“With war raging in Gaza, Christmas is effectively canceled in Bethlehem.” These were the words on my news feed from CNN this morning. Four weeks ago I began writing these blogs for the First Sunday of Advent. On that day I shared what I’d heard from NPR on the radio when I was waking up, “It will be dark in Bethlehem this year.” My heart is breaking for sisters and brothers in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem on this Christmas morning.
T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” In the end is our beginning. What is this place we are to be knowing now?
This year marks sixty-six Christmas mornings for me. This one stands alone. It feels like no other Christmas I can remember. There’s a Lutheran Church in Bethlehem whose nativity speaks to the feeling of this morning. Instead of the wise men and shepherds, instead of Mary and Joseph, there is cement rubble surrounding a baby wrapped in a keffiyeh lying in a manager. It is dark in Bethlehem this year.
Bearing witness to the unspeakable. That’s what it feels like as I try each day to be present with the events in Israel. On October 7th of this year, more than 1200 people were massacred by Hamas. The town I grew up in, Mattoon, IL had 18,000 residents – we are told that more than 20,000 Gaza residents have been killed since Israel’s bombings began 12 weeks ago. These numbers aren’t to be compared, because there is no math that could ever be done for these to `add up.’ I’m haunted by them, nonetheless. I am haunted hearing on the news that when the hospitals were still standing in Gaza, doctors and nurses used sharpies to write on infants’ and toddlers’ arms when the children were admitted: WONF (wounded orphan, no family). We are bearing witness to the unspeakable.
Don Saliers, a wise and gentle soul, taught our Worship class when I was in seminary at Candler. One of his lessons has been a helpful companion to me for the living of these days. We were talking about prayer and the significance of private and corporate prayer. “Some prayers are bigger than one person can dare say alone, and so we gather and pray aloud so these words can be given voice by the Body.” (Or something close to that idea). I remembered his words yesterday in church while we were lighting the fourth Advent candle. As soon as we began praying, I felt a lump grow in my throat and tears run down my cheeks. I followed along only mouthing the words as the gathered community prayed: “We sing songs of hope. We allow hope to change us, to strengthen us. We tell the stories of what could be. We listen for God’s word. We resist the temptation to give up or give in. We remember Mary’s song. We gather for worship. We hope. We hope. Against all odds, we hope. (prayer written by Sarah [Are] Speed/ A Sanctified Art LLC/sanctifiedart.org)”
On this Christmas morning every cell in my body is yearning, aching to sing every verse of “Joy to the World.” As I think back on these Advent days, I keep coming back to the words of take heart. These ancient words of encouragement bear witness to the darkness – and still, and still call me, call us to sing. Begin singing (my heart says) even if it feels like you are singing in a minor key. Sing softly, take heart and begin your singing this morning with words from the old carol you’ve heard your whole life: “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel.” God-is-with-us. Take heart and listen for the angels’ song, “For unto us a child is born this day in Bethlehem.”
How does this weary world rejoice? For me and my house, we shall sing. Amin and amen and amen.
(thank you, Shelly for this picture from NC)
What do I want for Christmas?
I want to kneel in Bethlehem,
the air thick with alleluias,
the angels singing
that God is born among us.
In the light of the Star,
I want to see them come,
the wise ones and the humble.
I want to see them come
bearing whatever they treasure
to lay at the feet
of him who gives his life.
What do I want for Christmas?
To see in that stable
the whole world kneeling in thanks
for a promise kept:
For in his nativity
we find ours.
Kneeling in Bethlehem by Ann Weems
Sometimes we need another’s words to help us shape our hearts around how we are feeling. Ann’s poem prayer speaks directly to that and how my spirit is faring on this Christmas Eve.
This has been such a broken-hearted, broken-open Advent season. The war and the waste and the destruction that has been happening almost every hour of every day continues. It’s the first Advent I can remember with such a sense of deep despair. Always before I’ve felt hopeful when lighting a candle. This year it will take a million candles and more to remind me of my past Decembers’ hopes.
Can a broken heart still hold hope? How is it that we are to keep going? Weeks ago, when I began writing I chose left foot, right foot as my title for these daily pieces. These words had been my mantra when I’d been lost in personal heartbreak years ago. “How do you keep going?” a friend had asked me. And when I thought about it, I had no real explanation. Words fell far short. “Left foot, right foot,” I finally said because there were no other words to say. And on this Christmas Eve, I feel myself running out of words again. I am grateful for Ann Weems and her prayer for tonight: “I want to kneel in Bethlehem, the air thick with alleluias, the angels singing that God is born among us.”
