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.

Advent and the Gift of Waiting

“At this Christmas when Christ comes, will He find a warm heart? Mark the season of Advent by loving and serving the others with God’s own love and concern.”  ~ Mother Teresa

Advent begins next Sunday.  The Hallmark Channel is providing continuous Christmas movies, people are hanging up calendars to mark the days until Christmas, while decorations abound in stores, homes and on lighted streets. Holiday music is playing on the radio.  But Advent is about waiting for Christmas.  This is a different kind of waiting than the annoying kind we experience so frequently like hours sitting in doctors offices, and long lines for at airports.   Advent is about joyful anticipation.

The kind of waiting that we are called to experience during Advent is both focused and alert.  It is being present in the moment and deliberate in our actions.  We are asked to participate during this holy time by being more attentive to the people in our lives, actively listening to our families, taking extra measures to be kind and considerate, and by being unselfish as we touch the lives of strangers.  This is challenging and can only be done if we slow down and take our steps thoughtfully. For hidden in these days of Advent, amid planning, rushing and overdoing, is the gentle spirit of peace.

All Stirred Up

“You haven’t learned life’s lesson very well if you haven’t noticed that you can decide the reaction you want of people in advance. It’s unbelievably simple. If you want them to smile, smile first. If you want them to take an interest in you, take an interest in them first. It’s as simple as that. People will treat you like you treat them. It’s no secret. Look about you. You can prove it with the next person you meet.” ~ Winston Churchill

The holidays have jump-started and are in full swing with Thanksgiving and Black Friday behind us already.  Today is often called Stir Up Sunday.  A Victorian tradition, it has been forgotten by many churches today. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer starts today’s services with this Collect;

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This urging prayer also reminded cooks to get the Christmas pudding made in plenty of time to mature before Christmas Day.  One of the puddings has a coin cooked into it.  Whoever gets that pudding should get worldly riches heaped upon them. What a fun and spiritual way to get all stirred up for the wonderful days ahead.

Victorian Christmas Pudding

Churchill was a big advocate of Stir Up Sunday.  He loved Christmas pudding too…with a tankard of brandy of course.  He believed this season to be a fine time for stirring up our sluggish and sedentary wills that we might rise to action the slumber of our complacency. What a wonderful way to prepare for this season of good-will.

Good intentions are never enough. For the necessary passion must come not only from an exterior Sunday prodding, but from an interior fire to do what is right along with a consistent determination that only a resolved will can supply. It is up to each of us to recreate the message and mission of Christmas this year. For Peace on Earth will only come as a result of our own efforts. Let’s stir it up.

Thanksgiving Day and Lost Sheep

“Life has its problems and with these we must cope. 
Trust in God, have blind faith and never give up hope.”~ Cortez McDaniel

As Thanksgiving nears, I am thinking of Cortez McDaniel, a resident of Christ House in Washington, DC.  He is a poet, is chronically ill, and a once homeless man without much hope. He had little reason to be thankful.  But just when he was at the end of his rope, the incredible miracle of Christ House reached him.  There, he received expert medical care, safe respite, a warm bed, nurturing love, nourishing food and a place to recover.  His gentle heart was restored and life has renewed possibility.  God went in search of this lost sheep and brought him home.

Christ the Servant at Christ House in Washington, DC

We who have been blessed with comfort, work, family, friends, cars, homes and such abundance have no reason to complain.  Our annoyances, worries, and frustrations come from an illusion of scarcity and lack.  Even in our culture filled with prosperity, we often choose to see the glass half empty.  Here we are on the eve of Thanksgiving.  If tempted to complain about what we are missing this year; who failed to come to the table, what favorite dish was forgotten, or that the turkey was deep fried instead of roasted, let’s stop a minute and think about Cortez McDaniel and his friends at Christ House.  Let’s fill our hearts with the bounty of God’s grace in full appreciation.  How fortunate and blessed we are!

A lost sheep is crying out for help somewhere in your life.  Thanksgiving is a good time to go out, no matter how far it has strayed, and welcome it back home.

