Tis The Season 2015

Christmas.

I either love it or hate it. I’ve posted before about the challenges of the Christmas season in my line of work. There are lots of extra songs to sing, a big Christmas Eve service to plan, and tons of extra things to do – from parties and other events to shopping and wrapping and all that – so much busy-ness! It’s not just me, I know – it lands on all of us who celebrate this holiday.

This year, I really want to love Christmas, so I’m trying to get ahead. I feel good about our plan for Christmas Eve at PCC, and I’ve gotten a head start on gifts. And I decided to put the tree up early this year.

The boys went out and got one last weekend, and we put it up, unadorned. When all the kids were home for Thanksgiving, we set aside some time on Friday to decorate it.

There’s a certain procedure that ALWAYS has to be followed for Brawley / Stoddard tree decorating:

  1.  Harry Connick’s iconic 2003 album Harry For the Holidays – nothing else will do. When the drums kick in and the first notes of “Frosty the Snowman” start blaring in the horn section, we know it’s Christmas.
  2. Everybody pulls their specific ornaments out of the old, duct-taped container and places them somewhere on the tree.
  3. I go behind them and rearrange the ornaments so things are balanced.
  4. One of the old gingerbread ornaments that Sharie Rengers helped the kids make bites the dust (Sharie, after 12 years, there’s only one left…)
  5. Somebody breaks a glass bulb.
  6. There’s a huge fight over whose turn it is to put the star on the top.
  7. We watch Elf.
  8. Family photo – all the kids, in front of the tree.
  9. I get emotional. 
This year, we added a new item – keep the dog from eating the ornaments. 
It was a great evening and I found myself almost amused by how seriously the kids take the tradition and the ornaments. At one point, one of them said, “I just love how our tree has all these old, meaningful, handmade ornaments…” at the same time I was thinking I wish we had a beautiful tree with gorgeous, shiny ornaments instead of all these old preschool macaroni frames and popsicle-stick Rudolphs….

Ironic.
They’re right, of course. What matters, and why it matters, is that each ornament represents something. In most cases, each one is specific to a kid. They remember the year everybody got shiny new fancy ornaments; I’d been at Pier One, and I found crowns, and drummers and beautiful, colorful glass and metal balls – one for each kid, picked specially for them. They remember. They say so, and they laugh about it.

The new guy
As we finished, I heard one of the girls say, Hey!!! WHAT’S THIS? They pulled at a little stuffed owl / snowman sort of thing.
I got that last year. It’s new.

There was no reply; nothing but a look of disdain and the clear implication that “The New Thing” didn’t really belong. 
But it does. It’s part of my memory-making now, one of several ornaments I bought and shared with special friends and loved ones last Christmas. I hope they’re placing little owl / snowman things on their trees, among their memorable ornaments, and making their own traditions.
Time goes so fast – it slips and swirls around me in ways I didn’t really expect. The tendrils of traditions and memories wrap around my legs every time we revisit one of those things we do every year; Thanksgiving “thankful” around the table at the end of the meal, decorating the tree, celebrating birthdays, singing carols. Every year, I sense the swirl growing higher and higher, building upon all the years that have made this life, this family, this sense of belonging and being part of a blood-connected tribe. I guess, eventually, you get swallowed up by all the memories that make up a life well-lived. And I guess that’s not necessarily a bad way to go.
I say, “I love my family” easily, and it’s so true. But the depth and breadth of that love is often only fully realized after they’ve all left to go back to school or their new homes, and I can rest quietly in the darkness and look at the memories that hang on our Christmas tree.
That love is deep, and it is wide, and I have proof.

When I Sang With The Trees

For a Saturday in late November, the weather was extraordinary. And we took advantage of every minute.

We’re doing some work on the house, so Tony and a friend spent eight hours sawing and digging and hacking and cutting and pouring and other assorted things that required sweat and dedication. My

husband is happiest when he is fixing something, so today was a very happy day.

We took a big pile of stuff to the recycling center and made two trips to the Goodwill store – donations only. We got a Christmas tree, which stands unadorned but upright in the living room, in which all the furniture was rearranged. Again.

