Born in a parking lot

Have you noticed a surprising influx of parking lots in our lives in the past nine months? Waiting in parking lots for groceries. Biding our time in parking lots for pick-up items. Connecting to wifi in designated parking lots. Wondering how the appointments are going while we wait for loved ones in parking lots. Worshipping at church services in parking lots. Circling the wagons, opening the tailgates, and meeting friends in parking lots. Masking up before leaving our cars in parking lots. Did you even realize how much time you’re spending in parking lots?

These places are suddenly important. No longer are they just a means to an end; they are a significant step in the process. Where we used to wrap up phone calls, we now make purposeful phone calls to occupy our time. Where we used to hop out of our cars and rush into our next location, we now sit and stay a while. And sometimes a while longer. The mundane and ignored pause in time is now a pre-planned destination. Where we once were subconsciously is now where we plan to be intentionally.

Did you realize that the stable was a parking lot? A parking lot where “transportation vehicles” could pause, so their riders could become rested and refreshed. A stable was a place of refuge and safety, a solace from travel and rush. When travelers arrived at a stable, they knew they could breathe a sigh of relief, for a little while at least.

Jesus was born in a parking lot. In the midst of the chaos of census-counting and weary-traveling, he appeared in a place of refuge. With people all around in overflowing homes and inns, he came in the still, simple stable. Amid the salesmen hawking their wares to visitors and the push and shove of man and beast alike, God’s word became flesh and began his dwelling among us. In a little parking lot.

Maybe he was crowded between Marge the wide-hipped cow and Doris the scrawny, cranky donkey. Maybe they were kicking their heels at each other. Maybe docile doves cooed while mice nibbled on hay. Maybe they were all in there together, noisy and pushy and calm and peaceful. Nevertheless, he came. In a little parking lot.

It’s no secret that we are all tired of our present living situation. We miss our friends, family, familiar, and frolic. We want our schedules back to normal and our lives back on track. We don’t love the uncertainty. We don’t love the waiting. We don’t love the parking lots.

But Jesus was born there. God took advantage of that tiny bit of pause to make something wonderful happen. He took that small, primitive space, that seemed to have little purpose and deemed it worthy of the greatest purpose of all. God himself came down to live with us, and his life on earth began in a parking lot.

The most mundane of stopping points was actually the most sacred of beginnings.

What will happen in your next parking lot? Will you meet Jesus there?

Simeon and Anna waited in the parking lot of the temple for the Messiah to come. Read their story here.

Oh come, Oh come, Emmanuel…be born again in our parking lots.

Heard

After enduring a restless night, I awoke early to the dog whining to go outside. I decided to go ahead and begin my day about two hours earlier than planned. The kitchen was lit only by dawn peaking in the windows, and my tired eyes requested that I not add any overhead light to the situation. So, while the dog was taking care of her outside business, I took care of my coffee business.

I opened the lid to the coffee maker and lifted out the basket of yesterday’s used grounds. After I dumped the old grounds, I put in a new filter and measured out today’s quantity of little brown life crystals. Then, I took the decanter to the sink to fill it. As the water filled the pot in the dim light of morning, I listened for the right sound and then turned off the faucet. And right then, something occurred to me. I had listened for the sound of the right amount of water. Not looked at the measurement line on the pot or poured in a particular number of measuring cups, I knew the sound by memory. I continued my well-known morning process, now intrigued by the sounds. The pouring of the water  into the coffee maker, the click of the orange ‘bring me life’ button, the sizzle of the water drops under the decanter as the platform heated up, the first few hesitant groans as the machine began to produce it’s pleasant morning product.

In the gray-dawn of the kitchen, other awakening sounds greeted me. Murphy’s padded paws and nail clicks reminded me that she hadn’t been fed yet. The scoop and gentle crash of her food being transferred from the metal bin to her metal bowl. The nearly silent cabinet door opening and the polite clink of my coffee mug on the counter. Murphy’s zealous crunching and slurping. The tentative chirping of the first birds of the day. Murphy’s jingling tags as she walked to the door for her second visit outside. The squeak and whoosh of the humidity-stuck door reluctantly opening. These were the sounds of my morning. I heard them everyday, in the same order. I could practically go through my morning routine blind-folded. I knew these sounds by heart.

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As I poured my coffee, now fully aware of the sounds around me, I smiled as I stopped when the cup sounded full enough. I had chosen a smaller mug this morning, and its empty space filled quickly. And I recognized its sound. Like wise as I added milk, the sound told me when enough was enough.

