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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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Making Things New

Today I spent some quality time with the Creator. I know! Audacious thought. Ridiculous, pompous notion. True none the less. We sat silently on my front porch, drinking tea, listening to the unmistakable sound of gentle wind rustling through dried leaves, and breathing in their sweet, tangy smells.

I shared with Him my thoughts on Fall. My dislike of endings, of decline, of death. My resistance towards sickness and weakness, my struggle against the inevitable coming of cold, dark days. I confessed my tendency to grasp hold of all that is green and growing, hopeful and alive – and not want to let go when it is pulled from my hands.

He listened patiently. But then I heard His side of the story. It turns out that the Creator of Autumn is wildly in love with Autumn. The blue-grey skies, raindrops that seem to spontaneously appear rather than fall. The piles of gourds, pumpkins, and burnt-orange flowers from my garden. The warmth of sweaters, the comfort of sipping hot tea. The sounds and smells of decaying leaves. The brilliant colors of life in decline. The absolute certainly that seasoned life has of who it is and for whom it lives and breathes and has its being. The absolute trust this certainly requires.

I sat quietly, taking it all in – the sights, smells, tastes, feelings, and sounds. I know that He is making something new, even in this season of ending, this close of Autumn. Because he is always, always making things new.

The rain turned to drops, splattering my face and tea. The wind changed, bringing a chill my sweater and tea could not overcome. Turning back towards the house I saw our new sidewalk, freshly dried and already littered with leaves. A new path, never before walked upon. I set my feet on it for the very first time. I am committed to finding His new pathways of grace through this darkening seasons.

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My Neighbor as Myself

I originally wrote and posted this a few years back after moving into my community, but am re-posting today after reading Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement.

What we want out of life has a lot to do with what we expect from life.

What we expect has a lot to do with how life has gone for the people around us.

Those to whom much is given, much will be required.

I am talking to my new friend, “Rosa.”  I am sitting in her apartment, eating her food, listening to her story.  Already I know her smile and her facial expressions.  But she is telling me how, five years ago, she left her two daughters behind and traveled to a new country – my country – so that she could earn enough money to care for their most basic needs.  The journey was horrible, threatening (and nearly taking) her life. She works now, longer hours than I ever have, harder work than I have ever done, for less money than I have ever earned. She can think of no way that she will realistically ever see her daughters again, but because of the couple hundred dollars she sends back each moth, they survive.

It is one thing to read this story and quite another to hear it while looking at her eyes and sharing her food, calling her my friend.  My children are now the exact ages hers were when she left.  For one horrible moment I try to imagine myself in a position where my children lacked even basic food, water, shelter, and education; where they could survive only if I left them behind forever and moved to a foreign land where I had nothing and no one.  In all the worst-case scenarios that always run through my head, this one has never, ever, come up.  It is unthinkable.

Living with roaches and no washing machine is nothing by comparison.

I am around Rosa and others like her all the time now.  Their lives and losses are each unique, but all within the same magnitude. I am beginning to feel that my standard of living, which recently took a nose dive, is quite opulent.  I consider how many people she shares her tiny apartment with and wonder what I could do to get by on less than I have now; if someone else could somehow have more if I was willing to have less.

At the same time, I also enter a very different world each day. A world that feels “normal” and increasingly not normal at all.  A world in which people are paid all the money they have earned; a world where education can be had; where skin color, language, clothing, and mannerisms invisibly open doors, not slam them shut; a world where we talk about needing a bigger house if a baby’s on the way, or a smart phone, or a vacation abroad, or a PhD.  I participate in these conversations pretending like its normal but I’m choking back something between a laugh of irony and a sob of pain. Because I want all these things too but it sounds so, so funny to me now.

Forget asking which world is normal.  Forget asking even which world is right.  I’m consumed with the question: which world is mine? The one I see everyday, the one who’s injustices and pain call to me more passionately and compellingly each day?  Or the one that made me, the one I have always know and by which I have been known?

