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!!

A Gift of Love

February 15th, I took down my Christmas tree. As you might expect if you have read any of my previous posts, this is much more than a post-Christmas chore for me. I am emotionally invested in this seasonal activity of the embellishing and un-embellishing of my PE injection-molded pine tree. Highly invested.

The date for this activity is significant. My Christmas tree holds far more than mercury glass, crystal, and embroidered ornaments. Every branch is adorned with love and light and as such, it carries me through the darkest month of the year which, ironically, is also Epiphany, the season of light. Epiphany ended on February 14th this year- the day we celebrate love – and now we begin the journey of Lent.  “Lent” comes from the old English word for “lengthen” and refers to the gradual lengthening of days during late winter and early spring. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 17, Christians begin the 40-day journey to the cross which necessitates a stripping away of all the accoutrements we fill our lives with and get down to reflection, repentance, and preparing for Easter. Hence, it was time for the tree to come down – as much as I hated to see it go.

In the process, I got to thinking about how much life has changed since February 15, 2020, when I last took down my Christmas Tree of Love and Light. Changes none of us planned for, and unless you are an infectious disease expert, likely imagined. For me though, the past five years have brought significant changes and losses as each year passed and this last year was no exception. And, while I had sweet, heartwarming moments of family memories as I placed each ornament into the storage box, I couldn’t help but wonder who or what would be missing from my life when I bring out the PE injection-molded pine tree of love and light next Thanksgiving weekend. 

Robert Burns wrote despondently about the vagaries of life in 1785, ruing the calamity a farmer brought upon a field mouse’s nest as he plowed a winter-ravaged field – upending her little family and no doubt changing the entire course of her existence.Little did the mouse know when she awoke that morning to go about the business of securing nourishment and warmth for the day that her home would be destroyed by a farmer’s plow. Goodness, she had plans!

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley, (often go awry)
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

Ah, the best-laid plans of mice and men…. The saying is so familiar to us it rolls off our tongues without a moment’s thought when a change of plans forces us to change the course of our day-to-day existence of lives well-planned. Think about it. Nature has been messing with even the most-prepared (or so we thought) of us. Brutal storms shutting down life as we know it – literally shutting down and freezing the entire state of Texas as I write this. Think of all the plans upended. And of course, there, lurking in the background is a year-old pandemic. Today, it is hard to have well-planned lives when the whims of COVID-19 are at play. You meticulously planned for a family road trip with every item on your to-do-before-leaving list checked off only to be on the receiving end of a contact tracing call the day of departure; graduations, weddings, and funerals were turned into Zoom events or canceled altogether; you don’t know from one week to the next if your child will be in a classroom or bedroom for schooling; or your business closed after months of lock-downs,  economic instability, and the eradication of your customer base; or your brother calls with news of your mother’s death. COVID-19 brought our mortality to the forefront of our thoughts. In an instant, all the plans you made went up in smoke and left you standing there in the dust.

Sometimes the change of course isn’t instigated by a one-off event at all but a gradual realization that your present life is not what you expected or wanted it to be. Moments and realizations like these often beg the questions: Why even have a plan at all? Who’s in charge here?

Working as I do for a former Marine in the financial planning industry, we have plans or as we call them SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) for everything from scheduling appointments to writing reports to technology breakdowns to managing your portfolios to closing up shop for the day. If the power goes out, I can reference our handy three ring binder to find the SOP for working the old-fashioned way! While we like to expect that bull markets will reign supreme, we know that the very nature of our business is a roller coaster ride of change. Do we deviate from our written SOP’s? Certainly, no situation is the same, but by having some sort of plan in place beforehand we have a frame of reference from which to launch our response. This response provides us at least part of the answer to the second question: who is in charge here? We are because we know how to react on our toes. We have well practiced strategies in place.

Now, I will be honest with you, I have yet to find or write an SOP for life. Some will say the Bible is the only operator’s manual you need for living life – even a life lived in a pandemic – or perhaps – even more so in a pandemic. And while that is an excellent Plan A as a source of divine guidance, I need a Plan B for the business side of life. Thus, I am making sure I have a plan for my life when I am no longer “in control” of it.

One evening over dinner, after listening to a group of us share the goings on in our lives and noting how many of our plans and expectations had changed over the last several months, a dear, wiser, much older friend of mine took a sip of wine and remarked with a knowing smile that one of her favorite sayings was an old Yiddish Proverb: “Man plans, God laughs.”

Of course, this notion frustrates me to no end; yet, I know how very true it is. I like to be in control; but in the end, I know who is ultimately in charge. Nonetheless, my responsibility is to be prepared and react wisely to the changes that occur in life. My wiser older friend on the other hand is completely satisfied with this concept and I can tell that her life is richer because of it. The morning after our dinner gathering, I received a call that my friend’s husband had gone to bed that night and never woke up. In that moment, all of my friend’s reasoning and carefree logic she shared the day before came sweeping over me. As I sat with her later that day, she had a peace about her that was inspiring. We talked about her husband and the joys they shared during their 56 years of marriage.  Employed as I am in the financial planning world, I asked her, somewhat awkwardly, if they had “you know, made plans?”

 “Of course! We settled all of that stuff years ago,” she replied matter-of-factly. And because of those plans, during this sudden change in the course of her life, she could focus on just being.

One of the best gifts of love you can give your loved ones is an SOP for the end of your life. Don’t leave the burden of reading your now asleep mind to your family and don’t “not give a hoot” and let the state handle your affairs. I speak from personal experience having walked through the aftermath of the seemingly well-planned state of my parent’s affairs. Yes, I am talking about a will, I am talking about taking responsibility now for what you hope never happens but at some point, most assuredly will. Make sure all your financial accounts have payable on death or transfer on death instructions. Make sure your beneficiaries are up to date. Formally state what you want done with your possessions and have it legally documented.

One of the most satisfying parts of my job is helping a grieving spouse or the surviving children navigate through the financial details after a loved one dies. Being able to tell them they have nothing to worry about, that their loved one had everything lined out ahead of time and all I will need is a death corticate and a few signatures takes a very heavy burden off their already weary shoulders.

As the year unfolds for all of us, we of course hope for nothing but the best. When I hang my ornaments on my PE injection-molded Christmas tree of love and light next November 27th or 28th, I hope that I am celebrating all the wonderful people in my life and giving thanks for all the good times this year has been filled with. But I also know that I may be thinking about those I have loved and lost – or God forbid – they will be remembering me. I want to have that sense of peace that my friend had in the wake of her husband’s passing and I want the same for my brother should anything happen to me.

God may laugh when we make plans, but by having a plan we can laugh, cry or just be at peace right alongside God when our best-laid plans go awry.

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. – James 4:13-17

Let your light so shine!