(In my opinion, failing to rearrange furniture at least three times a year is a missed opportunity for a renewed mind.)

There was a massive pile of wood to burn, so the boys and I took turns minding an intense fire. At one point, when everyone was gone, I stood alone, pitchfork in hand, tossing in twisted pieces of lumber and watching the flames dance. I found myself transfixed by the way the smoke rolled and twisted, only to be engulfed and pushed back by flames.

I thought about God.

Last night we watched a documentary I’d heard referenced in a podcast about God. It was the kind of thing I’d generally dismiss pretty easily – unfortunately, I find myself rather cynical these days about media portrayals of folks seeking (and finding) enlightenment and truth, Christian or otherwise. Seems to me the lure of a dollar causes many spiritual experiences – followed by necessary books and movies and talk shows – but, again, that’s the cynic in me. Or a discerning spirit. Or a bit of both.

But something about the podcast discussion made me take note, and when I had a little time last night, I pulled up the film on Netflix.

It was an interesting journey, one that told of ‘spiritual eyes’ and an emotional, mental and physical awakening that appeared to be legitimate….but it was really out there. The guy suddenly began to experience the spiritual realm in very tangible ways, and it totally rocked his world. He didn’t want it. He fought it. His loved ones walked with him but he struggled, frustrated, to explain it.

In the end, he found a way to embrace what was happening to him, and he seemed to be at peace and full of joy.

The cynic in me is still unconvinced, but the film made me think. I know many of my friends would take offense at the direction the film eventually heads, which – while dovetailing nicely with some traditional Christian beliefs – diverges sharply in its understanding of God and the legitimacy of all spiritual paths.

But here’s the thing; the residual effects of the film and its presentation of the intense and focused pursuit of truth and trust bubbled up in me this afternoon. Tending the fire on a beautiful autumn afternoon, I looked up and found myself drawn to praise the Creator in a way I’d never experienced before. I prayed and I sang and felt like I was dancing with the trees and the sky, and isn’t that the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written?

I think it is.

But it’s the truth; I felt deeply connected, and physically engaged, and drawn into the heart of God.

That sky – no filter, just blue…

I offered praise and thanks and glory, and I asked for help and comfort and understanding. I had a
very real sense that the evil that is terrorizing the world in these days is known by God, and seen as vile and abhorrent. And I felt the assurance that this evil would not prevail.

In a week underscored by deep anxiety and no small amount of fear at what the world and our country will face in days to come, this encounter was encouraging and deeply moving.

I embraced it, and I found myself full of peace and joy, and comforted by Presence.

It was weird, and different, but welcome. Left me scratching my head, but deeply convinced.

And then I looked up at the sky again, and a jet plane was striving for the heavens, its white vapor trail dissecting the sky. Straining up, up, higher and higher.

What a thing that was, for that moment.

I am convinced. And I realize that our persuasions are often what we make of them, but when they lead to what is good and right and true, I find it well with my soul. If I encounter God in the trees of the field and that encounter lines up with what I know to be true of the character of God as seen in his interaction with people over centuries and the truth I understand in scripture, I welcome all that I can learn from it. Even if it is slightly weird.

God is real, and God is for His people.

And that is a good thing for all of us.

Seriously…

The Dark, And Another Sleepless Night

I slipped into the bedroom to find my slippers, careful not to wake my sleeping husband. Not careful enough; I kicked the cardboard box on the floor, and he stirred.

I need to make that return to Macys…

The box, a reminder of my long list of things that need doing. My creeping around in a dark bedroom, a reminder of these sleepless nights that have seized me in recent months. Hormones, or stress, or simply brain overload; whatever it is, it keeps me awake at the most inopportune – and surprising – times.

Tonight, I was sure I’d sleep. The alarm buzzed this morning at 5:30AM and we were up and out the door by 6:45. It was a long day of leading, juggling my Campus Pastor hat with my Musician Hat, interspersed with Wife and Mom and Human Being; Sundays are nothing if not an entertaining mix of roles for me. A long day, but a good day. Home at 7PM after a stop at the store for milk, I found that my 16-year old had made breakfast for dinner. He’s mastered the family recipe for ‘breakfast goulash’, and it was spot on tonight.

