There’s one fruit I love this time of year, and I only like them when they come from Spain or Morocco. Clementines. (My apologies to my Floridian friends.) The ones from Europe are sweeter, juicier, and smell more “clementine-ish.” Perhaps it’s just the memories that make me so particular….
I discovered these delicious little oranges in 1992 when studying in France. I don’t remember them in the United States back then, and on my student budget, they were a healthy novelty that paired nicely with the cheese and bread that made up most of my diet. Christmas Eve that year still rings as a fine example of one of those fantastic meals.
I had traveled with two girlfriends to Strasbourg for the holiday because we’d heard it was the “Christmas Capital” of Europe. Right across the border from Germany, this picturesque town boasts unique architecture and a Christmas market in its town centre. We spent Christmas Eve strolling by the open stalls and drinking mulled wine, and after the sun went down, eating a chocolate buche de Noel, cheese, bread, and yes – clementines – in our simple hotel room, which was just a stone’s throw away from the Strasbourg Cathedral. We talked for hours about the people we loved and Christmas back home in the states.
By about 10 o’clock, we were very tired, since we had begun our day on the pre-dawn train out of Toulouse. So, we set an alarm to rouse us for the Midnight Mass. Little did we know the alarm would not be needed.
I have never been summoned to church like I was that night!
BELLS!! BELLS!! BELLS!!
They shook our tiny room with a fervor akin to an earthquake.
And we woke up laughing with surprise and glee. We threw on our coats and literally ran out the door and around the corner, into the cathedral.
The place was packed. European churches are often empty these days, but on that night, I stood with hundreds of other latecomers in the back, feeling privileged to have a square foot of ancient stone under my feet. And Mass – conducted in both French and German, with each part being said first in the former and repeated in the latter – felt magical.
At that point in my life, I was not a regular church-goer. I wasn’t even Catholic. But I was captivated by the beauty of the French language, and the art and majesty of cathedrals. The Lord was whispering to me, calling me in ways He knew I’d find appealing. And I was filled with joy standing there in the presence of God’s people, celebrating the birth of His son.
What is the pull of Christmas? The food, friendships, family, the gifts, the beauty of it all? It is an invitation to come and see…Come and see.
He said to them, ‘”Come, and you will see.” So they went and saw… (John 1:39)”
Hearing encouragement from the right person can make all the difference.
I have a friend who spoke the secret of my heart out loud.
She had no idea that’s what she’d done at the time she said it. But with her words, she gave a dream wings.
“You should be a writer.”
In the very early days of writing my blog, it was her voice that gave me the confidence to click the ‘Publish’ button.
And to write again.
I quickly realized I needed to thank her.
So I did.
And then, well, grace came back to find her, too.
Because in big and small ways, that’s what He does.
Our emails mark the trail….
From: Gretchen Sent: Sun 10/05/14 4:20 PM To: Laura
So, I’m sharing this with you because I keep feeling prompted to do so…probably because on more than one occasion now you’ve told me I should be a writer. Whether you were serious or not, I don’t know, but you couldn’t have known you were speaking truth to a private dream.
So – after years of thinking about it, I’m finally taking the leap and trying a little bit….[I] created a blog…It isn’t perfect…I’ve posted for 3 days and hope to be faithful to it….I hope you’ll pray for me. 🙂
Here’s the link….
From: Laura Sent: Mon 10/06/14 10:07 AM To: Gretchen
Wow Wow Wow…
I had just arrived home from taking the kids to school. I was still sitting in the garage waiting for Joel Osteen to come to a break in his talk so that I could run the XM radio inside to finish listening there. I was debating whether this particular episode was even worthy of my time as I had to get on with my “daily duties” and it wasn’t particularly striking a chord with me. I decided to ease my guilt by multi-tasking – I began to check the emails on my phone.
He kept stressing the point about how even a passing statement to someone that seems like nothing, could mean the world to them. We have no idea about how we can affect the course of someone’s life. We should never underestimate ourselves and the power of our words. I thought, “Ok. Makes sense. Still, no big aha moment.” …and then I opened your email…I may not have given any propulsion to your dream, but I feel like God was telling me, “Yes, even YOU, Laura.” My fists were clenched and waving as I audibly got the willies- in a joyful way. God is fun sometimes!
I went to your blog and read every last bit. You are amazing! 3 People?!
I hope you shout it from the rooftops so that everyone can experience your talent and inspiration! (add to favorites-click!)
In the meantime, I WILL pray for you and I will remember today’s message for a long time.
From: Gretchen Sent: Tue 10/07/14 7:53 PM To: Laura
What an awesome experience to have all of those “promptings” for me to tell you then come together so that Monday morning you would get your God moment. He really is amazing. :).
Thank you again for the encouragement. I think the three followers are all friends…. My confidence goes up and down.
I’m certainly not ready to post it to FB or anything.… Facing that fear is hard.
But anyway – every bit of support is awesome, and helps me feel like maybe I’m on the right track.
I did eventually post to FaceBook and over time, in infinitesimally small ways, living a secret dream started to feel less scary. More like taking flight.
