Merry Christmas Eve from Thessaloniki

The wind is rattling the door shutters in the apartment, but inside it is cozy and calm. It’s what I’ve always wanted Christmas Eve to be, yet what it rarely is. Thessaloniki itself is a bustling commotion of people, strolling in plazas and stopping at cafes and shops along the way. There is a festive sense of waiting, evoking childhood memories anticipating the joy and surprises of Christmas.

Thessaloniki is not a new city for us, so we drink in the familiarity even as we explore new places and sights. It’s a special city – a city of miracles and churches, of children caroling out of tune on Christmas Eve, pocketing money and chocolates, and priests coversing with strangers in coffee shops. Time stops as you sit in cafes or tavernas, in churches or apartments.

Being Orthodox we feel at home in these churches, the saints guiding us through every icon, an urgency and expectancy in their gaze, as if to say “Watch and wait – you’ll see. These things you worry over, the cares you hold tight, the burdens you bear – lay them down for a moment. Stop for a moment. Be enveloped in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” This faith is like this city – familiar yet new; timeless, enduring, ageless yet ever-available.

It is good to stop. It is a gift to be still. My life has taken on the familiar urgency of a large American city and I find myself longing for the time we had last year, longing to stop and reflect. We try and set aside time, and yet the endless tasks, scrolling, time-wasting, and real work creep in making us believe that we are trapped.

As I stop this afternoon, I can’t help but think about birthing babies. It’s something I know well, my earned fact as it were. Each birth was unique – seemingly the only commonality being myself and my husband. But there was one other thing that was common in my births, and that is that time stopped. Nothing mattered but the birth of that baby. Nothing. Each labor pain was separated by what felt like an eternity. And then, with the “I can’t take it any more” pain of transition, the work of pushing began until a cry broke time, and a baby was born. Time stopped, a baby born, a miracle.

The mystery of birth and the mystery of the incarnation – both invite us into a timeless miracle. A baby born, a world changed.

This afternoon, in the quiet of a rented apartment in a city in Greece I will myself to enter into the timelessness that I entered into during those long hours of labor. I will myself to enter the timelessness that believing the mystery of incarnation requires, the timelessness that this city, this season, and my faith urge me toward. The timelessness that birthing babies necessitates. The timelessness of a “long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.”

Merry Christmas Eve! May you too enter the timelessness of the miracle of Christmas.

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.

#OnlytheGood – Christmas 2017

It’s Friday and I’m sitting by our Christmas tree. I could sit here all day, just writing, thinking, dreaming, and reading. I know that December 25th is a constructed holiday, that most probably the birth of Christ did not happen in winter, yet I am so grateful that we have this joy to brighten days that could feel too long in their gloom; too sad and cold and lifeless. Instead, for a brief time we get tree lights and the Advent, the anticipation of a birth that changed the world.

I miss my dad this Christmas. It’s the little things – talking to him on the phone, ordering an LL Bean sweater for him, buying him small gifts. He was a wonderful man to buy gifts for – always appreciative, always surprised. I miss his smile and his enthusiasm for life. I miss his presence. Those people who we lose are never too far from us. We can be reminded by the smallest things that they are gone. Tears come unexpectedly, but I am reminded in these thoughts and memories that to love is to hurt.

We usually have a houseful, but this Christmas it will just be a few of us. These are the times when I’m grateful for good friends to share Christmas Eve, grateful that through the changes life brings, there is a foundation of faith – not in an outcome, but in a God whose very character is consistent. In the words of my sister-in-law, Tami, he is “Utterly faithful and completely unpredictable”.

In this Christmas edition of #Onlythegood, there are a few lovely things to share.

The first is this beautiful piece by One Voice Children’s Choir. My brother Stan shared it and I’ve listened to it several times. I’ve included the words for you to ponder.

Starlight shines, the night is still
Shepherds watch from a hill
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Perfect child gently waits
A mother bends to kiss God’s face
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Angels fill the midnight sky, they sing
Hallelujah, He is Christ, our King
Emmanuel, Prince of peace
Loves come down for you and me
Heaven’s gift, the holy spark
To let the way inside our hearts
Bethlehem, through your small door
Came the hope we’ve waited for
The world was changed forevermore
When love was born
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born*

A baby born on a Pakistan International Airlines Flight! 

On December 12th, on a flight from Medina, Saudi Arabia to Multan, Pakistan a woman gave birth to a baby girl. The airline staff handled it beautifully and all is well. The baby girl will fly free for the rest of her life!

My friend Rachel has a book deal! She will be writing the story of Annalena Tonelli!

