Peace on Earth?

40423F94-5BC6-4413-84AC-3413C238897B“Dozens of institutions across the country 
received email threats Thursday afternoon, 
prompting evacuations and sweeps of buildings.” (CNN)

This troubling news juxtaposed with the words of the music playing as I work. 

“Peace on earth, good will to all people . . .”

“The glories of His righteousness and wonders of his love . . .”

“All is calm, all is bright . . .”

It is a contrast for us. The songs of peace, hope and joy sung during this season are in conflict with the acts of violence and hatred we see in the world. And thus we are conflicted. As people of faith, we search for our place in being agents of change. We believe that our faith calls us to scatter love wherever there is hate. But we don’t know how.

We are powerless and paralyzed, and the songs of the season just make it more pronounced. I remember singing the compelling words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem that eventually became a carol:

“And in despair, I bowed my head. ‘There is no peace on earth,” I said. ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men.’”

For now, peace on earth is elusive. The email and bomb threats have been sent to places throughout the country: Pennsylvania, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Utah. Threats were also emailed to locations in New York City and Atlanta; the Charlotte News & Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer newspapers in North Carolina; and to three sites in Miami.

Over these terrible signs of hate, we have no control. But we do have control over what we will allow into our hearts. To be sure, we should be informed by the events in the world. We should be persistent in raising our voices in the face of hate, denouncing it, and praying for its end. But we must not choose to dwell completely on the violence all around us. We can give our souls a break from the harsh reality bynfinding ways to meditate on the peace and love of God. Even when hate triumphs, we have full access to the Prince of Peace who will visit us and dwell in our hearts. 

Still . . . “Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth . . . “

These words are as true today as on the day they were penned on Christmas Day, 1863. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem, “Christmas Bells” during a time of personal despair and in deep concern over the American Civil War. The poem was set to music in 1872, and Longfellow’s references to the Civil War are prevalent in some of the verses that are not commonly sung. This is the entire text of Longfellow’s poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom 
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South, 
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said; 
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

What the poet concluded is truth: “to God is not dead nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail . . .”

May God make it so.

 

 

Tender Mercy

E8260192-9BC4-47D0-B6F8-7DECCE4828F0Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.

Luke 1:78-79 (NRSV)

There is no better time to breathe in these words from sacred Scripture: “the tender mercy of our God.” What we see around us compels us to cry out for the tender mercy of God — for the people who are living with agonizing need at our borders, for children taken from their parents, for families running from the effects of tear gas, for the changing of the climate and its devastating fury on communities, for people losing their lives because of gun violence, for young black men incarcerated for small crimes with long sentences, for people suffering through illness and poverty and homelessness. 

Cover them, God, with your tender mercy.

There is still more in this Scripture. Some translations say “The Dayspring from on high has visited us.” But in this New Revised Standard translation, we hear words that remind us anew of God’s tender mercy. Moving words that remind us of our hope in the “Rising Sun who has visited us!”

Tucked in this brief text is the divine reason for the visit. The words are not ambiguous at all, not hard to understand, not veiled in mystery. The Rising Sun’s visit has brought “light to those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.” And finally the Sun has shone “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And so we live in the light of this promise, knowing that the Rising Sun will visit us again and again, whenever darkness covers us with the struggles of life. God will not fail. In our times of difficulty, no matter how serious they are, we will feel — fresh and new — the tender mercy of God who will most assuredly send light to us when we find ourselves in life’s darkness, when we need to be guided in the way of peace.

That is the message of Advent.

Advent’s Invitation

ABA52B53-DF36-418D-BD71-FE6891967598What is Advent’s invitation to me? What does this season want to  teach me? What will I see in a new way as a result of Advent’s opportunities for reflection? So many questions!

“Wait,” the wiser ones tell me. “Wait for it.“

“This is the message of Advent — endure the dark places of this season knowing that the Messiah is coming again to bring light to your world and to your heart. Just wait.”

