Christmas Eve Reflection from Thessaloniki

Every year I write a Christmas Eve Reflection. Usually it’s in a fully decorated home with Christmas music playing in the background. It’s written in the midst of the frenzied joy of Christmas in the West and I usually have presents to wrap and stockings to fill.

This year I write it from the sunshine of Thessaloniki and a 4th floor apartment. The sun is starting to set and the fading light peaks through floor to ceiling windows. My youngest son is sitting near me in what can only be described as a “companionable silence” – trite except it’s not. It is delightful.

Our Christmas reflects the year we have had. It is unusual but we are grateful. There is little stress as we prepare for a midnight Liturgy and the dawning of Christmas morning. It is a gift.

Earlier today I sat in a salon and got my hair cut. The longer I sat, the more Greek I became and the result pleased the stylist greatly. Later I walked toward Aristotle Square, joining crowds of cafe goers, musicians, and city dwellers. I thought about my family members who are not here and missed them.

I got back to the apartment where we are staying and read about a friend who is dying. She has lived life so well, she has loved so well. Tears and the juxtaposition of the joy of a holiday combined with an imminent death flood over me.

I am so aware this year of the many events in all of our lives that we keep hidden from the spotlight of social media. Despite what the social media developers would like us to believe, we share only the highlights and the well-edited photographs of our lives. But the truly important things we share with those who don’t need edits or highlights, those who walk us through shadows and into the light of grace.

The betrayals and separations, emergency room visits and hospitalizations are left out of the public narrative. We don’t share the trips to the counselor’s office and the hard soul work of confession. We don’t share the nights of tears we shed for those we love or the sadness of a womb that is empty. We don’t share those moments of grace when we have prayed for the impossible and have received.

We share the newborn baby – we don’t share the 35 hours of labor that birthed the baby.

And this is as it should be. We don’t have the capacity to be emotionally naked with everyone, nor should we cast our great pearls of grace before the swine of social media.

Instead we live life in the light and shadows of daily grace, periodically posting snapshots of that grace for the world outside to see.

So as you see my snapshots, and as I see yours, may we not yield to the temptation to believe that these are anything more than snapshots. May we remember that there is enough sadness in all our lives to crush us, and enough grace to raise us up.

Most of all, may we remember that a baby in a manger changed our world and hope was born.

Merry Christmas Eve dear friends!

A Life Overseas – ‘Tis the Season of Incongruity

Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.


I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.

I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice.  I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.

‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.

And yet…

And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.

God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”

My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. Read the rest of the piece here.

Advent Reflection – To Love is to Hurt

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” CS Lewis – The Four Loves


It’s early Monday morning and the house is dark and quiet. I wake up slightly anxious with what I know to be a Monday morning dread. I turn our Christmas tree lights on as watchful cats curl up on the couch, nocturnal beasts carefully observing all around them.

It has been a full weekend. Baking, cleaning, readying our home for an annual open house to reconnect with friends from our different worlds; introducing dear friends to Eritrean food; connecting with our younger daughter over delightfully shallow Hallmark Christmas movies.

It all crashed down on me well after I was supposed to be in bed and asleep. Despite the full weekend of connecting, I’m caught in a vice-like grip of worry for those I love. Crashing against a tired body was a tired heart, a heart lost in tears that quickly dried leaving salt on my cheeks, only to come again with more force.

And it came to me again, like it has thousands of times in the past, to love is to hurt. To love my kids is to hurt for their pain, to rage at some of their choices, to delight in their successes, to weep at their tragedies. To love my adopted country means to weep that terrorists attacked a church, killing and wounding the innocent. To love my dad means to hurt that he is gone. To love my friends means to share in their trouble, to laugh in their joy. To love means to get tired from caring, to feel weary from listening. To love is to hurt.

During my childhood, I often heard about the disease called leprosy or Hansen’s Disease. This disease is not well-known, but growing up in Pakistan, I knew that there were places called leper colonies – places to quarantine those with leprosy. The disease carried a huge stigma and much was unknown about both causes and treatment of leprosy. The main thing I knew about leprosy was that the nerves were damaged and affected people’s ability to feel pain. Since they couldn’t feel pain, they would end up with sores and burns on their bodies, particularly their feet and hands.

Even as a little girl, through knowing about leprosy, I knew that pain was a good thing. Pain was a signal that the body’s nerves were working. 

I think about this as I think about the pain that I feel when those I love hurt. I think about the pain that God feels when his creation suffers and hurts.

Despite the tears, despite the inability to ‘fix’ things, despite the paralysis that often comes with these feelings, I will pick the pain of love every time, because I know the numb apathy of an ice-cold heart and ultimately that is far more damaging. This pain I feel is proof that my heart is alive, alive with God-given feeling; proof that my life is full, full of people and places that I love.

