My Own Glimpse of Heaven

Do you know you are seen?

Do you believe, in your heart-of-hearts, that God is watching over you?

Do you believe God hears your cries of weariness, your frustration, and your desperation of silent dreams unfulfilled? The whispers of your soul?

I didn’t. Not really. I mean, I was trying….to believe. But I’d been through enough of life to know that true faith is a leap off a ledge. And God only knew what would happen if I actually took that step, instead of inching along the crumbling path of so-called certainty.

My mother-in-law was just trying to make happy plans when she said, “Then there will be Gretchen’s confirmation. We’ll have to celebrate that.”

It was sometime in the fall of 2006 and she was looking ahead to Easter. I was going through RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – the process by which adults enter the Catholic Church.

“No,” I said, perhaps too forcefully, and looked at my husband.

“No,” he affirmed, “We’re not going to have a party for that.”

Because I didn’t want one. I wasn’t ready. The journey to get to this point in my life had already been so difficult that I sort of wanted the day to be just about…. me. And God.

As I’ve explained to many, many women in my Bible study groups over the years, I truly believe that discord and division among Christians must break the Lord’s heart. And my feelings on this subject stem from having been raised in a variety of churches, combined with the fact that my parents divorced when I was eleven, and subsequently pursued divergent paths in Christian denominations. Because we had also moved around frequently, we had never had a ‘church home’ to help guide me, and as my parents’ marriage deteriorated, my ability to understand God’s unfailing love, did as well.

As a child, the only message I retained from many homilies I heard was the “hellfire and brimstone” picture of life without Christ. My fear of God was deep and real. And it wasn’t  the “fear” mentioned in Scripture, which is respectful – the kind one should have for a loving father whom you don’t want to disappoint. No – this was abject fear. How could I love this God?

For years, I couldn’t sit through any church service, of any denomination, without crying. In a way I couldn’t explain, my soul seemed drawn to be there, but hearing the Word brought tears my eyes and terror to my heart. My family was torn apart and it seemed that God was at the center of it all. I just couldn’t make sense of how I felt, of how my story was being written. So much healing was needed.

So when I began RCIA, I truly embarked upon it as a period of discernment. Bless the heart of Deacon Moore, who led our program, because a tiny part of him probably wanted to get rid of me by the end. Every time we met, I asked more questions than a six-year old boy watching his father work on a car.

As I’ve written in other blog pieces, RCIA was one of the greatest experiences of my life. By Holy Week, we had reached the end, and I was to be confirmed at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.

Holy Week was full of exciting opportunities to prepare our hearts for the sacrament we would soon receive. Sunday – The last time our RCIA group would leave Mass together before the Eucharist to discuss the day’s Scripture readings. Monday – Mass at the Basilica in Baltimore, when the parish’s Chrism oil for the year would be blessed and brought back to our church. Thursday – The Maundy Thursday service – where priests would wash the feet of RCIA candidates, as Jesus did for his disciples at the Last Supper. Friday – The Good Friday Service – where the deacon would carry a full-size cross to the front of the church for us to touch….and remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of pure, selfless love.

I missed every single event.

During stressful times I get migraine headaches, and that week I had one of the worst migraines of my entire life. I spent every day in bed, silently crying about what I knew I was missing. On Saturday afternoon, my husband came into our darkened room. He said, “Try to tell me what it is.”

“I feel like I’m turning my back on my upbringing and my family. And I’m still not ready to tell them,” (It would be awhile before I did.)

“You don’t have to do this.”

“I know. But I want to. I really want to.”

That’s when he gave me a beautiful cross necklace – St. Brigid’s cross – and I was so surprised. It never occurred to me he might give me a gift for this occasion.

I got myself dressed, put on my new necklace, and popped one more of the useless precription pills I’d been taking all week. The sitter came. And my husband (who was also my sponsor for the sacrament) and I left for the church.

Brigid's Cross

In the narthex to the large sanctuary, the deacon approached me. “I’m glad to see you here,” he said gently. “I was worried about you.” I told him I just hadn’t been well, and I smiled through the incessant pounding in my head. Our group processed in and took our seats.

At a special point in the ceremony, I was asked to stand and profess my faith. I stared with glassy eyes at the altar as the priest spoke these words to me and the others.

Priest: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?

