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Posts Tagged ‘waiting’

memorial church harvard spire branches blue sky

We have arrived at Holy Week, again – after a long, gray Lenten season that felt like it would never end. Last week, a cardboard box of palm fronds (shipped from Minnesota, of all places) arrived on my doorstep, and on Sunday morning, we passed them out to the waiting hands at our tiny church. I stood in a pew waving my palm branch and snapping pictures with my phone as the kids (and some adults) walked a few laps around the sanctuary, singing songs anchored by the word Hosanna.

Later in the service, we did what we do each week: paused to mention specific prayer requests for our church community and the world. People raised their hands readily to ask for prayers for a pregnant sister, a jobless husband, an ill mother. But when Nate asked about prayers for the wider world, we fell silent, as we often do. Where to begin?

I thought of the chemical attacks in Syria, of the churches bombed that day in Egypt, of the refugees still pouring into Europe, searching for a home. I thought about the headlines that inform so much of my day job: when you work in communications at a school of government, ignoring the daily news is not an option. There is so much fear and anger and unrest, everywhere, and I don’t always know how to react to it all, much less form the words of a coherent prayer.

We always end with the Lord’s Prayer, reciting it aloud in quiet unison. We say it, too, at the weekday Morning Prayers service at Memorial Church, where I have ended up more and more often this year, walking across Harvard Yard to tuck myself into a carved wooden pew right behind the choir.

All winter long, and into this fitful spring, the same line has made tears well in my eyes: On earth as it is in heaven.

I don’t know much, of course, about what heaven is like. I doubt the images from our Sunday School lessons get all that close to the reality of it, and I don’t believe that’s the point, really. But I believe in a world beyond this one: a world of hope and redemption and deep, untrammeled joy, watched over by a God who is making all things new.

I also know that life on earth isn’t like that: the glories of this life are always mingled with heartbreak. We are so far, so much of the time, from any vision of peace and justice and love. There are glimpses of it: spasmodic tricks of radiance, if you will. But we are not there yet.

Holy Week is a time when we enter into the full dramatic scope of the Christian narrative: the triumphal (though unexpected) entry into Jerusalem, the bittersweet last meal with the disciples, the jarring tragedy of arrest and brutal crucifixion. During this week, we walk alongside the disciples as they watch Jesus give himself up, and for a few heart-stopping days, it looks like the horrors of this world have won. It looks like grief and fear and hopelessness. It looks like the headlines I see every day.

Here, in the middle of Holy Week, it can be hard to see the pattern: it looks like heartbreak and struggle, rather than triumph. It looks like tears and frustration and unanswered questions, and soon it will look like deep anguish. But then, in the early hours of Sunday morning, it will start to look like hope. The sky will start to lighten, and the earth will hold its breath. And then – out of the tomb, out of the very heart of darkness and despair – will come the joy.

This week, as I walk the streets of Cambridge, I am also walking a different road: the one that winds through Jerusalem, all the way up to Golgotha. The songs from the Easter pageants at my childhood church are running through my head, and I am remembering how it felt to be part of it all, as a servant of the wise men, a young bride at Cana, a villager joining an angry mob that later became a choir of praise.

For us, Easter Sunday isn’t the end of the story: we still have to contend with the brokenness of this world. But it is worth celebrating that one glorious day when already and not yet meld together: when, for just a moment, on earth as it is in heaven becomes real.

If you’re observing Holy Week (or simply looking forward to Easter), I wish you a blessed one.

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emily advent reading

So said my husband a couple of weeks ago, as he opened a church service in which both the worship leader (him) and the preacher (our friend Robert) were struggling with coughs and raspy voices. We congregants crowded into the first few rows, and moved the small podium forward between the front two pews. (It’s a difference of maybe 20 feet, but when you’re fighting to be heard, every little bit helps.) The red, foil-wrapped poinsettias, flanking the altar, cast a warm glow onto the white wood.

Emily (who did not have laryngitis) read aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah: A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. And, a few verses later, They will not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain. (That phrase always gives me chills.)

