Archives for December 2015

When You Want Less Cynicism and More Child-like Wonder and Delight

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He sits next to me in the car on another mild-December day. We’ve abandoned coats for light jackets, but I wear a scarf in protest. It’s December in New Jersey after all. Christmas music, the traditional station my kids think sounds too much like big-band jazz, plays in the background. The music is the reason my car battery died in the lacrosse parking lot ten minutes earlier, while I sat waiting for my son. When the music stopped abruptly, I looked around and saw one other car with its lights on. I walked across the parking lot, and I asked a guy sitting in a Tesla for a jump. He hid a smile when he told me his car is electric, and I shuffled back to my mini-van a little amused and a little embarrassed. I found a good Samaritan sitting in a Mercedes, and asked him to help me.

After the jump, we drive home through neighborhoods lit with colored trees, garland strung in loops across picket fences, and one home outlined in white lights like a gingerbread house from a fairytale. My son turns the air conditioning on, and he tells me, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas this year, Mom.” He’s just not feeling it. I suggest it’s the weather. The busy schedule. The full days of school leading straight up to Christmas day. He shakes his head.

Earlier in the day, we decorated gingerbread houses. My husband baked cookies. We played the music, lit the tree, burned the Christmas scented candle. In spite of the busyness, we’ve created the usual holiday atmosphere at home. What can it be, I ask him? He doesn’t know, he grasps for the words to describe his feeling, but finds nothing there.

I look at his man-sized feet taking up space next to me, and I ask him if maybe he’s outgrowing the magic. As I listen to his voice crack while we talk about his thirteenth Christmas holiday, I remember the long season of adolescence when the wonder and delight of childhood stalls and turns over. When you need someone to bring the child inside you back to life, when you need something other than sarcasm and peer pressure to fuel your sense of astonishment and wonder. When presents bring a short spark of happiness, but you’re doubtful about the promise of Emmanuel offering everlasting peace, love, joy.

As I think on these things, with the man-child in the seat next to me, I realize I’m the one who typically feels drained of life this time of year, worrying about presents over presence. Celebrating Advent in my own mixed-up, hodgepodge way has brought my sense of amazement and joy in this season back to life. It has saved Christmas from being consumed by commercialism and my own heart from becoming jaded and false. Advent has brought reverence and true joy back into my celebration.

I look at the kid. I see the way his eyes smile at the sight of the homes lit up in fairy lights, but I also see the cynicism growing underneath. Later, as we sit around the dining room table, I read aloud Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. I read of angels and promises and wombs filled by the power of the Holy Spirit. He pretends not to listen, but when I question him, he repeats the story back to me verbatim. And somewhere deep inside that adolescent heart of his, I see something catch a spark of life, I see a flicker.

How to Celebrate Advent with Little Time, Effort, or Know-how

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In our family, life revolves on it’s own little axis around Time. Just as the sun sets the seasons for the earth, Time sets the season of life for us as a family. The years do their work and we adjust our expectations and our decisions accordingly. We may find ourselves in a season of rest or growth or pruning, but as we spin through the seasons, I find myself keeping certain rhythms throughout the year. Rhythms help Time and I keep track of one another. They give me point on which to focus, so I don’t spin out of control.

Growing up in a non-denominational church, I was unaware that the Christian church celebrates its own version of the seasons. My idea of a church calendar looked very much like your average Gregorian calendar with a few extra prayer meetings and pot-lucks thrown in for good measure. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned people observed seasons of Lent and Advent. Well into adulthood, I discovered I have lived my entire life spinning in Ordinary Time.

I have so much to learn about the Liturgical year, and so much to gain from it too. I see it as a set of rhythms rather than a set of rules, on which to build my spiritual life throughout the year. But, Time can be a cruel master, and I don’t have the hours to dedicate to studying the church calendar and understanding with as deep a commitment as I’d like. So, for now, I have built a bridge to Advent, one that is helping me stay focused on this season with little time, effort, or know-how.

I offer you Advent for Beginners:

Look for the Light

I find myself rising early to light the candles in the still-dark rooms below. I sit in the candle light, adding the glow of the twinkle lights on the Christmas tree, and I wait for the sun to rise above the giant oak in the garden. The sun cuts through the morning fog, and for a few moments, its rays split the tree in two. No matter how dark the night, I know the light will come. And with it, a longing for peace, a growing hope, and joy in knowing that the Light of the world has already brought the cosmos into our chaos.