A week ago, when I was at Sunday Mass and I heard his name read among the recently deceased, something inside me gave way and I started to cry. And then I couldn’t stop.
It was just before the Eucharist, and we were praying for lots of people, but I was stuck, focused on the fact that my neighbor was gone from this earth, reunited in heaven with his lovely wife who passed on almost two years ago. They were older people – had six children who were now grandparents themselves. This is the way life is supposed to play out. And I didn’t know them well. Yet I was so very, very emotional. Why?
Standing there, staring at the church rafters and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I asked Him, “Why am I so upset? Why can’t I stop crying? I’m happy for them. Why does this hurt?”
From somewhere inside, His answer came:
You love life. He loves life. They love life.
I knew from experience that walking in faith means living with ambiguity, and that in time, hopefully, what I’d heard would make more sense to me. So I proceeded to do what seemed right.
I’d seen more cars than usual outside Mr. and Mrs. Schab’s home in the previous three days, and now I knew why. After lunch, I wrote a condolence note, collected myself, and walked over.
A white-haired woman in her sixties who bore a strikingly beautiful resemblance to her late mother welcomed me warmly at the door. My tears began to return the moment I said,
“I was just at the 11:00 Mass and I heard the news.”
She said, “Yes. He was my dad. He passed a week ago yesterday.”
Oh, I thought. We were away. That’s why I didn’t know.
She added, “The day before his 99th birthday. So, he got to celebrate it in heaven.”
Any idea I had of consoling her went out the window.
I stammered, barely able to see now, “And I miss your mom.”
She smiled slightly and looked down saying, “Oh, we do too.”
The next thing I knew, she was opening the screen door wide to hug me and kiss me on the cheek.
Then she said, “What is your name?”
Oh boy. I guess grief is like that. You forget to say your name.
I told her. “Gretchen.” And we went from there. The ten minutes or so we spent getting to know one another reminded me of what I had loved so much about her parents.
From the moment she laid eyes on me at the door, she appreciated me. Not for what I wanted to give her (or thought I could give her, and others who were there), but because she saw my mere presence as a positive in her life. And I remembered right away that her sister had once greeted me at the door of this very same house with an identical warmth and generosity of spirit when I came to visit Mr. and Mrs. Schab, who of course, had been the genesis of the love these two women showed me. Or were they?
The first time I ever met Mr. and Mrs. Schab was Halloween. I think my oldest son (now 12), was 4. Instead of just handing out candy, they invited trick-or-treaters and their parents in for refreshments and conversation while offering a spread of treats from the dining room table, located just inside the front door. Maybe it was the glow of the antique lamps shining out from the bay window that made the house so welcoming on approach, or perhaps it was Mrs. Schab’s cheery, “Hellooooo! Please! Come in! Aren’t you adorable?” that made my son and I feel cherished. But from that memorable evening on, their home was, by far, our favorite on the block.
Later, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Schabs were the founders of our church’s marriage preparation program, and over many decades had helped to counsel over 1,000 couples. It was easy to imagine them sharing their experiences, faith, joy, and time with men and women embarking on the road they had been journeying together – one which would culminate in 72 years of devotion. They also served on numerous community committees and stayed active outside of their home right up until the very end of their lives. They were humble, gracious, energetic servants.
But my personal memories of Mr. and Mrs. Schab – time talking in their garden, their gratitude for my cookies, how I loved hearing their stories of how our neighborhood changed over six decades – all of these are grounded in a feeling of us being “present together.” When I was with them, even though I didn’t know them well, time seemed to stand still, because in each moment, they were focused only on what was essential – living the moment. Not the next moment. Or the one after that.
After a week’s reflection, I think I understand what the Lord was trying to tell me as tears streamed down my face last Sunday….
When you really fall in love with Life, so much so that you see the divinity of it in every single person you meet, you can truly stop – right now – to appreciate the wonder and beauty of it all, and share deeply and effortlessly of the Love you are living. And the Love comes through you, to make the people with you feel cherished. You can give those around you a glimpse of eternity.
When we love the Maker of Life, we are given all we need to live this life in all the fullness He intended for us.
The key to living life in full, is following the Way of Life, and basking in His Love.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep….
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
I talked to my heart friend today. That’s what she is to me. I hope I’ve been one to her. But time is cruel and changes things, and I fear I’ve lapsed in love – which is always more verb than noun.
I’ve known her almost as long as I’ve lived in this town, and we’ve literally walked through the stages of motherhood together. But the kids are growing up….at different schools….separate activities….scheduling is difficult. It’s been said, “Don’t let your kids be your excuse.” “Yes, yes.” I say, my voice trailing off….
So I call her today, to discuss an event – an increasingly rare overlap in plans, and I remember I’m the one who’s usually rushing. And I stop.
“Did I interrupt you?” I ask. “Is this a good time?”
We are going on a trip tonight. I’m staring at dishes in the sink. There’s a suitcase waiting upstairs. But the Lord has his hand on me, so I stand still. And suddenly, it starts coming out..
