The Gift of Just Being – Love

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.” – Isaiah 9: 2

We are in the waning days of December and for me, it is the time of Advent – a time of waiting, anticipation, and personal preparation for the coming of our Savior and what used to be my favorite time of year – Christmas!!  A time filled with traditions and festivities handed down to us from time immemorial. If you are anything like me – sentimental, deep thinking and even deeper feeling, you probably feel everything more acutely at this time than other times of the year. And as luck would have it – this year takes the cake for high emotional content.

You see, I am feeling a bit at odds with myself and the machinations of the season – because this is my 50th year – this is my 50th Christmas – and what have I made of it???  It should be a spectacular celebration – no?

I love Christmas, I have from my earliest memory. I readily admit to getting wrapped up (pun intended) in the spirit of the season, merry-making galore. Before moving to the Flathead, during the months of November and December I would spend days adorning my parent’s house with lights, so much so that when I flipped the switch the rest of the neighborhood dimmed. Always alive in me was the real reason for the season, the coming celebration of the birth of my Lord and Savior. My family has a strong Scandinavian heritage and I learned at a very young age the art and technique of making lefse and krumkake, traditional holiday food offerings found in any Norwegian home. I was rolling perfect rounds of lefse by the time I was five and have been eating it with delight ever since – a fact of which my grandmother would be immensely proud.

Our home was always filled with music: piano, guitar, and good old-fashioned records on the turn-table! I started Christmas caroling and singing in choirs in my teenage years -I loved bringing the message of good news in song to the hearts of people I would never otherwise know. I have sung in choirs ever since – at times singing in 4 different show choirs at once!  My Christmas goodwill has always been focused on spreading cheer to those far and near, through music, acts, words, and gifts. I truly believe we are God’s light in this world and this was my way of sharing that message brightly.

Looking back, I long for what now seems like such a simple but wonderful way of celebrating the holidays. I long for my childhood wonder and acceptance of the way we did things simply because that is how we did things. I don’t recall my parents being as stressed out around the holidays as I have allowed myself to become today. Of course, they didn’t have social media reminding them what everyone else was doing prompting them to wonder “how do we compare?”

But this year is different. My schedule remains empty of umpteen  rehearsals and choir performances and aside from the occasional potato I haven’t baked a thing! Christmas cards remain unwritten and I’ve barely touched the piano keys. Sure, the house is decorated as it “always” is but the rest has fallen by the wayside – victims of the pandemic and my own malaise. I find myself in a liminal state of fatigue, fatigued by having nothing to be stressed about and fatigued by the thought of actually doing something. And this has me feeling all out of sorts – guilty for feeling as I do.

Expectations are high when it comes to celebrating the holidays. Social media highlights all that we don’t have in our lives – be it time, money, relationships, a happy home, a social life, health, you name it. Advertisements tell us we are going to “Win the holiday” by patronizing such and such retailer; “You got this!” they exclaim as a family stands back and admires perfection personified in Christmas lights. Who doesn’t want to “win the holiday” but in reality, who can?  For the longest time, I tried but I always ended up feeling defeated and depleted.

All these images of happy traditions have a way of coloring our own expectations of peace and happiness around the holidays. It is indeed a wonderful time of year in which we focus on making and spreading joy, a time I have always cherished and looked forward to. But I have also experienced the emptiness inside after too much money is spent, all the presents are given, and life just goes on the next day. I have felt my heart break when my high expectations of the perfect family gathering went up in the smoke of a blazing argument. I have collapsed in illness from the stress of over-extending and over-committing myself to every activity that came my way. Most acutely, I have felt the cold sting of loneliness at a time when love and family sparkles in the lives of all those around me. This year I’m not sure what I am feeling – suspended, perhaps?

These are the dual realities of the holidays that approach. A time when both joy and sadness, quiet and commotion compete for a presence in our lives. My own experiences with both the light and dark aspects of the holidays have heightened my emotional sensitivities and my empathy for others who also struggle at this time of year.