Or a third option, as A will always find – living as a bridge between the two.  An endless loop of culture shock and re-entry shock, not daily but several times per day.  And then, where do I learn what to expect?  From the life I have always lived or the life I am surrounded by now?  As my expectations change, so too my worldview and my theology and my understanding of blessing and of responsibility and good news and on and on….

You are the ultimate of love and beauty, yet you lived and suffered with us.  Teach me, please.  Gently.

When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. – The Bible

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and…love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. – The Bible

I re-posted this, inspired by the novel Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement.  Ladydi grew up in rural Mexico, where being a girl is a dangerous thing.She and other girls were “made ugly” to keep protect them from drug traffickers and criminal groups. Join From Left to Write on February 18 we discuss Prayers for the Stolen. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

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The Well-Tempered Heart

“Intuition can be misleading.”
He shook his head. “You should never doubt intuition.”
I had to laugh. “Unless you’re me. My intuition is not very reliable. It’s always letting me down.”
“I don’t believe it. Intuition is the incorruptible memory of our experiences. We have only to listen closely to what it tells us.” With a smile he added: “It does not always speak plainly. Or it tells us things we don’t want to hear. That does not make them untrue.”
A Well-Tempered Heart, by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Sometimes it is the most beautiful and valuable things which are the most fragile and easily lost. Intuition could easily be put on the list. In a society that bombards us with data, data, and more data, it is easy to believe that when solving a problem, a stranger on the internet deserves a louder voice than our own.

But somewhere hiding behind all the layers of noise, data, and media that surrounds us, our intuition is there. It is rarely pushy, and may not speak up clearly if we do not allow silence for it to gather its thoughts and reveal itself. But the wisdom it offers is so very needed.

Intuition is not magic – it is, as the quote above describes, the compilation of our experiences. While it may not come with credentials, it has one important edge over all other voices – it is drawing specifically from the applicable experiences of the one to whom it speaks.

Of course, we are our own biggest threats in many cases – our own anxieties, selfishness, and brokenness taint our memories so that painful patterns begin to look like wisdom. Yet, this voice knows us better than we can consciously know ourselves.

When a new mother asks me for advice, I point her to well informed, balanced sources and share my own experiences. But I also remind her that too much input can make us distrust our most valuable adviser – our own sense that something is right or wrong.

Intuition  is a beautiful, powerful tool. Paired together with reason, the two are stronger than either can be on its own.

 

This post was inspired by the novel A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker.  Feeling lost and burned out, Julia drops her well paying job at a NYC law firm. After hearing a stranger’s voice in her head, she travels to Burma to find the voice’s story and hopefully herself as well. Join From Left to Write on February 4 we discuss A Well-Tempered Heart. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

 

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The Courage to Know the Difference

Happier at Home by Gretchin Rubin

In her book Happier At Home, Gretchen Rubin says “Happiness is not having less; happiness is not having more; happiness is wanting what I have.” 

Though she is speaking specifically about possessions, the underlying idea is true to the overall theme of her book and of many of my recent musings about life in general.

The well known and oft-quoted Serenity Prayer implores:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;and wisdom to know the difference.

I find that I can do the first two fairly well – accept the things I cannot change, and summon the courage to change the things I can. But the third is much more challenging – the wisdom to know the difference. Our emotions and perspectives are here to inform us and we should listen to what they have to teach us. If we ignore them, they will control us without our awareness. But once acknowledged and understood they must be tempered, put in perspective, and often surrendered.

Most of us in the Western world with access to the internet to read this post are surrounded by extravagant privilege of choice. But this (perceived) freedom to make your own destiny comes with its own set of shackles – the great responsibility to make things just as they should be in a reality that is still outside of our control and certainly not centered on our desires. When does that sense that things must change need to be surrendered for the sake of contentment? When must it be allowed to grow into the courage to fight for change?

These are questions to wrestle with for a lifetime.

This post was inspired by Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin where she runs a nine month experiment to create happier surroundings. Join From Left to Write on January 6 we discuss Happier at Home. You can also chat live with Gretchen Rubin on January 7 on Facebook! As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

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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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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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