Plough Nabs Bio of ‘Somalia’s Mother Teresa’

“Sam Hine, acquisition editor at Plough, took world rights to the first English-language yet-to-be-titled biography of Annalena Tonelli, often referred to as Somalia’s Mother Teresa. An Italian native, Tonelli’s story features her work in East Africa, including tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment campaigns, establishing special schools for deaf, blind, and disabled children, and ultimately, her murder in 2003 which remains unsolved. The book will be written by American expat and journalist Rachel Pieh Jones, and it is expected to be published in fall 2019.”

New York Today: Alone in an Empty City

This is a beautiful essay about New York City when everyone leaves.

“Computer screens gone dark. Unanswered emails. Co-workers hauling luggage to meetings so they can head straight to Grandma’s. And for some of us, the unglamorous response to the question, ‘Where are you going for the holidays?’


At first, we feel a pang — the kind that sets in as we hug loved ones goodbye at airport security or watch their taxi pull away, only to remember we’re going home alone.

But then we become the lucky ones.

We get to watch the city boil down to its barest form. And, like a candle burning brighter as it melts away the wax, this empty New York becomes more radiant than ever.”

Quote from my friend Jo: 

I thought you might like this quote from a book I’m reading (Crossing Borders) by Sergio Troncoso a Mexican American writer who writes about his two cultures.

“I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.”

Lastly, my husband and I went to see the Star Wars movie last night. It is non-stop action, tension, and humor. The best line for me was this one: “You don’t win by fighting what you hate, but by saving what you love” said by a lovely new character – Rose.

And with that I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas. May it be a time of contemplation and joy that is much deeper than happiness. It’s hard to believe that 6 years ago I began writing. Thank you for reading, emailing, sharing, and making this into a space on the interwebz that doesn’t hurt the world.

With love to all of you,

Marilyn ♥️

Song by Bernie Herms / Mark Schultz / Mark Mitchell Schultz / Stephanie Lewis When Love Was Born lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc<<<<<<<<<<

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.

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.”

To the Weary Ones


No doubt you are up early. Whether traveling or staying at home, you have things to do, groceries to buy, errands to run, work to finish.

You love the season of Advent leading up to Christmas day, but you are so weary. The living room is finally clean, but the last few nights you have collapsed into bed in the room that has slowly and insistently collected all the clutter from the rest of the house.

The expectations. The stuff. The marketing – at first it’s fun, but as you face yet another long line at a store, you wonder what this is all about. Where is the magic of your childhood? How do you create wonder for your little ones? How do you remember the clichéd “reason for the season?” Even the phrase makes you weary and, if you’re completely honest, angry. Who thought up that stupid phrase anyway?

Coupled with that is the exhaustion you feel with social media. Everyone’s trees are better than yours – you knew that you needed more lights. And every time you turn around someone posts a news article about a tragedy. Your emotions range from sadness to guilt that you whine about your seemingly small problems and post pictures of the cookies you just made. Guilt, sadness, exhaustion all lump together like the wrapping paper and ribbon on your bedroom floor.

You wander sleepily into the living room and plug in the long extension cord. Immediately white lights flood the room, sparkling off ornaments collected through the years. In all your weariness, there is still the wonder and joy of Christmas lights.

Amy Grant sings “Tender Tenessee Christmas” from an old CD and you take a minute, a minute to sit, to reflect, to be quiet.

Sometimes a minute is all it takes to remember. To remember that Jesus came for and to a weary world; a world weary of tragedy and loss; weary of natural disasters and wars. A world weary of the stress of living and the sadness of dying.

The music and words of “Oh Holy Night” begin to play:”A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…”

A minute and a thrill of hope – somehow that is enough. You sigh and head into the day. There may not be magic, but there will be wonder and there will be hope – all is not lost.

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born

A Broken World Meets an Advent Season


A Pakistan International Airlines flight headed to Islamabad from a remote mountain area crashed on a mountain slope today. Before the plane hit the ground it burst into flames. There are no survivors.

A 6.5 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia has caused damage and killed over one hundred people. Rescue efforts are underway to search for survivors.

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 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. 

An Invitation to Wonder



a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.

We put up our Christmas tree last night. Within an hour and a half the room was transformed from chaotic and bland to sparkling brilliance. The ornaments reflect the white lights and the result is lovely.

Early this morning, sleepy-eyed and still in my pajamas, I went straight to the tree and plugged in the lights. Immediately, beauty filled the room inviting me to stop, inviting me to wonder.

Just a day before I began reading my friend Laura’s book of poetry called Give me the Word. It’s a slim volume, packed with beauty and depth. The first poem in the book made me pause and breathe slower, breathe easier.

“We have always been waiting, and not knowing, longing with tears for the One Who Comes.”

Through the pages of Laura’s book I received an invitation to stop and wonder, an invitation to wait expectantly.

