Becoming a Catcher

People are talking about their word for the year. Or, I should say people have been talking about it for a while, but I’m not the most proactive person I know. So I’m just getting to it. I’m trying to learn.

In 2020 I chose Listen. I had NO clue how much we would all need to be listening to one another that year. As a country, we’ve rather failed the listen test. I hope, however, that I learned that year and this how better to listen to those with whom I don’t agree. That’s going to be crucial in coming months and years. I prefer to plow ahead with the way I know is RIGHT. But listening—that’s been so profoundly helpful in understanding my siblings in Christ from all kinds of backgrounds. (See my book roundup post for some books that taught me how.)

In 2021 I chose Rest. The year was . . . not that. I’ve never been so exhausted. I’ve never felt so close to burnout. Many of you know this feeling. I didn’t learn rest as I would have liked. I did however, learn how much I need to learn about it. I know many of the rhythms I need to have in place. But as Princess Mia says—“The concept is grasped. It’s the execution that’s a little elusive.”

Speaking of elusive, I think 2022 is going to focus on Hope. I need it. So many others need it. It’s in the name of my church.

If we believers need to be anything right now, it’s embodied hope for our homes, churches, communities, and beyond. Incarnate hope for those who lost their last shred of it months ago. This might be the most valuable ministry any of us ever do in our lives.

I’d like to spend the year chasing down hope and wrestling with it until it blesses me. J D Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield (not at all one of my favorite books) has this dream where he talks about catching children playing in the rye fields before they tumble over a cliff. He muses:

“I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

That’s what I think I’d really like to be, too. A catcher. One who sees the hopeless or the ones barely hanging on and catches them, letting them feel a God who won’t let them fall over that cliff. A God from whose love they can never be separated by any force on, above, or below earth. So, hope.

Let’s walk, eyes wide and head high if we can, but crawling and weeping when we can’t, toward the horizon of hope. I pray hope blesses you in 2022.

The Light Still Shines

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. (John 1:5 NLT)

As I type this, I’ve just received an email telling me my dream trip, the one I’ve been planning for two years, has been canceled. As you read this, that’s where I should be.

I know as sacrifices go this year it’s not tipping the scale, but the trip was both symbolic and a lifelong dream for me, and I’m devastated.

December may host the darkest days of the year, but it seems for many that the darkness never lifted after last winter. When spring arrived, so did protracted global crisis. We’re entering the Christmas season tired, grieving, and anxious. Family togetherness probably won’t look the same. There could be members missing from the circle around our tree. It’s unlikely we here will have in-person church services for this important time of year, and that loss of community during one of the most-community oriented seasons of our lives cuts deeply.

Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

The lights might be twinkling, but not a lot of people are singing “Joy To the World” in quite the same key they’re used to.

Into all this enters the promise of a baby in a manger wailing under a star whose wattage won’t quit. Nothing about that part of the story has changed. The Light of the world still came, still lives, and if nothing could extinguish it when John penned those words some 2000 years ago, nothing can in this year of woe either.

Think about the world Jesus entered.

When the star shone on Bethlehem, the people there lived under oppressive rule. They might not have seen Roman soldiers often, but they felt their presence. They knew the grasping greed of the tax collectors and their power to destroy a family already on the economic edge. They had seen crosses on the roadside, and they knew who usually hung there. Though their ruler Herod pretended to be a Jew, they understood his true loyalties lay only with himself.

They needed light to believe the darkness that pushed them into the ground and stole their breath could be pierced.

When the star shone on Bethlehem, most of the population existed in near-poverty, including Mary and Joseph. They subsisted, with a home and enough food, but they worked constantly, and one bad year could be the difference between survival and devastation. Jesus and Joseph would have carved plows, yokes, chairs, and bowls six days a week, unaware of this thing we refer to as leisure time. 

They needed light to hope that their children’s lives could be better.

When the star shone on Bethlehem, mothers died in childbirth, children died of diarrhea and other results of poor sanitation in crowded areas, and everyone died in plagues. In cities, people lived sardined together in buildings with no modern comforts such as air conditioning or indoor plumbing. Alexander Hamilton famously sings that, where he came from (1750’s Nevis), many people lived “half as many” as twenty years. Jesus understood this, too—at 33, he had already lived close to the 35-40 average lifespan. (High infant mortality, however, skews that number.)

They needed light to see that the grave didn’t close out their life story and this difficult world was not their only chance to find peace.

This is the world into which the great I AM entered as flesh. The similarities of disease and injustice strike us clearer this year perhaps, but they don’t surprise the baby who took up residence in a musty feeding trough in a place whose capacity for sin he knew too well.

