Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy Anniversary

December 28, 1952 was another century ago. So much has changed since then.

1952: before Barbie, Elvis, color television, microwave ovens, push button phones, Tupperware, The Beatles, facebook, polyester clothing, Bic pens, zip loc bags, $100 tennis shoes, $50,000 cars and trucks, and children with their own cell phones. And there is so much more.

"What is this world coming to?" they would surely have said had they known what would unfold over the years to come. But they did not know, and that is part of the blessing. There is a place for innocence in our lives.

58 years ago my parents married as two young lovers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Only 19 and 20, they found each other early and so began a lifetime together, building hopes and dreams on the only foundation they had: a shared faith and commitment to build a family together. They were undaunted by obstacles that would derail many today.

While they had no money, they had the talent and drive to work hard and persevere during some very lean years. I have seen the physical copies of her handwritten budgets from the early 1950's showing enough money every few months for my mom to buy a 75-cent tube of lipstick or rouge. And drugstore lipstick starts around $7.50 today! But we know about inflation, and I am not stunned by that price disparity alone. The beauty is how they worked together....as a team....and through many years....to accomplish this task of building a family and life together. She did not demand that she needed more than $.75. She knew what was available and worked together to determine how to manage it. My mom was always and is still an excellent manager of resources. She is capable and trustworthy.

I cannot help but contrast this to the young moms I have heard who complain that their husbands do not give them enough money, compared to others of their friends. I hear so many folks today talk - and I have done my share, I confess - of pitting themselves against their spouses as though they were two opponents sparring instead of two partners working together to accomplish a common goal. We can totally miss the boat with this attitude.

They had the emotional support from loving family members who believed in them. This is no small task. Each couple who marries has the potential to be successful and grow together in unity, though statistically over half of them will be divorced in a few years. We covenant to support new couples in our families, to undergird them and help equip them to weather the storms they will inevitably face. But naming storms is not the task of a newlywed; they are more inclined to name dreams and face an uncharted journey in their boat with arms linked and eyes forward.

Somewhere along the way Life happens.

When we say 'for better or for worse,' we do not think it will get worse.
When we say 'for richer and for poorer,' we do not think we'll become poorer.
When we say 'in sickness and in health,' we do not expect to become sick.

The wise couple learns how to face their reality - and sure and certain stormy weather - and remain together in their little boat. Sometimes it calls for a pail when we take on more than we think we can withstand. Sometimes we need a shelter in a storm. Do we know where to turn? Do we have a compass setting for a safe harbor - a place or person to help us and restore our bearings until we are seaworthy again? We can help be that port in the storm for one another when we are willing. And we can help steer one another toward Jesus, Lover of our souls, whose resources are never depleted and whose ability to love is not based on performance or mood.

I am thankful for 58 years of marriage in my parents' lives, and for their example of working to overcome the odds against this feat in our society. My sister in law said today, "I think they are over the hump."

I think so too.
May you have smooth sailing in the year ahead, and, as the old Irish blessing says, may the wind be always at your back.
I love you more than you can imagine.

Image taken from a 1880's marriage certificate. Graphics Fairy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

In the Still of the NIght

A few thoughts from today's scripture:

Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

(See also Luke 2.1—7)

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been
engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy
Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public
disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of
the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take
Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son,
and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place
to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the
Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she
had borne a son;j and he named him Jesus.

1. Verse 19: Joseph had a plan. He had reasoned it well in his mind, and it probably made sense. His plan even called out his most noble, generous nature to have Mary put away quietly when it would have been sufficient in his society to publicly handle the matter and save face himself. By all accounts, it was a good plan.

We, too, like a good plan.

2. Verse 20: Note: 'just when he had resolved to do this....an angel of the Lord appeared....' Sometimes we encounter situations that cause us to re-evaluate our plan. But, we also can be so committed to our agenda that we do not allow room for another voice to break through and call our action or plan into question.
We dismiss others' opinions that may challenge our course.
We justify our actions and rationalize our behavior and silence those who oppose us.
But Joseph heard the message of the messenger of God and changed course.