Advent is a time for listening to prophetic voices: Isaiah, John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel. It is a time for acknowledging what is far from right in our world: the injustice, the sadness, the hurt and the evil that threaten to overwhelm us, threaten to quench the hope we carry around. But the words of John’s Gospel, read aloud at Morning Prayers later that week, brought sudden tears to my eyes: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. These words are no less true in such dark times.

It became a running joke this month at church: three of our preachers (we have a regular rotating cast) were struggling vocally on the days they were asked to speak. J, who leads the singing most weeks, has been coughing and sneezing intermittently for nearly a month. And I lost my voice entirely on the weekend of the church Christmas party, which meant I couldn’t participate as we sang carols in Joe and Kelly’s living room. I simply had to sit and listen. But that felt like Advent in its own way.

In the wake of the past few months – not only the election, but Orlando and Berlin and so many hard things, both public and personal – I have been bombarded by a lot of noise. We live in a loud society, a clamoring and strident world, and people are angry right now, and scared. Worried for their loved ones, anxious about the future. I know I am. The voices of the prophets – whoever they are – can be muffled, or at times silenced altogether.

As we head into Christmas week (and as I struggle to regain my physical voice), I am doing my best – since I can’t talk much – to listen.

I am rereading the words in my Advent book, from Henri Nouwen, Gail Godwin, J.B. Phillips and others, about waiting for God and (meanwhile) doing our part to bring his kingdom about in this world. I am remembering the good words I’ve heard at Morning Prayers this fall, from a variety of voices I might have never encountered otherwise. I am thinking back on conversations with a few friends, who serve as prophetic voices in my own life. And I am reading, online and off, the stories of people whose experiences are wildly different from mine. (We must – I keep saying – be of interest to each other.)

I heard, recently, an unusual meditation on Mary, the mother of Jesus: the speaker named her “desperate and fearful and running for her life, yet brave, courageous, the mother of God.” I have long loved the image of Mary from the end of Luke 2, when, overwhelmed by momentous events and new circumstances, she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” In a time when I often feel desperate and fearful, and when there is so much to ponder, I am trying to be like Mary: brave and thoughtful, and willing to listen for the hope I know is there.

If you’re celebrating this week, merry Christmas, friends. And no matter what holidays you observe (or don’t), I wish you joy and peace – and the full use of your voices – as we head into the end of 2016.

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lamont quad light sky

I expected to be so ready for Advent this year.

After a full, demanding fall semester and a bruising election cycle, I thought I’d be eager to sink into my favorite liturgical season: the readings, the carols, the longing and candlelight and hope. But at church on the first Sunday of Advent (after our wonderful Turkeypalooza), I still felt hopeless and tired and sad, even as we sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

That evening, sitting on the floor at my friend Amy’s house, I admitted how I felt. We were working on the backdrop for the church Christmas pageant: hot-gluing uneven blocks of dark green felt to a bolt of midnight blue fabric, scattering handfuls of sticky, glittery stars overhead. “I think I need to sit in the darkness a while longer,” Amy said, and I nodded. I didn’t feel ready to start lighting candles yet.

The next day, I walked across the Yard to Morning Prayers, where a divinity student gave a talk on tenderness. “Let us be raw a while longer,” she said gently, urging us to sit with our pain – and the world’s – rather than glossing over it. We also sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I hummed it as I walked to work afterward, the Civil Wars version in my earbuds.

It feels right for Advent to come slowly this year: we are working through more pain and darkness, on a national scale, than I can remember in a long time. The questions raised by my favorite Advent writers – Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Alfred Delp – feel more pertinent than they ever have. I have been reluctant to skip over the ache to the joy, even as I’ve loved seeing twinkle lights and Christmas trees appear around Cambridge and in my friends’ homes.

Since I discovered it as a high school student, Advent has given me a way to wrestle with the questions of my faith: to look the darkness of this world steadily in the face, and to appreciate why we need the Light. I usually relish the ache of it, the haunting, lovely longing for Christ to come, for God to burst into the world and begin making all things new. But this year, everything already feels so dark. And I keep wondering: what good can our candles, anyone’s candles, possibly do?

