Waiting in Peace

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"*

An extraordinary Christmas story from World War 1 tells of a Christmas Eve truce forged by soldiers on opposite sides of the war. Taken from several different sources, including letters written home by soldiers involved, the story goes that on Christmas Eve in 1914, British troops heard German troops across a field singing Christmas Carols. The Smithsonian account writes that “The first signs that something strange was happening occurred on Christmas Eve. At 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: ‘Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.’” 

Another account, written by Private Frederick Heath gives this account of the night: “All down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’” 

“Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.’ For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”

Christmas 2014, one hundred years after the truce, a British company created an advertisement based on the event. The video poignantly shows a reenactment of the Christmas Truce brought on by hearing enemy troops sing Christmas Carols on a cold, weary and war-torn night.

A strange and extraordinary peace. The next day, fighting resumed and commanders sitting safely inside their plush offices were none too happy about the reports that came out of the night. Nevertheless, for a few hours there was peace in the midst of war.

The ad has been viewed 23 million times, an indication of how desperately we long for these stories of peace in the midst of war. No matter how contrary we are, as humans we come to points where we are aching for peace. Whether it is peace in our families or peace in our friendships, whether it is peace in politics or in ideas, we come to places of weary cynicism. Is there nothing that can help us forge peace? Is there any hope for humanity when we can barely stand our neighbors, let alone the person on the other side of the globe or the opposite end of the political spectrum?

We are hungry and thirsty for these kind of stories, for knowing that there is hope for peace in the midst of war, there is hope for peace in families and marriages, hope for peace in church conflicts and disagreements, hope for peace in our own hearts.

Into this world that longs for peace came a Savior. A baby – small, unassuming, vulnerable. Hardly a threat save to an insecure demagogue, who so feared losing his kingdom that he had every male child under two years old killed. A small baby who came into a world of occupation and displacement, a world of outside rulers and internal threats. A baby, prophesied to be the Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. Is it any wonder that so many years after the miraculous birth of the Prince of Peace, a cautious peace was forged in the middle of a battlefield?

This second week in Advent, in this season of waiting, we wait in peace. May our hearts turn with longing to the only one who can create lasting peace. May our hearts turn to the one who enters gladly into our lives, not only during the Christmas season, but every day that we will have him. God incarnate, long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."*

*Words are from the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadworth Longfellow created into the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

Waiting with Hope

Of all the books I’ve read, Wendell Berry’s character of Hannah Coulter is perhaps my favorite fictional character. You journey with Hannah throughout her life from when she is a girl until she is an old woman, entering into events and relationships that tell you who she is and what she longs for and loves. As Hannah enters her later years in life, she has some things to say about the difference between hope and expectations.

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.” It is not surprising that Hannah is talking about her adult children when she says this. Every time I read this book, I find myself nodding in agreement, for parenting has been one of my best teachers about hope vs. expectation. When you are a parent, it is easy to get these two confused. Hoping for your children vs. expecting for them gives a parent a necessary freedom. You realize you cannot control the outcome. Instead, you must trust the process.

This distinction between hope and expectation feels profoundly important in our world. Hope means to cherish or desire with anticipation. It’s about a process, a state of being, about faith and trust. Expectation is about an outcome. It depends on certain things happening that we may have no control over.

On this first week of Advent, hope is the theme, and it is a good theme for me to reflect on. In truth, I have not felt hopeful lately. I have felt desolate and resigned. It is difficult for me to imagine resolution in some areas where I am struggling, some areas where our world is struggling, and I realize I have neither expectation nor hope. I simply have resignation and sadness.

How do I turn this into hope? We cannot conjure up hope like magicians who produce rabbits out of hats, but there are times when we can take baby steps that move us toward hope. Hope is often a long wait and walk in the dark. But when we’re walking in the dark, even one step towards a glimmer of light moves us closer. And so it is with hope. Fractions turn into wholes and small sparks into full fires.

You think the winter will never end, and then, when you don’t expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Then there are those times when we need others to hope for us. I remember a few years ago saying to someone “I know you don’t have any hope, but I can hope for you.” And so it is with me right now – I don’t have a lot of hope, but I do have others who are hoping for me. This is what it is to belong to the living body of the Church. When I begin to fall, others reach out to catch me. When I lose hope, others hope for me.

I have often wondered why hope is the first in this season, why we cannot begin with something else like peace or joy, but I think hope sets a foundation for us as we wait. A sure foundation that begins this season where we wait for the Incarnation and the one who is Hope personified.

