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A Prayer for New Year’s Eve

Here’s to the elderly, their memories thick with days gone by, wistfully longing for the time when staying up until midnight or dancing until dawn was a joy. May they know their lives and their memories count.

Here’s to the one who has been left, either by death or divorce, unshed tears just behind their eyelashes, as they watch the clock longing for bedtime to come. May their tears be received, and their hearts healed.

Here’s to the couple with the newborn, eyes wide open with newness and hope, bodies aching with the tiredness a newborn brings. May they have enough sleep to love each other and their little one well.

Here’s to the couple who just met, the ones who are wondering if this is just another in a long list of disappointing relationships. May they not put their hopes in another person but in a relationship-loving God.

Here’s to the ones who just got engaged, starry-eyed with the delight of sharing a lifetime of dreams together. May the strength of their love and the mercy of God equip them for the joys and tragedies ahead.

Here’s to the one who is single in a world of couples, always wondering why they feel second best. May they walk tall in the joy of friendship, growing in God and knowing in their bones how much their lives count.

Here’s to the new arrivals, fresh off a flight from warmer places, the cold and the unfamiliar hitting them as they walk out the doors of the airport. May they be greeted with bread and tea, a place to sleep and people to help.

Here’s to those who pray for peace but suffer in war. May they be safe, and may they know that they are not alone, that there are those praying for them – that wars would end, and peace would reign.

Here’s to the suffering one, who dreads the dawn of a new day. May they be wrapped in comfort and love.

Here’s to the dying one, ready to enter eternity on the cusp of a new year. May they die knowing the love, rest, and mercy of God.

Here’s to those who are heavy with conflict, weary of fighting, broken with fractured relationships, longing for peace in their families and communities. May we know the one who is mighty counselor, everlasting God, and Prince of Peace.

Here’s to you and to me, wherever we are and whoever we are with. May the hopes and dreams of all our years be met in the One who promises his presence.

Happy New Year’s Eve.

Comedy & Tragedy

I’m sitting at a coffee shop in Rockport, Massachusetts. The sky is grey outside, the cold wind from the ocean biting and intense. Inside is warm with low conversation, the smell of toasted bagels and fresh donuts, and a hot eggnog latte. Sometimes the warm conversation of strangers is the best company of all.

I looked back at some of my writing the other day, caught up in the nostalgia of words with memories. 2021 was a rough year on every level. 2022 started out a shade better and quickly took a dark, dark turn. Despite that, daily gratitude, learning about releasing control, and clinging to God as lover of my soul kept joy afloat amidst many tears.

Life is never just tragedy, it is a poignant blend of comedy, drama, tragedy, and joy. And in the midst of this is a God who walks with us, who will not leave us, and who delights to surprise us with good gifts.

Instagram post from 2021

For over 2500 years, comedy and tragedy masks have been a symbol of theater. These symbolic masks began in the city of Athens in 535 BC. The first theater in the world had just been built – Theater of Dionysus. In a much anticipated first performance, the curtain went up and actors stepped onto the stage wearing masks. The masks represented various characters in the play. Masks became commonplace in theaters, often made far larger than life so that they could be seen by the audience. The first theater tickets in Athens were masks carved out of small pieces of ivory bone. Well before the fall of the Roman empire, masks had become a well-known symbol for theater. The only ones that remain to this day are the masks that show happy and those that show sad. Perhaps the happy and sad masks were the only ones to live on because the ancient Greeks favorite plays were, and perhaps still are, comedy and tragedy.

I wonder if it is primarily the western world that expects life to be free of tragedy. When I speak with friends in or from other parts of the world, I don’t get the sense that their expectation is that they will experience a life free of pain, and yet in the west, people often seem surprised at hardship. What false reality or expectation have we created in the west that assumes a life of magic and order, a life of picture postcard images?

These comedy/tragedy masks remind me that life has always been and will always be a mix of both. The more I ponder, the more I realize I would not have it any other way. What is sun without clouds? What is joy without sorrow? What is comedy without tragedy? As humans we are a bit like Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion. We grow and learn through opposites.

