Category Archives: Advent

22nd day of Lent. The Cornucopia I’d Forgotten.

Yesterday I stood in the middle of Sahadi’s–a specialty foods store in Brooklyn Heights–staring at their selection of nuts and dried fruit. I was there with two wonderful friends. One said, “What do you like? Nuts? Dried fruit? Do you like hummus?” And the other, “Isn’t it amazing? Pick something. We want to buy you something.” “Oh, I have no idea” I said. And, “You don’t have to do that.” I was overwhelmed with the cornucopia of products, the commotion, and absolutely taken with their adorable toddler. Couldn’t I just keep playing with him?

There are multiple ways to express love. What’s less obvious is that there are ways we prefer not just to receive love, but give love as well. I didn’t realize people had a bias about love until several years ago when I read Gary Chapman’s book The Five Languages of Love. In his book Chapman does a nice job distilling five easy ways or languages of loving. According to Chapman, some prefer to show their love with physical touch, while others prefer to show their love through acts of service. There is also spending quality time, sharing words of affirmation, and receiving gifts. The idea is not that we don’t value all of these ways. Most people do. The key insight is that because we prefer some more than others it is helpful to appreciate the love language your partner has so that you can love them in ways they’ll appreciate, and easily see. It’s also important to understand theirs so that you can remember what is important to them as they go about loving you. Who wants to miss being loved?

Standing in Sahadi’s, it became clear that it would make my friends happy if I picked a few things. They–I know this is obvious–were simply trying to show me their love. When it comes to loving, the worst thing we can do, is refuse. As Michael Himes points out in the talk I listened to the other day, unrequited love is as painful as it is because we are made in the image of God, who is love. When our love is rejected, the pain reaches to our core.

We left Sahadi’s with five pounds of love. As we walked away from the store, I picked up their toddler. “Would he let me do that?” I wondered. At first it didn’t go well. I tried facing him forward. “Mommy?” he said plaintively. That was better but not good enough. I lifted him high into the air, and then down. High into the air and then down. “Look honey, he’s smiling” my friend said to her spouse. As we walked my actions gave them both a small break from actively parenting. I was delighted. Being of service is the my favorite way of expressing love.

As we parted I remembered something I’d left out of yesterday’s refection about grieving. It’s something David Malham says about love in his piece Momento Mori:

“The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. Give and receive it as essential nourishment.”

Love given and received, overflows. It’s too easy to forget this cornucopia is there when you’re with people you love. I forget all the time. Today, with quality time, five pounds of gifts, and a toddler lifted high, I remembered.

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All The Gifts There Are.

Yesterday I took the Christmas gifts I’d purchased and lay them across my bed. A few more were still to arrive, courtesy of angels dressed in coffee brown. I wanted to see what I’d collected during the last several months, and if everything made sense. I’d made my list and was checking it a second time. Seeing the gifts on my bed helped me realize that I wasn’t quite ready, present-wise. I needed to pick up a few things, last-minute. More shopping? I sighed. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

Sweets is struggling with some of her friends. The other day, she received a text to an old cell number asking if the rumor was true that she didn’t like any of the people she ate lunch with. What an awful question for a friend to ask. And awful to see as a parent. I wanted to reply. I knew I couldn’t. While we were making dinner I let her know that the text had come and what it said.

“What’s going on? Is everything ok?” I asked.

“It’s a long story.”

“I have time now, if you want to talk about it.” She told me the story.

“I don’t understand. I apologized for making them think that.”

“You apologized? Why did you apologize?” I said.

I was feeling defensive on her behalf. I trust her, and she’s a great kid. I know too, that the details upon which things hinge might be beyond her awareness. Her comfort level talking about this with me is also an issue no matter how beloved she is.

“Do you like the kids at your table?” I asked. She shot me a look that let me know my question was too blunt.

Her eyes watered. “It’s a rumor, dad. You know how rumors are.”

“I know. It’s hard.”

“I’m trying. the other day I was telling one friend at the table a story and she fake-laughed. I mean, really fake-laughed. Then she looked at some of the other girls.”

