Pondering The Path of Peace

The magic of quiet snow falling on Christmas morning – oh, just the thought of it takes me back to my snow-covered hill-top home  – the wonder, the beauty, the silence.  It can happen anywhere that the heart makes room.st-frances

In January of 2008 Atlanta was covered in a beautiful blanket of snow.  I couldn’t resist but to take a few pictures in the garden that now looked so fresh and new even in the bleak of our winter of great sadness.  St. Francis looked especially peaceful and content with a white cap warming his head.  His presence standing strong there in the garden offered me a new appreciation for the man who gave up all of his worldly goods to be an instrument of peace during his life.

A few years later we visited his birthplace and the city for which he is named. I came home and disciplined myself to memorize one of his prayers – maybe the one for which he is most remembered.  Let’s see if I can say it for you:

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

(You can listen to Sarah Mclachlan sing it here.)

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen 

 What strikes me today is that in the first line, the prayer asks the Lord to make me an instrument of HIS peace.  I may not ever find my own peace and that is what we ponder so much, trying to make sense of life and its ups and downs.  But I can, in the midst of pondering offer to be used – to be an instrument of God’s peace – the peace that we seldom understand, but that we have been freely given through the one who comes again this Christmas.

 I confess I am not always a peacemaker.  I do not always sow love, pardon, faith, or hope.  Sometimes I am dark and sometimes I am sad and lonely even though my home is filled with abundance.  That’s why I have memorized the prayer and it is amazing the times during the day when the words come to remind me “sow hope, sow love, understand, pardon.”  And then the peace comes.

Jesus said in John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you: my peace I give you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

I know that Christ wants to infuse peace into all of us.  He said so.  His peace.  Not the peace of a quiet snowfall.  Not the peace of singing Silent Night holding a candle. But the opening of our souls to receive Him in our hearts – to take on his characteristics of love and forgiveness, of  gentleness and hope and of purpose.  But in this age of “it’s all about me” we find it hard to acknowledge our utter neediness and we simply just don’t need Jesus – or very much of him.   

 This Christmas, open yourself to receive the peace that Jesus brings –now, from eternity past, and forevermore.  And in return, offer yourself as an instrument of that kind of peace.  Knowing peace is the gift above all gifts.  Go ahead and open it.

Valleys and Mountains

mountains-and-valleys

 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

  “A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
      ‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation. (
Luke 3:4-6.) 

The meltdown came. I thought I had done everything so perfect this Advent. I had slowed down and made time for true worship. I had kept my home modestly adorned and in order. I had given to the poor and served the needy. I had baked the family favorites, seen the people I love and filled the birdfeeders with a Christmas blend.  And yet, the hot tears came streaming down my face at the kitchen sink – somewhere between blending the pate and mixing the fruitcake.  I couldn’t identify their source. Was it brokenness or was it sheer Christmas joy?

My analyst- husband suggested I think in terms of an investment article he had read earlier in the day about  Aristotle (he reads Aristotle?) and his ancient theory of The Golden Mean. The Golden Mean is defined as ” the desirable middle between two extremes, one of deficiency and the other of excess.”

My Advent frame of mind took me directly to Jesus who came right in the middle of the history of time. The world had been deficient, struggling, looking for the One who would set the world straight. And that night, 2000 years ago, God’s “Golden Mean” arrived. The desirable one. And since He came, that same world pauses and wonders for a night, and still goes on looking, unsatisfied and excessive. But for some, they will see. For some, they will take notice.

I ask you – how deep are your valleys this Christmas?

My valleys are deep. But my mountains are just as high. My life spills over with the fullness of life – gathering and giving away, embracing and letting go. It is what Solomon talks about in Ecclesiastes. A time for everything. And then, one day…one day all the mountains will be smoothed, all the valleys filled, all  will be  straightened and made straight.

 Great God who promises to set my world straight,

    I rest in your promises and consider your tears for your world,

 

Small Signs of God – Christmas Letters

christmas-letterSomeone said I became a writer the year I wrote my Christmas letter and described the blue lights high up on a snowy hill on our farm in Kentucky. That was a hard year. My mother had died and I was missing her Christmas traditions that I was now trying to keep going in my own home. I was sad and nostalgic, letting my heart travel to new, unfamiliar places. A new depth entered my realm of thinking. I could embrace the pain and in embracing it, something transformational happened.  When I decided to share my sadness and loneliness with others through writing, it became a fragrance for others to receive. Little did I know I was being prepared for events that would take me  further in my journey of transformation. Gifts come in mysterious ways.

