All Things Flow to the Sea

Achill Island, County Mayo, Ireland — 2019

“Achill” by Derek Mahon

im chaonaí uaigneach nach mór go bhfeicim an lá

I lie and imagine a first light gleam in the bay
After one more night of erosion and nearer the grave,
Then stand and gaze from the window at break of day
As a shearwater skims the ridge of an incoming wave;
And I think of my son a dolphin in the Aegean,
A sprite among sails knife-bright in a seasonal wind,
And wish he were here where currachs walk on the ocean
To ease with his talk the solitude locked in my mind.

I sit on a stone after lunch and consider the glow
Of the sun through mist, a pearl bulb containèdly fierce;
A rain-shower darkens the schist for a minute or so
Then it drifts away and the sloe-black patches disperse.
Croagh Patrick towers like Naxos over the water
And I think of my daughter at work on her difficult art
And wish she were with me now between thrush and plover,
Wild thyme and sea-thrift, to lift the weight from my heart.

The young sit smoking and laughing on the bridge at evening
Like birds on a telephone pole or notes on a score.
A tin whistle squeals in the parlour, once more it is raining,
Turf-smoke inclines and a wind whines under the door;
And I lie and imagine the lights going on in the harbor
Of white-housed Náousa, your clear definition at night,
And wish you were here to upstage my disconsolate labour
As I glance through a few thin pages and switch off the light.”

from Derek Mahon, Selected Poems, published by Viking Adult, 1991

Born in Belfast in 1941, Derek Mahon was one of the most highly respected poets of his generation. His 2008 book Life on Earth was awarded the “Poetry Now Award” by the Irish Times. Mahon was a master of capturing the Irish landscape and the gift of the moment. He died in 2020.

im chaonaí uaigneach nach mór go bhfeicim an lá translates from the Gaelic to English, “I am a lonely cry that must see the day.”

Journey of the Magi

Poem for a Tuesday — “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

in T.S. Eliot Selected Poems, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1936.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”–Matthew 2:1-2

“Adoration of the Magi” Edward Burne-Jones, Musee d’Orsay Paris

Love Came Down at Christmas

I’ll share with you my first Christmas memory.  It has nothing to do with Jesus, shepherds, or Magi – or even St. Nicholas.  I was four years old.  My father was working in sales for 3M, and he must have been doing well, because that year my family moved out of a cramped two-bedroom starter home into a brand-new home. A home with hardwood floors that we could slide on in our stockinged feet.  A home with a stone and glass fireplace between the living room and family room, where our Christmas stockings could be hung, and Santa could squeeze down the chimney.

Christmastime in southeastern Pennsylvania seems to be infrequently white, but that Christmas it snowed, and snowed, and snowed some more.  All day long, while my mother was busy in the kitchen whipping up a holiday feast and my Grandmommie White sat in front of the fire with her knitting, the snow fell, changing our neighborhood from a familiar suburban subdivision into a strange landscape of winter white. 

My mother’s parents and grandmother (also known as Grammy, Pop, and Nana) were on their way to our new home for a Christmas visit.  They were coming from rural New Jersey, where Grammy and Pop had been dairy farmers.  They were literally traveling over the Delaware River and through Penn’s Woods.  Pop was a Buick man.  Although I have no recollection of the car he was driving that year, I’m sure it was enormous, boat-like, possibly with fins and bright silver hubcaps.  This was, of course, before the day of all-season-radial tires and all-wheel-drive SUVs.  I am certain that Pop’s Buick was a dream for a Sunday-after-church drive, but it was not a vehicle of choice for a long snowy journey.

All day long, we waited, and we waited, and we waited, for Grammy, Pop, and Nana to arrive as we watched the snow grow deeper.  Although my Dad made a number of forays out to shovel the deepening snow, we didn’t see the snowplow.  Nor did we see any cars venturing down the long hill that led from Route 202 to the new house on Buckingham Drive that we called home.  I suspect my Mom was worried.