Candidate: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried,
rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?

Candidate: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

Candidate: I do.

In the millisecond after I said the last “I do” the splitting pain in my head vanished.

Vanished.

I felt as good as I’d ever felt on an absolutely perfect day. No worries. No concerns. Nothing but an absence of pain and a clear, refreshed mind.

A few moments later, I moved to the front of the church and stood, with my husband behind me, his hand on my shoulder, as our pastor, Father Kingsbury, stretched out his hand and prayed for me and the others:

All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit
you freed your sons and daughters from sin
and gave them new life.

Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide.

Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

In my hand was an index card with my confirmation name: Gretchen Elaine. Some people take a saint’s name. I hadn’t settled on one and figured my own was sufficient.

I handed the card to Father Kingsbury when he stopped directly in front of me, with Deacon Moore on his left, and another of my teachers, Father Harrison, on his right.

“Gretchen Elaine,”I heard Father Kingsbury say as I closed my eyes and he anointed my forehead with the Chrism oil, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 

I opened my eyes.

It is very difficult to explain what I saw – but it just may be my first glimpse of heaven.

Brilliant, white, and golden light surrounded the three men. The space seemed positively filled with it. And I was filled with, and surrounded, and bathed, in this radiant light. All my fear was gone. Head to toe, I was flush in a spirit of wonder and awe, and I knew I was smiling broadly into the glowing faces before me. I was warm and comfortable all over. It was pure bliss.

I didn’t want to leave that spot before the altar, but it was time to return to our seats.

As we settled in, I said to my husband, “Did you see that light?”

“What light?”

“Up on the altar. All around them.”

He looked in the direction where my eyes were searching – the spot where the second miracle of my night had occurred.

“The lights are on,” he said quizzically.

And then I knew – the light had been for me. And the healing had been for me. Me alone. Because He sees me. He knows my story. He knows every last bit of it, and no matter what has happened or just might happen yet, He is in control. And He loves me. 

In time, I would tell my parents about my faith journey, and their responses would be more grace-filled than I ever could have dreamed. Both of them are fellow travelers on the road to eternal life with the Lord, and we have wonderful discussions about how He works in our lives. Christian unity is at the heart of my relationships with them.

If you seek Him with your whole heart, you will find Him. He sees you. And He loves you. Regardless of whether you know Him, feel Him….whether you doubt His existence or not. He’s real. He is listening to the whispers of your soul.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom

a light has shone.” 

-Isaiah 9:1

Liturgical Text for the Easter Vigil Service was copied from this document, provided by the Diocese of Owensboro.

Holy Moments – Day 31 – New Year, Painful Start?

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So we’re two days in to 2016 and maybe you’re feeling like the words, “Happy New Year” are more of a threat than a good wish.

Maybe your heart is heavy because all you can see from where you sit is that this year is already bringing in challenges, or heartaches, that you just don’t want to face. You’re not that excited about a new start, because you’re in the middle of something you never wanted to experience, and January just doesn’t feel ‘fresh.’

Some time ago, I wrote “How to Sleep Well,” about my first experience of surrender. And in that holy moment, when I was utterly exhausted and thought I couldn’t go on any more, I was given a new perspective. A clearer mind.

The problems weren’t solved. The struggle didn’t end right away. I wasn’t healed in an instant. But by dropping to my knees and asking for help in trusting whatever it was that controlled the universe, I found that the churning inside stopped. Not permanently – oh I would still take back my desire to control a thousand times over after that – but for a moment, I let go.

If you are holding on tightly, clenching your fists in anticipation of the thing you fear, today might be the day for you to open your hands and ask Love to come in, and give you peace.

This surrender will not guarantee that the road will be smooth, but you’ll gain the same assurance that I did – that indeed, I am not alone. And never was. And the same power that brought me relief that first time I asked for it, is available to me every single day of this new year.

I heard this song today. It’s one of my favorites from last year, and it’s what prompted me to write. Just close your eyes and listen. And may you be graced beyond measure in 2016.

“Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” by Danny Gokey

 

 

 

Holy Moments – Day 30 – Stories

Some people are harder to love than others.

