When I was in second grade, my school did a Christmas variety show, and my class acted out the lyrics to the song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” I was assigned the role of “Mom” from the line: “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again.” It was a 5-second role, and I owned it! But I’m a little sad to report that in my childhood, I never had the opportunity to be in an official church Christmas pageant. No role in a nativity play. No shepherd or angel performance. Instead, I sat in the audience more than a few times…watching the beautiful story of the birth of our Savior take place on a stage from across the room.
I wonder how many of us approach the season of Advent that same way. We’re in the audience waiting for the show to start. We want a front row seat to watch the story of the birth of Jesus and the beauty of the first Christmas. Our role is an enjoyable but passive one.
I would encourage you to step out of the audience and join the players on the stage! You are part of God’s ongoing story of salvation. We each have an important role to play—your role is unique, and only you can play it. Speaker and author Elizabeth M. Kelly writes: “Allow the Holy Spirit to refresh a Catholic imagination within you and to remind you that you are an integral, irreplaceable part of a much larger and more important story.”
How will you play your role this Advent season and beyond? What unique aspects of love and sincerity will you bring to your performance? Who will your scene partners be? Perhaps your part in the story is providing a listening ear to a lonely friend. You may be called to provide food and warm clothes for those in need. Your part in the story may involve making room for Jesus in your heart and in your home. Unlike the innkeeper, will Jesus find in you a place to dwell and grow and shine?
Maybe you’re not one to step into the spotlight. That’s ok! There are plenty of behind-the-scenes roles to play that are just as important. Like the lighting crew up in the rafters, maybe your role is to point that spotlight on someone else, giving them confidence and encouragement to shine. Maybe you’re being called to be part of God’s “stage crew,” organizing and setting the stage for projects and programs that will help others.
However you decide to take part in God’s story, it’s important that you realize how valued and essential you are. The “Christmas Story” would not be complete without you!
Have you ever experienced the disorienting feeling of being plunged into darkness? Years ago my family and I were touring Echo Dell Cavern, a natural limestone cave near Hershey, Pennsylvania. The pathways through the cavern were well lit but at one point in the tour—with plenty of advanced warning—they turned off all the lights to give us a sense of how dark and deep the caves are. It was a jarring experience to be surrounded by such darkness. It was really true that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I was OK at first, but the pitch blackness started to feel suffocating, and my heart began to race before they finally put the lights back on. What a relief to be surrounded by light! It brought to my mind the very first verses from the Book of Genesis:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3)
During challenging times, it’s easy to feel as if our world is covered in darkness. We feel stifled and smothered by the blackness. It brings me comfort to remember that God created light and this light never goes away. Our experiences may leave us feeling lost in the dark, but we always have access to the light. God’s light is a promise—that there will be no more darkness. Every moment you spend with God, you are living in the light. The more you cultivate your relationship with God, the brighter your world will become, even when darkness continues to spread in your life or in the world.
What does it mean to live in the light?
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
In the Bible, light represents truth and God’s revelation. On Mount Horeb, God revealed himself to Moses through the light of the burning bush. Jesus came to be that Light, so that we might know God. To live in the light is to know God and to believe that God loves us, chooses us, and blesses us. When you feel frustrated that God remains hidden, you can seek out His revelation in prayer, Scripture, nature, or loving relationships in your life. Every time you have an encounter with God, your life becomes flooded with light.
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. (Psalm 119:105)
Times are dark right now, and every decision we make seems fraught with consequences that bring fear and uncertainty. When we are lost in the darkness, God’s love lights the way. The light of Jesus shines on our path so we know which way we should go. Fear, temptation, doubt, or stubbornness might lead us away from the path God has chosen for us, but God’s light is always there to lead us back. Through a type of prayer called discernment, we can ask God what are the right choices to make. And we can be confident that God will lead us in the right direction.
LIGHT BANISHES DARKNESS
The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1)
If darkness represents fear, then light is the antidote to that fear. As long as we are connected to God in our faith, we no longer have to be afraid. Our God is powerful enough to create light out of the formless void! Surely we can lean on God when we are afraid. The next time fear grips you, don’t let yourself drown in it. Keep your eyes fixed on God’s light and the dark fears will slowly recede.
Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. (Matthew 5:15)
I can think of no sight more inspiring and beautiful than a candlelight vigil. A crowd of people coming together, each one bearing a single candle, until the space shines bright with light and hope. No matter how dark the world around us may seem at times, we are children of light. It is our responsibility and our challenge to be light for others. To let it shine into the darkest corners of the world.
