Saturday, 27 December 2014

Let the Love Light Glow

The fourth candle of advent is the candle of love.  And when the waiting is over, we light the Christ candle.

My previous blogs on these candles, the candles of hope, peace, and joy,  have had a bit of darkness in them, but love? Well, love is what the Christ candle is all about.

All week long, as we celebrated Christmas amidst the hustle and bustle of plans and food and gifts and comings and goings of children and friends and family -- and yes, also amidst the weariness and frustrations -- this poem by Christina Rosetti, put to music and sung by Shawn Colvin,  has been playing in the background of my mind:

Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign.
Love shall be our token
Love be yours and love be mine
Love to God and neighbour
Love our plea and gift and sign...

If you do not know this lovely carol, there are numerous versions on YouTube, but this is my favourite:

It’s all about love. Passing on the message of Christmas, symbolized by the white Christ candle, is acting on it: giving it away, letting it be our token, our gift, our sign.

And I’ve experienced that this week. Love is two 80+-year-old women watching two very active pre-school brothers in the church nursery, passing up the Christmas eve service so that the boys' mom could experience an hour of peace. Love is watching my son and daughter-in-law cradling their month old baby. Love is watching people throw money in the Sally Ann kettles, and love is joining one of the bell ringers in a slightly off-key version of The First Noel outside the doors of the local grocers. Love is doctors, nurses, gas station attendants, pharmacists, pastors, policemen, waitresses, cooks and so many more folks working to keep us healthy, safe, nurtured and well-fed while we enjoyed our holiday. Love is homemade Christmas gifts. Love is walking with your loved ones and finding a token of love on the trail: a heart-shaped stone.

Love is a tiny fir tree in our woods, carefully, beautifully, and anonymously  decorated to give walkers in the woods a moment of surprise and joy.

 Love is writing your worries on a slip of paper and tossing them into the God-box, saying, “They’re all yours, now,” and knowing it to be true. Love is the resident sweetie, who hates performing or speaking in public, joining the Dutch folk at church to sing  “Ere Zij God” (a Dutch carol, much loved by his wife); and love is the Scots Presbyterians saying, “Beautiful!”   Love is a moment of quietness. Love is serving a simple meal of meatballs and mashed potatoes for Christmas dinner and not having anyone whine, “Where’s the turkey and the stuffing and the cranberry sauce?” Love is being able to do what you love and giving it away as a personal gift to the world. And love is having a friend send you a quote that fits in perfectly with this blog: “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love." (Hamilton Wright Mabie)

It’s all about love. Pass it on, eh?

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Third Candle

The third candle on the advent wreath is the candle of joy.

Oh, goody! I’ve been looking forward to writing about this. Joy is such a contagious, happy-sounding word. Writing about it will be a joyful pleasure, right? Um ... maybe not.

The dictionary says that synonyms for joy are  “delight, great pleasure, happiness ... ”  But a friend reminds me of a quote by Thomas Merton. “If you do not know the difference between joy and pleasure, than you have not yet begun to live.”

Joy is serious business, apparently.  I decide to explore some more before I write (always a good idea; careless, thoughtless writing is joyless for both the writer and reader.)

If you google joy quotes, you will get an eyeful of them. For instance: Joy is inside of you and doesn’t depend on outward circumstances. Joy is the simplest form of gratitude. Joy is a net that catches souls (that one came from Mother Theresa). Joy wipes away pain. Joy is a sign of God’s presence. If you are attentive, you will find joy in the present moment. Music will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.  Joy is a choice. Joy is easily transported: bring it with you. And I love this one: In times of joy, all of us wish we had a tail we could wag. (WH Auden).

After I’m finished smiling about this image, I notice something. It’s the words “In times of joy...” that stops me. In times of joy...we are almost always reminded that there’s another side of life, that is, times of sorrow. Times of blues. Times of unhappiness.

