I believe in angels. They are real and kind and present and wise and gracious. I’ve known angels who come when I have been desperate for them. And I’ve known them to show up unannounced. Since my parents’ deaths, I have welcomed quite a few. And I believe that in those visitors, my parents have appeared in unexpected ways.
It’s not unusual to talk about angels during this Advent season. They played a big part in the story. First an angel appeared to Mary, “Be not afraid," as she first heard of the child who was to be born. Another visits on the night the weary travelers exhausted, found a stable in Bethlehem. We are told that an angel was there, laughing and crying and shouting the best-of-all news: “Be not afraid; for see - I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Angels companion this season, sometimes quietly off in the background, sometimes center stage with the words of hope and healing on their lips. Be not afraid. Good news.
With the passing of years I’ve lost friends to HIV/AIDS, and I have been visited by an angel or two. Most of these buddy-angels still resembling their sweet, goofy, not-ever-dull-or-predictable selves. These old friends come to shake me up a little. They come to set me straight a little – in ways only they know. I treasure the visions and wisdom stories that come from these graceful spirits. I pay attention, I listen and often than not, I believe them.
Seminary Professor Bill Mallard is certainly one of my most treasured angels. The gift about Dr. Mallard is that he was an angel for me, even when we were both on this earth. Bill used humor to coax, stories to comfort, timeless wisdom to inspire and love to hold so many of us. One of Bill’s phrases that still helps me through the not-so-easy days is: "You’re comin’ on.” When he spoke these three, life-giving words to his students at Candler, many of us knew we had been just been messaged. Even though few of us ever really knew exactly what he meant, we believed him. To be “comin’ on,” was the Mallard version of this too shall pass. Even though he’s been gone now for a few Christmases, I can still hear his voice and see that twinkle in his eye, “Lesley, you’re comin’ on.”
Tonight, is the coming-on moon. Tonight, if the clouds help us out, we will see this month’s first quarter. It’s been a week now since the new moon, and gradually each night there has been a shift. Shifts, like angels can come in unexpected ways. And like angels, shifts can bring us a new direction, if just a little. Tonight, reminds us that we can do two seemingly opposite things at the same time – tonight marks the time that more light is coming with the moon’s glow, while our days are growing darker. Both / and. We're comin' on.
When I’m paying attention, I am aware of the guides and companions that are journeying with me all through my life. Each hour of each day. I’m a believer in angels. I believe they come and visit, staying just long enough to get me through a tough time or long enough to remind me of something that can help me get from here to there. I’m a believer in the love of pets. Mine have always been dogs. I believe the unconditional love that comes from an animal is the purest I’ve ever found. A dog can ‘sit and be’ long enough with me so that my heart has time to catch up.
Paying attention to the notion of roots during this Advent time has been a helpful reminder for me. They can sometimes also serve as life teachers on this journey. There is something deeply comforting for me to know that even though I can’t see or even touch what is holding me up when the wind blows, there are roots deep and sure. Roots enough to keep me in place and sustain me.
Years ago, I attended a retreat in North Carolina that was being held near a big, beautiful lake. One afternoon we were given a couple hours to go and rest. I remember it was warm and sunny. I listened for the breeze and looked out at the lake and wondered if there was a path around it. Great day for a walk.
Sure enough there was a path leading off and so I followed, glad to be outside and glad for the day. There were big, old trees all along the water’s edge as I followed the trail that would lead me on.
Maybe it was the bright, blue sky. Maybe it was the breeze I could hear moving through the upper branches of the trees. Maybe it was that I had been inside a building more than I’d wanted to be. I’m not sure what it was, but I remember that as I started my reconnect-and-commune-with-nature walk, I was looking up. I could see how the branches of the big, old trees overlapped. I could hear a bird, and could follow her voice and find her up on a limb. I remember for just a moment, it was a beautiful thing.
And then I tripped.
Smack in the middle of the trail was one of the old pine tree’s roots bending completely across. Tripped right over it. I remember it was one of those trips that sent me flying. I stayed upright I’m proud to report, but “when the music stopped” (as Dad used to say), I’d clumped and teetered and ended up dis-shelved. When all my momentum finally slowed down, I remember first looking around to see if anyone had seen me. The coast appeared to be clear, so then I remember thinking “that hurt,” immediately followed by “please don’t do that again.” Soon after a deep, cleansing breath (learned earlier that day in the retreat 😊), I continued on my getting-back-to-nature walk.
