I have dedicated my life to serving adolescents and adults who suffer from the effects of childhood abuse and addictions. This work manifested in the creation or co-creation of seven outpatient treatment centers around the southeast. I studied at The School of Servant Leadership, Jubilee Center, in Washington, DC with Gordon Cosby and have been a retreat leader and faith formation director. My wife, Bonita and I live in Memphis, TN.
Never question the truth of that which you fail to understand. For the world is filled with wonders.
L. Frank Baum (‘Rinkitink In Oz’ from Land of Oz series)
One of the many drawbacks to this easy-access, instant-information era, in which we can ‘Google’ almost anything, is that the lure and luster of wonder have drastically diminished. While it may seem delightfully practical to have all the facts at our fingertips, the problem is that faith, wisdom, and ideas might be on the chopping block along with actual research.
I remember the wonder, awe and the excitement of discovering whole hidden worlds when I was a boy. The woods and lake in Danville, Illinois, where I spent countless hours with my friends were so much more than places or destinations. We were eager and able to focus up and down with magnificent dexterity when we were children. At one moment our eyes were microscopes that found tiny crawling things in the grass, under rocks, and in the water.
Life was teeming beneath our feet. Small hands explored every detail without concern for time. At another moment our eyes were binoculars or telescopes which identified clouds that looked like dinosaurs or monsters or any other imaginable thing. Life was exploding just above our heads. We created forts and trails that were home to wild adventures. Play came naturally and was unsupervised by incredulous or judgmental adults. But the hidden worlds gave way to demands of another reality too soon.
The wonders of life and capacity for spiritual growth spring forth from those things which we don’t understand. When presented with new experiences, problems that seem unsolvable, challenges beyond tested limits, and unexplored beliefs, we expand our ideas to become someone who is changed. The fact that we can’t fix a meaning to what is happening is pivotal. It is the birth of wonder. God is speaking to us in such moments.
“All journeys have secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.”
The experience of being lost is bewildering and can be frightening. We find ourselves in unfamiliar places without a good frame of reference. There is an overwhelming desire to get information and regain our bearings. Fear can intensify to such a point that even the directional cues such as the position of the sun are confusing. You wander so far off the path that you have no idea where you might be. The fear and disorientation turn into panic. We pray that someone will find us. Where is that GPS when I need it!
There is seldom a time when being lost is a pleasant experience for most of us. Some people, however, seem to relish the whole thing. My Dad and his brother Bob were two of those people. They loved to “take the scenic route” and were delighted when the adventure resulted in getting (what seemed to be) hopelessly lost. The announcement from the front seat of the car that we were veering off to the road less traveled was not usually well received. Highways gave way two-lane roads which ultimately led to dirt roads in the country, one lane mountain byways. We found remote villages that no stranger had visited for several million years.
These guys were undeterred by protests from helpless wives and children. Their enthusiasm only became greater as we dropped deeper into the abyss. Dad and Uncle Bob didn’t believe that there was any such thing as being lost. We always found our way back home or to our ultimate destination. We were never eaten by wild animals, nor did we freeze, nor were we found starved to death in our car. They taught us a valuable life lesson. Being lost is a state of mind. It is one that my cousins and I have assimilated pretty well.
There is so much to learn and so much to see. We can take the safe road and move from destination to destination if we want. But in so doing, we will miss all the great things that are off the beaten path. Life deals us plenty of blows. We are often windswept and thrown off course. We can choose to be lost and helpless or we can embrace the experience and dive into the excitement of the “scenic route”.
“Stay true to your deepest intuition that an extraordinary and miraculous life is possible.” ~ Craig Hamilton
I have a hunch that each of us struggles with a sense of emptiness when considering how seldom our dreams and present situation match up. Life has a way of leading us in directions that are far from what we had planned or for which we had hoped. When that emptiness descends, a bleak truth is laid bare. But this somber reality actually contains a guiding light through dense fog. It is a touchstone.
The fact that an extraordinary and miraculous life is possible cannot be denied. It is not only possible…but is a certainty if fully embraced. This doesn’t mean an easier climb on the ladder which we are enticed to believe brings happiness. Rather than a linear measurement of success and failure, it is a promise that there is an ongoing dance and celebration we are invited to join. Life is not about beginnings and endings, wins and losses,or scorecards to be kept. It is circular and full of promise.
