Thursday, December 1, 2011

First Week of Advent - Hope

This week, we light the candle of hope for Advent.  I find myself hoping a lot these days. I hope for the economy to improve.  I hope I can run, walk, or crawl far enough to finish a half marathon in January.  I hope my daughter gets into the grad school of her dreams.  I hope my son-in-law finds a job after he graduates from law school in May.  I hope my friend’s baby arrives safe and healthy.  I hope....

One of the earliest lessons I learned about counseling has been one of the most universal and most enduring.  I had just started my year long internship as a counselor at the mental health center in Morganton, NC and was working with everyone - children and adults, individuals and families.  It was a year of learning and practice, of happy successes and miserable failures.  As I was beginning to see my first clients, my supervisor told me,  “The first thing you have to do is give them hope.  No matter what the problem - big or small, simple or complicated  - you have to start with hope.  If they can believe things will get better, it will happen.  You have to help them see the light in the darkness.”
Hope does that.  It shines light into the darkest corners.  It’s the first step out of depression or family chaos.  Hope gets us out of bed in the morning and moves us forward.  Hope gives us the courage to try again or to start over one more time.  Hope says “Take my hand. We can do this.”   Hope is transformative, bringing new ideas and energy for healing and recovery.

As the poet, Lisel Mueller writes in her poem entitled Hope from
Alive Together: New and Selected Poems:

“It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves, 
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future
and all we know of God.”

Or,  as Andy tells Red in a letter of encouragement in the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption,  “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

and so... I hope...


Ah, for the life of my cat Sylvester, who can relax in any position imaginable.
Upside down. Half on, half off a chair. Hanging on the slender ledge of a window sill. In a 360-degree corkscrew.
I think there's much to be learned from pets about how to live life. One of my favorite books on living in the present moment is Eckhart Tolle's Guardians of Being that explores the fascinating lessons that pets have for us.
During this season of Advent, I have decided to carve out periods of stillness, of utter relaxation and just "being." It's a tough goal. Deadlines and holiday frenzy squeeze in. But I have my cat as a meditative symbol, as a reminder that sometimes just being is enough. Or maybe what I need more than added holiday shopping is a simple cat nap.



On a recent commercial -- one of many aimed at getting me to spend way too much money on gifts or decorations or food -- I heard the tagline, "The holidays are all about family."  That can be difficult to hear if you are, like me, a singleton with no spouse or children (yet), and living hundreds of miles away from anyone biologically related to you. That is the situation more and more people find themselves in here in 21st century America, though advertisers would still have us pine for that Norman Rockwell family Christmas, and spend any amount necessary to get it.  Above is one of my holiday family photos.  I do not share DNA with anyone in it.  They are my friends, fellow church members, mentors, encouragers, or blood relatives of those who are.  Last Thursday, when I was between two night shifts at work and unable to travel to my parents' home in KY, they were my Thanksgiving family.  We shared an afternoon, a prayer, a meal, conversation, a game of touch football, and an abundance of laughter.  It was a wonderful holiday, one of many when I have been blessed with non-traditional family. 

The first time I spent a holiday away from my parents, brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins was Thanksgiving of 1998, when I was an exchange student in Angers, France.
That day, just an average Thursday in that country, an American couple named the Bernicks asked a dozen students to join them and their children for dinner after they met a few of us at their church.  Two years later, when I was living on the other side of France as a missionary, I was invited by my supervisor's family, the Joneses, for a very late (by American standards) and loud (by any standard) dinner, where more than twenty guests from three countries conversed in different languages across the table.  The following Christmas (still in France) was much quieter, as my friends John and Laura Littleford hosted a dinner for just the three of us, followed by American Christmas movies to keep our homesickness at bay.  During my years in divinity school at Gardner-Webb University, I enjoyed many Easter dinners with the Youngblood family from church.  When I was a chaplain resident on-call on Christmas Day at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center, my friends Sara Jane and Trey Moran brought me a home-cooked Christmas meal, and kept me company until the pager called me back to the ER.  Last year, I had to work night shift at MUSC on Christmas Eve, but was invited the next day to the home of Scott and Deanna McBroom, along with other friends and relatives, for a meal that was uneventful aside from the microwave nearly exploding when my serving tray turned out to have metallic paint on it.  And last week was the fourth Thanksgiving in a row that I have spent at the Flowers house.

All of these are my family holiday memories, just as much as those I have spent with my relatives.  So, maybe the commercial is right and "The holidays are all about family."  But more than that, I think they are about remembering that we are ALL family.  A Bible verse that often comes to my mind is Psalm 68:6, which tells us, "God sets the lonely in families."  I was thankful on Thursday, as I am every day, that God calls us to be family to one another, and that every single holiday, no matter where I am, I've been surrounded by people faithful to that call.


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