As we end 2022 and walk into 2023, we can be assured that our lives will not go exactly as we imagine. We can rest in one thing – that whether we can see it or not, the sun will rise in 2023 bringing with it unexpected joys, unimagined tragedies, and a lot of in between mundane.

Through it all, God is there. He will not grow tired; he will not grow weary. He will give strength to our weary souls, rest to our tired bodies. As we wait on him, we will find new strength. We will run and not get tired, We will walk and not grow weary.* 2023 will not overwhelm us but will come as it always does – one day at a time.

For 2023, I wish you the joy of living fully, one day at a time.

*Paraphrased from Isaiah 40: 28-31

Advent Reflections – Falling

On Thursday night I fell. It was dark, wet, and my arms were full of bags. I had been in downtown Boston for a meeting, and I was so ready to be home. Parking was difficult, but I finally found space a couple of blocks down the hill. I had almost reached home when I lost my footing and splat – down I went.

I spontaneously cried out but there was no one to hear me. I was shaking badly as I tried to get up. My whole body ached. I knew my left knee was hit the worst as it took the brunt of the fall. Tears began to fall as I finally regained my balance and began trying to pick things up from the ground. Little chocolate stars with white dots were strewn all over the ground, the leftovers of a beautiful afternoon tea at my daughter’s house shining in the light of a gas lamp. It felt like they were mocking me “See – just a couple of hours ago you were having a wonderful time, but it doesn’t last. It will never last.”

I finally pulled everything together and limped my way to my door. Sniffling, I walked into warmth, light, and a husband who was deeply concerned for my wellbeing.

The tears continued to fall. I felt like all the pain in the world was wrapped up in that one fall. All the displaced suffering that I know exists around the world. All the extended family struggle and pain, death and betrayal that has been a part of our family for the past couple of years was in that fall. All the difficult nights and angry days were represented in my bleeding hands and knee. I cried and I cried.

We are all just one fall away – one fall away from tragedy; one fall away from illness; one fall away from a life changing event. No one goes to work on a Monday morning expecting to fall, or to die, or to hear that someone else died. Yet, every single day people go through events that change their lives.

One Fall Away

In truth, my fall on Thursday night was not life changing. Though my knee has turned all shades of pretty colors, I didn’t break it. I skinned my hands, but they will heal with minimal scarring. I bruised my body, and it brought me to my bruised heart and soul. And that’s why I cried and cried. That’s why my tears fell. They were my expression of looking to God for comfort, looking to God for healing.

In the classic book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, author Eugene Peterson talks about the honest expression of suffering found in the Psalms. The model in the Psalms is far removed from the platitudes of comfort that are often offered to us by friends and acquaintances. Instead of telling us to get up and dust ourselves off, the Psalmist cries out against all the pain, suffering, and evil in the world. The Psalmist cries out in agony asking God why he has left him. It is a tremendous comfort and challenge to me that we have this model. The Psalmist doesn’t look at God as someone who will scold him and tell him to try harder. Instead, the Psalmist begins in pain.

Help God – the bottom has fallen out of my life!….By setting the anguish out into the open and voicing it as a prayer, the psalm gives dignity to our suffering. It does not look on suffering as something slightly embarrassing that must be hushed up and locked in a closet (where it finally becomes a skeleton) because this sort of thing shouldn’t happen to a real person of faith. And it doesn’t treat it as a puzzle that must be explained, and therefore turn it over to theologians or philosophers to work out an answer. Suffering is set squarely, openly, passionately before God. It is acknowledged and expressed. It is described and lived

Eugene Peterson – Psalm 130 in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

I don’t know what is going on in your lives right now. That is the reality of writing publicly. But I know that Advent, the time of waiting, can give rise to hard emotions. I know that when all around looks shiny with bright lights and sparkles, the things that are hard seem magnified. And that’s why we have those beautiful Psalms. They invite us into honest dialogue with a God who loves us so much. They allow us to cry out to a God that hears, that sees, and that dignifies our suffering by allowing us to express it. And when it’s all cried out, written or voiced in lament, we end in the same hope that the Psalmist did.

