Never complain about birthdays

 I turned 60 last week.  I was surprised by my reluctance to celebrate this milestone. Usually I anticipate birthdays with a glee not quite becoming of someone over the age of 10.  I have always found great joy in the day of my birth, a result no doubt of childhood memories of the world’s best birthday parties. They were not lavish but there my mother and I chose a theme (Winnie the Pooh or Hawaiian Islands or hippie fest – it was the 60’s, after all) and there were games, friends, cake and ice cream. It was a real celebration.

But this year I felt more hesitant.That feeling diminished somewhat when I visited the nursing home the day before my birthday.  After carefully winding my way through wheelchairs and walkers to address the group gathered for worship,I announced my final day in my 50’s.  A collective sigh rippled through the group as they wistfully reminisced, “Sixty.I remember 60.  So marvelous to be so young.”It was a good to hear their perspective.

Those very senior citizens are right, of course. Despite our society’s love affair with youth and all things new, I realize that getting older is a gift not everyone receives. After more than three decades of ministry, I have too memories of too many tragic funerals.Grieving families miss their cherished loved ones – babies, teenagers, young adults – who died too young. Complaints about gray hair and aching joints,those telltale signs of aging, fall on deaf ears. These families have an empty place at the table and in their hearts.  

So I rejected the temptation to whine (or lie) about my age. I know it’s a privilege to be alive, to be here,to love and be loved. I spent my day having lunch with my parents which seemed very fitting since they were there with me and for me since the very beginning.I was delightfully surprised to be joined by one of my brothers and my sister-in-law.  We celebrated with balloons; there was cake and ice cream, laughter and memories.

The evening offered a meal with my husband and daughter, followed by a movie at home. My sons called to wish me well.  It was a quiet day of celebration filled with family and love.

 May it remind me to give thanks for each new day. And may I be inspired to make the most of each one.

Learning from other traditions

My husband was raised Jewish and celebrated his bar mitzvah when he was 14. Although he no longer attends weekly services, the holidays of his youth still echo in his heart. Therefore, in our home, amidst all the Advent candles and early Christmas preparations, we also celebrate Hanukkah.

This was a learning curve for me.When we were first married, I was eager to learn my beloved’s traditions. We started out by buying children’s books to enhance my education about the basics of this beautiful celebration. Just weeks after our wedding, we went to a Hanukkah festival at a nearby synagogue and purchased our first menorah together. Twenty-seven years later, we continue to share the stories and traditions with our adult children.

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On each of the eight nights, we light candles and recall the ancient miracle of a meager amount of oil that continued to burn brightly as it reflected the faith of the believers. We ponder the significance of God overcoming terrifying circumstances and the ability of a small group of dedicated people to stand up for their beliefs. We celebrate God’s faithfulness and take hope from the growing light shining in the darkness.

We enjoy latkes with applesauce and cherish a bit of family time as we spin the dreidel and play games.  Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish holiday, but its light-hearted joy offers vital reminders about standing up against evil and trusting in God.  

It turns out, of course, that it doesn’t have to be my tradition in order to have something to teach me. It doesn’t have to be my heritage in order to reveal more about the God I love.  While celebrating a holiday that is not my own, I have experienced what a wise (Jewish) professor of mine identified as “holy appreciation.” That is, I have the ability to appreciate the holy practices of others and when I do, I can learn about values that we both share.

We are not all meant to be alike.We are not called to all worship the same way. We can, however, learn with and from one another. And then everyone will be stronger.

For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mind, if we

each are free to light our own flame, together we can banish some

of the darkness in the world.

  • Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Do-it-yourself Advent

Long before Thanksgiving Day, it was Christmas in all the stores. My husband shopped in vain for harvest-colored candles and autumn napkins for our Thanksgiving celebration. That unfortunate holiday of gratitude had been relegated to a meager shelf in the corner of the store. In every aisle, as far as the eye could see, the displays proudly proclaimed CHRISTMAS.

