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Airplane Lessons: An Exercise in Loving my Neighbor

A few years ago I boarded an airplane for a 12+ hour flight. After settling into my (middle) seat, the passenger in the aisle seat next to me arrived and started settling in herself. Like most international travelers, she was armed with a few books, a few electronic gadgets, a bag of airport lunch, a water bottle, a purse, a carry-on bag, etc. She never looked at me or spoke to me, but she did deposit the entire pile of carry-on loot into my lap without a word of explanation or request for help.I was flabbergasted, to say the least.

But, I know how hard it can be to settle into these tiny spaces; she’ll take these things from me in a second, I figured. I won’t be holding them forever. I can be a good neighbor.

She settled in. Sat down. Seat belts. Flips through the airplane magazines. Minutes pass. Then she takes from my arms a cell phone — and makes a call. A long call. Talks on the phone until we have to “please turn off all electronic equipment for take off” and I’m still holding all her stuff.

At this point, I’ve moved from flabbergasted to flummoxed, and incredibly irritated. What is this nut-case-of-a-fellow-passenger thinking?!?

It occurred to me then that this is the scenario Jesus is always describing. The one where I’m supposed to walk the extra mile; where I’m supposed to love my enemies; where I’m supposed to turn the other cheek, give my second jacket to the person who stole my first one; where I’m supposed to be humble, and giving, and patient instead of seeking something for myself, seeking comfort, seeking my rights, seeking a good position. The one where I am to give shelter to those who need it, food and water to those without it, comfort for those who seek it. No matter how undeserving or undesirable the needy person may be, because when I do these things, I’m really doing it to him. As though that person were Jesus.

He was right — it’s easy to do this for my friends who will probably do the same for me. But it’s really hard to do this for a perfect stranger who really seems to be taking advantage of my patience for no compelling reason.

But hey — how about that? Taking advantage of me? Aren’t I supposed to have good boundaries? Not let people walk all over me? This is the place where I go around in circles. How do you love people as though they were Jesus, without becoming an unhealthy doormat?

The answer struck me then in a place deeper than words: if this lady sitting next to me really were Jesus, I would be more than happy to hold his/her bags for 15 minutes — or 15 hours. I would never have to ask myself if I was being manipulated because the change that matters is not in her behavior or intent, but in my own heart. If she really was Jesus, I would spend those 15 minutes or 15 hours blessed beyond belief that I had this opportunity to give, to serve, to be near him.

Being manipulated or taken advantage of comes not because of who she is, but who I see her to be. If I believe that holding her books and loving her gives me an opportunity to directly and physically love and serve Jesus, then she no longer has the power to hurt me in any way. I have already chosen to give freely, joyfully — and I’m getting much more in return than was “taken” from me.

He was right about that too.

She did eventually take her stuff back. Never did speak to me, or look at me. But this taught me something, without words, that a book or sermon or discussion could never have done. Loving the (to my eyes) unlovable as though they were Jesus.

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Advent, Hope, and the Chicago Cubs: a Devotion on Devotion

14572263_10154092126768214_5738134130707280860_nHope deferred makes the heart sick,
    but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13:12)

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for
    and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)

 

With the dark days of a Chicago winter upon us, hope can feel in short supply. Add in the most divisive political season most of us can remember, and despair can make the heart sick.

In the meantime, you’ve almost certainly heard the news: last month the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908! I’m fairly certain the cry of joy could be heard from outer space. I know the gathering of five-million people celebrating in Chicago was seen from the skies—the seventh largest human gathering in all history.

It was difficult to carry on normally during those weeks, due to the agony of near defeat, the tension of games too close to call, the ecstasy of victory. And the fact that I was unwilling to wear anything without the Cubs logo emblazoned on it (preferably Cubbie blue).

You might have asked yourself: all this for a ball game??

Well, not exactly.

There’s some powerful alchemy that goes into the emotions we feel around something like this; a recipe that gets at what we humans are to the core and what inspires us to move forward. It’s about individual and community identity, about our placement in the world and in time. It’s about the deeply physical, social, and spiritual elements of hope.