So, I didn’t have to cook. I putzed around and relaxed and headed for bed, early.

Sigh.

It’s 1:25AM as I write, so you can see how that went.

I read for a while, and I got up eventually and did some work. The house was quiet, settling around me, and I remembered my husband stepping outside after dinner. ‘It’s getting cold’, he said. ‘Really cold.’

I found myself compelled to go outside.

Last month, my friend and I drove to the University of Richmond to hear Barbara Brown Taylor speak. An author, pastor, theologian, deep thinker – Taylor’s books are some of my favorites. Her most recent work, Learning to Walk in the Dark, is on my bedside table – one of those books that I read in short bursts, because it offers such rich, thick substance that I can only digest paragraphs at a time.

(Unlike, say, John Grisham’s latest, which I devoured in about four hours straight.)

The book details her experience in the dark – not only the metaphor and its deep spiritual application – but also the literal dark. As in walking outside in the yard, in the dark. At night. Taylor’s writing is exquisite, mesmerizing. And, as a good writer will, she provoked action in me. I’ve started to pay more attention, to not assume that the dark is something to be hurried through. I try to meander a bit more when I walk the dog at night.

It is not an easy thing.

So, tonight – with the darkness of sleep evading my mind – I banged through my bedroom to fetch my slippers. I slid my bare feet into the soft, warmth; I grabbed my thick white hotel robe off the hook in the closet. I wrapped up and I stepped outside.

Into the dark.

My eyes went up, first. Funny; stepping out into the dark, my first instinct was to look up. I did, and I quickly found the Big Dipper, or maybe it was the little one – honestly, I have no clue as to how to tell the difference. It seems that perhaps that was something I used to know, but tonight, not so much. I stared at the stars, bright and clear. I heard the silence – that is, the lack of movement. The stillness, really; the shapes of the treetops and the outline of the shed, and the host of heaven in the stars above.

It was still and smooth, this quiet. I stood still on the deck – not willing to walk out into the dark in my robe and slippers at 1AM, but observing from a safe spot on the deck – and I looked up, again. I thought of those stars, and how they appear on the other side of the world, the same stars hanging over Beirut and Paris and Syria as time spins them to the opposite side of daylight. For a moment, some sort of infinity slipped into my soul but I could not grasp it, that the stars are the same over there, where there is such fear and carnage and death and loss. For one moment, there in the dark, it was so close to me; the grief of a mother who has lost her son, the wailing of a husband whose wife is gone, the empty space where a family once lived. In the veiled shadows there was a certainty, a familiarity that evades my consciousness in the busy bustling that fills the daylight. We are all connected.

Today in church we opened the services with a reminder that we are to love our enemies. We quoted Jesus, who said ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’. I stood in front of our gathering and said we have to remember this – that there is another way. We have to remember to pray.

And so we did. Sincerely.

But later, I read the comments of a friend on social media, who wrote this brutal movement is not going away….they are more than willing to sacrifice their lives in order to kill as many innocent men, women and children, and finally, there in the dark, under the same stars that hang over everyone, all over the world, fear whispers. And I sense that everything is changing.

I am naive, I know. I am eternally optimistic and perhaps I keep my head in the sand too often. I believe the best – to the point of irrationality. There is truth, I am sure, to the value of innocence and empathy. The call to pray for our enemies has lasting value. It matters.

But in the dark, some things become more evident.

I stood on the deck for a while, listening to the stillness, until I recognized that all was not as it seemed. Far off in the distance, dogs barked incessantly. Others joined, creating a circle of sound whose source point I could not establish. It was faint, background white noise.

There were cracks and creaks in the woods. I heard the leaves rustling, the sound of an animal moving through the night.

Sounds and movements that I could not see; they were happening underneath the star-filled sky, and where I had stood for long moments thinking existentially about the vastness of the universe and the stars that shone on everyone, suddenly I heard things right in front of me that I could not see, and I was uneasy.

The darkness is, I think, worth exploring. But it is not altogether safe, not without the confidence that what I cannot see, but only hear and sense, will do no harm.

Tonight, I do not have that confidence.