In a beautiful reflection, writer Ann Voskamp recently offered these words about hope:

Hope against hope- that the emptiness will fill, that the wound will heal, that the miracle will happen, that the ashes will rise, that the prodigal will come home, that the marriage will mend, that the page will turn, that the next chapter will dare to bring any dreams come true and more than enough grace to meet you and carry you through, regardless. What you don’t know how to live through, Hope Himself will carry you through.

Ann Voskamp

Perhaps this year, you are one walking in the dark without hope. If so, can I and others hope for you? Can we offer a fraction that can turn into a whole? Or perhaps, you are one who can hope for others this year. Will you offer it this Advent Season, without reservations or conditions?

“I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.” Psalm 130:5

Winter Fruit Pie and the Taste of Memory

My father was not a cook. While my mother’s early journals record his cautious steps into baking cookies and occasional cakes, he was far more comfortable asking “What’s for dinner?” than he was making dinner.

It was in his last few years of life that he developed one baking specialty, and that was his famous Winter Fruit Pie.

While he was alive we never really knew what was in the pie. It was full of fruit, nuts, flavor, and texture, but the exact ingredients remained a mystery. I don’t think he purposely withheld the ingredients, I don’t think I ever asked. When complimented on his offering, Dad would just smile and willingly accept the praise.

In the fall of 2017 we knew that my father’s health was declining and that his days this side of Heaven were numbered. So it was that in October, on Canadian Thanksgiving, our extended family gathered together in Rochester, New York for a feast that could send a man straight to heaven.

We gathered outside at my brother’s house, seated around long tables, plates filled with every kind of Thanksgiving delicacy. Homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, vegetables, homemade cranberry sauce – it was all there and with it, the goodness of conversation and family banter. There was laughter and joy, running children and toddlers, new marriages and new grandchildren. It was glorious.

And for dessert, there was pie.

Because of my dad’s health decline, I had proudly designated myself the ‘Baker of the Winter Fruit Pie.’ “How hard could it be?” I said to myself and my dad. He smiled knowingly. My pie was terrible. It was dry and crumbly. It had none of the rich, moist sweetness characteristic of my dad’s recipe. I humbly acknowledged that, despite being a good baker, I had failed. Being the good-natured, easy person that he was, he ate it, remarking that’s “it was delicious!” But I knew better.

Just two weeks after that memorable weekend, my father died.

Last night I made Winter Fruit Pie. I had learned my lesson and wisely, I asked for the recipe in our extended family group chat. The aroma of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and fruit filled the kitchen and my heart. As I made it, taste testing at least once, my heart was full – full of gratitude and of the sweet taste of memories.

Feast days, like thanksgiving, are times of gathering and with the gathering comes memories and the taste of memories. Whether you are a family that sticks to die hard recipe traditions or a family that forges new foods and gathers new places, most of us will have the taste of memories as we fill our plates. It could be Grandma’s raisin cookies or YaYa’s baklava. Perhaps it’s saag served next to turkey, a tribute to a childhood spent in Pakistan, or spanakopita as a side dish. It could even be the ghastly brussels sprouts that your aunt made (and your mom made you eat.) Whatever it is, food at holidays is so much more than food. It is stories and memories, gathered pieces of history and tastes of belonging.

Food memories and feast days are part of the strong glue that hold families and friendships together. We taste, we remember, we laugh and we cry. We break bread together and with it there is an opportunity for resentments to dissolve, for the arguments and ideas that break us apart to be overcome by the sweet and savory flavors that bind us together.

This Thanksgiving, wherever you are, whatever you eat, may you know the joy of gratitude, the mystery of how friendships and families survive, the delight of making new memories, and the sweet taste of old memories.

And may your pie, whether it be pumpkin, apple, or winter fruit, be especially delicious.

God, Help Us With Our Somethings

I last spoke with my friend Betsy in 2017 at my father’s funeral. It was too short of a conversation. She went out of her way to make sure she came to both the visiting hours at the funeral home before the funeral as well as the service itself the next day. She gave me the kind of hug that we most need when we are grieving – a complete hug that left no room for anything but comfort. We caught up as only two friends that know each other well can catch up. 15 minutes that included two years of happenings. The last thing she told me was that her cancer had recurred. Tears welled up in my eyes.

“I’m so sorry!” I said.

“It’s okay. You know, I’ve realized that I have this, but everybody has something.”