Alas, here we are, Christmas comes whether we are in the mood or not and another journey around the sun is almost complete. Inherent in that journey is the realization that this moment in time cannot be repeated, ever again. And yet, year after year we close out another chapter of our lives and begin a new one with timeworn traditions that encourage us to hold on to the past all the while looking ahead to the unforeseeable future! How strange!! No wonder I can’t get in to see a counselor until February!

Everything we anticipated and planned for ourselves this year and in our life thus far has either come to pass or it hasn’t. Too often, I find myself wandering in the wilderness of what was rather than journeying forward to what will be; focusing on the “what hasn’t” instead of contemplating on the “what has.”

In his collection of essays, The Spirituality of Living, Henri Nouwen writes:

“In the world there are many other voices speaking – loudly: “Prove that you are the beloved. Prove you’re worth something. Prove you have any contribution to make. Do something relevant. Be sure to make a name for yourself. At least have some power — then people will love you; then people will say you’re wonderful, you’re great.”

He goes on to say: “These voices are so strong. They touch our hidden insecurities and drive us to become very busy trying to prove to the world that we are good people who deserve some attention. Sometimes we think that our busyness is just an expression of our vocation, but Jesus knew that often our attempts to prove our worth are an example of temptation. Right after Jesus heard the voice say, “You are my beloved,” another voice said, “Prove you are the beloved. Do something. Change these stones into bread. Be sure you’re famous. Jump from the Temple…” Jesus said, “No, I don’t have to prove anything. I am already beloved.”

Perhaps that is the truth God wanted me to see after all the years I’ve spent wrapped up in the busy-ness of the season. None of it matters!! Yes, the twinkling lights shine in the darkness, yes it feels good to give gifts in pretty packages and bake yummy things while carols are playing and snow softly falls beckoning you out to build the perfect snowman. But in the end – all of those things disappear as quickly as the lights come off the roof, the gifts are forgotten amid all the discarded wrapping, the snow melts, and the yummy in your tummy ceases to feel or look so good.

This truth comes to us from, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” who tells us to let go of what has laid claim to our lives – repent – if you will – from the powers that be and hold sway in our lives – be they political, economic, or status oriented. Calling us to escape the wilderness by letting go of the binding chains of fear, anger, disappointment, guilt, regret. loss, despair, and sorrow.  Calling us to turn away from life-draining busyness, quenchless ambition, and the need for approval. Calling us to freedom – because our broken relationships, our broken hearts, our harsh and critical voices, all the things that lay claim to our lives, that have filled our past, taught us “how to live,” and shaped our character – none, NONE are more powerful than God.

God wants us to know there is nothing to prove. He came to us because of the sorry state we were and are in, not because our houses were beautifully decorated and our kitchens were full of merry making!  That you didn’t achieve all your goals  for this year – perhaps you even failed miserably – hear this – it doesn’t matter! You are quite simply and profoundly beloved by God and because of that you can BE love. The true joys of the season and of life are not found under trees or in shopping carts or even along glowing roof-lines. In this beautiful yet broken world filled with terror and tradition, competition and caring, winning and wonder, the joy we seek can only be found in our hearts and the hearts of others. True joy comes only when we accept that we are from the beginning beloved by God and freed to love.

When we share God’s light and love with those of every walk we encounter, be it the hungry at the shelter or the stressed-out mom in line behind us, that is where we find joy. When you hold the door to the post office open for a package-laden distressed style maven and they sputter their surprised gratefulness, that is joy. When you extend your snow-blowing to your neighbor’s section of the sidewalk, that is joy. When you hear an “I am so glad you called, I needed this talk so much” on any day in May because you took the time to call instead of text someone you are thinking of – that is joy magnified.  By releasing ourselves from our high expectations of celebration and need for showing how well we can live our lives we free ourselves to find joy in actively and expectantly living in the One, Our Savior, who has already come and whose true light shines in the darkness and brings peace to our hearts.