I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.*

*Psalm 130: 6-7

[Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash]

Advent Reflections – Time Redeemed

One of my first impressions of Orthodox Christianity (besides a jarring dose of culture shock) was that time flows differently here. Something mysterious happened when I entered the church for services: time became beautiful. No longer merely the engine of change and decay, time in the Orthodox liturgical setting seemed to bear something of eternity.

Nicole Roccas in Time and Despondency

We put up our Christmas tree this week – a Frasier Fir, fresh from the forest of Quebec via a large truck and Boston Christmas Trees situated right in the middle of a busy part of Boston. We did not wander into a forest and, in a Hallmark movie moment, cut down the tree with an axe and drag it through the snow. No – we went to an area busy with traffic, bars, hair salons, and Korean restaurants. It is steps away from our church and a place we’ve been going to pick our tree every year since 2008, with the exception of our year in Kurdistan. Trees are piled up high as seasonal employees help the idealists, romantics, and realists pick out the perfect tree (which of course is different for all of them!)

It is decorated with no less than 400 twinkle lights as a way to bring light to a season characterized by waiting in the dark. We had neighbors come over to help decorate, filling the void that five children who have left, now establishing homes of their own, creates. Our home filled with laughter, mulled wine, and Christmas treats as we enjoyed creating beauty together.

In our church tradition, Advent is not only a time of waiting, but also a time of fasting. It is counter intuitive and counter cultural to be sure, but I have come to appreciate the fast before a feast, the way this draws me into deeper contemplation of pivotal events in the church, in this case the Incarnation and God becoming man.

It is an extraordinary mystery that the creator of time willingly confined himself to the limitations of time through the Incarnation. Suddenly he who is above and beyond time knew what it was to enter into it. His entering time came full circle and allowed us to enter eternity – first by being reunited with God himself through Christ and then recognizing, believing and entering into these events through the Church and her liturgical reminders of what goes into a life of faith.

Our Epistle reading yesterday was from the book of Ephesians – specifically Ephesians 5 where the writer of the book exhorts the readers to walk as children of light, “redeeming the time.” It’s a beautiful and hard phrase. Beautiful because those of us who have lived for a while have regrets and long for time that we wasted, or time when we hurt people or suffered hurt, to be redeemed. We long for hurt and suffering to mean something more than a wasted time of pain and grief. It is a hard phrase for the same reasons. “How can this be redeemed” we ask during the quiet, dark of a sleepless night when no one is there to listen except God. How are these things that are so broken restored? How are relationships mended? How is wasted time and conversation ever really redeemed?

We also long for the more mundane aspects of seemingly wasted time to mean something. I was just in traffic that made me batshit crazy. It’s those Boston drivers….and I’m one of them! How do I redeem that time? Meetings at work that mean nothing to eternity – how are those redeemed.

Again, I come back to the mystery of Advent. If a virgin can give birth to a Savior, give birth to a Redeemer, then surely in some mysterious way, time can be redeemed. In recognizing Christ’s incarnation, I also recognize his capture of time, this one event changing all of history – what came before and what came after. This birth that led to death and resurrection is the pinnacle of time redeemed.

What does it mean for me, then, to live as one who walks in the light, redeeming the time? Perhaps an important step on that journey is recognizing Advent and giving thanks that a time of waiting brought forth a glorious life altering birth. Perhaps in the waiting in the hard of the night or the hard of the morning traffic, the waiting is bringing about a redemption that I can’t even imagine. I’ll be on that journey until the day when my breath and life stop. Until then, these words from St. John Chrysostom offer me a further glimpse into what this looks like.

The time is not yours. At present you are strangers, and sojourners, and foreigners, and aliens; do not seek honors, do not seek glory, do not seek authority, nor revenge; bear all things, and in this way, ‘redeem the time’.

St. John Chrysostom

Advent Reflections – Faith in the Irrational

If you are like me, everywhere you turn you will see someone writing Advent Reflections. While I’d like to apologize for joining the crowd, I find I can’t. One look at headlines around the world and I’m convinced that our world needs as many Advent Reflections as possible.