Everybody has something.

Betsy died a year and two months later. I wish I had known then that I would not see her again. Ten months later we had moved to Kurdistan and I last texted her just before her death. I think about her so much, her generosity of spirit, her incredible gift of hospitality, the way she made everyone feel like they were the only person that mattered when you were with her. Betsy was an extravagant friend.

I also think about the wisdom in what she said to me “Everybody has something.”

I thought about this today as I looked around our parish. We are an immigrant parish from many different countries and backgrounds. Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Lebanon, Romania, the United States and more are all represented ethnically and linguistically. We are of every age, shape and size. We are literally the blind, the deaf, and the lame. And everyone of us has something.

The truth is, I don’t know all the somethings, just like people who attend don’t necessarily know my somethings. But I know enough to know that there are broken relationships and broken hearts, broken minds and broken bodies. I know that there are people who are hanging on by a thread of hope that reaches to the Heavens on a Sunday morning liturgy as they beg God and the Saints to intercede. I know that there are those who have had miscarriages and those with hurting children. I know that there are people who are without jobs, who literally pray that their daily bread and their rent money will come in. I know that there are students with dreams, and elderly with memories.

We all have something. We all have something that hurts, something that takes up our thoughts and interrupts our dreams.

And so I pray – I pray that God will help us with the somethings, from cancer to depression. I pray that God will ease our pain with his presence. I pray that the broken will be mended and the jobless will find jobs. I pray that the depressed will find comfort and the grieving will have permission to mourn. I pray that brains and bodies will be mended and hearts and minds will know the grace that is sufficient. I pray that we who walk this human walk will walk it despite the somethings. That we will chase beauty in the midst of the hard, that we will find light in the darkness. I pray that we will breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and breathe out “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I pray “God, Help us with our somethings.”

Now is the Time of Goodbye

The mist hangs heavy over the Charles River as I make my way onto Storrow Drive. It is the day after a holiday weekend, and the traffic in Boston is heavy. Glancing over at the river, I see a line of ducks placidly making their way through the mist and utterly content.

I know that soon the mist will give way to blue sky and sunshine, but right now it is welcome. It reflects my inner world. I have just said goodbye to my youngest son.

Last week it was my other son and his wife. One day we were picking apples and making apple crisp and the next day I was hugging them goodbye. One day the house was full, the conversation loud over games and ideas and I was eating the best breakfast sandwiches on the planet. The next day? Empty space.

Jonathan has been with us since mid June. He arrived as summer was beginning and is heading back to Greece as the leaves change and golden Autumn arrives. He arrived as a support and help during a deeply difficult time. He arrived and suddenly, there was music in the house. He arrived and my mind spun as we shared theological truths and philosphical beliefs. He arrived, and now he is leaving.

Last night we took a long walk by the harbor. I looked over at the Zakim Bridge and said “Look – a perfect sunset for the evening before you leave.” It was indeed. A benediction of a time well spent.

My job schedule dictates my inability to take him to the airport so the goodbyes happened in the sanctuary of our living room. It was better this way. No matter how warm the temperature, airports can be cold places to say goodbye.

Just yesterday morning my own mom said goodbye to me, and I watched through a car window as she waved until I was out of sight. Generations of goodbyes – this is our family. Three generations of living between. Three generations of waving until you can no longer see the person, whether because they are out of sight or because the tears blur your eyes so much that you can no longer see clearly.

Now is not the time to say how rich our lives have been. Now is not the time to say how much I love the airport, adventure, and the fact that my kids know what it is to live in different places and cultures. Now is not the time to be in awe of my son’s ability to speak Greek, of his thorough investment in another country, another city, another world. Now is not the time to say “but aren’t we lucky?” Now is not the time for others to say “You’ll adjust” or “You can always video chat.”

Now is the time to say goodbye. Now is the time to weep, to say “I will miss you so much.” Now is the time to say “God go with you, God be with you.”

Now is the time of goodbye.

The Stories Behind Our Silence

It’s been quiet here. It feels eerily quiet to me, though for those of you who read – the silence may be welcome. No one needs more noise in their lives. But the quiet feels strange to me because so much of my processing is done through writing.

Whenever my writing goes silent, there is a story behind the silence. I would think that this is true for most of us. Though everyone doesn’t process through writing, we all go through journeys where our inner world and trauma don’t reflect our outward circumstances, where there are stories behind our stepping away from life.