So it seems that Advent is not for impatient folk, the ones who want to get on with it, to get on to the lighthearted joys of Christmas. Advent’s call to ponder, to be mindful of the moment, and to wait catches the busy ones off guard. Our souls sing the adagio strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the mellow hopefulness of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” while feeling in our waiting hearts the great need to belt out “Joy to the World.”

What exactly is Advent’s invitation to me? What is it that Advent promises that makes waiting worthwhile? What is it that this season has for me to learn?

These are questions I cannot answer, at least I cannot answer them at this moment. My hope is that if I am faithful in the waiting and the pondering, the answers of Advent will become clear to me. Until then, it is just one of those life mysteries that eludes me. 

In the meantime, Barbara Brown Taylor offers a wise word about it all

Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give.

— Barbara Brown Taylor

Wait for it!

Pondering through Advent

23DCD324-DEFB-436C-8942-C4ADA60DA52AYesterday, I mused on the tenderness of this season of Advent. The waiting. The darkness. The need to linger in the season with a sense of mindfulness.

To be honest, I want to shop with reckless abandon and find fun toys for my grandchildren. I want to bake all manner of Christmas cookie. I want to decorate every corner of my house, and if I had my way, ours would be one of those houses that people drive by at night to see all the twinkling lights.

But on that outdoor winter wonderland, I definitely do not have my way. My husband’s days of hanging lights on the gutters, placing a Santa on the roof, and wrapping the trees in tiny, twinkling lights are over. He has happily passed out of that season of his life.

For me, yesterday was baking day, and I made a new discovery about mindfulness and cookie baking. The two activities pair well. Dropping cookie dough by the spoonful onto a baking sheet is slow work. It gives one time to ponder. And pondering a is a good thing to do in Advent days. Good lesson learned, with the added bonus of having 200 cookies in the house!

While dropping cookies, one by one onto an old, scratched up baking pan, I pondered. Some thoughts hinted at my inner sadness. Other thoughts were of friends who are very ill and are walking this Advent journey in darkness. Other friends have lost people in their lives, and on this day, they find themselves in mourning.

As I do in most Decembers, I find myself, along with others in my family, feeling the sadness of having lost my youngest brother, Pete, to cancer. It happened many years ago, yet the hurt remains.

No doubt, this Advent journey can be a tender time. Yet we journey into the days ahead, not with a spirit of despair, but with a glimmer of hope. Even in the darkness, we begin to awaken, knowing that something new will be born in us just as it has every Advent. This is the season when we wash our faces and rub our sleepy eyes until we wake up, eyes wide open to the Light that sleeps in a manger.

Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

— Luke 2:19 New International Version (NIV)

Like her, I am spending my Advent days pondering — moving in mindfulness while holding tender feelings, heart longings, mourning in the soul.

And, of course, I’m waiting in the darkness. But I know, without a doubt, that light will shine. It always does.

 

Today I Believe

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This season is a tender time. And oh, this darkness of mine. December brings it every year — that feeling of tenderness, of darkness. That is, if I stop to notice. Stop decorating the house. Stop shopping. Stop planning a lavish Christmas dinner. Stop baking dozens of cookies. Stop going to Christmas events — parties, pageants, gatherings, light displays . . . Just stop!

If we do stop in these advent days, we might just feel this tender time. It’s not Christmas yet, you know. It’s Advent, a time of waiting, hoping, believing. If ever there was a time to practice mindfulness, this is the season. As I move through Advent’s days, I want to move slowly and with the awareness of the tiny miracles all around me.

I want to remember past years and people I have loved. I want to linger beside the Chrismon tree that holds decades of white and gold ornaments and decades of memories. I want to be mindful of my own darkness and the tenderness that is nested in my heart.

Advent is most surely a tender time, and a time of darkness, a time when people of faith wait for the light to come to earth again. Advent causes me to wait for the light that always comes to come into my heart again. Until the light shines, though, through a little baby born in Bethlehem, days will be dark and tender.