None of us knows what tomorrow or the year ahead will bring. But, imagine beginning the new year off with a fresh start, anticipating the unknown with confidence that a way will be made for you – no matter how daunting, unimaginable, or seeming improbable the future is. That gives me courage to quit wandering in my wilderness.

I pray that you are able to open and live into the gift already given to you – the joy of trusting in God’s amazing grace for the days to come. Let go of all the things you think you have to do and the past that you cannot change no matter how hard you try. Let His faith in you, hope for you, and love for you strengthen you and guide all that you do in the days to come.

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas and a bright New Year!!

Let your light so shine!!

It’s Not Christmas, Yet!

I tried to decorate the Christmas tree last night, after all I had taken a three day weekend in order to “get a jump on” Christmas but I couldn’t do it. Yes, I have the white lights up on the house outside, the candles are in the windows, and garland adorns my old Baldwin Acrosonic upright. But the tree remains bare. Bare because yesterday was December 5th and not December 6th. For as long as I can remember the rule was no Christmas until after Mom’s birthday… As life went on and life got busier and children grew up and got jobs and the decorating had to happen early or not all, there was a bit of lenience to that rule  – except for the Christmas tree. And even that rule was broken a few times much to my mother’s chagrin.  Alas, last night as I brought out the box filled with 50 years of Christmas treasures, I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t December 6th. Mom deserves to be celebrated and so that is what I will do tonight. My mother loved Christmas – in its time-  and so it will be. Me, the tree, and memories – of my mother.
 
 
Because more than any other time of year – my mother comes alive in me now. In the waiting and wondering and preparing the way of the Lord – and preparing myself for the Lord. Today would be her 88th birthday and it is her 5th birthday with our Lord and Savior instead of with me, with us.  And yet, as I go about this season of Advent and the preparations for Christmas, I see her and feel her in almost everything I do. It’s not that our Christmas celebrations were overly joyous – quite often they were anything but! I remember more than a few times in my life feeling distinctly melancholy in the celebrations around Christmas time. Yes, we had all the Christmas trimmings, the Boston Pops Christmas Spectacular album was always playing on the record player, and our home was always decorated in conservative yet beautiful Christmas tidings; but it is in the quiet, simpler moments, in the silence by the fire that I see my Mom.
 
My family has always held firm to the Scandinavian tradition that Christmas Eve is the big event – our presents were opened after church services (yes, often plural), Christmas light tours, supper, and me and Mom playing the piano – while Dad listened in his Lazy Boy eating peanut brittle and my brother – well I am not sure what he was doing! Christmas Eve would often go into the wee hours of Christmas morning. Then off to bed we would go so Santa could come and fill our stockings.
 
 
It was then that Mom would begin tidying up the wrapping paper while waiting for the fire to die. She would write each of us a letter from Santa – including herself, and I imagine breathe a sigh of relief after playing for Christmas services and the weariness from all the rushing-to-church hubbub that happened on Christmas Eve (and always!). She would sit in the silent glow of the Christmas tree as the last of the embers lost their warm glow. We had REAL fires in the fireplace when I was young.  As I got older, much older, I began to stay with my mom during this time. And it was in this – this quiet time of waiting and wondering at the miracle of God coming into this mess of life that I will forever see my mother – weeping.
 
 
I never asked her why or what was wrong. I was at times taken aback, perhaps disillusioned – why would anyone cry at Christmas? My young mind couldn’t fathom it and my older mind couldn’t deal with it.
 
 
Now as I carry on with my own traditions of white lights (they had to be white!) lots and lots of candles, Nativity scene setting, and of course decorating and redecorating to perfection the Christmas tree, I sense deeply the reason for her tears. The joy and warmth and festiveness I endeavor to create in the darkest days of winter contrast greatly from the feelings in my heart – no matter how much Pentatonix Christmas I listen to.
 
 
How very much in need of a Savior I am and this world is! How humbling and amazing that God has claimed me as his beloved – despite my failures, despite my sins, despite everything I try to do that never quite measures up – God loves me, and God loved and still loves my mother!
 
