On Grandpas and Books and the Ministry of Presents

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about visiting my maternal grandma in the hospital. In today’s similarly-titled post, we get the story of visiting my paternal granddad at his home near Oklahoma City last weekend. (The significance of attending to the illness and aging of family alongside the joy and birth of the Christmas season has not been lost on me. Perhaps a post for another day.)

Granddad is the kind of relative I don’t know well and only see sporadically, the last time being 5 years ago at a family wedding. But, 5 years makes a big difference, especially for the elderly, and in recent months he’s experienced rapid weight loss, no appetite, and significant weakness.

While visiting, my family and I set out to help him eat a little something 2-3 times a day, do household chores, and do some ministry of presence. Along the way, Granddad gave me an unintentional surprise: the ministry of presents.

Years ago, he attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and served numerous churches as a Baptist minister. I knew this. To this day, he has a sizable theological library collecting dust in his home. I did not know thisIMG_1754.

And let’s just say around a theological library, I act like a puppy in a pet store.

After perusing the shelves, I removed two intriguing volumes, took them to the living room, sat on the floral-patterned couch next to Granddad, and said, wide-eyed: “Your books. They’re amazing.”

“You can have them,” he said. “Any of them.”

FLASHBACK: As a high school student, I sat on the same couch and told Granddad that I wanted to pursue theological studies and work in vocational ministry. He promptly suggested that I can’t preach because I’m a woman. He might have been alright with women in other, non-preaching roles (e.g. children’s ministry, youth ministry). But the conversation ended there. If he was proud of me, I couldn’t tell. END FLASHBACK.

This time around, I know he’s proud of me. I know because he offered me his theology books. And because they used to mean a lot to him, and now they mean a lot to me. And because his 1938 anthology Christ and the Fine Arts showed us that we have some things in common — two things, to be exact: Christ and the fine arts. And I know he’s proud of me because he said so.

In what might be one of our last conversations this side of heaven, Granddad said in a weak, raspy voice, rather like a weary Jesus talking to a wary Peter, “You want to work for the Church?” (Peter, do you love me?) 

“Yes, I do,” I said. (Yes, Lord, you know I love you.)

“That’s real good,” he said. “I’m proud of you.” (Then feed my sheep.)

He didn’t mind that I’m a woman. He didn’t even know that I’ve become an Episcopalian in recent years. He knew that, in the end, we all alike hold fast to “the holy catholic church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (to quote the Apostles’ Creed). And what a present that is. 

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The Gift of Advent

advent-wreath11As a kid, I’m pretty sure Advent meant little more to me than the chocolate-filled calendars that Grandmother sent over around Thanksgiving (which I’ve since learned to be liturgically inaccurate, as they tend to start on December 1st regardless of whether that’s the actual first Sunday of Advent). There was an Advent wreath off to stage right at my big Baptist church, but as soon as it was lit up went the light show and off we went singing anthems about “Joy, Joy, Joy.”

At some point I wondered: What about those of us who for one reason or another — whether due to melancholic temperament or mental illness or the mere fact that it’s cold outside — have a hard time with “joy, joy, joy”?

The gift of discovering the season of Advent, for me, has been its gradual introduction of joy.

As a writer, I know that good stories build. There’s an introduction, characters meet, suspense rises, hints are dropped like gingerbread crumbs to lead the reader along.

And, as a reader of Scripture, I know that God’s stories build too. They build for 40 days and 40 nights of flooding. They build for 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And apparently God took 9 months to come to us, to be like us and with us (which makes me wonder what Mary was doing and thinking and feeling all that time).

I’m glad that God’s stories build. It doesn’t provide the instant gratification of, say, chocolate Advent calendars. But it does provide enduring identification of God’s story with ours. It’s like God saying: “Take your time with finding your way — or your way back — to life and light and joy. It’s OK to take your time. I did.”

A while back, I was at a wedding reception and happened to be really not in the mood to be at a wedding reception. Getting dressed up and hearing a homily about love and smiling perfunctorily for pictures was quite enough. Then, it happened. A friend dragged me to the dance floor…then encouraged me to dance…then, in an admittedly well-intentioned effort to raise my spirits, reached out and lifted my cheeks into a smile. It stung for a second — first on my cheeks, then in my spirit. That quick exchange communicated that my less-than-joyfulness was essentially unacceptable.

Advent tells me that God isn’t out to lift my cheeks into any forced, festive smile. Rather, God is interested in lifting my life — even if it takes a while.            

Advent tells me that less-than-joyfulness (acquired joyfulness?) is actually remarkably acceptable — commendable even. 

Advent says that, no matter what the Hallmark cards and holiday commercials say, you don’t have to have “joy, joy, joy” now. You just have to start living into the story of joy. One page at a time. One step at a time. One candle at a time.   

And He Shall Be Called Wonderful Counselor

Some people picture God as an old man with a beard. William Paul Young in The Shack pictured God as an African-American woman. Christmas reminds us that we can — and should — picture God as a baby in a manger.Topic_Counseling-Mental-Health

As for me? I often picture God as a counselor. A lady in a turtleneck, maybe 60 years old, sitting in a swivel chair, holding an over-sized yellow notepad, and looking at me with just the right balance of calming and compelling.

