Monday, December 29, 2014

The Dawn Sky

A Christmas Lullaby
(Written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton)
Are you far away from home
This dark and lonely night.
Tell me what best would help
To ease your mind.
Someone to give
Direction for this unfamiliar road,
Or one who says “Follow me and I
will lead you home.”
How beautiful
How precious
The Savior of old.
To love so completely,
The loneliest soul.
How gently,
How tenderly,
He says to one and all,
“Child you can follow Me, and
I will lead you home.
Trust Me and follow Me,
And I will lead you home.
Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever,
And love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children
to Thy tender care,
And take us to Heaven,
To live with Thee there.
Take us to Heaven,
To live with Thee there.
I’ve been listening to Amy Grant’s CD “A Christmas To Remember” these recent days.  Her haunting voice and beautiful songs, like the one she wrote above, just seem to fit with my holiday spirit.
This morning as I walked out of church --- a priest and mass again, despite the bulletin again announcing only a Communion Service --- I saw the line of clouds off to the East, and the narrow slit of gray sky sitting on the horizon.  And as I drove Eastward, I watched the slit widen, and the gray lighten:  dawn was arising.  And on the radio played another song:  Agnus Dei.
Alleluia, alleluia.
For our Lord God Almighty reigns
As I drove through the country, the wide open fields gave a clear view to the changing sky.  The line of clouds pulled back even further; the area of gray grew larger, and began changing to a light blue.  Where I had only seen a line of clouds, now I could perceive wisps of dusty clouds amidst the growing blue. 
Then the wisps began slowly changing, from gray to a light link, and then from pink to a soft rose.  The sun was coming, as the minutes slowly passed.
Across the landscape I could clearly see the winter-bared tree branches, reaching upward like hands raised in praise, and from them the smaller branches reached up, stretching like fingers trying to touch the sky. 
As I approached town I saw the church building, clearly distinguished from the rest of the landscape, a large edifice against the brightening morning sky, and at its top the large cross stood out so clearly, silently proclaiming: This is God’s work.
As the clouds gradually turned to a bright red, I heard the soft words of praise sing out:
Holy, holy
Are You Lord God Almighty.

A beautiful day is dawning, a great blessing, on this 5th day of Christmas.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Christmas Birthday Party

Today is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first martyr.  We don’t really celebrate his death today, but rather his birth into new life, in heaven.  But this day is special in another way also:  it is the day that the man called Saul led others into committing the murder of St. Stephen, a most grievous sin.  Yet this same Saul would one day be St. Paul, one of the greatest saints of the Church.  Out of this great, but necessary, evil, there arose a great good --- in God’s time.
Out of the great evils in our lives there will also arise great goods, in God’s time.  In times of great evil, we need great faith that this will be so.
As I entered church this morning I noticed the box on the floor.  It contained a pile of elastic bracelets with WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) printed on them.  Seeing them there, as I knelt in the pew I recalled the events of yesterday.
After Deb’s initial panic telling me of her mother’s stroke, she ended the phone call as she entered the hospital, promising to call me back soon.  As I waited for her return call, I anticipated her asking me to come there, since she was alone, and so I printed out the route to the hospital.  And as I was reading over the directions --- I swear to you --- I just thought:  WWJD.  Not the words, just the letters, like those printed on the bracelets.  And almost immediately I knew the answer:  by now Jesus would have been in His car, on the way to helping His scared child.  And so I put the turkey back into the refrigerator, and was two-thirds of the way there when Deb called me back.
When I finally got home last night, after my “Christmas dinner” I didn’t feel like doing much of anything, and certainly not opening the pile of presents which lay under the Christmas tree in the living room.  Oh, I didn’t feel bad, or even sad, but I didn’t feel like celebrating either.  Instead I got back into the car and went to the local chapel and said my night prayers, and there thanked God for being with me this day.  And I thanked Him for the friends --- and their prayers --- He sent my way also.  And I felt very much at peace, like everything was as it should have been. 
Deb called me later, on her way home from the hospital.  Donna had died at about 6PM, peacefully.  Deb and her family never did have to make that tough decision about ending life support.  Donna just decided it was time to go home.
Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit
This morning, in thinking about St. Stephen’s death, new life, and the great good that eventually came out of that terrible event, it helped me cast the events of yesterday in a new light.  Donna’s death, with her family around her, and her birth into new life, in some ways mimicked St. Stephen’s death, except that while he was surrounded by enemies, Donna was surrounded by friends and family.  And while we now celebrate St. Stephen’s death as a feast day, Donna’s death occurred on Jesus’ birthday.  And as He welcomed her, Donna’s soul became Jesus’ birthday present, one her family willingly gave to Him.
I thought about MY dinner and MY presents at home and MY Christmas celebration, and I realized that for perhaps the first time ever, I participated in a real Christmas celebration, a Christmas birthday party, that was focused not on me, but on the guest of honor.  From the amazingly polite and sympathetic ICU staff to her family to the priest who administered the last rites, everyone knew Donna was dying this Christmas Day, and there was a feeling among all that this was a special Christmas Day.  And so it was.
For me, this might have been the best Christmas ever, as --- WWJD --- I welcomed doing what He would have done, and I felt the whole fitness of the unfolding events, like I could actually see His plan, and everyone who played their part so well, on this day at Jesus’ birthday party.
And He was truly present.
I hope I will have more days when WWJD comes unbidden into my mind, and my life.  I like being at the parties Jesus throws.
- - - - - - - - - -
The people at the 7-11 told me this morning how much their boss, Ron, enjoyed his “Christmas dinner” last night.  They said he was just giddy talking about the double-quarter pounder and maxi fries, something he hadn’t had in years.  “It was the best Christmas dinner I had in a long time.  I relished every bite” he said.
Go figure.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Dinner at McDonald's

