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Hope and Death Side by Side

This weekend, the kids helped me repot our window plants. I have two window plants that live on the window over the kitchen sink looking out to our backyard. One is a Christmas Cactus and one is a budding African Violet. The Christmas Cactus started blooming right on time as the Advent season began. Most of the year, this plant rests dormant with very little to show until these vibrant blooms start to appear.

After we repotted the Christmas cactus and I returned it to its place on the window sill, I noticed that through the window our Bradford Pear tree’s leaves were flashing the last brilliant colors of life before it rested in the dark and cold of winter. This picture of hope blooming even as death waited behind was the perfect picture of this Advent season.

Hope and death rest together during this season. The short days and dark nights remind us of the short time we have here on earth. The changing leaves remind us that death does indeed bring new life. The blooms of this Christmas Cactus remind of the hope of the Divine incarnate, something we have been waiting all year to remember and something we still hope will come again.

Hope and death. Light and dark. Cold and warmth. All pressing against each other during this season of waiting for the Christ Child. May our eyes and hearts be open on this journey.

In the Midst of Stuff

As we turn our attention this week to the season of Thanksgiving, we are also right on the heels of the season of Advent. I have seen so many advertisements about the shortened shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas with the reminder that this store and that store have already started their Black Friday sales.

I can feel the pressure. I feel behind already because I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping.

In the midst of all the advertisements, it is easy to get caught up in our culture of buying and consuming. As I was sitting by the fire last night, I looked around and found myself in the midst of stuff. So much stuff.

Some of it was good stuff, stuff that had been given to us by friends and families. Toys that reminded me of our son’s first birthday, our little red house in Asheville where we became a family. Books that told the story of our educational careers and then our professional careers. Pictures that showed our children growing and changing.

Americans are surrounded by stuff. In fact, we own so much stuff and continue to live in the midst of stuff that new houses were 38% bigger in 2002 than in 1975. We have so much stuff that the average American will spend 3,680 hours or 153 days of their lives looking for stuff they have misplaced. We are surrounded by stuff with the pressure to buy more stuff.

The self-storage industry makes $38 billion a year on our storing stuff that won’t fit in the confines of where we live. That’s 2.3 billion square feet of storage. This is more than enough to house the entire homeless population in America many, many times over.

The home organizing industry has taken a different approach and has capitalized on our need to organize our stuff at the rate of $16 billion a year with a growth rate of 4%. We are living in the midst of so much stuff and that stuff makes us lose time, money, and our sleep studies have shown.

As we creep ever closer to Advent there is a whisper of something different. An invitation to leave all the stuff behind and marvel and wonder at the Divine Incarnate in the form of the Christ Child. Will we hear it in the midst of all the stuff we are trying to get done?

In the Midst of the Busyness

Almost without fail when I ask a fellow parent of littles how it is going, their response is: “It’s busy.”  To be certain that’s true. Just trying to get out of the door with shoes, weather-appropriate gear, and all the other things “just in case” there is an accident or someone gets hungry can be overwhelming. Not to mention all the doctors’ appointments, haircuts, and dentist appointments.

It’s very, very easy in the midst of the busyness to never be fully present. To be moving at such a break-neck speed that we are never where we are and we are just on our way to the next appointment. Sometimes we move in the midst of busyness because we are feeling lonely or isolated. Sometimes we move in the midst of the busyness because we are fearful that we aren’t a good parent, that we aren’t paying enough attention to each of our children Sometimes we move in the midst of the busyness because we aren’t sure of our purpose. Nothing feels intentional about our daily activities and yet everything feels pressing and that it needs to be done right away.  As the holidays approach, it’s even easier to get lost in the midst of the busyness and never be truly present.

Maybe today instead of being in the midst of the busyness, we can defiantly say stop and sit down for a minute and be present feeling our cold feet against the cold ground, noticing that we have been slouching out of fatigue and exhaustion, and paying attention to our dry knuckles that are reminding us that we need to drink more water.

When we stop in the midst of the busyness and say no to our culture of chaos, we remind ourselves that there is more to us than just our physical beings. We are emotional and spiritual and we need to feed those parts of ourselves. Busyness only starves those parts of us claiming there is never enough time or that we don’t deserve to pay attention to that still, small voice whispering “just be”.