Despite my weariness (and wariness), Advent keeps sneaking in, sidling up with quiet steps when I’m not quite paying attention. There is the Sylvia Plath poem whose inclusion in my favorite Advent book surprises and delights me every year. There are the annual Advent readings hosted by my friends Hannah and Chris, where we gather for poetry and hot cider and good talk in their cozy living room. There are the quiet carols (my favorite ones), which end up in my head almost by accident. And there are moments of connection with colleagues and friends, even in the midst of daily tasks and deeper sadness.

I am (finally) edging into the season: we put up our tree this weekend, and hung the greenery at church on Saturday. I am humming a few beloved carols, dipping into my Advent books, and watching for the light, whether literal (as above) or metaphorical, any place I can find it.

How are you finding the light – whether you’re observing Advent or not – in this season?

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green leaves snow spring winter

I looked out the window on Palm Sunday evening to see a streak of gold sunset against grey, lowering, heavy clouds. That morning at church, most of us hadn’t had enough sleep (or caffeine) to muster up a lot of enthusiasm, but we passed out the palm fronds anyway. My husband, fighting a sinus infection, led the procession around the sanctuary, kids and adults singing “Hosanna” and “Salvation Belongs to Our God.”

The next morning, we woke up to swirling, blowing snow: an inversion of the recent weather pattern that has coaxed the crocuses and some early daffodils and tulips out of the ground. I pulled on my snow boots and trudged toward the subway, dreading the biting wind. But by lunchtime, the storm had blown itself out, and scraps of blue sky peeked out from clouds grown suddenly fluffy. I walked down to my favorite cafe for a bowl of soup, snapping photos of green leaves sticking out of fresh snow.

We are days away from Easter, and it’s technically spring: we have turned the clocks forward, observed the vernal equinox. But it all feels topsy-turvy: we are squinting in the bright sunlight even as we dig out the down coats again, then exchange them for umbrellas. I am grateful not to be fighting the deep snowbanks of last winter, but this season keeps catching me off balance. I don’t know what to make of these up-and-down days, their refusal to form a linear progression. It does not feel like a measured journey toward something new.

I started a new temp gig last week, across the street from the one I’ve held for the last four months. The people in both offices are kind, and the work is similar: the kind of university communication that has paid my bills for years. But I haven’t settled into my new routine yet, and everything feels off-kilter. The sunlight slants at an unfamiliar angle across my new desk, and I’m still learning the contours of this place. And I don’t know, yet, what will happen next. (This is the constant refrain of the past year.)

I haven’t paid much attention to Lent this year: my energy has been focused on getting through each day. The broader arc of the season has been difficult to see. But it strikes me that this is how the disciples must have felt during the first Holy Week, especially toward the end of it. The events right in front of them – dramatic and heartbreaking and also deeply mundane – demanded much of their attention. They couldn’t see the pattern until later. And the light, when it broke through, caught them completely off guard.

This season, while difficult, has been full of unexpected beauty: crocuses poking up through the hard earth, acts of kindness that have carried me through some tough days. It has been hard in the ways that waiting and uncertainty are hard. But there has also been sharp light and sudden joy.

As I do every year during Holy Week, I am humming songs from long-ago Easter pageants, making plans for Easter Sunday. I am trusting that these mixed-up days, these tangled weather patterns, will eventually lead us to spring. I am doing my best to pay attention, to notice the small gifts of each day, and to hold on to the promise that something new is coming. Even if I can’t see it yet.

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Lighting our candles

candle red berries penguin

Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.

—Alfred Delp

I am lighting a lot of candles these days.

We are into the short days of December, and while several of them (so far) have blazed with sunshine and brilliant blue skies, it’s still nearly pitch dark by five o’clock. The twinkling lights of our two Christmas trees (one big, one tiny) are helping to combat the darkness of the long evenings, but even so I find myself reaching for the lighter on a regular basis, hearing the click-click and smiling as the flame springs into life.

charles river clouds boston

Last week, I took a lunchtime walk along the Charles River, which glinted gray and silver under a sky chased with fitful clouds. I stumbled onto a small monastery whose existence I had only learned about recently. I slipped into its tiny chapel, set with jewel-like stained-glass windows, and I lit a candle, one in a row of flickering tealights set in a wrought-iron rack.