Advent is a wonderful time to reflect on the Light in the darkness. As you light the candles on your Advent wreath, turn on your Christmas tree lights, or hit the road in the search of Christmas light displays, take some time to ponder the meaning of that light. Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
My prayer for you today is that the Light of the Advent season will bring you PEACE and HOPE.
Advent is a season of waiting. A time to prepare for the coming of Christ. A period of anticipation. In general, how do you view the experience of waiting? Some people find it very difficult. They don’t have the patience or the trust to let the process unfold the way it’s meant to. (There are plenty of times when I fall into this category!) Research has shown that over the years people expect things to happen faster and faster. The pace of pedestrians walking on sidewalks has sped up. Road rage is more common. Waiting in line feels like agony for many people.
Other people welcome waiting because of how they choose to view it—as an act of anticipation instead of a waste of time. I have always felt that looking forward to an exciting event (a trip, a party, a special occasion) was just as enjoyable as the event itself. My husband tells me I live my life “looking forward to the next thing.” During this year of the pandemic, we’ve all been forced to put many of our plans on hold. It’s not easy, particularly in celebrating the holidays. My niece, Lucy —in her lovely optimistic way—predicted that next year, our holiday season will feel all the more joyful, because of how long we had to wait to gather with our families. Every hug will feel like a small miracle. The waiting is incredibly painful right now, but the joy that will come fills me with hope and excitement.
The season of Advent ushers in the coming of Christ, but we aren’t simply remembering that long-ago time of waiting for the birth of Jesus, something that happened 2000 years ago. Our waiting is active, and present, and alive. During Advent, there are three layers to our waiting:
Waiting for Jesus to be born (past)
Waiting for Jesus to come into our lives every day (present)
Waiting for Jesus to come again in glory (future)
It’s the second one—the everyday waiting—that I’m focused on these days. My college-aged sons have a car now, so when they come home from school, I never quite know when they’ll arrive. That excited feeling of wondering when they’ll walk through the door is so filled with hope. What if we approached every day with this sense of faith-filled anticipation? When or how will Christ come to us today? When will Jesus walk through the door of our hearts?
Each day brings opportunities for an encounter with our loving God…during a phone call with a friend, a walk with a family member, or an email exchange with a co-worker. Or you may find God while walking in the woods, admiring a sunset, or listening to the ocean. Christ may come to you in your art—through music, writing or any creative act.
In Latin, Advent means “coming,” not “finding.” We don’t have to go out and search for Jesus. Christ will come no matter what—that’s the core of our belief as Christians. We simply have to notice when He comes into our lives. This is a daily invitation—not just for the four weeks of Advent—but for every day throughout the year. Wake up each morning and ask yourself: “When will I encounter God today?” These moments are easy to miss when we’re preoccupied and distracted, so be awake and watchful in your waiting. Hold onto that excited feeling of waiting for a beloved family member to walk through the door, and I promise you won’t miss the moment when Jesus comes to you in your day.
During the early months of the pandemic shutdown, I found myself at loose ends and looking for things to keep me busy. A good friend suggested the perfect project – compiling my blog posts from the past six years into a book! And so after months of gathering and editing, I’m so pleased to debut my newly published book: Hearing God’s Whisper: Discovering the Sacred in Ordinary Moments.
If you’ve been a faithful reader of my blog since the beginning, many of these reflections will be familiar to you, but they are now presented in one book to add to your collection of spiritual reading… and with a gorgeous cover designed by my niece, Rosie! I’ve arranged my reflections around various themes: Seeking God, Listening to God, Resting in God, Trusting God, God’s Love, Letting Go, and Everyday Spirituality. The book also includes my five-part original “Allegory of Five Gardens” as well as seasonal reflections for Lent, Easter, Advent, and Christmas. It closes with a series of prayers and poems for everyday moments.
The essays and reflections can be read in any order, and many of them have questions for reflection or activities to invite you into a deeper relationship with God. My hope is in some small way, the words in this book will give you new eyes to see the beauty of God’s creation, new ears to listen for God’s whispers, and a new outlook to experience the transforming power of God’s love.
If you’re interested, you can order the book here. I’d love to hear your thoughts when you’re done reading!
