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 27 – Clementines

Clementines

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.

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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!strasbourg-1046384_1280

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)”

 

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.

Feed the Hungry

It was Christmas time, 1985.  My sister and I were visiting our dad, who was living alone in Washington, DC.  At that point in his life, my dad was driving a VW camper – the perfect vehicle for our excursions to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. But this night, we had brought it to the Mall, stopping here and there to see decorations and our nation’s monuments all lit up.

Somewhere downtown, we were sitting in a parking spot, warming up slowly, snug in our vehicle shelter, when a man rapped on my dad’s window, then respectfully took about three steps back.

“Excuse me, sir?”

My dad rolled down the window just a little and said,

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m sorry to bother you, but um…..ah – do you have any food in…there?”

That was when I looked at him – standing with his hands folded together at his chest, his dirty clothes hanging off his slim frame, his chiseled face gray and weary.  I don’t know how old he was, but he seemed older than my dad – not in chronological age, exactly, but in demeanor.  He was weathered.  Tired. 

“Gretchen?”

“Yes, Dad?”

“What food do we have back there in the cabinet?”

I looked and found a few cans – of beans, corn, whatever… and passed them up to my dad, who rolled down his window and handed them out to the man.

“Oh,” he said, obviously surprised. “Thank you.  Oh, oh, thank you,” he said, smiling now.

My dad cocked his head to the side and asked,

“Do you have any way to open those?”

“Umm, no sir.  But that’s alright…”  He was moving back again.

“Wait a minute.  Gretchen – there’s a can opener in the drawer.”

Sure enough, there was. It went to the front and out the window.

The man was turning to leave when my dad asked one more question – the one that became emblazoned on my soul.  It impressed upon me for all time the difference between this man’s life….and mine.

“Are you cold?”

There was no way he couldn’t be. It was in the 20s.

“Well, uh….”

“Do you have any way to stay warm?”

The man looked down, resigned, and shrugged his shoulders in such a way that let us know. His answer was No. Not really. I make do.

“Gretchen – Give me that sleeping bag.”

I reached back behind the bench seat I was sitting on, heat from underneath it blowing out on the back of my legs, and found the navy blue sleeping bag.  It too went up to the front and out the window.

He was so grateful – the kind of grateful I so rarely, rarely see.  And he murmured many more thank-yous as he moved away for the last time.  I watched him walk away into the shadows, his arms overflowing with his newfound bounty.

My dad rolled up his window and we drove home.  All I could see was the back of his head, but if I hazard a guess, I’d say his blue eyes were shining – with love.

Dad – You were light in the darkness, Christ’s hands in the world.  Thank you for showing me how it’s done – humbly, freely, with a heart overflowing with God’s grace.

And the King will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

– Matthew 25:40 

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