When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Tonight, will be December’s New Moon. The Hebrews observed the new moon as the beginning. This bare-light marked the first day of the month, the first day of travel. For centuries it has been our time to begin again. For centuries it has been our time to step into what is coming next.
New moons are wisps of light. I remember when my dear friend, Susie was taking pictures of each cycle of the moon for our shared book, Relying on the Moon. I (naively) kept asking her to “get a good picture of the new moon.” Well, it turns out that that was a difficult ask. Why? It’s difficult you see (silly Lesley), because there’s hardly any moon there. It’s just started, just born almost and there’s not yet a great deal of there there. Susie, good friend that she is would keep at it and took some pretty great shots...but her realization of such a challenge was an important lesson: Often when life is starting, when practices are new, when shifts happen and we suddenly see something old in a new way – there are the tiniest of visible changes. It’s not a drum roll, the curtains part and - - ta-da - - we are changed. It’s infinitesimal. It’s easily passed over. It’s often not even seen.
Changes come in our season of grieving. So often they are like the sighting of a new moon. You think you know it, feel it, you possibly can even see it, but it’s so hard to capture. It’s so hard to show someone else. But somewhere, deep in our heart of hearts we begin to acknowledge a change. Because it is so small and difficult to demonstrate or capture, we are served well by grace.
Grace and mercy are grief’s most kind companions. Grace allows us to be stuck and lost and not-ourselves. Grace surprises us with joy or beauty or a fresh baked cookie. Grace forgives and restores us time and time and time again. Mercy allows us to not do grief well. Somehow many of us feel that grief can be ordered, and rules are there to be followed, boxes there to be checked. For those of us who have lived our grief, we know better. C.S Lewis spoke it well calling his lovely book A Grief Observed. Not ordered or completed. Mercy offers daily, hourly forgiveness.
So, what is beginning in you on this day of a new moon? What are you seeing that none of us can yet make out? What has shifted in you that might be your first steps on this pilgrimage toward healing?
And we know that answers to any questions don’t tell us nearly all of what a question may hold. They just help us focus a bit and look at what is there.
New moons don’t provide hardly any light at all. Emerson’s quote reminds us of the gift of seeing something new when we are working really hard at seeing something else. Emerson’s quote can remind us that there’s more there there. Always has been, always will be.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
~ Christina Rossetti
Singing Christmas carols has always been one of my favorite Christmas traditions. Growing up in rural, Central Illinois town we had the gift of knowing most of our neighbors. And in December there was most always snow. Enough snow to get in your shoes if you didn’t wear boots, and enough ice to fall on your fanny if you weren’t paying attention. My sisters and some friends would get together as it was growing dusk, and started singing and walking. When neighbors came to the door, we would stand outside and sing two or three songs for them. Sometimes we’d be invited in for hot chocolate. We walked and sang up and down the streets. It makes my heart feel so happy that I can still sing the alto line and most of the words to all the carol’s “greatest hits.”
“In the Bleak Mid-winter” has become one of my favorite carols. “Snow had fallen, snow on snow” continues to resonate within me. I know that weather, that cold, those winter-only sounds. My history is held in those long winter nights when all that you could hear was the crunch under your boots, and if there was enough moonlight you could see your breath. I know those words and that feel.
We are not yet in mid-winter, it will come soon enough. We have now moved through mid-Advent, leaning toward Christmas Eve. A week yet for this season, still a week for our hearts to feel what this season brings. There is a tender timelessness about these words. Grief holds well these words, “frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…” As with many hymns, they were first poems later put to music. Ms. Rossetti’s words companion so well how deep loss feels. There is a cold and a weight that takes up our whole world sometimes; it’s all we see imagine around us.
And as her words continue in her poem, so is she inviting us to continue. Living. Her word-painting encourages us past how things feel now and into a greater picture. She invites us past what is into what can yet be.
The last stanza rings true of the message of this season. We are not stationary objects, always to be in one place and time. We are living cells and spirits called to breathe our next breaths, take our next steps. Her last stanza can provide a map for making our way in and through these coming days.
She asks, “What can I give him?” And perhaps this can be a healing piece of these days. Giving. What can I give? I am still here. I am still contributing. I am still needed and purposeful. These words of healing are also the words of our life’s faith journey. “For it is in giving…” that we find our balance, our healing, our purpose.