It’s an every day truth, and it was the gist of a conversation I had over coffee in mid-November with my friend and former neighbor, Sarah. But Sarah is a thoughtful, big-hearted woman who smiles all the time, so a discussion that could have turned toxic did not. Instead, as she bounced her baby on her knee, she said,

“But if we really knew every person’s story, if we really knew everything that had happened to them, there would be no hate in the world. It would be so easy to love them, because we all carry so many hidden hurts.” 

I’ve been thinking about what she said ever since. The truth of it. Because we, as humans, are made to live in community with one another, and one way we can know that for sure is by recognizing and embracing our own ability – and need – to sympathize. Life is so much richer when we accept that we have all suffered. That we are not all that unique.

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This Christmas season, I have made a conscious choice to listen more. To listen for the story under the words. And maybe it’s just maturity that has enhanced my hearing, but I think this conscious decision to listen has also opened my heart, and all I hear lately are stories yearning to be told and held in the welcoming arms of Love.

  • A woman in the ‘sandwich’ generation, trying to care for rapidly aging and disabled parents while also raising young children
  • A couple helping their parents out of tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt that was incurred in an attempt to save a family business
  • Multiple families’s struggles to help one of their own deal with drug or alcohol addiction
  • Two parents searching for a diagnosis for their son’s health issues

The pain of those telling me about their problems is often masked by sarcasm or smiles. And deep, deep wounds are buried far under pride and self-sufficiency. How we handle stresses like these are often dependent on whether we’ve healed from our own past hurts, because the frustration of loving others in challenging situations is exacerbated when we ourselves feel shortchanged in love.

But – people need to talk. Often, they are not searching for solutions. They are not looking for any particular kind of assistance. They just want someone with an open heart to be fully present to them.

We all think we are busy, that we have places to be and stuff to do, but do we really? What are we racing around for? What is our purpose, if not to live a full life by loving when given the opportunity?

Once, when I didn’t know how to approach a grieving family, didn’t know how to begin to find words of sympathy, I called my mom. She said,

“Just being present to someone is a ministry.” 

A ministry. A lofty word made simple in this instance, because I could do that. I could show up.

I’m not sure I’ll make a New Year’s resolution. Like most people I’m not very good at keeping them. But I like the idea of finding one word to be my focus in 2016. And the word ‘listen‘ is beautifully open-ended. Who knows what I might hear, and as a result, how I might grow in Love.

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. – Ephesians 4:29

 

Holy Moments – Day 29 – Impossible!?!

Sunday night my husband and I were visiting with old friends. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, as it always does with this particular group. The topic of college football came up for a very short time, and I had a fleeting thought…

‘A part of me wishes I’d gone to a bigger school – one big enough to have teams with televised games – so that as an alum, I could be a fan.’

It’s a thought I’ve had before. Not something I dwell on. I truly loved my college and my educational experience. Those were some of the very best, most formative years of my life. But still…

I almost said this thought aloud, but at the last second, I felt held back.

“No,” said the whisper, so quickly I barely perceived it.

‘But there aren’t many of us around,’ said my internal voice.

Again, quick as a flash, “It’s your story.”

I’ve heard this whispered refrain before – a reminder that there is nothing wrong with where I’ve come from, and that my choices and the lessons I have learned from them make me who I am today.

But still, don’t we all have these silly, niggling, petty wishes that mean nothing in the grand scheme of our lives? Or even on the small scale? I’m not even a sports fan, for crying out loud! I know almost nothing about football or basketball; I’m drawn to the camaraderie. I’d just like to wear a sweatshirt for a place people have heard of – a name I don’t have to explain.

All of this brings me to today, and the play date I’d arranged for my youngest son and one of his kindergarten classmates, a boy I’ll call Jack. We’d seen Jack and his parents at Mass for years. Years. And the boys had sized one another up from the time they were toddlers. It was nice to see they had become friends in school.

I got to talking with Jack’s parents when I dropped my son off at their house. Our prior exchanges had been very pleasant. They seemed like a peaceful family.

We had already established that the two ‘dads’ had both grown up in Philadelphia. Jack’s dad’s cousin had been in my husband’s high school class. Pretty nifty. We quickly discovered the two dads knew some other people in common because of work in DC. Also cool. And we knew Jack’s parents had met in college. So, today, at a natural point in playing “getting to know you,” I asked,

“Where did you guys go to school?”

“Dickinson College??”

“I went there!!”