God knows us like that. He knows us by heart. His heart and our hearts. He hears our joyous ‘Woo hoos’ when victories are accomplished. He hears our  fingers-crossed whispers of hope. He knows our cries of enough is enough.

Jonah’s penitent prayers from within a whale.

Abraham’s heart-wrenched but humble prayers while leading his son to sacrifice.

Mary and Martha’s hopeful prayers for their brother, Lazarus.

The Samaritan woman’s life-changing prayers.

Job’s frustrated and confused prayers .

Mary’s jubilant, rejoicing prayers.

God hears them all, and he knows us. He knows our questions and our hopes and our desires and our dreads. He knows what we can take…and what can take us. And he hears every word and every pain and every plea…and he intercedes when the time is best for his plan for us.

The problem is that we are living in the dawn-light, and we can’t always see his glorious day for us. We want what we want because we think it will be best. We want the lost family member home. We want the call to come quickly. We want the money now. We want the pain to end. But God, in his infinite wisdom and grace, knows how much to pour into our empty cups, and he won’t pour too much or too little. He heals, he restores, he removes, he renews, he multiplies, he lavishes…he loves us beyond our own limited, dim knowledge. He sees and hears how our lives affect those around us, and he wants our trials to benefit as many people as possible before he ends them. He hears us, he never ignores us, but he wants to use us to bring others into a relationship with him. Every drop of joy or pain in our lives can be used to connect others with him.

As we stumble in our darkness, awaiting the light, awaiting the refilling of our empty cups, we pray. We pray for peace, discernment, strength, courage, humility, forgiveness…and we hold fast to God, knowing that he hears us and he knows us.

Hold fast in the hope of restoration.

Hold fast   and continue on.

Hold fast and know that you are heard.

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Time warp

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My husband brought home a bin of pictures from his mom’s house this weekend. He intends to scan some of them into the computer to preserve them.

We sat down last night for a few hours and strolled down memory lane. As we grew up 500 miles apart, we didn’t know each other in preschool, elementary or any higher grade. We didn’t meet until after college, so there are a lot of memories that we don’t share. As I looked at his darling 70s haircut and clothing in his grade school pictures, I smiled and recalled those same outfits on my own peers. The daily writing journal from fourth grade, written in labored cursive (which I recalled as well), told of family trips, projects, joys an disappointments…all similar to my experiences, states away from him.

As we wandered through memories of his parents’ wedding, family trips to Ireland to see relatives, school plays, social events, and graduations, the musty smell of old photos filled our noses with an intoxicating nostalgia. I asked him to tell me stories that I had never heard, and I drifted away on the daydream of my own memories… elementary teachers, art projects, birthday parties, sleepovers, family trips…smiling at memories of happy childhood. Wishing that he and I had grown up together.

Our reverie of remembrances was broken when our daughter said, ‘It’s 11:00. Can I go to bed?!?’ I became blinkingly aware that we were actually living in the 2020s now, not the 1970s. Lifting my head out of the photo album, I paused and took a moment to reacclimate to present time. Why was my 10 year-old daughter still awake at 11:00? Oh right…we’re living on Coronatime. With no school in the morning, bedtimes are a little more loosey-goosey.

And there’s reality. Coronavirus. The scourge of the present. Killing hundreds, infecting thousands, distracting millions, affecting billions. Sigh…oh for the clashing plaids of 70’s preschool again. Oh for a time when the greatest worry was who would be our playmate on the playground.

I’m confident that this virus will pass in time. I know there is a future ahead of all of this. But I wonder what we will consider when we look back on this time. Will there be tears of people that we lost? Will there be regrets for chances that we took? Will we know that we did our best to protect ourselves and others? How will this time be remembered?

When my kids look back on pictures of this time with their future spouses, what will the memories be?

I want my children to be able to say, ‘My family did our best to stay safe and keep others safe. Even though we got kinda bored, we didn’t risk the health of grandmas and grandpas. And we prayed a lot. I remember that we prayed a lot.’

Last night truly felt like a time warp. From our past whirling into the present and whisking into the future and back tracking to the present again. From where we were to where we are now to where we want to be…and what we want our children to remember.