Marketing all around me calls insistently, telling me that I won’t be complete unless I purchase this, buy that; convincing me that real love is things, that the way to show I care is by spending money.  But in a moment, words on a page and twinkling white lights invite me to more. They invite me to wonder.

Long ago on a rooftop in Pakistan, my mom had an invitation to wonder. She felt alone and forgotten, miles from family and friends. That night she experienced wonder through unexpected visitors. In the midst of the Sindh desert in Pakistan our friends arrived and sang carols at our door, their presence an offering of love. It was the wonder of friendship that went the extra mile, offering friendship and joy.  Every year I stop and remember this story, for it too is an invitation to wonder.

If we stop for a moment, we realize that all around us are invitations to wonder. 

In all this, I am reminded of words I wrote a couple of years ago, when reflecting on my favorite Christmas story: Christmas is not magic that can quickly disappear. Instead it’s wonder. It’s the wonder of the incarnation; it’s the wonder of God’s love; it’s the wonder of angels heard from rooftops.

Aunt Gracia and the White House Christmas Ornaments


Like so many others in the western world, we took down our tree this weekend. While there is much excitement and anticipation as we put it up, there is relief and refreshment as we take it down.

Trees that come into our homes fresh and green, begin to shed needles in abundance, branches hanging heavy like the arms of a tired, old lady. The ornaments no longer look beautiful, but sad and incongruous.

What was once beautiful was now tired and ready to go.

We took off the decorations and carefully wrapped them in crisp, tissue paper, placing them into a colorful Christmas container. Red, gold, and green glass balls were wrapped up as well, showing their colors through the transluscent paper.

The clay angels from our Cairo days, wooden Pakistani camels, small, knit stockings from Christmases gone by — all of that too was taken off shelves and packed up until next year.

And each year as we pack away Christmas I think about my Aunt Gracia and her gifts to us while she was still alive — White House Christmas ornaments.

Yearly the White House Historical Association, whose purpose is to “enhance the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the White House”offers a Christmas ornament through their museum shop. The association designs the ornament and it is only available through this venue.

For years my Aunt Gracia, my father’s oldest sister, volunteered at the White House. Among other things she would address cards to people for their birthdays or special events (I know you thought that the president himself sent you those special cards but – no, that’s not so. It was my Aunt Gracia.) And often her gifts to her nieces and nephews, of which she had an abundance, were White House Christmas Ornaments.

Delicate and framed in 24 karat gold, the ornaments are beauties.

There is the 1988 ornament – Children of the White House featuring President Jackson’s children. There is 1989 – the Bicentennial of the Presidency. 1994 shows soldiers standing at attention and is called “The Imperial Christmas” while 1995 goes for a patriotic theme with the white house flanked by two American flags. 1996 shows us an eagle on the Presidential Seal and 1997 gives us a larger view of the White House grounds. Others include Dolly Madison with an oval frame surrounding her; Abraham Lincoln in his characteristic “thinking” pose; a 200th anniversary edition in 2000; and a family’s first carriage ride in 2001.

The themes are endless. With their gold filagree and unique designs, these ornaments are works of art, heirlooms to be passed down for generations. 

There are times when it feels strange to me that I am so drawn to these ornaments. As a third culture kid and adult I have divided loyalties between countries, and the White House has never held particular interest to me, despite the decisions made daily in the oval office that affect our world.

But these ornaments? They are special. They are moveable pieces. They tell a story of Aunt Gracia, aunt to many nieces and nephews. Gracia, who lost her father at the awful age of 13, she the oldest in a family of five. Gracia Mae who lived in the nation’s capital for years, who lived alone for many of those years, but died surrounded by family who loved her. The ornaments remind me of my brother and sister-in-law who rearranged their home so that Aunt Gracia could live with them during her last weeks of life. Aunt Gracia, who kept up with all of us, who had an 80th birthday party attended by 75 friends and family where my mom read the poem “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple!” Gracia who chose a perfect gift for her nieces and nephews each year – White House Christmas ornaments.

In more recent years we have occasionally received ornaments from other family members hoping to continue the tradition. 2007 “A President Marries in the White House”; 2008 “A Victorian Christmas Tree”;  2012 where William Taft rides in a green automobile. Each time it was special, a time to reminisce and remember Aunt Gracia, thankful for this beautiful tradition.

So the ornaments have become one of our moveable pieces, a visual reminder of a beloved Aunt, a tangible, moveable piece to pass on.

So we packed up Christmas, and all the square boxes of different colors that hold these ornaments, grateful for our moveable pieces. They will always be visual reminders of a beloved Aunt; tangible evidence of her life and her love.

