The New Year; A Path to Reconciliation

“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.

A Path to Reconciliation

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

The Second Day of Christmas; Saint Stephen’s Day

“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

Two Turtle Doves

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. 

Saint Stephen

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.

The Christmas Fire

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.

Bobby and the traditional tree

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).

Mom’s pride and joy

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.

New and old traditions 1969
Bob and Dad 1971

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.

Gifts of The Wonderful

“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.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Rejoice, Rejoice; The Season of Light is Beckoning

“There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.”

John Calvin

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.

The Pelzer Light People

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.”

Charles Dickens 

Embracing Faith; The Mystical, Magical Flight of Christmas

“I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” ~ William Sloane Coffin

One of the magical messages of Christmas which we are asked to explore during Advent is that faith, like love, is here regardless of our willingness to recognize it. We don’t have to trust this…and we don’t even have to believe it.  In fact, we don’t have to do anything.  Faith is just there regardless of our acceptance. 

Words of the poet Rilke sweep over me and fill me with wonder when he says that in faith “there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.” 

The mystical wisdom of Jesus who compares faith to a mustard seed boggles my mind.  The tiniest little seed was planted in each of us.  And it has the capacity to move mountains.  How could it be that our faith which seems so fleeting and fragile is so ever-present and strong?  Perhaps because it never really leaves us.

Our always-possessed faith whispers the truth to us that darkness can never endure.  It proves over and over that good will overcome evil.  It brings love forward and casts hatred aside.  It dispels worry and asks us to simply do the-next-right-thing.  We are not meant to understand faith.  This isn’t necessary and perhaps not even possible. Just take the leap.  Your wings will appear and provide a magnificent flight. Everything will be okay.

Have Some Faith; A Message of the Christmas Season

I know you want to question everything, but sometimes it pays to just have a little faith.”

Lauren Kate

Our senses are bombarded with stories of conversions and restoration of faith during Advent and Christmastime. 

The tales have been woven into the fabric of our culture beginning on Thanksgiving with “The Miracle on 34th Street” and continue to infuse us for the next days and weeks until The Wonderful finally arrives on Christmas Day. Most all of us have seen these movies dozens of times. 

Yet, the hard-hearted becoming soft and compassionate, the miser becoming generous, and the troubled being saved, always seem to find a way of evoking sentimental feelings.  The reason is, of course, that this is the heart of our Christmas experience.  We are all hoping that we will be better people and that the world will become a kinder place.

The 2nd Sunday of Advent symbolizes Faith. One of the stories that always moves me is that of Saint Therese of France who had an incredible awakening in 1886 at age 14.  A simple thing had happened.  She had reached an age when the Christmas tradition of leaving her shoes by the fireplace in anticipation of presents was at an end. 

She completed the ritual with her parents after which she heard her father exclaim that he was thankful they would never have to do it again.  She began weeping, but the sadness was replaced by an incredible ‘white-light’ experience in which she was given a message of conversion by God.  The rest of her life became a testimony of Christmas which brought major changes to the Catholic Church. 

Christmas conversion and resilience of faith resonates deeply because, as Saint Therese shows us, the grace of God is always at work.  It is the lesson at the heart of The Wonderful.  In the ordinary, warm earthiness of a stable God is born and new life comes to the earth.

The Good Word; our power to surprise and delight

“He was conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares, long, long, forgotten.” ~ Charles Dickens

According to the writer of St. Luke’s gospel, an angel appears to shepherds at night and said “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people.”  It is difficult to imagine the awe and happiness that they must have experienced.  A Good Word suddenly dispelled the darkness of night with the light of hope.

Every year without fail, I watch the 1951 Alastair Sim version of Scrooge, A Christmas Carol.

I imagine that the shepherds must have had the same dumbfounded expression on their faces that Bob Cratchit had when his boss, Scrooge the miser, gave him a raise and told him that life was going to be different from that day forward.  What an incredible privilege it is to bring good tidings, to speak well and to carry a message of hope! The changes that such communication brings to the lives of those who receive it are instant and have a lasting impact. And almost everyone will receive it.

Most of us are hungry for good tidings, good news and hope. When we hear it our spirits are lifted, we rise from the funk and the day takes on a glow of possibilities. It is hard to be dragged down after heeding a message of joy.  The great change is evidenced in the words of Charles Dickens in the closing of A Christmas Carol when he states “He (Scrooge) became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

We all have the opportunity to bring good tidings and spread them wherever we go to whomever we meet. It is just as easy as carrying a downcast, forlorn, morose and melancholy demeanor. We can surprise and delight people with a different message. 

We can make the astonishing offer of Scrooge when he says, “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob.”  Now is the time to make the change. What is your good word? Are you bringing hope or discouragement? What do you have to add to the positive flow of life? What personal benediction do you have for your fellow human beings? Find the answer and carry the message!

It is Christmas time. Life is good. By the way, it is always good…and always has been!

The Wonder of Hope

“Hope is patience with the lamp lit.” ~ Tertullian

This wonderful season presents itself just at the time of the year when daylight is quickly diminishing.  We begin bringing out the candles.  I am reminded of the Jewish prayer of Hanukkah which begins, “We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders.”  It’s a time in which everything is shining. It is the first Sunday of Advent for Christians who begin to focus on the four virtues of Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace.

Today we light the hope candle.  Healing happens when we participate in hope.  Hope is not an idle, misty, sympathetic emotion.  It is a faith-filled response to life. The vision of The Wonderful is upon us and we are reminded to never let darkness fill up our hearts.  We might be tempted to extinguish the lights and ignore the continual presence of The Wonderful as voices of negativity, gloom, and doom, reverberate from so many corners.  Scrooge and The Grinch can be found lurking around if we want to look and listen for them.  Even so, it is important to remember that both Scrooge and The Grinch were transformed by the light.  Darkness likes to make us think that it is overpowering.  But the truth is that a tiny candle will push it aside.

Advent and Hanukkah Candles will be flickering with the message that hope can never be snuffed out.  We have the opportunity to kindle them right now.