Romans 8: 38-39 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

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Because somebody somewhere needs this

I love snow. After Christmas, it’s my favorite part of winter. As a kid at heart, and as a teacher, I get giddy when the sky is low and gray and the first flakes start to fall. It’s Christmas all over again in January and February (and sometimes March!)

This year, we’ve seen no snow in central Virginia. A flake or two, but nothing that sticks around. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. As much as I love the sun, I’m kinda tired of it. It’s too early for all this brightness. My psyche enjoys the calm, peaceful gloom of winter to prepare for the perkiness of spring.

As I was thinking about these things this morning, I was taken back ten years to when my infant daughter was in the hospital for RSV. She was seven weeks old, and her loving two year-old brother had shared his germs with her…and sent her to the pediatric ward. She had been born in a rare, Virginia blizzard, and there had been two large snow storms since then. It had been a long, cold, depressing winter. I’d struggled with post-partum anxiety and panic attacks. I felt more peaceful in the hospital with her than I’d felt at home because there were nurses to help her…and me.

I recall sitting in the stiff hospital recliner, staring out the frigid window at a sunny but freezing day and wishing for spring to come. For this cold, painful time to be over. For warm breezes signaling a change. Newness. Freshness. Deep breaths of restorative life. I’d look back around the primary-colored hospital room and hear the beeps of machines, look at my tiny little baby girl and day dream of enjoying life a lot more than I did just then.

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Fast forward to the present 70 degree day and I want a big ol’ polar blast that will keep me home with that ten-year old baby girl and her nearly teenaged brother so we can make snow-covered memories. But this darn spring-like February day holds no promise of that.

And I wondered, ‘Who needs this sunshine today?’ Who has been pleading that the snow will stay away? Is it the single working mom who doesn’t have transportation if the weather is treacherous? Or the college student who knows his car needs better tires but he can’t afford them? Is it a new mom who feels pins and needles when she’s stuck inside with her new baby, but the fresh air promises her life again? Or a struggling husband and wife who can’t bear the thought of being trapped in a house together if the weather fails them?  Maybe an elderly person recovering from sickness or surgery who fears a fall.  Someone who has seen enough gray  needs this glorious sunshine.

I get it. I do. So deeply. So I’ll let them have it. I know snow will come, eventually. Maybe next winter, maybe next month. But someone needs this sunshine now more than I need my snow.

Consider these saints who sought Jesus to bring them light when the gray clouds had overshadowed them for too long.

The lepers called out to Jesus to heal them. They knew he had the power to restore them. They wanted brighter days in their future. (Luke 17)

A paralyzed man was brought to Jesus for healing. His friends believed that he had a more fulfilling life ahead of him. (Matthew 9)

The synagogue leader who had lost his daughter requested that Jesus restore her. Could she come back to live with her family? (Matthew 9)

“If I only touch him,” thought the woman who had suffered for years. She sought a change from  illness to wholeness. (Matthew 9)

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In each of these stories, there were bystanders. Friends, worshippers, crowd-followers …citizens of life. Each one walking along in their own sun-ray or cloud-shower. Existing, surviving, maybe being thankful for life or maybe cursing it. And then Jesus performed a miracle in their presence. And their outlook was changed. For those who already believed in Jesus, confirmation shone down, highlighting their beliefs. For those who doubted, the truth of Jesus may have blown away the clouds of disbelief. For others, they may have clutched onto to their gloom and held it tight, denying the Son.

But He was there. He was there to heal the hurt and to shine on those who needed light and warmth in their lives. He knew dark days would come when he wouldn’t be present any longer. So he provided his restoration while he could. Both the ailing and the bystanders had life-changing experiences then.

Regardless of our current position as ailing or bystander, we need to drink up the sunlight, the warmth, and the cheer of surprise spring days, my friends.  If God has healed us, we need to bask in the glory of his presence and reflect that light to others. If we are waiting for the gloom to pass on by, we need to remember the Son and his warmth and healing. If we are bystanders, we’ve  likely been in both positions previously. We need to lift up the petitions of our burdened friends through the clouds to Heaven and help them remember the light.

Trusting God can be easier said than done, especially when you've found yourself in a difficult season. The truth is that the matter of faith ultimately comes down to what you choose to believe. Trusting in God often doesn't come naturally because our human nature is wired to react by sight rather than to that which we can't see. However, faith is making the intention to fix our thoughts and hope on God no matter what the circumstances look like. If you're finding it hard to b...