“A lost sheep needs a shepherd to find the way.” ~ Felix Wantang

With Gold Dust at My Feet

“Grab your coat, and get your hat, leave your worry on the doorstep.  Just direct your feet, to the sunny side of the street.” ~ Dorothy Fields

The lyrics from ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ were composed by Jimmy McHugh with lyrics by Dorothy Fields in 1930 as the world was plunging into the Great Depression.  The words gave hope and were heard across the country for years.  The song became a jazz and big band standard.  It is widely believed that the stock market crash of 1929 was a symptom of deeper and more systemic problems than the events leading up to the epic day it all tanked in September.  The nation certainly did not leave worries on the doorstep.  Instead, we entered into a period of isolationism which included punitive tariffs.  The result was catastrophic.

Lessons of the Great Depression and the optimism of ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ are available to each of us in our own struggles.  Hard times come and they also go.  We can choose to isolate, withdraw, protect ourselves at the expense of others and hide with our head in the sand, or we can choose to connect with families, friends and the community.  We can absolutely find ways to help one another, and persist with an optimistic ‘Can-Do’ attitude.  Of course, no good comes from ignoring the problems that we have.  Things are resolved by taking a positive approach toward solutions.  But we need each other to make it happen.  Let’s reach out and lend a hand.

“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” ~ Helen Keller

The Activism of Love

“It’s a huge danger to pretend that awful things do not happen.  But you need enough hope to keep going. I am trying to make hope.  Flowers grow out of darkness.” ~ Corita Kent

Corita Kent, once a nun called Sister Mary Corita, worked to bring religious and secular people together at Immaculate Heart College and assisted in a peacemaking campaign with Physicians for Social Responsibility. As a result, Cardinal James McIntyre began a movement to frame Kent as blasphemous and the college as communist. In 1968, Mary Corita, followed by most of the sisters at the college, made a difficult decision to return to secular life.  This ultimately led to the closing of Immaculate Heart.  She was named Woman of The Year by The Los Angeles Times, was featured on the cover of Time Magazine and received the American Institute of Graphic Arts Medal.  Remembered by many for her Love Stamp used by the USPS, Corita Kent’s vast work is held by several art museums and private collectors including The Whitney, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Corita Kent Artwork

The intense faith demonstrated in Corita’s activism and art remains an inspiration in these times of violence, divisiveness, and rancor. There is a beautiful amalgamation of the holy and the human that we fail to embrace nowadays. We seem to have missed the point that God is Love and each of us is a gift of God.  Our mission is to transform the world.  Not by fighting against one another…but by combining divine and human love into an undeniable force for good. It is the only way.

The War to End All Wars

There were 4.7 million Americans who served in the Great War.  Finally, a national memorial is underway in Washington, DC to honor their sacrifice. It is still under construction with the General of the Armies, John J. Pershing Memorial at Pershing Park (14th and Pennsylvania Ave. NW). Ceremonies sponsored by The World War One Centennial Commission started on November 8 and conclude on November 12 for a “First Look at the National World War l Memorial.”

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France

I spent some time with a friend who lives in the UK last night.  The difference between our experiences of Armistice (Veterans) Day is that there are physical reminders of the Great War to be seen over there and none here.  Battle scars, memorials and cemeteries abound in Europe.  Americans went ‘over there’ after war was declared by Congress on April 6, 1917, but the war had been raging for three years.  When it was all done on November 11, 1918, the total number of military and civilian casualties was around 40 million. There were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

Roswell Perry Smith in the Great War (France 1917)

But our memory has been fading as generations have passed.  Families like that of my wife sent all of their sons to France in the first and following waves of soldiers.  By the summer of 1918 we were sending 10,000 a day. Four of her granduncles, Renan, Rex, Roswell and Hugh Smith fought to preserve freedom in World War I. By grace alone they all returned alive and unharmed. We cannot afford to allow this war and these heroes to become relics.  We should still wear poppies.  We should still toll bells at 11:00 as we are doing at the National Cathedral today. The tragedy of the Great War and its countless victims claimed by the conflict should never be forgotten.  The course of our own times has been permanently influenced by the events of 1914-1918 and their aftermath, as were the lives of our ancestors, and so we remember.