Do you remember that old Coke commercial that had what looked like the whole world joining hands? I’d like to teach the world to sing (although Cola-Cola would rather we buy a beverage). Remember? This message that didn't accentuate our differences, but instead celebrated our desire to join hands and come together? I am holding an image of lighting candles with and for one another in my heart tonight. I turn to you and the lit candle you are holding, to light my candle from it. And then I turn to the one standing next to me and offer my light to hers.
Thank you, Carol for this picture from TN
Sometimes it starts with seeing from the inside-out. Sometimes things are so darn slow changing on the outside, that it’s almost impossible to see at all. And so, it helps to step back, take a couple deep breaths, and start again. This time trying to see differently. Maybe this time try seeing bigger or try seeing tinier. It’s there. Sometimes the knowing in your head is the easy part, it’s the believing in your heart-of-hearts that’s so damn hard.
Today marks the shift for our part of the world. This gift-of-shift comes once each year when both the sun and moon acknowledge that more light coming. Beginning this day there will be more light shining on and around us, and maybe within us as well. Centuries ago, Rumi was heard to say, “What you seek is seeking you,” and maybe that’s all the reassurance we need for now and the days to come.
I was raised-up with the ideas that glasses were half-empty or half-full, doors were opened or closed, lights were turned on or off. And now I know that life isn’t nearly as easily measured or understood or lived out. Sometimes there is beauty in stopping for a second and seeing how lovely it is to hold the glass, how good it tastes to drink the water. Sometimes even in the darkness I believe, I hope, I trust that light will come.
What would I say to Rumi that I have been seeking in these past weeks? What am I seeking in this precious moment? I am seeking comfort for friends who are grieving their loss of loved ones, and praying for relief for a dear soul I love who is wrestling with depression. I am seeking for bombs and bullets to stop, I am seeking for the hungry to be fed and the thirsty given water, I am seeking the orphaned children to be picked up in warm blankets and gently and lovingly held. And I know I can’t control much of any of that happening. So, what I sing out for on this first morning of more light coming is Emmanuel. I whisper and sing out for love big enough to hold us in what is broken and longing. I seek God’s lovingkindness abiding with me, with us as we continue on into this day.
(Thanks, Leslee for this picture)
A precious few of us will remember those cold (sometimes snowing), dark nights seven hundred years ago when a group of us would gather in North Georgia for our annual Eve of Christmas Eve service. This non-traditional-nobody-ever-knew-what-would-happen-next service was held in a carriage house. There were lanterns for our seeing and bales of hay for our sitting. We read scripture and poetry, sang “Joy to the World” and “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and we sang this song:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
This was a coming-together service. It was created to be a put-aside-our differences and lean-on-in service. There were old folks and young folks, city people and country people, folks infected and affected by HIV. It was a service that tried each year to hold gently and playfully the spirit of Christmas. It did that for me. Light shined in the darkness each year as I looked from face to face. [I remember one year I had to run back out to the car to get something and when I came back toward the barn, I could see light coming through the cracks around the windows and doors.] We always closed the service with each one holding a candle, passing the light from one to another, singing “Silent Night.” Light shined in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
I sorely miss that service. I am holding it close to my heart today on this Eve of Christmas Eve. I’m remembering the drives up and back from Atlanta to Cartersville with the guys from Common Ground and remember watching Mom and Dad leaning-in toward one another for body-warmth. I remember the laughter with the songs we sang and remember the tears when the stories were told, and poems were read. I remember trying to play the chords on my guitar when I couldn’t feel my fingers and I treasure the memory of seeing Gay-Baby’s laughing eyes as she watched it all unfold.
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
So many of those folks have now passed on from this world to the next. It’s not the same without them. Part of Christmas for me each year is sitting in front of fire or lighting a candle, holding something good and warm in my hands and re-membering the sights and sounds from those services. Those gatherings in that old carriage house held so much and more of what this season continually means to me – what I am holding onto and what needs to now fade away. Stories and songs, bales of hay and the wind blowing in through the cracks. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel. God-is-with-us.
(Thanks Jan for this picture - once a girl scout always a girl scout)
Stories move in circle.
They don’t move in straight lines.
So, it helps if you listen in circles.
There are stories inside stories
and stories between stories
and finding your way through them
is as easy
and as hard
as finding your way home.
And part of the finding
is the getting lost.
And when you’re lost
you start to look around
and to listen.
~ Deena Metzger from A Traveling Jewish Theater
Have you walked a labyrinth? This ancient spiritual practice embodies so much of our Advent journey to Bethlehem. It is the walking toward center, the slowing of our steps, the unexpected turning and returning. Labyrinths hold all of these things.
