My Hot Mess Advent

Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of blogs I’ve read lately feature the theme of peace, quiet and calm reflection. It’s the season of Advent, a time of patiently waiting for the coming of the infant Jesus.

Normally, I’d be all over it. My tree would be up, with Christmas cards bought and ready to mail. In the evenings I’d spend time reflecting on the holy days ahead, as I bask in the glow of my pre-lit tree. Christmas music would play softly in the background, with candles lighting every corner of the room.

Yeah well. That’s not my reality this year.

The kitchen and family room renovation is getting done, but we’re not quite there. My husband doesn’t want the tree up until the walls are painted, and that makes absolute sense…but I do miss it.

The carpenter is stopping by tomorrow to do some finishing work. The plumber comes on Tuesday.

Every day this week, I’ll rise early to get over to my dad’s condo and let the painters in. Then return to make sure they locked up at the end of the day…one step closer to getting it ready to sell.

Naturally, our semi-new Samsung washing machine was one of the models recalled, so we had to have a guy out to fix it.

Everyday, we move more boxes from the basement up to the kitchen to unpack. A slow process because: a) we didn’t thin the herd when we packed it, so: b) as we unpack, we have to decide what to do with each item.

My back decided it needed a vacation, so it went out. The doctor says I don’t have nerve involvement, so it’s medication (which helps) and physical therapy (which starts this week) for me.

I’m sporting a second degree burn on my right hand because I misjudged the heating element in the stove on Thanksgiving weekend. It’s on my dominant hand, so it’s hard to keep clean and dry, but Lord knows I’m trying.

Honestly, I’m up to my eyeballs in crazy. I feel like I’m chasing Advent instead of abiding in it. Quiet moments? What are those? I reach the end of my day, sitting in a chair with pillows packed against my back, failing miserably to get ‘in the mood’. Why can’t I settle into reflection and peace?

Of course, I’m not the first to have a hot mess Advent. Jesus’ mother had her ups and downs during the first one too. Her betrothed wanted to leave her. She spent her first trimester helping her cousin after walking days to reach her. And then, just as she was ready to deliver, she had to leave her Nazareth home for Bethlehem. On a donkey.

Mary sure handled her challenges a lot better than I have. I would love to get to the place of calmly accepting every unexpected, confusing turn. She lived knowing that God would never leave her, as she patiently awaited the birth of her son.

Yes, I’ve got a crazy busy Advent, but Mary inspires me to accept and own it.

It’s all going to be okay. Even if I never have one candle-lit, music filled evening, God is still with me. And my Savior will still be born.

On that day, there will be peace on earth…and in my heart. Believe me, I’m longing for that. And maybe that’s enough.

Maybe longing for Christ is exactly what my Advent should be.

 

 

 

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The Harvest Season

We are now in the waning days of the harvest season. The crops grown by farmers all over the world are being collected from the fields. Combines sweep gracefully across acres of farmland, cutting the stalks, separating the grain from the plant, and depositing the food into large open-top trucks.

It’s been a year of fertilizing, and treating for insects and weeds. Finally, all the work of the year is now contained in those trucks. The farmers have a fairly good idea what kind of year it’s been, because they’ve walked the fields throughout the summer. But when the final crop has been weighed and the price set, that’s when they’ll know for sure what kind of return they have on their investment.

This time of year is filled with visual reminders that now is a perfect time to examine our own yearly spiritual harvest too. All of the good works done; helping a neighbor, prayers offered for those who asked us to pray, gifting our family and community with time, talent and treasure…what has been the fruit of all that effort?

Maybe you’ve walked your own heart and soul’s fields in the past twelve months, trying to measure your progress. But now, as fall closes in and the winter knocks on the door, the time has come for an all-embracing reflection. To sit in the silence of your heart and the presence of the Lord, to take stock of your own spiritual year.

Was it a bountiful one? Maybe you can remember life events or small blessings that helped you see God more clearly. Maybe you recall the people you were able to help, or the prayers you offered for friends.

Or was your spirit beset by doubt or neglect, not producing the large crop you had hoped for?

Once you have weighed your progress in the year, be grateful. There’s no use in being overly elated by a huge harvest, or overly sad about a small one. God has asked for your best effort, and you’ve done the best you could. Now it’s time to plan for the future.

