Peace & the Second Sunday in Advent

Today is the second Sunday in Advent. The four advent candles, for the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, stand for hope, peace, joy and love. Every week in this season of waiting we light another candle. The world gets a little brighter and we think on these things: what it is to hope, what a hope of peace looks like, how it is to feel joy, and the great love we believe God showed us in becoming human to be one of us.

Candles & LEDS - the oldest and newest light sources
Candles & LEDS – the oldest and newest light sources

This weekend my family prepared ourselves for Christmas. We selected the tree. We brought down the boxes of ornaments. We hung one advent calendar and filled a second one with Hershey’s Kisses. We played The Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” and Roger Whittaker’s Christmas Album. We told the children the stories of the ornaments as we hung them: the sad stories, the funny stories, the happy stories. We discussed optimal ornament hanging strategies, and enjoyed the new LED lights we got with purple instead of pink making the tree significantly less orangy this year than last year. We watched Scooby Doo in a fit of nostalgia brought on by Thane’s Scooby Doo ornament, and the children were shocked to discover that it is actually pretty good.

Decorator and decoratee
Decorator and decoratee

Our halls decked, Adam and I decamped to my holiday Christmas party where I got to sing on the stage at the House of Blues, which was something I didn’t know was on my bucket list until I was standing under the bright lights singing.

All dressed up with somewhere to go
All dressed up with somewhere to go

I love this time of year so much. And I think what I love most about it is that it’s a joyous contradiction. It’s the season of lights, but instead of bright 100 watt bulbs we light our homes with, with have tiny 13 lumen candleflames. It’s the season of warmth as we turn up collars and look to the first snow-commute-disaster of the year. (Tomorrow, according to one report I read!) It’s a time busy with parties and cookies and cards and caroling and…. but it’s also a time of year when we slow down a little. We sit a little and look at the lights. This year I’m feeling the magic of the season in full force. Perhaps it’s because this year for the first time my children are full collaborators in the creation and appreciation of the time apart. We shall see.

Peace is a rare commodity in this world. The world keeps throwing up sorrows. Just this week, one of my friends was dead for two hours when his heart stopped Thanksgiving night. And blocks from my work, in the blink of an eye sixty people became homeless as their Christmas trees went up in a grand conflagration. In Aleppo, the last voices of the crushed citizens are going silent. Where is the peace? And if I find it in the walls of my own house, with my family and my tree and my Christmas music, well… should I? What right do I have to peace when so many live without it?

But then we come back to that first candle. I still cannot believe that despite two hours without a pulse, my friend was saved. (He just posted a hilarious status update “In my defense, I was dead at the time.”) Through a miracle past knowing, no one was killed or seriously injured in a fire that called firefighters from 20 neighboring towns. There’s no silver lining for Aleppo, but there is a sliver of hope at Standing Rock, where the Army Corps has decided to find a safer route.

The peace we have comes from the hope, not from the existing perfection. And we look forward to joy – the rarest of emotions – and to love, the foundation stone for our lives.

Christmas in a troubled time

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

We have seen a great light
We have seen a great light

Growing up in the 90s set my expectations unrealistically with regard to how much tumult and warfare I might expect during my life. There was this brief shining moment where we hand only a few small combats going on – and those seemed from my privileged perspective to be minor and easily resolved. The economy was good, feminism was working, the Cold War had been won, we weren’t talking about racism (it seemed like a problem of the past) and we’d finally found a way to treat AIDS. Clearly everything was only going to get better from there on out!

I think I know the day I lost my innocence about that. I was in the car, driving to a special youth symphony rehearsal on the streets of Tacoma. I had NPR on, as I always did. I think both Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me had wrapped up for the day. (I liked to joke I was getting my NPR PHD.) I was 17. And there was a breaking bulletin that Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. Because I followed the news so closely and diligently I knew what that meant for the Oslo Peace accords. I – like so many others – originally assumed it was Palestinian terrorists. I still don’t understand why someone hated peace so much they’d kill their own leader. That moment both broke my heart and shattered my illusions about how the world was trending. It’s telling (to me at least) that it’s the moment where I remember where I was.

This time of year is one of my favorite times. I slow down from the insanity of my Fall and drink deeply of the music, the lights, the decorations, the crazy traditions we didn’t realize would become traditions the first time we did them. I look through a year’s worth of happy moments recorded on camera. I write my Christmas cards – each one a breath of prayer for the beloved person who will receive it (incanted several times as I address, write and prepare the cards). I buy too much stuff for my kids, and cuddle with my husband on the couch while we argue about whether the Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” or Roger Whittaker’s Christmas Album is superior. (Duh – obvious answer there!)