Graphic by Project Inspired by Nicole Weider

Packing (ornaments) and pondering (church)

Unpacking the Christmas ornaments is always like seeing friends that have been gone for a while. Packing up the ornaments is different, though. It’s a melancholy experience, that should be accompanied by cookies and hot cocoa as it was a month ago during the decoration process.  But, after Christmas, often the main goal is restoration of schedule (and furniture), so undecorating is focused and fruitful, not peaceful and pleasant.

Today was the fateful day in our house. Time to undress the tree,IMG_6537 (1)

pack up the ornaments, vacuum up the needles, and replace the living room furniture. We played some background music and recounted the recent memories made this holiday season to improve the overall mopey mood. We felt blessed by times with family and friends, while returning our home to its eleven-month-a-year state of (dis)order.

As we packed the angels, snowmen, reindeer, and hand-made treasures from years past, we cushioned the soft ones against the fragile ones for protection. A sock monkey cuddled an ornament from the year we were married, while my childhood Strawberry Shortcake pillow provided a comfort for a pregnant s’more from my maternity days. Glass balls from Grandma’s farmhouse found solace with modern New York team ornaments. A soft, 8 -point buck given to my son this year kept company with a worn out dog and a three-legged cat. Old ornaments mingled with new, soft protected fragile, those with a story shared space with new arrivals who haven’t ‘lived here long’…

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And I thought…

‘This is what church should be like’.

The old and the new sharing space. The whole and the broken coexisting. The colorful with the plain, and the simple with the complex.  Those with spiritual ‘life experience’ reaching out to those who ‘haven’t been here long’. The soft, cuddly ones wrapping their consoling arms around the fragile or broken. Each listening to the stories the others have to share…and finding comfort in their common journey of love and celebration of the light of Jesus. 

The writer of first John wanted the same for the believers in the early church. He wanted children, parents, young people, and church leaders to be reminded of their mission in the dark world. To be love and light to each other because they were loved and valued by God. Their love and light were to add to the lives of those around them, who were struggling with the current darkness. The church was to be the comfortable congregation, vivid haven, the peaceful solace for those in places of darkness or light. 

I John 2:9-11, 4:19-21

 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.  But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. 

I am writing to you, dear children,
    because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
 I am writing to you, fathers,
    because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
    because you have overcome the evil one.

 We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

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We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right,
a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light, a story of peace and light.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright;
and Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth, the kingdom of love and light.

The United Methodist Hymnal Number 569
Text: H. Ernest Nichol, 1862-1928 (CWH attrib to Colin Sterne)
Music: H. Ernest Nichol, 1862-1928
Tune: MESSAGE, Meter: 10 8.87 with Refrain

 

 

 

 

 

Then, he smiled at me

It was an emotional afternoon in our house, in the living room specifically. The dog had shredded a toy on the floor, and I had asked my son to vacuum the floor. Pine needles, bits of wrapping paper and ribbon, dog toy fluff…they all needed to disappear.

So, he tried, bless him,…and the vacuumed died. I needed to compile a Sunday school craft, finish preparing dinner for my husband, unpack the bags I had just dragged in from the ‘final shopping trip’, and find out why my daughter was sulking in her room. I didn’t have time to deal with a sucky (or not-so-sucky) vacuum.

Nevertheless, I sat down and began dismembering the machine. Mounds of dog hair, pine needles, and other floor funk began piling up in front of me as I checked this tube and that tube, this connection and that connection. And my emotions began piling up as well. “I have too much to do to deal with this stupid vacuum. We should just buy a new one. There are good sales at this time of year. But we’ve just spend Christmas money. Maybe we should wait. But how long can we go without a vacuum?? I don’t even have time for this now! I have to get stuff put together for church, dinner, gifts…ugh!!!!”

I reached around the Christmas tree to unplug the vacuum in hopelessness. And he smiled at me. IMG_6324

Little baby Jesus. In his manger. The whole reason for this season.

His tiny, precious face caught my attention and gave me pause. It’s all about this beautiful baby, not all the other chaos.

This season of celebration is about his arrival to earth. His presence and promise make our lives more full of love and hope and relationship.  He valued the women he encountered. The busy, frustrated, tired, weary women. The mothers, wives, entrepreneurs, leaders…the oppressed, sick, unfaithful, confused…they all found acceptance when they encountered Jesus. Despite their past struggles, their current predicaments, or what they thought were their future plans, they found compassion with him.

He smiled at them. He lightened their loads. He gave them renewed purpose. He restored their souls.