On Celebrating Nativity


Yesterday was Feast of the Nativity – our Orthodox Christmas. As people new to the Orthodox church, we are still learning how to walk between these dates and traditions. Our Protestant families celebrate the 25th of December and we will continue to do this. But along with that is a new celebration on the 7th of January. While December 25th held stockings, gifts, and a special Christmas dinner, January 7th is celebrated completely at the church.  We are celebrating with many others around the world who also celebrate the Nativity on this day.

We began Tuesday evening with a vigil preparing us for the celebration on the 7th. Beautiful troparions reminded us of the importance of this day, along with readings and scripture all pointing to the birth of our Lord.

Wednesday had us up and at the church by nine in the morning for Divine Liturgy. The icon of Mary giving birth, surrounded by angels and midwives was at the front of the church, surrounded by flowers. As I went to the front to venerate the icon I longed to stay longer, standing before that icon, thinking about the birth, remembering and honoring this woman, who all generations will call “blessed.” But the line behind me had grown and it wasn’t the time to stop.

I wish I could describe for you the beauty of these services. The candles casting a golden glow over icons, the hush and expectancy in the air, the choir to the right of the iconostasis, leading us in these words:

How is he contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? How held in his Mother’s arms, he who is in the Father’s bosom? This is all as he knows, as he wished and as he was well pleased. For being without flesh, willingly he was made flesh; and He Who Is, for our sake has become what he was not; without departing from his own nature he shared in our matter; wishing to fill the world on high, Christ was born in two natures.
-Kathisma from the Orthros of the Nativity of Christ

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the Eternal God is born as a little child (Kontakion).

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness and to know Thee, the Orient from on high . O Lord, glory to Thee! (Troparion).

I have often missed the Christmases of my youth; Christmas celebrations that contained so much more corporate worship. We always went to church on Christmas, celebrating with the Pakistani Christian minority, singing carols in Urdu at the top of our lungs accompanied by a harmonium. Miss Mall, a Punjabi woman with lungs as large as her personality would begin the songs when we lived in Larkana, others when we lived in Shikarpur. We were dressed in our very best, and “Barra Din Mubarak ho” was on the lips of everyone.

Our new traditions in the Orthodox church remind me of the community gatherings of my past, gathering to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We gather together in our best. We have been fasting together for six weeks, honoring the struggle as a community. We meet with the words “Christ is Born!” and we respond “Glorify Him!”  Who better to gather with than fellow Christians?

Yet in the west, our church celebrations have been replaced by the all important nuclear family. They become individualized, lacking community focus. It is nuclear families that gather, preferring ‘family’ time. But that leads to all kinds of sad. When nuclear families are struggling, when a teenager is not speaking to their parents, when family members decide against going to mom and dads, when divorce divides a family, it leaves people alone on Christmas. Alone to celebrate an event in history that even those who don’t believe acknowledge through the yearly calendar. For so many it has become a day marked by stress, debt, loneliness, and sadness. The individual has replaced the community and we are the sadder for it.

After Divine Liturgy, we eat a feast fit for a king, or at least a bishop. All the cheese, cream, and meat that we have fasted from in the past weeks is on the table in abundance. We fill our plates so high that half way through we laughingly acknowledge that we over estimated our ability through that age-old idiom “My eyes were bigger than my stomach!”

We left the church in the bitter cold of the day, heading into a world that was busy with the day’s work, business as usual. But despite this, the words of the troparion continued to go through my head – “Thy Nativity O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom….” 

This is Nativity. This is the celebration of the birth of our Lord.

The Importance of Moveable Pieces

foundation with quote

In a town in California, a small Serbian community gathers together on January 7th to celebrate Nativity — by shooting guns into the air. A short video taken from a news broadcast shows a community gathered, intent on keeping something from all that was lost, determined to keep traditions alive despite being a small diaspora. You hear the gun shots and laughter, see the pride on faces of community members — this is their time.

I have always been fascinated by communities of immigrants and how they make life work for them in new places. How they take pieces of their past and beautifully weave them into their present. I love the pride with which they share these traditions, set apart in a good way, confident in their collective identity though so much else is lost.

From shooting guns into the air on Nativity to making Lebkuchen on Christmas to curry dinners the day after Christmas, we take moveable pieces from those places we love and incorporate them into our new homes.

Where would we be without those moveable pieces? So much would be lost and moments of joy remembering what was would be absent.

Moveable pieces provide a thread of continuity through change. They offer tangible proof that what we had in the past was real and meaningful. Moveable pieces offer hope that our lives and hearts do not need to forget, rather they can remember with joy even as we move forward, resolute in our efforts to make a new life and new traditions.

Moveable pieces, though not made of brick or stone, are foundations that offer stability in the midst of change.

What are your moveable pieces? What things or traditions move with you, at the ready when you need them in your new home? 

