned back once we realized that even here on Main Street, which is flat and tends to get plowed first, it was a couple of inches thick and slippery as anything. Baby, it’s cold out there!

With a day of enforced semi-idleness ahead, I’m tempted to begin putting the Christmas decorations away—but I can’t. I was raised to believe that would be wrong: the Twelve Days of Christmas and all that. In our house when I was growing up, the tree went up on Christmas Eve, and not until after we kids were all in bed when we were little. It didn’t come down until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. As the years went by those rules were stretched so the time the tree was up was sometimes longer, but never shorter.

And I am a child of “how we’ve always done it.” A child of ritual, and remembrance.

These rituals matter not for themselves, but because they connect us with something larger than ourselves. At church we reach for the Mystery that is so hard to describe in words, and so present to us believers when we reenact those things we have always done. At home we remind ourselves that our ties to family and friends who have gone before us live on even when they’re gone—as we are connected, and they through us, to other lives that will follow.

Part of the joy of the Christmas season is rekindling our awareness of these connections, but along with that joy comes a degree of sadness. For some reason this season, I’ve been hit hard by the sharp poignancy of doing what we’ve always done, in the absence those who taught us to do it that way. Inklings of my own mortality, perhaps.

Seeing my aunt’s handwriting on a silver Christmas bell music box she gave us back in the ‘80s. Taking out ornaments that have hung on our tree for so many years, and on family trees before that. Imagining what my mother would say about a meatless Christmas dinner. Hearing the whistle of the local tourist railroad and remembering my father laboring through the evenings of Advent to set up the Christmas garden, the display of Lionel trains running through little plastic towns that filled our basement.

My brother has the trains now, but I have the faded Santa that hung on the tree in the home where my grandfather grew up. He’s the man in the black and white photo. It hung on my childhood tree as well, and lives most of the year now in a small box with a handwritten note stuck to the lid: “No one touches this ornament but Mom!” (Apparently the past is too fragile to be trusted just yet to the future.) The shiny Santa beside it is more recent, but it’s been on our tree for some years now. I suppose I got it as a way of putting myself in the picture.

Putting myself in the picture here and in future, that is. I am the child in the old photo. My two grandmothers are right and left in the top row. Looking at it again with fresh eyes, I think I see a resemblance to the one on the right, who always seemed so old to me but is younger in this picture than I am now. (Please don’t say I resemble the one on the left—though I have to say that my memories of her aren’t nearly as fierce as the picture.) That’s my mother on the left beside me, the aunt of the silver Christmas bells on the right. I’m not sure, but I think it must have been taken in the back yard of my first home in Baltimore.

I don’t remember the occasion, but of course it was just a moment of time. They’re all gone now, except me. The fierce-looking grandmother was dead within a decade. The one I resemble lingered for years in the living hell of Alzheimer’s. Perhaps the pain of nostalgia is a yearning not just for the past, but for an ideal past—if only we could go back and fix the way things turned out for them.

We can’t, of course. We live in the now, observing those rituals that raise happy memories, and making our own traditions when that seems better—delicious meatless lasagna for the vegetarians among us, for example, in place of the Christmas turkey or roast beef of years gone by. Creating new rituals, and maintaining the ones that feed us. Cherishing our connection to things past, but not letting them define us. Knowing that no matter how tightly we’re tied to past and future, we must be ourselves in the present.

Still, I won’t put the decorations away before Saturday.

Who needs matches?

Advent wreath, late afternoon sun.

One of the unexpected pleasures of spending as much time in church as I do is seeing the place at times other than Sunday morning, watching the light change through the day and the season, selectively illuminating details we sometimes overlook. And in the silence, becoming aware of that presence we often overlook in the busy-ness of worship. Of course I mean divine presence, but something more, too. Our own faithful presence over months and years leaves something cumulative behind even after we leave, I’m convinced of it.

The sweetness

Today turned out to be that one day a year when I let down my resolve and bu a sweet at Starbucks, indulging myself in a slice of the iced gingerbread that appears there only during the holiday season.

The first bite always produces an instant sugar rush, a not especially pleasant warning that I shouldn’t do this often. Then comes a rush of memories.

I think of the seminary adjunct who introduced me to Starbucks gingerbread, someone I didn’t spend much time with but whose teaching is with me still. I remember the out-of-season gingerbread served at the informal gathering for parents and kids days before my son started kindergarten, our first introduction to a community in which my family would be grounded for years to come. Those kids have kids of their own now, and we still see many of them. I’m reminded that my mother occasionally made gingerbread, and for some reason it wasn’t until I was grown that I realized how much I had always loved it.

Memories, so many memories, and what comes back most especially are all these people I associate with the flavors of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and cloves.

Remembering these things is healing. Revisiting good times, recalling love, reaffirming that happy things past also are still with us now. Reminding ourselves of the fundamental truth that life is a gift, and it is good. And even in this season of Advent, when we embrace the darkness to remind ourselves of the promise of light, letting go of what doesn’t matter to remind ourselves of what does, there is healing in this simple indulgence of a single thick slice of iced gingerbread.