I am remembering my youngest brother who would have had a birthday this month. The loss of him far too soon will always leave a lump in my throat. December, his birth month, is a tender time.

In these days, I miss the joy and laughter of my grandchildren. For them Christmas is all joy.  They are such a gift to me, and being separated from them by so many miles makes this a tender time.

My friend’s fourteen-year-old grandson lost his battle with cancer this week, and I cannot help thinking about what a dark and tender time this family is feeling because of this deep loss.

So many losses surround us. So much grieving. So much darkness waiting for the light of Bethlehem’s star and the infant that comes to bring light to our hearts.

I love this tiny prayer:

Lord, you have always lightened this darkness of mine; 
and though night is here, today I believe.

— Evening Office by Northumbria Community

 

 

 

 

Two Women

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Painting of Shiphrah and Puah

This blog post is about two brave women who literally changed the world. You may have never heard of them, but they are worth knowing. Here’s how the story of the women begins.

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. (Exodus 1:8-14)

The Hebrew people had immigrated to Egypt because of life-threatening conditions in their homeland. They thrived in the new land and their population grew. For many years, they lived peacefully in Egypt, and made great contributions to its well-being.

Then a new king arose, a king who began to spread fear about the immigrants. They were multiplying, becoming powerful. “Soon this new race will outnumber and overpower our own! So we must close ranks in fear,” he said.

Sadly, we are hearing a similar message from our president. But we won’t expound on that today. This is a story about courage.

We constantly hear leaders talking to us through our televisions — experts on various topics, members of congress, politicians, pundits. One thing shines clearly about most of them: they exhibit not an ounce of courage and conviction. For many of them, maybe most of them, the rhetoric is about their own interests, never about taking a stand against evil or injustice, never about the cost of doing what is right.

So may I tell you a story about two courageous women you may not know? Thousands of years ago two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, said “NO.” Shiphrah and Puah served Hebrew women who were anticipating childbirth. The Pharoah commanded the midwives to kill all the baby boys born to Hebrew women in Egypt. An ancient method of power and control!

There are only six verses in the whole Bible about these women, but their actions led to the salvation of the entire nation of Israel.  Shiphrah and Puah were in charge of all the Hebrew midwives in Egypt while Israel was enslaved in Egypt. One day, Pharaoh called Puah and Shiphrah to him and told them,

When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.”

At this point in history, Egypt was the largest kingdom and the Egyptian Pharaoh was considered the most powerful ruler in the world. In fact, the Egyptian people regarded Pharaoh as a leader appointed by their gods. Imagine all the leaders in the world today. Now imagine that all of their power was all given to one single leader and that’s approximately how powerful Pharaoh was — and this particular Pharaoh wasn’t very nice.

Now, the most powerful ruler in the world has just ordered Puah and Shiphrah to kill every baby boy born to a Hebrew woman. What happened next is one of the most courageous things we could imagine. Let’s look at the whole story recorded in Exodus 1:15-22, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

These two midwives had spent their lives bringing new life into the world, and now they were asked to snuff out that new life as it was about to draw its first breath. “Not a chance!” they declared with courage welling up inside them.

No! Shiphrah and Puah said “No.” Because they were called to choose life, not to end it. They acted swiftly and shrewdly. They lied, in fact, and said this to Pharoah. “What can we do? The Hebrew women are giving birth so fast that the babies are born before we can get to the birthing tents.” 

All the while, they were coaching these immigrant Hebrew women, holding their hands and catching their babies as they made their way into their complicated, inhospitable world.

Shiphrah and Puah said “No!” And among the children they saved was the baby Moses. You know the one. He was chosen and anointed by God to free the Hebrew people from Egyptian oppression and lead them back to their beloved homeland.

Today we have the opportunity to say “No” to all that is unjust. What does that mean for us? What does it mean to summon the courage to help bear life into this complicated time?

Perhaps it means not buying in to the fear some want us to feel about the caravan of refugees who are approaching our borders. Perhaps it means advocating for their well-being in every way we can, declaring that we refuse to demonize them, and understanding the heart of parents who feel they must flee from the dangers of their homeland.