I guess I would ask you this Christmas: Have your life events moved you in a direction of transformation? Oh, I love hearing about everyone’s year in their Christmas greeting: births, weddings, trips and accomplishments, but I wonder more about your thoughts and how you love your family and friends. Tell me what is was like when you lost your job and your neighbors rallied round. Tell me what is was like when you were told there were no more treatment options. Tell me how you long for your son or daughter to return from war or estrangement. See, what happens to most of us is this: when the hard days come we shut down, retreat, worry and refuse to share our hurts, especially in the Christmas cards we send. Pride closes the door to transformation while others wait for your story. There is always someone who needs to smell the fragrance of human life by simply sharing a memory, remembering a special time, talking over a concern or maybe, just being silent together.

Consider Jesus, the fragrance of human life as we move through this week.

Paul writes: “Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself.” Philippians 2:6-8

May these days of our coming Jesus explode in wonder and grace as you ponder his presence. May you find hope when you think there is none, peace when you feel unsettled, and love always abounding. Just for you. May you share the excitement of Christ in your lives and rejoice with laughter like children anticipating Christmas morning.

Small Signs of God –    Dreams and Angels

Pondering the scriptures during this fourth week of Advent, there is much thought given to angels and dreams. Joseph in his dream was instructed to take Mary as his wife. He was told to not be afraid. Mary was visited by the angel and told to not be afraid. The shepherds were advised by an angel to not be afraid. We see a pattern of angels showing up at times where there was what the Bible teacher Henry Blackaby calls a “crisis of belief” or a turning point in someone’s life. It’s a time when one must make a choice as to how they will move forward. In these advent cases, it was a trust in the announcement of the Messiah.angelIt’s not every day we’re greeted by an angel, but looking back to Advent  2007, I now believe I had one of those angel visits.

‘I am waking in the night, not from worry, but from dreams and songs I learned as a child. One night I woke to these words being repeated over and over, “Jesus doeth all things well.”  I wasn’t sure about the song, but I knew the tune and the next morning I went to the hymnal and found these words:

All the way my Savior leads me; What have I to ask beside?

Can I doubt His tender mercy, who through life has been my Guide?

Heavenly peace, divinest comfort, Here by faith in Him to dwell!

For I know, whate’re befalls me, Jesus doeth all things well.

The conversation in my dream went something like me saying, “I cannot do this.  I do not want to do this.”  And some other voice said, “You have to do this.  You can do this.  Do not let temptation or self-pity get in your way and do not be afraid.” 

There it was again. “Do not be afraid.”  The word befall means to come up against tragedy or a crucial point in your life. A turning point, if you will. But the song in the dream said my savior leads me and does all things well. I suppose it is what Joseph and Mary relied on. It was enough for me.

2 Corinthians 5:7 says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”  When we can see clearly, it is not faith, but reasoning of our mind.  I have learned to rely less on reasoning and to trust my conversations and angel visits in the wee hours, relying on my  faith to see me through.

Jesus does “doeth” all things well – he comes to us again this Christmas as Immanuel – God with us – in the middle of the night, during the day through our family and friends, and before our eyes each and every minute.” 

angel-rome

Two years later in Rome I would take a picture of each angel on the Bridge of Angels (Ponte Sant’Angelo) that spans the Tiber River. The Angel with the Cross’s inscription reads: “Cuius principatus super humerum eius,” or, “Dominion rests on his shoulders.” (Isaiah 9:6) Just a few verses before this, the prophet announced that “a child is born to us, a son is given us.”

Wonderful Counselor, who carries  the cross for me this Advent, allow me to experience your presence with an angel visit. Come, Lord Jesus.

 

Small Signs of God – Creation

Seven days until Christmas.

These days are full of good things and well wishes as we make our final Advent steps to Christmas Day. Like you, I have my final list of things to do. It will be enough.  It’s not so big when I think about what God did in seven days:

Monday – Light

Tuesday –  Sky and water

Wednesday – Land, seas, vegetation

Thursday – Sun, moon and star

Friday – Fish and birds

Saturday – Animals; man and woman

Sunday – God rested and declared all that he had made to be very good.