“Did I tell you??” I say…
“No,” she says.
And I spend an hour telling her what I should have…months ago.
And we’re talking in big circles, about us and others…people we know, who are moving in different directions – some geographically away, to start new lives elsewhere. We both know from personal experience, how very hard that is….to make close friends. To find people you trust. People you really love. And I find myself telling her the deeper truth – the one I really want her to know:
“I’d do anything for you.”
My heart is always for our friendship. I’m not sure she knows. But as I was reminded earlier this week, “Friendships must be forged.” With open hearts and hands.
Lord, please bless all our friendships. Show us how to enrich them. Forgive us our wrongs and oversights. Strengthen our bonds. Let what was forged once, be forged again – anew.
We’re standing in the church sanctuary, a place of holy refuge, and I know she feels safe. She’s facing a very tough day. She’s been carrying heavy burdens for several people, trying to help where and however she can, and I can see the weight of many hard weeks bearing down on her. She’s got herself together – she’s beautiful and graceful, keeping up with self-care, but none of us can do the impossible. We can’t bring people back from the dead, or stop the march of a loved one’s disease right there in its tracks with one desperate, pleading prayer. Her eyes fill up and flood over and I don’t have words so I do what friends do then. I hug her. And I don’t let go until she lets go first.
Later in the day I remember three women I haven’t thought of in many years. I dig up their picture:
Arms linked together, they were a bit of an obstacle walking down the Roman street at dusk on that cold, January day. I followed them for a little before snapping this photo. They were in no hurry, and didn’t sway from between these yellow lines. People went around them. I was wishing I spoke Italian so that I could catch snippets of their conversation, though I’m fairly sure the bulk of it was the same as that of women’s talk everywhere – mostly family, the work of homemaking, marriage, schedules, maybe some chit-chat about clothing, books, and other entertainment thrown in for fun.
But I took the picture because I was most captivated by the fact that they were linked. They were unified. They were together. They were walking through life, sharing the journey, and their joined arms confirmed to one another not just an intellectual support system, but a true physical presence. My arm in yours says, “You are really not alone.” Touch comforts when words can’t.
Valentine’s Day is coming up. Who else needs a hug? Maybe even a walking hug – where we join arms and travel some of this life together, sharing what we can, and letting the silent strength of one another’s arms be the reassurance we need when words fail us?
They burst into the kitchen, their young faces flush with excitement. “We have a GREAT idea!” they said. “We’re going to make Valentines for everyone in the neighborhood!”
“Um, ok.” I said, incredulous. “That’s a….good idea..??”
With amazed and delighted disbelief I watched my daughter and her friend follow through on this loving, joyful impulse. In the unusually warm weather, they spent all of Sunday afternoon sitting on our front porch making Valentines for neighbors, most of whom they don’t know, taking breaks now and then to run off with exuberance for “deliveries.” If the recipient was a friend, he or she received the card face-to-face. If not, the Valentines were left in the house mailbox, one from each girl, sweetly signed with only their first names. In a span of 4 hours, the girls industriously covered our little section of the world, 4 tiny streets, with love.
We were all conceived by the One who loves like this – with abandon. But somewhere along the way, we usually acquire a harder-hearted response – the one that I showed yesterday – to love, freely given. Lord, open my eyes today. Help me to see all the ways you love me. Help me share your everlasting love with the world.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Nor will rivers overflow it;
If a man were to give all the riches of his house for love,
The sun rises in our capital city today, but things are different.
Yesterday, a fire in a very large waterfront home tragically took the lives of 4 children (cousins from 2 different families) and 2 adults, their grandparents. I heard about it midday, when a beloved friend called – very, very upset. Her kids were friends with those kids, and she would have to deliver unthinkable news…
I don’t know the families, had never met the children or their grandparents, but….well, I guess when you have kids, this kind of news is just especially gut wrenching. So awful. Devastating. How would I as a parent, feel? Instinctively, I hold my breath just imagining the sudden free-fall into darkness. I reel like this every time a story hits, literally, “so close to home.”
I look at the barren trees this morning and in my mind hear my youngest son’s words: “The trees are sleeping.” That’s what he said, back in the fall, when the preschool class was learning about seasons, and I immediately fell in love with the analogy – perfect for a 4-year old and 42-year old alike.
A cold, dreary winter combined with sad news can make people huddle and hide, withdrawing from the light. Right now, we can’t see it for all the bleak grayness of the world, but something new and beautiful will be visible in time. I have faith. I believe. I will hold a candle for those who can’t right now. I believe – in Him.
And Jesus said,
“I am come a light into the world,
that whosoever believeth on me
should not abide in darkness.”
– John 12:46
Only believe, only believe;
All things are possible, only believe.
Fear not, little flock, whatever your lot,
He enters all rooms, the doors being shut;
He never forsakes, He never is gone,
So count on His presence in darkness and dawn.
“Only Believe,” Paul Rader
(From The Bible Promise Book for Women, Barbour Publishing, Inc., 2014, p.13)