Perhaps it means supporting efforts to reunite the immigrant children that are still separated from their parents.

Perhaps it means that you and I must find ways to choose life instead of death, and hope instead of fear.

I don’t know if the story of Shiphrah and Puah story speaks to you, but I hope you will ponder it and hear its truth.

There will always be new kings who arise among us and decide to deal harshly with certain groups of people. But we do not have to go along with their plans. In fact, we must not go along with their plans and instead follow the courageous path of creating justice for all people.

May God help us to make it so. Amen.

 

 

 

Monday’s Merry-go-Round

9BE03E1D-A1FC-4BE9-8BBD-7BCFAA9F6E03It’s one of those Mondays again, those days that just weigh on you a bit too heavily. You have to push yourself to start a new week. You feel that deep-down tiredness that overcomes you and you don’t even know why. Know the feeling?

Nothing has changed. You are still in your familiar schedule. You are still the same you that feels strong one minute and despairing the next. But you feel as if you’re on the proverbial merry-go-round that just keeps circling around the same life and all that’s in it. Round and round, again and again and again.

You might even feel down on yourself for not being “strong” enough to move joyfully through your life. All of this begs the question: Why are you so hard on yourself?

Maybe you should just take a moment for yourself.

Sit back.

Marvel at your life,
at the grief that softened you,
at the heartache that wisened you,
at the suffering that strengthened you.

Despite everything,
you still grow.

Be proud of this.

Today, I pray for you this prayer that has sustained so many through generations.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, God may grant that you be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

— Ephesians 3:16-19 New Revised Standard Version (Paraphrased)

 

 

 

Starting Over

775D14C9-8802-4DEA-BD06-33C669F187B7Here’s the thing about life: things crash and break, obstacles can stop you in your tracks, you can get completely cut down. It happens to all of us.

One option is simply to give up on life. Or maybe to retreat into a private place for sulking. Another option is to be angry and to live the rest of your life angry.

But the reality is much more optimistic than any of those dismal options. Because no matter what happens in your life, you can start over. Starting over is really not so bad. I’ve done it many times and I survived it. So if we can accept the fact that something in life is over, there is hope for the days to come. 

I choose to see starting over as a fresh new beginning, another chance to do life differently. If I start over with a positive attitude, it can be an opportunity to head into the future wiser and more confident. Starting over can offer a path ahead that’s full of promise.

That’s what I’ll count on.

Seeing the Light: A Spiritual Discipline

DF9BF7FC-6583-4F1A-A78F-3F5CD0D37117I seldom talk much about the spiritual disciplines that have given me strength. A private retreat — just me and God — in a beautifully isolated hermitage was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life. While there, I also practiced another of my spiritual disciplines — iconography.

Iconography is not merely a visual art, it is Christian sacred art, and has been an integral part of the worship and mystical life of Christians since apostolic times. Referred to in the Eastern Christian tradition as “windows into heaven,” icons have inspired and uplifted millions of the faithful, and have at times been the instruments for demonstrating God’s miraculous intercession in the life of humankind.

29074C09-C2E4-49B3-ACA8-FAED6A6069B8In describing the purpose of icons, the early Christians used the Greek work anagogic, literally meaning “leading one upward.” Photios Kontoglou, a renowned modern iconographer, expressed this perfectly: “Icons raise the soul and mind of the believer who sees the icon to the realm of the spirit, of the incorruptible, of the kingdom of God, as far as this can be achieved with material means.” 

So to appreciate iconography fully, we must approach it as a liturgical art form whose function is essentially spiritual. Since the creation of an icon is itself a sacred activity, the iconographer must be a person of prayer, not merely a technician. If the iconographer’s work is to inspire and illumine others, then it is essential that she leads a life of prayer and fasting that she may be inspired and illumined by the Holy Spirit, that her iconography becomes itself an expression of her spiritual life. Kontoglou writes: “The iconographers painted as they prayed.”