But this year I have had more trouble than usual finding my Christmas zen. When it seems as though I might just slip into the joy of the season, there’s a bombing, a shooting, a story of refugees. We are deep into the volume of violence and war that seemed to start that November day in 1995. My spirit feels dry, my back hurts, and I can’t help but think that my sons will have a less innocent innocence than I got in my childhood. We never had an active shooter drill in our school. But Grey is the same age as the children gunned down in Sandy Hook who never got to walk to school by themselves.

As I was thinking through this depressing litany (which I’ve now shared with you – you’re welcome), I wondered if I was depressed. You know, the whole “usual activities bring you less pleasure”. Having carefully considered the question – I’m pretty sure I’m not. I’m just pretty sure that this is a time where a responsibly informed person can reasonably feel pretty bummed on a regular basis.

I was reading my usual list of advice columnists today, and there were two different letters from people saying that they were having a hard time enjoying life with all the suffering that was going on. That’s truly a pity – all our challenges included we have the highest standard of living for the most people that’s ever existed in the history of our species. I wonder if we’re designed to hope in adversity and worry in plenty. I know some people take social media holidays to hide from the onslaught – but I love the people I interact with every day on my many social media channels.

What can counter the malaise of being responsibly informed? One of the advice columnists recommended service to others. I think that’s a wise response. I also think that active gratitude can help. It really is hard to stay blue while you write your Christmas letters to the people you love. I have a hunch that exercise would really help me (I swear my butt hurts from too much sitting – yet all the things I really want to do involve sitting and most of them involve a computer).

Are you finding this true for yourself? Is this year harder to find the joy in? Is this just because I’m getting older and losing my sense of wonder? How do you push past trauma and horror and incivility and unkindness and find light and warmth and joy in the darkness? Where do you lift your eyes to see the light?

Liturgically Red Winter

Thaxted

Three years ago, in December, I stood in the sanctuary I was raised in, confirmed in, married in. I was dressed in red, and slung my trumpet up to play “Thaxted” (from Holst’s planets). It was in celebration of a rare sacrament – a once in a life sacrament. My brother was being ordained, and the spirit of the Lord was with him as it was in Pentecost.

On January 3rd, I will stand once again in that century-old sanctuary with the view of Mt. Rainier. I will be dressed in red. I will sling my trumpet once more, and play Thaxted. It will again be for a once-in-life ceremony. My brother and his bride will become husband and wife on that day.

My l33t photography skills failed to get a single picture of them with all their eyes open, but you get the idea.
My l33t photography skills failed to get a single picture of them with all their eyes open, but you get the idea.

Guys, that’s pretty awesome. I’ve had the chance to meet my brother’s intended (who has been patient enough to put up with me calling her my “sister-in-law-elect”). She’s fantastic. I could go into details, but that would probably be bragging on my part. Let’s just say that she’s a Space Lawyer (working on becoming a Space Doctor because just one 7 year degree isn’t enough) and – best of all – she loves my brother. Also, I’m currently batting 1000 for her bringing me donuts when she comes. And there’s an extremely cute Beagle that comes into the family with the ceremony.

I’m really looking forward to spending the Holiday Interregnum with my family, in Washington State. That weekend ordination aside, we don’t all make it home for Christmas very often. (My parents, souls of gracious practicality that they are, encourage us to come home for Camp Gramp instead, which is at our convenience.) We’ll be there for about 10 days, with a mix of chillaxing, weddinging, taking off with my own husband, staying together and generally being a family. The older I get, the more I appreciate both the family of my birth, and the combined family of my married life. It seems rare to luck out on both sides!

So a little googling reveals that there’s actually a lovely wedding hymn set to Thaxted. I’ll leave you with this lovely thought:

We pledge to one another,
before the Lord above,
entire and whole and perfect,
this union of our love ā€”
a love that will be patient,
a love that will be wise,
that will not twist with envy,
nor lose itself in lies;
a love that will not falter,
a love to hold us fast,
and bind us to each other
as long as life shall last.

We pray that God will guide us
through all the years to be,
our lives be shaped by courage,
hope and serenity.
Through joy and celebration,
through loneliness and pain,
may loyalty, compassion
and tenderness remain,
that those who share the blessing
of love that cannot cease
may walk the paths of gentleness
into the place of peace.

