Photo Challenge: Resilient (Or, Blooming Where You’re Planted)

For those who find themselves facing writer’s block, WordPress offers a daily prompt as well as a weekly photo challenge to help bloggers find inspiration.

I’ve never pretended to be a photographer, but the final photo challenge of 2016 focused on the word “resilient” and immediately I knew I had the perfect photos to contribute to this challenge.

In the parking lot of the pretty little Baptist church in north Mississippi where my dad serves as interim pastor, every summer these hardy vincas push their way from underneath the surface of the parking lot, up between the concrete sidewalk and asphalt pavement, to turn their smiling faces triumphantly to the sun.

They struggle out of the darkness from underneath a seemingly impenetrable crushing weight, finding a way through the most solid of obstacles, to emerge looking serenely beautiful. And they make the world a brighter, more colorful place in the process. To me, these sweet summer flowers, going about the business of blooming where they are planted, are the very epitome of resilient.

If I resolve to be a bit more like these vincas in 2017, it wouldn’t be the worst New Year’s resolution I’ve ever made. Not by a long shot.

 

via Photo Challenge: Resilient

THE SACRED SEASON

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Today, like churches all over the world, my church observed the second Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation to welcome Baby Jesus, the Christ Child, whose humble birth Christians celebrate at Christmas.

For me, an aura of holiness seems to saturate the very air every Christmas season. Christmas Eve, in particular, holds a particular sweetness to me.

One could argue that it’s a carryover from my childhood anticipation of awakening the next morning to the wealth of gifts that the mysteriously powerful Santa Claus would have left under our Christmas tree overnight for me and my brother and sister.

Or maybe it’s the giddiness of having my grandparents spending the night and my grandmother singing, “Christmas Time’s A-Coming” and then watching the 10 o’clock news to see the weatherman tracking Santa’s progress across the weather map.

Or it could be the joy of snowing our Christmas tree, decorating it, then sitting in front of its twinkling lights in a darkened room that night before we go to bed, savoring the quiet, letting the peace of just being still calm our hearts and minds.

Or perhaps it’s the anticipation of meeting my cousins at my great-aunts’ house on Christmas Day for a delicious meal followed by an exchange of gifts like socks, pencils and crayons, and Lifesaver books, then watching my brother Bob and cousin Mac setting off fireworks in the middle of the rural Alabama road.

Or it might be the joy of being out of school for several weeks, and the happy near-certainty of getting to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day with my first cousins.

But, no…no. No, those are not it. All of those things contribute to the pleasures of the season, but none of them hold the essence of Christmas. They are special things, but in and of themselves they are not sacred.

Every year, I read magazine articles and devotional booklets that rail against the commercialism of the season and moan about how easy it is to become so busy that you forget “the reason for the season.” But for me, the underlying sacredness of Christmas permeates everything: the greenery and candlelight in homes, in stores, in churches, even in offices; the brilliant twinkling colored lights of countless downtown street lampposts; the gala atmosphere of parties with coworkers, families and friends; the favorite music and television shows and movies of the season; the hustle and bustle of stores as people seek gifts to delight loved ones; the sparkle in children’s eyes as they watch the community Christmas parade and run to catch candy thrown from floats and clowns and beauty queens and Santa. Somehow, in all of it, I find the joy of the sacred.

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Christmas also highlights for me, more than any other holiday or season, the strong elements of the Jewish faith that permeate the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The dates of Hannukah coincide with the Christmas season. This year my Jewish friends will celebrate Hannukah beginning the evening of December 24, 2016, and extending through January 1, 2017.

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Many Christmas carols feature melodic lines with minor chords typical of music from the Jewish tradition, as well as lyrics from the Old Testament prophets that predict the coming of the Messiah.

Jesus’ lineage, as listed in the first chapter of Matthew, reads like a Who’s Who of the Old Testament. His parents took Him to the temple as soon as they could, where Simeon and Anna recognized Him as the Messiah and proclaimed it to all within hearing. When He was 12, Jesus debated in the Temple with rabbis and scholars, neglecting to tell His parents, Joseph and Mary, of the change of schedule for the trip home.

