Gifts of the Heart

Often we think of the birth of Jesus as the birth of something new coming merry christmasinto our world or our lives, but what if it is not necessarily the creation of something new, but the celebration of the spirit that awakens in us what we already have?

Hope, love, joy and peace all existed before the birth of Jesus.

God’s presence was with humanity before the birth of Jesus.

Light existed in the midst of darkness.

(For the full video version, click here.)

We have friends who are moving soon and they’ve been cleaning out 20 years of living in one house. As she’s gone through the attic and hidey-holes under the stairs, she talks about how (in amongst the crap that collects) she has found precious things she hasn’t seen in years and had forgotten about. There is such surprise and joy and gratitude in that.

Maybe Christmas is like that. Perhaps we celebrate Christmas (often the same way every year) to try and rediscover that which we already have deep inside ourselves.

I think about the ways we lose sight of those familiar Christmas-time gifts: love, joy, hope and peace…

We lose sight of love in the midst of family conflicts or drama, or maybe we just lose sight of love because we fall into a routine or a rut. Or maybe we’ve lost a loved one, or had a break up. But Christmas reminds us of the unconditional love of the Divine that never leaves us. And the holiday draws that same love out in us, makes us want to share it not only with those we love, but often with those less fortunate, or maybe just with the person you’re chit-chatting with in the grocery line.

We lose sight of joy in the uncertainty of life, and get bogged down in fear or worry. Or sometimes (we hate to admit it) maybe life is good, but we’re waiting for the other shoe to fall and so don’t allow ourselves to fully experience the full extent of the joy. We focus more on a glass half empty than half full. Christmas calls us to sing forth our joy like the angels, to smile at the children, to know a depth of joy that dwells deep, deep within our souls.

Sadly, it is too easy to lose sight of hope in a world ravaged by drugs, human trafficking, poverty, the destruction of natural resources, hatred and violence. And sometimes life knocks us down one too many times in a row and we feel a deep despair devoid of hope.  Christmas reminds us that we are not alone, that there is something bigger moving in the world. Christmas reminds us that with each child hope is born again… and that includes each of us… we can all be a light of hope to the world.

And we lose sight of peace… not just peace between countries and people, but inner peace. We’ve forgotten how to slow down, to turn off our phones and televisions and computers, to quiet our minds and rest in gentleness of the moment, and open to a deeper inner peace. Christmas Eve, with its dimmed lights, beautiful music, and the sacred energy that fills the air, helps us touch once again that peace that the world cannot give.

Which of these gifts of the heart do you need to find again? What do you need to remember? What have you taken for granted that you need to see clearly and feel gratitude for again? What have you forgotten even existed and given up on?

May the love, joy, hope and peace of the Spirit fill you not only this Christmas time, but in the many days to come.

Love & Light!


Out of the box

I must admit to a certain guilt
about stuffing the Holy Family into a box
In the aftermath of Christmas.
It’s frankly a time of personal triumph when,
each Advent’s eve, I free them (and the others)
from a year’s imprisonment
boxed in the dark of our basement.
(excerpt from Ann Weems’ poem, “Boxed”)

I admit I feel exactly like this poem… I feel a certain guilt when Christmas is over and the Holy Family, animals, shepherds, angels and magi get stuffed back in a box. It’s like saying, “OK, we’re done with you, in you go, time for us to move on.”

It’s been even worse the last few years because we haven’t had room to put up a nativity at all. Now that we’re in a bigger home, I can hardly wait to get them out again, but I’m waiting until the kids are home from college and we can do it together (I like to hang on to the illusion that they still care about that ritual).

The scripture about Mary being visited by the angel made me think about how our hearts need to be opened up to receive the Spirit of God. And I started wondering, if we could somehow release the characters of the nativity at Christmas time, might they somehow, in turn, release something in us that we forget about the rest of the year. What if we allowed the nativity to speak to us about their stories? What messages might they have for us?

This is a difficult sermon to summarize because what we did was to “unpack” our own nativity. nativityThere were six members of the congregation who agreed to help us see the story of Jesus’ birth in a new light by taking on one of the characters of the nativity and sharing their story. It was done mostly impromptu and was sometimes hilarious, sometimes somber and sometimes enlightening. The full video version can be watched by clicking here.