(Youtube for those of you who can’t immediately come up with the hymn tune… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2rednwDOd8)

With iron pen and with lead

Family portrait
Family portrait

My family was here for Christmas. My mother and father and brother joined my husband and sons and I in the cold turning of the year. Puzzles were solved. Puddings flamed. And even in the cold of New England winter, my mother and brother would put on their coats and boots and go for a walk.

A statue from Lindenwood.
A statue from Lindenwood

I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the walking and talking. We took long turns around the Lindenwood Graveyard, where I walked when I labored with my youngest son. In between pointing out my favorite gravestones (Yes, I know it’s weird that I have favorite gravestones. Whatever.) we talked. We talked about family history and lore. We talked about my brother’s new call and pastorate in Denver. We talked about the boys and how they were growing. We talked about my sister and her family and how we missed them.

“You know,” my brother said “Some people think I must not care much about my family, to be willing to move so far away from them.” We laughed.

“Well,” I pointed out, “We four families do now live in all four continental US time zones.” I can see where someone who counts on proximity and constant familiarity would look at the facts of our family and think us unloving and unconcerned. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And then we turned to Job. I’m reading the Old Testament in my Humanities Book Club. This is the club that brought me Herodotus and Thucydides. We’re on year five and semester three. Semester three includes selections from the Old and New Testaments. It doesn’t say, in it’s lovely calligraphy, just what the selections are.

So as the resident Christian, I was nominated for the picks. What do you select? If you need to give a cultural grounding in Christianity based on readings of the Bible, what do choose? What do you leave out? Do you follow the lectionary and disavow all knowledge of Chronicles? That’s where the really good stories are! You must read Genesis, of course, but can you understand modern conservative Christianity without Leviticus? Of course there have to be the Psalms. And if you don’t read Isaiah, the New Testament will feel more random than ordained.

For the first session, I decided to stick to the Pentateuch. That led to a long discussion on whether God was in fact cruel for hardening Pharoah’s heart. It is an interesting thing, as a born and bred Biblically-saturated Christian, to start from scratch in explaining the God of Jacob to someone who has never read the Bible, and is starting at the beginning. The Old Testament God is much harder than we remember in our Sunday School lessons.

So after that, I had to tackle propose that we tackle Job and Ruth. Ruth because Ruth is the very definition of faithful love, in my book. Job because I love Job, and I think that Job speaks to one of the great questions religion must answer: why do good people suffer and bad guys do well?

That’s what I talked to my pastor mom and pastor brother about there on the hill between the tombstones. Job, and what Job tells us in his hard but beautiful poetry.


Oh that my words were written down!
Oh, that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God
whom I shall see on my side.

Job: 19:23-27

As I explained to my mother and brother, what I love so much about Job (in addition to the words which are some of the best poetry in the Bible) is that it takes that great problem of understanding WHY God chooses to do what He does, or why there is suffering… and basically replies that the answers are beyond our understanding. Thane said to me the other day, “I wish no plants would ever die, mom.” I look at the glory of a flower, and I understand it. Isn’t it sad that the daffodils fade in the matter of days? That the glory of the spring lilacs is so fleeting? But do you not, fellow grownup who has studied any part of biology, understand that if no plant ever died… the entire planet would cease to function and we along with it? Well, perhaps so does God look at his creation and understanding it in a way we cannot, and sets it upon courses that we, with all our wisdom, cannot understand.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: …
“Has the rain a father,
or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
and the face of the deep is frozen.”

Job:38:28-30

In other words, “What do you know about any of it? Nothing!” I find that liberating. I don’t understand because I can’t understand because I am not actually God.

Grey and I were recently watching NOVA (again – the third episode) and it showed how the universe was at its most orderly at the moment of the Big Bang, and with entropy comes increasing chaos and unpredictability. I found myself struck by the thought of an omniscient, omnipresent, immortal presence. After a certain amount of order, the first few eternities, wouldn’t you be tempted to create a moment of chaos – of free will and chance – out of your order just to be delighted for a moment by the joyful and chaotic complexity? It does not mean you do not rejoice in the daffodil’s bloom – to the contrary – but autumn is a marvel too.

So this I explain to my kinfolk.