But wait. It isn’t Christmas yet. It is Advent, a season that is all about waiting. Advent is about transition and change. It is about waiting for what will be, but is not yet. Advent is a very human, unsettled season when things have not yet fallen into place. You have probably experienced Advent without ever naming it. If you have

  • Anxiously searched for a job
  • Moved
  • Cared for a sick loved one
  • Prayed for someone in recovery
  • Or even (like Mary) been pregnant

then you know about Advent. Advent invites us to remember God’s promise to be with us exactly when God is needed most.

Like Thanksgiving, Advent is also not being sold in any store. Fortunately, Advent is easily celebrated in the comfort of our own homes. Think of it as a gift to yourself in this busy season; Advent can offer an antidote to the frenetic pace of endless Christmas. We can pause, light a candle, and reflect on God’s hope and presence.

I would like to encourage you to rest your weary spirit this Advent season by creating your own Advent ritual. You don’t even need a traditional “wreath.” Any five candles will do. Size, shape, and color don’t matter. Electric candles are fine. Arrange them any way you like – in a wreath, a square, vertically – it’s up to you.

I went to our local Goodwill store to find ways to create my Advent display. Everything pictured here cost $10.

Advent begins on December 2nd. On that first Sunday of Advent, light one candle and reflect on how even the smallest light can entirely change the reality of darkness. During the week, find opportunities to light that candle again. Whether you celebrate Advent as you eat your breakfast cereal or just before you go to bed doesn’t matter. What is important is intentionally making time to pause and remember that God promises to be “Emmanuel,” which means “always with us.”

During the first week of Advent, you are invited to

LIGHT a candle. Consider how you can be a messenger of hope.

READ Scripture: Isaiah 9: 2-7, Luke 1: 5-25, Matthew 1: 18-26.  Don’t have a Bible?  You can read any Scripture here.

PRAY for those who need hope today.

LISTEN  to a favorite Advent or Christmas song (and try to sit down while you do this; don’t multi-task. Cherish a few moments and fill your spirit with beauty).

I wish you the hope and joy of Advent.

Who is at the table?

Not many people can say that their Thanksgiving table actually resembled Norman Rockwell’s iconic depiction of the all-American holiday, but I have to admit, the Thanksgiving table from my childhood was pretty similar to the one in his painting. The people who gathered around the table were all white, heterosexual (as far as we knew),  and part of families formed with a mom and a dad, with mother cooking and father presiding over the carving of the bird. Gender roles were clearly defined and not (openly) questioned.

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Just one generation later and our family has evolved. We look a bit different now. As we anticipate gathering with our children, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, we can look forward to racial diversity, hair dyed in startling hues, tattoos galore, and conversations that touch on topics like gender identity, sexual expression and fluidity, and the roles of men and women.

It is not Rockwell’s America any more and perhaps it never was. Many folks reminisce wistfully about “days gone by” while conveniently forgetting that many people in Rockwell’s era were not welcome at the table. Or at many schools, clubs, or businesses. That festive depiction of Thanksgiving only looks “ideal” if you happen to fit into the narrow roles of acceptance.

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These updated versions of Rockwell’s painting, featuring a gay couple and a multi-ethnic gathering,  makes me wonder – who is at our tables?  Who is in our churches, our organizations, and our schools? Do we only gather with people who look like us and think like us?  And if we do, what are we missing? Can we accept the joy and challenge of widening our welcome?

This year, whether your table is filled with relatives or whether you create a family of your own choosing and design, or whether you celebrate a “Friendsgiving,” I hope you pause to give thanks for the blessings those special people offer to you. Let us also remember those who are not with us this year and give thanks for them, as well.

Wishing you a very happy Thanksgiving.

I can’t watch anymore

I can’t watch any more. I dread turning on the news because I never know if there will be more pictures of flashing lights, tear-stained faces, people huddled with their arms around each other, more anguished parents and more heart-broken children.

I can’t listen any more as yet another mayor states (correctly) that this town is a nice town, a peaceable town, maybe the safest town in America.  And the mayor can’t imagine – how could anyone –  that something like this could happen here.

I can’t listen again as earnest reporters ask breathless and pointless questions. What was going through your mind? Can you describe how you were feeling? What was it like?

I can’t hear again how this gun or that piece of equipment was legally bought but illegally used. Or how this legally purchased weapon was illegally modified to increase its killing power.