He had answered like a question, of course, assuming I wouldn’t know the place. And I had responded in a tone like, ‘What?!?? Impossible!?!! That’s MY school,’ as if no one else in the universe had gone there. Because truly, that’s how it feels sometimes when your college has only 2,000 students.

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We all stared at one another in bewildered amazement. We got right to the details. We’d graduated two years apart, and I was in France when they were freshmen. Our time on campus only overlapped one year. And – they were athletes. I was not. In a tiny school, we had missed one another. But still. Incredible.

And now our young sons are friends. They brought us together. Ha! More smiles.

Most people look at this situation and think, “Oh, what a nice coincidence.” But I don’t believe in coincidences any more. I used to, until I started to view my life with less cynicism, and more wonder. I opened myself up to the possibility that I was not the One in control. The possibility that there is more – more than I can see – going on behind the scenes of my every day. And when I leave myself open, when I view life through the eyes of faith, dazzling days are just handpicked, or rather – Hand-made, and handed right to me.

imageDickinson College. Indeed, it is part of my story. A thread, a small school, in the fabric of my life. And He who creates, sees, hears, and notices EVERYTHING, even the petty thoughts of my mind, decided to make my day by showing me that He can weave together even the tiniest of threads, the ones long gone from my daily activities, to make something new.

 

Photo from www.flickriver.com

 

Holy Moments – Day 28 – P.J.’s Bell

“Do you want a hat?”

His little face lit up with excitement and I thought he knew what I meant.

“A Santa hat?” he asked.

Nope. His idea was even more delightful. Better than me giving him one of the paper Krispy Kreme hats that surrounded us on this, his very first visit to the place. I laughed and looked at my watch. We had one hour until we picked his sister up from dance. Thus began our giggle-filled hunt for a Santa hat. But the festive day actually began 10 hours earlier….

Matthews Santa Hat

It was impossible not to notice them. A row of fist-sized brass sleigh bells, each one sitting atop a ziploc bag full of Christmas cookies. I saw them lining the windowsill of a classroom as I rushed into my childrens’ school, five minutes late to my kindergartener’s Gingerbread Party.

“Every time you hear a bell an Angel gets his wings.”

The words rang in my head again.

I think of them as just a sweet phrase, but Sunday night I had been reminded that no – they actually comprise a line from It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic I stumbled upon while flipping channels. It wasn’t technically ‘new’ to me, as I’d seen it before. But not in at least 12 years. Certainly not since our family lost P.J.

P.J.  – my husband’s cousin. Just a month after his 22nd birthday, in February 2003, he was diagnosed with leukemia. By the end of April, he had entered heaven’s gates.

It was one of those WHY? situations. A fit young man. You’d have thought his whole life was ahead of him. The severity and brevity of his illness was staggering. Simply put, the loss of him has touched us all, and for me, it has been in a surprising way.

Two nights before the family gathered in Philadelphia to say goodbye, I was home alone with a job to do. In between the time we’d received the phone call informing us of P.J.’s passing and the day of the funeral, my husband had had to travel to Oregon for business. So I found myself sitting up late at the kitchen table, trying to stay awake with a cup of tea so that I’d be alert to feed our 4-month old son when he woke for his midnight feeding.

Sitting there, in the quiet darkness, I pictured P.J.’s winsome smile. I thought of his parents. And before I knew it, I was hunched over the table, my head in my hands, sobbing. Sobbing.

I was a first-time mother and finally grasping it – what it means to truly love a child. And I felt my heart just couldn’t bear both the pain and the blessing.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so emotional about answering a child’s cry as I was that night.

For the first Christmas after P.J.’s passing, his parents – gracious and generous people – gave everyone in the family a bell as part of a gift they made in his memory. The words, “Every time you hear a bell…” were written on the attached card. The bell we received always hangs on the front of our tree, toward the top. And the feeling I have when I look at it has subtly shifted over the years.Pj Bell

Initially, the bell was a symbol of tremendous loss. Loss too deep for words. But yesterday, when I saw those bells in the window at school, and was on my way to help my third child make candy cane ornaments, food for Santa’s reindeer, and gingerbread men, I realized that for me, P.J.’s bell had a new significance. What once symbolized sadness, has increasingly, slowly, become a sign of pending joy. It has challenged me to look at each day with fresh eyes and ask, “Am I holding tightly to the things of eternal value, while letting go of what’s not?”

