694. Confirming ownership of the journey

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Last Sunday was confirmation Sunday at my church. Eight ninth-graders wore white gowns, representing baptism, and red stoles, representing the Holy Spirit, to mark the completion of two years of study and service. They each spoke a few minutes about their understanding of faith and what it means to be a Christian and then received some gifts: salt (be salt of the earth), a candle (shine your light), a cross, and a small slim leather Bible engraved with their name. Those of us in the pews gushed from pride and joy even if they weren’t our children because they are our children.

Our pastor said that confirmation and graduation seem like similar events but in fact they’re quite different: a graduation implies an end of something, whereas confirmation is about beginning. He said that the beginning marked by confirmation is that of taking on a new role. The young adults clothed in white and hugged in red now take on the primary responsibility for their own faith development. The church is here, parents are here, teachers are here, but the journey of faith is one's own.

A bonus in being present for a ceremony or sacrament, in addition to being part of the event involving people you care about – be it a wedding, funeral, baptism, graduation, or confirmation – is that we ourselves get to enter into that space where transactions are made, commitments are offered, hope is claimed. Quietly and passively but with as much inner and hidden, active agency as we wish, we get to engage with the life passage marked by the ceremony or sacrament. Yes, I do, till death do us part; let not my heart be troubled; please grace, flow; beginning again, I intend to grow.


[Photo: taken of a full nest safe inside a hanging basket outside my front door several years ago.]

664. Christmas is coming: ready?

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One week until Christmas Eve. Are you ready? That’s the question I was asked twice by clients yesterday and numerous times by friends over the last week. No, I’m not ready if by ready you mean all gifts purchased and wrapped, tree up and decorated, house decorated, cards sent, cookies made, menus planned, and stockings hung. In fact, the only way you’d know Christmas is coming by looking at my house is by the single string of lights (only half of which are working) hung on a 3-foot Norfolk Island Pine we bought last weekend and a 10-inch tall flat wooden tree from IKEA that we’ve had for several years. I see that my husband has brought up from the basement our Christmas coffee mugs but they’re still in a box on the kitchen floor. As of last night I’ve bought most of our gifts but some won’t have arrived by Christmas. Cards will likely not get sent.

I’m behind.

I’m telling you this not to underscore my failure to be ready, whether by lack of planning or simply because of busy-ness, but to come alongside you if you’re not ready also. A couple days ago I noticed there was a “home tour” happening online where bloggers were posting pictures of their decorated homes, room by room displays of swagged greenery and glittered trees. Lovely, all lovely, but honestly, it made me feel like there was a competition going that we all were in, even if we hadn’t signed up. No, I’m not in that competition.

You know that song by Alanis Morrisette, “That I Would be Good”? I’ve embedded the video below (if you’re reading via email you may need to click through to website version). The pattern of the song is that she identifies all kinds of “failures” and for each counters that she’d be good in spite of it. Here’s the first verse, but you can read the rest of the lyrics here:

that I would be good even if I did nothing
that I would be good even if I got the thumbs down
that I would be good if I got and stayed sick
that I would be good even if I gained ten pounds


I’ve been dreaming up my own lyrics related to Christmas:

that I would be good even if I baked no cookies
that I would be good even if I sent no cards
that I would be good if some presents were mailed late
that I would be good…

You get the idea. Maybe you’d like to sing along also with lyrics of your own.

The good news is that Christmas comes anyway to those of us not ready. I’m redefining ready. Jesus was born; God is with us; love is all around, even in my sparsely decorated home (and yes, even in “these” days). I’m here to celebrate. Bring it on.


[Photo: taken of the wooden tree from IKEA. Merry Christmas!]

660. God with Us: An Advent Interview with Emilie Griffin

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New for this Christmas season, Paraclete Press has issued a “Reader’s Edition" of a modern Christmas classic: GOD WITH US: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe. Last year, the first hardcover illustrated edition of this book was a #1 bestseller on Amazon for a couple weeks and sold more than 25,000 copies. This year, Paraclete has re-designed the book as a softcover to make it more affordable and accessible to readers.

The book includes 5  groups of readings, covering the time before and after Christmas. Eugene Peterson wrote the introduction, followed by the late Richard John Neuhaus, Scott Cairns, and Luci Shaw who wrote the readings for weeks one, two, and three, respectively. Kathleen Norris wrote the readings for the week before Christmas, and Emilie Griffin wrote about the days between Christmas and Epiphany. Interspersed with the readings are brief histories about the church season and feast days written by my friend Beth Bevis.