Considering it was the only place open in town on Christmas Day, I expected the McDonald’s would be more crowded than it was.  I bought a paper, had a chicken sandwich and fries, and did the crossword.  It was not how I had planned this day.
Midnight mass was glorious last night, and I came home and relaxed a bit before turning in.  I had no need to wake up early Christmas morn.  After waking, I took the turkey out of the refrigerator, and lined up all the ingredients and cookware for the side dishes.  I’d start preparations for a large Christmas meal at around 11.  I had invited some people over for dinner, but none had accepted ---- which was probably part of God’s plan, for the phone suddenly rang at 9:30am.
Debbie, a member of the caregiver’s support group was on the phone:  “Mom had a massive stroke, and is being taken to the hospital.  They said she won’t survive, and I can’t get any of my siblings on the phone.  I’m sorry to bother you, but I didn’t know who else to call.” 
I put the turkey back in the fridge, printed out a map, and headed to the hospital about 30 miles away.
When I got there Deb was frazzled.  One brother was now there --- and mom.  “Christmas!  What a day to have this happen,” Deb said. But I said it was a great day, a day when a great new Life began.  Deb stopped and thought for a moment, and seemed calmer.  “You’re right; this is a good day for this.”  With support for the decisions she had to make, Deb seemed to grow more relaxed as the morning wore on. 
I knew her mom, Donna, because I had visited her a couple of months ago, during the days in which she was in a rehab center just down the street from my house.  Donna was a pleasant woman, and we spent quite a few afternoons talking and watching television together.  She was also a stubborn woman, who wouldn’t let her knee problems lick her, and when she left rehab she was pushing around her wheelchair to go anywhere she wanted without any assistance.  But she wouldn’t survive this day.
I was blessed to have a number of friends who texted me “Merry Christmas” shortly after I arrived at the hospital.  I texted them back to pray for my friend.  Sister Peg was one of those texting, assuring me of prayers.  A priest could not be found, so I called some priest friends, leaving a message that I needed their help ASAP.  They were saying mass at the time.  When they called back an hour later saying they would drive out, I thanked them and said that a local priest had finally been found; and my friends said they’d pray for Donna.  The priest arrived, and a Fr. John administered the final anointing and led us in prayer.    
When I had first arrived, Donna was very troubled by all the tubes and hoses around her body, along with the difficulty breathing and pain, but the ICU staff quickly got her the right dosage of drugs to calm her anxieties and pain.  Deb and her brother prayed with her, and told her not to worry, everything would be all right.  The doctors said the life support equipment was all that was keeping her alive, and as the rest of the family trickled in, talk centered on whether to wait for the brother driving 8 hours from Tennessee.  That decision would be made after dad was finally brought from the nursing home to the hospital, at around 2. 
That was when I left them; these were family decisions, and final goodbyes. I believe God heard the many prayers for Donna, and she held on until her kids and spouse had gathered around her.
It was too late to start cooking a turkey for Christmas dinner, and I debated whether to thaw some piece of meat and cook up some of the Christmas dinner side dishes, but my hunger won out.  I wanted to eat NOW.  I drove down the main drag of Plymouth, and nothing was open.  Then I headed to Canton, driving down the nearly empty main street.  For a Christmas Day, I thought this was a good thing --- except that I was hungry.  When I came to the McDonald’s, I was happy to see it was open.
However, a greasy chicken sandwich and fries do not a Christmas dinner make, even if I did pray over the food before eating.  But then I looked around at the few other people around me.  Most looked as if they were coming from work, while some of the poorer looking ones, the ones with small kids, seemed happy with this, their Christmas dinner.  I guess God gives each of us blessings in different ways.  I thought that perhaps I was the only one there dissatisfied with this meal, but on thinking further, I saw the blessings of the day, and was satisfied. 
I remembered Ron at the 7-11 who was working 24-hours this Christmas day, to give his employees the day off.  I had promised to put together a Christmas dinner plate for him, “with all the fixin’s.”  It was now 4PM, as I finished my meager meal, so I walked back to the McDonald’s counter and ordered up a large burger meal, and then on the way home dropped it off for Ron, explaining why the planned meal had not happened.  “Not to worry.  This is a great blessing for me.  Thank you so much for thinking of me.”
Christmas blessings come in a variety of packages, even a McDonald’s bag.  And it is a day of heavenly births.  Please remember Donna in your prayers.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Giving, Receiving, and Hating