The last time the Cubs played in the World Series (and lost), the year was 1945. World War II had just ended and my Cubs-cheering Dad was only four months old. The last time the Cubs won the World Series it was 1908. World War I was still in the distant future. My dad—and his dad—weren’t cheering because they weren’t born yet; my great grandfather probably wasn’t cheering either, having just immigrated from Sweden and busy setting up the family farm.

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The baby in the high chair is my dad, the year the Cubs last played (and lost) the World Series

That’s a lot of generations ago. That’s a long time to hope for something unseen.

And so, entire generations of Cubs fan were born into families long-hoping for victory, only to live their entire lives and never see it. They birthed children who were taught to do the same, for generations. By the time my children were born, they were handed not only the words to the song “Go Cubs Go” but the weight of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents who had waited, and hoped, and died without seeing their hope come to fruition.

Yes, but it’s just baseball. They weren’t hoping to see peace come to their homeland, a return from exile, or the coming of God’s final redemption—as so many have throughout human history. That’s true. This is a baseball sized hope.

But when you have the privilege of witnessing something your father’s generation longed to see, and your grandfather’s, and great grandfather’s—and they didn’t, but never stopped hoping, and passed the dream on to you—well, that becomes something bigger than just a ballgame.

This is about loving each other through the ages, and not just today; about faithfulness when it’s difficult and not just when its easy. It is the deep love and loyalty that families feel for each other, the longing one generation has to be united to the ones that come before and behind. It is where we find the strength to move forward, to train up our children, keep the faith, work for redemption and a world made new. There’s power when you believe an ancient dream may finally be realized. It’s about a heart sick from hope deferred, now rejoicing in a tree of life.

The very biggest and best stories are passed down this way; the most transcendent hopes are woven through the generations.

Outside of professional sports we have real lives, with real hopes long deferred. We look at the legacies entrusted to our generation, and wonder if we’re worthy to pass them forward. We trudge through suffering and wonder if we’ll see these longings fulfilled. So we stay faithful in the little things: getting up each morning, caring for family, friends, and neighbors, serving in our jobs, seeking after God, keeping the faith. We long to believe that this everyday-faithfulness is worthy of the legacy of hope, that we are keeping the course for those that came before and those that came behind.

That’s why these small tastes of victory mean so much to us. Spoilers that hint at the end of the story: the ancient hope of our mothers and fathers is alive, even if we won’t taste the fruit in our lifetimes.

There’s a wall at Wrigley Field where fans have chalked the names of their loved ones who hoped to see this day but passed on months ago, years ago, decades ago. Those who have gone before us. Sons and daughters have travelled to far-off cemeteries to listen to Game Seven with the mothers and fathers who longed to listen to such a game their entire lives. Friends are getting tattoos in honor of dearly departed loved ones they wish had lived to see this day.

It is this sweet fulfillment of generations longing together that was tasted, in a small but meaningful way, by millions of Cubs fan now, finally, in 2016.

 

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Good News of Great Joy

I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. Habakkuk 3:18
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great
joy that will be for all the people. Luke 2:10
From the very first moment, the message of Christmas has been one of rejoicing.  Joy is interwoven everywhere in the story. The angel Gabriel greets Mary with a word that literally means “Rejoice.” When Elizabeth approaches Mary her baby leaps in the womb for joy. The song Mary sings in response is full of joyous pronouncement. The declaration of the angels to the shepherds is that their news is great joy to all people. The shepherds respond with joy upon seeing the new baby. And when the wise men see the star, they rejoice with exceedingly greatjoy.Why so much rejoicing at the arrival of a baby? To these men and women who lived so long ago, what did this baby mean? In the songs of Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and the angels – through the pronouncements later on of John the Baptist and Jesus himself – and through the ancient prophets long before them – we discover the source of their joy. As Zechariah sang “because of the tender mercy of our God/ whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high/ to give light to those who sit in darkness/and in the shadow of death,/ to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The nation of Israel had been waiting for generations. As the prophets declared they were “waiting in darkness to see a great light.” They believed that the One who created the cosmos and called Israel to be a nation had entered into an irrevocable covenant with them – to bring justice and unity, to bring light into darkness, to make crooked paths straight, to bring good news to the poor and freedom to the captive.

