Beginning on the first Sunday of Advent, November 27th, you’re invited to watch for Christ in a creative way. I created this devotional/study, Preparing Our Hearts and Homes With the Hospitality of Mary for friends a few years ago. Our inspirational thoughts will center on an Advent wreath; more specifically, a Bundt pan Advent wreath!
The Bundt pan will become a complete Advent wreath over the four weeks. We will focus on the four themes of Advent: Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love. Each week, we will add a layer to the wreath that symbolizes the blessing we will prayerfully consider.
You will need a Bundt pan, or any pan with a doughnut shape. For the first week, you will also need 2-3 cups of sand and 5 votive candles. I’m inserting a photo I found online to give you an idea (but you won’t need the red berries).
These devotions will also be on my Facebook page, “Watching for Christ.” I hope you will join us! May this Advent season bring you renewed peace, hope, joy and love.
Do you share my curiosity to see what’s beyond your current view? To see what’s around the curve or over the next hill? I can recall times, especially while hiking, when I’ve regretted not having enough time or enough energy to hike to the next overlook. What beauty or inspiration might I be missing because I can’t see further? I never want to miss any new views!
Here in West Virginia, there are many mornings when thick fog impedes our sight. But when the fog lifts, from our balcony we can see the green lawn that stretches across to a bordering creek. Along the creek is a thick line of trees, and beyond the trees is a cow pasture on a hill. Since moving here this summer, I’ve been curious about what new sights we would see once the trees lost their leaves. And now that season is here!
So far, an old barn, a small shed, and additional trees have been revealed as the leafy foliage begins to thin. We also have more opportunities to see the cows grazing in the open spaces. Our sunsets are more strikingly visible and expansive. I have loved seeing these new sights, but I’m also aware that this new season is teaching me…
Even with our increased range of vision, we are unable to see beyond the pasture hill. I’m learning that even as we mature and grow, as our vision expands, there will still be “views” beyond our sight. This idea speaks to me of the kingdom of God, how we can see glimpses of the kingdom, even as we can’t fully experience it yet. But here is the new revelation for me:
Jesus said that God’s kingdom is here, God’s kingdom is now.
I know that if I were to climb across the pasture over the hill I would see some new sights, but my view would also include many of the same scenes as before- fields, trees, buildings, and people. The earth stretches over a sphere of changing landscapes, but each landscape is on a continuum with the one before, while gradually and uniquely evolving. One really cool thing about the kingdom of God is that we are already on this continuum, too! We are already part of the kingdom and we will continue on, gradually evolving, in ever-changing landscapes.
The beauty of God’s loving presence is here, no matter how far our field of vision extends. God’s presence is within us. God’s presence is in our souls and in the fragile shells that encompass our souls. God’s presence is surrounding us in the fog, is as close as the grass, and is expanding beyond to the creek, the trees, the pasture, and up the hill. God is in the people who are on this journey with us. God is in this very moment. God then stretches to infinity beyond it all! And so will we.
As curious as we may be, we no longer need to search beyond our vision for the kingdom of God. We only need to feel what is already deep within us, to see what is right before us, to love what is all around us, with a heart in tune to noticing how God’s loving presence is present. And perhaps the more we notice and participate in kingdom living- here and now- when it is our time to leave this earthly realm we won’t need to climb the next hill, but simply turn our heads and smile in recognition.
A dear friend shared this story with me years ago… She was the youngest of three daughters, and often felt “less than” her older, talented sisters. As younger siblings often are, she was at times the recipient of teasing, criticism, and unsolicited advice from her older, more mature, and “wiser” siblings.
In later years she invited her family to her home for dinner and, of course, she hoped to please her family- but she also hoped to demonstrate her capable talents as a homemaker and gracious host. As they were eating dinner, one of her sisters asked, “Where did you get these pork chops?” My friend immediately began defending her choices of grocery stores, cooking methods and recipes. Her sister looked at her quizzically and then assured her, “No, I really LIKE your pork chops!”
How often do we hear or observe a few words or actions, and immediately leap to the wrong conclusion? I remember one particularly embarrassing moment for me. I was attending Buckeye Girls’ State, a week-long learning experience in government and election processes for high school girls. I’d made some new friends who were staying in the dormitory room across the hall from mine. One night, I fluffed some pillows into a body shape under my covers, and quietly went over to their room. We were laughing and talking when we saw the hall lights come on. Soon we noticed feet regularly pacing by our room through the space under the door. I slid under a bed just as the door opened and the adult chaperone hastily turned on the light, looked around, and explained with great irritation, “We are missing a girl!”