Look to him, weary mothers. He loves you more than your efforts. He values you more than your attempts. Let him smile at  you. Let him know you. Let him restore you.

“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5: 34)

Family is not a brood of vipers, but…

Holidays are abundant with family gatherings. Whether its for a meal, a party, a gift exchange, or just a movie night, many occasions occur that bring families close…in proximity…and hopefully  in relationship.

We hope for the best when we’re setting the table for Aunt Gerry to be near Cousin Frank…they have opposing political views. And Sister Margie who indulges in her quiet, single life can’t stand sitting near Brother Bill, the doting father of six curtain crawlers. Mom wants to sit beside Dad, but Dad wants to sit by Uncle Paul and talk football, which Mom discourages because the brotherly competition gets too loud every year…and then Dad gets snippy with Mom, which makes everyone uncomfortable.  And then there’s the question of where to put the wine…in the kitchen or on the sideboard…near or far??

Family. We share genes with them, but sometimes, that’s all we share. Holidays bring out the tension when we know we’re ‘supposed to’ get along with our blood-kin, but it’s just hard to do so. Even among people who all claim to be Jesus-lovers, there is judgment.

I was amused when I reread over the passage in Luke 1 (verses 57-66) that tells of the family gathering after Elizabeth and Zacharias welcomed their baby boy into the world.

‘When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah,  but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.  He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.”  Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.  All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.’

The family was thrilled that Elizabeth had given birth in her old age, shedding the shame of her barrenness. They came to rejoice with her. You can imagine how this went: the veteran mothers gave advice, while the younger moms were whispering that they had some new ideas about baby care. Some relatives wanted to help with housework and others just wanted to hold the baby. The men were probably helping Zacharias fix something outside the estrogen-crowded house, and any little cousins were chasing each other in and out and around the busy home.

Then, came the all-important naming ceremony.  In the reverent Jewish tradition, the priest presented the baby to God and gave him his Hebrew name–Zacha…what?  Imagine Elizabeth shaking her head and saying, ‘No, we’re not naming him after his father. We’re naming him John.’ The questioning looks pop on the faces of the friends present, while the relatives begin mumbling ‘Who is John? I don’t remember him. How far back are they reaching to get a family name? What’s wrong with Abijah, or great-great-great grandfather Hashabiah…or his dad Kemuel? John? Where did she get that one?’ The sun rays of acceptance and rejoicing that previously shone throughout the house were now covered with clouds of doubt and disappointment. ‘Why is she changing the tradition?’

So they turned to ask a second opinion, that of Zacharias, for clarification. Now, Zacharias had been mute since the angel spoke to him in the temple, nine months prior to this happy, though increasingly awkward, situation. When he was questioned by the crowd of family and friends, he concurred with his wife. The baby would be named John. Immediately, Zacharias received his voice back and was able to verbalize his joy over the birth of his child and the message that Gabriel had delivered to him. “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-17)

When the gathered crowd heard their friend speak again, after months of silence, and heard his story of the angel’s visit, the promise of the child, the vow the son would take to purity, they knew something was special about this baby. And they began to chatter and rejoice and spread the news. Like people do. ‘Ohhhhhhh, I am so thrilled for them. They’re going to need more cloths to wrap that growing boy in! I know I have some at home!’ ‘Did you hear what he said? That’s the vow that Samson took. I hope he doesn’t make the same mistakes Samson did…’ ‘It’ll be another Delilah debacle all over again.’ ‘I still can’t believe they chose that name, I mean, I know the angel told them, but still…’ ‘I have the perfect lamb casserole recipe that I’ll share with Elizabeth.’

As families will do, they had their opinions. What will become of this boy? His birth was a miracle. His arrival was angel-announced. His future has been forecast. He will bring our nation back to God. What? How? Why?

In a few years (Luke 3), John was doing exactly what the angel had predicted. Calling people to turn from their selfish ways and prepare their hearts for God’s work.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. “

Long story short, families are going to have joys and opinions and quarrels and chasms. There will always be some loving  relative who questions our choices. But we don’t model our lives after them. Our focus should be on what we can do on this earth to draw people to God. I don’t suggest calling out the fam as a ‘brood of vipers’, but see them for what they are…needing God’s love.  We can’t do that with brow-beating, critiquing, arguing, or ignoring. We do it by showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Before all the family came over to see new little baby John, I am certain that Zacharias and Elizabeth spent time in prayer, both being from priestly families. And that’s what we need to do. Wrap each gathering of friends and relatives in prayer, like the precious, temporary gift that it is. And then enjoy it for what it is…an opportunity to share the message of God that was given to us directly.  Love.

