Countdown to Christmas

This week, Christians around the world find themselves in the final countdown to Christmas. The last candle on the Advent wreath is lit and we’re nearing the end of our pop-up Advent calendars.

If we haven’t finished decorating, gift buying, and Christmas baking, we’re in the middle of it – panicked with last minute to-do lists. If we haven’t readied our home for guests, we’re in the midst of that as well. In short, this can be one of the most hectic weeks of Advent, when we need most of all to slow down and reflect on what it means to await the coming of the Christ child into our world and into our lives.

Last weekend I attended a Christmas concert at Washington National Cathedral. I had recently returned from my third trip to Cameroon, West Africa, this time for the Opening Ceremony of Good Shepherd Academy, a residential secondary school for 350 coed students. As a result, I couldn’t help but hear the voices of my Cameroonian sisters and brothers in the carols, moving me from the magnificent Cathedral setting to the grim reality of life in a developing nation.

And I couldn’t help but wonder, what does it mean that once again we await the birth of Jesus filled with the expectation and hope of a new tomorrow? What does it mean that once again we, like they, long for new beginnings and new life?

Psalm 80 tells us that people have been fed with the bread of tears and given bowls of tears to drink. How true that is, especially of our sisters and brothers who live in developing nations or nations at war – Cameroon, Syria and so many more. Sisters and brothers who long for a bed of their own, a safe place to spend the night, a safe walk to school, or even a school to attend. How easy it is for us to take the very things for granted that would mean new life, new beginnings to our neighbors.

And yet in the midst of it all new beginnings do spring forth, you just have to look for them – whether through the foundation I chair, Good Shepherd SLF which just opened the  Cameroonian secondary school; or through Safe Haven in Pike County, PA; Rotary Club International, UNICEF, Covenant House, and more.

How do these miracles occur? Speaking for myself, the Cameroonian school was born for one reason only – over 2,000 years ago an angel’s words became reality.  “‘Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us.’”

God was, God is, and God ever more shall be with us. The miracle, the birth of the One we await is nothing less than the miracle of God who comes to earth as a tiny, vulnerable infant to show us how to be in relation to one another. To show us what it means to be sisters and brothers with those whom we may never see, but who are intimately part of us nonetheless. We  must care, we must act, we must reach out our hands in love, for that is the only way forward for our world, and it is the only way forward for us.

Where do you find yourself in this final countdown to Christmas? Are you where I often am, so caught up in the 24-hour news cycle, the relentless advertisements, the unrealistic expectations of the season that you can’t see your way past Christmas morning? If so, I invite you to take even a few minutes this week to do your own reflecting.

What is this season all about? What does it mean that once again we await the birth of Jesus, filled with the expectation and hope of a new tomorrow? How are you meant to follow the One whose birth we await, right now, in this time, in this place?

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Listen With the Ear of the Heart

broken-flagThe presidential election of 2016 is over and our nation is at war with itself. Family members are not speaking to each other, long-time friends are at odds with one another, and cries of ‘unfriend me if you don’t like my political views’ reign on Facebook.

“And why?” I ask. “Why”?

I voted for Hillary Clinton. I have family and dear friends in the South who voted for Donald Trump – people I have known and loved for years and for whom I have the greatest respect. They are not racist, sexist, or homophobic as popular wisdom would have us believe. Neither are my Northeastern friends who voted for Trump.

I often wonder how many people who are so against those who voted for the opposing candidate, on both sides of the aisle, have been willing to sit down and spend thirty minutes or more listening to their perspective, really listening.

In the 6th century, St. Benedict of Nursia founded what later became the Benedictine Order which survives to this day. Known as the father of monasticism, he wrote the Rule of St. Benedict for all who would follow in his footsteps. One of his primary tenets was, “Listen with the ear of the heart.”

Regardless of which candidate we voted for, there is nothing more important right now than listening with the ear of the heart to those with whom we disagree. If the person we are in conversation with turns out to be an extremist, then we have an opportunity to ask them to listen to us so we can share our perspective. We owe it to ourselves and our country to do so. And if a person’s language subsequently turns abusive to a group of people or to us as individuals, we owe it to ourselves to end the conversation and if necessary, leave.