She didn’t see me and finally turned off the light and closed the door. I began breathing again! But I knew my relief was short-lived, because eventually I’d need to turn myself in. I couldn’t just sneak back into my bed and pretend nothing had happened! With a pounding heart, I went into the hall, found the chaperone and confessed where I’d been hiding. Her eyebrows raised as she exclaimed, “We didn’t know YOU were missing!”
I laugh about this now, but oh, how I’d jumped to the wrong conclusion! My leap led to consequences that I know were justified but that I could have easily avoided.
On a more serious note, how often do we leap to our own conclusions and assumptions about others? And sadly, it often seems that we leap to the worst assumptions! How often do we assign intent to another’s actions? A driver cuts in front of us in heavy traffic, and we believe he intended to do so- and oh, we are offended!- when maybe he just made a mistake. All too often we make those wrong leaps which only cause unnecessary heartache or trouble, or at least some (well deserved) painful embarrassment.
Today I hope to be more mindful of the leaps I make. To pause before jumping to the wrong conclusion. To listen a bit longer, to weigh what I observe with more grace and love. To notice what is influencing my reactions negatively and unnecessarily. To clarify the questions instead of reacting hastily or defensively.
To keep the questions simple.
Where did you get these pork chops?
I was blessed to have a few more encounters with my guardian angel, The Black Guy, before we moved to West Virginia in July…
In March, I met up with him as we walked our usual route at the park. He asked how I was feeling, and when I told him I was doing very well, he knowingly exclaimed, “I told you so!” Of course. My guardian angel knew I would be!
As we chatted, I kept thinking, “This is a holy, sacred moment. I need to pay attention.” He shared several stories that really touched my heart, as usual with his very colorful language. One was a modern-day parable of people who are too busy “waiting for the Lord” that they pay no attention when he comes to them. (“He DOES come- as the poor, the hungry, or as one who hopes to help a friend in need.”) Another was his idea that our heads are here for four reasons: to think; to let the sun shine on us when we’re feeling blessed; to also allow the rain to fall on us; and sometimes for birds to ‘s—‘ on us!
When he said that we are all here for a reason, I was finally able to tell him, “This sounds corny, but I consider you my guardian angel!” He readily agreed to what I was saying:
K: “You have yet to tell me your name-”
TBG: -“The Black Guy!”
K: “You show up at random times to bless me-”
TBG: “-like the time at Kroger- you didn’t expect to see me there!”
He humbly shared a brief summary of his time as an orphan. He was actually taken in by mobsters, who taught him ways to survive and who truly cared for him. “They’re better people than those suits on Wall Street!” he exclaimed. He showed me his gold chain and watch- treasured symbols, I believe, of his young life with this group, the feeling of being part of a family.
My heart was profoundly touched by his last story. The Black Guy has PTSD from serving in the Viet Nam War. He had recently told his psychologist that all of those struggling with PTSD have faced death. Death was not the fear they carried, not the problem they faced. None of them are afraid of dying. They are afraid of living!
Eventually we went our separate ways, but when I returned to the spot where we had talked, I made the sign of the cross and thanked God for my guardian angel, The Black Guy.
In April, I ran into him again! This time, I told him that we would be moving to West Virginia to be near our daughter and her family. I thanked him for blessing me. He simply said, “Tell your daughter about The Black Guy.” I asked him how he was doing. I suspected that something was amiss, but he just shrugged and said he felt as if he was here “to bless others by taking on their pain.” He’s a selfless man, my guardian angel. As we parted, he said he wouldn’t say good bye, but “Vaya con Dios” (God go with you!)
Our final farewell was early in May. The Black Guy was wearing a scarf, and as we passed each other, he pointed to his head and said, “It’s coming back!” I learned later that he was referring to MY hair, but as I walked further I became concerned that he’d had a recurrence of his cancer. I turned back to check on him. He admitted that there were white blood cells in his urine but assured me that he wasn’t going to worry. “If I go, I go,” he said. I quietly replied, “Well, if you do, just know… ” He looked at me and repeated, “Be sure to tell your daughter about The Black Guy.” We nodded in silent recognition and understanding. That was the last I saw him. Vaya con Dios, my friend.
I received a text message from a dear loved one yesterday. He and his wife are thinking about selling their beautiful home in order to move to a smaller, one-story home. With their increasing health issues, they are becoming unable to maintain the property and live comfortably. After putting so much love, money and hard work into the home, the decision is gut-wrenching for them both. The memories and the joys of living there have blessed them richly. Their grief is immense.
His text reminded me of the decisions Jim and I had made after my cancer and his open-heart surgery. We eventually made several difficult decisions, all related to simplifying our lives: leave our ministry positions, sell our home, reduce our belongings, move to a different state, and rent an apartment. For me, the grief was less about selling our home, but more about ending my ministry. I had finally received the opportunity I’d dreamed of for so long: serving as the youth and education coordinator in our loving congregation, teaming with Jim, who was serving as pastor. Less than a year later, I learned I was ill… and a month later, Jim learned he had an aortic aneurysm.
