I was driving with a friend last week, Christmas music on the radio, gentle conversation happening, when they said something along the lines of, “I really try to enjoy Christmas…. I really do.” While the subject was quickly changed, the comment stayed with me, as I pondered what pressure there is on us to “have a merry Christmas,” or sing “Joy to the World,” with our heart in the words. So much of Christmas seems to be focused on this message… it is a time of great joy… sing loud hallelujahs and hark the heralds and glorias.
I began to think about the world Jesus was born into. Political strife rampant, with a census taking place so the king could make sure he was receiving all of his taxes so his wealth could increase. And Jesus, himself, was born in a traumatic situation; his mother forced to journey a long distance at nine months pregnant, shunned by the inn keepers in the town, giving birth far away from her family and support system, and then having to flee to save Jesus’ very life. I’m sure hallelujahs and joy were far from this family’s hearts (even though there was probably a deep sense of joy at the birth!). The trauma and pain and injustice surrounding the whole story must have been overwhelming.
Sitting with theses two juxtaposing images of joy and trauma, I felt more grateful for this story. How would we feel if Jesus had been born surrounded by aunts and midwives and been loved and safe from the very beginning? Sure, it would make a nice tidy story. But there is something deeper and more reassuring about the story we know.
None of us go through life unscathed. All of us are threatened, hurt, sick, anxious, grief filled, and so much more, at some stage in our lives. All of us experience some level of trauma at some point. And while we would not wish trauma on anyone, how comforting it is to know that Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, came into a life that began and ended in a state of trauma. That God With Us knows how it feels to walk this earth with the scars of fear. That the Prince of Peace has experienced a time where there was no peace and even became a refugee to save his life. That the Mighty God came to us, unwelcomed in a strange city.
If, this Christmas, you find yourself struggling to find joy, to feel merry and bright, to sing hallelujahs, don’t worry. Remember that God came to be with us, to experience pain and trauma and sadness. That God came to be with us. Just sit with this part of the miracle. That Emmanuel, God With Us, was born. To be right here with us. In and through all of what is happening in and around us. Allow this drown out any ‘should’ about how you feel, and just know Emmanuel, born in a stable in the midst of trauma and dis-ease and conflict, here with you. For this is enough…. This is more than enough. Emmanuel. God is with us. May we each know the truth of this one fact deep within. And may this be our guide through Christmas this year.
I have had a hard time recently with the world. There is so much injustice and division surrounding us that it can feel overwhelming. I get to a point where I either want to stop and give up, curling in a corner with a blanket over my head, or to shine a spotlight on every issue with a megaphone pressed up to my mouth as I yell angrily, “Can’t you see what we are doing?” And neither of these feel very productive responses. So when I have conversations with God about this, I can get frustrated by the seeming lack of response God has for the world. A few well aimed lightening bolts, or some angelic interventions on a large scale would not go amiss at times! And some clear direction on what I can do to bring about a better world would be nice too.
After the last big snowfall I dug a spiral in the snow, and decided I was going to walk it each day, praying for peace, for life, for hope. Just to do something to bring a better world. And each day, no matter how cold it has been, I have walked the path, sometimes with a candle, sometimes in the darkness of night, sometimes at sunrise, sometimes with the cool winter sun low on the horizon, walking the path of peace and praying.
Last week I spent a day on retreat, and at the beginning of the day we were offered a Langston Hughes poem as part of the opening gathering:
In the dark,
Brighter than many ever see.
Through the soul’s own mastery.
And now the world receives
From her dower:
The message of the strength
Of inner power.
I was really struck with this…. That in the dark this mysterious “she” found her inner power to share with the world. But it had to come from the dark. It could not be discovered any other way. And it had to be drawn out from her depths, her center, her true, inner being. (Later I found that this poem was written in honor of Helen Keller, but I spent the day not knowing this.)
As I sat with the words of the poem I thought about the darkness of the world, and the goings on. And I thought about the light each of us has within us. I heard a message from God that said, “Your job is to shine your candle light. Not a spotlight, but your candle’s light. That’s all you need to worry about. And as you shine it, others will feel the strength to shine theirs too. Soon the gentle light will glow stronger and stronger. But the gentle light, welcoming and inviting, is your light to shine.”
So while it seems like a small thing, it feels absolutely right. The world has enough angry, sharp spotlights vying for attention, throwing everything not in the center into deeper shadows. But it doesn’t have enough gentle lights glowing from within with warmth and love and welcome and gentleness. And it feels appropriate in the Advent season, when each week we add a new light to the wreath, that candlelight was the image I received.
There is a song I learned a decade or more ago with these words:
No deep darkness in the world,
Can overcome the light,
If but a single candle flame
Is burn, burning bright.”
Will you join me in shining your gentle, welcoming, loving light in the world, overcoming the darkness by allowing your true loving nature to shine?