With the exception of such extreme circumstances, what hope is there for the world if we stop talking to those with whom we disagree? What hope is there if we label large groups of Americans based on the extreme actions of some? What hope is there if we surround ourselves with only like-minded people who think and act like we do? Not much.

It is that very self-imposed isolation that resulted in many people on both coasts living in a bubble, a safe world of like-minded cohorts divorced from the country we thought we knew. As painful as it is for many, God has given us a unique opportunity to live in the America that actually exists and to witness to our views in non-confrontational ways.

As a Christian woman who voted for Hillary Clinton, in this post-election season I am very much reminded of Christians in the early church. They had a message to share that those in power did not want to hear. So they developed ways of reaching out, tried and true methods that worked. And it’s very simple.

They learned to “meet people where they are.” Not where they wanted them to be. Not where they thought they should be, but where they actually are. To do so, requires that we must first and foremost “listen with the ear of the heart.” And that’s not easy! It’s a tall order!  Being genuinely open to listening to another’s point of view that is directly at odds with our own takes patience, understanding and yes, faith.

I have the utmost faith in our country to follow the light, the way of justice for all people. But to move the needle forward from where we are, each one of us needs to do our part to listen, listen, listen with the ear of the heart …. then to share in a non-confrontational manner whenever and wherever we have the chance to do so.

In the Christian church, we call that evangelism. In America today, I call it critical to our survival as a nation.

In God we trust. God will see us through. But there is a role for me in this new order, and there is a role for you whomever you voted for. Let’s get to work, shall we?

 

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Suffering from ESD???

Are you suffering from ESD? No…I’m not talking about Erectile Syndrome Dysfunction. That would leave out half the population. This is something much more serious for which there is no magic little pill.

I’m speaking of Election Stress Disorder. That’s right. This presidential election is about to do in over half the US population. Do you feel panicked at the thought of either the Democratic or Republican candidate winning the election on November 8th? Do you have trouble breathing, sweaty palms, apocalyptic visions at the mere thought of it? Then you’re not alone. In fact, you’re right in sync with 55% of your fellow Americans.

This election season is like none other in the history of our country, but I will not recount how and add to your stress level. We all know how. We are inundated with it in our 24-hour news cycle day in and day out.

So what can we do? Well, let me begin with this. Until the election, I suggest we all go into survival mode. There are times in our lives when we need to seek out edifying conversations with those whose opinions and perspectives differ from ours. This is not one of those times. No one is going to change their mind on how to vote based on anything you can possibly tell them. So don’t even try. Bid your friends of a different political persuasion a good day, give them a hug, and wish them well.

Second, social media is not your friend right now, unless you have already unfriended each and every person who does not agree with you on the candidate of your choice. Stay off Facebook and Twitter until this is over. Read War and Peace. Read a beach book. Read anything that’s a distraction. And don’t tempt yourself by signing in online and deciding not to engage. Just take a vacation from it. Your stress level will go down. Trust me.

Third, and I hate to write this. I really do. But sometimes a vacation from reading news online or in print, or listening to it on the airwaves is just what the doctor ordered. An old friend used to ask my why I watched or read the news every morning when I woke up. “It won’t start your day off on a positive note!” she said. Boy, was she right! The first thing we read, hear, or engage in can set the tone for our entire day. So look for what’s positive, uplifting, life-giving!

And keep in mind. This election season, like every season before and after it will not last forever. We’re on the last lap and it’s almost over. You can do it. And if you encounter a fellow sojourner along the way, regardless of their political persuasion, give them a hand, invite them for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine to take a break. It just might make your day. And theirs.

We’re all in this together, you know?

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Ralph and the Amazing Technicolor Pajamas

“My life was spiraling out of control,” my friend shared. “Nothing was working or getting any better, so one afternoon I slipped into a large Manhattan church to sit quietly and pray for healing . . . to someone, anyone or any being who might be listening. I didn’t know what I believed anymore. I just knew I needed to be there. Very gradually I began to feel that often-elusive ‘peace that passes all understanding’ when suddenly an elderly woman stood up several pews in front of me and shouted, ‘Come on, Ralph!’