Not more than five minutes later, I tripped again. Went down that time.
Again, after looking around and not seeing anyone seeing me, I got up and brushed myself off. This time though, I had gained deep-insight and wisdom. The second time I stopped and looked down. I saw what had been right there in front of me. There was another thick, old root directly crossing the path. I remember looking at that root, about as thick as my arm. I remember seeing it. Then my eye following it back to its tree trunk and up to the top of the tree.
It was only after my second close-encounter with a root, that I stopped. It took me a second time to finally sit down. When I sat I found that I began to see a little differently. Hear a little differently. Smell and feel a little differently. I remember, now years ago, that it was surely a moment when a walk around a lake turned into a life moment, a message moment. In that lesson there was a little bit of release, a little bit of grace and then a message came: it’s all around you. Beauty. Wonder. Gifts. Messages. Guides. We are all around you.
For many of us, this Advent season may already have a destination. Many of us have intentionally and faithfully made our way through December days before, holding preconceived images of what we will most probably feel and find come Christmas morning. Perhaps it’s like watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” again. We know how it turns out.
Or do we?
Perhaps just as when I began my walk around the lake, you and I have been predicting what beauty we will find this Christmas. This Advent just may hold something unexpected. This Advent instead, we can slow down and see differently. Set another course. Make another way. Move slower, with more thought and intention. We need to look without predicting what we will see, listen without anticipating what we will hear.
Getting tripped up happens more often than I’d like to admit. Just when I think I’m making my way, I stumble and bumble and sometimes end up on the ground in a heap. And maybe that’s exactly where the next lesson has been, all along.
Imagine that the world is a circle,
that God is the center,
and that the radii are the different ways human beings live.
When those who wish to come closer to God walk towards the center of the circle,
they come closer to one another at the same time as to God.
The further they move from one another,
the farther they move from God.
The closer they come to God, the closer they come to one another.
And the closer they come to one another, the closer they come to God.
~ Dorotheus of Gaza
All around the world everyday there is pain and suffering. All around the world everyday there is joy and transformation. Every hour of every day. These acts of holding on and letting go happen to human beings. To the old ones and young ones. To haves and have nots. Red and yellow, black and white – all precious in God’s sight, we live in and through these life moments.
Last Saturday I heard on the news that there had been more than 200 earthquakes in Alaska this past week. I had had no idea. I’ve never been to Alaska. It’s not on my radar. Last week the earth was shifting and wailing, and I had no idea. I wasn’t paying attention.
In this internet time it is so easy to have access to so much and not really know very much. Many of us live our lives with information readily at our fingertips and in many ways, humans have never been as disconnected. Human beings, one to another. Seeing one another passing on the street. Listening for one another's voice. Actually looking for and seeing one another, looking one another in the eye.
Have you been on a bus and watched your fellow pilgrims? Or in a restaurant really seen your fellow patrons? Most all of us are all looking at our phones. True confession: our sons can send text messages all through a meal and look like they just have their hands in their laps. Seriously??? What happened to eye contact? What happened to “What did you do today?” “What did you learn today?”
This 6th century monastic gives us words to serve as our guides as we move through our Advent days. The closer we come to God, the closer we come to each other. And the closer we come to each other, the closer we come to God. In these growing colder days, drawing closer might be just what we need to stay warm. And, lest we forget - we are not alone.
Webster’s Dictionary tells us about the taproot 1 : a primary root that grows vertically downward and gives off small lateral roots. 2 : the central element or position in a line of growth or development.
We are now more than two Sundays into this 2018 Advent journey. Maybe this is as good a time as any to stop and reflect on what we have learned and what we feel we are continuing to learn.
What I have grown comfortable with as I move through this precious life that I’ve been given, is to accept grace every chance I can. What I mean is that when there are chances to rest and reflect, I do my best to accept those moments. When I come to something that resonates, sings inside me, then I try to stop for a bit and listen. There are so many messages all around us, and every now and then these messages hold the most amazing gifts. The Ah-Ha's often come when I recognize the gift, and then take a moment to breathe in deeply. I have learned much from the gift of waiting on grace.