Everything around us is telling us to work more, add more to our calendars, and spend more time running from one place to the other. Everything about the upcoming Advent season says the opposite. Wait. Hope. Be.

In the midst of the busyness maybe there is a deep cry for something more meaningful,  less exhausting, and more fulfilling. Can you hear it?

The End is the Beginning

We’ve been waiting and hoping for this day to come. The day that we celebrate the Divine Incarnate in the form of the Christ Child. The end of Advent is the beginning of the Christmas Season. The twelve days of Christmas: a holy number for a holy journey to Epiphany. This stands in stark contrast to our culture that teaches us to count down to presents and today is what we have been waiting for.

12 days to wonder and awe at what the meaning of the Divine here on earth is. 12 days to look for signs in the sky that promise new life and transformation. 12 days to hold onto hope, peace, joy, and love and carry them close to the heart. 12 days.

And as I think of what these next 12 days will bring, I believe that they will bring assurance that God is with us. I believe that they will bring the promise that God loves us. I believe that they will whisper an invitation to you to join this great journey.

For Christmas is not over, it is just beginning.

A Season of Rest

The last three years of the Advent season have been particularly powerful in the way they have changed me. Three years ago, I traveled the Advent season nursing a newborn and being nursed by an incredible partner back to health and wholeness. The strangeness of not preaching during the high and holy season provided space to wonder and awe in new life and new identity. The following two seasons of Advent were filled with hope and grief. Wondering whether I would carry the promise of new life again and grieving empty arms after the promise of new life and the unexpected loss of new life. This year, I’ve traveled the Advent season the same way Mary did with swollen ankles, restless nights, and the knowledge that this new life will change everything.

This Advent season whispers of a new season of life not only for us as a family, but for me as a minister as I anticipate stepping into the role of Pastor at Garden of Grace UCC. As this new journey nears, I can’t help but carry the promises of the advent season with me. For thirty-three years I have been Baptist, even in the seasons when I was worshipping with Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians,  I have been Baptist. With the new year, I will begin the journey of dual recognition of ordination in the UCC. My identity as a minister and as a person is changing.

And yet, there is a part of me that feels like I’m giving up hope. Since I walked into my first seminary class, I have held onto hope. Hope that there would be a Baptist church that would call me as a pastor, even though I was a woman. I have held onto hope that systemic sexism would be named and perhaps even changed. I have held onto hope even when comments like, “There is no woman who could ever pastor such an important church,” and “We did have women candidates for the pastor position, but they were all eliminated pretty quickly,” and the stories of sexual harassment of Baptist women in ministry from colleagues, parishioners, and denominational leaders burdened my heart and mind. But this season is a call for me to let the hope that Baptist women will be fully and wholly affirmed go into the hands of the Divine.

With the new year, there is a new call for me: to treasure this new life and new season for us as a family and for me as a minister. It’s a call to rest and immerse myself in the full inclusion and affirmation of me as a minister, not as a woman minister, but as a minister called to lead God’s people. Thanks be to God for this new season!

Divine Weavings

I am notoriously bad at putting lights on the Christmas tree. The first couple of years I put the lights on the tree, it looked like the tree had a been wrapped in a single line of lights. It was nice and orderly, but not aesthetically all that pleasing. Now, my approach is a bit more haphazard. I like to weave the strands of light up and down and around trying to make it look like the little bulbs of lights are appearing from out of the branches in a magical kind display. I take time to stuff the green strands as far back towards the trunk of the tree as possible so that at least upon first glance, you can’t see the way all the lights are connected.

There’s something about the tiny burst of light and the hidden strand that connects them that is mystical. And as I get up in the cold, dark morning and make my way over to the tree to turn on the lights, I am reminded of the Advent season. In this season, we try to trace the light of the world as it gets closer and closer to earth. We travel the journey of hope, love, joy, and peace getting closer and closer each week.

It’s a magical, mystical season in the church calendar. A season that asks us not to look at the single lights, but the divine weavings, the strand that holds all the lights together. Even in the midst of the influx of news about children being separated from their parents, children not receiving health coverage, and tear gas being thrown at children, I have seen little lights shining. But I’ve lost track of the divine weavings. I haven’t been able to find as clearly the strand of divine and holy work tucked away, invisible to the naked eye.