Our shepherd, Billy, spoke of being claustrophobic and asked to not be stuffed back in the box after Christmas was over. He shared how he was shocked by the angel, but trusted enough to go looking for the baby, which he knew was the right one because he could feel it in his heart. He shared the wonder and awe that he felt that night, and wanted us to feel that same wonder and awe.

The angel, who had some long convoluted name that I still can’t remember, was just bubbling over with excitement. It seems like she really loves her job spreading the good news, flitting around the world and singing in the sky. She hoped each of us would feel the same joy that filled her that night.

Sher-r-r-man the black sheep, admitted that he life wasn’t always easy because people assumed he was bad just because of his color. But when he saw the little baby named Jesus, he felt an unconditional love. He wanted to give love back to the child and so offered to help keep the baby warm. Sher-r-r-man hoped that we could all feel that unconditional love and learn to return it.

The donkey, Jack-lyn, traveled days with pregnant Mary on her back, and despite the long, boring journey, she was very patient and willing to help. She encouraged all of us to have the same patience and willingness to help people in need.

Poor Joseph shared with us some very personal struggles. He had a terrible condition which meant that no headdress would ever fit him right, he didn’t get married until later in life because he felt like no one ever really wanted him. When he was betrothed to Mary, he hoped that life would start to turn around and he’d get to be like all the other men with wives and children. But then he found out that Mary was pregnant, and it just wasn’t going to be easy for him again. But Mary and his faith helped to see him through. Joseph told us that if he could have faith, we could, too.

Mary talked about the fear she felt when the angel came to her. How would she explain this to her parents and her new husband? Why would God disgrace her like this? Eventually she decided to trust God and to see it through, but it took an extreme amount of courage. She told us that if she could have courage, so could we.

The baby Jesus obviously couldn’t speak, but even without words his message was one of hope. In fact, every child’s birth calls us to hope in the future and the myriad of possibilities that new life opens up. The world didn’t need anything more amazing to change the course of history than for a child to be born.

Perhaps, if we allow ourselves, we too could feel the immense hope the child Jesus brought. Because we, too, are a people and a time steeped in darkness and despair. We need that hope to get us through… hope that we aren’t alone, hope that there will be better days ahead, hope that someday we will know peace in the world.

Don’t forget the characters of the nativity and their messages. Instead of just going through the motions of presents and gatherings and church, let’s allow our souls to go deeper. Let us open our hearts with wonder and awe, joy, unconditional love, patience and helpfulness, faith, courage and hope.

Love & Light!


Feeling Grinchy?

In her book Hallelujah, Anyway, Anne Lamott talks a bit about her struggle with alcoholism and shares that she converted to Christianity while she was drunk, at a tiny church led by a pastor who apparently looked a lot like singer Marvin Gaye (which was part of the reason she kept going back). Anyway, a year later and a few months sober, she was ready to be baptized. But then called her pastor the morning of her baptism to tell him that “regrettably, she’d have to cancel the baptism, as she was currently too damaged and foul for words. She promised to call him when she got a bit better. He told her to get her butt over to the church, that she wasn’t going to heal sitting alone on her 10 x 12 foot houseboat. He said she didn’t have to get it together before she could be included and, in fact, couldn’t get it together without experiencing inclusion.” So her friend picked her up, and she was baptized.

(For the full video version, click here.)

There seems to be this misnomer that when we’re feeling “too damaged and foul for words” we shouldn’t be anywhere near the church, that perhaps we’re not good enough for God… or at least not good enough for all the “really good people” who are there (which is also false as I’ve never met anyone without skeletons in their closets and scars on their soul).