This Christmas season I find myself feeling even more strongly this visceral connection to Christianity’s roots in Judaism.

I am currently reading a book that reminds me of why I find reading such a delight. On every page of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, I find myself learning something I did not know before, and marveling at how much information exists out there. The more I know, the more I realize how little I know about this world we live in.

And somehow, in reading this book and marveling at the intellectual nuances of the Jewish faith, I find my own Christian faith stronger. Stronger, and yes, sweeter, as we progress through the Advent season toward Christmas Eve, the sweetest, holiest, most sacred night of all.

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In my mind’s eye, Christmas Eve has always been, and still is, overlaid within the embrace of a midnight blue sky lit by the twinkling glimmer of a hundred thousand stars; with the sensation of angels’ wings brushing the air around me; with the ethereal harmonies of a heavenly chorus echoing softly in the air; with the shadows of shepherds and sheep dotting the moonlit hillsides; with the dim lantern-glow of a stable warm with firelight and the sweet musty smell of hay and livestock as a young, overwhelmed couple contemplate their newborn child; with the mysterious Magi compelled to journey across long miles to bring gifts for the King they know the Christ child to be.

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Christmas Eve is sweet anticipation that yields to the joy and relief of Christmas Day, when Love came down, when all that is sacred became flesh and they called His name, Emmanuel, meaning, God with us.

via Daily Prompt: Sacred

CHRISTMAS TREES I HAVE KNOWN

Friday night after Thanksgiving my parents helped me put up my Christmas tree.

I love my Christmas tree. I spend a lot of time with it every year – usually at night, just before bedtime, in a darkened room, where the tiny colored lights shine their message of the season’s peace and soothe my soul as I contemplate life’s questions large and small.

I prefer a fairly traditional tree, with the traditional fire engine red (not burgundy) and dark green colors (not lime or citrine or turquoise), tiny multi-colored lights, and garland. I trim it with garland and wooden cranberry beads, red bows and peppermint canes, and a hodgepodge of ornaments collected over the years – some with sentimental meaning, some gifts from family and friends, some just because I thought they were pretty. I call it my red tree, and it might not be everybody’s idea of a pretty tree – it’s not trendy, you know – but it suits me very well.

It’s not the same as having a live tree, of course. But several years ago I reluctantly bowed to expediency and purchased an artificial pre-lit tree. I had had one too many battles involving berber carpet, six-week-old dry pine needles and an old vacuum cleaner; and one too many battles with the city’s refusal to haul away my old tree, and having to rely on the man who mowed my yard in the spring to haul its dried carcass off at the first mowing. And even then, some years I would have to postpone getting rid of it because an enterprising bird would have built a nest and begun a family, and I would have to wait until the eggs had hatched and the baby birds had flown.

So, no more real trees for me until I have hardwood or tiled floors, and until I have a vehicle big enough to haul it away, or friends willing to do it for me.

But my tree is missing something else: Ivory Snow®.

 

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The Christmas trees of my childhood

The scent of Christmas for me will always be the clean smell of fresh evergreen mixed with the scent of Ivory Snow® laundry detergent. When I was growing up, my mother carried on a tradition from her girlhood of mixing Ivory Snow – first in flakes, then, as technology “improved,” in concentrate – with water and a little salt to harden it, then taking a dishpan full of the sweet-smelling “snow” outside to “snow” the tree.

Snowing a tree was a grand excuse for my siblings and parents and me to get into “snowball” fights. Hey, it was soap, right? It could only make us cleaner.

We would let the Ivory Snow “snow” dry and harden overnight, then bring the tree in the next day to decorate it with lights, gold and silver garland, and ornaments.

We put peppermint canes on the tree until we got our miniature poodle, Penny, when I was 10. Penny liked to eat the peppermint canes off the tree. Within a day the bottom two feet of the tree would be bare of candy. Eventually my parents decided to stop putting peppermint canes on the tree for fear that Penny would pull the tree over one day while we were all at work and school. But she never forgot, and until the end of her days, whenever we brought a Christmas tree into the house, Penny would immediately begin sniffing its boughs for peppermint.