I remember the first time I walked one. I was in a training for Spiritual Direction in North Carolina. On our last night, at midnight we gathered around the candlelit circle. It was late and dark, and I remember being tired from the inside-out. We were told to take our time, to not rush. We were invited to think of a question we were holding onto or to hold some mantra that represented our time together. And in the dark space with only candlelight, we were welcomed into the circle.
What I have come to wonder and marvel about from my times walking the labyrinth, is what I carry in with me tends to fall away. Then when I’ve prayed and made my way to the center, what I’ve been more deeply seeking is waiting there for me. You who have walked it, may know what I mean. I remember my first labyrinth in NC. In the days before I’d left to come to the training, we’d put our dog, Nessie to sleep. I began my steps into the circle, carrying my grief around losing her. Sometime later, when I was standing in the center of the circle, I recognized that even more than grieving Nessie, I was grieving my father’s long goodbye with Alzheimer’s. That time was tender and powerful, and I remember sobbing as I walked my way back out. When I’d taken my finishing steps, and was exiting, I remember a straightening of my back and a lifting of my eyes. What I thought I knew to seek, wasn’t what my heart was seeking at all. What I found instead was hesed - lovingkindness.
“Stories inside stories and stories between stories.” Deena Metzger’s words have been companioning me since seminary. They speak to this time of Advent journeying, of paying attention to what our hearts are yearning for and these stories can remind us of what’s been holding us the whole time. They speak to the wonder and the gift of this intentional time that can bring us closer and closer to the center.
It matters to me that I remember to hold my stories lightly. It matters that I pay attention and listen out for another soul’s story as well. It’s easy to get lost in the dark during this time. I know, I’ve felt that over and over. And like my times of walking the labyrinth, Metzger’s words invite me, when I am feeling lost to `look around and to listen.’
A grandmother is watching her grandson play on the beach.
All of a sudden, a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea.
She looks up and pleads, "Please God, save my only grandson. I beg of you; my life has no meaning without him. Please bring him back.
And a big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new.
She looks up to heaven and says: "He had a hat!"
My sister, Claudia loves this joke. It’s one of her favorites. And she uses it perfectly when she’s trying to remind me of the grateful places of our lives. She uses it to gently nudge me back into a more grace-filled place where my lens isn’t so skewed and isn’t so out of focus. She uses this to reopen my mind and imagination, to reboot my heart.
What is it about human nature that causes us to continually react judgingly? How is it that we so often continue to want more and more and then possibly some more? What is it about me that I am surrounded by lovingkindness, in comfort and safety and yet and still I’ve got things on a (odd) list that would (miraculously) make things better? Easier? Maybe faster?
In these growing darker days, nature is with us. She is always with us. Ever the guide, nature is right there to tell us to slow things down. She is right there to offer help and support to slow us down. In these growing darker days, nature is inviting us to take heart and be mindful with moments, to (perhaps) do less. Sure, we can easily ignore this unsought message; we can fill up our days and then our nights with hurrying and scurrying. And many of us do. But/and there is less light outside, colder air outside - both - inviting us to add a sweater or curl up with a blanket, light a fire or a candle. The natural world invites us to stop. To breathe. To pay attention and to breathe again. And then to welcome wonder.
It is never helpful to explain a joke, but for this writing, it’s important to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the grandmother on the beach. We begin with peace and balance and possibly gratitude. And then tragedy strikes, followed soon by deep grief. I felt myself pleading in anguish along with the grandmother for God’s mercy. And celebrating the miracle with her that came. AND I wish I could say, I’ve never asked for a bonus to be added to a miracle, but I have also done that very thing: “He had a hat.”
In Advent’s final week may this be a loving nudge for all of us. Look around, pay attention. Celebrate the miracles that are given. Breathe in deeply lovingkindnesses when they come our way. Welcome wonder with each next step.
All throughout these months
as the shadows
this blessing has been
It has practiced
walking in the dark,
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.
So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.
You will know
the moment of its
by your release
of the breath
you have held
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
in the company
of a friend.
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.
This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you will be walking
toward the dawn.
© Jan Richardson from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief. janrichardson.com
It is a mystery and a marvel, this one life we’ve been given to live. It’s a treasure sometimes, a trudge sometimes. Sometimes the sun feels warm on my face and sometimes it feels like gale-force wind doing her best to push me backward. Sometimes it’s as though there is a bell ringing in a way that holds all of time – what was and is and surely will be.