3. Verse 20 continues: The unusual message begins with words of comfort and assurance: Do not be afraid. Do we see how God offers these words whenever we encounter the Person or the message of God in Scripture? God already knows the tendency of humans to be in awe and frightened by such a communication, so there is always the accompanying message of 'do not fear'. Etch it in your hearts as I undertake to do as well; we need never fear a brush with the Holy. God is beginning even before we hear a message to meet our needs.

4. Verse 20: The message came to Joseph in a dream. This dream could have been while asleep at night or during an unusual experience any time of day. But I think of it as something that occurred during the night during sleep. During the night watch, as I like to think of it -- that time each day we go off duty, when we let our guard down, when we can rest in temporary peace if possible.

We may sleep, but God does not. Sometimes God does life-changing work in us and for us when we least expect it. God can change our plan and have us do a complete turn around after contemplating a matter with God's inspiration.

5. Verse 24: Joseph was obedient and ditched his plan. He certainly took the harder road when it would have been far easier to proceed with his own idea. Something in that nocturnal encounter was powerfully compelling!

Have your ever awakened from sleep to have a clearer picture of a situation, or possess understanding that had previously eluded you? These may be rare experiences for us, but they are possible and, I believe, to be expected when we seek God's inspiration at all times, not merely at designated hours of the day or limited to Sunday worship. Look to the night watch as a time of great possibility for spiritual growth. Ask the Lord to move in us and through us and for us, always acting to do His good pleasure in our lives for the Glory of God.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In the Window Seat

Without doing some exhaustive word study, let's just take the verse a dear friend just sent me at face value:

"In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength." Isaiah 30:15

Do you see anything in that passage about having it all together? Or having a wonderful life without worries? I do not.

What I read is a reminder that we are saved and strengthened by these things:

Repentance is acknowledging to God that we have gone astray in some way - that we have (once again....) messed up and done what we did not intend to do, both in our actions and in our inclination. [This inclination aspect is what we mean when we speak of a sinful nature, but here, I am addressing the 'habitual breakdowns'.... the little foxes in the vineyard that nibble away at our best intentions....which some friends of the heart and I had been discussing and which prompted this post.]

And, repentance is also the accompanying action of turning in the other direction....doing an about face....so that we demonstrate that we do not want to do [that thing] again. (Fill in the blank with the struggle du jour: yell at your children, worry, become abusive, give in to lying, anything....that is the subject of personal turmoil).

Then, in order to actually make good on our promise and quest to live accordingly, we must rest in the promise of God that Jesus and our faith in him enables us to live empowered by the Spirit so that we are not left to our own devices....to our own best intentions....to our own strength. We rest in the promise of God and in the efficacy of the action of Jesus to secure our salvation when we trust in Him.

We are strengthened (spiritually and even physically) by preserving that space of quietness and trust in our lives. We do so by practicing ways of demonstrating our gratitude for the grace gifts of God. No one is measuring the minutes or clocking us in. This is not tit-for-tat, or some pay-back scheme, or some legalistic formula designed to measure our worthiness. The point is that we are completely unworthy of God's grace!

If we do not reserve that place in our day for time for prayer and meditation, we will not lose our salvation. God is not sitting around the corner to jerk a stick and lower the trap on us like some neighborhood bully. This is not the way our Heavenly Father's unlimited love manifests itself. But we will lose the joy of experiencing time with Him. We will have an absence of intimacy in spiritual communications that we say we desire to experience. In defaulting to Too Busy status and rendering prayer time or Bible study lowest priority, we settle for so much less than our best offered to God. I do it way too often. I know.

So there is an important place for quietness and trust: habitually practicing spiritual disciplines that are designed to enhance our receptivity to the Spirit of God in our midst.

When babies are born it is not unusual for bilirubin levels to be a bit high in the first week of life. Photo therapy uses light to treat infant jaundice while in the hospital, and ordinary sunlight if the baby is at home. I remember being told to place our firstborn in the window so that the filtered light would surround him as he slept.

Put him in the sunlight? How low-tech. It sounded so simple' I found it hard to believe they were serious but it was the treatment of choice. And it worked.

Sometimes we need to put ourselves in the place where the Son can surround us, where we are immersed in the warmth of God's love and strengthened by the Presence of God's Spirit.