From suicides to refugee traumas, from wars to famines, from deep loneliness to deeper despair, we are a people in need of hope. My job takes me into this hopelessness (if not physically, emotionally) on an almost daily basis. From statistics to stories, I witness so much difficult news, so much sadness, so much despair. It is in these darkest days, when even the physical days grow dimmer and shorter, that we come upon Advent – the coming of the Christ Child.

As I was reflecting on Advent and all it means this afternoon, I was once again overwhelmed with the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of Christ coming, his channel for coming a woman’s womb. For nine months he was nourished through what his mother ate and drank, protected by his mother’s body. He was, like all babies, connected to her through his umbilical cord, his life sustained by God through Mary’s placenta. The God who said, “Let there be light” and so there was light, reduced to the smallest of cells to become one of us. There is a line in one of the hymns of the Orthodox Church that says, “All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace…. He made your body into a throne, and your womb become more spacious than the heavens,” and when I first heard these lines, I could hardly breathe for the wonder of them.

I get it when some of my friends and family say to me “I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t make sense. I just can’t believe it.” It IS irrational and yet, every day, I choose this over all else.

Perhaps this is why the first Sunday of Advent focuses on faith. Because faith is foundational to Advent. How can I possibly move into hope, love, and peace unless I first acknowledge the faith it takes to believe that God is the creator, author, and perfector of all of those?

I choose faith to believe the seemingly impossible. Faith to get up every day and live by this impossibility. Faith to not get defensive when others challenge that belief. Faith to say, “I don’t know how this all works, but I’m still going to believe.” Faith to believe in the irrational, hope in the impossible, and love with abandon. Faith to believe that somehow in the presence of God, all of this will make sense, mystery wrapped up in indescribable love.

This is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild! Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child

Madeleine L’Engle

If you are one who celebrates Advent, may you be encouraged to continue on in this wildly irrational faith journey that ultimately leads all of us Home.

Finding Beauty Between

I was caught in traffic today. I sat in the driver’s seat just five minutes from my house, craning my neck to see what was blocking cars and trucks from moving more than a couple of feet every few minutes. We inched along, caught in a concrete and steel maze. To my left was an iron fence, the top of it oddly ornamental but lost in the garbage and chaos that is city living. To my right, bright yellow graffiti tried to make a statement, perhaps encouraging those of us who were stuck in traffic to see beyond the city scene.

In the middle of this, I began to think about a talented artist and her ability to take the common of the city, infuse the starkness with colors and shadows, and in her own words “beautifying the banal.” She takes the scene I see in front of me and creates beauty. Chain link fences, stop signs, concrete buildings, barriers, all of it painted with precision and care.

I paint spaces that most people pass daily but don’t notice, like alleyways, fences and parking lots.

Christine Rasmussen

Christine Rasmussen is an LA-based artist who describes herself as “painter of the in between.” She is also daughter of one of my dear childhood, now adult, friends. Her artist statement gives the viewer a sense of what she is doing. Beyond the words are, of course, the paintings themselves.

As a painter I investigate the in between, depicting cityscapes that hover between familiar and imagined. In observing these urban spaces devoid of people, I play with themes of belonging versus aloneness; memory versus daydream; and narrative versus abstraction. The “story” continues off the canvas, letting the viewer’s imagination step in.

These themes interest me as a global nomad who has often found myself hovering between multiple cultures, time zones, languages and identities. Close observation of my surroundings in every city I encounter reveals recurring materials, shadows or shapes that I paint as symbols of our shared humanity across perceived differences. Through capturing these commonalities – the wondrous details of urban environments – in my paintings, I explore the many complexities and multiple identities of our rich inner lives.

Artist Statement – Christine Rasmussen – Painter of the In-Between

There are many things in cityscapes that are barriers carrying messages that tell us we don’t belong. Red and white signs that give harsh orders of “Do Not Enter,” stop signs, large concrete structures, traffic lights that dictate when you can go and when you must stop, boarded up buildings, and anonymous drivers in snob appeal cars. That is what makes Christine’s desire to introduce us to these as shared symbols of humanity and eye for beauty in the commonplace of the city unique and imaginative.

