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.]

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

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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

dedication

In the days leading up to the dedication celebration of our parish’s new church building in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, I found myself praying with lovely little story in a book by Margaret Silf:

I remember well the morning when, after listening to all my outpourings regarding the chaos running riot in my life at that time, my long-suffering and very wise friend commented simply, ‘Just let the Spirit hover over the chaos.’

Silf goes on to connect chaos with creation – with God utilizing raw material to make something new, and God declaring that it is good. She explains, “Chaos is a sacred reality, the very thing that is needed for a new creation to begin. Chaos is a gift, overflowing with potential.”

I’m sure that those who worked on the project of building a new church for the people of St Joseph’s parish would agree that chaos was at least a small part of the picture. Whether it be the abundant rains that fell during the building of the foundation, or the many tradesmen working simultaneously on the floor, the ceiling, and everything in between, or the logistics of the parking lot (aka construction site) on Sunday mornings, chaos is a reality with projects such as these.

Organized chaos. That’s how I would describe the very moment that the doors were opened and the parishioners started streaming into the finished building, the majority of people seeing the beauty of this creation for the first time. No amount of planning or forethought could predict exactly how this would go. And the spirit hovered over it, showering everyone with grace.

The archbishop helped us to breathe life into this building on Saturday. The altar was ceremoniously and beautifully anointed with sacred chrism, the walls and the people blessed with holy water, and our prayers and intentions for the future of this space carried to God as incense filled the air. The Dedication Rite, beautifully orchestrated with a reverence befitting of the occasion, is something that few people are privileged to experience in one lifetime. It is a moment saved for all eternity in the life of this parish family.

During his homily, Archbishop Chaput likened this dedication to the dedication of ourself to God, in baptism and confirmation. And every time we receive Eucharist, or participate in the celebration of any sacrament, the Holy Spirit, which hovers over the chaos of our lives, showers us with grace. At the same time, the significance of this particular dedication for each of us is enormous. It is a new beginning, for the church in Downingtown, but also for each of us. A Holy moment of conversion. Grace abounds more and more.

During the chaos we have experienced as a parish family these past months and recent years, the spirit has hovered over us, blessed us, and called to us. May we continue to learn how to answer.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

-Ephesians 3:14-17