This pain is proof that I desperately need God. God, who reaches through pain and worry with a promise of redemption. God, who takes sleepless nights with tears and turns them into joy in the morning.

This pain is proof that I need Advent, I need the coming. I need the incarnation. I need to know that God became man to walk where we walked, to know our pain, to comfort us in the dark of night and in the light of day.

I need to know that my tears are heard, my heart is known, my pain is valued. 

On Friday, I read this from Ann Voskamp, and on this Monday morning when reality bites a little harder than it did yesterday, I leave it with you:


“You are not forgotten. You are not abandoned. You are not alone. 

Because he says to everyone with their unspoken broken: Come. 

He says to the unlikely: Beloved

He says to the weary: Rest

In a brokenhearted and beautiful world, His grace is the only pillowed relief for the tired soul to rest in this season — making all broken things into resurrected things.”Ann Voskamp

Advent Reflection – Silence and Liminal Spaces

When I wake in the early morning I am always struck that our home is silent. There are no voices raised in conversation; no arguments, no agreements. There is no music, no sound of chopping or mixing from the kitchen, no sound of running water.

Of course if I really listen I hear noise from the traffic on Memorial Drive a few blocks away. I hear noise from household helpers – a refrigerator’s hum of activity; radiators spluttering, working hard to bring heat to the house, the low-pitch of an electric heater.

Actually, it’s not really silent at all. There is activity, there is movement, there is work being done.

It’s this I think about when I think about what I’ve always thought to be the 400 years of silence between the Old and New Testaments.

Was it really 400 years of silence?

I don’t think so.  Just because we aren’t privy to details and many recorded conversations does not mean that God was silent. God did not stop working, because he never stops writing his story.

People were longing for the Messiah, but in their longing they continued to hear God. Priests in the temple continued to serve faithfully, to pray, to worship God and seek to know more. The human heart continued to long for God, continued to seek God, and continued to find God.

Those four hundred years were a beautiful, liminal space; a threshold to a new beginning. It was the time between what was, and what would be.

In my life I am too quick to dismiss liminal spaces, too hasty in wanting the next thing. But so much can happen in the space between.

Richard Rohr, a theologian and Franciscan friar says this about liminal spaces:

“We keep praying that our illusions will fall away. God erodes them from many sides, hoping they will fall. But we often remain trapped in what we call normalcy—“the way things are.” Life then revolves around problem-solving, fixing, explaining, and taking sides with winners and losers. It can be a pretty circular and even nonsensical existence.

To get out of this unending cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold” (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin.

Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way.

This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.”*

Simeon and Anna were two people that lived a long time in that liminal space. It was this space and seeking that allowed them to know the Christ Child when they saw him.

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

    you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation,

    which you have prepared in the sight of all nations, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”**


Many of us are in the liminal spaces right now, the time between the “just ended” and the “not yet begun.” I think of this as I sit beside a tree, lights glowing, providing a protection against the grey of the day. Is this the sacred space of God’s waiting room”? I wait to see.

*Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999), 155-156.

**Luke 2:29-32

Advent Reflection – A Mom’s Tears

jerry-kiesewetter-198984

Ask any mother and she will tell you that the tears we weep for our children are like no other. They are tears that come from deep within our souls as we cry out in pain, either for them or because of them. They are the tears we weep in solitude when our daughter has faced her first break-up. At that moment, should the boy be present, we would possibly commit a crime that locks us up, unless the lawyer can use the grounds of love, impulse and passion to convince a jury that we are not dangerous.

They are the tears that we shed when our pre-schooler is not invited to the birthday party that every other kid seems to be attending. They are the tears that come when we know that we are helpless to make life better for our children, that the days when we could control who comes and goes from their lives are now gone. They are the tears of rage when we feel wronged or misunderstood by these products of our womb, when the path they are taking is leading to a place that we know will cause pain.

They are the tears of agony when we know they are in deep pain, pain they can’t share with their moms. They are also the tears of unspeakable delight and joy at weddings and graduations; tears of admiration as we are invited to participate in their world; and the tears of happiness as we realize how proud we are and how much we love them.

One of the Orthodox icons depicting Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer, is an icon that shows Mary with seven swords going into her heart. The icon is called the “Softener of Evil Hearts”. In Orthodoxy, these seven swords are seen as representing the immense sorrow that the Theotokos experienced at the foot of the cross; the sorrow that was prophesied by Saint Simeon when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”*

I had been a mom for many years before I first heard about, and then saw, this icon. I thought about it for a long time. Here was one who understood far more about a mother’s tears then I could ever imagine. Sitting there at the foot of the cross, helpless and watching her son die, she did not yet know the full picture. The resurrection would be three days later. Her heart was pierced by a sword many times over before she saw the risen Lord on that Paschal morning.