Today marks the Winter Solstice. It is the one day each year we are invited to mark the longest night, the shortest day. For many of us it is our time to recognize the grief we hold. Today on this Winter Solstice, we acknowledge these growing darker hours for ourselves and for one another.
It is a deep comfort to be companioned by another soul during these growing darker days. It is a solace to be loved by someone so much that that dear one is willing to walk with you through these growing darker hours. There’s a trust that acknowledges vulnerability, and a belief (somehow) that this walking in the dark (this darkness either brought to us or brought on by us), is something that doesn’t have to be done alone. Jan’s blessing knows about that kind of trust and believing. Her writing of “Blessing for the Longest Night” is a treasured, graceful gift for us on this shortest day knowing that the longest night follows.
Ann’s picture was taken a couple mornings ago while she was out walking her dogs. Poway, California is now my favorite place on earth for moment holding. When I saw it, I could see darkness holding light and light holding darkness. In this picture I felt comforted that both could be done simultaneously.
It feels like my heart has been preparing for this longest night for a while now, maybe for you as well. Jan’s words and Ann’s picture can abide with us as we make our way through what comes today. Each capturing a moment of grace, these women offer encouragement, reassurance, hope.
Since I’ve been singing so much more, I’ve been caught up in the wonders and surprises of what music brings. One is the notion of overtones. I've been talking with Lori and trying to explain why I love them so much. There’s an intellectual comprehension and then there’s an experiential-body understanding. I know much more about the latter. This past Sunday the San Diego Women’s Chorus performed our Winter concert in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church here in San Diego. It was the most amazing place to sing. We sang Jan’s Blessing during the concert. At the end of her song, it felt as though I could hear the space continuing to sing. It was the ringing of the overtones. Somehow when voices are perfectly matched together and they finish singing their final notes, there is a ringing of an octave above, and maybe something a fifth added and every now and then a third can sometimes join in. Scholars can tell you all about this. For me it’s a heart thing more than a head thing. For me it's a choir of angels adding their voices.
I believe that angels are always listening and every now and then, they delight so much in our song or the Blessing Prayer or our picture of a sunrise, that they just can’t help themselves. They jubilantly raise their voices as well. They find a note (or a phrase from Jan’s words or a cloud from Ann’s picture) and faithfully, hopefully, joyfully add their most beautiful `Amen.’ And it is good.
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen
Snow on snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter
Long, long ago
What can I give him?
Poor as I am
If I were a shepherd
I would give a lamb
If I were a wise man
I would do my part
But what I can I give him
Give him my heart
Give him my heart
~ Christina Rossetti (1875)
Do you ever wish for a glimpse-back of a time you first learned something? Going back in time and watching as an ah-ha moment of understanding unfolded?
I wish I could remember how old I was when I first sang ‘In the Bleak MidWinter.’ I imagine I was pre-teen with a hymnal in my hand singing along with the congregation in a UMC worship service. Central Illinois winters were cold, and there was always a body-knowing of earth being “hard as iron” and snow falling, “snow on snow on snow.” What was going through my mind and in my heart when I heard these versus first sung? What can I give him? How did that question resonate with me then?
This is a life-question being asked over and over. What is mine worth giving to the one who is soon to be born? And in giving my heart, what does that mean, day-by-day? And even as these words appear on the page, I am aware that this gift is not supposed to be an intellectual exercise. It is, after all a matter of the heart. Giving my heart is all about my way of being in the world.
Many years ago, my wonderful seminary professor, Roberta Bondi (and years later Israel teaching guide) led a retreat on prayer. She said prayer is about showing up, being honest, paying attention and not being wedded to the outcome. And it is. And so is giving my heart. It’s that concise and that expansive.
We continue on our journey to Bethlehem. Soon and very soon the story will start to unfold in ways familiar to many of us. Soon and very soon the rhythm of our days will be speeded up by forces outside of ourselves. Soon and very soon… So, it matters that we continue to stop and pay attention. And for me one intention of being mindful would be singing this verse from Bleak Midwinter a time or two. What shall I give him? My heart is the very best gift.
Sometimes it’s possible for two things to be happening at the same time. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that – most times – two or more things are happening at the same time.
My years of seminary were some of my favorites of my life. It was the people and the conversations that jostled and nudged, that reshaped and restored me. My faculty advisor at Candler was Bill Mallard and he continues in my heart and conversations still. Dr. Mallard was a true Virginian gentle man. There was a compassionate strength about him, that time and again brought me faith and hope and love.