Blogger’s note: I remember my mom telling me that in a life of movement, you need to pack things in your suitcase that can provide a sense of home wherever you are. I always packed a few framed pictures and candle sticks, so that the minute we arrived we would  have something tangible that said “We’re here. We can do this.” Moveable pieces.

Picture Credit: word art by Marilyn R. Gardner

A New Christ Candle

candle for suffering

A New Christ Candle by Robynn

A New Year

As you might remember each year when Christmas is over and the tree is dragged down the street to where the dead trees go (to become fish habitat in streams or mulch for gardens) and the ornaments are wrapped in tissue paper and put back in their boxes, I deliberately keep out my Christ candle.

I light it when the worries are too consuming and I need to remember that Christ is here. I light it when the world is in shambles— I light it when my friends are hurting. I light my Christ candle when I fear for my own children. I light it for myself too. Sometimes the sorrow is too great. Sometimes the sadness threatens to steal all joy. Sometimes my own weaknesses, my own sins, my own selfishness consume me. Sometimes I worry, I fret, I fear. Anxiety and panic dance on the edges of my sanity. I light it then. I deliberately recollect that Jesus is very near, he is Emmanuel, God with us. The waiting is over. I can breathe. I can trust. I can rest. The flickering flame repeats these seemingly fragile truths back to my knowingly fragile soul and I am comforted.

2014 gave me plenty of opportunity to keep my Christ Candle lit. It was a difficult year from start to finish: from sickness to death, from pain in our family to pain in the world, from Colorado street to Houston street, from January to December. On many many days when it all seemed too much I would light my candle and bring to mind the nearness of Christ.

But last week, in a stolen quiet moment on Christmas morning, I lit the new waxed-over wick. I felt hope and relief. His mercies were new for Christmas morning. Flickerings of joy were fanned in me. The wait was over. Christ is here.

I’ll leave this candle out this year too. It serves as a reminder that while the wait is over we keep on watching. When 2015 overwhelms, as 2013 and 2014 have each done, I’ll light the candle again and remember Christ’s proximity, his presence.

It is time for 2014 to be done. It nearly was my undoing. There were so many challenges and changes; sorrows and sadnesses. I’m burying 2014 under the deep white snow of redemption. Covered. Blanketed. It’s boxed and labeled and put in the basement for storage. My Christ candle lasted through each season. The reassuring flame burned all year long. But I’m ever so ready for a fresh year, a new candle, a new dose of grace and hope and purpose. It’s time.

Christ came for years like 2014. Christ came for our sorrows. Christ came for my children’s disappointments. Christ came for quiet morning moments and for loud evening celebrations. He came to bring us to the Father who loves us well. We lift our hearts to him. Hearts full of 2014’s residual griefs — Ferguson, Syria, Peshawar, Christmas week tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, funerals, fallen families, break ups, brokenness. We move into this new year with trepidation. We choose faith in the face of fear. We choose forgiveness instead of bitterness. We choose love in the face of resentment and hatred.

With a new year comes new hope, new grace, new opportunities, new chances to choose joy. The new year brings new purpose, new lessons, new manna, new narratives, new stories. We can pray new prayers. We can try our hand at new things. We can enter new habits. We can find new peace in our new troubles, new hope in our new distresses, new joys in the midst of our new sorrows.

The old has gone, the new is here!

“But forget all that—Forget about what’s happened;

don’t keep going over old history. Be alert, be present.

it is nothing compared to what I am going to do.

For I am about to do something new….something brand-new!

See, I have already begun! It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?

There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,

I will make a pathway through the wilderness.

I will create rivers in the dry wasteland,

rivers in the badlands.

(Isaiah 43:18-19 NLT&The Message)

“How did it get so late so soon?”

pocket watch with Seuss quote

The house is dark as I get up and make my way to the kitchen, bleary-eyed, knowing I need coffee.

It has been nonstop people, meals, dishes, talk, games, presents, more tea, more talk, more games, more presents, and more tea. Thank God for tea.

And it is wonderful and exhausting, but mostly wonderful.

I try hard to be quiet as I get ready, but the minute I put on my heeled boots, the click click click on the wooden floor sounds loud, echoes across the darkened house. I put on the Christmas tree lights, longing to sit for just a minute but I’ve been off work for a while now and I need to get back.

I pull my thick coat close to my body, a scarf wrapped tightly around my neck. The warm of the past few days has given way to the seasonal cold and I feel it. My neighborhood is still asleep and the Hanukkah lights of some neighbors radiate blue into the morning sky.

Inside our home it is still festive, full of light and Christmas with frosted cookies still on the dessert menu, their red and green slowly getting grainy. But outside it is business as usual. All around me is evidence of a society ready to close out Christmas and pull people in for end of the year sales.