For many years, after Christmas I would pull a sprig off the tree along with one of the peppermint canes, and stash it in a box, sometimes writing a note of a Christmas memory from that year. Eventually I tired of hoarding small jewelry boxes of dried pine needles, but I always hated to say goodbye to a tree.

I still do the peppermint canes, but as far as I can tell, Ivory Snow® is no longer available in powder form, thus ensuring I will never be able to completely replicate the Christmas trees of my childhood.

 

Dick and Jeannette and Russ and the kindness of strangers

I’ll never forget my first Christmas tree as an adult living on my own. It was Christmas 1989 and I was living in an apartment complex off Lawndale Drive in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I lived for my first two years out of college. Across the way from me lived a middle-aged couple named Dick and Jeannette. She looked like Tammy Wynette, and he looked like a lumberjack, and in fact he owned a Christmas tree farm up in the Blue Ridges somewhere.

I didn’t know Dick and Jeannette except in passing, but one day we ran into each other outside our respective apartments, and they asked if I had my tree up.

“No, I’ve never had a tree,” I said. “I’ll be going to Mississippi for Christmas, and I don’t have a lot of extra money for one and I won’t be here for most of the holiday anyway.”

“You should get one,” they said, and I promised to think about it.

About a week later I came home from work and found standing in front of my door a little Scotch pine about three feet tall, in a red and green metal Christmas tree stand. In its top boughs perched an envelope with a Christmas card that said, “All it needs is a few lights, a little water and a lot of love. Merry Christmas! Love, Dick & Jeannette.”

I went to Walgreen’s and bought a box of peppermint canes, one strand of gold garland and one silver, two cards of tiny red bows to tie onto the tree, and two 50-light strands of lights, one white and one multi-colored. It might have been the most perfect tree ever. I wish somewhere I had a picture of it, but I don’t think I do.

When I lived in south Nashville I would go to a tree lot next to Harding Mall at the corner of Harding Place and Nolensville Road. My first year, as I was looking at trees, I found one then looked around for help, and approached a man in Carhartt coveralls.

“Are you waiting on someone?” I asked.

He looked at me and said, “You.”

We went to get my tree.

“Can you put it in my tree stand?” I asked.

“Yep.”

He put it in the tree stand then wrapped it in netting.

“Can you tie it into my car trunk?”

“Yep.”

And he did.

Then, finally: “Do you take a check?”

“Yep.” A long pause and a small upward tug at the corner of his lips. “You have an honest face.”

Every year thereafter, Russ would help me put the tree of my choice into the red and green tree stand that Dick and Jeannette had given me, wrap it in netting, then tie it into the trunk of my tiny car, first a Hyundai Excel, and later a Toyota Tercel.

I never really got to know Dick and Jeannette or Russ, but I think about them every Christmas with gratitude.

 

Going artificial: the blue tree, the peppermint tree, and the traditional red tree

Pre-lit trees were still pretty new to the decorating scene when I first decided to go the artificial tree route. My first artificial tree was a 7½ -foot blue spruce in K-Mart’s Martha Stewart line of products. (The K-Mart guy said some choice words trying to fit that box into the back seat of my Tercel.) It’s a beautiful tree and it looks wonderful when it’s put together but it’s almost as much trouble as a real tree. It is not pre-lit, and it has branches of differing lengths with color-coded tags on the end of each wire branch to indicate into which level holes of the “tree trunk” I should insert the branch.

Eventually I purchased my current tree, which is pre-lit and a thousand times easier to put up and take down than the Martha Stewart tree or a real tree, and although it’s not as full as I would like, it is still pretty. But for a few years I lived in a partially furnished house that allowed me room to put up both trees. The lady who owned the home had a blue formal living room, so I decided to decorate the Martha Stewart tree in blue, white and silver. It was lovely. I thought it might be anemic-looking, but instead, it gave an air of serenity, its blue and white colors reminiscent of moonlight on snow.

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Then in 2014, after I had returned to Tennessee from law school and both my pre-lit and my Martha Stewart tree were in storage, I purchased a solid white Christmas tree for my little apartment and decorated it all in red, as my “peppermint tree.” In 2015, in a more permanent home and once again in possession of my belongings, I took the white tree to work, where it adorns one corner of my office.