 

 

 

Anticipation

Thanksgiving is late in coming this year. Well, it’s the fourth Thursday in November, as usual, but the lateness of the 28th has built the holiday tension. Holiday playlists are tapping their feet as radio stations hold off on playing Christmas carols until after the turkey has been carved. Many businesses have advertised ‘Pre-Black Friday’ sales to ensure that holiday sales are as plump as usual, despite the shortened shopping season. If you listen carefully, you can hear nutcrackers, snowmen and reindeer getting restless in their boxes, cabinets, and attics…maybe even arguing in their cute little holiday voices.

One of my favorite images of preparation occurs at a family-owned garden store in my neighborhood. During the week of Thanksgiving, they put out their stakes, knowing that the Christmas trees soon will be there.

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I love the feeling of expectation shown here. Peter and Gemma, the owners of the greenhouse, don’t toss the stakes down in the grass and sigh, ‘Well, I guess the trees are coming. We’ll put up the posts when we see them.’ This hard-working couple doesn’t leave the stakes in storage and act surprised when the truck arrives with this years pines. ‘Oh, is it THAT time already? Gosh this year flew by!’ They set those stakes in the ground because they KNOW that the trees are on their way. The arrival date may change due to calendar, weather, or transport issues, but the trees will arrive. No doubt.

Seeing the stakes pop up this week made me smile…and feel that holiday sparkle. It’s coming. It’s almost here. A month of joy, lights, fellowship, songs, excessive and delicious quantities of butter and sugar…the whole shebang! It’s almost upon us!

This enthusiasm led me back to the book of Luke. We often overlook the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, in our rush to get to the manger. But as I reread their story, I saw lives of anticipation.  Both Zacharias and Elizabeth were ‘righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.’ (Luke 1: 6, 7 NRSV). They had already chosen to live Godly lives. They came from centuries of Jewish believers who had seen God’s hand actively at work…delivering them from Egypt, parting the Red Sea, defeating enemies, providing for their needs. There was no doubt who God was or whether he deserved their worship.

As Zacharias was a priest, he was serving his term in the temple. Here’s how Luke retells the story in chapter 1, verses 11-15:

Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” 

Did you catch that? Zacharias and Elizabeth had been praying for a child. They knew that their ages made child-bearing unlikely, but they also knew the God they served. Their lives had been dedicated to honoring and worshiping him. So they prayed. With anticipation. They planted their stakes of prayer in the ground of faith and went on with life.

Communing with God means that we have a trusting relationship with him. We lift up our quiet prayers, our feeble hands, our tired eyes…and we look at his loving face with anticipation, trusting that he will deliver what we need. Zacharias and Elizabeth had likely prayed this prayer a long time. Verse 25 says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”  Elizabeth had endured a range of emotions while still raising her prayers to a God whom she knew would answer. She continued to worship and live an honorable life of devoted anticipation. 

When we raise our prayers, our hands, our faces, our hearts, our tears, our cries. and even our shouts to God, he hears us. He knows what we need more than we do. He looks on us with compassion while he works for our good. Romans 5:3-5 reminds, We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’ And Romans 8:24 and 25 smack our impatient, childish little thoughts with, ‘Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’

As the decorations of the Christmas season begin to appear, raise your hopes and prayers to God. Whatever they are…and lift your eyes in expectation…and be patient, knowing that sometime, your expected delivery will arrive.

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A Tribute to my Father-in-law

“Look around and take what you want,” she said. We sat in her living room the afternoonIMG_5102 after the funeral mass and family lunch. It had been a busy few days, and we all appreciated the moments of rest. After a decade-long conquest with Parkinson’s and several months in the hospital, my father-in-law had passed away a few days earlier. The preparations, flights, drives, visits, calls, hours with family and friends at the wake, church, and cemetery were done. Now, we sat in the front room in peaceful silence, and his widow spoke.

 

“Look around and take what you want.” Those were the words to my husband and his sister. Not said in despair or sadness, but rather in a spirit of openness and generosity…Gary doesn’t need anything now. Take what he left. Take what you had given him that will remind you of times together. Take mementos. Take pieces of his life back home with you.