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could…Tomorrow is a new day.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
December can sometimes be a season of feeling blindsided. We go about our days. We go through routines and out of nowhere we hear a carol that brings us to our knees, a commercial that brings an endless flowing of tears. In moments like these it’s hard not to feel that instead celebrating these days, we need to steel ourselves against it. It’s hard not to feel the weight of all of Advent’s waiting.
Some days it can be hard to just feel anything at all.
Often it can feel as though our culture doesn’t allow much space for our grieving. I’ve found that folks around me talk too much or don’t appear to want to engage at all. Initially support surrounds us and then seems to drift away. We are a fast-paced people and loss is an uncomfortable companion.
Often it can feel like we are better off staying in our heads and not in our hearts. In that way, grief can bring many questions: “When” and “where” memories circle back time and time and time again to “how”? And sometimes tenderly we come to the places in our grief of “why”? And this “why” can leave us with a myriad of feelings. Of despair and anger, of regrets and wishes for something different.
And so we go through. We get through. We somehow make our way through. Minutes into hours, hours into days. We make our way through doing the best we can.
It feels important for us to remind one another about the grace of this season. When we recognize the feeling of steeling our way through our days, perhaps it’s time to take a deep breath, roll our shoulders forward and backward and allow ourselves to let go.
Indiana folk singer, Carrie Newcomer sings about this notion: Do your best, then say “Amen.” It’s our best blessing for one another in these tender days. When we finish up and are laying our heads down on our pillows, try acknowledging this blessing for yourself. Do your best, then say `amen.’ We did our best this day and it is plenty to pray over. We did our best, and may there be grace enough to then say, “Amen.”
Nature's first green is gold, the hardest hue to hold.
Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf's a flower;
but only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief, so dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
~ Robert Frost
It doesn’t take much beauty to break open my heart and reconnect me to something greater than my fears.
More often than not, when I’m feeling lost or just plain done I take myself for a walk. Walking. Moving. Breathing. Time after time after time I’ve been able to find myself again - while out walking somewhere else.
As I’ve moved through life and paid attention – one of the great lessons is that beauty is always with us. If “only so an hour.” Mr. Frost captured nature’s presence and fragility in his poem. Nature’s transforming images that are always accompanying us come to life in his words. Before, beside, behind – always around me, around us. Always. I/we just need to trust and look up or look out and have the heart to see.
Beauty can come in a surprising color tucked in a bush or the second highest limb of the closest tree or on the sidewalk just beyond my next step. It can be seen in a piece of natural or human-made artwork.
Seeing something beautiful reminds me of faith and hope and love all wrapped up together. Seeing it invites me to take one more deep breath and then another and then another. That something beautiful doesn’t often fix my problem or solve the puzzle. But, oh my goodness, it strongly and gently reminds me that this world we call home is so much bigger. And this remembering welcomes me back to entering-in again.
A few months ago we learned that a dear family friend had died. Ginny and Ted were two of my parents’ best friends. Ginny and Ted were parents to Phil, Stacy, Steve, Allison and Tricia and each summer our families spent most of the month of August together in CT. Ginny was an Italian treasure with a heart big enough to love the entire world. And could she cook. And could she laugh. And when Ginny loved you, you knew you were truly loved from the top of your head to the tip of your toes.
When I heard that she had died at home with her children beside her, my heart ached with beloved memories of our families’ love for one another. Her death brought up tender memories of losing Ted, and Mom and Dad. It was the end of a treasured chapter and my heart was weeping. So, I went for a walk.
Walking and remembering. Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right. And there she was. I was about to take my next step when I glanced down and saw this leaf on the sidewalk. was it just a leaf or was it something else, something more...a messenger or an angel's visit. Nature’s most beautiful gift of love – right before my eyes.
Thank you, God.
Welcome home, precious daughter, child of God. Say hi to Mom and Dad and Ted for me, will ya?
I am God.
~ Psalm 46:10
Even in the midst of so much hustle and bustle, we are surrounded by quiet places. It’s a helpful gift to our weary spirits when we remember to look.
When I seek out a moment of quiet, I am gifted most every time. I’m often surprised at how good it feels to step back step away and listen. I’m not listening for actual directions or guidance as much anymore. Instead, as odd as it may sound, I’m listening for the quiet. Listening beyond the noise. Listening for a holy presence.