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One day when I live somewhere that allows room for two trees, I’ll have the blue tree again. I might even have a peppermint tree there, too. But in the meantime, I must limit myself to my old-fashioned red and green tree, which comes as close as I can currently get to looking like the real Christmas trees of my childhood.

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And I’ll fix a mug of tea and sit before its lights in the quiet of the night and think my thoughts, dream my dreams, hope my hopes and pray my prayers. And its ornaments will remind me of loved ones and memories. And its evergreen boughs will remind me of everlasting life. And its lights will remind me of the Light of the World. And thus it fulfills its purpose, artificial though it may be, just as a real tree gives its life, to spend these few weeks every December honoring the One who gave His life for us, Whose birthday we celebrate this holy season.

And I’ll go to bed and sleep in peace.

ON ANXIETY: GLEANING NEW WISDOM FROM OLD WORDS

 

 

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“To be or not to be, that is the question…”

“To have and to hold from this day forward…”

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

“For God so loved the world…”

Words mark the passages of our lives. The most powerful or memorable words of all – such as those at the beginning of this post – become so familiar they require no explanation. But sometimes their very familiarity can lessen their impact.

Let me pause right here to explain something for the benefit of new readers. I write this blog for a general audience. Because it is personal, it inevitably reflects my spiritual beliefs, which run deep. But I have many friends and readers who respect those beliefs without sharing them, and if you fall into that category I hope you will keep reading today, and that you will find something to take with you.

Last week I found a particular Bible passage popping up multiple times. It showed up in different devotionals that I receive from two different denominations (Methodist and Baptist), and in my Facebook newsfeed from a couple of different people.

When something or someone repeatedly shows up on my radar – especially from unrelated sources – I take note. So when I read Philippians 4:6-7 for the fourth time this week, I gave it some thought.

Here’s the New American Standard Bible version.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

And then, Friday night, I was having an online conversation with a friend when she shared with me a particular issue that was worrying her.

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I wanted to ease her mind. The passage from Philippians came to mind, but I didn’t want to come across as having an “abracadabra” approach to prayer, treating God like The Great Magician – you know, just say your prayers, and poof! – all worry is gone, all problems immediately solved.

In fact, my friend actually asked me that. Did these verses mean that if she prayed, God would just take away her worries? Suddenly I knew she needed more than a pat, orthodox answer. And just as suddenly, I realized the Apostle Paul had written words with a very practical application that in all my years of reading these verses, I had never comprehended.

“This is very practical advice,” I found myself responding. “In fact, the more I think about it, the more I see that even for someone who doesn’t believe in God, this is practical advice.

“First, in the process of articulating your request (or, at least your need), you’re identifying the source of your anxiety, which reduces it from a huge cloud of amorphous YUCK to something specific and finite. This step alone helps it to seem more manageable.

“Second, the verse tells you to focus on the positives and enumerate the things for which you are thankful. This also reduces fear. Either or both of these steps can help free your mind up enough for your natural problem-solving abilities to kick in and for you to think creatively toward a solution.”

Obviously, these exercises in positivity begin their work by helping us to alter our internal mental landscape. That can, in turn, lead us to solutions for the external sources of worry. It’s a tried and true approach to life. “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Or, as the Carter Family sang, “Keep on the sunny side of life.”

But much is beyond our control. And for those of us who believe in a loving, personal God, that faith brings an added measure of hope and comfort.

I come from a long line of worriers. Whether it starts as a general sense of protectiveness and concern for loved ones, or mulling over personal issues and struggles, a certain amount of worry is a knee-jerk, natural human reaction to the stresses of life. But I’ve found that if I indulge in it, over-thinking can easily cross the line into chronic anxiety, gnawing fear and downright panic.

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Next time, I’m going to follow the advice the Apostle Paul first gave to the church at Philippi, that still resonates in our stressful, harried world: first, prayer, putting your fears, hopes and needs into words; and then, thinking with gratitude about all that is good in your life, and in the process, remembering that everything changes and the current difficulty will pass.

It’s still a winning formula.