“The only things that can keep you out of this divine dance are fear, doubt or self-hatred. What would happen in your life -right now- if you accepted being fully accepted?” ~ Richard Rohr
This chapter of your story is being written in the very moment we are experiencing here and now. How it evolves is up to you. The miraculous and extraordinary are revealed when it is understood that you are never alone. We are one in all of our magnificent diversity. Nothing is so dark that it might extinguish this truth. God is with us and we are with God. We dance this dance together.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” Thomas Merton
Today is the Feast of Epiphany. Three Wise Men have traveled from great distances to follow a star. They encounter God-With-Us and are awakened to a new understanding of creator and creation. They had a shared vision of danger at the hands of King Herod and went ‘home by another way’ avoiding the cruelties of the world and were transformed. Their story has been told and retold for over two-thousand years.
Most of us long for a personal epiphany in our lives. We hunger for a transformation from who we are to who we dream of being. But what is needed in order to achieve such a change? These awakenings seem to be rather elusive and come at unlikely times. I have discovered that if we let go of worry, hurry and hate allowing the love inside to shine, we will become instruments of that love regardless of our circumstances.
One of the wonderful epiphanies of our time came to Bill Wilson, a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. His chronic addiction to alcohol led him to be committed for the fourth time to Manhattan’s Towns Hospital in 1934. He was sedated and hopeless. Bill prayed and wept for God to ‘make Himself present’. He describes what happened next;
“The result was instant, electric, beyond description. The place seemed to light up, blinding white. I knew only ecstasy and seemed on a mountain. A great wind blew, enveloping and penetrating me. To me, it was not of air, but of Spirit Blazing, there came the tremendous thought. ‘You are a free man.’ Then the ecstasy subsided. I found myself in a new world ofconsciousness which was suffused by a Presence. One with the Universe, a greatpeace stole over me.”
Bill’s spiritual awakening, or white-light experience, was a liberating awareness of God which has saved the lives of countless souls through the gift of 12 Step Recovery.
There are many other similar stories. A common thread seems to be that a person must be in a position where there is a desperate need to listen. Karl Menninger describes this listening as a force that creates us, unfolds us and expands us. We must be open to the improbable, listening for the miraculous, willing to follow the improbable star, eager for change, and brave enough to go home another way. Epiphanies will come. Life will never be the same.
“In the cold you wrap me. In my uncertainty you listen. In all my joys you celebrate. At every turn you meet me with competence and grace. What a fine dance we have together.”
Mary Anne Radmacher
I once had this epiphany and scribbled down the words that came to my mind. My intention was to let them marinate and become a poem. Of course, they still may, but for more than thirty years have yet to inspire more verse.
They came to me at a time when I had decided never to become involved in another intimate relationship. Pain from losing my marriage and children was so intense that I vowed a life of celibacy. I would travel alone. It was the middle of the night when this phrase came along; ‘Dance, Dance, Dance! I said celebrate not celibate.’
Though the words may sound simple or silly, I was changed. Gradually opening myself to others, I miraculously found the love of my life and we married. I have been restored to family, children and grandchildren. Life is good…and it is intended to be a dance of celebration. This is my lesson of The Ninth Day of Christmas.
The gift of Nine Ladies Dancing from our true love is compelling. It takes the intimacy of the dance and entwines it into spiritual direction. We are reminded of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is God revealed as the interactive dancer who teaches us how to live and love. We are supposed to be engaged in an active relationship with God and with each other.
The nine Christmas gifts include; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. A dancer needs a partner. When there is nobody to dance with there is no relationship or affection. God needs us and we need God. So let’s dance. It is a perfect day to engage.
“Ring out the old, ring in the new. Ring, happy bells, across the snow: The year is going let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true.” ~ Alfred Lord Tennyson
A celebration of this New Year of 2019 gives us the unique opportunity to reflect. We have experienced triumph and defeat, joy and sorrow, abundance and loss. Our personal lives have been changed. We are a bit older and more experienced. Our reminiscences of the year should include both the good and the harm we might have done. This is a good time to sort it all out. It will give us a chance for reconciliation and new beginnings.
Sometimes we leave damage in our wake despite the best intentions. People have feelings that are hurt because we were somehow thoughtless or reckless. We have done or failed to do things that have hurt relationships. This creates a need for making amends. We must first admit our wrongdoings, apologize, and then proceed to set things right. By so doing, we make ourselves vulnerable and take down the walls that separate us. Finally, we pledge to refrain from repeating the damaging behavior in the future.
The healing that springs forth from reconciliation is beyond our greatest expectations. We begin to live a life without regrets. Trust and harmony become the cornerstones of our relationships. We find ourselves as the benefactors and recipients of love and compassion. We build coalitions instead of seeking isolation. Diversity is no longer frightening. There is always a path to reconciliation. Nothing is so important that it should stand in the way of this miraculous process. What a terrific way to turn the page to a new year. Let’s do it…and set the stage for a Happy New Year.