Seldom do I have epiphanies. Or rather, God doesn’t reveal things to me in ‘lightning bolt’ ways. And so this new understanding about the bell came to me as the day unfolded, as I walked through it with my youngest son. But also as I pondered the big message of It’s a Wonderful Life, asking myself, “What difference does one life really make?”

The answer is clear – Our lives are not our own. We are connected to one another. We are all one flesh. We share sorrow and happiness. We were not created, nor are we meant, to live alone.

And so, the burdens we bear and the joys we celebrate are always the ties that bind us. They draw us close to one another and into that which is sacred and holy – the space set apart from words and time – God Himself. To show us His heart, He came down in the form of a baby, the Son, to grow and live fully with us, connected to us, experiencing the fullness of life just as we do, fully for us, for better and for worse, within a family, in a community who for a time grieved the loss of Him but later saw that His life was about showing the path to everlasting, eternal joy.

And shouldn’t that be the point of ours as well? To seek everlasting joy? Even as we carry our sorrows?

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And the miracle of this Son Jesus was, and is, that He is with us still. He is closer than breath. We need only acknowledge Him and ask Him to show us the way Home. Praise be to God from Whom all blessings flow.

And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. 

-Matthew 28:20 

Holy Moments – Day 26 – Come Clean

I love my dishwasher. No really. I LOVE my dishwasher. You can have all of my other appliances. I’ll even go to the laundry mat. I’m keeping this one. Forever.

We’d had so much trouble with the last dishwasher that I took a very long time picking this one out. I did tons of research and finally settled on – a Bosch. Not the fanciest model, but a basic Bosch – which still costs more than most other dishwashers, so I wanted to be very sure of this purchase when we made it 7 years ago. So sure that I carted my dishes into Sears and loaded them into the floor model to make sure they would fit the way I wanted them to. You should have seen the sales guy’s face.

Anyway – imagine my dismay today when last night’s gravy had become a gelatinous adhesive on the pots & pans, and the racks were decorated with spinach-leaf polka dots. Huh? This never happens. My machine does NOT let me down. Never in seven years had I seen such…such…ick when I expected sparkles!

I investigated. The culprit? A wooden chopstick jammed at just the right angle to block the lower wash arm. A little hold-up, and the mess remained.

Dishwasher

This got me thinking about what it takes for me to feel clean. To truly feel washed clean before God.

I know that I am a child of God, and that when I turned my heart toward Christ, the power of His love and mercy washed me clean of all my impurities and I stood before Him as if I had never done anything wrong. With my life, I want to show Him that I love Him. I want to thank Him for creating me, sustaining me, and saving me. But I still sin. And though I know He always loves me, in order to stay close to Him, in order to see His will for me most clearly, I have to clear away the debris that clouds my vision of Him – and that’s the stuff that I allow to get in the way of my relationship with Him. It’s my arrogance, my selfishness, my pride, my ego, my gluttony, etc. My sin. My sin might look slightly different from someone else’s, but it’s all dirty. And there’s no way to live a life of holiness when you’re sitting in muck.

So – what to do about that?

I was raised in mostly non-denominational Protestant churches. I’d heard about Confession. One of those things Catholics did. It sounded scary. And weird. Sit in a tiny dark box and talk to a priest about all the bad things you’d done? Hmm.

But then after a long spiritual journey, God led me to RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults from 2006-2007. It’s the process by which adults join the Catholic Church. In the course, I learned the Church’s views on Confession, also known as Reconciliation. And I came to believe that there could be grace bestowed in this sacrament. And so, near the end of the course, on a Wednesday night, I made my first confession.

I wish I could say it was easy – that I was cool as a cucumber. Nope. I was 35, I wanted to be as thorough as possible, and had made a very long list. So by the time I walked out of the confessional (which was actually quite spacious and bright), my mascara was smeared all over my face and my hair was a total wreck. I vaguely resembled a raccoon riding a motorcycle.

I was totally, utterly exhausted. I drove home and went right to bed.

The next morning I woke up and realized that something had fundamentally changed. An enormous burden had been lifted. I literally felt lighter. And miraculously – somehow – healed. 

What I didn’t know about Reconciliation – or rather, what I’d been told, but didn’t believe – had actually happened. It was mind-blowing. Powerful. For the first time ever, I felt CLEAN. 