The darkness can never extinguish the Light of the world. All the pain and difficulty in Jesus’ world could not stop the blinding star from flashing its sign for all to see who wanted to see: “Come. Faith, Hope, and Love are born tonight. This Light cannot ever be overcome.” 

We can be overcome. We can be overwrought and overworked. We can lose heart, and our courage to keep on can be extinguished. Those are the days we look to that star of Bethlehem we hang a facsimile of on our tree and remember: its incredible light was only a sign. Though it shone like a Fresnel lighthouse lens beaming its way out to a dark sea, it only pointed the way to the greater Light. 

That Light shone in a wooden trough on a holy night in a cave long ago. It also shone out of an empty tomb behind a cast-off stone on a morning when all hopes had been shattered. The darkness cannot extinguish it. Death has no power over it. Neither pandemics nor racism nor ugly divisions can separate us from it. If we follow him, even when it feels like we’re walking in the deepest darkness, we can know that we are walking toward life.

Photo by Anton Darius on Unsplash

 “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. (John 8:12 NLT

The Lord is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1 NLT)

This article first appeared in The Glorious Table.

Restoration for the Weary

IMG_9718 (2)While we anticipate the restoration of living things outside our windows, we revel in the reality that Jesus restored all things that were broken, winter-bound, and frozen in the icy grip of sin and separation. His resurrection accomplished in one breathtaking stroke a restoration of all that God originally called good.

Though it’s April when you’re reading this, and hopefully turning to spring where you are, I’m writing during the last days of winter. This morning, I got stuck in my driveway three times trying to get my daughter to her train. We have two feet of snow out there (more or less), and I’m longing for the beach I sat on last week in Puerto Rico, doing nothing but listening to the waves and wading out in them to snorkel for yellow-striped fish and elusive sea turtles.

I unashamedly admit I need that kind of restoration in the middle of winter. Winter in Chicago is not for the weak.

Lately, I’ve been seeking restoration more often.

I loved being back at The Glorious Table this month and sharing this message of restoration and encouragement when Easter time isn’t all the joy we expect it to be. Please jump over there to read the rest.

Five Hopes I Wish for You and Me

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I learned about mercy and hope this morning while watching my daughter prep for oral surgery.

I had not known, until the technician informed me, that the Pope had declared this next year, since December 8, a special jubilee of mercy. I’m not Catholic; I didn’t know what a special jubilee was, no did I know the pope could call one. But he has, and he has opened up the special bricked up door in St. Peter’s to symbolize it.

I saw that door when we visited St. Peter’s Basilica. I remember it. I didn’t realize it’s significance.

All I could say to her was, “I dearly hope he’s right.”

The Friday Five linkup at Mrs. Disciple is on Hope. Five things we hope. This morning, I can’t think of anything I hope for more than exactly this.

I hope and pray mercy on you. On me. On all of us.

I pray more than anything we learn to extend it beyond what we believe is possible in 2016.

“I am convinced that the whole Church — which has much need to receive mercy, because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time.”

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Is there anything more important, in this world of fear and confusion, than to hope for these words? So here are my five hopes for all of us in the Year of Jubilee (An unfulfilled celebration in the Old Testament that I find particularly beautiful and hopeful.) They are all hopes of mercy.

I hope for us the wisdom to listen and learn from those who are different.

Let’s learn the particular mercy of hearing others. We can give no greater gift, I’m convinced, than to see and hear another person. Would it be a beautiful mercy to go out of our way to hear those we may not normally listen to this year? Wouldn’t it mirror Jesus’ willingness to hear the people around him, really hear them, not assume he knew all about them? (Even though he did.)

I hope for us the patience to give second chances.

It’s the popular thing to give up on people as soon as they disappoint us. It’s easy to delete a friend. Easy to move on to the next honeymoon relationship, until the next crack appears. But what if we chose not to? Does it sound hopeful to think we could do the hard work of inviting the cracks, repairing them together, offering second, third, and fourth chances? We might need a few, too.

I hope for us the freedom of feeling forgiven.

The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
    slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He will not constantly accuse us,
    nor remain angry forever.
 He does not punish us for all our sins;
    he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
    is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
 He has removed our sins as far from us
    as the east is from the west.  Psalm 103

Completely, absolutely, unwaveringly forgiven. By God. And by ourselves. Nothing offers more hope than to know you are forgiven. Nothing prepares us more for the next hope.

IMG_4468I hope for us the release of forgiving others.

Who needs your forgiveness? Offer it in this year of mercy. Be liberal in your offering of forgiveness. You are the one who will feel the free release of hope fill your lungs.

I hope for us the joy of offering mercy to anyone, anywhere.