 
I know my mother had her personal struggles – the depth of which can only be appreciated with hindsight and grace. And I know my mother loved our Lord in her sweet, gentle, sometimes broken ways. I understand her tears – of shame and relief, of immense disbelief and incredible faith, of joy and sadness, of turmoil and the sense of peace found in the silence and reflected in the shimmer of white lights.
 
 
At times I long for a red and green holly jolly holiday reality instead of the blue & white Christmas I have come to know so well. But now I know I was seeing the true in-dwelling of God in the tears of my Mom, and I understand why she insisted on the white lights of peace and His radiant grace.
 
 
 
Happy Birthday, Mom… carrying you with me today and always in all ways with love.
 
Let your light so shine.

Hanging Hope on the Christmas Tree

It was doomed to fail from the start. My heart set on a cozy evening spent decorating the Christmas tree by the fire with all the warmth and happiness this traditional activity surely evokes. My memories told me as much. Having listened to enough Pentatonix Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller, and Boston Pops Christmas while cleaning the house earlier in the day, my mood was headed in the right direction – or so I thought.

Out came the boxes of cherished crystal figures, lace snowflakes and angels, Christopher Radko mercury glass, and Hallmark Snoopy ornaments – each imbued with special meanings from significant events or the marking of the passing year. Given my age – I have far more  than my Hammacher Schlemmer World’s Best Noble Fir 7’ slim tree could ever gracefully hold.

Now all I needed was a good Christmas movie to accompany my nostalgic journey. Alas, the evening’s offerings from my limited TV subscriptions was confined to a repertoire of Hallmark Holiday romance movie sap; and given that my year began in a courtroom dissolving mine, that genre was not on my menu. So, I decided on the “uplifting and philosophical” tale of life as seen and told by a wise, car racing enthusiast dog, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and I was sobbing within the first five minutes.

Bleary eyed already, I began adorning the tree. I have a method – beginning with the least emotion conjuring ornaments that usually decorate the back of the tree and moving on to the more and more tear producing: Snoopy ornaments from Dad, the Mercury Glass from Mom, then the crystal angels and Waterford crystal (!) Snoopys from Mom and Dad, then the family collection of Scandinavian hardanger lace snowflakes, and the hole filling Christmas balls, and finally the pièce de résistance – the delicate crystal icicles that dangle elegantly from each bow amongst the memory mishmash. This time I made it all the way to the Mercury Glass before I could go no further. Maybe it was the movie – the book of the same on my shelf has significant water damage. But alas, I do believe I was once again reacting to the disjuncture of what I had always hoped for and recreated in my memories, and the reality of what my family’s past and my present-day Christmases were; just like the caroling Snoopy under the lamppost ornament was as I pulled it from its “heirloom collection box” – broken, imperfect, and most definitely not Hallmark movie material.

I decided to give in to the movie, the adoring eyes of my puppy, and the tears brimming over my eyes and forgo the tree for the time being. After all – it wasn’t even my mother’s birthday yet – and she had a rule – the tree did not go up (live or artificial) until after her December 6th birthday. So I still had a day to wait. Truth be told, as I go about this season of Advent and the preparations for Christmas, I see my mom and feel her in almost everything I do. It’s not that our Christmas celebrations were overly joyous – more often they were anything but!

Despite my recent attempt to recreate the happy Christmases of the past, I remember more than a few times in my life feeling distinctly melancholy in the celebrations around Christmas time. Yes, we had all the Christmas trimmings, the Boston Pops Christmas Spectacular album was always playing on the record player, and our home was always decorated in beautiful Christmas trimmings, but it is in the quiet, simpler moments, in the silence by the fire that I see my Mom and where I now feel the most at home.