355CF8CB-A1B6-4D08-B5DD-DF59A9618C9AMy love of iconography resulted from the prompting of my dear Aunt Eirene. She was an artist extraordinaire and a gifted iconographer. She studied and practiced to hone her skills and each year, she went to an intensive iconography workshop at a beautiful retreat center. One year, she persuaded me (forced is a more accurate term) to go with her. Of course, I was extremely reticent to try this new art form.

At first, I called on my artistic skills and was doing a barely decent job. But then a lovely nun who sat next to me said words that literally imprinted on my heart. She said, “Your rendering of the Holy Child is beautiful. Look into his eyes. When you see the Light coming from them, you will fall in love with your icon.”

286998AD-4ACD-4E54-BBD6-EDCC0B0D4ED0She was so wise. I began to think more about the Christ Child’s eyes than my own art, and within a day, my iconography transformed from a painting to a prayer. It was worship, meditation and reverence. It touched my soul as I added color to the board, layer upon layer. It was an incredible experience to see the Light. I share with you here some of icons I created, as I remember the experience I had with each of them that opened my soul to the Light.

 

 

 

 

Celebrate!

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New Faces of Congress!  Top row (L>R) Deb Haaland, Rashida Tlaib, Judge Veronica Escobar, Jahanna Hayes;   Bottom row (L>R) Ayanna Pressley, Sharice Davids, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Some voters hoped for a Blue Wave, others a Red Wave. There wasn’t much of a wave on either side of the aisle, at least not the enormous wave they wanted to see. What we did see was a Women’s Wave, at least 117 women elected on Tuesday, 100 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Now that is something to celebrate! Here’s the scoop, by the numbers:

  • Of the 117 women elected, 42 are women of color, and at least three are L.G.B.T.Q.
  • With some ballots still being counted, women have so far claimed 96 of the House’s 435 seats (it is expected to rise to 100), up from the current 84.
  • At least 12 women won Senate seats, which will bring the total in that chamber to at least 22 (that number is expected to rise by two), of the 100 seats that exist. There are now 23 women.
  • Women won nine governorships, of 50 total. Six women currently serve.
  • Overall, at least 10 more Congressional seats will be occupied by women than before.

On a night to remember and celebrate, here is what some of the women who made history said in their victory speeches:

“When it comes to women of color candidates, folks don’t just talk about a glass ceiling; what they describe is a concrete one. But you know what breaks through concrete? Seismic shifts.” 

  • Ayanna Pressley, who will become the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. She beat a 10-term incumbent in the Democratic primary and vowed to pursue “activist leadership” to advance a progressive agenda.

“We have the opportunity to reset expectations about what people think when they think of Kansas. We know there are so many of us who welcome everyone, who see everyone and who know that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed.”

  • Sharice Davids, a former White House fellow, is a lesbian; she and fellow Democrat Debra Haaland of New Mexico are the first Native-American women elected to Congress.

“In my family, there were no girl chores or boy chores. There’s just things to get done. So that’s what we’re going to do. I’ve got some big plans for this state.”

  • Kristi Noem, a Republican, will be the first female governor of South Dakota. She’s a four-term congresswoman who campaigned on her conservative record and her experience working on her family’s farm.

“We launched this campaign, because in the absence of anyone giving a clear voice on the moral issues of our time, then it is up to us to voice them.” 

  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat from New York, became the youngest woman elected to Congress at age 29. She has never held elected office, and like Ms. Pressley, she defeated a white man who had served 10 terms in a Democratic primary.

So there you have it — a real occasion for celebration. No doubt, these women will re-shape America’s leadership. If you know women at all, you know that they often work harder, work longer, work with a passion that changes the world.

Congratulations and God speed to each of them. 

To the new faces of leadership: We applaud you. We celebrate you. We’re proud of you. We’re holding you in the light. We’re counting on you.

 

 

Statistics in this blog are from Maya Salam, published in a special post-election edition of The New York Times Gender Letter.