“Tom, thank you for the gift, but you didn’t need to do that,” Ron greeted me at the 7-11.  And as I poured my morning coffee he said: “That one’s on me” --- again.  My gift to him, like the others I give, is but a small token to say: “I remember you.”  Like the Christmas cards sent to old “friends” whom I haven’t seen in 30 years, or the presents sent this Christmas to some people whom I have never met --- and never will --- yet still, I remember them as parts of my life --- good parts.
As I drove to church I recalled how Sr. Peg was someone who remembered me in the same way.  I was a good part of her life, and I thought again of all the others --- perhaps many of whom I don’t even know (but God does) --- who have benefitted from my life.  And then, suddenly, I thought of the ones who didn’t benefit from my life.  This Advent season is a time to prepare, to recall the blessing of Christ’s birth, but I think I often forget WHY He came.  His coming was a good thing, but He chose to come because of a bad thing --- me and my sins.  Even as I often forget the good things and people in my life, like Sr. Peg, I also forget the bad.  Advent is a good time to dredge up some of those thoughts we might sooner forget.
Oh, it’s easy to recall the bad things done to me, and the bad people who entered my life.  I have seriously tried to forgive them, but something still attaches itself to my soul, a bitter taste which won’t go away.  Some bad people and some bad events I will never forget, and I sometimes recall them with anger, and perhaps a bit of sadness --- for me.
They hurt me.
I know I should try more sincerely to forgive and forget, but it is hard.  But what is perhaps even more difficult is to recall those people against whom I have sinned --- that bad thing which we tend to forget which is also associated with Jesus’ birth.  He had to come to save me, from my sins.
Even as Sr. Peg fondly remembers some good things I had done for her (which I forgot), I am sure there are some people who remember some bad things I did to them (which I also conveniently forgot).  How many are there who recall me, like I recall those bad people and bad times of my past?  While I may have led some souls to God, how many may I have led to a life of sin, away from Him, or by my being unable to deal with them have not given them the chance to know God better?  How easy it is for me to forget that some of those bad people I avoid, Jesus came to, talked to, and sat and dined with.
Each day I say a prayer for those people whom God brings into my life, whether I am aware of their presence or not, that for them I might be an instrument of His Peace.  Perhaps my prayer should, at least sometimes, be amended to include those against whom I sinned, that HE might be an instrument of His Peace to them --- where I have failed.
I do regret my past sins, and the people (myself included) whom I perhaps hurt.  But then a thought comes to me:  what about those who sinned against me, those who hurt me, those people whom I can’t seem to forget (or forgive) fully?  Even as I now regret my past sins and pray for those I offended, might not those who sinned against me, unknownst to me, be praying those same prayers for me?  Might not people who have sinned against me have begged God’s forgiveness for their sins?  And what likely was His answer?
And am I to be less forgiving than the God to Whom I pray at each mass: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”?
There are those who entered my life who were good people, and those who were bad.  There are those whose life I entered as a good thing for them, and those who I influenced badly.  To all I must give forgiveness, and for all I must give thanks, for all these people God has put into my life --- for his GOOD REASONS, even if I don’t understand them.
This Advent, there is much to consider, to prepare for His coming, which is a very good thing, because in all things and in all ways, He loves me.  By His actions He came to tell me and show me how much He loves me.
I must prepare, and make myself a fitting birthday guest at His party, celebrating all He came to do for me.
- - - - - - - - - -
When I arrived at church this morning I was surprised to see the priest, who then offered the morning mass, despite the bulletin’s saying there would be only a communion service this day.  Little blessings are always there for us.  : - )
And as I drove home afterwards, the radio spoke of the hate in New York, and the people there who were hurt and can’t seem to forget --- or forgive.  It spoke of the people who hurt others --- and didn’t know they were doing so.  And it spoke of the people who are trying their best to love their neighbor, who their neighbor fails to appreciate, or remember their loving gifts of the past.
We live today, but our life isn’t only about today.  We try to do good, but forget we sin.  And we tell God we forgive, but don’t look into our continuing anger.  He came to forgive our sins --- those things we tend to forget.  We want to love, but also forget that real love “means never having to say you’re sorry.”
We have much to pray on and reflect on, to properly prepare for this Christmas, in hopes that we might sincerely say: “And peace on earth and goodwill to men.”