It’s a bit faded, but that’s to be expected after twenty three years. The message on the inside was just these handwritten words: Don’t know why we thought of you when we saw this card? I doubt Rick and Carol Lansill had any idea how much I’d enjoy it. It’s amazing how something so small, bought on a whim, could have such an impact.
It’s not just the humor I love, or the what I assume was a fashion photo repurposed. Or that it’s printed on recycled paper. Or that when dear friends saw someone plotting, I came to mind. It’s the notion that what might appear to be an accident might really be by design.
These days, this card comes to mind every morning, when I say this line of Philaret’s morning prayer: In unforeseen events, help me to remember that all things are sent by thee.
I’m not one for ascribing to God every little thing, good or difficult, that happens to me. But as I get older, I am convinced that whatever comes my way has the potential to draw me closer to God, and to an even deeper sense of love and compassion for my neighbor. Most especially those things that appear accidental.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. John 1:9
From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, taking an evening stroll through my neighborhood is a joy. Christmas tree lights offer color and sparkle. Santas and snowmen – light-up, blow-up, and of the hard plastic variety – populate front yards. Wreaths and garlands hang on doors, illuminated by porch lights. And in the windows, candles.
Most of those things disappear within a few days of December giving way to January. But this year, the candles remain. As if by some spiritual consensus, the candles shine through window panes still, offering light in the darkness for whomever happens to pass by. These candles don’t offer light selectively, they illuminate the path for everyone and anyone.
What a simple, faithful truth these candles reveal: the true light is for everyone, no exceptions. You, me, and everyone else. If that isn’t a sure sign of hope and love, what is?
Three tiny bikers on a metal rail, pedaling on their way to work – or so I imagine. Wrapped up in their own little world but aware enough to take into consideration air quality and cardiac health, they push the pedals up and down. Going forward, do they notice one of earth’s greatest natural wonders just to the right of their handlebars?
On my more cynical days, I’d say this postcard is an accurate depiction of human existence: aware and perhaps even considerate in the small sense, but oblivious to the vastness of the universe we inhabit in the biggest sense. That’s a John Calvin, radical sinfulness slant.
On my better days, I’d say this postcard is an accurate depiction of human existence: knowing how small we are in this vast and glorious cosmos, and taking what steps we can to bless our little part of it. The grandeur of the universe is just beyond our handlebars, and we get the chance to see it every day in something as simple as a bicycle ride to work.
Here’s to better days.
They come and go, tucked in envelopes or tucked under the ribbons of a present: cards. Birthday, Sympathy, New Baby!, Anniversary, Thank You, Thinking of You, and so many more arrive at and depart from this place I call home. Sure, some are forgettable in word and image; but others are amazing – wisdom and beauty in words and individually wrapped art work. They brighten my bookcases and hold my place in books. I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you.
Feel free to do the same with me!
I was beyond the reach of data and cell towers, so I didn’t find out until hours later. Yesterday, two weeks after his son died, Ben the Elder followed him into God’s embrace.
Ben and his wife were my family’s first neighbors in Wareham, 2002. Quiet, gentle, with the gift of repairing broken things, his skill and humor graced the world. He and his son built the cedar benches that offer rest in the library’s learning garden, a study in sturdiness and simple beauty. Like him, they have made life better without fanfare or flash.
Yesterday, I stood with my husband and younger son on the lower part of Mount Greylock. Flurry clouds obscured a distant mountain, offering only the barest glimpse of a dim and smoky outline. All three of us knew it was there, not one of us could discern its true form. Yet, the mountain, even shrouded, was as real and solid as anything on this earth.
I see Ben in that image, in that moment in time. Quiet. Solid. His life not lost, merely obscured by my limited vision and vantage point.
The multi-colored lights still hang off the front edge of my roof, and nets of the same still blanket the shrubs below. My Christmas tree is up, and there are still things underneath it. Most of the gifts have found their way into their permanent places, but a few boxes and baskets remain – to the great delight of my two cats who relish sleeping in them. That this is the state of things on January 15th is strange – Christmas is usually stowed in the attic a couple of days past Epiphany.
But this isn’t a usual year. Pandemic deaths and hospitalizations are at record levels; there are thousands of National Guard soldiers camped in the Capitol, and a threat of violence hangs over the capitols of all fifty states; the deaths of my father-in-law and a dear friend brought loss and sharp-edged grief into our everyday lives which cannot be marked and lessened with shared prayers, services, and meals. There’s a heaviness to this time weighing on my body, mind, and soul: is that why the tree still stands? I can’t say.
This morning, I opened the curtains, fed the cats, and greeted the light of a new day. Looking at the tree and all the work it represents, something shifted. Instead of boxing ornaments and lights as quickly as possible, I’m going to turn the take down into a spiritual practice. I’ll remember the Christmases past that each ornament represents; I’ll remember holiday gatherings with my father-in-law, Bob, and be grateful for his presence. I’ll recall the Christmas day that Ben and his wife Lena dropped by – and the laughs we shared over the mess of Matchboxes, Legos, wrapping paper, and ribbon that surrounded us. When all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas 2020 are gone, I’ll do something I haven’t had the heart to do yet: give Bob and Ben back to God with love and gratitude.