Pop, in the meantime, was intrepidly inching his Buick along the road to Doylestown.  It was an impressive accomplishment, especially since he probably had plenty of backseat-driving-advice from Nana, by far the most formidable and opinionated member of the family.  Born Anna Elisabeth Stelzenmuller to German immigrant parents in Flatbush Brooklyn, Nana had long ago ditched her German roots.  She went instead by the Americanized name “Betty.”  She was a hairdresser and fashion icon, in the days before anyone had ever heard of fashion icons.  She always smelled of the exotic scent of Shalimar.  Nana as hair stylist had spent many years on her feet – and she had the feet to prove it.  They were all arthritic knobs and bunions, corns and tough callouses.  Yet, somehow Nana packaged those beauties into the most fashionable of footwear – pointy-toed pumps of sumptuous suede or patent leather with kitten heels and bows or buckles. 

Pop’s Buick made it all the way to Doylestown.  At the top of the long, steep Berkshire Road that led down to our home, Pop took one look at the unplowed, snowy depths, pulled over, and ordered, “Everyone out.  We walk from here.”  They did just that.  Pop was loaded down with presents.  Grammy carried at least one pie and undoubtedly a Jello salad.  And my Nana following in their wake in her fashionable shoes.  I remember the knock on the door and my family gathering around to welcome them in from the cold.  We were all full of laughter and tears and wonder.

I remember what happened next, too.  My Grandmommie White had put down her knitting.  She was a nurse by trade and knew exactly what was needed to thaw frozen feet.  She filled the tea kettle to warm water on the stove.  Once it was piping hot, she filled a basin, took a soft towel, and then she knelt at my Nana’s feet.  She took off my Nana’s now ruined shoes, and then she began to massage and wash those terrible, ugly feet – bunions, bulges, callouses, and all.  Most Christians practice the rite of footwashing at Easter, as they remember the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his friends.  But that year, my Grandmommie washed feet at Christmas.

Thinking back to that Christmas many years ago, I’ll tell you what I learned: Christmas is about love.  It’s about the kind of love that makes you inch your way through a snowstorm in a big old Buick. It’s about the kind of love that frets all day in the kitchen while you think about your kin, traveling hazardous roads.  It’s about the kind of love that sends you walking through deep snow with a big white fuzzy dog with a pink bow clamped under your arm to give to your first granddaughter.  It’s the kind of love that sends you to your knees to wash feet, even Nana’s feet. 

Over the years, I’ve learned that all that love gives us a taste of the Holy Love that came down to us at Christmas.  In our love for one another is the echo of God-made-flesh, of God born to poor peasant parents, of God who chose to draw first breath in the barnyard muck, surrounded by sheep and goats, donkeys and oxen, camels, hens and doves.  Love came down at Christmas in a tiny babe, the Christ-child, who would one day teach the world what it truly means to love – big-hearted, open-armed, without limits. 

May your Christmas be filled with love.

Luke 2:1-7

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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In the Bleak Midwinter

Poem for a Tuesday — “In the Bleak Midwinter”

by Christina Rossetti

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Christina Georgina Rossetti is considered one of the finest female poets of the Victorian era. Born to Italian political refugees and classics scholars, she lived in London and was homeschooled. She began writing poetry by age 12. She suffered from bouts of depression which she soothed with religious devotion. A noted beauty, Rosetti never married but was engaged three times. She wrote sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, and lyrics. Remarkably prolific, Rosetti’s complete poems run to well over 1,000 pages. Her poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” was adapted as a Christmas carol by another child of refugees Gustav Holst.

Photo by Oleg Magni on

Call Me Blessed

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Call Me Blessed” Luke 1:39-55

Ma kara!  What was the meaning of this?!

The messenger had disappeared with a snap.  The place where he had stood seemed to pulse with an invisible energy.  The air had a whiff of ozone, like the Judean desert after the crack of heat lightening.

I shook my head and looked around.   Down below, some goats were foraging in the thicket next to the wadi.  Up above near the caves, chickens were scratching the packed earth by the bread oven.  No one seemed to know or care that I had just met Gabriel himself, the messenger of God Almighty, holy be his name.  The angel had left me with more questions than answers.  Had our prayers been answered?  Was God sending the Messiah?