“Well,” pronounces my brother, “I always thought of Job as the ultimate book of messianic prophecy.” (This earned him a say-whaaaa? My earlier snippet aside, there’s not a whole lot of Messiah going on.) “Job,” expands my brother, “when he accuses God of being an unfair judge, wishes that there was someone who could argue his side against God. “There is no umpire between us, who might lay his hand on us both. If he would take his rod away from me, and not let dread of him terrify me, then I would speak without fear of him.” (Job:9:33-35) “That right there is what Jesus does for us, and what grace is for us. Jesus is the umpire, and grace is the taking away of the rod of judgement.”

Huh. Ok. Cool!

“You know,” says my mom, “Job was never my favorite book.” And we talked instead of the New Testament, and the calling of Christ, and how hard it is to pick hymns when you need to get the bulletin done.

We walked together, hands in our pockets and breath glimmering in the moonlight, and were a family headed down the hill and back towards home.

My family’s two pastors at my brother’s ordination. The bald one in the middle and the lady standing next to him singing.

Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary

Thane sets out the cookies for Santa
Thane sets out the cookies for Santa

It was midnight when my fellow-Santa and I laid the final touches around the tree. The cookies artistically partially eaten. The massive stuffed animal with the bow. The careful interspersing of presents – the ones from Santa outermost to indicate the jolly old elf had laid them there himself. We were weary from a lovely long day of cleaning, cooking, preparing, and caroling at our church. Our children had fallen asleep in record time. We’d had a lovely chat with some old friends in the neighborhood, and now we were ready for repose. We lingered, looking at the tree lights, looking forward to the morning’s joyous faces.

Ready for the morning!

The next morning at seven, I thought I heard some noise downstairs. “Aha!” I thought. “My children bestir themselves. Perhaps they’ve started to open their stockings! I don’t want to a miss a minute.!” I shook my beloved awake and headed down the stairs, muzzy-minded.

To my shock – my horror – a scene of wrapping mayhem lay below me. My sons were in the midst of a piranhic frenzy of quiet unwrapping. Well over half their gifts lay strewn around in the shards of wrapping paper littering the floor.

STOP! STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP! I sat on the stairs, weak-kneed, as they looked up at me with confused faces. “This,” I said to my similarly week-kneed husband, “May be funny later. Maybe.”

Perhaps this was the culprit of the Great Christmas Mayhem!
Perhaps this was the culprit of the Great Christmas Mayhem!

After a good number of deep breaths, a pot of coffee and a very long explanation to the children that we open presents TOGETHER like we have every Christmas for their entire LIVES, I satisfied myself that there was an excellent chance that Grey really believed he was being kind in letting us sleep in. We talked through the presents they had already opened, and slowly enjoyed the rest together. We did enjoy ourselves, once our hearts got back to a normal tempo.

I only wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a picture of the carnage, with the sweet, innocent confused faces wreaking it.

This is what most of this week has looked like around here


Twelve hours later, my brother, mother and father had all arrived in my house, bringing loot and Christmas cheer with them. As I worked on the roast lamb, I became increasingly uneasy with my menu. The lamb, with carrots, celery and parsnips, had seemed a quintessentially British dish, well served with Yorkshire Pudding and Christmas Pudding. But there was tomato sauce. The veggies were cubed small. And spice numbers 5 and 6 were turmeric and saffron. These are not British spices. On further review, the dish was downright Indian. So I scrapped the Yorkshire pudding and substituted rice, and I’m delighted to report it was absolutely the right call. (And a delicious recipe to boot!)

A beautifully set table with lovely people
A beautifully set table with lovely people

I likely warned my family 10 times that night that I would not be offended if the Christmas pudding turned out to be inedible. It seemed unlikely to be good. 4 cups of raisins and only one each of flour and sugar? Dates and citrons? Suet? This incredible double boiling maneuver – done twice? I’d be lucky if anyone ate two spoonsful. The hard sauce – equal parts butter and powdered sugar – might be eaten straight. But I doubted even it could rescue this unlikely looking concoction. I poured the brandy on with liberal hand and set the pudding to blue flame, lasting far longer than I thought it would and bathing the wide eyes of my son in eerie light.

IT WAS DELICIOUS.

Whoa

And so has this time with my sons and my husband, my mother and father and brother been. I hope you, too, have had a joyful and restful holiday!

I have pictures of our Christmas celebrations here.

Also, since all the Christmas Cards that will be sent have been sent, you can see pictures of the great photo shoot we had this autumn here!