We need to put ourselves in the window seat - figuratively speaking - where we can be intentional about living in the nearness of God.

A window seat - though I have never had one - is a place I can imagine comfortably settling into as one curls up with a good book, so this imagery works for me. For you, it may be stretching out in the sunshine of a beach walk or the solitude of fishing or of flying to remember what it is to soak up the rays.

 It is an imperfect analogy, but one that lets us mentally put ourselves in a place to receive whatever God is dispensing and to make a priority of delighting in God's Presence. Or of learning how to approach this idea, if for the first time.

Any time we approach God's unfailing love, we remember:
Do not be afraid.
Come as you are.
God is near to the brokenhearted.
God will not dismiss one with a contrite spirit.
God does not send us away empty handed, but accepts our incomplete and jaundiced selves as we draw near to The Healer.

Go forth into this day in the strength and knowledge that our loving Heavenly Father is steadfast when all around us shifts and changes. His mercies are new every morning and are never extinguished. Great is His faithfulness!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Calm our Anxious Hearts

One following the thread of recent conversations with assorted friends this week will hear the anxiety, hurry, fear, disorganization, and even worry evident in our collective voices in person or through writing. We ARE busy these days.....and there is no potion or cream that will make the demands of each day simply vanish away like fine lines or wrinkles are rumored to do.

Let us remember in the midst of a dirty house, unwrapped Christmas gifts, unaddressed Christmas cards, and piece-meal living that:
God is bigger than our fears.

God beckons us to draw near with a heart of a trusting child....one who believes it when God says "Do not fear"....that God will never leave us alone, not even when we cannot seem to follow through on everything we attempt with the best of intentions.

God in the Spirit has a way of soothing our hearts with a gentle breath....with a reassuring stroke that is only discernible by a sense we can't identify, but we can know anyway. Let it soak into your heart right now, that God-Presence.

God can calm our anxious hearts.....and we so need that calming.

So when we face this week's hurdles ahead for many in our midst: surgery, pregnancies, child care, parent care, home decisions, marriage realities, relationship challenges, financial struggles, and health questions, we are wise to remember that we are not desperate people. We are normal people! We just may not be operating in the proper gear for where we need to tread. We need to shift gears into spiritual 4-wheel drive and get some traction that will help us traverse this road of Life. We cannot get through life coasting downhill, because sooner or later, we have to climb back uphill again. That's the rhythm of it.

And having done it once, we take heart that we can do it again....with God's help.

The first step is, do not be afraid. Fear prepares us to do two things: to run or to fight. God designed it that way! But drawing near to God requires neither fight nor flight. Let the fear go.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10

Let the fear go. And then invite the Presence of God to fill that space where fear habitually resided. Where there is a vacuum, something will move in to fill it. Let the Peace of God descend into our lives.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

In the Fullness of Time

Some days are far from the romanticized images of childhood picture books. There are just not enough hours in the day. We find ourselves out of time and out of gas. We are like the obviously pregnant young woman who shopped in our store late this afternoon.

Betty said with a smile, "I know we're not supposed to do this, but -- when?"

"Tomorrow. " The cute mom-to-be in the purple sweater practically exhaled the words.

Her Christmas shopping days were over. She had finished her list. She had laid by her provisions, as they used to say. Now the hard work begins.

When young moms ask, 'Will my life ever get back to normal?" I answer encouragingly, "Yes. But normal is different now."

Nothing stays the same. Life is dynamic, always changing. We learn to adapt, if we are wise, rather than to cling to what was.

Sometimes we only think we are busy/overloaded/stressed during a season of life, only to discover later that we had not yet begun to know what busy is; however, that stress was all we could handle at the time. But we learn that we can do hard things. We grow the way most living things do: by stretching.

Each season of life brings its own challenges. How do we ever prepare for them?

1. Seek wise counsel. Study. Read. This includes learning from those who have gone before. We need not reinvent the wheel when we can learn from others, yet some part of us still retains that vestigial message: 'I can do it all by myself' attitude not reserved only for toddlers.