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” ~John 1:5

Invite Poetry

After the lighting of the candles, I start the day with prayer and poetry. There is a time for storybooks and simplicity, but Advent reveals itself to me as a poem. It is rhythm and metaphor and song. It is the most potent truth revealed through a single Word.  It is impossible to understand in one reading, yet the longer I sit with it in the growing light, the longer I roll the words in my mouth, the longer I allow the truth to illuminate my spirit, the more I grow in understanding.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men..” ~John 1:1,4

Embrace Anticipation

Apart from the quiet mornings, there is much work to do in this busy season–so very much to accomplish. However, I am trying to see with eyes of anticipation rather than dread. As I participate in the usual rhythms of this season, I remind myself that the building excitement I see in my children should foster a sense of anticipation and excitement in me too. The Greatest Gift has come, and He will return again. Advent focuses my thoughts on the coming Kingdom, and helps me to live in anticipation of the day when all will be set right, when we will see his glory once again, full of grace and truth.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” ~John 1:14

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One lovely book I have found invaluable for helping me to center on this season is a compilation by Sarah Arthur called Light Upon Light. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Also, Luci Shaw’s Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.

 

 

Finding Our True North: Asking the Right Questions to Keep Us Headed in the Right Direction

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One of the wonderful by-products of a MFA program in creative writing is the stack of books I’m required to purchase and read regularly. My husband casts a dubious glance every time another package shows up in the mailbox, and I chirp happily, “It’s for school, hon! Required reading!” It’s the best. The very, very best. I’m considering all sorts of master’s programs in which I can study books after this one is completed. My latest suggestion–French Literature–was met with silence. Apparently, my husband believes he shouldn’t have to pay a fortune for me to receive another useless degree, when I can simply march myself to the library and read for free. Never mind that I can’t read French.

This term, my professor assigned me a great deal of literary non-fiction, mostly memoir. Most of the writers have an incredible story to tell, each revelation more sad or shocking than the last. It makes me wonder what becomes of those of us who have a simple story–a healthy childhood, an average intelligence, a mostly normal family–a treasure trove of universal memories that are meaningful because they happen to most of us over the course of our lifetime. Sibling spats, adolescent angst, first love, the slow burn of spiritual growth–isn’t this most people’s story? I’m far too boring to compete with the orphans and addicts and I-made-it-in-spite-of’s.

While the reading and the writing requirements are wonderful and challenging in the best of ways, I had hoped the MFA program would crack open the door to possibility a bit wider. I am learning and growing as a writer, but the door to possibility feels firmly shut. If anything, the program has made me question even more what I am doing and why I am writing. To what end? Who will read it? What do I have to offer a reader, if not another ordinary story?

I don’t have any answers, and I’m not fishing for comments and compliments here (Mom, you can call me privately:). What I am doing, is trying to flesh out the why behind the what.  I am wrestling with what I thought I wanted, with old dreams and new realities. Wrestling with the path I’ve chosen and wondering what life would look like if I chose to lay down this particular dream and take up a new one.

Does this kind of questioning resonate with you? I suspect it’s universal, whether you want to write or become a parent or start a business or rule the world. Don’t we always wonder what the road not taken would have held for us had we jumped across the divide and planted our feet on a path with something different waiting for us at the end of it?  I used to think this was somehow a betrayal of my choices, but I think it is always good to remind ourselves why we chose this path, this life, this faith, these people. Often, the alternative is so ugly and full of despair, so unfaithful to our own inner landscape, it helps us see the good in what we have right here, today.

But every so often, the question of whether or not we’re walking the right path or dreaming the best dreams, leads us to another fork in the road. Will I choose this way again, or will I try something different? What if I pursued this friendship or gave that one up? What if I chose this career path and not the one I spent years mastering? What if I turned to this form of spiritual discipline and gave up another? What if…?

I have no plans to give up writing or my MFA program, but I do continue to ask myself the questions, always seeking to find the most sincere expression of who I am and how I’m created. I always want to aim for my true north, even if I take a few detours along the way.

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Are you questioning any particular paths in your life right now? Have you ever jumped across the divide to something different?

Stay tuned for a round-up of recent reads later this week.