“Ugh. That’s awful” I said.

“I don’t know what to do. It’s frustrating.”

I thought for a moment. “The other day, I saw you talking with–”

Sweets interrupted me. “Yeah. We’re ok. I worked it out with her.”

“That’s wonderful” I said. “I think that’s the right idea. Keep looking for moments like that when you can have good talks with your friends. Don’t worry about explaining yourself or trying to understand. Be who you say you are. That’s one of the most important things a person can do. Show your friends by your actions and your words that you like them. That way the reality they experience will blow the rumor away. It won’t happen right away. It will take time. You just keep being you. Keep showing them that the person you are on the inside is someone who likes them, even though they can’t see it on the outside. Sometimes it’s just hard to see what’s in front of you. You know, the way I sometimes look for the hat that’s already sitting on my head.” She smiled. We hugged, and continued making dinner.

Christmas is about to begin. While it’s good to give, it’s a period of peak tension. There is only one shopping day left. Do I have all the gifts I want to give? Am I forgetting anyone? Rushing to and fro makes it hard to remember who we are, and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Last night I dreaded heading out to shop. I left late and parked in the lot of a movie theater behind the strip of shops that were my destination. I did everything I could to avoid the crowds. I wanted to zip quickly in and out of stores, conserve my energy, etc. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

As I left one store I ran into a woman I sing with in my church choir. While in another I saw another choir member, and her son. Their warm smiles helped me remember that I was doing not just what I needed to do. I was in my community, doing something I wanted, for others. In a way my Christmas began last night as God became incarnate in those two small moments. They helped me forget that my last-minute timing was bothering me. It didn’t matter. They helped me remember who I was, and why I was doing what I was doing. When what we think and feel, lines up with everything we’re doing on the outside? That alignment of presence is a present greater than all the gifts there are.

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Finding God In Our Darkness.

I started working on a post at the beginning of last week for the second week of Advent. Writing now after midnight on Saturday, it’s clear I didn’t get there.

Catholic churches during Advent are subdued. There are no Christmas decorations to be seen, save a Giving Tree decorated with tags listing the name of a person and a suggestion for a gift. The color of the season, like three of the four candles on the Advent wreath, is purple. While Advent is a season of waiting, it’s also one of repentance. We repent because we’re aware that there is a difference between what we do, and who we say we are or want to be.

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice. Three recent examples of this tension, or difference that folks in the U.S. are wrestling with. Who do we think we are? Who do we say we are? What do the actions of those who act on our behalf say? What does our discomfort with their actions say? What will we do? Anything? We are not yet who we wish to be.

Today is the two-year anniversary of the killing of twenty-six people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. In the last two years, there have been 23 more shootings in schools. We are not who we say we are. We are not yet who we wish to be.

Like many, I followed the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report on Tuesday. I found Andrew Sullivan’s live blogging of the report’s release gut-wrenching. As the self-proclaimed leaders of the free world, the report makes clear: We are not yet who we wish to be. How do we prepare the way of the Lord in this context? Where is God in our darkness?

That’s my question, and prayer. It may be yours as well. Certainly, it’s the prayer of the Brown, Garner, and Rice families. The prayer of the families of those who were killed in Newtown, CT. The prayer of the families of those who’ve been tortured in our name.

Where is God in our darkness? The Christian answer is a simple one. It’s so simple half the time Christians miss it completely. We think of Jesus as the one who defeated death. We claim Jesus’ triumph over sin, and forget his broken body that hung on the cross. We think of that triumph and forget the reminder in Matthew’s Gospel:

“‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.’” (Mt 25:37-40, NRSV)

By extension, our question might be, “Lord, when did we find you on the cross?” That’s where God was–it’s where God, is. Paul J. Nuechterlein in a wonderful Advent homily concludes:

“As long as there is suffering in this world, that is where God will be. And, when we learn to find God there and go to be with God there, then won’t the suffering finally end? If everyone learns to find God and to be with God among the suffering, then who will be left to cause the suffering? Then, when we all learn where to find God and where to be with God, then will that Christmas prophecy of Isaiah come to fulfillment: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined. For unto us a child is born; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:2,6) Amen.”