Not only the gift of creation, but throughout time God has given gifts to His world. Anne Weems in her poem ,”Gifts from God” reminds me of these additional gifts: a garden, knowledge, things, rainbows, manna, prophets, children and then the ultimate gift of love in the form of Jesus.

Talk about a lavish gift giver! My little wrapped gifts can’t begin to compare – unless they are wrapped in the same love that has been shown to me from Heaven above and given unconditionally. When this, my final Advent week is over, I too, want to declare that all I had done this week was very good.

“There are some that don’ t open their eyes

 or their ears or their hearts

and they still say, that’s not quite enough.

They wander through the stores looking for Christmas.

But others open their whole being to the Lord, bending their knees to praise God.

carrying Christmas with them every day.

For these the whole world is a gift!”(Kneeling in Bethlehem, pg.70)

Great Giver of Gifts,

I want to be among the ones who bend their knees to you. I want to carry Christmas with me every day.

 

 

Small Signs of God -Wally Purling

christmas-longingIn her beautiful Book A Christmas Longing, Joni Eareckson Tada talks about a longing each of us senses this time of year – especially when we listen to the child inside of us. “It’s a desire to be home, to belong, to find fulfillment, complete and eternal. Christmas is an invitation to a celebration yet to happen….Every Christmas is still a ‘turning of the page’ until Jesus returns. ” She says holiday carols, gifts, smiles, and  angels point to a future when yes, there will be eternal peace on earth.

But I can’t get my mind off the innkeeper. I wonder if he ever recognized who he turned away that night. Surely the angels singing and shepherds arriving stirred the neighborhood to watch and wonder. Surely the star that hovered over the manger kept the innkeeper just a little awake and wondering if maybe he should have responded differently.

Tada shares a short story printed in Guideposts a long time ago about Wally Purling and the Christmas pageant. It goes like this:

“Wally was nine and in second grade – although he should have been in fourth. Most folks in town knew he had trouble keeping up. He was big and clumsy, slow in movement and mind. Still, Wally was well liked by the other children in his class, all of whom were smaller than he. He was always helpful, the natural protector of the underdog.

Wally fancied the idea of being a shepherd with a flute in the Christmas pageant that year. But the director of the play, Miss Lumbard, assigned him to a “more important” role. After all, she reasoned, the innkeeper didn’t have too many lines.

So it happened that the usual large audience gathered for the town’s yearly extravaganza of crowns and halos, shepherds’ crooks and beards, and a whole stage full of squeaking voices. But no one on stage or off was more caught up in the magic of the night than Wally Purling.

The time came when Joseph, appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door of the painted backdrop.

“What do you want?” Wally said, swinging the door open.

“We seek lodging.”

“Seek in elsewhere.” Wally looked straight ahead and spoke vigorously. “The inn is full.”

“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.”

Wally looked stern. “There is no room in this inn for you.”

Joseph put his arm around Mary. “Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife and she is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her.”

For the first time, Wally the innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. There was a long pause – long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment. A prompter whispered from the wings, “Your line is ‘No! Be gone!'”

Wally repeated automatically, “Be gone!”

Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary, and the two of them started moving away. Wally stood there in the doorway, watching . Suddenly his eyes filled with tears. And suddenly this Christmas pageant became different from all others.

“Wait!” Wally the innkeeper suddenly blurted out. “Don’t go Joseph.” His face broke into a wide smile. “You can have my room.”

Many people in town thought the program had been ruined. A few, however – the thoughtful ones – considered it the most meaningful pageant of all.

 

Small Signs of God – The Innkeeper

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

We were traveling in Maine and it was late and we were tired and hungry. When the innkeeper opened the door, I knew it was where I wanted my little family to spend the night.  It was clean and inviting and  good smells were coming from the kitchen. But the innkeeper said, “I’m sorry, we are full tonight.” She must have seen the disappointment in my face. As we turned away, she called, “Wait, I do have one room that might work. Your children are small and it’s late.”  We accepted quickly, thinking we could all sleep on the floor if we could just have a little space somewhere.  She told us where we could get  dinner and when we returned the room would be ready.