“Irritated by her intrusion on my silence, I quickly looked up, but nobody was there. Of course, in New York you see a little bit of everything, so I wasn’t too surprised. Perhaps she was talking to a dearly departed loved one. Who knew? But for certain, the space in front of her was completely empty.

“After a minute or so, I heard a chain rattling and a thump and right down the center aisle here comes Ralph – a gray bulldog wearing baggy gray, pink, and yellow striped homemade pajamas. And he had the most compassionate dark brown eyes of any dog I have ever seen. They were striking.

“Well, I just shook my head and laughed to myself,” she continued. “There I was wondering if there even was a God, taking my own problems very seriously and down the aisle comes Ralph. His compassionate eyes spoke volumes to me – a compassionate and loving bulldog? Wearing baggy colorful striped pajamas?”

“That’s right my friend, striped pajamas!” I said, laughing with her.

You see, we worship a God of surprises. A God who can show up in the strangest of disguises to bring us a message of love and healing. A God who communicates that yes, I am in ‘the other’, the one most unlike you, most foreign to you. A God with a sense of humor and playfulness who will do whatever it takes to get our attention.

Ralph’s eyes stared straight through my friend with a look of compassion that is rare in this world, a look that still holds meaning for her many years later. The message to my friend was clear that day. There is something ‘unexplainable’ out there, a force for good, a force for healing that can suddenly come into our life in the most unlikely of ways. Her face was filled with gratitude and a grin from ear-to-ear as she shared her unlikely story.

While most of us will never see Ralph and his amazing technicolor pajamas, we are likely to be touched by the divine in unexpected ways. But first, like my friend, we have to be still. We have to be quiet. We have to put ourselves in the place of most potential.

Then we must be open and ready to receive. It’s far easier for many of us to give than to receive. There can be a natural inclination to explain it away, push it away, convince ourselves that we’re imagining things.

But oh, it is so worth it, so give it a try. Who knows what is just around the corner for you? Are you ready?

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Every Single Day

“The world is often a difficult place, full of fear and anger and suffering. But it is important to see that love and joy also fill our world. I share this belief with one of my closest and most mischievous friends, His Holiness The Dalai Lama.

I am asking you to help us show that the world is not beyond hope. Anger, fear, and despair. No! These will not have the last word.”

So begins a video message from Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop of South Africa, (Ret.). What balm it is to the soul to hear his words in our world today! When article after article, post after post is filled with gloom and doom, dire predictions, hate and fear, we can almost forget that this is only partial truth.

humanitarian-aid-child-pixEvery day thousands of acts of kindness occur between loved ones, friends and strangers alike. Every day a doctor saves a life, EMT personnel perform life-saving measures, police and firefighters risk their lives to respond to emergency calls. Every day a teacher goes the extra mile to help a child who is falling behind and aid workers go into high risk situations in war-torn nations to reach out to the homeless, to refugees, to a distressed parent or hurt child.  Every day the naked are clothed, the hungry are fed, the sick are visited, the wounded are healed, and someone receives another chance at life.

Every day an electrician repairs a power grid, and a plumber keeps the water flowing. Every day someone works the extra hour with no pay because that is what’s needed, and a young person receives mentoring from a wiser, more experienced loving soul. Every day clergy take the time to listen, to care, and to reach out in the name of God to those in desperate need of a healing word. Every day people donate to charities with myriad goals to help someone they will never meet. Every day cross cultural relationships among people of different cultures and traditions are changing our world one child, one person at a time.

Every day a child is born as parents, grandparents, and loved ones shed tears of indescribable joy. Every day someone says, “I love you”, and means it with all their heart and soul. Every day someone is comforted, hugged, and told they are special beyond measure.

Every single day without exception.

Love and joy. It’s all around. Can you feel it?

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Let’s Overwhelm the World – Together

“In the last few days, we have seen acts of violence in which children of God have been killed.” So began Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s message yesterday.

As I listened to the stark reality of his words, tears began to stream down my face for the first time since a renewed trifecta of bloodshed began in our country. First Baton Rouge, then St. Paul, then Dallas. An unholy Trinity in three unholy days of pain and violence and bloodshed and murder in cold blood, all in the name of what? Justice? Revenge?