I’ve just come back from sharing a lovely evening with a group of good friends. We laughed as we told stories and shared memories of Christmases past. We were warmed by fellowship, and  were feeling the joy of community. And then the door opened and pain walked in. It’s not all good news out there; we all struggle with issues; we all have friends and relatives with serious emotional and medical  problems, and we feel so helpless. We’d like to fix it, but we can’t. Is there room for joy in that scenario?

I haven’t found any great treatise on joy that will give me and you the definitive answer. But here’s how I see it. It seems to me that in the range of feelings from sorrow to joy, there are many different shades, and they mingle together: happy-clappy joy with deep sorrow, quiet joy with winter blues, ecstatic joy with black despair. Like streams of water coming from many sources, they mingle and merge to form a river – the river of life that carries us on. We can’t undo those mingled currents and travel always on the river of joy; but we can look for joy in our darkest moments, because it is there. This I believe.

The candle of joy is pink. That’s because, way back when Advent and Lent were established in the church calendar, both were somber times of penance and reflection, a time of mourning for our sins. One of the popes, however, was wise enough to know that people can break under the yoke of unrelieved sadness, so in the middle of Lent, he gave out roses to the priests, to remind folks of the joy that was coming. Pink became the colour to symbolize that joy, and so a pink candle was also inserted into the advent wreath.

I added a river of various coloured threads to the rose on this candle
It seems to me that God is handing us roses at Christmas time. Joy came down to live with us. Light the candle of joy, and let the flame spread light in the darkness. And go ahead: wag that figurative tail!

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Second Candle

The candle we lit last week Sunday on our advent wreath was the candle of peace.

I’m sorry, dear readers. For once, I am stumped. I have nothing to share with you. Peace on earth, the song the angels sang to the shepherds, is a mystery. God knows how much we all desire to have peace on our earth today. What a wonderful world it would be! Instead...well, you know the instead:  War. Violence. Hatred. Crime. Greed....

What was all that singing and rejoicing by the angels all about then? Jesus himself was a lightning rod of divisiveness, and his life was marked not only with good, but also attracted enemies, who waged acts of violence, anger and hatred. Now, centuries later, religion still causes wars. Peace on earth? Really?

I am at my wit's end and have decided to skip writing a blog this week when I read something that makes me sit up.

Marian Wright Edelman, a children’s advocate, quotes Edmond McDonald: “When God wants an important thing done in this world or a wrong righted, He goes about it in a very singular way. He doesn’t release thunderbolts or stir up earthquakes. God simply has a tiny baby born, perhaps of a very humble home, perhaps of a very humble mother. And God puts an idea or purpose into the mother’s heart. And she puts it in the baby’s mind, and then—God waits. The great events of this world are not battles and elections and earthquakes and thunderbolts. The great events are babies, for each child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged with humanity, but is still expecting goodwill to become incarnate in each human life.” Those babies, says Edelman, grow up to be Gandhis and Mandelas and Mother Theresas – and you and me, all charged with the mission to guide the earth toward peace, rather than conflict.  Each of us is a possibility, another channel through which peace could come to earth.

The dove with an olive branch is a universal symbol of peace.
I need to change the way I think of peace. I need to turn conventional thinking upside down. I’d like to stamp my foot and shout, “I want peace on earth, and I want it now!” But that’s not the message of the peace candle. Peace does not come about through a show of power, or forcing others to our wills. It does not come with rules and laws and treaties.  It comes as a child, vulnerable and helpless. At Christmas, we are reminded of the child in the manger, who grew up to spread a counter-cultural message, the only message that will bring about lasting peace: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

Each of us is bound by invisible threads to every other person on the planet, and we all are bound to the earth that we walk on. The peace we’re looking for begins not with the end of wars, but much closer to home: it begins with me and you.

PS: I couldn't resist showing off the little wall hanging I wrote about last week. My grandson Solay (aged 6) designed and drew the tree, chose the fabrics and beads, and helped me sew the decorations to the tree. It was fun!