“Le present est gros de l’avenir.” (The present is big with the future) ~ French Proverb
“Instead of being a time of unusual behavior, Christmas is perhaps the only time in the year when people can obey their natural impulses and express their true sentiments without feeling self-conscious and, perhaps, foolish. Christmas, in short, is about the only chance a man has to be himself.” ~ Francis C. Farley
The Second Day of Christmas is the one that reminds us of unconditional love and perfect dedication. It is the feast day of St. Stephen. We are reminded that love overcomes hatred as evidenced by his legacy left which somewhat troubles the hearts and souls of those who are filled with malice and malcontent. That gift of love left by Stephen haunted his persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, until he could stand it no more. On a dusty road, he saw the light and was forever converted. St. Paul cleared the way for all of us to follow. Love triumphs, Love wins, Love endures.
What a message we receive in these days of Christmas celebration! There is an urge to get it all over with, to pack up the decorations, put away the presents, clean up the mess, and to resume the day-to-day routines. How about if we summon the spirit to resist that temptation right now? Two turtle doves are the symbol of this second day of Christmas. It is the perfect opportunity to think about those little loving creatures who dedicate their entire lives to each other. They are little signs of God’s love; a love which makes no demands and asks no favors and has no strings attached. Think of how unlike that our regular, busy or hum-drum days can be. We require performance from each other. We expect returns for what we give. We keep step with an invisible and arduous drummer telling us to be worthy.
I stand against trying to put Christmas back into storage bins and boxes. Give it up! Settle into the 12 Days and receive a new way of living out the love which is given so freely. Perhaps, even after two thousand years, St.Stephen and St. Paul have personally left each of us with a cleared the way that we might navigate life differently.
Recollections of childhood Christmases are rekindled to a level of vividness as the holiday gets closer and closer. I think back on those ‘days of yore’ with fondness and joy. One of my favorite memories involves a near tragedy surrounding our family Christmas tree.
Finding the perfect specimen of a tree was almost a competitive sport before artificial look-alikes were invented. It seemed like everyone in my hometown of Danville, Illinois in the 1950s had the same quest. Our mission was to search out the perfect pine to be festooned in our front room windows. Tree lots were meticulously combed from as early as the day after Thanksgiving. The pondering of long needles, short needles, spruce or balsam was considered at length as if such a purchase never occurred before. Finally, a decision was made about which tree would hold up best and the crown jewel of Christmas was chosen.
Every family has their own traditions. Ours was to haul our tree up to the body shop of Glen T. Smith Chrysler-Plymouth on North Vermilion across from The Times Theatre. Uncle Glen was my mother’s brother-in-law. He would load his car painting equipment with a sticky white fluff substance so that his family, ours, and my grandparents could flock the trees to look like a heavy snow had just covered them.
The arrival of the tree at our home, tied and wrapped securely to the top of our car was a moment of triumph for my Dad. Soon Christmas splendor would appear for the whole neighborhood to witness. Decorations with special family significance, a cotton tree skirt, bubble, and twinkle/multicolor lights were draped on the branches while eggnog and fudge were consumed next to the fireplace. But then, in 1960, something earth-shattering happened. Mother discovered the new, magnificent, and elegant Aluminum Christmas Tree (complete with rotating color wheel).
I was never quite sure why my father relented to this interloping phony which began to grace our “sunroom” that next Christmas. It was as if some distorted alien being had come to rest near the front door. He would give it the most disturbing glances as he passed by…not quite a scowl but something akin to revulsion and disgust. Mom was oblivious. I had never seen her any prouder than she was over her decorator tree from Marshall Fields in Chicago. To make matters even worse for Dad, it could only be decorated with uniform fashionable red ornaments. No lights were necessary either. The color wheel took care of that. One moment it was green, then red, then blue and then a strange yellow gold. All of the bulbs and baubles were abandoned to the attic in deference to the imitation thing that had replaced our beloved flocked masterpiece.
There developed an increasing tension between the tree and Dad over the next two years. It was 1964 when all hell broke loose. Finally the unhappiness Dad was experiencing proved to be too much for Mom. She reluctantly gave in and issued a reprieve for the restoration of some old decorations to hang on the metal impostor. But Dad must not have heard the word ‘some’. She watched in horror as he brought down ALL of the old ornaments and lights and draped them from top to bottom. The once gleaming essence of simplicity got loaded down with everything but popcorn garland. Mother watched in a nearby chair with a stiff cocktail in utter defeat. Even the cotton skirt was laid around the base. Dad’s work of art was complete.