Mrs. Flynn’s Christmas Pudding

There were plums and prunes and cherries,
There were citrons and raisins and cinnamon, too
There was nutmeg, cloves and berries
And a crust that was nailed on with glue
There were caraway seeds in abundance
Such that work up a fine stomach ache
That could kill a man twice after eating a slice
Of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake.

At the last two Family Meetings, when the subject of Christmas planning came up, Grey has adamantly insisted that any Christmas plans must, MUST, include a Christmas pudding. I confess that this rather unexpected demand warmed the cockles of my heart. “Just what I need this Christmas!” I figured. “A ridiculously elaborate and archaic baked good that needs-must be served flaming!”

So I googled around a bit. I was somewhat dismayed by some of the ingredients. Suet? Citron? What are the odds my local Stop & Shop has those? Plus, all the recipes I read were in metric units. Although we have a scale for just this exigency, I prefer my teaspoons and ounces. Happily, I thought to check my never-used “Joy of Cooking”, and there it was:

Apparently by “plums” they mean “raisins”.

I dragged my eldest on a grocery store scavenger hunt with me. He found the dates. I found the citron. A helpful butcher’s assistant helped us find the suet. (Pro tip: it’s in with the steaks and beef – you’ll check the tiny “British” section fruitlessly.) I did use sultanas (golden raisins) instead of boring ol’ American Raisins. And we emerged victorious, with the fruits of our labors.

By the way, in case you’re as curious as I was, a citron is a completely new fruit to me. I’v never seen one before, but apparently it’s a nearly inedible fruit. I presume the Brits heard about that and took it as a personal challenge. I was truly shocked that they were available for purchase in my little Stop and Shop. I tasted one and they were, um, interesting.

Last night, I figured I’d make the pudding. I got the raisins and currants going, and discovered that step took two hours. Then this afternoon after church, I figured it was high time to make the pudding. I chopped the suet, mixed with my hands, and had several bowls of ingredients.

Some citrons and raisin and cinnamon too.

It was at that point that I discovered the steaming of the pudding takes at least three hours (and I have somewhere to be this afternoon) so I think that will be this evening’s activity.

My Christmas gift from my Mother-in-law was some of her wedding silverware. I’ve secretly always wanted real silver silverware, but it’s the sort of thing I could never justify actually purchasing, so I’m thrilled. I have plans for a fancy-shmancy Christmas dinner, totally from the Joy of Cooking, with my best dishes and linens. My intention is:

Roast lamb shoulder with roast vegetables
Yorkshire pudding
Gravy
Roast asparagus (a family favorite)

To which my son would like to add “Grey-joulais” which is rice with nuked veggies on top. Of course, I think this will be lovely.

And I’ll finish the whole thing off with a flaming (likely inedible – let’s be honest) Christmas pudding!

I mean, doesn’t it look great?

Saturday morning vignette

My bed-headed beloved boy

My boys brought me breakfast, and my laptop, in bed this morning. About the time I’d caught up on all the latest hijinks of my Facebook friends, my beloved eldest son came in to snuggle me. “Whatcha reading?” he asked. (He is the world’s most obnoxious over-the-shoulder reader.) Well, I wasn’t reading much. So I pulled up “Glorious Dawn”:

That led us to reading about Black Holes (Grey made it through quite a heavy article on the topic). And that led us to an hour long Nova special on the nature of space:

Grey watched the whole thing, rapt. I did step away a few times, and when I came back he’d say, “Mom, you missed a lot.”

Following that, Grey wrote this letter to NASA:

Dear NASA I was wondering if we could go faster than the universe to see the universe EXPANDING, and if you could send a rectangular prism filled with water covered on all sides and launch it @ detect it and send the progress in our mail (redacted, but correct) if you could do that it would be very helpful. Is it nice being a scientist? If so iā€™m looking for a future job that could buy me a lot of books in a month. Make a lot of discoveries! Your friend, Grey , age Eight.šŸ™‚

It’s just been a calm, quiet, lovely day – with time for Nova videos, Lego battles and Christmas music. As the first flakes of a major storm begin to fall, along with the cloak of darkness, we are together as a joyful family. This would all be even more peaceful if we weren’t headed to the Mythbusters: Behind the Myths show tonight in Lowell. I admit to some trepidation, between the 8 pm showtime and the major winter storm. But mostly, I’m excited, happy and content.