My family always held firm to the Scandinavian tradition that Christmas Eve is the big event – our presents were opened after church services (yes, often plural), after the Christmas light tour, after supper, and after me and Mom played the piano – while Dad listened in his Lazy Boy eating peanut brittle, and my brother – well, I am not sure what he did – but he was and is 10 years older than me so at that time we were in different worlds! Christmas Eve would often go into the wee hours of Christmas morning. Then off to bed I would go so Santa could come and fill my stocking. It was then that Mom would begin tidying up the wrapping paper while waiting for the fire to die. She would write each of us a letter from Santa – including herself, and I imagine breathe a sigh of relief after playing piano or organ for Christmas services and the weariness from all the rushing-to-church hubbub that happened on Christmas Eve (and always!). Finally, she would sit in the soft silent glow of the Christmas tree as the last of the fire’s embers lost their warm glow. As I got older, much older, I began to stay with my mom during this time. And it was in this – this quiet time of waiting and wondering at the miracle of God coming into this mess of life that my concept of Christmas changed.  Because I saw my mother – weeping.

I never asked her why or what was wrong. I was at times taken aback, perhaps disillusioned – why would anyone cry at Christmas? My young mind couldn’t fathom it and my older mind couldn’t deal with it.

My parents are gone now and my brother lives on the other side of this great big state. As I carry on with my own traditions of white lights (they had to be white!) lots and lots of candles, Nativity scene-setting, and of course decorating and redecorating to perfection the Christmas tree, I sense deeply the reason for her tears. The joy and warmth and festiveness I endeavor to create in the darkest days of winter contrast greatly from the feelings in my heart – no matter how much Pentatonix Christmas I listen to.

How very much in need of a Savior I and this world are! How humbling and amazing that God has claimed me as his beloved – despite my failures, despite my sins, despite everything I try to do that never quite measures up – God loves me, and God loved and still loves my mother!

I know my mother had her personal struggles – the depth of which can only be appreciated with hindsight and grace. And I know my mother loved our Lord in her sweet, gentle, sometimes broken ways. I understand her tears at Christmas because they are now mine too – tears of shame and relief, of immense disbelief and incredible faith, of joy and sadness, of turmoil and the sense of peace found in the silence and reflected in the shimmer of white lights.

I wonder now if that yearly time of reflecting by the fire were threshold moments for my mother and now me. I, like many people I have encountered in the past year, find myself at a threshold, a threshold in life that feels extended and suspended at the same time. As Father Michael Marsh writes, “These threshold experiences are times of change and transition, invitations to self-reflection and growth, and openings to something new and unknown. They are scary and often painful times.” They leave you asking and not knowing whether your life is falling apart or falling into place. As I look back on the year that was and what lays ahead, I am uncomfortable with, afraid of even, this uncertainty and not knowing if I am falling apart or my life is falling into place. 

Perhaps this is one of those years when our hindsight will be mercifully clearer and more gracious than our present perspective. A new decade dawned into a darkness none of us saw coming – not just for the individual or unfortunate few but for the entire world. No one has been untouched by this pandemic, the racial strife and recognition of wrongs, and the national political turmoil that came to our streets, our screens, and our relationships. Lives have been lost. Livelihoods have been lost. Lives and how we live them have forever been changed – some more so than others – some for the worse and some for the better. It was, as I have said many times in passing conversations, the year that kept on giving even without the pandemic.

I have been walking through this trying time in a darkness I didn’t make but a darkness that I needed. This darkness has let my Lord and Savior’s light shine in my life – not necessarily making it easier – but showing me where I need Him – everywhere and in every way! Immanuel – amen!

Maybe instead of fighting the current darkness many of us are feeling right now, we need to sit with it in silence, befriend it, and feel its intense intimacy and holiness. Welcome God to join you. I know in my darkest times that is when God draws near. I was dreading Christmas this year – without even my church family to gather with – and yet as we move closer to that most holy night, I know that this will be the truest, holiest, most powerful – most real Christmas I have had in a long, long time – perhaps not since that first most imperfect and dark and scary one so many years ago – before we muddled it up with our commercialized concepts of good tidings of joy and presents and parties and reindeer and… Let’s sit in this dark silent night and let His radiant light illumine our hearts as nothing else can.