As for life beyond my own door: I can’t cure the pandemic, but I can certainly make sure I’m doing my part to lessen its damage; I can’t prevent mob violence, but I can do my part to act firmly and wisely, and avoid embittering and embarrassing others.
Love God, love self, and love neighbor. It shouldn’t surprise me that it comes down to this once again. But sometimes, it does.
Yesterday, my son and I took a walk on a local Land Trust trail. Half a mile through the leafy trek, we found ourselves standing on one side of what used to be a train bridge. The bridge itself was nothing but a few re-barred pilings jutting out of a slow-moving stream. A trail sign informed us that we were on the remains of a passenger line that stopped carrying riders in 1953. Ahead of us, a straight tunnel through the pines with no visible end; behind us, the fallen pine needles a red carpet hallway stretching through the woods. We were standing in a one-point perspective painting incarnate.
When we looked right, marsh grass divided the stream, obscuring whatever lay beyond the immediate hundred yards. I195 spanned the water a hundred yards and a glance to the left. Cars flashed across the bridge, their drivers as unaware of this old train line as they were of our presence on it.
A short drive and a walk through the woods: a serene path, railroad history, marshland life, and modern transportation all visible from a single spot. This vantage point offered something unique, something that couldn’t be found anywhere else: the gift of being in a particular place, at a particular time, with a particular companion.
What a moment of grace and peace, offering strength to face these politically and pandemically challenging days.
Unreality is the enemy of the spiritual life. Living in a false reality, denying what is – they rob us of the blessings that the present offers. They also make it difficult if not impossible to change the things that diminish life on this planet. When an individual chooses a false narrative, a lessening of the spirit is inevitable; when that false narrative becomes communal and is not challenged, the results can be tragic. Even deadly.
Yesterday, Donald Trump chose to incite violence because he could not and would not accept political defeat. He gave permission for his most radical followers to disrupt the peaceful transition of power and called it patriotism. A woman died – the dire consequence of unleashing powers no one can fully control.
This event didn’t just happen. Trump’s refusal to accept defeat, even after the many lawsuits and objections to the outcome had failed, was humored by too many who hold political power and media platforms. Now we know what harm it caused, and we will learn in the coming months how much harm it might continue to bring.
In a time when so many have died from a virus, we can’t afford to live in unreality. Our words matter, our actions matter, our willingness to accept reality matters. Let’s hope those with a microphone, a camera, a pen, and a voice choose them very carefully.
Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
For years, whenever I pulled my refrigerator out to clean the coils and scrub away the grime that had grown under it, Ben would knock on the door – an instance of synchronicity the universe created not because it was of great significance, but because it was funny. Ben’s knack for laughing at life’s quirkiness turned those many encounters into fond memories.
Ben could tell a good story. Whether it was about his childhood, how he met his wife, Lena, or the many adventures he had on Buzzard’s Bay and ski slopes, Ben shared the people and events of his life with a light touch. The humor in his tales was never at someone else’s expense.
My son, Jared, learned to walk at his beach house because he and his wife let us stay there for the first month we lived in Wareham. He brought several of my relatives out on the water to see his oyster farm; he brought oysters and patience to a couple dozen preschoolers as part of a summer program; he and his father built the benches and planters in the public library’s learning garden – a gift of skill and beauty that makes life in Wareham a little bit richer.
Today, Ben left this life he loved. He leaves behind a loving family and good friends. He returns to God sooner than I’d imagined or hoped. Thank you, Ben, for sharing your life with me and my family. What a precious gift you’ve been to me and mine. And to the world.
2020 was tough. There were blessings, yes, but they tended to be difficulties that turned into learning opportunities. Death surrounded us, on the news and in our home towns. Political unrest and a lot of anger – some righteous, some not – was on full display. The flaws in our imperfect governing institutions and the limitations of those working within them had tangible and almost immediate attention and effect. 2021 might be here, but 2020 lingers in our pandemic-caused isolation and the mounting death toll across the country. There is no quick (re)solution and we remain in an alternate social reality still.
What about 2021? It’s starting with loss, but also hope for a healthier national reality. The patience required to stay vigilant until vaccines are universally available just might translate into a willingness to look for long-term, more permanent strides toward racial and gender equality. Grief at the loss of so many loved ones may turn into an abiding compassion for the suffering of all people – those close by and those flung far across the globe.
Perhaps spending so much time at home will move us to get our houses in order – to let go of what doesn’t matter and to love what does. Such an endeavor isn’t exactly a typical New Year’s resolution, but it seems like a good way to enter this new year.
May God’s peace abide with you in all circumstances, and may you be God’s peace for others. Amen.