I know that I had said yes, but as I walked home, my head filled with second guesses.  Nazareth was an unlikely hometown for a Messiah.  Here half-naked toddlers clung to their mother’s skirts and gnawed breadcrusts to sooth teething.  The Holy One of Israel should be born in a palace, wrapped in silks, tended by a legion of nannies.  The Messiah should be born to a princess, and I was a village girl with dirt under my fingernails from weeding the garden.  Had Gabriel really spoken, or had too much sun stirred my overactive imagination?

At home, my Ama greeted me with a smile.  “Ah, Mary!  It’s about time.  We’ve had news of our cousin Elisabeth.  At last, she is to bear a child.”

My eyes grew wide.  It was just as the messenger had said.  For as long as I could remember, we had prayed for Elisabeth, that God might open her womb.  But years had passed, and there was no child.  The skin at the corner of her eyes had creased in a web of fine lines, and still there was no child.  Her hair had begun to gray and the shoulders of her husband Zechariah rounded with age, and still there was no child.  Hers was the most hopeless of cases.  Yet my Ama was telling me the impossible: a baby was on the way.  I was needed.  In the morning, I would depart for Hebron with my uncle, my dohd, Joash.  There I would help Elisabeth until the child was born.

If Elisabeth was with child, then anything was possible.  I looked down at my flat stomach with my brow creased in wonder.  I should tell my Ama.

“But Ama . . .” I began.  She brushed my words aside.

“Not a word, Mary.  You are going to Hebron and that is final.  You would just be underfoot here, mooning over Joseph anyway.  This will be good for you.”

Joseph may have been the best future-husband ever, but I didn’t think he would take kindly to my news.  Maybe getting out of town was a good idea.

Early in the morning, before the sun had risen, Joash came with his two donkeys.  A slight man with a scraggly beard and bright eyes that took in everything, Joash was my mother’s youngest brother.  He was a trader of spices and opobalsam.  Twice each year, he traveled to Jericho at the edge of the Arabian desert.  Always he returned with fragrant treasures that he swapped for what was needed: eggs, flour, cheese, linen.  He also came with news of our people, news that often made my mother weep or turned my father’s eyes dark with rage.

Dohd Joash gave me a hug and went in to see my parents.  I waited in the courtyard, scratching his donkeys and wondering how long it would take us to make the eighty-mile trip.  Before long, Joash was back.  He handed me a sack of rags and some day-old bread from my Ama.  “Tuck these into your pack, Mary,” he said and handed me the lead for one of the donkeys.  Apparently, we were walking.  This would take a while.

Later that morning as ha shemesh neared the middle of his journey across the sky, we stopped in the no-man’s-land between Galilee and Samaria.  “Mary,” Joash instructed, “Take your sack of rags and bread and leave it there.”

He pointed to a broad rock, like a table, about fifty yards from the roadside.  It seemed ridiculous, but I did what I was told.  A movement in the brush caught my eye and made me scurry back to the safety of my dohd.  Before we left, I saw a dozen lepers at the rock, stick figures swathed in stained bandages, pawing through my sack with fingerless hands.  Such a terrible, lonely life!  “Can’t they be helped?”  I asked my uncle.

Joash gave a sad sigh and a little shrug. “Perhaps when the Messiah comes.”

On the third evening, at the edge of Shechem in the shadows of Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, we stopped at the tax collector’s booth.

“Ah, Joash!  I see you are again on your way to Jericho,” the tax collector greeted us.  He was a fat man with grease in his beard and a gold tooth.  Beside his booth was a pen where some listless sheep and goats were attended by a scrawny, barefoot boy in a filthy, hand-me-down tunic.  His enormous eyes looked dull.