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It’s Good To Give.

Every year I wrestle with what I’m going to do to keep the season of Advent. It’s a question because while the religious season of Christmas doesn’t begin until December 25th. That’s when our cultural celebration ends.

Not that I shy away from holiday festivities. Not at all. I go caroling with my neighbors. I bake cookies in seasonal shapes, and wear a Christmas tree hat as that day approaches. This past Saturday I visited Bryant Park in New York city, as well as Rockefeller Center with my kids. The tree is up and lit in Bryant Park. Rockefeller Center’s is up too, but won’t be lit until Wednesday. I won’t see it for a few weeks. I’ll have to wait. Waiting is what Advent is about.

The waiting is for the birth of Jesus, who has already come, and who Christians hope will come again. In a sense, Advent is like the last weeks of a pregnancy. You know the baby is coming, and it’s just a matter of time until she does. The tension I experience between Advent and our cultural celebration of Christmas is something like having baby shower after baby shower before the birth. When the child is born, everyone celebrates, then goes home. Try that with a family member!

One of the reasons I like all the trappings of red and green–even while my church is draped in solemn purple–is because of the way we’re encouraged to think beyond ourselves. While it’s easy to get bogged down finding just the right gift, I like the simple reminder of the season: it’s good to give.

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Sunday’s Word: Yes!

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.

Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:37, The Message)

I’m not one who believes that there is one person out there for everyone. One true love. One best friend. One partner in crime. Instead, I think there are people to whom we say yes. Like Mary.

From what I can tell, most of us aren’t visited by angels when it happens. It’s more like we think the person we’re giving our yes to, is an angel. What makes that happen? What leads us to say yes? Is it the chemistry of our pheromones? Something the other says that makes us laugh? Might it simply be that in a given moment, they’re there? Or they say or do something that shows us they understand who we are in a way, we think, no one else ever has? Maybe it’s us too? Maybe we change. Maybe it’s just that, we’re ready. It’s a mystery to me.

Early, in my second year of college, I found myself with a pair of tickets to a concert. Who to take, I wondered. Should I ask Abigail? Zelda? Everyone in between? I thought it might take that. To my roommate, the answer was obvious. “You have to take Mary (not her real name). She’s already said yes.” “What are you talking about? She couldn’t have. I just got the tickets!” He smiled and asked, “When you go to the dining hall for breakfast, who do you eat with?” “Mary.” “Is she already there, or does she come and join you?” “Usually, she’s there. I walk in, and she’s there.” “Everyday or just once in a while?” he asked. “Every day.” “Every single day? Really?” “Yes.” “And dinner? What about dinner?” “I usually eat dinner with her too.” I paused. “Oh my God.” “Yeah,” he said. “I thought you’d never figure it out.”

I asked her. She said, “Yes.” And for the next four years we gave our yes, to each other.

Last night I watched the 2003 film, Love Actually. The film tells not one, or two, but eight different love stories. What I love most about the film is the way it captures the varied forms of awkwardness that falling in love, and giving your yes, entails. The awkwardness is always there, at least for me. And our inability to see mutual affection when it’s staring us in the face? The way I couldn’t with my Mary? That’s often part of it too.

For me, one of the wonders of the film is the way it spends time showing characters coming into the awareness that giving someone your yes, isn’t just about saying that one word, or the familiar three (I love you). It’s a response you give with your whole being. When you do that, this little three letter word, becomes everything. The orientation of your life changes, fundamentally. To me, that’s the wonder of Mary’s yes in the story of the Nativity. We are only told that she “pondered” the angels words, not what that looked like.