There is an extra heartache when we make decisions or life changes that aren’t freely chosen; those decisions made because of circumstances beyond our control. What might actually be a “happy choice” in a different situation becomes a “what do we do now?” choice… and we feel as if it is unfair. Even if it is good. Had Jim and I decided to make these changes as healthy people at retirement age, the choices would have felt right, good, and even exciting. The timing and the reasons for our decisions are what make them bittersweet.
I’m trying to learn to embrace what is… and to find the blessings despite the reasons. My friend, Lisa, says, “It is what it is… and it’s all good!”* We have experienced many joys and blessings since our move. We are content and happy. We remember our previous life with tears and smiles, holding the moments in our hearts forever. But I have been incredibly surprised by this new joy and peace I have- joy and peace beyond my imagining, beyond the potential good we had even tried to anticipate!
Life is often difficult. Choices are difficult at times, too. But in all things, God works for good. Today my heart is grateful for all of the good I have seen, experienced and felt during some very challenging times and difficult decisions. If we embrace it all- every life moment of joy or grief, challenge or ease, health or illness- and allow “what is” to bless us, we will find God working for good.
Even on our darkest path, there is always light ahead. There is always beauty to be noticed. There are always companions to be found for the journey. There is always an inner GPS saying, “recalculating, rerouting” for our detours. There are always discoveries to be made.
There is always hope in our hearts, perhaps yet to be uncovered.
There is always God, our very-present help.
Peace and joy to you today.
*If you haven’t read Lisa Schuster’s book, Just As He Is Right Now: A Mother’s Memoir on the Price of Freedom and the Power of Hope, I encourage you to do so! (www.matthewdrakestory.com.)
During our worship service yesterday, Rector Cheryl asked us to consider what fears keep us from generously sharing our gifts with others; not only our monetary possessions, but our other gifts of kindness,talent, support or friendship.
We moved to West Virginia a month ago.This morning as I walked, I was thinking of- and missing- my Toledo friends. Rector Cheryl’s suggestion came to me… what fears keep me from blessing someone with a new friendship? My fear is that I will not make a good initial impression. I worry that I will appear foolish or may even be snubbed in some way. Once friendships are established, I feel very comfortable and open, but those initial encounters are challenging! I feel very inadequate. Will I say the right things? Is my appearance acceptable? How do I begin conversations? Does this person even want a new friend? I have had this inadequate feeling quite often since our move- almost everyone is someone new!
My walking loop passes an assisted living facility. Today a gentleman was outside the entrance, sitting on a glider, quietly observing the hilltop view. We simply exchanged “good morning” greetings, but after I passed him, I wondered if he might be lonely, too. I reminded myself, “If I am to make friends, I need to actually MEET people!” I decided to loop by the facility one more time, and if he was still there, I would somehow introduce myself. I hoped that he would be blessed as much as I would. Of course, I immediately became concerned that I would appear foolish, or even a bit crazy or threatening to this elderly man.
This time, the gentleman had a friend with him; he didn’t appear lonely at all. But I began with a greeting about how lovely the morning was. When they responded in a friendly way, I just blurted out my ‘friendship inadequacy’ openly: “I know this sounds silly, but I just moved here and I don’t have many friends. May I introduce myself so we can at least say ‘hello’ when I come by?” And so I met Bill and Jack! (The people in West Virginia have a wonderfully warm way of softly saying vowels, and so I was thankful that I paused and thought for a moment before responding, “Hi BAIL”!)
Who knows if I will see them again. But I was so exuberant that my honest, flawed words and my need for friendship enabled me to meet these folks, and so I joyfully played the air guitar on my walk home. I wonder if these men are puzzled by my introduction. I wonder if those who may have observed my “guitar playing” are certain I’m crazy. But maybe, just maybe, I brightened someone’s day.
May fear never prevent us from sharing our gifts with others. May fear especially never prevent us from sharing our honest, faulty, hesitant, and inadequate selves with others. Perhaps our example might actually bless someone (like me) with a new, needed, honest, accepting, and welcoming friendship. We are better together.
My Friends, My Readers,
Currently I am writing devotions for Christ in Our Home, a quarterly publication. The assignment is due May 20th.
I have so many thoughts I’d like to share in the near future! All is well here; watch for new posts in the next few weeks.
Thank you for your patience- and for reading!
Early each morning I take my first cup of coffee to my writing desk, light a candle, and journal about whatever is on my heart. After I write about my reflections of the day before and my hopes for the new day, I end with a question for God: “What would you have me know today?” I then write the inspirations and thoughts that come to me.