The chopstick of doubt (so to speak) had been removed, and not only did I feel clean, I felt closer to God than ever before.

God will forgive me when I tell Him my sins – whether in this sacrament or on my own. But it is altogether different to vocalize my sins to a priest who helps me determine my culpability, and gives me guidance and hope. The sacrament also confers grace which strengthens me to resist the temptations that have mired me and led me away from the Lord. Most importantly, I know that yet again I have drawn close to the heart of God, and that this is what He wants most.

I can’t say that every Reconciliation experience is a powerful as that first one. But each one has enough amazing grace to keep me coming back.

Holy Moments – Day 25 – Meg Turns 40

Holy Moments – Day 25 – Meg Turns 40

From my vantage point – about 36 inches above the ground – I could see a mass of blankets preceding Mom through the back door and into the kitchen of our little Cape Cod home in Gales Ferry, Connecticut. I was two weeks shy of 3-years old, and I knew there was a treasure inside those warm white fuzzy folds. Her name was Meghan. And she was my baby sister.

I pawed at Mom’s arms, trying to see, but was gently led into the family room and seated far back on the olive green sofa with my right arm supported by a pillow so that…. I could meet her.

I wish I could remember her face on that day. But I do remember holding her. Holding her. Feeling for the first time that emotion that is privilege to older siblings (and the bane of youngers!) – ‘I will look out for you.’

She was my only sibling, and my protective instincts were sometimes appreciated – like when Meg was falsely accused of slashing mattresses at Girl Scout camp and I knew this wasn’t possible. She didn’t even own a pocket knife, for goodness sake. I was more than happy to go to the troop leaders and tell them what was what.

But more often than not – my compulsion to force on her my 3 years’ worth of advanced wisdom was met with resistance or outright rejection. Go figure.

To her credit, at a young age she understood how to use my bossiness to her advantage. For example, Mom asked me to help Meg learn to make her own bed. I got so frustrated by Meg’s ‘inability’ to straighten her green Sears ripcord bedspread, that I pushed her out of the way and declared that I would “just do it myself.” I ended up making lots of beds.

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Meghan and me, 1983.

Like so many sisters, we’re perhaps more different than alike. But it’s funny how every time Meg’s birthday rolls around, I feel our kinship reconnected in a special way, and in the last day or so, perhaps I’ve found the reason.

Meg and I were both born during Advent – a word which means “coming.” It is, by its’ very definition, a season of anticipation in which we keep a look out for the greatest gift – Christ, the Light of the World.

So many of my fondest memories with Meg are centered around moments of waiting for something.

Sitting on packed boxes in various houses, waiting for the moving van to arrive for our military move to another state.

Holding our bags in our laps (before the stewardess told us to put them down), waiting for the plane to land in Seattle, home of our beloved grandparents.

And my favorite – waiting side by side at the foot of the tree on Christmas morning for our parents to wake up. My sister and I never dared proceed with opening (or shaking!) gifts before ‘it was time.’ We didn’t even run into Mom and Dad’s room to jostle them awake. Why? I don’t know. I’m just so thankful now that, for whatever reason, Meg and I had this quiet special time together every Christmas.

In my childhood mind, the month of December – marked by her birthday, then mine, and ending in Christmas – was magical because for most of it, we were looking forward together to the largest celebration still ahead. Intuitively, we recognized this month for what it is – The season of Hope. The season of anticipation which rejoices in the fact that the best is still to come. And to think – that this is when we were blessed to be born.

My beautiful sister is a searcher. She digs deep and asks thoughtful questions. She looks for the Light.

So, today I celebrate Meg on her 40th birthday. As much as I’d like to think I could still ‘look out’ for her, I know she’s in the very best of hands and loved beyond measure. And though she’s doing well in life, I still believe her best season is up ahead. I’m eagerly waiting to see what’s in store for her.

Holy Moments – Day 24 – Thunder Road

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How do you know when everything is right with the world? For right now. Not the big world – out there. I mean the little world. The one that matters most to you. The one within the walls of your home?

One of the ways I know it is when the people I love express themselves with music.

We were driving home from Philadelphia on Friday night, having spent a relaxing and very happy Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, and then relishing an afternoon of catching up with a close friend whose camaraderie with my husband spans nearly three decades.