Children of God. This is who we are. Every man, woman, and child on this earth we all call home. The Book of Genesis tells Jews and Christians that each and every one of us is created in the image of God. And on the sixth day when God created us, God saw that we were not just good, but very good.

There are no qualifying words here. All of us. Very good. Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, Asians, poor, rich, straight, gay. Whether it’s white police killing blacks, blacks killing white cops, Muslims killing gays, Latinos, Christians, or Jews, there is one significant undeniable fact that is left out of the equation.

We are all created in the image of God and God did not create any second or third or fourth-rate people. Not one. So why do we live as if this were not so?

I have asked myself this over and over, and there’s not one easy answer. However, evil has existed in our world since the beginning of time. Just as sure as there is purity and goodness and love, there is hatred and evil and all that goes with it. Cosmic battles of good and evil play out in books, on movie screens, and in people’s lives every day. What I have found in my ministry and life, is that the more goodness exists in the world, the more evil rises up to fight it, to squelch it, to snuff it out forever.

For many acts of goodness, there are counter actions of evil to fight it if we are not on our toes and persistent in our resistance. We must be vigilant and aware that this is possible and fight it. How? With love, with prayer, and with the action that flows from that.

Scripture tells us, “Perfect love casts out fear.” And fear lies at the heart of the violence we have all just witnessed to our abject horror. Fear of the other. Fear of those who do not look like us, worship like us, have the same color skin as us, come from the same country as us, just aren’t like us. Are “other”.

little bit of goodPerfect love does indeed cast out fear. Not just love, but perfect love, which can only come from the source of all love, all goodness, and that is God. Then we need to act, do something, anything to stand up to the evil that is all around us. Desmond Tutu has written, “Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

I pray for our country. I pray for the families and people personally affected by this latest trifecta of tragedy. I pray for the souls and well-being of all of us, for children of God have been killed. On our watch.

While we may feel helpless to change anything, we are not. There is something each one of us can do. Let’s do our own little bits of good however we are called to do so, wherever we find ourselves. Let’s overwhelm the world – together.

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I Am the Change!

What does it mean to be a person of faith right now? I ponder this question anew, as our country becomes deeper and deeper enmeshed in a spiral of hateful acts and hateful rhetoric that seem to have no end. Each act and each word seems to feed off the one before it, becoming more virulent, more tragic, more unlikely that any of us will find our way out.

Yes, there are interjections of, “My thoughts and prayers are with you, with the victims, our country, our world”, and nothing is more valuable than prayer. But prayer in action is what’s needed, prayer with works, prayer that first looks inward and asks, “What change can I  make that will make a difference?

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves”. Or as Jesus put it, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not see the log in your own eye?”

What’s wrong with our world? Look in the mirror. What’s wrong with me? How am I contributing to the current situation that I find so abhorrent, so tragic? It’s the human condition, a human need to fight fire with fire. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But never has that solved anything. Never. Violence begets violence. Hate begets hate.

We mourn and grieve deeply, yes. We pray, yes. And in the process of praying, let us pray also that we are not drawn into the madness that feeds more madness, more evil, more hate like a fire-breathing dragon.

Let’s say “Stop!” to ourselves before we respond in anger to a person with political beliefs that differ from ours. Say “Stop!” before we judge someone, anyone, based on their religious beliefs. Say “Stop!” before we post inflammatory remarks on social media, a venue giving our words and feelings nothing less than a worldwide audience.

And let’s say “Yes!” to love, the only force which can cast out hate and evil and fear. Say “Yes!” to putting that love into action by writing and calling our elected officials who do have the collective power to change the world in which we live. Say “Yes!” to being open to learn from people who do not share our worldview, who do not worship, or think, or look, or live as we do.

Our world can change – one person at a time. I am the change. You are the change. Let’s do it!

I Am The Change

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God’s Sweetness

asparagus_heroThere’s nothing like eating asparagus just picked from the garden. Its sweetness soothes one’s senses and brings a delightful surprise to taste buds accustomed to the supermarket variety picked days before, sweetness gone – or worse yet, frozen or canned. When not eaten truly fresh, my favorite green vegetable falls prey to being just one of many with a bland taste, unless sauces or spices are added. Yet when not processed, what a different culinary experience is ours!