This past weekend when 'ole Diego was blowing through, I took a walk in the rain and started thinking about roots. “Taproot” bubbled up to the surface for me. Not because I know anything about trees or about their root systems, let alone the verbiage thereof. Not because it’s a favorite word for me, or a touchstone that has been a guide. It just came, pulled up a chair and stayed for a bit. Taproot came completely as a gift.
So for the past couple of days I’ve been wandering and wondering about taproots, what they are, what their function is, what they can symbolize. I've been thinking about what taproots look like and their place in the world, in nature's place and purpose. And this idea has been companioning me throughout this past week. As I have been listening closer, that notion became singular, taproot.
Taproot calls me to look openly and gratefully for what my “central line for growth or development” is. For me, for right now, how would I identity this energy, grounding, life-giving source? In these days when we are so doggone busy and full and saturated, how then are we to get back to our roots? Is it possible in these growing darker, growing colder days to lean down and kneel on the ground? Can we roll up our sleeves and dig our fingers into the black earth of my native Illinois, or the red southern clay? Can we stop all the busy-ness around us, kneel down and with our hands in the dirt feel what it feels like to feel it? The cold, moist soil? And even more, can we dig even deeper still and touch the roots that connect us to life?
Seasons like Advent, each year pull me back to my faith. These days of moving through peace, hope, joy and love, moving through through faith, hope and love, moving through December days, these days faithfully turn me back. Slowly, sometimes painfully slowly. Imperceptibility most days, until…until I find my breathing slowing (all on her own) and I have a sense of peace. Until I hear the melodies and words of a treasured, ageless carol and feel the strength of hope. Until I see the holiday lights on these dark, dark nights and celebrate joy. Until I am enveloped in a hug that holds my spirit as well as my body, or receive a pat on the arm or hand that somehow understands what is in my heart-of-hearts and accept love.
For me as I am moving through Advent, I am coming to connect and re-connect with my taproot. This one who leads me with only one candle far off in the distance. This one who stands strong when the winter winds blow. This one who calls me by name, as well as each and every person I encounter today. This taproot that is planted deeper than we can start to see, let alone get our hearts around. This t a p r o o t strong enough to hold us all. For our whole lives. And then some.
Thanks to Susie Gentry for many of these pictures
Matthew’s gospel begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah…and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Messiah.”
Here in Mathew's first chapter we are invited in to view Jesus’ family tree. Told and read for centuries. Taught in Sunday School (possibly) to answer that age-old question: “Where did Jesus come from?” It is an interesting account of his “birth line” (and that is a conversation that I would love to have on our screened porch sometime), but I don’t know if Jesus would say it was family. Or at least, not all his family.
We are also told that Jesus’ family was chosen. Matthew's recounting of Jesus' lineage gives him a place and space. Mary's story tells us more.
These are the words from the Gospel of Luke’s first chapter: The angel went to Mary and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."
Both gospel stories holding his story, his kin. Both giving shape to who he was in the bigger faith story in unique and powerful ways. One story just wasn’t enough for him in the telling of his life in the holy scriptures. His story was bigger than that. Jesus would come to claim his family – given and chosen.
At some time during my work with folks infected and affected with HIV/AIDS, I first heard and came to understand the phrase of families given/families chosen. Back then so many of men and women with whom I worked had been discarded by their families (as if that’s possible). Many of them came to traditional and nontraditional moments in their lives knowing that they were no longer welcome or accepted in their birth/given families. I knew men who stopped receiving birthday cards, were no longer welcome at the holiday celebrations. Men who when it came time to write their wills knew that their families wouldn’t accept anything if it were left to them. So then, what did so many of those women and men do? They turned to the people around them who had been loving and cherishing them all along. The images of “sister” and “brother” were born again in ways that brought strength, comfort and identity. Some of these folks came to more fully know the real meaning of “family values” when they stepped into their chosen families.