Farmers know they need a new strategy for their fields, even as they harvest. They map out their strategy, choosing to plant corn again, or try something new, like wheat or beans. They have to make a decision and act on it. It’s important to buy the seed as soon as possible, before it’s all sold, or to avoid being forced to buy seed of poor quality.

Just like the farmer, after our own review, we’ll have to decide what to plant, and how to care for our spiritual field in the coming year.

So let’s take a little time in the next weeks to pray and reflect on new goals to direct our spirit. That way, we’ll be equipped and ready to plant new seeds and work for a new and beautiful harvest. The time to begin again has come.

Maybe I’ll meet you in the fields.

 

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Thank You Notes

Growing up at my house, the rule was: “You couldn’t play with a new toy, or cash a gift check without writing a thank you note first.” You have to admit, it’s a pretty ingenuous system. It’s a great motivator for getting that note in the mail.

Yeah. You’d think that. But that wasn’t always what happened. The toy or check would often languish in the corner for days, waiting to be claimed by the birthday girl who just never seemed to find the time to write.

  • Not that she’s ungrateful.
  • Not that she doesn’t want to.
  • It’s just that…well…you know. The neighbor kids are calling, and that can isn’t going to kick itself.

I don’t think anyone objects to the idea of expressing thanks. It’s actually a very natural response. But the truth of it is, desiring to do it usually isn’t enough. We need to be reminded.

This week, we have been given the biggest reminder of all in the celebration of Thanksgiving Day on Thursday. Every year, we are prompted to remember our blessings, both physical and spiritual, as we gather in churches and around tables, celebrating the good things we’ve enjoyed in the past year.

I’m not sure how great I’ve been in praying my thanks to the Lord this year, and I sure don’t want to be stumped when it’s my turn to answer “What are you thankful for this year?” So here are just a few thank you notes, sealed up in an envelope of prayer and sent express mail to the Lord. I fervently hope that all of them are duplicates.

Thank you Lord for every unlabored breath I took this year. 

There is little that reminds me more of life, stillness and living in the moment than breathing. Inhaling, I thank you for the gift of my life. Exhaling, I thank you for helping me to release my anxiety, and place me in the silence that allows me to hear you speak.

Thank you Lord for the ‘super moon’.

Father, you know how much I appreciate the nature around me, but I don’t always tell you. That super-moon you arranged for us this past week was absolutely spectacular. It captured the imagination of everyone who saw it, amazing all with it’s closeness and beauty. It reminded me of your nearness to all mankind, and your enveloping love that enfolds us all like a warm fleece blanket on a cold night.

Thank you Lord for my family.

From my husband, to my siblings, to my children to my grandchildren, you made sure that I am surrounded by reasons to see your face every single day. You have outrageously gifted me with loving, funny, silly and comforting lives that help me recognize you, living and expressing yourself in all of us.

 

To you: May God bless you and yours with his grace and the joy of Thanksgiving Day. I thank you for faithfully visiting here, commenting and encouraging me this past year. I am truly blessed.

 

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Outward Signs, Deeper Truths

“I don’t think we’re going we’re going to get much of a fall this year.”

I remembered those words, overheard at a checkout counter, as I walked along the streets of my town. Part of me had agreed. Although it was October, summer like temperatures mixed with sunshine and rain, meant green leaves and growing plants were still going strong. It made me a little sad. I like fall.

Well, finally, here we are in November, and fall has firmly fallen. The trees are practically vibrating with color. Yellows, reds and oranges sway in the breezes at the tops of the trees, while colored leaves gracefully waft from branch to sidewalk. Oh, how I love to watch them fall. It looks like a sacred, solitary dance done just for me.

Much has been written about fall – praising the weather, the nip in the air, the color of the sky and leaves – the change of seasons. I think I love fall so much, in part, because it dares you not to notice. I admire that kind of audacity. It’s so “in-your-face”. How can I miss the changes?

The experience of sitting in a chair in the middle of a forest, or walking down a country road this time of year envelops our senses. Praises for his endless creativity in nature and his limitless color palette effortlessly bubble up from our hearts.

It seems that God himself knows how vital outward signs are to his people. Certainly a mere change of one season to another could happen without all the fanfare of smells and color we see and experience this time of year. But Our Father wants us to notice.