My uncle shared news of the Galilee while the tax collector greedily eyed the two donkeys.  Once the pleasantries were over, the tax collector got down to business.  “Ah, Joash!  What is a man to do?  Every year, Herod expects more of me.  I regretfully inform you that the toll has doubled.  Such a sad state of affairs.”  The two men haggled until they reached a compromise, then my uncle pressed a gold coin into his well-fleshed palm and we left.

As soon as we were out of earshot, I wanted to know, “How can he treat his child like that, Dohd?  Did you see how thin and miserable the boy was?”

My Uncle Joash raised a quizzical eyebrow.  “His child?  Your parents really need to get you out more, Mary.  That boy was a slave.”  My shock prompted my uncle to put a comforting arm around my shoulder.

“But uncle,” I asked, “To treat a child like this, surely this is something only the Gentiles do?  Who can stop such a thing?”

A bitter look crossed my uncle’s face.  He turned back to his donkey, “Perhaps when the Messiah comes, Mary.”

When we reached Alexandrium, we contended with even worse.  In the Decapolis city of Alexandrium, the Israelites, Samaritans, and Gentiles mix.  They don’t especially like one another, but there is mutual advantage in trade.  Before we reached the city walls, my uncle stopped.  He tucked my head scarf protectively across my face.  In a voice so stern that I dared not disobey he instructed, “Stay close and do not look up.”  I stood in my uncle’s shadow as we passed a small company of Roman soldiers sprawling in the shade and we entered the city gates.

In the middle of the market, we were stopped.  I recognized some of the soldiers who had sized us up as we passed.  They pushed and hassled my uncle.  Where was he going?  What was his business?  Was he a friend of the emperor?  At the same time, two men edged between me and my dohd’s protective shadow.  For every step they took toward me, I took a step back.  Within moments, I would be gone, lost in the crowd. 

“What have we here?” a soldier asked, plucking the scarf from my face with a practiced hand.  He cupped my chin and tipped my face up, as if assessing my value. 

Before I could shout “Dai!”  Enough!  He snatched his hand back with a curse, as if it had been burned.  He shook his head and pushed me back to my uncle.  “Leave them!” he ordered, backing away.

My uncle dried my anxious tears and tucked my scarf back across my face.  “You were born under a lucky star, Mary.  Do you have any idea how fortunate you are that they changed their minds?  Such is our lot until the Messiah comes.”

I know that Gabriel had called my blessed, and my Dohd Joash had said that I was lucky, but I hardly felt so.  In fact, every day that we traveled, I felt worse.  At first, my small breasts began to hurt and swell.  Then, I began to feel fatigue, so weary in the evenings that I was asleep within moments of lying down.  That day, I had felt queasy upon waking.  The smoke from the fire roiled my gut and made my head swim.  If this was blessed, then I wasn’t sure I wanted it.

The more I saw of Israel, the more I wondered what any child born to me could ever do to help.  Our people needed saving in more ways than I could count—from sickness, greed, corruption, poverty, occupation.  It would take more than an army of babies full-grown to bring that sort of change.  As we came to the edge of Hebron and looked for the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, my thoughts were bleak.  It would take God Almighty himself, blessed be his name, to turn things upside down.

I watered the donkeys and gave them some grain while Joash went in to speak with Zechariah.  As I neared the door, Elisabeth rushed out, looking expectant and joyous.  She pulled me close and hugged me to her round belly.  I could feel her unborn child kicking and wriggling between us.  Suddenly, Elisabeth gave a cry and held her tummy.  She looked at me with keen eyes.  I sensed that somehow, she knew.  She knew my fear and worry and doubt.  She knew my truth.

The words she said next were like a healing balm for my troubled heart, “Would you look at us?  You, too young.  Me, too old.  We are filled with the promises of God.  It may not feel like it right now, Mary, but you are blessed.”

She reached over and rested her hand on my stomach, “And blessed is this child within you.”

And in that moment, it seemed anything was possible.  God Almighty, holy be his name, could set Israel aright.  The proud could be humbled; the lowly lifted up.  The rich sent away empty; the poor filled.  A peasant girl from Nazareth could give birth to the Messiah.  Why not?