Maybe the same can be said for us. Many of us hold our memories of growing up and sitting around the kitchen table with our `given' families. Many of us have also, along the way discovered families of choice. Sisters and brothers who have walked and talked us into embracing life and going on. Sisters and brothers who have been forgiving and optimistic, listening and encouraging, singing and dancing us into more of what can be true of who we are becoming. Sisters and brothers who have shared wisdom and table and story. Family of choice and choosing.
Advent is this time to recognize our history, what has brought us to where we are now. It is the time to stop and take stock of what has been important, precious, informative, life-giving for us. Advent is a time to look, as well at what is with us now.
For this coming week using the image of roots, we will think about ways we wait in place – deeply rooted to our life source AND at the same time stretching and moving on toward what is calling to us from Bethlehem. Advent is surely a time to look toward what is next for us. Do we feel ourselves turning toward what is coming, just ahead? Is it possible for us to do both at the same time? It would take a miracle.
There’s song in every silence, seeking word and melody;
there’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future; what it holds a mystery,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
~“Hymn of Promise” Natalie Sleeth
Thanks to Beth Locker for this picture
This past week we’ve been wondering about and wandering with this season of waiting. Advent calls us toward what is next. Not me, but us. Not you and me, but all of us. In these days when we hear the crowds shouting for walls to be built and human beings to be alienated, Advent calls to us. In these days when the distance between `haves and have nots’ grows larger and larger, Advent calls to us. In these days when we can find out just about anything about anything, and we don’t know the names of the people who live on our street, Advent calls to us. In these days when the earth is wailing, Advent calls to us.
Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise” speaks well to this dusk until the dawn season of waiting. Here at the end of the calendar year so many of us are worn out with what is being shouted on the televisions and out in the streets. Us and Them are real things in our country, our communities and even our families. We know well the dusk-time of this late autumn season. We yearn for the coming of the dawn.
In her beautiful hymn we are given words to steady and guide us. Song. Melody. Dawn. Hope. Mystery. These are words that have gotten many of us here from there. These words have carried us on when we’ve lost our way. True and authentic. Present and enduring.
Can we wait until what is to be revealed comes to us? Even as I typed that question, I realized how naive the question sounds. Of course, we can wait. We are waiting now. But I think the question that could immediately follow would be: And not give up? Some days it’s harder than others to “look around” and see “how lucky we are.” Sometimes it’s harder than others to even have the faith to step out: left foot, right foot.
In singing the hymn's final verse we are graced and encouraged with our life's greater story, with God's faithful promise: “In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity.” Strong words of faith. These words can travel on up ahead a little ways, and show us how to continue our journey.
Faith, hope and love remain, these three….
Songwriter, poet, theologian Carrie Newcomer offers a toast, “To the words and how they live between us and to us and how we live between the worth.” I love that and all it holds. And I love thinking of it in this waiting Advent season as I think about these three words: faith, hope, love.
I am thankful to wait in these days with faith. My faith has companioned me through decades of Advents. Early on, my faith was held in the fellowship hall potlucks and hymns sung with people who had known me my whole life. Later my faith stretched beyond what I ever dreamed possible, blessing me and who I loved. Now my faith companions me in times of holding on and letting go. My faith brings strength when there are no answers, no way to fix what is broken. My faith steels me to step out into what is not yet, trusting the light that will surely appear and lead me on.
I am thankful to wait in these days with hope. Hope that does not quit on anyone or anything. Hope that redefines despair. Hope that overcomes hate. Hope that looks beyond what is so very small and wasteful. Hope that cannot be seen or measured. Hope that is circular and true. Hope that bears witness to what seems to be lost and sings a song that joins us all in the most beautiful, life-giving harmonies ever sung.
I am thankful to wait in these days with love. Love that includes us all. Love that goes all the way through and then beyond. Love that burns brightly on the darkest night of the soul. Love that forgives, forgets, and keeps on as healing comes. Love that sees past the worst possible place and invites us back into a centered space. Love that never ends.
Carrie invites us to not lose how we live with these words, each hour of each day – especially, especially when we forget they are there. These words are woven so deeply in me that in times when I am about to give up on the waiting, one of these companions will emerge. Faith. Hope. Love. These three. And Carrie invites us to be mindful of ways that we live in and through these words. From the inside-out they serve as our touchstones. We rub the moments of our lives against them until we are shown what has been there all along.