My tree is decorated now. The tears brought on by the longings of the past – of what was and could have been – now dried. It sparkles with hope. The symbols of the past remind me that I have passed through many threshold times, some much more difficult than what I am experiencing now and we are experiencing as a whole. And yet, I am here and so are you and so is Jesus, God, Immanuel. 

Yes, at times I long for a red and green holly jolly holiday reality instead of the blue & white Christmas I have come to know so well. But I know I was seeing the true in-dwelling of God in the tears of my Mom and my own tears now. Now I understand why she insisted on the white lights of peace and His amazing radiant grace.

Wishing you radiant grace, a deep peace, and a certain knowing that you are God’s Beloved this Christmas!

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.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Isaiah 9: 2-7

Let Your Light so Shine!!!

Radiant Grace – My Mother

The essence of my mother is here. More than any other time of year – my mother comes alive in me now. In the waiting and wondering and preparing the way of the Lord – and preparing myself for the Lord. Today would be her 87th birthday and it is her 4th birthday with our Lord and Savior instead of with me, with us. But as I go about this season of Advent and the preparations for Christmas, I see her and feel her in almost everything I do. It’s not that our Christmas celebrations were overly joyous – quite often they were anything but! I remember more than a few times in my life feeling distinctly melancholy in the celebrations around Christmas time. Yes, we had all the Christmas trimmings, the Boston Pops Christmas Spectacular album was always playing on the record player, and our home was always decorated in conservative yet beautiful Christmas tidings but it is in the quiet, simpler moments, in the silence by the fire that I see my Mom.

My family has always held firm to the Scandinavian tradition that Christmas Eve is the big event – our presents were opened after church services (yes, often plural), Christmas light tours, supper, and me and Mom playing the piano – while Dad listened in his Lazy Boy eating peanut brittle and my brother – well I am not sure what he was doing! Christmas Eve would often go into the wee hours of Christmas morning. Then off to bed I would go so Santa could come and fill my stocking. It was then that Mom would begin tidying up the wrapping paper while waiting for the fire to die. She would write each of us a letter from Santa – including herself, and I imagine breathe a sigh of relief after playing for Christmas services and the weariness from all the rushing-to-church hubbub that happened on Christmas Eve (and always!). Then she would sit in the silent glow of the Christmas tree as the last of the embers lost their warm glow. As I got older, much older, I began to stay with my mom during this time. And it was in this – this quiet time of waiting and wondering at the miracle of God coming into this mess of life that I will forever see my mother – weeping.

I never asked her why or what was wrong. I was at times taken aback, perhaps disillusioned – why would anyone cry at Christmas? My young mind couldn’t fathom it and my older mind couldn’t deal with it.

Now as I carry on with my own traditions of white lights (they had to be white!) lots and lots of candles, Nativity scene-setting, and of course decorating and redecorating to perfection the Christmas tree, I sense deeply the reason for her tears. The joy and warmth and festiveness I endeavor to create in the darkest days of winter contrast greatly from the feelings in my heart – no matter how much Pentatonix Christmas I listen to.

How very much in need of a Savior I am and this world is! How humbling and amazing that God has claimed me as his beloved – despite my failures, despite my sins, despite everything I try to do that never quite measures up – God loves me, and God loved and still loves my mother!

I know my mother had her personal struggles – the depth of which can only be appreciated with hindsight and grace. And I know my mother loved our Lord in her sweet, gentle, sometimes broken ways. I understand her tears – of shame and relief, of immense disbelief and incredible faith, of joy and sadness, of turmoil and the sense of peace found in the silence and reflected in the shimmer of white lights.

At times I long for a red and green holly jolly holiday reality instead of the blue & white Christmas I have come to know so well. But now I know I was seeing the true in-dwelling of God in the tears of my Mom and I understand why she insisted on the white lights of peace and His radiant grace.

Happy Birthday, Mom… carrying you with me today and always in all ways with love.