“Visitation” (In the predella: Episodes from the Infancy of Christ)
Mariotto Albertinelli (Florence 1474 – 1515), The Uffizi Gallery

Luke 1:39-55

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Siskin Green perform “The Canticle of the Turning,” based on the Magnificat, filmed for BBC Scotland’s Reflections at the Quay.

The Choice for Joy

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Choice for Joy” Philippians 4:4-7

This Sunday has long been known as Gaudete Sunday.  That name derives from ancient Latin words that began our worship on the third Sunday of Advent, long before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.  I’m talking about Paul’s exhortation to the church in Philippi.  Gaudete in Domino semper, rejoice in the Lord always.

In the days when Advent was closely observed as a season of repentance, fasting was eased on this Sunday as Christians anticipated the joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus and his triumphant return in glory.  These days, the only reminders of that celebratory observance are the name Gaudete or Joy Sunday and the pink candle on our Advent wreath.  The pink is a softening of the season’s penitential purple.

“Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I will say rejoice.”  The theme of this Sunday may feel like a jarring, dissonant message for some this morning.  As we acknowledged in our midweek service of the Longest Night, the joy of Christmas may feel at odds with our personal feelings of sorrow, pain, and hardship.

Burt won’t be merry this Christmas.  His wife Lois died last summer.  This year on Christmas Day, there won’t be a salty, savory ham baking in the oven.  Nor will there be a platter of deviled eggs or a sticky, sweet pecan pie.  This year, the kids and grandkids won’t be coming home for the holiday dinner.  Burt has a big, painful hole in his life.  All Burt can feel is the emptiness and sorrow in his heart.

Kristin is struggling this Christmas.  The kids will be spending the day with their father and his new wife—and they’re expecting a baby.  While her kids are unwrapping presents from Santa, Kristin will have a second cup of coffee and watch one of those Hallmark Christmas movies.  Kristin wonders how her “happily ever after” ended with adultery and divorce.  She feels lonely, betrayed, and defeated.

Joanie and Curt don’t have much to celebrate this year.  Their small business was a casualty of COVID-19.  They have found other work, but it may take years to pay off their mountain of debt.  This year instead of shopping, they’re making special gifts for the kids and upcycling some used toys and clothes.  All the same, Santa won’t have much under the tree.  Joanie and Curt feel stressed, disappointed, and powerless.

“Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I will say rejoice.”  That’s what the Apostle Paul said to his friends in Philippi.  Bible scholars tell us that the circumstances of the Philippian church were hardly joyful.  Their Greco-Roman neighbors viewed them with suspicion.  In fact, Paul and Silas had been driven out of their community by prosperous merchants who said they were bad for business.  The young church needed Paul’s leadership, but his return to Philippi had been long delayed.  When news came that Paul was in the imperial prison, the Philippians sent Epaphroditis to Rome to provide support.  Then, came the news that Epaphroditus was sick—near death.  We can imagine the worry and concern of the Philippians as they waited and feared the worst.  It must have felt to some felt like a jarring and dissonant message when Epaphroditus finally returned, bearing Paul’s epistle with the exhortation to rejoice always.

We don’t like it when folks make light of our suffering.  It feels like a gut punch when we are lost in grief and someone assures us that our loved one passed because God needed another angel.  We feel like failures when a more skilled or experienced friend offers to help—after our plans have come to ruin.  Early in my tenure here, I was approached by an older woman who had been a member of the church as a child.  When her father divorced her mother—a scandalous turn of events in that day and age, Rev. Gurley, our pastor at the time, told the bereft wife and children that all would be better when they met a “nice guy.”  Poor Reverend Gurley was well-intended, but his words felt like gall in the ears of those he had sought to comfort.  Almost seventy years later, the anger and hurt of the daughter was still palpable as she told me her story.