A few years ago I went on a weekend retreat with my college roommate. We hadn’t seen each other in a very long time, and we were both so excited to reconnect and catch up. In the days leading up to the retreat, we planned out our late night chats, making lists of topics we needed to discuss. Knowing it would probably be another few years before we were together again, we didn’t want to leave anything out.
It made me think about the ways in which this kind of deep and close connection resembled my relationship with God. I have a dear friend who says: “I talk to God all the time, about any little thing.” It sounds so simple and inviting…and easy. Just talk to God. In doing this we are sharing our lives with God. Sometimes we feel God inviting us into relationship. Other times, we invite God in. It’s a give and take that changes based on our everyday experiences of our faith.
In the words of David L. Fleming, SJ, “Prayer is a natural outcome of this close relationship. It is not something mysterious or esoteric or something that we learn how to do in school. Prayer is conversation. If we can talk, we can pray. Of course we can learn to pray better, just as we can learn to be better conversationalists. The essential activity of prayer springs naturally from our humanity. It is a matter of conversing with a very good friend.”
If you’re looking to improve your “conversation skills” with God, I would recommend the following three steps:
Be yourself! Don’t try to take on a formal “persona” or a particular voice when talking to God. Just talk in a way that feels comfortable to you. I gave the example of the easy flow of conversation with my college roommate because that’s exactly how you should talk to God. Make a list of topics if that’s helpful. Share with God what’s on your mind and in your heart, knowing that God loves you and is waiting to hear from you!
Talk to God about everything. For the longest time I struggled with the idea that God cared about my ordinary life. I pictured God brushing aside my trivial problems or my “silly” worries. God had far more important things to do than to listen to my humdrum stories. I eventually realized this couldn’t be further from the truth! God cares about EVERYTHING we do, think, wonder, doubt, and fear. There is truly nothing that we can’t bring to God.
Examine the areas of your life that you tend to hold back from God. Ask yourself why you do this. Is there a particular hurt or wound that you haven’t been able to bring to God? Are you hiding from God for fear of being rejected? Ponder the gift of God’s unconditional love and mercy. There is no such thing as being rejected by God. Open up your heart to God and see what happens.
In his book, Before Amen: The Power of a Simple Prayer, Max Lucado puts it so beautifully:
“God will teach you to pray. We speak, He listens. He speaks, we listen. This is prayer in its purest form. God changes His people through such moments.”
Talking to God in conversation will help you grow in your faith. It will help you feel more connected to God. When you create a habit of talking to God, you’ll hear God answering you. You’ll be inspired to take action in living out your faith. You will always have a place of deep truth to turn to during difficult times.
I encourage you to spend some time this week talking to God just like you would talk to a close friend. Do this every day for a few weeks and see how your relationship with God changes. Return to this blog post and share your experience in the comments section below!
A friend of mine describes Cape Cod as her “happy place.” Memories of fun and relaxing summer vacations bring her a sense of peace she can’t find anywhere else. She often remarked that a week every summer was not enough time to capture that feeling and tide her over for the remaining 51 weeks. One day at a souvenir shop, she bought a fancy glass bottle with the words “Cape Cod Air” painted on the side. When she was back home—feeling stressed, anxious, or worried—she would uncork the bottle and take a quick whiff, feeling the tension immediately leave her body. Now…my friend is not naive. She knew it was impossible to actually trap Cape Cod air in a bottle and transport it home. But the ritual of holding the bottle in her hand, taking her mind back to peaceful times, and imagining that she was there again…it worked.
I’m a firm believer in the power of symbol and ritual in our spiritual lives. Using the five senses to create a connection to the Divine can have an amazing effect on our state of mind and our emotional well being. Many church services are filled with symbols and rituals to help us experience God in our midst. A document called “People of Ritual” by the Brisbane Catholic Education Offices states, “All Catholic ritual is founded on the belief that God is present and revealed in the world and, in a particular and powerful way, through Jesus. This means that God is revealed and encountered in the real and tangible moments of everyday life.”
So many of us are still cut off from our places of worship where we normally experience the rituals that bring us close to God. But that doesn’t mean we have to live without them. Most of what I write about spirituality focuses on finding God in ordinary moments, every day experiences, and common objects. We can create our own symbols and rituals to remind us that God is present and all around us. If you learn to look for God in the everyday events of your life, you’ll realize that you can never be separated from God, no matter what might be happening in the world.