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The First Candle

Last Sunday morning, we lit the first candle in the advent wreath at church: the candle of hope. It’s become a ritual, both at church and at home, where our advent wreath sits on the dining room table, and where we sing the candle song every time we light it. “Light the advent candle one, now the waiting has begun...”

Our old advent wreath: I made it in the early 80s. It's pretty beat up, but very precious.

I know the meaning behind the ritual. We are waiting to celebrate the birth of the Christ child who brought hope to the world.  The candles help us mark time. I know the symbolism: that Jesus came as the light of the world. My head knows it all. My heart? Not so much.

Hope:  “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” as poet Emily Dickinson wrote. Hope: the expectation of good. Hope: believing in spite of the evidence.

The truth is, so often the Christmas season is just a jumble of traditions and practices that I observe half-heartedly – the other half of my heart is ticking off the list of stuff that needs to be done, calculating how long each task will take, wondering whether I’ll survive the season intact, or come down with another cold (a Christmas tradition I’d love to skip.)

“A candle of hope, eh?” I think pessimistically. Fine. I’m hoping that everything will get done and that somewhere in the midst of it all, the Christmas spirit will touch me.  My candle of hope is only flickering faintly in the breezes of busyness.

I’m not alone with this feeling. All the newspapers are filled with stories of doom: climate change, wars, abuse of power, economies failing , ebola ... Truly, we wonder, is there any hope for this world, or are we teetering on the edge of disaster? Mostly, we are afraid to hope – isn’t “dwelling in hope” just the action of a romantic idealist, reaching for pie in the sky?

But a funny thing happened as I began my annual  trip to the Bethlehem manger last Sunday. Hope  ambushed my grinchy Christmas spirit and gently showed me a thing or two.

My personal candle of hope
It started that evening, when, on impulse, we invited our in-town family to help us decorate the tree. When the kids were children this had been a ritual on the evening of the first Sunday of Advent; supper was always finger foods and fizzy drinks. Now, 20 years later, once again on the first Sunday of Advent, the tree got decorated. We shared stories about the homemade ornaments with the grandchildren; lots of pizza was eaten and beer consumed; we lit the first advent candle, and sang our song. When the crew left and we were cleaning up, the resident sweetie and I counted our blessings. Against all reason, we realize that some traditions are continuing, and love for each other surrounds us.  Counting your blessings: a way to nourish hope.

Then I picked up my latest good read, The Impossible Will Take a Little While, a book of essays with the  subtitle  “a citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear,”  written by people who have experienced hope in a myriad of ways. All are sharing their  insights on hope so as to encourage and enlighten the most jaded of readers. Each essay I read kick-started my hope-meter.  Leaning on others when our own hope is weak: a way to nourish hope.

The week unfolded with new opportunities to live in hope. I sat with my grandson while he picked out fabric and beads, and designed a little wall hanging, which I helped him make. Sharing your passion and nurturing it in another person: a way to grow hope. The RS and I walked in the woods together, and saw an eagle perched in a tree nearby – “the thing with feathers”. We sensed our connections with the natural world: a link in the chain of hope. I participated in potlucks with quilting friends: a circle of friends to support you breeds hope. And then we attended a performance of The Messiah. The orchestra, the voices, and the audience were united in this awesome experience. Hope swells and grows when we are with other people and are carried away outside ourselves, remembering something much bigger than ourselves.

In the previously mentioned book, African-American singer and songwriter Sonja Tinsley says, “You have to pick your team.” One team dwells on cynicism – nothing you do will make a difference, they say. The other team “admits that they don’t know how things will turn out, but have decided to work for change.” She includes people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela on that team. “If I’m going to stick with somebody, I’d rather stick with people who have a sense of possibility and hope. I just know that’s the side I want to be on.”  Me too.

The candle of hope and "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul" were stitched on a repurposed Thai silk scarf.

The full text of the poem about Hope (#314) by Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.