Ann Weems has a wonderful poem entitled “Toward the Light” that suggests that when we’re feeling “too damaged and foul for words” is when we run. As far from God and others as we can get. We don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone, and if we could possibly get away from ourselves as well, we would. Here’s her poem:

Too often our answer to the darkness
is not running toward Bethlehem but running away.
We ought to know by now that we can’t see where we’re going in the dark.
Running away is rampant…
separation is stylish: separation from mates, from friends, from self.
Run and tranquilize, don’t talk about it, avoid.
Run away and join the army of those who have already run away.
When are we going to learn that Christmas Peace
comes only when we turn and face the darkness?
Only then will we be able to see the Light of the World.

Despite the standard greeting of Merry Christmas, many folks just don’t feel merry, and instead fall into that category of wanting to run and hide until the holiday is over.

There are many things that can take our “merry” away from us:

  • Grief over loved ones gone
  • The state of the world juxtaposed with the peace we hope for at Christmas
  • Challenging families
  • Loss of job, or lack of money
  • Health concerns
  • Empty nest
  • Lack of sunshine
  • loneliness

It may be enough to make us feel like the Grinch, or Scrooge, or want to break into a chorus ofGrinch “Blue Christmas.” In the midst of this season of celebration and joy, it isn’t unusual to also feel a deep well of pain, sorrow, grief and loss.

The truth is we can’t escape our own darkness, nor can we begin to heal while we’re running from it. Ann Lamott’s pastor was right, sulking on her tiny houseboat wasn’t going to fix, heal or help her. She needed to feel loved and included for that. She needed to turn into her own darkness to see the tiny glimmer of light we call God. And so do we…

This glimmer of light in the darkness is the point of Christmas… the trees and tinsel, presents and cookies are all great, but not really the point.  Those are merely a shiny, shallow covering for the depth of the meaning and magic of Christmas. The real point is that people saw Jesus as the revelation of a loving, compassionate, peaceful God who cared for all people, and perhaps especially for those who were hurting, oppressed and poor.

As Zechariah says in his prophetic proclamation:

“Blessed are you, the Most High God of Israel – for you have visited and redeemed your people.
You have raised up a mighty savior for us of the house of David…
Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

God raised up a savior – which had nothing to do with supposedly saving people from their sins, and everything to do with personal and social transformation.  Jesus showed the way to a deeper spiritual peace within oneself that would then hopefully manifest outwardly in more harmony, compassion, love and justice.

Megan McKenna tells a story about poet Rainer Maria Rilke. When he lived in Paris he used to take a walk every afternoon, and daily he passed by an old lady begging along the footpath. The elderly lady sat there stoically and silently and showed no sign of gratitude for the alms the passersby gave her.

One day, the poet was strolling along with a young lady friend, and much to her astonishment he gave the elderly lady no alms. She wondered why. He said in answer to the question he could fee, “A person must give something to her heart and not to her hand.”

On one of the next days Rilke appeared with a small, half-opened rose in his hand. Naturally , the young lady thought it was for her. How thoughtful of him! But, no, he laid the rose in the hand of the beggar lady.

And then something wonderful happened. The beggar lady stood up, reached out, and took Rilke’s hand and kissed it. She clutched the rose to her heart and disappeared. She stayed away for a whole week. And then she came back and sat there as lifeless and cold as before. “What do you think she lived on during that time?” Asked Rilke’s young companion.

“On the rose,” he answered.

Christmas is like the gift of a rose, it is a spiritual gift that touches the heart with love, joy, peace and hope. It is light in the darkness. Christmas is for all of us no matter whether you are happy and on top of the world, or whether you are “broken and too foul for words.”

Turn into the darkness and find the light within.

Advent blessings,



Zechariah’s Lessons

Ann Weems’ poem, “To Listen, To Look” begins like this:

Is it all sewn up – my life?
Is it at this point so predictable,
so orderly,
so neat
so arranged,
so right,
that I don’t have time or space
for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings
or running to stables to see a baby?

The Gospel of Luke opens with the story of Zechariah. We don’t hear too much about Zechariah, but given that he was the father of John the Baptist and (story goes) that there was some Divine intervention in John’s conception, he really is a pretty important (or at least an interesting) guy.