I looked around the neat house from my vantage point, and thought, he didn’t really leave anything. An avid Yankees fan, Syracuse and Cardinal Hayes alum, he had hats and shirts and some wall art…but he didn’t really have “stuff”. He didn’t buy for himself, though he could have. He didn’t fill his life with tchotchkes and dust-collectors. So what was his “stuff”?

His favorite room in the house was his little office. Maybe 5’x7′ with two windows to light IMG_5104up the all important computer desk. Here he kept his spiral notebook of contacts, from his elementary school classmates through his coworkers in education. Beside that, his 75th anniversary edition of the Cardinal Hayes High School alumni directory. He kept phone numbers of his children taped at eye level. On each of the three walls were notes and photos from his grandkids. In the computer were stored countless emails from people he’d known his whole life and research he’d done to help others with their illnesses or debts. To the left of the computer screen sat the Facebook Portal that he received for Christmas so that he could stay in touch with his classmates, colleagues, family, and peers from Hawaii to Germany, and all places in between.

Gary was a relational man. That’s where his “stuff” was. It was in his heart. It was in his conversation. It was in his connectedness to others. Throughout the house, there are pictures of trips that he and his beloved took to Europe and Disneyworld, photos from cruises and dinner parties, and framed reminders of events that they shared together. That’s the “stuff” of his life.

When he would travel by train to see our family eight hours away, he would always IMG_5105strike up a new friendship with a seated neighbor. One time he told me that the best conversation starter was the phrase “So, how’s your life going?” It was an open-ended opportunity for hours of chatter about the present, past, and future. When an issue arose about which he was ignorant, he would spend hours researching it online to learn what he didn’t know. He would call us to share his newfound knowledge because that was his “stuff”, sharing knowledge. Sharing relationships. Sharing life.

We have spent two weeks this summer, traveling around upstate New York and landing back at his home on Long Island. We have thought of him numerous times and wanted to share our new experiences with him…the kids’ first time at his alma mater Syracuse University, their impressions of the breath-taking Letchworth State Park, his grandson’s photos at West Point and big dreams of attending there in a few years, the shark that was caught on a fishing trip in Freeport, his granddaughter’s love of socializing with girl cousins…the list goes on.IMG_5107

This week back in his house has had me considering his legacy. To “look around and take what you want” of Gary means to live the life we are currently living to its fullest and share generously with others. He didn’t want trinkets and “stuff”. He wanted relationships and connectedness. My son is at camp this week with Long Island kids who live eight hours away from our home. Yet, he invited a buddy to come over and hang out after camp…and has been invited to the young man’s bar mitzvah. My daughter has bonded with her girl cousins while her brother has been at camp…and they have had tea and done crafts and played outside and talked non-stop.

Gary, I’m typing this on your computer, probably still feeling some jellybean residue on the keys…but I want you to know that we get it. We’ve looked around and we want to take YOU with us. We want your awareness of people, your desire for relationships, and your genuine love for humanity. We want that…and we miss you dearly.

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Dear Year 20,

Dear Year 20,IMG_4187

You were a tough one. From Day 1, when I saw my own son sitting alone at a cafeteria table in a school that I had been so nice to me, I knew it was going to be a unique year. Did we make the right choice to bring him to this school, out of his district? But worse, how could he be a middle schooler already? Time, you are so cruel.

And then, there were the student challenges. Broken homes, broken hearts, broken languages, broken dreams…so many pieces that I had to be assembled, IMG_4184

 

reassembled, glued tightly and held even tighter to stay together.     Students moving in and moving out, here and then gone. Keeping up with their work as they kept up with their lives…or we both tried to, at least.

Sickness…why was this year different? I thought I’d have an iron immune system by 

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Sinus infections, flu, bronchitis,  mold allergies when they started tearing the ceiling out. Pollen allergies through the open windows.      

 

 

And home life…will we move? When? Where? Will I stay and he move? The kids have adjusted so well this year. Do we have to move them?  Interviews…disappointments…plans…changes. 

Then staying put and waiting and wondering. 

You brought it all to us, year 20.

But I’m still here. To quote the beloved Langston Hughes,

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

 

My classroom is dark now.classroom

The boxes are packed,

the chairs are stacked.

Everything is labeled

because I’m coming back.

I didn’t get it all done this year. They will be back next year, and so will I. The needs will still be here, and so will I. Time marches on, and so will I.IMG_4188