Hundreds of years previously, the prophet Zephaniah urged the people of Israel to sing aloud and rejoice with all their hearts. “The Lord your God is with you” he said, “the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” He prophesied over them, capturing their national identity and hope in declaring “I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles…at that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home says the Lord.

When the Gospel characters – Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, and the Shepherds heard the news of this child, they heard it within this context. The centuries of hopeful imagination and trust in Yahweh’s covenant with Israel and creation was coming to fulfillment in the birth of this baby. The Messiah, the anointed one, the long awaited one, has come. Israel will be delivered. Creation will be redeemed. God is with us. This is the joy that comes from a thousand year expectant hope come finally to fruition.

Thousands of years later, we still carry this same joy into the world, through the celebration of Christmas. God has come to our world, and he has come to redeem and not to destroy.  We know now with certainty that he has been and will be faithful to his covenant, to the plan he laid out before the creation of the world.

God’s plan of redemption is underway. He has not forgotten us. He is still faithful to the relationship with creation inaugurated at the dawn of time. In a world of pain and darkness, his plan for unity and justice will prevail.

This is the good news of great joy that we receive at Christmas.

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Advent and Solstice: Waiting for Light

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.
– Psalm 27:1, 14
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 
– John 1:9
Thousands of years ago, during this cold, darkening season, Germanic people wove evergreen wreaths to express hope in life’s ability to withstand winter and be made new in springtime. These green living circles symbolized the constant cycles of life, and they decorated them with lit candles during the dark, frozen December days. This was their expression of hope that long winter nights would not last forever, but warmth and the sun-filled days of Spring would return once more.
In Scandinavia during the long dark nights, ancient worshipers removed their wagon wheels and placed lit candles upon them. In this way they beseeched the god of light to turn the wheel of the earth back again towards the sun, to lengthen the days and restore warmth again to the earth.
These ancient communities of northern Europe knew just how dark darkness could be – how cold, how lifeless.  The coming of the solstice contained the promise that darkness would not last forever – light and life were coming tangibly back to the world.
It is no surprise that in the first centuries Western Europeans began to celebrate Christ’s birth during this same season. Centuries of reflection on the darkness of early winter coupled with the certainty of hope in light and life breaking through found their fulfillment when the true light that gives light to everyone came into the world.  The redeeming light celebrated at the solstice became Christ, God-with-us, along with the return of the sun. These hopeful, expectant weeks of waiting in darkness found new significance for the community of believers as the season of Advent.
Today, in the darkness of early winter, the Christmas season still begins with waiting, with hoping. I carefully place candles on a wheel of evergreen boughs and light one each Sunday of Advent with my children. It is Christ we are waiting for. Even though the reality of history is that the Messiah has come, and therefore he is here now and always, within the celebration of Advent he is coming and therefore we are waiting.  We are waiting for Christ, for Emmanuel, for God-With-Us. During these weeks there is a tangible sense of entering, of expecting. There are mysterious and majestic things to ponder and simply speaking or hearing them will not do – the message must sink down deep into our hearts, our minds, our choices, our songs, and our dreams.
In this wintertime season the world is covered in darkness and lifelessness. No one needs to be convinced that something is off kilter in our lives, our families, our communities. We know how dark darkness can be. There is pain and suffering, we are hurt by others and hurt others in turn.  The Good News that we are straining to hear during this Advent season is found in a newborn baby, but it is neither weak nor helpless. This Good News, this light that has come into darkness, has the strength of God grafting us into his family, of sending neither a sign nor a prophet but coming himself, as one of us.  There is no darkness past, present, or future that can hold a candle to this light.
Praise be to God for his indescribable Gift.
 