Listening is for me a spiritual practice. It slows me down, calms my spirit, reconnects me. I feel these changes especially in these days when my heart is feeling both/and. Feeling the tender vulnerability of my deep sense of loss and feeling grateful for how blessed my life continues to be.
This is the season when we remind one another that we can bring light to the darkness. I'm grateful to drive through our neighborhood after work and see so many houses decorated with beautiful shining, colored lights. When I see the blues and greens and purples, I know that they shine brightest in the deepest dark. This season is also a time when simple answers are not helpful, and complicated ones wear me out. For many of us this is the time of meeting and companioning Christmases past and present.
So what are we listening for? Perhaps something comes to mind right away. Or perhaps it’s a struggle to imagine. Listening for quiet gives us all permission to take our time, to take this time. And how do we get there? Again, yours is a personal answer, yours is a personal journey. Some of the things that have been helpful for me in the past few days - lighting a candle, or listening for my breath, or standing outside on the cold night watching the moon. Each in its own way has led me to a place of gentle, thoughtful, intentional quiet.
If it’s waiting until your neighbors have gone to bed and crunching through the new snow, or finding a deserted place for a sunset or stopping and listening for your next breath... seek out an intention, your intention for quiet. It’s not listening for the what, it’s the open waiting that sits with the listening. It’s holding on with an open hand...and a quieted heart.
Years ago, in seminary our kind and gracious professors had a phrase they used when we needed us to take a closer look at a behavior or belief. They called this place for examination, "growing edges." Soon we came to understand that these places of the heart were identified as our stuck/caught places. They were places that held us back. They were places that blocked our learning or living. Growing edges. What was true those many years ago at Candler, continue to be true for me today. One of my lifelong growing edges is my resistance to change.
More often than not, I can't wrap my head around change. Any change – big or small. It has a way of discombobulating my spirit. My biggest fear is that when change comes, I will become lost. And the hardest change of all for me is the kind that comes to my root system.
When changes have come to the places and to the people who keep me tethered and balanced – I have felt truly lost. The deaths of my parents, losses of friends to HIV and other illnesses, the loss of a job I thought I would always have – all of these changes have struck deep to the root of me, to the heart of me.
Sometimes I'm able to imagine the glass half-full. Sometimes I can recognize that change most always brings with it possibility. Openings come with changes that weren’t there before. Opportunities can be found for renewal and restoration.
My life experiences, all the times of holding on and letting go have taught me to trust what was, what is and what will be. My faith nudges me at all the best times to stay open, to keep looking. My faith grounds me and invites me to believe that something will come, a path will appear.
Perhaps our wisest teacher for living in and through change is nature’s yearly lesson of the changing seasons. Summer into fall, leaves letting go individually and beautifully into winter, bare branches bringing buds in the spring. One leading into another. Each season for its time. And then grace comes and there is a letting go and moving on toward what will be next.
My friend MJ took this beautiful picture along the Fox River in Wisconsin a couple years ago. This image invites us to journey on the path that is before us. We are invited to step through the woods, through the cold, through the beautiful possibility into what is to be next. If we stop and give up; if we stop and abandon the journey; if we allow our spirits to get stuck and resist what might be just on up around the next bend, then we might miss the very best moment. Just imagine what may be up the path just a bit…left foot, right foot.
Feel your feelings. I don’t know who first said these words. It would be interesting to overhear that original conversation. I wonder if it was said to someone who was grieving. I wonder if it was said in almost the middle of December when so much of the rest of the world was planning parties and wrapping presents. I wonder what the one who first received these words felt when hearing it - I wonder what that person said in response. I wonder…
It’s not as easy as it may seem, `feeling your feelings.’ There’s a vulnerability with that. There’s an exposure with that. There is a sense that once the feelings start, once the tears begin to flow, there may be no stopping them. And how is one supposed to feel when feeling that?
And yet, I honestly believe that this encouragement is our best hope.
There have been times in my life when I chose not to feel my feelings. Instead of feeling anything, I stuffed them down inside as far as I could stuff them. Does anybody else remember that old Simon and Garfunkel song, I am a Rock? Hours of listening to that one…”and a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” I remember wearing a groove in that old 45.
Grief can be one of our most transformative teachers. With grief we learn over and over again about holding on and letting go. With grief we learn to treasure loved ones and cherish time. With grief we learn deep in our souls to come to understand what deeply matters to us, above all else.