The one who does not deserve it. The one who cannot hope for it. The one who doesn’t look like you. The one who looks disturbingly too much like you. The one who speaks another language. The one who lives and sleeps next to you. Everywhere. Without consideration of who is keeping score.

This — this is peace on earth. This is the only hope we have. This is the hope of Christmas.

Five Traditions — Identity on a Tree

IMG_0566When I married almost thirty years ago, I adopted most of my husband’s family’s Christmas traditions wholesale. My family didn’t really have any, so why not borrow? Hey, my parents had seven kids. Traditions? We called it good if there was just a little peace on earth and minimal bloodshed.

My husband’s family had traditions. Lots of them. I’m petty sure my husband’s family had a tradition for Ground Hog Day and National Cheese Doodle Day. So, they had Christmas covered. Cheese fondue Christmas Eve. Stay in pajamas Christmas Day. Stockings only before breakfast. Our first Christmas together, we drove the ten miles to his parents’ house in our pajamas to keep the tradition. And woke everyone there up, because they had said 8am, but apparently, they did not mean it.

But a new family needs to build new traditions as well, to forge their own identity. As our children marry and/or fly the nest, I expect they will do the same. A dance of combining old and new into “us.” So yes, we’ve made our own.

At Mrs. Disciple, we’re talking traditions for the #FridayFive. Rather than tackle five general traditions, I’m focusing on tree decorations. We have traditions on our tree, and it makes it our own.

First, the tree has a specific time.

That inviolable time is the day after Thanksgiving. We go, wind, rain, sleet, or snow, to cut down the perfect fir tree, which will inevitably be pronounced (by me) as the most beautiful tree yet. The smells of pine, spruce, twine, and hot chocolate mingle right into our car as we drive away. Th photos capture the same roles every year – my husband kneeling over with the saw (it’s not usually his best look), middle child swinging the twine over the car just so, youngest child hopping around with cold toes and making greenery into antlers, and oldest child checking to ensure the tree is balanced to perfection.

It will take my husband approximately ten and a half hours to hang the lights on it. Just so. Then, we decorate, taking some time to talk about the ornaments we choose to put on. We consider a perfectly ordered, themed, and color-coordinated tree an abomination. Our ornaments range from the one my husband made in first grade from a toilet paper tube to the Murano glass one we bought in Venice. They dangle next to one another, a reminder that our year, and our lives, combine differing measures of perfect beauty and last minute DIY improv. I don’t covet those perfect trees on the Pinterest boards. I want my tree of memories.

So for our five traditions, here are five kinds of ornaments we traditionally hang to keep our memories alive and give us our family identity.

The childhood ornaments

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The ones my husband made, already mentioned. We don’t have any that I made. My parents did not keep such things. We do, however, have fragile glass balls from my childhood tree, their paint gilded and fading, but their beauty lies not in the paint.

We have the ones our girls made, the ones stuck together with glue and glitter and a little sheer hope and childlike faith. They are made of aluminum and popsicle sticks and fun foam and construction paper. There were also some made of dog biscuits, but those met an untimely end when we hung them too close to the dog. My favorites, of course, contain their tiny faces, peeping between evergreen needles, reminding me that those days fled by quicker than those needles will fall.

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The travel ornaments

Wherever we have wandered, we have a memory on our tree for it. San Francisco’s painted ladies, Nova Scotia’s lighthouses, Europe’s landmarks, a light-bedazzled crab from North Carolina and a painted sand dollar from Puerto Rico. Every time someone pulls one out of a box, we are transported.

IMG_6423We remember the being together days that only vacations offer. We may start talking about the next one.

The watershed ornaments

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Look at those two clinging together for dear life. They were right. (But my husband is so not a blond.)

Driver’s license. High school diploma. College. Baby’s First Christmas. All are celebrated on the tree. Which can tend to bleed into the next category . . .

The obsession ornaments

The resin girls doing perfect back flips through branches remind us of the gymnastics years. The scarecrow and Aslan ornaments and Glinda bubbles and Snow Whites bring back hours of theater efforts and applause. Belle and Ariel are telling which princesses were favorites around here once upon a time. And Snoopy at his typewriter is mine, no matter what. If someone has a zeal for something in this family, an ornament probably shows it.

The handmade ornaments

IMG_6426Several of the ones I made when we were first married and could barely afford a $17 tree let alone ornaments still hang. A bit bedraggled, perhaps, but they hang. They remind us of harder days and instruct us that those days are good ones if we embrace them. I can’t look at them without seeing again, like a reverse telescope, the hope-filled and beautiful first years of a new family and new dreams. Who knew what the years after would bring? Who expected what this tree is filled with?

We did not. But hope took us through those almost thirty years. Hope still does.

Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment.  (Romans 5.2-4)