part two: an advent circle of grace


the second light: community

Earlier this year, when I realized that my laptop was on its last legs, I started the painstaking process of tidying up the files on my hard drive. It’s always so time consuming to do this, isn’t it? And, typically, it’s a rushed process because it seems like there’s always a critical deadline looming for which you can’t live without the computer. In the process of creating new file folders, deleting old ones, organizing and weeding out, I found myself sorting through the old “Christmas Cards” folder on the hard drive. This task of cleaning up that I wanted to complete as quickly as possible suddenly slowed down to a crawl.

When we were first married, we experienced several cross-country moves in a relatively short period of time. Sending out Christmas cards in which we included an annual Christmas update letter easily became integrated into our annual Christmas traditions. Once we started our family, we loved taking the girls out on a sunny late-autumn day for a photo at a local landmark to include in the card. Isn’t it funny how these wonderful rituals seem to grow and change from year to year? When we lived in Maine, we wrote about the time that the moose strolled right down our street just like in the opening of a popular old TV show called Northern Exposure. A couple of years later, we suffered the loss of my dad and two of our grandparents in the same year, so we wrote touching tributes to each them in the annual letter. Our home just outside of Washington, DC afforded us with one of my favorite family photos, taken inside the National Building Museum. The girls were so small and everyone was so happy in that picture. One year, when we started to grow tired of coming up with new material, we creatively wrote a Mad Lib with lots of fill-in-the-blanks for our family and friends to fill out. So when I started going through the old files on my computer and came upon all of this Christmas stuff from years gone by, I delighted in the walk down memory lane.

I realized, as I was going through all of these things, that I had also saved the annual spreadsheet lists of people to whom we would send out cards. Talk about going through the archives! As you might imagine, the people on the lists changed from year to year, because the places we lived and the circles of people in our lives changed from year to year as well. Our families, as all families do, suffered great losses over the years. As time went on, we lost contact with some friends for a variety of reasons. Likewise, we gained so many new relationships, new friendships, and new communities. When I compare the most recent Christmas card lists with the ones from 5 or 10 or 20 years ago, I am blown away. Memories of faces and moments and life come flooding back. This is the stuff that life is made of, isn’t it? Remembering each person on these years of old lists was an astounding moment of grace for me. And as I reflect on it this Advent season, I find myself reflecting on one of my favorite images from the Letter to the Hebrews. The author of the epistle writes:

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (-Hebrews 12:1)

Reflecting on this scripture causes me to pause. In my mind’s eye, I picture the dozens of people who have filled the lists on all of those Christmas card spreadsheets. I think about the couples, the families, the aunts and uncles and cousins, my brothers and sisters in law, my nieces and nephews, the old neighbors and co-workers. I reflect on all of the places the cards have travelled – the cities and towns and neighborhoods, the mailboxes and kitchen tables they’ve graced. I think of those who have died, and I think of the communion of saints, this great cloud of witnesses, and the way I sometimes feel their presence like a whisper. In the process of remembering, the invitation, for me, was to give honor to all of the holy souls that have graced me in my lifetime. The invitation for Advent is to celebrate the innumerable communities that have formed so many circles of grace in each of our lives.

As Michael Taylor says, “Grace happens when human life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so this is my prayer for all of you: May you find solace and growth in the relationships in your lives. And may you delight in the presence of those holy friendships that enfold you in circles of grace.

 

[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]

part one: an advent circle of grace


the first light: patience

Advent is a season of patience. It begins, it seems, as we wait for the days to begin to get longer. For me, as the days get shorter and shorter in December, the darkness that comes earlier in the evening is sometimes unbearable. And yet, when I drive home after a long day and darkness surrounds me, the beautiful Christmas light displays seem to light my way home. I love the way Chester County provides so many open vistas, so many fields and rolling hills, where I can spot lovely houses outlined with lights, some multi-colored, others clear; some displays so over-the-top and others more understated.

As it was mentioned, we recently lived in Southeast Asia for a couple of years. Our first Christmas in Singapore, we moved heaven and earth as we arranged for our adult daughters to visit us in Asia for the holiday. With the flights booked, I began to realize that I hadn’t brought any of the family Christmas decorations with us during our move around the world. No cross-stitched stockings that I’d made when the girls were babies, no Christmas tree, no garlands or ornaments or Christmas plaid placemats brought out only for a short time every year. The girls would be coming, but I found myself worrying that our modern, 29th-floor apartment wouldn’t ignite the feeling of coming home for the holidays.