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Courage

Courage
        whispered the autumn leaf
    He,
       born of spring’s budding hope
       commissioned for summer’s verdancy
       yet most glorious in decline
Courage
         urged the autumn leaf
  As he,
        in trust and gratitude
        released his hold once, and for all
        surrendered into the wind
               and fell

(From the Orthodox Church Funeral Service): 
“The event of death is probably the greatest spiritual, intellectual, and emotional challenge which a person must face in his earthly existence. But the Christian should be prepared to face all the events of life with unflinching courage. These inescapably include the sorrowful reality of death.”

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A Tale of Two Callings

I have the honor today of guest posting for the blog series “Women in Ministry” hosted by Katherine Willis Pershey.  I’d love for you to hop over and have a read!

Here’s an excerpt:

I was at a minister’s conference recently, chatting with my tablemate at lunch. She is an ordained Pastor, Spiritual Director, Chaplain, Licensed Therapist, and Healing Prayer Minister. I was excited to talk with her because her schooling and interests so closely line up with my own. But then she asked about my ministry. I stumbled around for words but came up short, mumbling something about being busy with my kids while supporting my husband in his work. I left the conversation feeling that somehow my life had gone terribly wrong.

Continue reading…

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This House

For my Grandma, 1915-2013. I love you.

This House

This is the house into which I was born.

I took my first breath.

I opened my eyes to the light.

I learned to know my mother

and my father

and my Creator

within this house

This is the house

where I discovered living.

I felt the sunshine on my face.

I breathed deeply of life and fresh air.

I savored ice cream

and watermelon

and cool grass upon my feet

within this house

This is the house

where my children met life.

My mind sought for wisdom.

My heart yearned for understanding

I learned to know joy

and suffering

and compassion

within this house

This is my house

where I have met with the world.

It is not the only house.

It is not the strongest or the biggest.

But it has been my partner.

Everything that I am is

within this house

This is the house

which grows old and weary.

The foundations crumble

The walls decay

When it has crumbled

and fallen

and I leave for the first and last time

may I awaken in the morning

outside this house.

Above, 1947. Below, 2013


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Seperations

Several years ago I heard the most amazing of news – there was, within my own body and self, another person just beginning to be created. For months I carried this reality around with me like a fragile cup of wonder – I was no long merely myself. I was myself plus someone. Someone who was me-yet-not-me. Someone who would one day break off from me and be an entirely separate person. But on that day and for that time we were truly one.

I remember the day he was born, and the astonishment I felt at this most amazing of events – here, from my body, was another separate person.

Nine months after that day he slept in his own room for the first time, having spent the first nine months sleeping alongside my bed in a co-sleeper. The shock of this separation made me reel; not only was he outside of my body but he could spend long hours alone in a room without me. We would pass this time apart, neither knowing what the other was doing, this one who just months before could not be extracted separately from my body.

Three and a half years after that I dropped him off for his first day at preschool. He readily walked through the doors and I found myself on the other side. He had experiences and conversations and snacks and friends that I would never know anything about. This caused me to reflect on the thoughts and ideas and feelings he had daily that were secret to himself alone, and I realize how very far from the womb he had traveled in four short years.

Yesterday I dropped this same person – clad in Angry Birds t-shirt and backpack, full of personality and opinions – at Kindergarten. Next week I’ll merely open the house door and watch him climb unto the big yellow bus parked outside our home.

For him, I’m sure, the process of separation has been gradual and slow, each step coming at just the right time. But for me, I transitioned from “labor pains” to “school bus” in just a bit more time than it took to earn a Bachelor’s degree. His rapid growth no longer leaves stretch marks on my stomach but the marks are made to my soul as I strain to keep up.

My father once wisely noted that the birth and childhood “firsts” of our first born are as much about ourselves as it is about them, as we encounter for the first time these life experiences we could hardly know existed. In this new season, I find that he is right. My other children will one day start school for the first time, but this time is, for the entire family, the First Time. Somehow today I am not only letting go a little bit more of A, but letting go, period.