He wants us to see the beautiful outward signs of the season, hoping it will lead us to meditate on the truth that all things are passing, everything transforms and evolves. But there’s something else the Lord wants us to grasp too. He wants us to allow these outward signs to turn us inward, and to recognize the eternal truth that lies beneath all creation.

God is present in everything he created.

We live in a world of signs and symbols that are beautiful on their own, but find their true meaning in what lies beneath. Things like tracing the sign of the cross, the rite of Baptism, or reciting wedding vows…they all us with wonder, seeing the beauty and grace of the rites and prayers.

But that’s only the surface.

Under the cover of our words and movement lives the sacred, unseen reality of God’s presence. The words and ritual motions can change and evolve, but this hidden truth does not. God is with us.

Yes, we have eyes to see. With them, we see the beauty, wonder and gift that creation in all the world holds.

But we also have eyes of faith, and with them, we can perceive so much more. With them, we sense the eternal presence of God, living and effective, just beneath what we see.

 

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Learning Through Loss

Five siblings and I met at my Dad’s condo to sift through his belongings. After that was done, we’d need to take away what was left to prepare the space for sale.

We started off, sitting in a semi-circle in the living room, reviewing the order of picking. Then, one by one, we each chose items that reminded us of my dad or mom…or of our childhood. Many times, I found myself aimlessly wandering around from room to room not really knowing what to do. What could I take that would fill the giant crater left in my heart now that my dad was gone?

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Of course, the answer was “Nothing”.

But I still collected furniture, dish-ware, photos and art. After a while, my younger brother announced “Anarchy!”, allowing us all to cruise around and choose what we wanted. Things moved faster after that.

Then it was time to move on to the “Does anybody want this? I’m pitching it!” portion of the day. Slowly, hour by hour, a lifetime of accumulated stuff and the memories that went with them, were claimed, boxed for donation, or hauled to the dumpster.

I looked around at the pile of bags and boxes ready to be given away. Then I turned and looked at the empty rooms that were filled only two days before. The reality of it all finally crept up on me, so the tears do too.

Month by month since June, parts of my dad’s life, and the life I had with him, have misted over and then disappeared. His home is the last place that anchors me to my father and my family history. I wish I had the depth of language to tell you how hard it is to see it all go.

Months from now, maybe sooner, I’ll be able to look back on these moments with a more spiritual perspective. As I’ve said before, I know that he’s with my mom in heaven. I know personal stuff is just stuff. I know that this life is nothing compared to the life to come. But you see, I’ve got this crater…

It’s a pretty big hole, not to mention how dark and empty it is in there. Seeing it makes me feel weepy and sad. I think the hardest thing is knowing that nothing will ever fill it. Not silverware. Not a statue. Not a photo.

“Suffering loss” means just that. Suffering. But I guess I’ll have my own lifetime to learn how to live with this hole. I accept that it’s hard to look at it, but the aching sadness that comes with it always seems to surprise me.

Anyone who has learned to live with loss (and isn’t that everyone?) figures out eventually that it’s not about filling the hole at all. It’s about making peace with it. Maybe even being grateful for it. Grateful because the crater means someone made an impact.

I guess I just never realized how deep an impression he made…until he was gone.

 

 

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I Saw the Sign

I often find myself feeling jealous of the Old Testament people. Not that I’d like their nomadic life. Or lack of indoor plumbing. They can have that stuff. What I really covet are the very clear signs of God’s presence in his prophets and in his miracles.

Imagine seeing lightening come down and light a bonfire for Elijah. The prophets of Baal had already busied themselves with hopping around their altar, inviting their god to light their pile of wood. Hopping, praying, chanting, cutting their skin, all useless. Elijah steps up, dousing his altar with water with dramatic flair, making it even ‘harder’ for God. Ha.

Fire came immediately from heaven to torch the soggy wood.

Noah build an ark with plans given to him by God himself. Right from His own specific directions. That’s pretty amazing right there. But then imagine seeing this ark assembled, loaded with animals of every kind, followed by a flood that covered the earth.

Who could deny that God was at work?

In our modern times, the voice of God doesn’t seem to boom for His prophets to hear. Dry bones don’t rise and assemble themselves. (Ezekiel 34) Hands don’t appear and write on castle walls. (Daniel 5) But it sure would be nice to have such clear signs from God, wouldn’t it?