Those few weeks before the girls arrived became a whirlwind of my making Christmas in a foreign country. I found an artificial tree, picked up makeshift ornaments along the way, paid way too much to have some new stockings shipped from the US that were embroidered with each of our names, and I baked batches and batches of Christmas cookies. Having been away from our kids for so many months, I had a strong desire to create a “perfect” Christmas. They wouldn’t be coming home per se, but I still wanted their Christmas to resemble all of the ones we’d celebrated with family and friends over the years. As I look back on it now, I realize that I went a bit overboard. At the same time, I am keenly aware of the grace of this experience. As you’ve probably guessed, it turns out that our Singapore Christmas was nothing like those Christmas pasts. But in the process of trying to make a perfect Christmas, I can say now that God presented me with the grace of learning. I learned to be patient, with myself, first and foremost. I learned to let go of some perfect image of Christmas that existed in my imagination and to understand that what was most important was that we were all on the same continent, in that little apartment in Singapore, enjoying each other’s company. I also learned that waiting to see my kids after many months of being away from them was the most difficult exercise in patience I’d ever experienced.

In Advent, we wait in joyful hope for the birth of the infant. This waiting is a sort of holy patience, isn’t it? What I found myself struggling with that first Christmas in Singapore was that the joyful part of that waiting became eclipsed by the worry and anxiety about making it perfect for the four of us in a foreign country where most people didn’t really seem to understand the reason for the season. My focus was on the stuff and not the fact that we were all going to celebrate together on Christmas eve and Christmas morning. This realization, this awareness, and this understanding was an amazing grace. It was if as a switch went off inside of me, and I began to notice the joy and let go of the anxiety. The invitation here, for me, was to have patience with myself, to slow down, and to delight in the moments preparing for and sharing with my family. For any person in Advent, this invitation to be patient with ourselves, and to be patient in our waiting can be a wonderful way to enter this Holy season. To find joy. To breathe deeply. And to be aware of the times when striving for a picture-perfect December has eclipsed our ability to be present to the gifts right before our eyes.

As Michael Taylor says, “Grace happens when human life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so this is my prayer for all of you: May you savor moments of joyful awareness as grace and gift during this season.

 

[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]

advent by candlelight

I was recently honored to be invited to speak at two local parishes for their Advent by Candlelight events. I’ll be posting the four sections of my talk on the blog – one during each week of Advent. Here is the introduction to the presentation:

An Advent Circle of Grace

“Grace happens when human life is lived and celebrated authentically.”

This quote, from theologian Michael J. Taylor, helps point to this idea that grace can be found in nearly every event and circumstance in our lives. Grace happens when life is lived. And, grace happens when we celebrate authentically. When we are in the midst of the commotion and busyness of life, like most of us are during the month of December, it’s sometimes very difficult to slow down and notice grace that abounds. It’s sometimes hard to celebrate authentically when we have so much to do.

For this evening, I hope to offer you a circle of grace. Just as we sit around these tables in circles of community, my hope is that we can envision a circle of our soul sisters as we make the preparations, run the errands, cook and bake and juggle, all the while taking care of all of the other responsibilities that life brings. Just as the Advent wreath is a circle, the image of the four lit candles form a circle of grace. And so, my talk is a collection of four little themes, like the candles of the Advent wreath, each with blessings I’ve written for you. Perhaps you can think of them as four little spiritual practices. As you journey around this circle and envision it becoming illuminated day by day and week by week, I’m hopeful that you’ll be able to take a few deep breaths every day to focus on these ideas. Maybe you’ll turn to a different theme every week. Or perhaps one will resonate more than the others and your Advent will be richer for it. My hope is that you will find moments of grace where you know in your heart that God is there, whispering. The moments of grace are there. May the words and images that are brought to mind this evening draw you deeper into the grace that Advent offers.

 

Follow the links below to view each week’s reflection:

the first light: patience

the second light: community

perception

IMG_8711

I am imagining spring and early summer in Pennsylvania, and it makes me smile. I’m sure my husband would be cursing the green, already-growing grass, as he gets the lawn mower ready for summer. He has enjoyed his life of “leisure” with our little apartment – no snow in Singapore to clear from the driveway and no weeding or cutting the grass! For me, the blooming dogwoods in spring and the magnolia tree (with yellow flowers) that we planted almost 20 years ago in Downingtown always made me rejoice in the changing seasons.

It’s been 11 months since we left our home in Pennsylvania for this adventure in Asia. Hard to believe! I use the term “adventure” with great intention. I just looked up the word; it means “risky or unexpected undertaking.” Synonyms are: trip, enterprise, happening, hazard, peril, speculation! Such a perfect word to describe the experience of leaving our home and forging forward into this unknown. Truth be told, I feel a bit lax in my communications with friends and family in the US, but not for lack of spiritual connection and affection. It has been difficult, trying to articulate why I haven’t kept my closest people, my “tribe,” up to date on our experience in Southeast Asia. I think perhaps it has to do with my level of comfort here. In so many ways I still feel as if I’m floundering. I haven’t found my groove. Each day brings new challenges, even as some things become familiar and more routine.