Christmas has ended. It is being packed up, put into tissue paper like fragile ornaments. Wreaths and ribbons are slowly taken down, the lights rolled up, and soon we will see Christmas trees put out on sidewalks, their boughs casting sharp, green needles all over the ground.

I’m not ready. During Christmas we give ourselves the gift of time. Time to curl up and read. Time to play games. Time to have long breakfasts and dinners. Time to talk. That’s one of the gifts of Christmas — time.  I’m not ready to pack that gift away. I’m not ready to get back into a busy schedule, slave to deadlines and projects. In the words of the sage children’s author, Dr. Seuss, I wonder:

“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”

When I was a kid, time felt so slow. I would wait in anxious anticipation for everything from Christmas to a boy asking me to sit with him and exchange furtive glances. Time took forever. Now I wonder how it got so late so soon. 

So I walk, bundled up, to the subway, thinking all these thinks, pausing for a minute to speak words of gratitude for time to the One who is timeless.

Picture Credit: word art Marilyn R. Gardner

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

In my faith tradition traditionally December 25th is celebrated as Western Christmas. (Stay tuned for more on Eastern Christmas or Nativity.)

In our family, this has never been a time just for gifts and extravagance in everything from material goods to food. Instead it has been a time to remember the birth of someone we believe changed the world — from the calendar we use to the Church to the individual.

I am so grateful for you, the readers of Communicating Across Boundaries. You’ve read, commented, purchased Between Worlds, and offered your generosity in so many ways. We in this space come from many different faith traditions and beliefs. Thank you for graciously reading and responding to my beliefs, communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture. You have made this space what it is today.

As I sit beneath a Christmas tree, with colorful lights twinkling brightly, I am incredibly grateful for an extended family that spans continents, for the gift of five amazing kids who offer their unique selves to the world in various ways, to Holy Resurrection, a church that has lovingly embraced our family, to my husband who shares my love for people and the world and enters into life with a unique passion that is passed on to all he meets.

And I am grateful to the Word made flesh, “Only Begotten Son, Immortal Word of God. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven….”*

See you in the New Year! And there’s still time to purchase Between Worlds before 2015! OH YES THERE IS!! 

*Hymn of the Incarnation sung at each Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church.

Reflect & Remember


It’s a Sunday afternoon and I am sitting on the couch, feet curled up under me and a cat by my side. The decorated Christmas tree with its lights twinkling and ornaments shiny is in front of me, soft Christmas music in the back ground. I chuckle inside – my life is never like a magazine….but this feels magazine-like. (Other than the fact that my family thinks that anything less than 25 books on a coffee table is a sin….)

I have a few minutes of quiet. Tonight will bring a crowd to our house with our annual Christmas open-house, but right now it’s quiet and I love it. In the quiet I think about the past weeks since I returned from Turkey. It has been a rush of activity at home and work. There has been little time to reflect and remember.

But right here, right now — I reflect and remember. I remember a year ago and some of my worries, how now they are resolved and no longer burdens to me, no longer heavy backpacks on my journey. I remember some of the uncertainty of last year, now no longer uncertain. I think of the growth that has taken place in myself and those around me. And I think of the pain mixed with joy — always present, simply a part of living in our broken world.

It’s good to remember. I’ve said it many times in my blog; I echo it in my book. This season, before New Year’s comes with it’s bang and pop, take a few minutes to remember. Write down what worried you a year ago and see if today it might feel a fraction easier. To be sure there are new worries, but if we look the way of the past we see grace woven through the journey.

So I sit by a beautiful tree, grateful for a few moments to reflect and remember. Because there can be strength in remembering.

“But first, remember,remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain. the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the sign which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay not attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” CS Lewis in The Silver Chair from the Chronicles of Narnia Series


Buy Between Worlds. Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging  a set of essays on living between worlds today. The book is divided into 7 sections and each section is illustrated by my talented daughter – Annie Gardner. Home, Identity, Belonging, Airports, Grief & Loss, Culture Clash, and Goodbyes set the stage for the individual essays within each section.

Between Worlds is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The Perfect Christmas Present to give your Child This Year!


The Perfect Christmas Present to give your Child This Year! By Robynn

The children’s pastor and his assistant at our church have been running a competition of sorts. Write down the perfect Christmas present a parent can give a kid on a piece of paper. Stick it in the box. The winner who accurately guesses gets a prize. I didn’t know what the answer they were looking for was, but I suspect it wasn’t an Xbox 360. (That’s what I wrote down!) On Saturday we received a letter in the mail revealing the Perfect Christmas Present! For those married the answer is your marriage. For the single parents it was time. Strengthening your marriage is vital. It’s an important gift. Spending time with your child is also key. But are time and marriage the most perfect present out there that you could give your kid?