When my husband and I were looking for our first house, we knew where we wanted to live. It was an old, established suburb that was on the high end of our price range. There were such great schools, beautiful parks and a thriving shopping district too.

The first house I liked was sold before my husband could get home from work to see it.

The next house we were shown had a full-scale bar in the living room. Mirrored glass on the wall, gleaming oak bar with tall barstools…the whole nine yards. I love me a glass of wine now and again, but who wants a Cheers set in their living room?

Why weren’t we finding anything in the city we liked?

Finally, we looked in another suburb, and found our house. Perfect price in a perfect location, lots of young families in the neighborhood, and best of all, NO BAR!

Looking back… I guess God’s voice was pretty clear.

I think one of the biggest challenges I have, as a ‘non-Old Testament-person’ is appreciating the subtle ways that God speaks now. He doesn’t hurl lightening, but instead whispers through me, the people around me, and in my life circumstances.

It’s easy for me to wonder how the Pharaoh could miss the communique from God, given through Moses. All those bloody rivers, swarming frogs, locusts and bugs. Yikes. That wasn’t enough? Incredible, right?

Well, not really. How many times has it taken for me to ‘get the message’?

Dear Lord, how about we make a deal. You hold back the plagues, and I’ll keep trying to recognize you in the softer ways you speak. No more Jericho dreams for me. Instead, let’s agree to meet in a deserted place.

No fire. No bugs. Just your quiet voice and me.

 

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Being Grateful for Grace

Sometimes, the most ordinary of circumstances has a story to tell about grace.

As you may have seen on my Facebook page, we’re having some work done on the house. Work that involves quite a bit of demolition.

It’s odd to see the bare walls, even the insulation is stripped from the 2×4’s. I know the bare walls along with electrical wires and pipes were there, but of course, I never saw them. The innards and framework were always covered by drywall and paint.

It’s surprising what you end up seeing. The walls have little areas with splashes of paint that were covered up long ago with new color. We even saw a receipt for the original house inspection stapled to one of the exposed beams. And then there was the little surprise we found when the family room rug was pulled up and discarded.

Oh my. There on the floor was some of the ugliest peel and stick tile we’d ever seen. As my husband and I looked at it, it was hard not to laugh. But then, it came to me. Not only was the tile unattractive, it was almost fifty years old. Just the right age to be made of asbestos.

Yikes. I called the contractor right away.

He said that as long as the tile wasn’t disturbed, there wouldn’t be a problem. We decided to have the new wood floor laid right over that pesky tile. Problem solved. With the new flooring in place, we’ll be protected from any harm.

The episode with the tile reminded me that I have faced many potentially harmful situations in my life. But looking back, I realized that I was protected by God’s loving power in grace.

Like the time I was in a car accident in downtown Chicago two days after my father died. I was driving two of my siblings to the planning meeting for the funeral. I had to make a quick stop at an intersection. I made that stop. The woman behind me didn’t.

The traffic attendant waved us over to the side of the road, while my brother dialed the insurance company for me, and my sister called the police. The woman who hit me flew out of her car, arms flapping in the air, yelling at the top of her voice that the traffic cops were incompetent.

It was a scary situation. But by the grace of God, the driver did calm down. I had just finished physical therapy for a neck strain, but the accident didn’t cause a reinjury. No one got hurt, and the other driver had insurance.

Finally, we made it to the planning meeting. We were late, but we were there.

In every circumstance, even in what seems dangerous or toxic, God’s presence and grace is active in us. Just like the wood that covers my asbestos tile, his grace envelops our lives, sheltering us from harm.

I’m so grateful for that love and protection. May I always be thankful.

 

 

 

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Shine Like a Lighthouse

I like visiting lighthouses. Not many are open to the public anymore, but just seeing one standing strong on the shore gives me a feeling of peace and safety.

Lighthouses create a focus for sailors looking for a port. Sailing in the dark, the shore is nearly impossible to see, and trying to navigate in a storm makes it even worse. The sight of a solid, stable light is a joy to the sailor, leading the storm-tossed to safety.

I usually think of a lighthouse as a building, but there are people who are lighthouses too. Friends, family members, even strangers who grace us with their light in our darkness, leading us to that same sense of peace and safety.