Having just spent four glorious days on Cape Cod with my family, I took my friend’s advice and decided to create my own “bottle” of peace and calm. I spent my vacation collecting shells from the beach, and on the morning we left, I scooped up a few handfuls of soft white sand into a plastic bag. When I got home, I spent a quiet afternoon, painting some of the shells and layering the sand and shells into a glass bottle. I typed up the following quote on a little piece of paper and rolled it up to place in the bottle: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
I will use my “message in a bottle” to remind me that God is stronger than any of my fears. That I am not alone in my worries. That I have the peace of Christ to carry me through. The bottle now sits on my desk where it can be a constant symbol of God’s presence in my life.
I encourage you to create your own symbol or ritual to remind you of these same truths. You don’t have to be an artist. Fill a bottle or a shoe box with items that make you feel connected to God. A pressed flower. A treasured photograph. A prayer book. A piece of sea glass. Anything that helps you remember that God is present in the “real and tangible moments of everyday life.” Create a mini-chapel in a corner of your house where you can place these objects and look at them often. Turn to these symbols whenever you’re feeling “troubled” and “afraid” and be reminded of God’s overwhelming presence in our lives. We are surrounded by the Divine every day and in every way.
If you’re like me, you may not be feeling too confident about a lot of things right now. You’re not confident that schools will reopen or stay open, or various leaders will make the right decisions to keep communities safe. You’re not confident that everyone in your community will abide by public safety measures to protect one another. You’re not confident that you’ll keep your job or stay healthy. Perhaps most importantly, you’re not confident that you’ll be able to handle all this stress, fear, and uncertainty!
There’s a Hebrew word “batach” that means “to be full of confidence.” Not a tentative feeling of hope, but a bold sense of well-being that comes with placing our trust in God. A sense of security that never fully comes when we place our trust in things of this Earth…in our own actions, in other people, in institutions, or in material possessions.
In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. (Psalm 22:4)
Batach encourages us to ask the question: “Who’s really the captain of this ship?” It’s such a temptation to believe that we’re in control of our own destiny. The entire “American Dream” was founded on this belief. We are in charge! But what happens—as we saw this winter, spring, and summer with the horrifying spread of the coronavirus pandemic—when something happens to upend our carefully laid out plans? Something we did not expect and did not prepare for? We feel shaken.
I have only been in a canoe once in my life. I hated the feeling of stepping into the shaky canoe and trying to gain my own balance while balancing the rocking canoe at the same time. (It didn’t hurt that during my one and only trip, my sister and I capsized the canoe trying to take a turn too sharply!) Nothing about the experience left me feeling in control and it was easier to never step foot in a canoe again. I chose the safety of my feet on solid ground.
What would it take to boldly place our trust in God? It’s tempting to resist this feeling of not being in control. But actually, it’s incredibly liberating! God is the “captain” of our ship and loves us unconditionally and is working for good in our lives. God can be trusted. Batach is the knowledge that God is leading us to our destiny and our only job is to follow.
What you put in God’s hands is safe. God can go where you can’t go. So why not put your life in God’s hands and let go of the need to control? If we relinquish our tight-fisted control over our own lives, we will achieve inner peace. When we put our trust and belief in something greater than ourselves, our world will open up in new ways.
The next time you get that scared or panicky feeling because you don’t know what’s going to happen in your life or in the world, take a deep breath and repeat the word “batach.” Imagine yourself placing the worry or uncertainty in God’s hands. Keep doing this until you feel more and more confident that God really is in control. It won’t eliminate the uncertainty from your life, but it will give you the calm sense of confidence that you can face whatever comes, because you won’t be facing it alone.
When was the last time you experienced a day free from worries? A day when you had a spring in your step, there was not a cloud in the sky, the birds were singing and all seemed well with the world. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Our world just isn’t that sunny right now. The COVID-19 pandemic still grows in many states. Racial inequality continues to reveal itself in our society. The economy has people worried about losing jobs, paying rent, or affording school. These are some REALLY dark clouds; there’s no use pretending otherwise. But amidst the darkness, there’s something else we need to acknowledge.
“Above the clouds the sky is always blue.” – St. Therese of Lisieux
Perhaps you’ve heard the commonly told metaphor about the airplane that ascends through thick, turbulent clouds and eventually breaks through above the clouds to brilliant blue skies and dazzling sunshine. It was up there the whole time. The passengers on the plane learn something that those on the ground may have trouble believing. Above the clouds the sky is always blue.