Recently, friends of mine adopted twins. When I learned this, I thought, “Wow! What courage!” And, also, “Oh my! I wonder if they have any idea of what they’re in for.” Babies… Women have them, and you bring them home. Or you birth them in a tub as if it were the most natural thing in the world, which it is. There’s no test to pass. No class to take, or degree to obtain, in parenting. There are manuals, yes. Mostly, they don’t help. Fact is, most kids grow up thinking their folks are certifiable with good reason. We are learning as we go. Being a parent, takes courage every day. Mary, must have had a helluva lot of courage. Joseph too, for that matter. They did not know what they were in for. Like my friends, they both, said yes.

I often hear parents say that they live for their children. There is an obvious reason for that. Babies require so much care, that if we expect them to live, they have to become the center of our lives. Children live, and thrive, because people in their lives have the courage to say, yes. And by the way, for what it’s worth, I think the most honest book a new parent can read is Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions., It’s marvelous, honest and hilarious.

We’re one week away from Christmas. One week from celebrating love, actually coming into the world and dwelling in our midst. That baby, like all babies, asks us to to make him the center of our world. He asks us, for our yes. What does it look like for you to listen the way Mary did? What does it mean to take action, to give your yes? My guess, is that you won’t see any angel as you ponder these questions. If you do, it’ll be in the form of a friend or a stranger unexpectedly meeting a need you didn’t know you had.

I lied earlier. I do that, more often than I like to admit. There is one person out there for everyone. One true love. “Do not be afraid” about giving him your yes. This babe, born in a manger, has already given you, his.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday’s Word: Twenty-One.

Twenty-One. Days until Christmas, that is. It’s Advent. A season of waiting and anticipation. A friend of mine is pregnant. There’s no waiting, like that waiting! On Tuesday, she’ll begin her fortieth week. She is more than ready, to pop. She may not be shouting “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It’s likely, more like, “Come on now, baby, the way is prepared! Having never been pregnant, I can’t really imagine what her experience is like. My experience is informed by watching my two children come to full term. What I know first hand, is their births changed everything.

The rub of seeing Christmas decorations out in full force, and hearing Christmas music, three weeks before the liturgical season officially begins, is that Jesus has already come. The marketers are right, it’s Christmas! Of course, their preference is that we worship at “the house of Lord and Taylor.”  Still, Christmas is here. Jesus has come. If you’re a Christian, That birth changed everything, too.

And now the obvious question. How has Jesus’ birth changed everything in your life?

When you wake in the morning with a new baby in the house, you’re typically exhausted. You were up at two to change a diaper, and at two forty-five, for a feeding. You fell asleep at three, with the baby in your arms. At five minutes past, she woke you and shared a gift of spit-up. At five, she simply woke up. On the morning you wake rested, you’ll rejoice; she slept through the night.

The holiday season is a busy one. Shopping, baking, parties, repeat. Children in school have performances, recitals, athletic championships, and banquets. They keep Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, too. Good parents attend all of these functions, and learn about each others holidays. It’s a challenging time, to think about waiting. It’s a challenging time for finding time to reflect (on anything).

It’s not uncommon for new parents to gaze in wonder at their sleeping child. That’s an experience that continues as they grow up. You forget the conversations of the day, and the arguments, or come to terms with whether you handled a situation well, or not. That is, if you’re thinking. Mostly, there’s awe as you look at their sleeping selves with love. Perhaps that’s the way we should keep Advent. As you soak in the beauty of your tree. As you admire, your holiday display or creche, take advantage of that still moment. Who is this Jesus? Maybe you think about it. Or maybe, you ponder the birth of the child Jesus, as a parent gazes upon theirs, with awe and wonder.

Advent’s Waking. You can’t imagine the future.

What’s a reasonable time to expect a reply to an email? How about a text message? A few weeks ago, I scolded a friend for leaving home without her cell phone. “How am I supposed to reach you?” I said. She apologized. Shame on me! She’s a Super-mom, yes, but there was no crisis that couldn’t be avoided without her intervention. For most of us, there rarely is. In my case, I wanted to see if we could meet for coffee… What’s that saying about folks writing about things they need to hear?

