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.]

trust

My daughter is going into the peace corps. I find this so hard to believe. Wasn’t it only yesterday that my mom and I were painting the cow-jumping-over-the-moon nursery? (It was the perfect decor, since we didn’t know whether our little offspring was going to be a boy or a girl.) Wasn’t it only yesterday that we loaded our tiny newborn into her brand new baby carrier car seat and took her up Mount Battie in Camden, Maine on her ‘First Outing”? (She was barely a week old.) It might have been that, combined with our ‘First Plane Ride’ two weeks later, that instilled in her the wanderlust that drives her to this day. (We moved to Kansas soon after she was born.)

She leaves for Kosovo on June 6. And while I have known, ever since she applied, that this could actually happen, when we got the news that she had received her official invitation, reality began to set in. In all honesty, I secretly hoped that she wouldn’t make it through the very competitive selection process. But as time tends to do, the grief over the thought of having my daughter so far away from me for so long has waned, somewhat. The roller coaster of emotions that go along with this separation will carry me for the next two-and-a-half years, to be sure. And yet, when I sit with all of these realities in prayer, I know God’s grace.

My mind tells me, she’s going so far away… And God responds, she’s an adult, now.
My minds says, it’s so dangerous… And God responds, I’ll watch over her.
My mind tells me, she won’t have a car, or a mall, or her comfy bedroom… And God whispers, she doesn’t NEED any of those things.
My mind tells me, she NEEDS my love and guidance… And God chuckles a bit. Because God is love, and God is in every face she will see every day during this amazing adventure on which she is about to embark.

It’s funny, this parenting thing. We try to love them with all our hearts, we guide them, we protect them. We say “no” perhaps a few too many times. Or maybe not enough? And we pray. A lot. We do all of these parenting things imperfectly, at best. And somehow, with God’s grace and with Holy Mystery, they become a person who wants to serve others. I’ve thought about this so many times in the past few months. Where did this desire in her soul come from? I’m not entirely sure that I had anything to do with it. But I delight in it, I believe in it, and I am overflowing with gratitude for it.

Today, I pray for complete trust in God’s plan, that plan that is Holy Mystery.

I invite you to do the same.

Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
-Matthew 19:21

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

rain

It has been a strange spring where I live, here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. One day, it might be 85 degrees, the next, 51. Or, we might have drought-like conditions for a time, only to be deluged with 5 straight days of cloudy skies and rain. Or at times, just the threat of rain will be enough to dampen spirits and cancel plans.

I was talking to a guy who was at our house making a service call, and, as invariably happens with people who cross our paths, talk turned to the recent weather. At the time, the past few days had been “perfect” early summer days. Mild temperatures, brilliant sunshine, no humidity.  Truly a gift. I couldn’t help but delight in the clear blue skies and sunshine, and in the glory of being outside. I even mentioned that the recent rains were a bit much for me. And he responded, “Sometimes, we need the rain.”

It was such a simple statement, and it caught me off guard.

Sometimes we do need the rain. The gift of water, of roots saturated with hope, and of the sound of raindrops on the thirsty leaves of the trees can bring an awareness of the beauty of growth and abundance. The grass grows like crazy, almost out of control. Birds and squirrels find so many sources of water, and are satisfied.

I wake this morning to heavy fog, with dew dripping off of every leaf and branch in the yard. It reminds me of a day on the beach a few years ago, the one beach day that fit into our crazy summer schedule that year. We were going to the beach, no matter what the weather. The “partly cloudy” skies at home, a couple of hours drive from the beach, did not hint at the fact that the sandy shore was socked in by a deep, heavy fog.  As we unloaded the car at the shore, we kept saying to each other, “It’ll burn off in no time.”

I’m sure you can guess the outcome of the weather that day. Not great. And yet… with a slight shift in awareness and perspective, the day became grace-filled. I sat on the sand and looked out at the very still water of the ocean, but I couldn’t see very far. At times, I could hear the low horn from a boat in the distance. Or maybe the horn came from the lighthouse; I couldn’t really be sure. I couldn’t even tell where the fog began. And yet… I listened to the invitation of God, and closed my eyes, I could feel the moisture on my skin from being inside this cloud that sits on the earth. Focusing in on this feeling shifted my awareness.

It’s like a verse that I love from the book of Sirach: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist.”  It is the turn to this awareness, the awareness of the Holy Spirit blessing us with grace, and the faith that grace is touching us even when we can not see it or feel it, that allows us to open our hearts even more to the possibility of grace.

Sometimes, we need the rain. And sometimes, we need to change our perspective in order to find the gifts in a difficult situation. God is always inviting us to this, whether it be in deciding to leave a job after a long discernment, in the death of a loved one, in the hurt of a pained and difficult relationship.

When the time for silence comes, I ask you to take up your position for prayer, and then, having asked the help of the Holy Spirit, to be content and wait patiently, expectantly, lovingly, longingly. Try to realize that this all you can do for yourself. God must do the rest. See yourself as the parched ground looking upwards waiting patiently for the rain to fall. You can only wait.

– Fr Roger Schultz of Taize

Lord, send my roots rain.