For those of us on the ground right now, it seems like those blue skies are very, very far away. Feeling bogged down with worries last week, I decided I needed to see the ocean. Feeling spontaneous and free, my husband and I hopped in the car and drove to the shore, only to realize as we got closer that the overcast sky was not going away, and instead producing a steady drizzle. I almost cried in frustration and disappointment. It felt like a sign that my worries were justified. My always patient husband convinced me to wait it out a little while. We took a leisurely drive through the shore towns and returned to the beach just in time for the rain to stop. The clouds were still there, but we were able to walk, swim, and breathe in the ocean air. It was just what I needed. I learned two important lessons from my beach trip that morning.
GOD IS ALWAYS WITH US
Just as the presence of clouds doesn’t mean the sun is gone, dark times in our lives do not mean that God is absent. As I was writing this reflection yesterday afternoon, it was another dark and cloudy day. The clouds were so thick that I had to turn on the lights in my house. At that moment it was hard to imagine a brilliant sun was still up there shining in the sky. But it was. God is always there, loving us, holding us up, and gifting us with grace. It requires faith—sometimes LOTS and LOTS of faith—to believe this, especially when there is so much suffering around us. We must trust in God and believe that God is working in our lives.
GRATITUDE IS ESSENTIAL
The second lesson I learned is that the sun may not come out exactly when we want it to. Patience is required. The darkness can linger, but it is easier to bear if we approach it with gratitude. Look for things to be grateful for despite the clouds…or even because of the clouds. Cloudy days have something to teach us. There are lessons to be learned about love, life, and faith. Even in the dark, there is so much light around us.
I believe in my heart that things will get better in our world. By putting our trust in science, honest leaders, and the fundamental goodness in humanity, the clouds will pass, and we will see blue skies again. We are learning lessons through this time of turbulence that will change the way we treat one another, the way we treat our planet, the way we take care of ourselves in body, mind, and spirit. Most importantly, many of us are learning a new way to trust in God.
“Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow. The same Eternal Father who takes care of you today will take care of you tomorrow, and every day of your life. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it.” -Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622)
Since the COVID-19 outbreak first came to the United States months ago, how much time have you spent caring for others? Raise your hand if you’re doing (or have done) any of the following:
Working through the shutdown as an essential healthcare, transportation, grocery, or sanitation worker
Buying groceries for an elderly parent, relative, or neighbor
Running errands for someone who is under quarantine
Helping your children navigate online learning when schools were shut down this spring
Putting in long hours figuring out how to provide online learning to your students
Cooking meals around the clock for a house full of family stuck at home
Volunteering for local social services such as food banks, shelters, etc.
Showing up to march in protest for the equal rights of your black brothers and sisters
Sewing masks or collecting PPE to support your local hospitals or nursing homes
Providing connection and care to those who are lonely and isolated in quarantine
Talking to friends, children, or siblings who are scared and anxious and trying to help them work through their fears
Let me take a moment to tell you that you are wonderful! You are doing God’s work in caring for others during a time of crisis, and your work is appreciated. Today I would like you to reflect on this important question: How much of yourself are you giving away? Is this constant taking care of others taking its toll on your spirit? You can’t become so busy caring for others that your spiritual life suffers. Your relationship with God is the foundation that supports everything else. You can’t be the best YOU without it!
Think of yourself as a watering can. Every time you care for someone, you pour out a little bit of water to nurture them. What happens when the watering can is empty? What are you doing to refill it? Are you taking time to rest? Are you taking time to sit in the stillness and feel the presence of God all around you? Are you praying, meditating, taking long walks in nature, playing your favorite spiritual music, or finding other ways to connect with God?
Re-filling your watering can has to be a commitment. You can’t wait around for the time to present itself. With the state the world is in right now, it might not happen anytime soon. The work of caring for others never ends. There’s always one more thing you can do. Let it be a gift you give to yourself—making the conscious decision to stop and fill up your watering can in whatever way works best for you.
The good news is, you don’t have to do this alone. I’m sure you have someone in your life —a friend or family member—that you can always count on to lift your spirits. No matter how hard your day is, how tired or stressed you are, when you’re with that person, they make you feel good. That’s what God can and should be for you when your watering can is empty. Allow yourself to rest in God. To be refreshed by the peace and joy that can only come from God.
Then you will be ready to be poured out once again.