2. Pray. This is like the instruction on every shampoo bottle I have held since the 1960's: Shampoo, lather, rinse, repeat. One would think that we'd get it by now -- that they don't have to keep telling us how to wash hair. The admonition and call to prayer is always present: you'd think that we'd get it by now too. But rather than a first line of defense and a forward strike against a threat, prayer often becomes our last resort.

So even on the busiest days when we think we cannot add another item to the list or tackle another challenge, we do not know that we are truly capable of greater things. We just cannot do it all alone. And we never have to. The promise of God's word is that God will never leave us nor forsake us.

I pray that young woman we saw today knows the power of the Presence of God tomorrow during this life-changing day for her family! And each of us will benefit as well, even if it is not our birth day. Thanks be to God.

Deuteronomy 31:6
Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.

Isaiah 41:10
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Hebrews 13:5-6
For He Himself has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." So we may boldly say: "The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?"

Photo: Festive Family Christmas from Antique Holiday Postcard Scenes - 2006 Lord & Taylor Holiday Window Displays

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Study in Contrasts

"In quietness and in trust shall be your strength." Isaiah 30:15

How counter-cultural.... how needed in my life.

"Lord, Make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life."


Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

We Remember

My sister's birthday is today. She was Kacky Boo-Boo as a toddler, and now she is a beautiful Kathryn....or Boo, which lingers on with love. As a child, I remember that folks would suggest that we should have named her Pearline since she was born on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7. Others have said she should change her birthday not to have it associated with Pearl Harbor. I could not imagine why.

Not having lived that event personally, I felt disconnected with the depth of feelings - anger, betrayal and retribution - that many Americans of that generation experienced. I came to understand through the unfolding of the decades more fully, and see how that event as a part of the war surrounding it was a defining moment for countless Americans. It was the furnace where white-hot coals seared memories and convictions into the hearts and minds of millions. It is like many things in life: you had to be there to understand. I was not.

But I glimpsed through stories of family members' military service told with immense pride and of my father's efforts as a school boy to sacrifice for the war effort, a patriotism not palpable to my generation during the 1960's and 1970's. We missed it. We were the generation of Vietnam protests and flag burnings on the nightly news. We might not have shared that view, but we were surrounded by such images shrouding our view of service to country and commitment to defend the home of the brave.

Then September 11, 2001 happened to ignite a flame under the collective consciousness of another generation of Americans who were inexperienced at being attacked on our soil. A new righteous indignation surfaced, creating a swelling popularity of American flag displays on cars and homes by people who had been fat and lazy, patriotically speaking. American flag sales soared. Magnetic flag decals appeared at convenience store check out stands, and people were buying them! The national anthem was actually sung by some at fall 2001 football games - I remember well - rather than merely listened to by sports fans.

Those events and our nation's subsequent efforts to counter future attacks have changed the way we 'live and move and have our being' more than we might have imagined. Who could have envisioned the present preposterous protocol for air travel: undressing and being patted down by strangers before boarding a plane?

And yesterday I learned where my nephew, a proud United States Marine, will be serving this nation as his generation continues the thankless task and relentless pursuit of defending the land of the free and the home of the brave. The legacy of honor and duty continues.

Thank you is too small a word for the debt we owe those who have served with courage and valor. Most of us will never know what it cost...and it is our loss. But we can remember. And give thanks. World War II veterans are a dying breed of great Americans. An 18 year old who enlisted after the Pearl Harbor attack would be 87 today. Count the number of 90 year old men you know.

So here's to Mr. Ridgway, Mr. Powell, Mr. Sorey, and others we know among the dwindling corps of servicemen who sailed and flew and belly-crawled in places we know nothing about.
We are grateful.

Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Center. Donation of Dr. Robert L. Scheina, 1970.

NHHC Photograph.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"If I'd known you were coming..."

Cakes have a way of making memories - or at least of marking occasions. We may have a favorite birthday cake, plans for a wedding cake, or just enjoy the current plethora of cupcake stores that abound.

Today was a beautiful day of food, music and friendship. The minuscule remnant of a devil's food creme de menthe cake with my favorite white frosting under our cake dome is all that remains from an evening shared with friends at one of those pot luck parties where the food 'works out' more than I do.