#AdventWord #heal

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Advent thoughts in passing

The building used to be a church; now it’s an expensive restaurant, and Jesus has been sent outside. Did the diners going in for a break from their shopping even notice the little family sheltered in makeshift quarters close by?

Walking past this iconic Nativity, I found myself wondering if it could possibly have happened this way, and not just because they didn’t have buildings like that in Bethlehem. Recalling my own experience as a new mother, I asked myself: would she have knelt, even for him?

Would she have knelt, or would she have wanted to take him into her arms and hold him close? She’d already waited so long to do that, to feel his warm cheek against her breast, to cradle his head in her palm. To begin to know him as a person, not just a promise. She’d felt the presence of this love all the while it was growing in her, and now it was real.

It’s like that for all of us, I think. We carry a seed of love close to our hearts. It’s what connects us to each other, and to the universe. We know it’s there and we’re hungry to experience it, but that can’t happen until we make it real by bringing it forth into this world, which is labor.

And the certainty that love is real and will be brought forth–that is hope.

So greetings on the first day of Advent from New Hope PA. I do love the name of my little town, love living in a place where hope is always new. May you find new hope in this season of love.

(You can walk past this manger, by the way, but you can’t park in front. The valet service needs those spaces, and anyway, these days traveling Wise Men might more likely arrive by Lyft than by camel, and surely they’ll want to be able to pull right up to the curb.)

Hope and silver

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I’m pretty sure I received one or two as gifts before I had any awareness of what a spoon actually was.

It was the custom in my family to start giving silver flatware to little girls as soon as they were born. There was no question of choosing your pattern; you got what your mother had, and probably your grandmother, too. This continued through childhood, so if you were a really lucky little girl, your Christmas and birthday presents would usually include a fork or two, or maybe a couple of knives. You can imagine—especially if you know me—how thrilled I was.

The intention was that by the time you were ready to marry and lay a table of your own, you’d have a full set of good flatware ready and waiting to be added to your mother’s when she passed them down. So what I see when I look at this picture is my parents’ expectations, just as shiny and new as they were on the day they were presented, never opened and yet unused.

Because as it turned out, on special occasions I use a different set of silverware that came down from another relative, and only when we are more than 12 at the table do I dip into my birthright to fill out the number needed.

And so most Thanksgivings I find myself face to face with my family’s hopes for me once again. I take them out, inspect them, appreciate them, and put them away again when the company leaves and the house goes back to normal. I don’t really use them, but I can’t get rid of them. That’s how it is with expectations others lay on you. I keep these rolled up in a plastic bag, deep in the cupboard that holds assorted serving dishes. What would my parents think if they knew.

This one leaf

This one leaf. This moment in time. Rain-glued to my windshield, the leaf will be gone in a flash once I pull out of the driveway. It’ll fly away with twenty-five, fifty, a hundred others the rain pasted to my car overnight, whirling and settling as if we were a tree moving through the wind. This moment in time. This one leaf. Neither will come again, but for this one moment, that leaf is all that matters.

I read these words by Joyce Rupp to start our time of silence before Holy Eucharist this morning:

Holy One, awaken my heart. Quiet my mind. Draw back the veil of my illusions to perceive your presence. Settle what stirs endlessly within me. Hush the voice of haste and hurry. Awaken my inner senses to recognize your love hiding beneath the frenzy. Enfold me in your attentiveness. Wrap a mantle of mindfulness around every part of my days. I want to welcome you with joy and focus on your dwelling place. Amen.

If a little flower could speak

If a little flower could speak, it seems to me that it would tell us quite simply all that God has done for it, without hiding any of its gifts. It would not, under the pretext of humility, say that it was not pretty, or that it had not a sweet scent, that the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, if it knew that such were not the case.”

― Thérèse de Lisieux
Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux

Bold as it might be to contradict Thérèse, it seems to me that even if the sun had withered its petals, or the storm bruised its stem, the rose would still be beautiful.

Strange November: So many leaves on the trees around my house are still green, and the roses just keep coming.

If a little flower could speak, perhaps it would speak of #hope.


Only an illusion

I had never seen this brilliant trompe l’oeil mural by artist Richard Haas on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia until we happened by it last week. I love it, not just because the deception is so effective, but mostly because the space it suggests is so inviting. I really wanted to walk right into it because it seemed so spacious, clean and bright. Rather more appealing than the city around it, to be honest. Illusion can be like that, and it’s OK to visit–just take care you don’t try to live there.

Compassion through Contemplation

This article was featured in the November 2017 Shalem eNews)

Compassion means to understand another’s pain at such a deep level that it’s like feeling it yourself. Many mentors have told me over the years that the essence of pastoral ministry is connection and presence, being with. One seminary professor liked to say that the most important thing in parish ministry is to love the people you serve. It stands to reason that anything that makes us more compassionate will enable us to enter more deeply into the ministry that is ours as pastors.

The question then is how to develop compassion, which is a bit like asking how we learn to love. Through intention, perhaps. Through practice, certainly. But Henri Nouwen and his collaborators point out in their book titled Compassion that “compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.” In other words, it doesn’t always feel good. Nouwen et al add—and I think this is significant—“Compassion … is not as natural a phenomenon as it might first appear.”

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