There can be a jumbling of emotions with grief. All those things that Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross taught us years ago are woven together: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – and back again. They are not a check list, that we can experience once and move on. It can be so surprising and disappointing when we say to ourselves, “OK I know now. I understand” (read: `done with denial’) and then something else comes along and we find ourselves right back there again. This jumbling of emotions can be exhausting and unsettling.
Feel your feelings.
When we have the courage and the opportunity to step back just a bit and see what is happening from a different angle, perhaps we will come to better understand. Perhaps we can more deeply understand more about ourselves and of our experience.
I wonder if it was the same person who said, “Feelings aren’t bad, they just are.” Wouldn’t surprise me. Over time these words have brought me a great deal of comfort. “They just are,” takes away the judgement. Not good or bad, feelings just are.
So, in these growing darker nights, don’t forget to light a candle. In these drawing closer to Christmas-days, don’t forget that there are folks around you who care deeply, and would most likely do whatever it is you would ask of them (go for a walk, or a cup of coffee or to a movie). In these missing-them-so-very-much days, don’t forget the promise of Emmanuel. God is with us. Has been all along.
My Mom was perhaps the best listener God ever put on this earth. Sure, my hunch is that many folks would argue, and many would probably make a fine case for their moms. (And maybe this is a shared Christmas miracle). What I know to be true is that my Mom always, always listened with her heart.
From my earliest memory Mom was a leaner-in-ner. My sisters would be glad to share their stories as well. It didn’t matter if she was listening to a bad day at school or winning a tennis tournament (and Mom knew nothing at all about tennis), Mom would listen. She would pour a cup of coffee, light a cigarette and ask to hear it all. When we came back from camp and after getting our 12 or 24 exposures developed at Osco’s, Mom would want to hear all we had to say about each picture. For Mom, each picture captured a moment of my life, and I knew in my heart-of-hearts (as she used to say) that that precious, particular moment mattered to her more than anything else in the world.
These holiday days can hold so many moments. Every now and then it’s almost as if my spirit comes awake – and I am aware of the preciousness of a moment. It might be a string of Christmas lights, or a chorus of a Christmas carol, or a taste of those peanut butter cookies with the chocolate kiss in the middle. It might be anything that awakens your heart. And when you find yourself suddenly `filled up with joy,’ accept the gift. And it is a precious gift. Mom taught me this lesson well.
This year I am wishing I could talk with Mom. I so wish that I could tell her about family and friends, about music and writing, about work and the challenges of the world. I can see her sitting in a comfortable chair with her legs tucked up under, and there she would be - nodding and leaning in. Listening for the story. Listening for the struggle and the hope. Listening for how I am making my way in the world.
There is an aching that comes when I realize no one can ever take her spot. No one will ever take her place. I have lovingkindness all around me and am so, so thankful. But still…
I know no one can fill her empty place in my everyday, but I know that her living taught me well about carrying on. It is when the days are growing darker and those Christmas lights seem twice as bright that I sense her with me. Something, somehow invites me to lean in. Some nudge will come along and bring my weary spirit into a moment that will soon hold a new memory. I feel it. I trust it. As I lean in and somehow with a loving part of Mom companioning me, I listen with all my heart.
For many of us Advent gathers many of our most cherished traditions. Each year holds memories of things we have done throughout our lives. Bringing home a Christmas tree and carefully placing each decoration. Hot chocolate with mounds of marshmallows. Cookies baking in the kitchen. These activities may be more tender this year because our loved one is missing.
With the holiday season comes a busyness that can push us to an emotional edge. There are commercials running day and night on television that urge us to buy more and more and more. There is music playing round the clock, “have a holly, jolly Christmas.” And sometimes all we want to do is jump off the merry-go-round and stop. Just stop and catch our breath.
And gracefully at the best of times an ancient carol enters in and invites us to take a heart-break. We are given an opening to savor a rest from it all. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” The imagine of the little town of Bethlehem that many of us carry in our hearts can provide a respite, even a sanctuary. It’s quiet there. It is peaceful there. It holds a place where stars can shine through the darkness.
The hopes and fears of all the years. Our hopes and fears journeying with us this year. Both/all are held in this ageless song.