In a review of her solo exhibition called “Liminal Transcendence” that recently opened in LA, her work was described this way:

In these paintings, we are getting a view of where the sky meets the earth. The horizon is filled with concrete, metal, glass, shadow and urban stories. The sky in her works is filled with clouds (and chemtrails) Angelenos will easily recognize. Christine is asking us to take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.

Kristine Schomaker in Art and Cake Magazine

Take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.

Pay attention to the beauty in the banal.

Never stop finding beauty in the ordinary moments of life.

It is easy for me to see beauty in the in between of the natural world where the sky meets the earth, where the ocean rises up to the horizon, and where the sun shines through the clouds. Bearing witness to all that beauty gives birth to heart-bursting moments that keep me longing for an eternity where beauty will never end but last forever.

It is more difficult for me to see beauty and magic where concrete meets clouds and chain-link fences connect with the sky, where birds perch on electric wires strung between poles on city streets. And yet, these are part of the sum of where I live. Christine’s work, created from a background that resonates with my own, invites me to see color and perspective, asks me to pay attention and look for beauty beyond my immediate vision. She captures life between far more realistically, precisely because there are so many sharp corners and fences in a life between. Her paintings encourage me to move past the cityscapes and into the coffee shop on the corner where my heart connects with a friend and the saudade is killed. I move from there to my office with sleek black walls and industrial fixtures, finally back to the constant creation and recreation of home and place. And in all of it, the invitation is there – find beauty, look for magic.

When I first began processing a life lived between worlds through writing, it was more about the pain and discomfort of the process. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to see the sharp objects in this life as part of the beauty. Our appreciation for beauty perhaps has more to do with our understanding of suffering then it does with our eyesight.

For all of us, this life on earth is a life lived between. None of us knows what is next. While my faith tradition gives me clues and in faith, I accept those, it also reminds me that this is a mystery. I analyze it and dissect it, but what I really long to do is use my words to articulate the beauty and magic of this life. I want my words to do what Christine’s art does. I want them to say “Look beyond the dirt and garbage, beyond the stop and go, the insecurity and anonymity of the city. Take notice! Pay attention!” Pay attention to the straight edges that meet the cloudless blue sky, or the petunia that grows through the crack in the concrete. Pay attention to the steel objects and the velvet fabrics. Chase beauty like you chase belonging and you will find both.

Let your imagination run with your longing and find rest in a promise far greater than magic, the promise of an eternity better than you could dream it to be, all of our longings and belongings finally fulfilled, wrapped in something far better and greater than we can imagine.

Note – you can see Christine’s work by clicking the link for her website above or by following her on Instagram @christinerasmussenart.

Gratitude and Grace

It’s the day before American Thanksgiving and I’m sitting in my mom’s living room looking out at the quickly fading daylight. Soon it will be twilight and lights around the city of Rochester, New York will come on, our 21st century way of prolonging daylight.

The mashed potato roll dough is in the refrigerator, pumpkin pies are cooling, cranberry sauce is made, and everything else will happen by tomorrow. While no one would ever call me a traditionalist, when it comes to Thanksgiving, I love traditions of food and activities. I love it all – the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and homemade cranberry sauce. I’m happy to add extras like saag paneer and parathas but bring on the traditional foods and I’m content. I love the tradition of sharing memorable Thanksgivings from the past and favorite foods. I love playing games and easy conversation.

As I sit with my mom, a lot of our time is spent reminiscing. Her childhood and early adulthood come up often in these conversations, memories of people and events long gone. Memories return through all our senses – the taste of cranberry sauce, the smell of pumpkin pie, the sight of an old recipe, the sound of a song, the texture of a piecrust – and with their return the stories tumble out, often flowing into the next story before the first one is finished. These stories somehow live deep in our DNA, sometimes pushed far down but never truly forgotten. Listening and absorbing these stories becomes ever more precious knowing that at 94, any event could be my mom’s last.