Pleased at our good fortune, we returned to find our “one room that sleeps five.” The door was opened and we walked into a sight for tired eyes. It was basic with one bed. But on the floor were three small palettes that had been created out of cushions, pillows, sheets and quilts.  The sheets were folded back, holding small stuffed animals waiting for three sleepy new friends.

innkeeperThe innkeeper in the Nativity often gets looked down upon, but there was something that made him stop and reconsider. Maybe he saw the tired weary couple and was moved to help. Those were common people and that was the way babies were born in Bethlehem. Surely there was a spot for Jesus. Basic warmth and safety could set the stage for surprise visits of angels singing and stars dancing.

This Advent, I wonder what kind of innkeeper I am. Can I find room for others? Or will I turn them away? Can I be creative in “making do” when I don’t have enough beds, enough time, enough money, enough energy or patience? Can I go beyond the basics of warmth and shelter to offer pure hospitality and love with a few dancing stars as a perk?

Jesus is looking for hearts that will open the door to make room for him this Christmas. Like Joseph, He must be so weary of knocking on hard-to-open doors, just hoping this year, there might be a small place for him to rest his head. Would it be in your heart? Do you hear Him knocking? What will you say?

Everlasting Father,

 Yes, there is room in my heart this Advent. Give me courage to fling open the door to my heart and welcome you in. When I do, then I will hear the angels sing.

 

 

Small Signs of God – In The Books I Read

I love the writings of Ann Weems.  I was first introduced to her writing when someone gave me her book Psalms of Lament. It drew me in and allowed me to have thoughts and feelings that I had suppressed. We shared similar losses in the death of a child. We spoke grief in the same way. But her thoughts on other topics like Lent and Advent are equally compelling. In researching her more recently, I learned she died this year. She wrote an unpublished poem “When You Hear of My Demise” and it is included in this wonderful article. http://www.pcusa.org/news/2016/3/22/ann-weems-presbyterian-poet-laureate-dies-age-81/

During Advent we all have dreams, expectations, hopes, longings, and good intentions. WE know we will get off the path and fall back into a little anxiety, a little worry, a little frustration that it is never just quite what we hoped for. But it can be, says Ann, in the following poem.

kneeling-in-bethlehemThis Year Will Be Different

“Who among us does not have dreams
that this year will be different?
Who among us does not intend to go
peacefully, leisurely, carefully toward Bethlehem,
for who among us likes to cope with the
commercialism of Christmas
which lures us to tinsel not only the tree
but also our hearts?
Who among us does not long for:
gifts that give love?
shopping in serenity?
cards and presents sent off early?
long evenings by the fireside with those we love?
(the trimming devoid of any arguing about who’s going to hang
what where?
the aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg mingling with the pine
scent of the tree,
and carols gently playing over our idyllic scene)
and the children! The children cheerfully talking about
giving instead of getting?
Who among us does not yearn for
time for our hearts to ponder the Word of God?
moments of kneeling and bursts of song?
the peace of quiet calm for our spirit’s journey?

This year we intend to follow the Star
instead of the crowd.
But, of course, we always do
intend the best.
(And sometimes best intentions tend to get in the best of us!)
This year, when we find ourselves off the path again
(and we invariably will!),
let’s not add yet another stress to our Advent days,
that of “trying to do Christmas correctly”!
Instead, let’s approach the birth of our Lord
with joyful abandon!
And this year
let’s do what Mary did and rejoice in God,
let’s do what Joseph did and listen to our dreams,
let’s do what the Wise Men did and go to worship,
let’s do what the shepherds did and praise and glorify God
for all we have seen and heard!
As for the Advent frantic pace, we don’t have time for that,
We’ll be too busy singing!
This year will be different!”

Approach the birth of our Lord with joyful abandon! Rejoice like Mary. Listen like Joseph. Worship like the Wise Men. Praise like the shepherds.

Oh, God, joyful abandon to you is Advent. Abandoning all else to the expectation of your wonder. It’s what I want. Amen

Small Signs of God – Tree Ornaments

christmas-tree

My husband sat on the sofa, enthusiastically directing my selection and hanging of ornaments. I was trying to not get defensive. Why this year, after years of selecting and hanging Christmas ornaments with my children, independent of supervision? Maybe because children are now grown-ups and he felt compassion on me alone in my work.  Sweet. Or was I less capable this year? Maybe, since it had taken four days to get the boxes open and start the process. Was I too slow? Maybe, but then he “got it” and at one point laughed, forgiving my loitering and said, “You could tell our entire life story with every ornament.” Maybe so.