For centuries this song has been sung at Christmas time. Year after year old and young, healthy and fragile ones sing this song and remember. When we are grieving hopes and fears often walk side-by-side. They are both unexpected and perfect companions for the journey. If we were always fearful, we probably wouldn’t have the strength to get out of bed in the morning. And if we were always hopeful, I know our tender hearts would most probably break each day. These two words never exclude one another. Instead, they journey through our lives join along-side one another each step of the way.
Hopes and fears of all our years meet most every night. It is true. We bring both to the season when promises are remembered. Both are again imprinted on our weary spirits. As we continue our journey to the manger in Bethlehem, may this melody enter in and carry us when we are weary. And when you find yourself humming softly, “O little town of Bethlehem,” think gently of these words. Remember that these words have held you your whole life and know that you are always, always held in love.
Holy, living God, you have created us and are creating still. Each hour, each day you are with us. In our hopes and in our fears, you are with us. We lean into your lovingkindness today. In these tender days, Emmanuel, sing again this ancient chorus, for we long for the song of Bethlehem. Amen.
Last Saturday I was raking leaves in the front yard. It was a beautiful, Atlanta day with the temperature in the high 60’s, blue skies. I knew I would be spending the late afternoon watching football, so I wanted to spend a couple hours at least “looking” productive. I was in our front yard building piles of leaves to take ‘round to the back. My thoughts were rambling between this beautiful day and about how much I loved our house.
My peaceful moment was interrupted when, a couple blocks away I heard it. A sports car was revving the engines and was racing down our block. I started screaming. It was that primal, protective, Mama Bear scream, “Hey, SLOW DOWN!!!” The driver was young guy with windows down, music blasting. He didn’t even look my way when he raced by me. It turns out I knew he was in for a big surprise because there’s a stop sign at the end of our block. I stood in the street as he screeched to a stop. Then he roared his engine, squealed his tires and blew on toward the next block.
There I stood in the street holding my rake. And I started wondering what I would do or say if he came barreling back. Immediately words came to mind, “Carter lives across the street. He’s 4. Nathan and Max live next door to Carter, they are 5 and 8. Lola and her brothers live next door. They are all pretty amazing kids. They ride their bikes in the street on Saturdays. I want to watch all of them grow up, so SLOW DOWN!”
But the guy didn’t come back. Instead, another guy who was walking did stop. He was laughing (probably at me) and he asked me, “What would you have done if he’d come back?” And I said to this walker, “I just realized I was channeling my Dad.” The guy smiled and said, “Well, that’s a good thing. Your Dad must have been a good guy.” And walked off.
And he was. My Dad was a good guy. Dad used to do that same kind of primal yelling back on Prairie Avenue in Mattoon. He would be outside and some “jerk” (one of the words Dad would yell in the driver’s wake) would come barreling down our street. Dad would pull out his hankie (editor’s note: we never really understood how this `flag’ would be an effective tool) and would yell for the driver to “STOP!” Never saw one actually do that after Dad’s command, but it made a strong impression on me.
My Dad was a good guy and being a neighbor mattered to him. Our parents lived out their shared-belief that my sisters and I were not raised on an uninhabited island. No, we lived smack-dab in the middle of a community. We had neighbors all around us, and these folks mattered to our lives. Dad invested his time and energy in faithfully caring for the folks in his village.
My Dad was a good guy. He’s been gone since 2010 and I still imagine the two of us talking on our long walks together, or shooting baskets in the driveway. He lived his principles. He laughed a lot. He played incredible jazz piano every night as his daughters drifted off to sleep. My Dad never seemed to meet a stranger.
Perhaps this is the highest compliment we can pay: channeling a loved one we’ve lost and hold close in our hearts every day. My hunch is many of us do it, and maybe sometimes we’re not even aware of it. These folks bring out the best in us, as we follow after them. Their legacy is one of our richest treasures. There was a shift in my spirit when I talked briefly with that neighbor who stopped to speak to me last Saturday. There was a shift when I realized that I was channeling my Dad. His response was truer than he might have known, “He must have been a good guy.” And truly that was all I needed. I took a deep breath, picked up the rake and got back to the work at hand.
Working in Family Experience at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Lesley is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner, Linda Ellis are raising their two sons, Brogan (now a freshman at Guilford College) and Sam at sophomore at DHS in Decatur, GA.