As I sit in the quiet, gratitude for this season is a welcome companion. While Christmas brings its own peculiar pressure, the gift giving never seeming quite enough and the pressure to please sometimes overwhelming, Thanksgiving is enveloped in traditions and gratitude. No matter where we are in the world there is room for gratitude and feasting. No matter the tragedy or sadness that may be circling around us, Thanksgiving helps us stop and breathe, opening up space to remember friendship, protection, hope, and grace.

And with this, I am grateful to you all – some who I know in real life, some who I know online, others who reach out with kind affirmation and still others who read on the sidelines. I have processed through writing for eleven years….it’s a long time to walk with someone. Thank you! I will never take it for granted.

Image by Denis Naumenko from Pixabay

In Memory of a Friend, In Memory of a Community

The news came, as it does these days, over the waves of social media. It was the death of a childhood friend, the news posted by her brother. Within minutes, a community of us, some who hadn’t seen Ruthie for many years, others who saw her this past June, and still others who were with her recently were collectively remembering, collectively grieving.

Ruthie was three years younger than me, a classmate and friend of my younger brother, Dan. She was petite and pretty with a smile that radiated from her bones to her face. She came from a dynamic family, all of them uniquely gifted musically and relationally.

I had the chance to see Ruthie in early June at a reunion for those of us connected to Pakistan. It was the first time I had seen her since 1993 when she visited Cairo with her boyfriend Mark, the man who would later become her husband. We had just left our beloved Maadi community and moved to a different area of Cairo. I was getting used to a new flat in a new part of the city, the kids were anticipating a new school, and my husband was starting a new job. In the midst of all that new came the familiarity of an old friend. Every morning before she and Mark went off exploring the city we would laugh and talk. Every evening we would do the same. The familiar mixed with the new, a gift of memory and discovery.

As I talked to her this summer, I brought up the memory. I was delighted that she, too, remembered. I learned that it had been a key moment in her life with Mark. I knew as I was speaking with her that cancer cells were overwhelming her healthy cells, that she was fighting a hard battle with the tools of chemotherapy, gifted doctors, and prayers of “Thy will be done.” I saw the deep love that she and her husband had formed through the years, a love large enough to embrace four biological and twelve adopted children. But I knew that I only saw and heard a fraction of what her journey had included.

The service was at two in the afternoon, Albanian time. It was broadcast as a gift to many around the world who, through computer screens, could participate in honoring her life.

As I sat in my living room in Boston, miles away from Albania, I began to see others from my Pakistan family and community sign on. With each one, came a rush of memories and thoughts. Ruthie was little sister, mentor, friend, classmate, big sister, and more depending on who you were and how you knew her. Most of all, she was one of us.

In our small community we shared tragedies like they were our own. When a father or mother of one of our friends died, it was like losing a beloved family member. The limbs on our missionary community tree stretched wide and when one of them was gone, no matter how we lost them, it meant leaves and fruit, nourishment and love were gone. These many years later we still feel losses when we hear of the death of someone we loved, someone we knew. No matter if it was another lifetime, they were part of us, and we feel the ache. The names still come to me – Dale, Carolyn, Angela, Val, Joy, Roy, Stan, Tim….and these are only a few of the ones that we have lost. Some were long, slow deaths, others were quick, tragic accidents – no matter, the way they died, their deaths put another nail in a community coffin.

Yesterday we grieved the loss of another. Yet, it was not only her life that we grieved. It was all of it – the loss of one brought up many other losses. In grieving for Ruthie, we had permission to grieve for lost community, lost time, and lost childhood. In grieving the loss of one of us, we once again felt saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. In seeing her life, the adult version of Ruthie featuring a life lived large with joy and love, we perhaps questioned our own scarcity and unwillingness to live large, our inability to love with abundance and live generously.

“Everything precious is costly” were words that were said of Ruthie at the memorial service. Her beloved Mark, her children, her parents, her siblings, and her community are already experiencing the costly loss of wife, mom, daughter, and sister. And we on the periphery, we hear those words and know their truth, for we have lived and witnessed an extraordinary and precious community, gone but still glimpsed in memorials and memories.

But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.

Frederick Buechner