So, in these early December days as we make our way in and through the living of our days may these words serve as our guides. When you begin to wonder if you have somehow lost your way, listen for them. Wait on them. Faith, hope and love, these three remain. The writer of the epistle says, “the greatest of these is ..”
Nature’s first green is gold,
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
Thanks to Annette Whewell May for this picture
The winds blow. The page turns and turns again. The conductor holds her baton poised and still until the next movement begins.
This waiting season comes as we move from autumn into winter. It comes when almost all of the leaves have fallen from the trees. It comes when nature looks her most stark. Advent's waiting season comes when the cold wind blows through and can sometimes take our breath away. It is here when the darkness finds us earlier and earlier each evening. And yet, and yet we know that these bare trees are not dead. We know that they, too are waiting for what is not yet within our sight, not yet within our grasp. It comes when these bare branches show us their beauty in ways unexpected and truly magnificent. It comes when the darkness shows us the brightest stars. It comes when our very souls call for what is next.
It's not that the trees' branches aren't bare; they are. It's not that the wind doesn't feel like it's blowing right through us; it does. It's not that the darkness isn't all around us; it is. And, and, in this coming-soon-winter season we are reminded that what is right here and now is not all of what holds us, shapes us, cradles us, calls to us.
Mr. Frost was so very right in telling us that "nature's first green is gold" and that "nothing gold can stay." Things change. We come to the last sentence of a favorite book. A wonderful piece of music plays to its finish. Our bodies grow weary. Loved ones die. Nothing gold can stay.
In this Advent waiting season we are invited to see beyond what is, and look to what is yet to be. Yes, there is darkness, and still these seasons have taught us that if we keep looking, light will come. Yes, the branches are bare, but what we see to be empty and vulnerable is not all there is in fully seeing these trees. These trees around us can be our shepherds and guides. These trees as much as anything in our lives show us the beauty that comes when we wait. These trees show us that if we can live in and through these coming-soon-winter days our hearts begin to believe that spring is surely coming. The moment of spring's coming may not necessarily be measured by a date circled on a wall calendar. Instead this year, we might find a sense of spring's coming on the whisper of the wind.
Coming from something, becoming something new. Coming from somewhere, going somewhere else.
"The best of time and worst of times," an age-old quote which seems to continuing be ringing true. These are emotionally and mentally draining days. I don’t know about you but in this time and place it is so easy to get stuck. Stuck in the political shiny objects that distract and disrupt. Caught in the many, many tragedies that shock us and yank us and topple us to our knees. Lost in the fog of the waste and the want of our everyday. AND there is generous compassion in hoped-for and in unexpected places. There are random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty happening at the best of moments.
There are teachers all around us. There are young ones with innocent demonstrations of trust and possibility (ever seen a baby grab on to a finger, or a toddler-tumbler attempt her first steps?). There are old ones who have walked some of these same old cobbled stones, and maybe have some short-cuts or know of some rest stops along the way. And every hour of every day there are teachers right outside our back doors: waiting with natural clipboards and magnifying glasses, Mother Nature is ready and willing to teach.
The root systems of trees can be such a wonderful teacher. Root systems sustain and nourish. They dig deep and wide to hold the tree up when the winds blow and when the water runs dry for a time. They adjust and move around and over and through. They cling to and claim life.
Here in these growing darker earlier days of December, it is helpful to remember the possibilities of digging deeper and wider. The wind can blow cold and these nights can grow lonely. It is helpful for us to be mindful of what is holding us up and sustaining us in this time. Are we tending to our roots? Are we mindful and care-full about nurturing that which sustains us?
Advent is somehow able to always be holding our past, present and future. In these days I am paying attention to what has brought me here, the lessons and carols that have shaped me. I am paying attention to what is around me now, the sights and sounds and textures of these days bring inspiration and comfort. I am hopeful for what is next, what is just on up ahead. One time of our life coming into another time. One part of our story leading to another and another. Connected. Passed-down. Rooted into a place and time yet moving toward something beyond. Coming from something, becoming something new.