Comfortable conversation around a crackling fireplace, candlelight, and a bit of music from Ree's fingertips on the grand piano filled the air. The hearty hum mingled with laughter, clinking glasses, and coffee cups, and I wondered, how many years have I known these friends? At least 21...and some many more. I am so thankful for the memories we have shared. We have marked births and marriages together. We have stood beside one another at the funerals of husbands, parents, and alongside dear friends who are hurting. We remembered together the death of one dear friend three years ago. We have journeyed from crest to trough. Though we might prefer smooth sailing, we do not get to choose. We get it all in this package deal called life.

Life has a way of unraveling, so we are wise to keep friends close who know how to mend. Some are gifted menders. I want to be one of those! And I paused tonight to give thanks for many friends and family...and to give warm hugs for those nearby.
The way to the house of a friend is never long...

And God, too, is in the mending business. Broken hearts, broken relationships, broken dreams....nothing is beyond repair and no one beyond redemption. It was a grand plan to come and dwell among us as Emmanuel. Christ was and is and is to come. Celebrate the glorious mystery that is ours at Christmas!

The evening among friends included a favorite holiday memory since childhood: A gifted soprano looked lovingly among friends and, with a gentle accompaniment, sang "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" as beautifully as I have ever heard it. Impromtu. No rehearsal. No rehearsal needed - because Connie knows the song. Knows, as in, she could sing it in the dark. Without piano. With her eyes closed. This song is in her heart before it is on her lips.

We cannot speak what we do not know. It will not ring true. Sooner or later, it will be found out. "Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my hearts be acceptable in Thy sight..." Let us be the kind of friend who walks with integrity and who shoulders the load of another for a season if needed. I think sooner or later, we will need a friend like that.

The little cake I baked was a toast to friendship tonight - a meager offering for such a precious gift! Let the gladness begin.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Racing Through Advent

Little children can identify the green light with ‘go’ and the red light with ‘stop’. “What does the yellow light mean?” I asked years ago.

“Hurry up and go!” our three year- old answered.

Does that not sound like us in December? We have a call each year to CAUTION……SLOW DOWN….with Advent….a time of waiting expectantly and preparing for the Gift that we remember at Christmas, and yet we have a way of making it, ‘hurry up and go.’ And since some seem to believe that yellow lights are made for running, it does not surprise me that we race through Advent as well.

December is a stressful month packed with exams for students, Christmas programs for children, cooking, feasting and social gatherings for some, pressures of family togetherness or lack of it, cold weather hardships and illness for many, and year-end financial stress. And we are being asked to slow down and wait during Advent? To contemplate? Many of us are racing headlong into Christmas with an empty tank - spiritually - pausing only for a brief pit stop of a splash and go devotional.

So here it is: today’s Word on the Way. The number one rule of racing teaches us...

1. Know where you going before you try to go fast.

My brother, a racing instructor and driver for almost 25 years, teaches this fundamental. We must ask:Where are we going so fast? Is our goal to arrive at the end of this year fiscally and physically drained, with yet another few pounds to add to the new year’s resolution list, joining the majority of Americans? Or is there another road less taken? How can focusing on Advent help us know where we want to go? Advent is a call to sharpen our focus and train our vision on something God - not the American economy – does. We make a choice.

The number two rule?

2. Your hands will follow your eyes: Look where you want to go.

This principle is true in racing, highway driving, and life: Look where you want to go, and your hands will follow your eyes.

Look up! Look through the turns. Look at the road ahead, not at the bumper of the car in front of you. Keep your eyes on the road you want to take, not on the car stalled on the side of the road. You don’t want to hit that car? Then don’t look at it. This amazing phenomenon accounts for the highway accidents where drivers literally run right into cars stopped on the side of the road! It takes tremendous discipline to keep our curious eyes from straying onto those things that beckon for our attention - on the highway and in life - but we learn to train our eyes onto those things that are for our ultimate good and safety. Our hands really do follow our eyes. That truth is a basis for temptation as well: we are attracted to that which appears delightful to the eyes, pleasing to the senses, and we want it. It's an old story. The next step is to see how to have it. So it really does matter where we look.

So, look where you want to go.

