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?’

Nowhere.

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 ♥️

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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.”

To the Weary Ones

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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

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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

won·der

/ˈwəndər/
noun

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.