I think about this icon as I shed tears for my children. Though we know but a fraction of this pain, our hearts too are pierced. We shed our tears and we too, wait; wait for the God of resurrection and miracles to comfort and strengthen us.

We wait for our souls to heal, for wrong to be made right. And we press on.

*Luke 2:34-35

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

 

Advent Reflection – If You are Weary

We put up our Christmas tree yesterday. It is beautiful – a Balsam pine tree that brings the forest into our living room. It’s a tall tree, reaching proudly to our ceiling, decked out in the season’s finest white lights and many years of ornaments.

I sit beside our tree and I almost forget that our world is hurting. Almost, but not quite.

Underneath and surrounding the bright lights of Christmas is the reality that we live in a broken world. Somehow the holidays make it seem worse. We have an expectation that because it’s a holiday, life will work. We will have a short respite from tragedy and heart break. But our expectations are quickly shattered as we face the death of a loved one, the break-up of a marriage, the tragedy of an earthquake or a plane crash.

Tragedy and loss, broken cars and broken kids, hurting and homeless ones do not bend to the will of holiday cheer. A broken world doesn’t stop being broken just because we dress it up in twinkling lights and brilliant red and gold baubles. Broken is still broken.

Into this broken world comes Advent. Advent doesn’t present us with false expectations or promises; Advent gives us room to long for all to be made right, to long for peace, to long for broken to be made whole.

But Advent does something else – Advent shows us that the broken one is welcomed into the arms of God.

Advent….it’s the longing for the world to be as it was created to be. It’s a spiritual longing for all to be made right, for a broken world to find redemption and with redemption be made whole and complete.  To see a homeless woman with neuropathy and long for her to be made whole and find a home; to hear of earthquakes and long for rescue; to hear of atrocities and long for justice; to hear of plane crashes and long for comfort; to see the world as it was intended, not as it is.

But Advent does something else – Advent shows us that the broken world and the broken one are welcomed into the arms of God.

If you are weary this Advent season, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God. 


Note: This post is a rewrite from one posted one year ago called “A Broken World Meets an Advent Season.”

The Season for Candle Time

candle- messiah

This is the time of year where morning comes slowly and evening quickly.

I feel melancholy as I wake up far before the sun rises over the Atlantic ocean, just a few miles to the east of us. As much as I want to embrace these days and all they hold, I am a woman who loves light and sun. I love it when sunlight floods my living room and bright light and warmth comfort me beyond my bones to my soul. As soon as I rise, I go to the kitchen and turn on the lights of the newly decorated Christmas tree and light a single candle. Somehow these small acts are enough to comfort; enough to calm my anxious soul and bring light into life.

It was during days like this that we began our favorite Christmas tradition, something we call “Candle Time”. It began in Cairo with my sister-in-law, Carol. We had the joy of having them live just a few blocks from us during our second year in Cairo. During the Christmas season we found ourselves back and forth at each other’s homes a lot. Together we had five children – three belonged to us, two belonged to them. One evening as our children were winding down after dinner we started “Candle Time”.

We began by turning off every light in the flat. Clad in their onesie pajamas, their toddler fat still squeezable, they sat still in wonder as we lit a candle and began singing Christmas carols. Then we walked each of them off to bed and looked at each other in amazement. We had never had this calm a bedtime routine.

And so began a tradition. Beginning soon after Thanksgiving we started Candle Time. By candle light we sang Christmas carols, talked, and prayed. By candle light we ate frosted sugar cookies. By candle light we drank rich, hot cocoa. By candle light we then walked each child to their beds, kissed them good night to the sound of Silent Night.

It became a favorite part of our holiday season.

Candle time became a treasured tradition, a time of quiet and connection during what is often the busiest time of the year. As the kids grew, guitar music accompanied our candle time, initially clumsy with chords but soon playing confidently and leading our singing. At times our time became less sacred and funnier as we tried to harmonize, laughing at those who could never quite find the right note.

Sometimes I would beg to keep one hall light on but the kids would have none of it. It was all lights off except the Christmas tree lights, one candle lit, all of us together. There was no talk of presents. No mention of Santa Claus. Just singing carols and quietly closing the day.

We no longer have little kids and candle time has had to evolve with our family growing up and away. But every year, once the tree is decorated, we try to have candle time during the season with who ever happens to be home.

Because no matter how old we get, it helps to stop. It helps to turn out all the lights, light a single candle and, with the glow of the Christmas tree lights creating magic and joy, reflect on the season as we wait for the One who has already come.