If our desire is for a more contemplative December this year… to anchor us while we experience stress in our lives….to free us from fear and anxiety…..to be set free from our sin….and to know a sense of peace and rest even in the midst of our culture’s chaos and busyness, then we must look at those places where we can find peace….joy….rest.

The way of wisdom teaches us to keep our eyes on the Lord God through a discipline of prayer to fill us for this day’s needs. Seek the path for today, trusting God to make our way clear. And we must keep our eyes on the road. This beloved Advent hymn helps me to focus:

“Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set your people free. From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee….By thine own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone. By thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.” (Words by Charles Wesley, 1744; Music by Rowland H. Prichard, 1830)
Merciful God, you sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may celebrate aright the commemoration of the nativity, and may await with joy the coming in glory of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever more. Amen.
From the Book of Common Prayer

Friday, December 3, 2010

On the Mother of Mary

I wrote a devotional that was published in a Galloway booklet today in the character of the mother of Mary, as requested, but it did not go well, if you ask me. I do not write fiction, and could find
neither my voice nor hers in the process. I did, however, completely ignore some things I learned in the process including new awareness of extensive references in
my reading to Saint Anne, traditionally regarded as the mother of Mary throughout the past millennia in the
Orthodox, Roman Catholic and other churches, as well as Islam. Protestants are conspicuously absent among those who regard Saint Anne highly. She
is virtually invisible and outside our tradition. Case closed.

Yet I found myself caught somewhere in the
tired argument of one church saying, ‘we’re right and they’re wrong.’ And I have pondered that position.

I also discovered images of this woman to pair with a name I had not known before. I could now identify
this subject in my art history class decades ago and in museums when my children asked just two years
ago, ‘who is St. Anne?’ and I could not tell them. Represented in religious art frequently as the woman in red with a green stole
holding a book and the child Mary who is holding the Infant Jesus, this encounter bridged a gap for me –
a gap I did not know existed.

So here I sat a few weeks ago, composing an advent devotional and thinking: I cannot write about Saint Anne at Galloway because we do not believe in her, yet I was free to create a
fiction with a little artistic license. Cannot a wise person entertain a point of view without adopting it? In putting myself in the
place of ‘this woman we do not believe in,’ I wrestled. It caused me to ask other questions.

How do I respond upon encountering an experience or point of view that does not square with our/my
tradition? Do I summarily ignore or invalidate it before holding it up to the light of God’s lens for clarity? Do I allow God to enlarge my understanding and to change my mind about things as I move through the day?
The participants surrounding the birth of Jesus experienced God’s moving in ways far beyond their own

Many are content with a sweet birth narrative as a holiday tradition but refuse to allow God
to intersect our hearts and minds today with fresh insights. When we are quick to respond with our
rehearsed sound bites, we leave little room for God’s whisper in our present. What understanding would God have me bring into the Light of God's presence today?

That place of dissonance or discomfort while we wrestle with what is valid and what is real is the place
the Holy Spirit meets us every time. Count on it.

Shown above: Saint Anne with the Virgin Mary and Saint John and the Infant Jesus by Leonardo da Vinci. 1499-1500. National Gallery, London

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Lessons from the Heart Fund Jar

In these weeks before Christmas, there is the near-audible buzz of children making Christmas lists of stuff they want. I recall our own children making lists, but we first made a list of things they could do for others. That was the real Christmas list! Did doing so dampen a child's desire for a new toy or invalidate the wanting of it? No, and that was not the purpose. But as a parent we help frame so many experiences as our children are learning to view life in this world - experiences we may not remember years from now, but the child might.

We are always watchful for moments to teach small ways of habitually seeing others' needs and, lovingly, of recognizing selfishness when it presents itself at the front of the line. I recall an experience from my childhood lodged firmly in memory...

Do you remember the feeling of wanting something so badly, but it was just out of reach?
February, 1963 was Heart Fund Month in Monticello, and the race was on to see who could
raise the most money for the heart association. Each of the girls in town- 1st grade through high
school - had a jar in which she collected donations. Picture the mayonnaise and mason jars
with valentines and photos of the girls taped on them, many of them placed alongside the cash
registers at check out stands in the grocery store – prime real estate! I was only in the third
grade, but I was eager to win. My parents would not let me put out my jar ‘in town’, much to
my disappointment; I was left to earn money from chores and to collect spare change at the
end of the day. It became clear that I hardly had a chance.