I like our ornaments. I will hang as many as I can on the tree and our conversation continued like this:

“Oh, Mike, remember this snowy glass ball from the little shop in Lucerne?”

“Umm, Don’t think so.”

“And what about this star? Do you remember who gave us this star?”

“I have no idea. Who?”

“Megan’s professor at Vanderbilt. Remember?”

“No, but hey, what I really like are these pine cones. Why not just do the tree in pine cones and leave off all the glass stuff? You have way too much stuff on there.”

“No, the “glass stuff” brings the tree to life. Chesley, Blair and I went crazy one year glittering those and you and I gathered them on the golf course through the fall. Remember? ”

And on it goes. Little by little the tree comes to life, holding a  small part of our lives on every branch. It becomes like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. One by one, as I pull them out of tissue I say hello and welcome them out for this Advent season. There are some that can hang anywhere, but there are others that have a special spot. A special photograph hanging front and center, an angel high at the top, and the ever faithful, shy cardinal hiding somewhere in the branches.

My friend says she prefers to decorate the tree by herself. Ritualistic and thoughtful, she pulls out the boxes and like me, remembers. Some ornaments were gathered at a happier time and she has to decide if she is strong enough this year to face them and remember. She discovers she is strong this year and she unwraps, remembers, maybe sheds a few tears, takes a deep breath, and hangs them on the tree. There. It’s done. It’s part of who she is and the healing comes. And the tree begins to twinkle with the dark memories being overcome by all the joyous ones. Light always overcomes darkness, but we must have both in order to recognize the difference. The darkest nights are when the stars shine brightest.

Our pastor said a long time ago, “Give your pain a name and when you do, healing comes.” Stop burying the darkness and hiding it away in tissue, storing it year after year, moving it from place to place. Give it a name and confront that which seeks to destroy. Look it in the eye and conquer the fear. Accept those things we cannot change. Look for the light and find the joy that always shines from above.

2 Corinthians 4:6    For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Jesus,

You are the sparkle that gives life to all that surrounds me. You bring the light that gives me hope and assurance for a future without darkness. Shine on me. Shine on my family this Christmas. Shine on a world that cries out in the darkness. Be our light.

 

 

 

Slow Time

Stop, not so fast, Christmas!

The quiet of the morning wants us to think the frenzy of this season is winding down. Children are almost home from school and will soon be sleeping late. The Christmas cards are at peak delivery. Mine will be a little late – as usual.  The Christmas tree lots are becoming depleted and there are signs of clean-up and wrapping up another Christmas season – today a store manager was putting the holiday things on sale and bringing in the spring inventory.  I find myself looking into my January calendar, working on events for February and even April. 

But wait — I want this Christmas to linger.  This peaceful watching and waiting and writing have done what Advent is supposed to do. Slow me down. And when I focus on “slow time” it suddenly fills me with quiet joy and wonder.  I want this time to simply stand still and just behold this wonder…this experience. And I must ask myself if I can enter this home stretch to Christmas Day in s-l-o-w time and just be in Advent – one with God.

 One with Jesus.

lamb

Maybe it is why we love the sheep so much in the Nativity. They don’t have a speaking or acting role. They just come, watch and wait for their shepherd to guide them, feed them and care for them. When I was young I got to hold a baby lamb in my arms and feed it from a bottle. The mother had rejected the lamb and it would have died had my father not known what to do. My sister and I got to care for that helpless lamb and it grew and became a pet that we nurtured and cared for and loved with all our hearts. Hearts that broke when “Lamby-Lou” grew up and left us.

Could it be that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, thinks of us as his pet? Has He nurtured us this Advent as we have waited and watched for his coming? Dependent? Helpless? Needy? Has he cared for and loved us with his heart so much that he has entered into our own hearts and we are one?

 If we can answer “yes” then we have the greatest gift of Christmas.

As a child I sang a simple song:

Into My Heart, Into My Heart, Come into my heart Lord Jesus.

Come in today, Come in to stay, Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

Faithful Shepherd,

You watch over me and you stay by my side. I have everything I need. Slow me down and come into my heart.

Psalm 23:1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.