We had been fed – in every sense of the word – and I could feel that all was well when the conversation started to wind down and we turned to music. The shuffled iPhone selections weren’t quite as satisfying as they had been, probably because they weren’t being ignored any longer. My husband grabbed the phone and tried out the voice command ‘Siri.’

“Play ‘Thunder Road.'”

‘Thunder Road.’ I couldn’t help but break out into a huge grin as the opening notes hit the speakers.

I pictured the very first Bruce Springsteen concert I’d been to – in 1999 – with my husband and the friend we’d just visited that afternoon. We’d reveled in a 3-hour concert during which Springsteen took NO breaks while still insisting that his band did. I’d never seen a performer so committed and passionate, never realized the depth of his lyrics. We were leaving the stadium when our friend declared, “That was a religious experience.”

An appreciation for beauty can do that to you.

‘Thunder Road’ finished playing.

“Play ‘Jungleland,'” my husband said, and he told our daughter to take off her headphones.

She plays piano, and she liked hearing the piano in this song so much that we played it again. There were other songs, too, a panoply of lovely and lively sound that stirred the minds and hearts of the five people in our car, carrying us home and bringing us together.

Beauty and love will do that – bring people together. And right there, all is well, and we can see the Something Greater than ourselves.

 

Holy Moments – Day 23 – Thanks for the Bounce

He was intent on taking his Spider-Man wallet to the mall. It wouldn’t even fit in the tiny back pocket of his jeans, so I assured him I’d keep his money safe in my purse. All $.75 of it.

What he thought he’d buy with those five nickels, three dimes and twenty pennies, I have no idea. But he wanted to find something.

My husband and oldest son were camping for the weekend, so I had taken my little guy and his older sister to the mall on Saturday to get some early Christmas shopping done. And wow – were we productive! We spent 2 1/2 hours moving from store to store, searching and finding – it was one of the best days shopping with kids I’ve ever had! The best part was, I didn’t hear a single complaint. Not a one. We were  in the Christmas spirit and the second to last week of November hadn’t even started. Miracles are everywhere….

Our last stop was in the Marbles Brain Store, where the kids were looking for a gift for their older brother. While trying out every gadget in the place, my sweet little guy emerged from a corner with one of those magical, classic toys. A blue rubber bouncy ball.

His eyes were aglow with delight.

“Mom – I want to buy this.”

“Well, it costs $1.99 and you only have $.75 in your wallet. That isn’t enough.”

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His face fell, and it about broke my heart.

“I tell you what. I’ll buy it for you, and when we get home, you can pay me back from your piggy bank.”

“Really?!!”

He was SO surprised. This kind of thing had never been done before. Mom buying a toy – for me! – spontaneously?!? Unheard of.

“Yes.”

“OK!!!! Thanks, Mom!”

When we got home and I took the ball out of the bag for him, he ran off giggling. I had no intention of making him pay me back. At this point, he’s 5, and not earning the coins that are in his bank; they are just pieces he’s picked up here and there. We can discuss larger lessons about hard work and sacrifice when he’s older. For the moment, I was content to just to see him enjoy this gift.

But what surprised me, was what happened next. Hardly a minute had passed when he came running back into the room and threw his arms around my waist and squeezed. Just squeezed. A good, loooooong, hug-squeeze.

“Thank you SO much, Mommy,” he said.

Hearing those five words was absolutely the very best part of my day. And therein was my lesson.

If I want to warm the heart of The Giver, all I really need to do is to run to Him with arms outstretched and a deeply grateful heart. I couldn’t pay Him back for all the blessings He’s given me if I had all the riches in the world.

I wish you and yours a joy-filled and blessed Thanksgiving.

Holy Moments – Day 22 – Dawning Light

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“Mommy – What does ISIS stand for?”

Her blue eyes peeked out at me from behind her purple bedspread. It was time to turn out the light. Not the time to launch into a discussion like this. And what did she mean “stand for?” I took the literal route.

“ISIS is an acronym. The letters I-S-I-S are short for the longer name of a group calling itself the Islamic State.”

“Some boys on the playground were talking about it and what they did in Paris.”