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Exhale

My current lifestyle doesn’t leave room for much of what is commonly understood as “spiritual discipline.” There’s simply no silence or solitude to be found, and I am not the master of my schedule, my diet, my sleep, and in many respects, my life. I’ve many many times heard the message of “that’s ok – there will be time for spiritual disciplines later in life” but I strongly disagree. The things mothers (and parents, and caregivers of all sorts) do with their energy may not be featured in any books on the subject but the reason we don’t have much time for devotion is because we give of ourselves every moment of the day. There has been no steeper road of humility, surrender, submission, service, worship, and prayer in my life than parenting.

One of my greatest passions is to pull back the veil that we so often erect between what is “spiritual” and what is “everyday.” When my hands are filthy from cleaning up another person’s dirty diaper – this is my chance to learn service and humility. When my head is spinning with cries from a million places – I have the opportunity to clear my mind and stay attune to God and the real, live moment I am in. For a caregiver, opportunities for spiritual discipline abound in every moment, if we can look beyond what we have read and see how our souls can be shaped in our day to day.

One thing I do each day, whether I have time or not, is breathe – in and out, in and out, day in and day out. Why not use this as a vehicle? I have been practicing for a few years but was recently encouraged by this:

_ When we are born, we are born into a relationship with air, with breathing. How closely the words wind, air, life, and spirit are linked in human thought. We are creatures into whom life is breathed.
A word we have for inhaling is inspiration. When we are fully inspired, not only are our lungs filled – our beings are also filled, with hope, with potential, with the impetuous to express possibility.
Expired, we are over and done with, stopped…finished.
Our life is lived within this paradox. With every inhalation we are given life. With every exhalation we must surrender that life, for another breath to be given to us. If we could fully enter the rhythm of this paradox we would live with immediacy, and be intimate with birth and death and with life itself. _

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Very Behind

So I’m doing this A-Z challenge during the month of April, but I’m falling behind. I think today is supposed to be X, but I’m writing V…and that’s only because I did both T and U yesterday and skipped K weeks ago. But oh well, better late than never. Its not like the last letters of the alphabet are going anywhere in May.

Falling behind is not something I do very often. I am, in fact, the girl who wrote five research papers during Spring Break my Sophomore year in college because I just needed to know they were done. That’s a poignant example, but that’s how I do most things in my life. If you invite me to your house I’ll probably show up 15 minutes early on accident. I can’t help it.

But these days, all my time and energy easily go to the most urgent things on the list – taking care of my kids’ most basic of needs and keeping on top of my part time job. Then comes the important things that will become urgent most quickly if left undone – cleaning the kitchen, washing the clothes, going to the store. If there’s anything left it goes to the third tier of urgent whatever that happens to be on any given week – the broccoli plants that will wilt if not planted, the folded laundry that hasn’t been put away in 10 days, the bathrooms that haven’t been cleaned in (indistinguishable mumbling).

If I had my preference, I’d still be working ahead. My house would be clean and organized, I’d be doing any number of fulfilling and educational things for my kids and for myself. There are a lot of things I’d like to be doing right now that are just not rising to the top half of the list. But that’s how things go with three little ones.

Recently I had the chance to chat with a panel of published authors. When I described to them a bit of what was on my plate they looked about to swoon with exhaustion. One asked if I would ever like to write something to be published and then stopped herself. “You have many years ahead of you to write, but this is your only chance to have a three year old.”

She’s so right. Someday, my house will be tidy and my lawn will be mowed and my hair will be cut and I’ll be reading books and writing down my ideas and spending time with friends. There has been time for that in the past but this time I get to wake up every day and see these lovely faces. This time, and never again. I’m going to keep falling behind and drink them up, every drop.


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My aim is to awaken myself and others to the creative, redemptive work of God in this present moment. I am striving to see beauty, learning to expand my perspective, praying to keep my eyes and heart open.

Connect with Catherine at www.catherinemcniel.com.

 


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