Presents were crammed one after the other under the branches until one spark from a frayed light strand coursed through the aluminum, down the trunk, and then with a loud ‘POOF’ the cotton went up in flames. Over the din of race cars, we heard a loud stomping and pounding from upstairs. By the time that we got to the sunroom, it was practically ablaze. Dad was making desperate but futile efforts to put it out with his bare hands. Steve and I quickly formed a bucket brigade and put out the fire before Danville Firefighters arrived. We had become 14-year-old heroes as far as my folks and neighbors were concerned. The firemen even clapped us on the back in appreciation of our efforts.
So, the aluminum tree was ruined and never replaced. No more fake trees for us. It was back to flocked ones. We moved to a bigger home the following year where Dad spent many hours admiring his traditional tree. Mom got her way with annual decorator themes and fancy ornaments (since all of the old ones exploded in the fire). A happy compromise had been achieved. The story of heroic boys and a Christmas fire was told and retold. There was one addition to all of the holiday decorations, however. Hidden behind the living room curtain, out of sight but not too far from reach, was a bright, shiny red home fire extinguisher.
A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a safe night.
“The main trouble is there are too many people who don’t know where they’re going and they want to get there too fast!”
Sylvester (The Bishop’s Wife, 1947)
I’m waiting for The Wonderful.
It’s coming as sure as there will be white Christmases, holiday decorations, familiar old songs, eggnog, stuffed stockings and presents under the tree. Many of us have the luxury of fond memories, enticing smells of things cooking and a landscape that twinkles with a thousand lights to remind us. Some have not been as fortunate.
But we must remember that there is more to Christmas than the things we might receive and give. I have come to call it The Wonderful. It has to do with a marvelous transformation that seems to happen to people this time of the year. Waiting for The Wonderful creates an atmosphere of childlike joy. The possibility of a miracle reigns supreme. Something extraordinary is coming as our waiting takes on a joy of its’ own.
Christmas movies always put me ‘in the mood’ for the coming festivities. Among my favorites are old black and whites from post-World War II. The men and women who had been engaged in devastating struggles of battle were back home and in the process of creating a bold new world. They rolled up their sleeves, went to work, built houses, attended schools, and dreamed dreams of prosperity.
By 1947, the simple times and ways of a Norman Rockwell agri-rural America were forever altered. Along with the many changes came a more bountiful and materialistic focus on Christmas. Presents were stacked under lighted trees instead of hung on branches. More became better…and that notion was reflected in the movies.
Two very different films were presented that year. One was ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ which portrayed the Macys parade and an abundance of shopping. The other was ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ which reminded a hurried nation to slow it down and to think about what our Christmas observance was all about. This picture sums up the essence of The Wonderful. It ended with a Bishop’s sermon written by an angel. This is what he said;
“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking. Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts.
You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled…all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up.
The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving-kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”
Today, amid all the hustle and bustle, I will remember to fill a stocking in my heart with the most important gift of all. I will eagerly welcome The Wonderful.
“There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.”
This Sunday in Advent asks for us to rejoice in the season. We can see the changes wherever we go during Christmastime. Colored and white twinkle lights adorn trees, houses, barns…and even gaily displayed on a whole group of people in Pelzer, South Carolina. What a delight it is to be surrounded by the joy of light and lights. Today implores us to be mindful. It asks for us to join hands in an effort to make the world a gentler place of rejoicing. What better time than now to start a journey of healing and awakening? We have the light to guide us just as the Wise Men did more than two thousand years ago.
All of this incredible celebration is shining into our hearts on Gaudete Sunday. But I want to share another kind of rejoicing that has touched me deeply. I have had the great honor and privilege of listening to the “Fifth Step” of people recovering from the chronic diseases of addiction. When one arrives at this point, a fearless moral inventory has been painstakingly prepared. Resentments have been identified. Even personal ownership in those offenses has been taken. A lifetime of secrets is shared and confessed. Burdens are set aside. A place is made for rejoicing where depression and regret once reigned. From the heart of darkness comes a beacon of hope.
I have learned from these brave people that light, love, and joy can glow in the most hopeless situations. I have learned that healing and awakening are always possible. I have learned that we are never alone. I have learned that we are all in this together for a very good reason. I have learned that Christmas rejoicing can happen every day of the year if we allow it. That transformation is just what we need today.
“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.”