Gibbs and I went on a long hike through the woods yesterday, a place where we often go. The trails are groomed, meaning the snow is compacted enough to walk on without sinking too deep, and this place is local and almost always empty. As we set off, I decided that today we would not do the little loop that adds about 1/3 of a mile to the trail, as the last couple of times we had done it, there were spots that crossed streams and marshy areas that were not yet frozen over. I wanted a walk without an icy foot washing!
As we walked, we passed the first turn off for the loop, and unsure of where the second turn off joined the path we were on, we kept going straight, which meant we were doing the main trail loop backwards. At first it was fine. But after we crossed the ski trail a couple of times and nothing looked familiar, I began to feel disoriented. Had we somehow got lost? No…. we were still on the groomed trail. Where were we? How much further did we have to go? Had we somehow gone in a circle and were doing the loop again? Nothing looked the same and I struggled to know where we were. So I did what we had to do and just kept walking!
Eventually, of course, we came back to a spot that I recognized, but for a while I was both disoriented and enjoying seeing things that I normally did not see. Walking in the opposite direction gave me a whole new view of trees and creeks and vistas. And I’m embarrassed to say, that this was the first time ever I had walked it in this direction!
How often this is true in our lives. We get in a routine of doing the same things in the same way over and over again. In some cases this helps us…. The routine of how we begin our days gets us out of the house and to school, work or appointments on time! But in what ways does it hinder us? What can stay hidden in our lives if we never turn around, if we always have the same outlook on life?
I feel our world suffers from this… always looking at something from one point of view. At times it feels like we hold so tight to what we think is right that there is no room for expanding our point, especially to the opposite view. And look at the divisions and hate this has caused. How many of you had awkward Thanksgiving tables where some topics were off limits? Or how many felt shut down if they tried to express something that others did not agree with? How can we return to having civil discussions where we listen more than defend, where we open ourselves to truly hear rather than preparing an attack? How can we share stories with one another from our hearts, knowing that we can be heard for the truth of what we are saying? How can we reach across the lines that divide us to come together in unity where all feel valued? Maybe one way is to start by doing something different!
The Sufi poet, Rumi, said,
“Your task is not to seek for love,
but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself
that you have built against it.”
Maybe it’s not only true about love, but to discover all the places where we have put blinders on, where we have built barriers, where we have become too set in our ways, where we only travel on a set track in one direction.
As you go through your week, I encourage you to do something backwards! Maybe shower in a different order, or walk a trail in an opposite direction, or even eat dessert first! See what happens, what you notice and feel, and what delights you observe that you often miss.
Gibbs and I have been cat sitting recently, staying at a house on a lake. The lake side of the house is all windows, floor to ceiling, and so the view has been stunning. I’ve loved watching the bald eagles soaring and fishing, the trumpeter swans gliding by, the last few stubborn geese flying overhead. But what has caught my attention the most is the water. The weather here has been strange: frigid coldness followed by beautiful days where it’s above freezing. Snow has fallen, snow on snow and shovel has shoveled, shovel on shovel! And with so many grey days, when the sun breaks through the clouds it’s a total delight! The lake water has moved from having waves, to being still and mirror like, from being flowing to being frozen and back again, as it works with nature to move through all these states of being.
As I’ve been observing it I am struck by the way it changes so easily. One night when I went to bed the waves were lapping at the shore, the next morning it was crusted over with ice, broken only where a large bird had landed and swum through, and now the waves are lapping once more.
While I’ve been there, I’ve felt my emotions doing this too. Tears have been close to the surface, as they often are when I am on retreat. Not sad tears or tears with a discernable feeling attached, just tears. And there is no story, no memory or emotion or sensation, other than the tears themselves. For me it’s a sign that the Spirit is close. I’ve let them flow when they have appeared, and stop when they have finished, and I’ve sat in silence listening to see if there is a message behind them.
I remember back to the times when it was so hard to cry or to feel, thinking that if I cried I would never be able to stop, the grief so deep and bottled up, or the anger so filled with rage that it would explode. But doing healing work, in spiritual direction and therapy, I came to realize that this was just not so. The tears could be overwhelming for a while, but they would not last, and the freedom at their release was immense. Likewise, expressions of anger, in a safe place and not directed at anyone, would soon move through. Just as this lake freezes and thaws, the waves lap then still, so our emotions move through us, if we let feel safe enough to let them. They don’t get stuck or continue forever. They just are and then they change.
So the tears flow, and it’s ok. They stop, and it’s ok. The Spirit is there with me, witnessing it all, and it’s more than ok.
Where do you feel safe enough to allow your feelings to be? Who is there with you? Where do they feel stuck or overwhelming? Find a safe person or place (or both!!) and see what happens when you just let your feelings be.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.