Being an expat is not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. And my introverted nature often leaves me feeling exhausted after my attempts to navigate this life. So much talking to strangers! I told my daughters (who are 22 and 24 for this year) that it’s a lot like going off to college was for them. Being thrown in to an environment where everyone is trying to make new friends and figure each other out. Learning what I have in common with a bunch of strangers. Being the freshman in a sea of seasoned residents. Not knowing my way around or the best way to get somewhere. Learning the layout of the grocery store so that it eventually feels familiar. Moving our “stuff” into an apartment whose layout is drastically different than our former residence. And getting rid of everything that didn’t fit.

And yet…

I have seen parts of the world I would never have seen. Bangkok Thailand, the Great Wall, Beijing China, Saigon Vietnam, Hong Kong, Bali. Each place with its own personality, its own difficulties, its own cultural flavor. Different ways of getting around. (Taxi? Hired driver? Tuktuk? Subway? Even in Singapore, I drive a car with the steering wheel on the other side, Britain-style!) Each place with a spirituality I have never known before. It’s expanding me. I find myself at a loss for the spirituality I’ve known before. For the old, familiar connection with God. And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

I’ve had the opportunity to taste foods and cultures I’ve never tried before. To see Indian people walking on a pilgrimage of 4 kilometers carrying milk vessels attached to their body with piercings. To watch Buddhist monks in bright orange robes carrying alms bowls around the city. To listen to the Muslim call to prayer in a little neighborhood in Singapore.

I’ve met some incredible ladies who have lived in every imaginable corner of the globe. We like to joke about this. Whenever someone asks where we are from, our favorite response is, “It’s complicated.” I moved here from Philadelphia. I grew up in Michigan. My kids were born in Maine and Maryland. My experience is all over the US, but the ladies I’ve met have stories like this: “I was born in Louisiana. I’ve lived in Egypt, Paris, and Shanghai. I moved here from Abu Dhabi. We hope to retire to North Carolina some day.” In other words, “It’s complicated.”

And yet…

I miss my wonderful parish in Downingtown. I miss my closest girlfriends. I miss Wawa and Jasper and the Struble Trail. I miss driving down familiar Chester County roads. I miss my yellow magnolia tree. Mostly, I miss my daughters, and my mom, and my brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, in-laws.

So goes the roller coaster of expat life. And so goes the roller coaster of ANY life. Finding the spirituality of the experience of every day. Trying a new food at your favorite restaurant down at the corner. Hearing the words of scripture with new, fresh ears. Meeting incredible ladies whose life has been “complicated”and feeling connected to them regardless of where we came from.

I just finished reading a phenomenal book, Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment, by Katrina Kenison. It is a beautifully written memoir, a pilgrimage of sorts, about a woman in mid-life adjusting to the new routines, a woman who realizes that her path has been a precious one, and whose path is still opening up before her. I highly recommend it. It has helped me to see that every journey through life is a beautiful one. And so, I will end this post with a quote from the book.

First, some background about the context: In Kenison’s heartfelt exploration through the changes she’s experiencing, she decides to enroll in a month-long yoga training retreat. At the end of the retreat, the instructors ask each participant to write themselves a letter that will be mailed a few months later, after they have re-integrated back into their “former” lives. Kenison’s letter to herself is one I will return to again and again, a universal commentary, and also one for me, personally. One I feel like we each should return to, regardless of our age or experience or any pain in the present moment. An expression of what we each should want, need and demand of ourselves, every day, for the rest of our lives.

“What I want to say to you, my dear, is this: Just for today, live the passionate truth of who you are. Stop looking at what is undone, what you haven’t achieved, where you’ve fallen short. Look, instead, into your own full heart. If your journey brings you to a choice between love and fear, choose love. Vulnerability is its own grace and its own gift. Offer it. Be brave enough to be vulnerable. Allow yourself to be seen–dancing, and falling, and failing, and trying again. You are loved, and all that you have to offer is deeply needed. Your own presence is a force for healing. Be present. There is more going on than you know, more guidance and support surrounding you than you can even begin to imagine. Trust it. Your own strong roots are in place–in your own body, in the earth, in the ongoing story of your life, just as it is. Put your faith in these roots, and allow yourself to go with the flow. Let go and breathe into the goodness that you already are. Move with the current, not against it. Resist nothing. Let life carry you. You have work to do. Begin it.”

And so I begin again. Today. Tomorrow. And the day after that. Again and again and again.

I invite you to do the same.

 “One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.”

-Henry Miller