February 14 drew near, and my anxiety grew. The prize, you see, was to be queen – Queen of
the Class! - and the Overall Heart Fund Queen for the town got the grand prize: a trip to the
Governor’s Mansion in Jackson where all the statewide queens would gather for lunch. The rumor spread quickly that they had a solid gold bathroom there!

Let me set the stage to show how important this was to be queen for a town of little girls. This was 1963. Mary Ann Mobley and Linda Lee Mead had recently won back- to- back Miss America as Miss Mississippi. As a third grader, I was impressed. I had been on the front page of The Daily Mississippian sitting in the lap of my aunt who had been crowned Miss University. I was starstruck. These elegant, glamorous big girls had it all! Surely there was a crown in my future…

On February 13 I had assessed the class totals and knew that - barring a miracle - I would not win.
So the night before the big day I prayed my little 7 year old heart out, asking God to please let
my daddy put a twenty dollar bill in that jar before morning. Nobody would come close to that!
I knew he could do it. I believed.

I awoke the next morning with eager anticipation, and there sat my jar: no twenty. Didn’t my parents want me to win?
It was within their power to make it happen. It would have been so easy.

No, I didn’t win….not even the top of my little third grade class. At the end of the day, however, I do remember how pleased my dad was to learn that Lucy, a high school senior had won. I did not know her, but Lucy was one of his favorite patients, a young woman stricken with polio who moved through the halls of the school with her crutches.

When I voiced a little disappointment – okay, I was 7 - my father put his arm around me and hugged me close. He had a different perspective on this quest for queendom and helped me frame the disappointing experience:

“Marita, you’ll have many chances to go to Jackson in your life, and you'll see the governor’s mansion; but Lucy never dreamed she’d have a day like this!”

The whole town celebrated her being Queen and proclaimed a day named for Lucy with her picture on the front page of the paper!

Here is my point with that ancient history lesson etched in memory.

Sometimes our prayers are like my childhood prayer: “God, you can do this! It is not too hard for you.” In some ways we still ask for the thing we think would put us over the top. It may not be ‘please put a twenty in the heart fund jar’, but fill in the blank for your own personal crisis. We tell God precisely how to fix a person or situation. And just like my lesson 46 years ago, we still don’t get what we ask for.

Does that mean we didn’t ask in the right way, with the correct
incantation to make our prayer acceptable to God? Maybe we didn’t toss in ‘in Jesus’ name’
enough, or begin by praising God long enough to make it work? I do not believe that proper verbal tweaking was or is the missing link. Sometimes what we desire just does not come to pass. Prayer is one of life’s mysteries.

Sometimes the things we earnestly seek are not in our best interest, though we cannot imagine why not. Such was the case in my example. From my limited point of view, the answer looked easy, but my parents had a different perspective, a bigger picture in mind, and the quick fix I wanted was not the best for me.

It’s easy for us to sit here now and smile at the little girl who
would be queen, but I remember it with all seriousness as a child.

When we are in the midst of true disappointment now as adults, facing times of real anxiety that many of us are living in today, we implore God through prayer. We give thanks for what we call answered prayer when what we seek comes to pass. But the place of anguish is when we do not get what we want about the really big things in life. We may not see a way out barring a miracle, so we ask God in the only way we know how: pouring our hearts out honestly and sometimes begging for the solution we seek. God is big enough to take it all.

Our God remains steadfast to meet our deepest needs, though help may come in times and ways
we cannot anticipate. God is trustworthy.

I am thankful for the lessons I learned from my parents in countless ways,
and the case of the heart fund jar is among them even all these decades! And though I have never been queen of anything - that desire having died a natural death - I have indeed had many chances to see both Jackson and the Governor’s Mansion.

My father was right. As always.

We have taught our children what might be dubbed the gospel according to the Rolling Stones:
You can’t always get what you want….but you get what you need. Put another way,
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” 2 Corinthians 9:8

And, who knows....there may still be a crown in our future.
We run the race with certainty and compete for an imperishable crown…” 1 Cor. 9: 25, 26