Some things are not for public consumption. In a world that more and more demands our every thought, our every hurt and pain spewed out through whatever public means possible, it feels important to say this.

Yet, too often, people insist on the story. They seemingly can’t give grace without the details. It makes me wonder how we can grow to be the kind of people who can honor the silent stories, giving grace for behavior and actions that don’t reflect what we know about the person’s life. How can we honor the stories behind the silence, knowing that people must feel safe in order to share? How can we become people who don’t operate off a sort of voyeurism, insisting on the hard ingredients instead of offering unconditional comfort?

It was a number of years ago when I first discovered the difference between outside circumstances and silent stories. It was in trying to figure out how I could help a friend. Her outside circumstances were seemingly ideal. A “put together” family – the kind that takes pictures of all their kids with blue jeans and white shirts on a pristine beach – a good job, beautiful kids, talent beyond believability. But behind her perfect smile was an undefinable sadness. At first I was impatient and frustrated. Of all the people I knew, she was the last person who seemed to have a reason to be sad. It was in the midst of frustration, that I felt a strong rebuke and challenge to look beyond these seemingly perfect circumstances. I realized that there must be more to the story then her observable beautiful life.

In truth, I should have been quicker to identify this. I say this because I too have been judged as one who has “nothing to complain about.” Judged for being a baby who can’t cope with the perfect life I’d been given. There were silent stories behind my observable “good” life. Stories that were difficult to share, and even more difficult to live.

The stories remained silent until I trusted a friend enough to reveal them.

Whether others give us freedom for silence or not, there are time honored and tested verses from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes that offer space for these seasons of silence:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

May we strive to be people of the seasons. People who honor all of the times in our lives, including the stories behind the silence – may we be people who offer the gifts of grace, comfort, compassion, and hope, all given without expectation, without insisting on details. And through these gifts may stories be heard, silence give way to a voice, and above all, the seasons of hope and healing be restored.

Seen,Known, and Extravagantly Loved.

I recently redecorated my window seat. Designing, whether it be a presentation or a room, is perhaps one of my favorite creative activities apart from writing. Of course, they come from the same roots, do they not? The roots of growth, creativity, chasing beauty.

When I’m decorating I rearrange pictures, pillows, curtains, and furniture like I rearrange words when writing. I look at the effect and know it’s just not right – or, by contrast, it’s perfectly right.

During the time that we have lived in this house, my window seat has been the silent witness to joy and tear-filled mornings. It sits in the center of our living room and has been filled with bright Kurdish textiles. Suddenly I wanted a bit less color. A place where color could still pop but one that drew me in to calm serenity. I changed out the pillow seat to a textured white, added throw pillows of the same, and finished the look with the pop of color from the textiles. I love it. I can escape the world as it draws me in and fills me with joy.

Its in this window seat where I feel seen, known, and loved.

It has been in this window seat where I have read and re-read the words from Psalm 139 – possibly my favorite Psalm. Drawing us in with intimate detail, this Psalm gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us, who as a brilliant artist, intricately wove us in the secret places. In reading through the Psalm, the messages are clear: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect always comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen, known, and extravagantly loved, would I not rest easier? It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time.

This window seat is a witness to many honest emotions, holding them with the steady and secure loyalty that inanimate objects sometimes offer. This Psalm is also witness to many emotions, to darkness as well as light – reminding me that God is present in the darkness, bringing light and offering the solace of his presence.

even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you

Psalm 139 Verse 12

In my break from social media I am brought into the timeless truth of Psalm 139 in a new way. There are the fickle responses on social media and then there are words read and memorized through centuries, words that withstand time and speak to the truth of God’s extravagant love for his creation.

Hearts, thumbs up, and ‘I care’ emojis are not a substitute for being seen, known, and loved extravagantly, but I too often get them confused.

I think of the words of Psalm 139. “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” God knew the moment of our first breath, he knows the moment of our last. And all that lies between the two moments – the outrageous laughter, the occasional apathy, the weary wandering, the dark winters, the light summers, the moments that plod and those that sprint, the times of fierce envy, the occasions of deep generosity, the lonely nights, the anxious days when our bodies are consumed, the fear for our futures, the occasional moments of complete and blissful trust, the feasting and the famine – he knows all of it.

There is only one response, and this also is written in the Psalm: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. Too much for me to understand.”

So I’ll seek to sit in the window seat and rest in what I do know – that I am seen, known, and extravagantly loved.