For me, Mary was one of those people.

I met her at the pediatricians office. My nine-month-old foster daughter had been in and out of that office a lot, struggling with colds or runny noses that quickly progressed to hoarse coughs and wheezing.

Two days before Christmas, we were back again.

Finally, the diagnosis came. My daughter had asthma. The doctor handed me an order for a nebulizer machine, and a prescription for medicine to put in it. Ummm. Ok. But I have no idea how to get this, or how to use it…

Back at home, I started calling local pharmacies, but none of them sold the machine. With only two days until Christmas, I knew if I didn’t connect with a vendor soon, the holiday weekend would delay treatment even further. 

I finally contacted the doctors office and nervously explained my problem. The billing office set me up with a nurse visit the next day.

That nurse was Mary, and she gave me a beautiful Christmas present. She guided me through the insurance process, found two medical equipment stores (open on Christmas Eve!) and showed me how to use the nebulizer machine. When I got back to the car, I just cried. I was so relieved.

This nurse was so helpful and so kind. I was lost and drowning in a sea of anxiety. I was beside myself trying to soothe a sick baby, be present to my two other children, somehow prepare for Christmas, and to top it off, I couldn’t find the equipment I needed. I was definitely in a storm. But I didn’t go under thanks to Mary. She was my lighthouse.

I’m sure she thought she was ‘just doing her job’, but to me, she was a beacon of hope. Lighthouses are like that. In the middle of a storm, they stand strong and immovable.

‘Common courtesy’. ‘Just doing my job’. Well, it might look like that. But Mary showed me that everyday acts of kindness can change lives.

All of us have the ability to be a steady light in a storm. Just being who God created you to be, and sharing it, qualifies you as a beacon of hope.

So stand strong, and let your light shine, because somebody needs you today.

I wonder who it will be?

 

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The Power in Persistence

When you hear the name “Abraham Lincoln”, what word comes to your mind to describe him? Maybe it’s one of these: Brave. Leader. Honest. Caring. But you know what word was used to describe Lincoln back in the early to mid 1800’s?

Loser. As in, ‘Nice try but you failed. Again.’

This was a man besieged by defeat and difficulty. Raised in poverty, he was still able to establish two different businesses. Both failed. The death of his fiancee, Anne Rutledge, drove him to a total nervous breakdown. He spent six months in bed.

And that’s not all. He ran for eight public offices including Congress, Speaker of the State Legislature, Senator and a Vice Presidential nomination. He lost each one. Don’t you think at some point he would have looked at all this loss and thought, “Is God trying to tell me something?”

But the faith he had in himself and his goals was so deep, he just kept getting up every single time he failed. Somehow he knew he was born to serve, and loss was not going to hold him back. 

He had the gift of persistence.

It’s a quality that all creative, inventive people share. No new process, product or theory just ‘pops’ out of the brain fully formed. Ultimate success requires endless cycles of trial and error.  Thank goodness for scientists who have the tenacity and patience to continue looking for solutions that often take years to find.

Failure doesn’t stop them, they just consider it another form of feedback.

Mr. Lincoln treated every rejection as a lesson, just like a careful scientist. Failure made him the most persistent, dogged, determined person on the planet. And you know what? That was exactly the kind of person the United States needed in 1860. God wasn’t about to send some weak, wimpy politician to face the horrors of the Civil War. He needed the person he chose and prepared for that job. Abraham Lincoln. The man who wouldn’t give up.

Kind of makes you wonder…

Have there been times in your life that have been dark and hard? Times when you felt lost, alone or defeated? Probably more than once. Our Father knows that you will experience loss and hardship, but he definitely doesn’t want you to be crushed by it. Oh no, he’s got big plans for you. Failure isn’t the end of your story.

Where we see loss, God sees opportunity. Our missteps become a powerful training ground in persistence. Every experience of falling and rising tempers our souls, allowing us to become the ‘polished arrow’ God needs us be.

Honestly, every person who has done anything of value has met failure. At the time, it seems like something to be mourned. But like every inventor and scientist learns, losses lead to new solutions and new life.

So remember. Falling isn’t failing. Rise up and try again. You need to be on your way. As Mr. Lincoln found out, there’s victory in your future…

 

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