As Advent season draws near, there is a whisper calling in the darkness, “Search for the light.” And as my ears and heart open to that invitation, slowly a strand begins to appear. Emanuel, God with Us, here on earth working and weaving; Light to light; hope to love to joy to peace.

Holding Onto Advent

This is the longest I can remember our having our Christmas decorations up. Because our celebrations and traditions center around sharing kids, there have been many years where we haven’t gotten our Christmas tree until the second or third week of December. This year we went to get our tree the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  This morning, the Christmas tree is still lit as we await Epiphany.

There’s something magical and mystical about celebrating and studying peace, hope, joy, love and the arrival of the Christ Child and then holding onto each of those until Epiphany. It’s something that we often miss in our haste to celebrate a new year and get things back in order after our Christmas celebrations.

This time invites us to include peace, hope, love, joy and Christ into our lives in the quietness and the stillness. This time invites us to wonder and question what including these things into our lives year-round would really mean.  It’s a time as a Baptist who didn’t celebrate the Christian year that I’ve missed most of my life, and one I hold dearly to now.

May the Christ Child continue to fill us with wonder and awe as we draw near to Epiphany.

Decorating the Tree

I can remember decorating our Christmas tree growing up. All of the six kids came together to decorate the huge live tree that had been strung with colored lights. The majority of the ornaments I remember hanging were ornaments we had all made in school, Sunday School and Missions activities at church. With six kids, those ornaments really added up.

But I can’t say that ever thought much about what it would be like to hang ornaments on the tree that came from my children I hadn’t imagined their pictures of their little handprints or even their names. I hadn’t thought about whether they would be girls or boys because for the longest time the tree Sam and I decorated still had those handmade ornaments I had made; a gift that had been given to me from my parents.

I was walking by the tree going to grab my keys and I saw this picture. The girls hanging next to one of the first ornaments Ben has made. I had to stop for a minute. A picture I had never imagined, there hanging on our tree. Three kids surrounded by colored lights. Three kids full of light and love. Three kids who helped decorate (or in Ben’s case undecorate) our tree this year.

The longer days and the break from school make the holidays a time to make memories and also to remember how far we all have come since the last time we decorated our trees and houses for this season, something Europeans have been doing for hundreds of years.

Sometimes peace and joy in this season come in the form of tiny handprints and pictures from years ago hanging on a triangular tree that represents the Trinity, the presence of God with us no matter what your journey had held. Thanks be to God for Divine light shining in the dark season of winter.

Waiting in the Parking Lot

I’ve heard from many Toddler Mamas that you will do a lot of waiting. Waiting for your toddler to eat, waiting for your toddler to speak in more than just those words and phrases, waiting for your toddler to buckle his or her own shoes, but on Monday I found myself waiting in the middle of the parking lot.

This wasn’t a sit-in protest of being hurried out of the line of cars or onto the next activity or next stop on our list of things to do. This was a sit and see. He was genuinely interested in the touch and feel of the asphalt. He was fascinated with the way the shadows were playing on the gray surface and that he could make the shadows move by moving his hand. He was in awe.

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 

In the midst of Advent, there often isn’t time to be in awe. We are booked to the brim with shopping and celebrations with family and friends. We are waiting and preparing for children’s programs and worship services. In the midst of all the hurrying, there is time to wait and wonder, even if it’s a in the middle of a parking lot watching shadows.

What Did You Expect?

I find myself asking, “What did you expect?” as I enter the Advent Season this year. I expected to be a teacher until retirement. I remember clearly sitting in the new employee’s meeting at 22 and hearing that I could retire in 30 years. I couldn’t imagine being in the same job for the 30 years, but I could imagine teaching for 30 years.

Now I find myself planning and preparing for my fourth Advent Season as a pastor. I certainly didn’t expect to be a pastor and preacher.

But Creator God has a miraculous way of hearing the parts of our hearts that even we ourselves silence. The Divine whispers, “What if…” in a way that makes us dream of the unexpected and hope for things yet to come. Those longings speak to our souls, to that Divine spark nestled within us.

Advent is a season to give voice and space to those longings, to shed our expectations of how we thought things were going to go in our own lives and dream and anticipate new life. When we allow the Divine this voice and space, I can guarantee you will say, “I didn’t expect that.