Earlier this year, I featured Emilie Griffin on this blog when she generously wrote an endorsement for my book Finding Livelihood. I’m thrilled to have her back on the blog, this time for an interview about GOD WITH US and her contribution to it as well as her insights on Christmas and the anticipatory time of Advent leading up to it. Emilie is the author of Small Surrenders: A Lenten Journey; The Reflective Executive: A Spirituality of Business and Enterprise; Clinging: The Experience of Prayer;Wilderness Time: A Guide for Spiritual Retreat; and Souls in Full Sail: A Christian Spirituality for the Later Years.

How does the title GOD WITH US apply to the four weeks before Christmas?

EG: I remember how in my childhood the anticipation of Christmas was in a sense the most important thing about the holiday. I still have a memory of childhood Christmas trees – spruce and pine, mostly – and the scent of needles on the floor. My grandmother who kept house for us, was not fond of the vacuuming but I thought the whole thing was wonderful.  Even though our tree was not as grand as others, it was the expression of an inner meaning, a promise.

How would you define the observance of Advent? Why is the observance of Advent spiritually necessary?

EG: One of the editors of our book, Greg Pennoyer, says in his introduction: "Like most adults I have a difficult time relating to Christmas." He describes how his encounter with the liturgical tradition changed his mind, changed his heart, in a sense made Christmas possible for him. My experience is not exactly the same, but in Advent we open ourselves up to that encounter.

Your section of the book is from Christmas to Epiphany. Can you give us a preview of what this week holds?

EG: My section actually starts on the day after Christmas. I conceived of these days as a way to experience the friendship of Jesus, to walk and talk with him as the disciples did. At the same time we must deal with such difficult feasts as the Feast of Stephen, with the martyrdom of Stephen, and the Feast of the Holy Innocents, with the slaughter of the holy innocents, who are also martyrs. Christmas doesn't seem quite so jolly when it includes these events. 

The contributors of GOD WITH US come from a variety of traditions within the Christian faith. How does the observance of Advent provide common ground among these traditions? How can the observance of Advent provide common ground between liturgical and nonliturgical traditions?

EG: Some of our writers emphasize the differences among the liturgical traditions, but I am very conscious of similarities. There are two Roman Catholics, two Anglicans/Episcopalians, and two Orthodox. Every one, with the exception of Richard Neuhaus, is a poet. A few are also playwrights. This highly charged creativity helps us to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the amazing experience of Christian faith.

Many readers of GOD WITH US have never "done" Advent before. They may have thought of Advent as something for the liturgical churches, if they thought of it at all. This book makes it possible to get ready for Christmas, no matter what church you belong to, even if you're not in any church. It helps us to deal with the yearning, the hope and anticipation, the waiting for a Savior, which is common to all. The Bible heralds this. But even those who are not in Bible churches report a longing, a need, a certain anxiety and a hope for the future.

Is Christmas just for the children? Just for the liturgical churches?  I don't think so. God is with all of us, all the time. But God wants us to come closer, to know him better, to know each other better as well. I'm glad if this book can have some small part in that conversation.

How would you recommend that a person who is already feeling stressed by too many work-, family-, and holiday-related expectations integrate the reading of GOD WITH US into his or her Advent schedule without considering it just one more thing he or she “should” do?

EG: I am aware of all the pre-Christmas stress because I  experience it myself. I mark the first day of Advent on my  calendar but sometimes the date slips past, with infections, travel, speaking engagements, visiting, shopping lists, Christmas card preparation, whatever. Even so I find myself choosing things that remind me of the inner meaning of the Holidays. Books like the latest one by the late Oliver Sacks, Gratitude. Advent cards that point me to the birth of Christ. The one we received this year reads, "O child of promise come/O come Emmanuel/come prince of peace/to David's throne/Come god with us to dwell." An Advent concert called "A Time for Hope and a Time for Joy", taking place at our local cathedral on Tuesday, December 15. After the attacks in Paris I bought a book by Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain, called Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence. It is about attempts to reconcile Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and the angels figure importantly, at least metaphorically, here. Eventually I let go and surrender to God's Word and work in me. Grace takes hold and a certain transformation begins. 

Is there a particular day of the year that is the most important to you in your own personal, spiritual life? If so, has it been the same day over the years or has the specific day changed over time?

EG: I know I should pick a day in the Advent or Christmas season but I have to choose September 29th, Feast of Michael and All Angels.  There is something about the loving presence of the angels in every major event of the liturgical year that I find deeply moving. Their love and guardianship at the Annunciation, the Epiphany, the great Marian feasts, not to mention the Easter season are worth mentioning.  Then there are the angelic visits in the Hebrew Scriptures: Abraham and his visitors at Mamre, Jacob wrestling with the angel, Elijah's encounter with God, Paul on the Damascus Road. 


You can order GOD WITH US directly from Paraclete Press or Amazon or wherever books are sold.