Compelling me to consider facts about my life that I’d rather not consider. Calming me with the reality that she’d be considering them with me.

I think I picture God this way because, especially at Christmas time, we read in Isaiah 9:

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

What does it mean that Christ shall be called “Wonderful Counselor?” Let’s break this down…

Wonderful.

Not just competent but wonderful. In the field of professional counseling, areas of skill required for licensure are referred to as “competencies.” But “competent” sounds so negative, so…mediocre.

And mediocre we are. A friend once told me about meeting with a therapist at a university counseling center to discuss her process of aging out of foster care. The therapist suggested that my friend might try the “Family Issues” Support Group. After an awkward silence, the therapist admitted: “Although that might be more for students who…uhh…” And my friend finished the sentence: “…who actually have families?”

I think of all the times I’ve said something insensitive or unnecessary, all the times I’ve been told something quick and clichéd to a hurting friend, and I thank God that His ways are “higher than our ways” (Isaiah 55:8-9). That He says what is right and true (since He created Truth, after all), and He can’t be surprised by what we say (since He created us, after all), and He has absolute patience with our long processes of grieving or recovering or learning (since He has eternity in mind, after all). That He is wonderful. That He is God.

Counselor.

Not only is He God, but He is God with us. 

A counselor’s goal is to sit with us, to listen with us to the content of our lives. They talk about “therapeutic alliance,” meaning that their primary goal isn’t for clients to “word vomit” all our feelings (although that happens) or for counselors to “knowledge vomit” all their sage solutions. Rather, their primary goal is for a trusting relationship to be built, from which feelings and solutions can emerge.

As I heard a psychology professor once say, change doesn’t happen because of the counselor or because of the couch but in the space between the two, the space where the words pass back and forth from one person to another.

Maybe, too, change doesn’t happen because of a wonderful God tucked away in heaven or because of competent people laboring away on earth but in the space between the two, the space where heaven meets earth.

The little space in the manger where a heavenly child is born on earth — “and He shall be called Wonderful Counselor.” 

Waking Up In Darkness

It was 6:30 a.m. December 1st. The alarm went off and I pressed “snooze” for the third time. The house was silent, the windows enshrouded in shadow. Waking up in darkness is just so hard, I thought, rolling over.

Waking up in darkness.

I’m terrible at it in the mornings. And we’re terrible at it in life.IMG_0121

We just want to skip to the part about light — so badly sometimes that we light up our Christmas trees as soon as possible or go driving around town to view lights or even engage in spectacles like The Great Christmas Light Fight. We want our questions to be answered like our text messages, our grief to be gone rather than gone through, our darkness to lift like a light switch.

But what if we looked at Christmas (maybe even looked at life) less like a light switch and more like a sunrise?

It starts with darkness. Durations of deep darkness. We wake up in the darkness of dawn, proceeding to stir and stretch and trust that the sun will come again as it always does. Then, slowly, the light comes around the edges of the window, through the blinds, into our blindness, into our lives.

In Advent, we light candles one at a time. We open little cardboard flaps on Advent calendars one day at a time for nearly a month.

In these ways and more, Advent, which literally means “to come,” is teaching me to take my time with the whole Christmas thing. It’s teaching me to go ahead and experience darkness and know that the light of Christ is yet to come.

I’ll still complain about waking up in the darkness. But, the hope of Christ, the gift of God, is that our complaining can turn into carols. That our darkness is turning into light.

Christmas In July: Celebrating the Ordinary

Yesterday, it was 100° in Dallas, TX. And there was snow.07-2014 Christmas In July Cropped

Well, there was fake snow at a “Christmas In July” block party in the city’s Bishop Arts district, complete with festive edibles, an ugly sweater contest, and a shorts-and-flip-flops version of Santa Claus.

Why? Why celebrate when you’re not supposed to be celebrating?

To answer that, I wonder: Who says there’s only certain times we’re supposed to celebrate?

If we were only supposed to celebrate certain things at certain times, life would be less interesting and many creative professionals would be out of a job. Writers, for instance, build a foundation upon being fascinated by anything. Perhaps the oldest poetic form, the ode, sets out to celebrate “an event, a person, or a thing not present.”

Yesterday’s hoopla was a sort of ode to Christmas, although it wasn’t present. William Wordsworth’s famous “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” was a wistful tribute to immortality, although it wasn’t present (he only wished it was). An ode can be written to just about anything — the West Wind, a Grecian urn, a graveyard, America, menstrual cycles. They’ve all been done.

What would you write an ode to? Moreover, what would you live an ode to? What or who would you sit down and take time to appreciate?

Maybe tomorrow, even though it won’t be Christmas or even Christmas-in-July, I’ll sit down and appreciate the softness of my dog’s fur, the usefulness of a random office supply, or the slowness of my commute to work (although that one might be pushing it!).

We can live an ode to a good meal by taking a few seconds to Instagram it. We can live an ode to a good friend by taking a few minutes to write a letter to him or her. Incredibly enough, we can live an ode — to anything.