I wanted to murmur a prayer for our world, which is hurting so badly in so many ways, and in the end I couldn’t. I had no words. I let that tiny flame, joined with its fellows in that small stone chapel, express my plea: Lord, have mercy.

“I simply get to work on ordinary things,” Sarah wrote in a blog post a few weeks ago. “This is all I know to do when I don’t know what to do.” I think about her words almost daily, as I go about my own ordinary work.

I make the bed every morning with my husband’s grandmother’s quilt. I wash last night’s dishes while the kettle is boiling for my first cup of tea. I sort and wash laundry, lug it downstairs to the basement, haul it back up when it’s dry, fold it and put it away. I make grocery lists, errand lists, to-do lists, and work through them, slowly.

I peel a clementine for an afternoon snack, buy Christmas gifts, answer emails. I drink chai and more chai from Darwin’s, scribbling a few lines in my journal if there’s time. I write – news stories, book reviews, social media posts – and edit and proofread till my eyes hurt.

I come home and I need to plunge my hands into a sink of soapy water, or a batch of scone dough or a tangle of yarn. Or I need to simply sit in front of our Christmas tree with yet another mug of tea or mulled cider. And a candle burning nearby.

There is a lot of joy in this ordinary work. And there is also – at times like this – a feeling of helplessness.

christmas tree living room

 

What can I do about the headlines, the scenes of terror and tragedy on every side, the constant shouting in the halls of power that drowns out the tears of those who mourn? Not much, honestly. I can’t change anything for the families who are grieving, for the refugees without a home, even for my friend whose baby has been sick or other friends who are walking through dark times. I’m not a doctor, or a magician. I can’t do much. But I can light a candle on my kitchen table while I scrub pots and pans and make a meal to nourish myself and my love.

We are deep into the season of Advent, and even if you are not Christian, or religious, the world seems to be waiting for something. We are aching for peace, for reconciliation, for an end to the violence and anger that threatens to overwhelm anyone who picks up a newspaper or turns on the TV. We are desperate for solutions to these seemingly intractable problems, and we yell at each other because we don’t know how to fix things, how to move forward in the wake of so much loss.

It seems a small thing, to make a pot of soup, or a cup of tea. To go to a friend’s house on a Tuesday night, share a meal, trade stories and laughter, and read aloud the words of Luke and Isaiah. To spend Saturday morning wrapping potted poinsettias in gold paper, hanging pine garlands around the doorways at church. To text a friend, to share something funny or joyous or exciting, or simply to say, I’m here.

It seems small. But it’s what I can do.

As we turn toward the solstice and the nights grow ever longer, as the headlines continue to shout reminders of how broken and raw the world is, as I deal with continuing struggles and uncertainty of my own, you can find me here. Reading the words of hope and expectation in my Advent book, listening to the carols that thrill me with their longing and joy, sitting in the silence and taking a deep breath.

And then going about my quiet, unglamorous, ordinary work. Lighting the candles I possess, while I wait for the Light of the world to come again.

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advent book stack

We’ve come around to the season of Advent again – that quiet, twinkly time of anticipation before the glorious joy of Christmas. As usual, I’m marking the season by humming “O Come O Come Emmanuel” over and over again, and by reading.

Fittingly, I discovered Advent because of a book: Watch for the Light, a collection of readings for Advent and Christmas, which I picked up at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., many years ago. The contributors are a diverse, thoughtful group of scholars, poets, philosophers and theologians, and their words help me live more deeply into this season every year. From essays by Kathleen Norris and Brennan Manning to poems by T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath (yes, really), this collection always wakes me up, reminds me to pay attention – which is what Advent is all about.

Kathleen Norris’ lovely memoir The Cloister Walk is loosely organized around the liturgical year, and I turned back to the Advent chapters last weekend, rereading them by the light of our glowing Christmas tree. She speaks of reading the words of the prophet Isaiah on the first Sunday of Advent at a Benedictine monastery, and being grateful that such poetry exists in the Bible, and that “it tastes so good in [my] mouth.”

Madeleine L’Engle, another one of my guides, wrote an odd, striking memoir-cum-meditation, The Irrational Season, that is also somewhat tied to the liturgical year. Some of it is a little esoteric for me, but the Advent chapter, “The Night is Far Spent,” is quietly moving. Madeleine writes of being wakeful in the night, standing at the window of her New York City apartment with a mug of bouillon in her hands, musing on time, creation and the mystery of Advent. It’s an image I return to every year.