I think not. The answer should have been:  “A Nap!” –and by that I don’t mean put your kids down for a nap…. no I mean, as a parent, take a nap! That’s the best thing you can do for your kids this year.

I’m serious!

When your children are young taking a nap is like a well-coordinated, oft-rehearsed magic trick. First you have to get everyone’s needs met–little people must be fed, faces and hands must be washed, diapers and pottying must be taken care of. You have to use quiet movements and a gentle voice. Under no circumstances can you at all convey your desperation or your secret agenda. You have to pretend there’s nothing really at stake. Nothing’s going on. It’s no big deal. Should the stars align, and all three of your children actually fall asleep, or find quiet corners of the house apart from one another to allow the sleeping ones to stay asleep and the waking ones to not destroy each other or the games they quietly play, you can, again nonchalantly, disappear to your pillow and hope against hope that your brain and your bladder cooperate long enough for you to actually fall asleep. When it happens….if it ever happens…it’s pure magic!

When your children are older you can declare your intentions. I usually use a loud threatening voice, “I’m going to take a nap. You need to be quiet. DO NOT wake me up. No fighting. Turn the volume down. Don’t be obnoxious!” I usually repeat, “DO NOT wake me up,” a couple of times. Then I lie on my bed, sticking ear plugs in my ears, I close my eyes and think sleepy thoughts. I take a nap.

You might wonder why a nap for yourself is the best gift you can give your child! Naps help facilitate the other really great gift kids long for: presence. Your child wants you to be there, to be present, to be attentive. They want time with you. They really aren’t looking for anything else. All you have to do is show up. It sounds simple but anyone whos ever had to cook dinner and host Christmas and shop for Aunt Sue and not forget to bring the treats for Sunday School this week and find the wrapping paper and decorate for the office party and track down the recipe for eggless eggnog and clean up the dog’s mess and vacuum the front room and drive the daughter to work and dust the family room and turn in the forms for the youngest’s IEP and get the Christmas cards in the mail—anyone who’s ever had all that and more on the brain understands it’s not that simple.

It’s hard to tune out the thousands of distractions. It’s hard to set your phone down. It’s hard to resist the urge to pick it up the second it zimmers and vibrates. It’s nigh impossible to resist the temptation to just quick see who it is. At the end of a long day, it’s tough to turn off the tv, or to mute the volume. All you want is a few moments of peace. It’s difficult to take the headphones off, to turn the podcast off.

Both of our older kids are in choir. The choir teacher at Manhattan High school, Mr Chad Pape, at every concert says something like this, “All the research shows that whatever influence their peers or their teachers have, no one has greater influence on your kid than the loving adults who live with them. So thank you for coming tonight. Please turn off your phones and your ipods. From the stage your kids can see the lighted screens light up your nose and they know that you really don’t care.” He says the same thing every time. And he’s right.

My kids can see my distractions. They know if I’m listening or not. When Bronwynn was little she’d tell me stories, long elaborate stories of dreams she’d had, or of pretend happenings or of real life adventures she hoped to have. While she talked I’d emit little listening sounds, “ahh”, “oh”, “mm mmm”. Many times she’d stop me and say, “Mommy use words. Don’t mmmm. Use words.” She wanted to know I heard her. Even then, she knew the difference between a distracted mind and an engaged heart.

Taking a nap helps you be the parent you need to be. With little kids you desperately need energy and enthusiasm, strength and stamina. A nap helps make that possible. When your kids are older you need to be available. Teenagers rarely talk when you have time or the space in your schedule or questions. Teenagers talk later. Usually closer to their bedtime. Usually past your bedtime. Taking a nap gives you the oomph to stop moving, to look them in the eyes, to slow down your quest for the day to be over, to be there.

It’s not going to happen every day, obviously. You work. You have things to do. Life doesn’t allow for such luxuries. But whenever you get the chance, take it. Don’t think it’s selfish, don’t think you don’t have time. Make it happen when you can. Taking care of yourself in these little ways helps you take care of others. It’s the same wisdom behind the Flight Attendant’s “Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping those around you.”

If you normally exchange gifts at Christmas time, I wouldn’t recommend wrapping up a note that says, “Mommy gets a Nap!” and giving that to your sweet progeny! (Not unless you’ve got a therapy fund already started!) Wrap up the blocks, or the Frozen DVD, or the Vera Bradley backpack, the new jeans, the box of chocolates, or the American Eagle sweatshirt. Watch their joy as they delight in the gift you gave them. And then later while they’re enjoying their new games and toys sneak off and get them the thing they really want: take a nap!