“Hmm.” My mind reeled. What did she know? I didn’t want her to worry. We work so hard to keep her safe, happy, carefree…

I asked her what she’d heard and it was just vague details about attacks. She’d heard of Islam, so we discussed the fact that there are people in all religions who can become extreme and bend their views into hatred of others who have different faiths. I stressed that this is wrong, that God loves every person, that He created every single one.

“Will they come here?”

“There are people in our government and all over the world working very hard to protect us.”

“We’ll be warned, right? And we can run to our house and lock all the doors. Do we know what they look like?”

“Some of them. But it’s more like we’re watching their emails and telephone calls. Get some sleep, ok? I love you.”

Oh, Lord. I couldn’t tell her the whole truth….What do they look like?

They look like my friend from middle school – Mary – whose mother was Syrian and father was Lebanese. They look like guys I dated in high school and college – Italian. They look like the Greek guy at the deli around the corner from my office building in New York City. And they look like Zaidan – the Lebanese gentleman I worked with for years at a nonprofit civic education group in Washington, DC, where our mission was to encourage young people to participate in the democratic process.

What do they look like?  They look like us. And what’s on the outside has nothing to do with it. 

My daughter’s questions, posed on the first day of the week, led to 6 days of soul searching, long-bouts of reading articles on Facebook, and a general unease. I wanted to say something about this historical moment. But what?

On Saturday, as my daughter and I were listening to Christian radio and she was singing her little heart out, she gave me more to chew on…

“I want to sing a song for the talent show later this year, but if I choose one of these, I’m afraid everyone will laugh at me or think I’m weird.”

It wasn’t bedtime. It was time to dig deep. I’ll spare you the details of that discussion. But as I tried to bolster her spirit for a lifelong journey of faith, I was also coaching myself. In a time like this, when the world feels akimbo, maybe it’s appropriate to get out a wrench and tighten up the nuts and bolts.

All of the events of the last week have reminded me that choosing to walk through the narrow gate is never easy. It requires a daily commitment, a re-surrendering of my will to God’s will, because for me and for most of us, the natural instinct is to “run to our hous[es] and lock all the doors.” The world is quite frightening, and the Lord’s commands aren’t easy either. If we truly try to follow any one of Jesus Christ’s teachings we quickly find that he was, in every sense, radical.

But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who hurt you, pray for those who mistreat you.” – Luke 6:27-28

ISIS is no exception to this command. Each terrorist deserves God’s mercy as much as we do – which is not at all – and still God offers it, freely. Yet, how often do we hear prayers for our enemies from our altars? How often do we pray for them as we close our eyes and ask for protection?

Every time I publish a blog piece, I expose myself as a believer. I wonder sometimes how much of a risk I’m taking in proclaiming the Bible as Truth. I remember that Christ’s message was not one of perpetual comfort in this life, but of eternal peace in the next.

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more.”  – Luke 12:4

If anyone proved the veracity of this statement, it is Jesus himself, for if we do not believe in the truth of the Resurrection – the Son of Man literally brought back to life and walking the earth in his flesh and blood – we are not truly Christians. And the power Christ invoked is the same power promised to those who love Him.

I pray…that you will know what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead… – Ephesians 1:18-20

If I could say only one more thing to my daughter, it would be the one thing Jesus says most often: “Don’t be afraid.” And this is not some self-help advice meant to puff up her ego. NO. Why? Because God never meant us to face our fear alone. From the Old Testament to the New, scripture is consistent on this – there is no place we can go to escape God’s loving presence, and He wants us to call on Him. When we admit our need for Him, he is endlessly forgiving of our failures – of our desire be self-sufficient and to ‘go it alone,’ of our judgments and anger toward our enemies, of our hiding from His power, of our foregoing His assistance, and of our acting as if He doesn’t exist. He stands ready at all times, offering us the safety of His eternal love. We need only to surrender to Him again. 

Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too. If I fly with the wings of dawn and alight beyond the sea, Even there your right hand hold me fast. – Psalm 139: 7-10

I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, I ‘will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin. – Psalm 32:5

Do not be afraid of them, For I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 1:8

As I have told my daughter, sometimes carrying this message of hope will make me unpopular. But I remember these words of Christ as well, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.” (John 15:18). Knowing that He is with me always and experiencing His powerful love has created within me an unshakable joy and peace that is more than enough to get me through the tough moments. See, I can only serve one master, and I learned some time ago that serving myself is a dead end.