I was bothered, because I couldn’t make the plans I wanted. We do that a lot, I think. We complain. “I sent you that text an hour ago! Why didn’t you respond?” At the end of a day we hear, “Did you see the email I sent this morning? You didn’t answer.” Or, “Oh my God, it took me at least ten minutes to get through the line at Trader Joe’s!” and “I won’t even walk into a bank anymore. If there are more than three people at the ATM, I’ll move on.”

That’s living as if only fulfillment now, will satisfy. Good days become one’s where everything goes “my way” as a result. In contrast, the relationships we treasure, are typically filled with ups, and downs. They take time, attention, and work. They’re not finished products. Not at any given moment. Not ever. In fact, I would argue that our relationships are most at risk are when we think they’re everything we ever wanted them, to be. That, and when alone, we try to make them into something we always wanted them to become. The other day a friend of mine passed along these words, “Marriage is where you bet half your stuff that you’ll still be together in a future you can’t imagine.” Ha! I thought. That’s wonderful, and so true. You can’t imagine the future.

Life is our greatest adventure. One where our openness to surprise and wonder, to happiness even, is tied to our willingness to let go. Of the expectations of others, and of ourselves. Few people are as adept at twisting the knife as the reflection in the mirror. How it escapes panes of silvered glass, I’ll never understand! I’m not advocating that anyone stops responding to text messages (especially mine). I do think that we need to have more conversations about how much contact is too much. That’s ultimately about trust, and allowing yourself the freedom to be where you are. Certainly, if you’ve ever spent a meal with your cell phone on the table, periodically buzzing with updates and notifications that require your response, you know something of what I mean. You can’t imagine the future. What you can do, is be present, now.

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Advent’s Waking. You Play In A Band?

Last weekend a friend of mine told me he’s decided that email is the new snail mail. We were talking about Facebook and the way it facilitates groups of people being able to come together. You can do that with email, but somehow email takes more work.

Later in our evening, we talked about the band he’s been in for thirty years. We’re not close, but we’ve known each other most of our lives. I’ve known him for at least forty years. I marveled. I had no idea that he’d been in a band all this time. I remembered. Facebook may have a way of pulling us together, but relationships are still built, one conversation at a time.

Advent’s Waking. Awareness.

“There’s the story of the disciple who went to the master and said, “Could you give me a word of wisdom? Could you tell me something that would guide me through my days?” It was the master’s day of silence, so he picked up a pad. It said, “Awareness.” When the disciple saw it, he said, “This is too brief. Can you expand on it a bit?” So the master took back the pad and wrote, “Awareness, awareness, awareness.” The disciple said, “Yes, but what does it mean?” The master took back the pad and wrote, “Awareness, awareness, awareness means — awareness.”

That’s what it is to watch yourself. No one can show you how to do it, because he would be giving you a technique, he would be programming you. But watch yourself. When you talk to someone, are you aware of it or are you simply identifying with it? When you got angry with somebody, were you aware that you were angry or were you simply identifying with your anger? Later, when you had the time, did you study your experience and attempt to understand it? Where did it come from? What brought it on? I don’t know of any other way to awareness. You only change what you understand. What you do not understand and are not aware of, you repress. You don’t change. But when you understand it, it changes.” ~ Anthony DeMello

Sunday’s Word: Watch!

Watch! What dreams are you hoping will come true? Is it for a job? A better one? Ease in the job you have? For your spouse to finally understand you? Or for a spouse, finally? For kids? Or for your kids to just “get it?” Are you expecting the dream to come true, because you deserve it? Or are you expecting to settle, for whatever reason.

“Watch!” Friday night, I said to a friend, “I bet we started talking because I wanted to help you, even though, what I needed was someone to stand in the gap, with me. All this time that’s what you’ve been doing, helping, me.” Part of me wanted to say, “you weren’t supposed to do that.” Often, when dreams come true our fantasy of what that will look like is lost in the process.

“Watch!” What you are waiting for may not come as you expect. The fulfillment you hope for, may even take place inside-out, not outside-in. If you don’t look to find it there, if you don’t let go of the way it’s supposed to happen, you may miss it. Watch!

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