Zechariah strikes me as a pretty ”life-sewn-up” kind of guy – in Ann Weems’ words – predictable, orderly, arranged, right. (I’d personally add rigid and set in his ways. but I hate to judge a book by its priestly cover.) Zechariah was born into the Jewish priestly class, so his role in life was determined from the get go. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were worthy in the sight of God, which meant that they “scrupulously observed the commandments and observances.” Clearly he was a faithful servant of God, devoted and diligent in his service in the Temple.

It seems that the couple’s only flaw, or failing, was that they apparently couldn’t have kids, and that brought disgrace upon them. Now they are up in years and past the age of being able to conceive (kind of like the story of Abraham and Sarah).

Anyway, given all of this, it’s not exactly surprising that Zechariah doesn’t just go with the flow when an angel appears to him in the Temple as he’s offering incense to God.zechariah

Frankly, it seems to me like a great place to have a vision or an encounter with an angel, right there in the sacred space of the Temple, but the scripture says Zechariah “was deeply disturbed” and “overcome with fear.”  And then when he gets great news: “your wife is going to have a baby, and you’ll name him John, and he’ll be great like the prophet Elijah, and will bring people back to God and prepare them for the coming of God!” he is less than enthused. In fact, his skeptical response is, “How can I be sure of this? I’m old and my wife is old.”

Now, it’s here that I figure the angel must’ve had a long day and was all out of nice. “Seriously?” the angel basically says, “You’re questioning me? The angel Gabriel, who stands before God? I was sent to bring you this good news, but tell you what… why don’t you just take some time to think about it. Say about nine months… in silence, because I’m going to make you mute.”

This whole encounter raises two questions for me:

  1. Do we make room for angels? For spontaneity? For surprises? For the in-breaking of the Divine?
  2. Can we shift our perspectives and change our response?

Think about your life. How “sewn-up” is it? How predictable? Are we too tied to our habits, behaviors, and thinking, that we no longer have eyes to see or ears to hear the Divine?

When you’re on a trip, do you plan every step, or do you make room for following where the spirit leads? Can you take a detour? Can you make an unexpected stop because it looks interesting? Or do you need to stick to the plan? Do you ever drive a different way to church or sit in a different seat? Do you always go out to the same place to eat and order the same thing? Or can you be spontaneous?

I’m pretty good with spontaneous shopping… I can come out of a store with all kinds of things that weren’t on my list! But am I paying attention to the spirit? Am I listening for the rustle of angel’s wings? Am I watching for the birth of hope in my life? Am I willing to follow a dream or a song? If I’d been with the shepherds, would I have dared to follow the unbelievable and left my flock to go look for a baby in a manger?

And if my answer – our answer –  to those questions is “no” because our lives follows a specific routine that we don’t break, we don’t do things without careful planning, or because we don’t follow whimsical dreams and ideas that pop into our head, and we better not be having visions of angels, because clearly that means we’re losing our minds… well, then, we have to wonder what we might all be missing.

Are we missing opportunities?

Are we missing the blessings and miracles around us?

Are we missing a chance to be filled with wonder and awe?

Are we missing God moving right here in our midst?

In the story of Zechariah he could actually see and hear the angel, but still he didn’t trust him… there wasn’t room in his paradigm for a heavenly visitor. And I truly can’t say as I blame him.

When he’s told that he and his old wife are going to have a baby and he responds, “How will I know that this is so?” do we blame him? Nope. We’re right there with him. We don’t want promises, we want guarantees!

When the unexpected happens in our lives, when we’re faced with opportunity or change, we’d like some guarantees. Is this new job really the right job? How will I know that this is so? Or the relationship you’re in that feels like the right relationship, but how will I know that this is so? Could we have some guarantees please?

Well, there just aren’t a lot of guarantees in life… except death and taxes, right?

So, what could Zechariah have said to the angel instead? What might be a better response to the unexpected, to the unknown? How about, “Will you (my guides, god, goddess, Divine Essence, Higher Power, Spirit) be with me along the way?” We know the answer before asking, – “Of course, you are never alone” – but somehow it feels better to voice it.

This Advent, perhaps we can make room for angels, and new possibilities, and for the unexpected. Perhaps instead of asking the Divine for guarantees about life, we can simply ask for companionship and strength along the way.

Love & Light!