I can’t listen to another devastated parent tell the world about their beloved child and just how loved, precious, and treasured that child is. I don’t even want to hear about the heroics of the first responders who bravely, incredibly, run toward gunfire instead of to safety. I can’t look at the pain etched on faces of police officers as they describe their colleague as a “cop’s cop.”

I don’t want to see another homemade memorial with flowers and candles and teddy bears, marking lives interrupted. And I can’t even listen to “Amazing Grace” (a hymn I used to love with its profoundly meaningful history) that has been taken over as the official mourning cry of a nation who doesn’t know how else to respond.  No matter how well sung, the song grates on my nerves as we mourn our dead but seem paralyzed as to other responses or solutions.

It happens again and again and again.

I am so tired.  I can’t watch. i can’t listen.

Because I know exactly how it will look.  I know precisely what people will say.

And I am so tired of it all.

The Rev. Eric Anderson wrote a song that expresses my thoughts beautifully. He writes, “I wrote this song after Las Vegas, and fifty-nine candles blazed across the front of our church. I recorded it after Parkland. I could have sung it again LAST WEEK. I don’t want to light another candle.”

I will think and I will pray.

I will work for gun control.

But I won’t watch those images any more.

 

The Face of America

The American women’s gymnastics team won first place in the World Gymnastics championships last week in Qatar. These fabulous young women vaulted, tumbled, leaped, and braved death-defying moves to outshine competitors from across the globe. While I often feel like I should raise my arms in victory any Sunday I manage the three steps up to the pulpit without tripping – yes! She stuck the landing! – they perform gravity-defying moves daily.  And they smile while doing it.

Their faces are captivating

When I watch this group of accomplished, determined, strong young women, I feel a sense of hope.

Their gymnastic ability is unparalleled.

They are world champions.

And they are the face of America.

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This team with skin tones of varying hues, with a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds – this is America. The true face of America is a collection of people from a wide variety of backgrounds who come together for a common cause. Our country has never been “white”. When the first immigrants arrived on these shores, they discovered native people who did not look like them.  And that was the beginning – for better or worse – of a new America.  Perhaps America was once racially pure – but that was long before European settlers came to this land.

Our country has a complicated history with race – the displacement and slaughter of Native inhabitants, the brutality and horror of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the ongoing racism against people of color. Our country continues to struggle with race.

But our gymnastics team demonstrates what is possible. They remind us that people from different backgrounds can work together to make a difference. They set an example of building bridges, of being united, and of finding (or creating) common ground.

Most of us will never cartwheel on a balance beam or fly between uneven bars. But all of us can be inspired by the determination and hard work of this young team and vow to represent our country with the same grace and unity.

Glimpses of God

I saw God today. It was not a dramatic, come-to-Jesus moment. It was just a glimpse, but it was enough to warm my heart and give me hope.

I looked out my window and noticed the sunlight filtering through the trees. As the autumn days get shorter, I am increasingly aware of the beauty of sunshine. So I dropped what I was doing and took these pictures to capture the moment.

These are not stunning vistas. They don’t really highlight spectacular fall colors. But this view spoke to me this morning.

As I took the time to really notice the sunshine hitting the branches and illuminating the few remaining leaves, I could feel my spirit lifting. That simple moment reminded me, oddly enough, that despite everything, the world is still spinning, the sun is still rising, the seasons are still changing. That constancy and dependability comforts me. There is an allure in knowing that God and God’s creation remain unchanging. It reminded me of the psalmist’s assurance, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

Although I would never turn down a dramatic landscape or a trip to a spectacular overlook, what I need is God breaking through in the everyday. I need to be reminded of God in the ordinary. I need to realize that I don’t have to travel someplace different or wait for a picture-perfect moment to find God. God is right here, in the messiness of my life.

It does not remove me from our violent and despairing world. But it reminds me I am not alone.

When I catch glimpses of beauty – in sunlight, twinkling stars, a child’s smile, a friendly greeting – it is an invitation to pause and give thanks. I believe God wants to offer encouragement every day. The only question is whether we notice.

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