I fell completely in love with Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice when my friend Julie handed it to me, several Christmases ago. It’s a quiet, lovely story of five rather vaguely connected people who all end up at an old house in northern Scotland at Christmastime. All of them are struggling with different griefs, and all of them find unexpected joy and redemption during their time together. The ending makes me cry.

Someone has said that poetry gets us closest to the mystery of this season, and for that I like Luci Shaw’s collection Accompanied by Angels, which takes us through the life of Jesus. Many of the poems are short, with striking images. Taken together, they form a mosaic that highlights a few new facets of this Jesus who is so well known and yet so mysterious.

I’ve long loved Father Tim Kavanagh and his adventures in Mitford, North Carolina. Shepherds Abiding, the eighth Mitford novel, is a sweet story of one Advent/Christmas season in which Father Tim restores a derelict Nativity scene as a gift for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, other denizens of Mitford are going about their own Christmas business. Like all the Mitford novels, it’s funny, down-to-earth and quietly hopeful.

I reach for this stack of books every Advent, and their words – especially those in Watch for the Light – have become for me part of the fabric of the season, a way to observe these few liminal weeks between Ordinary Time and Christmas. As the days grow suddenly dark and short, I am watching for the light in both literal and metaphorical ways. These words help light the way for me, every year.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading during this Advent season?

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katie memorial church green coat harvard yard

My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in God

It is the week before Christmas, that strange in-between time where real life continues even as we hurtle toward festivity. For those of us who travel long distances to celebrate, the holiday is a clear separation from routine, a break made more definite by two thousand miles on an airplane, suitcases stuffed with clothes and presents, then three hundred miles of long, gray Texas highway.

As the calendar ticks closer to our departure date, I’m living two parallel lives: one largely normal week of work and home and daily routine, one week of lists and preparations and giddy anticipation of seeing loved ones I haven’t seen for months, or a year.

Glory be to God the Father
And glory be to God the Son
Glory be to God the Spirit
Glory be to God

This week, I still hit the snooze button in the mornings, throw on my green coat and ride the subway to Harvard Square. I answer emails, wrap up work projects, then walk down to Darwin’s for some chai and breathing space. On Monday afternoon, I sat on the steps of Memorial Church, my back resting against one of its wide wooden columns, letting my brain spin out while I gazed at the deep blue sky.

This week, I am still making soup, eating leftovers, sitting in front of the Christmas tree with a mug of tea in my hands. I’m clinging to my routine, with its built-in space for solitude, because it’s about to be disrupted for two whole weeks. I’m looking forward to the disruption – I’m aching to see my parents and sister, meet my brand-new nephew and hug my friends – but I also know it will be exhausting.

He has been mindful of his servant
He has been mindful of me
I will be blessed forever, forever
I will be blessed by the Lord

The celebrations are rushing by: the office holiday lunch with its Secret Santa exchange, a few last lunches and coffee dates, the church Christmas party. I am making Texas plans: dinner with family friends in Dallas, the Christmas Eve service at my parents’ church, some much-needed time with friends in Abilene. Nephew cuddles, quiet days with our families, and lots and lots of Mexican food.

God alone is mighty, mighty
Our God alone has done great things
God alone is worthy, worthy
Holy is his name

Here, late in Advent, I am humming the Magnificat, a simple four-part a cappella song based on Mary’s hymn of praise in the first chapter of Luke. We’ve been singing it at church lately, the soprano and tenor, bass and alto parts weaving around and over and through one another.

I have heard and sung many choral versions of the Magnificat over the years, but this one is my favorite. My friend Frankie loves it too, and I think of her every time we sing it, her warm alto voice matching mine.

advent scripture wreath church

We are still waiting for Christmas, waiting for Christ to come, amid frightening headlines and soul-weariness and constantly growing to-do lists. But during my long, frenetic workdays, the Magnificat plays steadily in the back of my mind, like a heartbeat. A quiet reminder that, behind everything else, there is this: wonder, humility and praise.

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