Fresh picked? There’s nothing like it. And you know what? God wants that for us in all areas of our life. God gives us not just asparagus, but life itself, pure and sweet and unadulterated. That is, until we get in the way.

Take God’s creation for example. God gives us the beauty of creation in all its splendor, yet we allow our human processes to all but ruin it through over development, overuse, misuse leading to climate change, and worse. Yet in its freshest, most original unspoiled form, there’s nothing like the goodness, the sweetness of what is offered to us.

And what about human relationships? God gives us the beauty of love in the same way. How many times have we found it hard to hear a simple, “I love you”. “You are valued.” “You are a person of worth.” How many times have we processed those words to death before being able to accept them in their pure and unadulterated form?  Yet, that is what God wants for you and that is what God wants for me.

Accepting and believing without always second guessing, thinking ‘yes but’, or feeling that there has to be an ulterior motive, is God’s desire for us. Babies don’t question our love for them. They come at it with the eyes and heart of purity. Few adults can say the same.

Sweetness and purity abound in God’s creation, in God’s abundant love for us, and in every spear of asparagus. It’s there for the picking. Come join me in the field God has planted for us all!

 

 

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VisitMyForest.Org

My husband Michael and I became snowbirds this winter. First-time-I’m-never-gonna-do-it Official Snowbirds. And yes! We loved the warm weather and all that goes with it. Who wouldn’t?

480But imagine our surprise when we turned on our television and saw an ad for VisitMyForest.org. There on the screen in front of us  were directions for how to locate the forest nearest you, then a little girl and her father gazing in awe at a deer. What joy! How unusual!

And it was. You see, in South Florida such sightings are rare and prized and something you have to drive miles to see. Those creatures and forests that many of us take for granted, don’t exist in all areas of our country. And that truth hit home to me right then and there in deeply moving ways.

When our daughter, husband, and granddaughter came to visit, we could hardly wait to take our little one for her first trip to the zoo. We were surprised to find that many of the ‘exotic’ zoo animals were hardly exotic to us. There were ducks, red tailed hawks, majestic eagles, wild turkeys, deer, black bear, turtles and otters, all native to our forests in northeast Pennsylvania where we live.

We shared with our grandchild that all these creatures of God were right in our own backyard at home! Being one year old she may not have understood all that we were telling her, but we did, in profound ways.

And of course, we finally made it to the lions and tigers and grizzly bears. Oh my! But I’ll take where I grew up in Tennessee and where I live now in Pennsylvania, any day of the week.

So if you’re lucky enough to live in one of these areas, don’t take it for granted as springtime begins to blossom and the leaves come out. Visit YOUR forest in your own backyard. You don’t need a website to tell you where to find it. Relish it. Enjoy it. And thank God for the unspoiled beauty you’re lucky enough to call home.

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Yes, It Really Is That Simple

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say, much less to write in a spirituality column. It seems as if all spirituality, all goodness, all that is just and true has fled the American political scene. Exit stage right, or left. Take your pick.

America seems to be falling apart at the seams. We have become the derision of our global neighbors, who scratch their heads and wonder what has happened to us. I scratch my head and wonder, too. What has happened to basic civility, much less love of neighbor?

Neighbor? We seem to have forgotten what the word means. Are neighbors only those people who look, and act, and think, and speak, and believe as we do? Not on your life. No way. In the Bible in Matthew 25 we are told, “When you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And that was Jesus speaking. That’s right, Jesus of Nazareth. Messiah to Christians and prophet to Jews and Muslims.

That means that black, and Muslim, and Mexican lives matter. It means that we are all created in the image of God and that God saw what (s)he had created and it was good, very good. To denigrate any human being is to deny that they are created in the image of God. As are you. As am I.

stepYou know, there’s an old saying, ” When you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, step back.” Step back. And that is what we all need to do.

Step back and stand up for the image of God that is within each human being. Step back and reflect on what really matters in this world we all call home. Step back and ask yourself if this is the world in which you want your children to live.

And if not, do something, anything, to stop this madness that is masquerading as politics in this, the greatest nation on earth.

And love your neighbor as yourself. All neighbors. Yes, it really is that simple.

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