(Come to think of it, taking a nap contributes to the answers Pastor Chris and Chris suggested. Naps make marriage work better and naps allow you to make time for your kids!)

A Ten-Dollar Coupon and My Poverty of Soul

ten dollar coupon

The ten-dollar coupon had grown hot in my hand. Literally. I was clutching it tightly. I was doing something I have never done: Arriving at Macy’s at seven in the morning, at the ready for the Big.Sale.

Truth is – I had only just realized Macy’s was having a Big.Sale. The coupon and the sale had been simultaneously discovered. If there’s a coupon, that means you need something, right?


I had limited time and I could feel my body growing hot with frustration. This sweater? No. That one? The blue one is pretty, I have too much black. Oh – I can’t buy that one! That’s only twelve dollars and I’m supposed to spend twenty-five in order to get the coupon. Frustration rising I picked out a sweater and began heading to the cashier. The cashier was nowhere to be found – it was after all seven in the morning…..

And right there in the aisle where glitter and sequins met designer jeans, I stopped, assaulted by the irony.

Earnestly shopping for something I didn’t need because I had a coupon. With a rueful sigh I put the sweater on the nearest rack I could find, and there it sat – a bright, blue miserable reminder among all the black, gold, and red glitter of seasonal items.

I headed toward the exit, stopping only to give the coupon away. The woman smiled at me gratefully — who doesn’t love a deal.

The sorry truth of who I was and how I was behaving felt like the 25 degree Farenheit temperature and wind that whipped my face as I stepped outside. It felt icy cold and I wanted to escape.

All for a ten-dollar coupon. Wasted time and sick in my soul, I felt all of it acutely.

It’s my own hypocrisy, my own poverty of soul that slaps me in the face like icy weather. I am so dang good at pointing out the flaws in our society, in other Christians, in America in general (for the arguably big baby that it is). But at the end of the day, the only person I can change is myself.

I think about this season – Advent, Christmas, Nativity, Holiday. The season of Advent differs profoundly from the “Holiday Season” as celebrated in the Western world. Advent brings waiting, hope, and a promise. The holiday season brings coupons, stress, frustration, and poverty of soul.

How do I continually bring myself back to Advent?  It starts today with giving up a sweaty ten-dollar coupon and admitting the poverty in my soul. Tomorrow it may mean something else. But today is what I have.

What about you? Have you ever found yourself with a coupon that grew hot in your hand? How do you separate Advent and Christmas from the Holiday Season? 

Picture Credit:

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We found Baby Jesus

The night before Thanksgiving we found Baby Jesus. He was in a box of toys that we took down for two small favorites of ours – the kids of our friends Eric and Lara. In a medium-sized box, scrambled among small and medium sized dolls, there was Baby Jesus.

When we took out the felt Nativity set last year we realized that Baby Jesus was missing. We looked everywhere for him without success. The Nativity set had been in our family since Cairo days. It was a perfect set for a family with five children. Made of bright colored felt and yarn, nothing could break. We had enjoyed the set since our third year in Cairo. So when we couldn’t find Baby Jesus we were distressed.

We looked everywhere but Baby Jesus was not to be found.

So when the kids found him on Wednesday evening we were overjoyed. He was safe in his manger, his felt body tucked in among hay made of wheat colored yarn. We separated him and put him on a shelf, away from the other dolls and toys, safe and ready to be placed with his mom, his dad, the shepherds, wisemen, angels, and all the animals.

The world felt right.

But in truth – we had forgotten that we had misplaced him. He was after all, only a little baby, and a felt one at that. And it got me thinking about the times when I misplace Jesus. When I put him where he’s not supposed to be, when I forget where I put him, when I forget all about him. We lost Jesus over a year ago but we haven’t thought much about that. We’ve just kept on with our lives and ended up pleasantly surprised when he popped up the way he did.

This is after all only a felt baby Jesus – not the real Jesus.

But the analogy holds. Sometimes I misplace Jesus. Sometimes I forget him. Even during Christmas – which is technically supposed to be his big day, I misplace him in lights and ornaments, in wrapping paper and expectation.

And sometimes I want to keep him a baby surrounded by wooden, or felt, or clay people and animals because he is safe that way. If I let the baby grow up, he could place demands on me that I’m not sure I want. He could ask me to enter into a life that I’d rather not have. He could change me in ways I’d never dreamed.

But the baby did grow up. He could never stay confined to the cradle, instead he grew up and changed people in ways they’d never dreamed. So now I can’t be content to leave him in the cradle, much less a toy box – he’s too small, too fragile there. I desperately need him to not be confined to the cradle, to love me, to see me as I really am and to change me. I need him to be who he has been all along – Emmanuel, God with us, Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, and Everlasting Father.

And all of this because we found Baby Jesus in a box of toys. Go figure.