Nearing the end of his life, his lifelong best friend died. I’d heard about his loss and reached out to him. I said something like, “I’ve been wanting to see if I could be a Spiritual Director, and thought I’d try out my Spiritual Directing with you.” “Sure,” he said, and we made a date. He and his beloved, Gatra had recently moved into a great retirement place. When I got to his apartment, he said, “Let’s go outside,” so we took off meandering down the hallways to get to the courtyard. He was on a walker, but marching (of course, because it kept him looking up) and singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” (of course, because it was a marching song). I’m sure the two of us were a sight. We’d gotten to the double doors, walked outside, heard the doors shut, when Bill said, “Did you happen to bring the key?” “No,” I replied laughing and shaking my head. And then he said something so Mallard, “Good, this will be our first lesson in Spiritual Direction 101: asking for help.” So, we found a bench and sat. We talked about life and grief and baseball and music…and he continued companioning me, ever my teacher and friend. [Editor’s note – you probably figured it out that evidentially we asked someone passing by to help us back in.]
Over the twenty-five years I knew him, one of Dr. Mallard’s highest compliments was to say, “Lesley, you’re comin’ on.” It showed I hadn’t yet reached perfection, but that I wasn’t stuck somewhere. In his beautiful southern baritone, he was reminding me that I was going toward something.
Back to the notion of two things happening at once. Nature is reminding us that we can be about both/and. The truth is that our December nights continue to be longer and feel so much darker. In so many ways, our spirits are feeling darkness growing all around. AND we are now under the waxing moon. Little by little, step by step we are able to see more and more light coming on, as my friend Mallard would say. This light isn’t like turning on a switch while entering a dark room. It’s the kind of light that invites us to sit and wait. The kind of light that counts on our eyes adjusting, in time with our hearts to what’s around us. `Coming on’ takes time. It takes heart. Often it takes a good sense of humor and extra room for grace. But the light is there. It may have grown dim, but it’s never left us. Just like my lessons from Bill, I know where to find them, smack dab in the middle of my heart.
Thank you, Sam for this picture
This picture makes me laugh. Every time I see it. It pretty much sums up how hard I try to get things right, and then something unexpected happens – and – there you go – my “J” falls down and everything goes to pot.
Because we’re human, our J’s are gonna fall down. They just are. We are gonna do our best to plan well, to prepare and prepare until it’s time to put our JOY up in our front yards for all the world to see – and then – whoosh. From out of nowhere, the wind will blow and before we know it, something is gonna flop. Right there in our front yards for all the world to see.
Once we get over that initial shock of disappointment and frustration, maybe we can take a breath or two. There is for many of us a real sense of tasking our way through Advent. Hitting the marks. Checking the boxes. Check, check, check. It is possible to complete all the tasks of these December days and miss the whole point of the season. I know, I’ve experienced it. I’ve become so focused on the calendaring and wrappings and the trappings, that I’ve lost sight of what so readily brings J O Y.
It's the ________. My hunch is you and I would fill in the blank with different answers. My answers shift around from year to year, but my heart knows when it lands on what matters most. I’ve heard it already during these past weeks in the melodies of folks I’ve been singing with, I’ve seen it on faces of folks I’ve heard singing. I’ve heard it during conversations on the phone or on zoom calls. I’ve felt it in hugs of greeting or parting. I felt it when I heard Lori preaching last Sunday.
For this time, for this season with the underpinnings of Gaza and Israel and Ukraine, what matters most to me is not losing hope.
…the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – that sings the tune without the words -- and never stops at all. Emily Dickinson’s words have been guiding me, adjusting and readjusting me with every left foot and every right foot.
This season, this year with the everythings of e v e r y t h i n g, I am trying to bring all that is being blown around in my heart into conversation. How do I not lose hope? Is it possible to have JOY with all the despair happening on the other side of the world? How can that be?
I caught a glimpse of it recently while watching the Nightly News. There was a piece on Gaza. An eldeerly looking man was probably not chronically very old was being interviewed in a makeshift tent. He was telling how the rain that had come and gotten their few belongings soaked. He said he and his three-generation family had left their home in Northern Gaza and were now sheltering in the south. They were eating one meal a day. Little water. All the while he is holding a 4- or 5-year-old little girl. The little girl was giggling. Her giggling was from her playing with this man who must have been her grandfather. There was joy, somehow there was joy in their eyes. He was keeping her as close as he could, with all that was happening in their lives, and they were delighting. This weathered and weary man, may God bless him and his family, had not given up on joy and he had not given up hope. You could tell he was holding his hope in his arms. The thing that never stops at all…
Thank you, Melanie for this picture