I’ve become rather “fastidious” about my journal. I begin writing at the top of a clean, fresh page with each new day. I also try to fill each page completely so that there is no wasted space between days. This practice makes the pages all so “neat and tidy.”
So this morning I asked God my usual question, but I noticed that I only had 4-5 lines remaining on the page. In my heart, I was hoping that whatever I heard would be concise enough to fit in the remaining space! I could almost hear God chuckle. “Yes, God, I will follow wherever you lead me, just don’t make me venture onto the next page of my journal.” “God, I’m making myself totally available to listen to you, but will you please keep your message brief this morning? You have about four lines to convey your message. Thank you.”
We are hearing the word, “borders” quite a bit these days. And now I am thinking of my own invisible borders, even with the God who loves me more than I love myself. In my heart, I truly hope to follow where God leads me, and yet I harbor these constraints with my time, space, security- and even journal pages!
This morning I have been reminded to allow God the space to move freely and to speak openly. If I am to hear God’s guidance for me, my heart needs to be genuinely open to receive the entire message. I hope that I am learning what it really means to be available… to let go of practices and parameters and other invisible borders… to be willing to reflect and listen beyond the allotted space… to surrender a “neat and tidy” life… to follow God bravely onto the next new page of the journey.
A few years ago, Bill and Bonnie’s annual Christmas letter had arrived early in December. I was always blessed to hear from these dear friends who had moved from Ohio after retiring. Bonnie had been a treasured friend and mentor while we served together in ministry. But it WAS Advent, the holiday season, and I was busily immersed in all of my preparations for Christmas. I read the first few lines Bill had written, describing fun trips and family times together. Then I set the letter aside to be read more thoroughly at a later, “less busy” time.
Imagine our shock a few weeks later when my husband, Jim, learned that Bonnie had died. I immediately went through the pile of Christmas mail to find their letter. Sadly, I read Bill’s last few paragraphs, written to inform us of Bonnie’s cancer and that she was not expected to live. They had one simple request: Bonnie would be “nesting” in their den, and we could help “feather” her nest with cards and notes to help provide comfort during her last earthly days. I was deeply grieved that I had not taken the time to read the whole letter, and to be able to bless her in this small way. There were so many reasons I was thankful for her life, her friendship. Before moving away, Bonnie had introduced me to a deeper spirituality, a different way to live my faith. She had changed my life so significantly.
Even though I truly regret missing this opportunity to bless her, I know that Bonnie would not want me to be sad. Bonnie did know how much she meant to me and to so many others. But I think Bonnie would be blessed to know that this experience has shown me just how important it is to “read beyond the first few lines.”
In our daily conversations we often begin with the casual, surface-level news in our lives. We share greetings and other pleasantries, then go our different ways, perhaps believing we will catch up at a later time. But if we can take a few moments for additional listening, sharing and observing, we strengthen our relationships by knowing and understanding the other person better. When we read further into the story or even “between the lines” we are more apt to really discover that person’s needs, blessings, dreams and concerns. We get to the heart of the conversation; what is held within his or her heart. In doing so we may even learn of ways we might help or bless that friend.
This also is true of our prayer time, isn’t it? How often do we simply share our daily news and concerns, our lists of requests, and then say, “Amen”? How often do we take the time to truly listen, to ask the deeper questions, to have more meaningful conversations with God? We need to go beyond those first few lines in order to get to the heart of our conversation. As we take extra time in our conversations with God, we might learn to see more deeply into what God is saying to us; what God is really asking of us. Even if it may only be a simple nudge to read someone’s letter.
This morning I had a small “pity party” for myself as I looked in the mirror. The side effects of my cancer treatments have taken a toll on my appearance. My head of hair is growing back, but very slowly- straight and dark gray- in uneven lengths. However, I have had an alarming growth of long downy hair in my eyebrows and on my face and neck. My nose has red blotches and is often runny. These truly are petty concerns, but they are real for me. Inside, I am feeling healthy and vibrant, but on the outside I look a bit unkempt and haggard.
But then I seemed to hear God telling me that I was beautiful. I am beautiful in God’s eyes simply because God created me and called me “good.” We all are. And as I reflected more on beauty, I knew in my heart that beauty is really found in such qualities as a loving and welcoming nature, a peaceful countenance, a gentle presence. Beauty is noticing God’s handiwork with a grateful, appreciative heart. It is letting God’s love radiate to others. It is focusing not on my flaws, but in making others feel good and beautiful about themselves. It is living the humble, healing, and helping ways of Christ, so genuinely that others won’t even notice my physical imperfections.
So, at least for now, I may be unable to do much about my side-effects, except to trim hairs and cover spots here and there. Instead, I can choose to ask for God’s help as I work on my inner beauty, praying that God’s generous love and Jesus’ incredible life will shine through this imperfect appearance.