It’s important to note that the Apostle Paul wasn’t speaking platitudes or empty promises to his friends in Philippi.  He wasn’t making light of their struggle and fear.  On the contrary, Paul believed that joy was a core characteristic of the Christian life in all circumstances, and he modeled that for others.  The Book of Acts tells us that when Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi, they sang songs of faith and prayed—much to the amazement of their jailor.  When Paul described to the Corinthians the difficulties of his service for Jesus, Paul said he was “grieving yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).  Even as Paul wrote to the Philippians, his end was near.  Condemned to death for the sake of the gospel, Paul had appealed his case to the emperor himself—and everyone knew that would not go well.  Despite every adverse circumstance, Paul lived in joy and hoped that others would, too.

The secret to Paul’s joy was its source.  Paul rejoiced in the Lord.  This wasn’t the fleeting, superficial feeling of happiness that comes when everything goes our way.  Rather, Paul’s joy was found in the knowledge that he belonged to God, who loved him enough to enter the world’s darkness and die for his salvation.  Paul trusted in God’s love in every circumstance.  He boldly wrote to the church in Rome that God’s love was always victorious, saying, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Paul’s joy in the Lord sustained him through rejection, persecution, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, and even the shadow death because he knew that he belonged to God both in this world and the world that is to come.  Now that was something to rejoice in.

Henri Nouwen, one of the finest pastoral theologians of the twentieth century, taught that joy is a choice.  Sounding a lot like the Apostle Paul, Nouwen wrote in his 1994 book Here and Now that “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.”  Nouwen saw joy as a spiritual discipline, the daily choice to remember our belovedness and to live in the light of God’s unquenchable love for us.  This joy is ours always, regardless of what is going on in our lives.

Nouwen himself used daily quiet times of prayer to reflect upon his life and attend to his mood.  In that stillness, in the choice to remember the love of God revealed in Jesus, Nouwen’s world would change.  Worry, stress, irritability, and sorrow would give way to joy.  In Nouwen’s words, the daily choice for joy transformed him from a “victim,” overwrought by the pain and challenge of life, to “victor,” resting in the eternal goodness of God.  Joy can be ours for the choosing.

The choice for joy that Paul and Henri Nouwen described might seem like a dry theological assertion or an unlikely turn of events if we didn’t see it in action.  We have all encountered folks who knew tremendous adversity and grief yet continued to shine light for the world around them.  I think about Anna Ferree, who lost her two sons in tragic accidents.  After their deaths, a friend asked Anna for help with watching her children.  Before she knew it, Anna had a daycare in her home.  There Anna provided love and support for many of Saranac Lake’s children.  Anna still mourned the loss of her sons, yet she chose to make a helping and healing difference in the lives of local families.  There were story times and naps, snacks and tea parties, play time and even prayer time.  Anna saw her experience as a vocation, a gift from God who called her from sorrow to joy. 

We all know people like Anna.  The mother who raised three incredibly successful kids alone.  The dad who never misses a Little League game, despite his battle with cancer.  The older brother who skips college and works hard to provide the resources for others to get an education.  They do the impossible with grace.  We all know folks who have shown us an inner strength and remarkable faith that chooses joy, despite the odds.

Beyond the difficulties and problems that every life holds, there is cause for joy on this Gaudete Sunday, a joy that is both holy and improbable.  When we stand fast in God’s love and make the choice for joy, we can be bowed down by grief, like the recently widowed Burt, and yet we can rejoice.  We can struggle with broken, dysfunctional families, like Kristin alone on Christmas Day, and yet we can rejoice.  We can know hardship and failure, like Joanie and Curt who lost their business, and still we can rejoice.  Joy is ours because we are beloved.  Amid adversity, we belong to God who has overcome the grief and sorrow, pain and problems of this world.

May we rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say rejoice.


Holly Hearon. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 16, 2008.  Accessed online at

Carla Works. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 21, 2021.  Accessed online at

Michael Joseph Brown. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 13, 2009.  Accessed online at

Henri Nouwen. Here and Now. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006.

4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:4-7

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Prayer for the Weary

Dear God,

No one told us twenty months ago that this was going to go on soooo long.

After all, how long could it be? A week, a month, a season?

Our cheeks are chapped from wearing masks.

We’re sick of minding our social distance.

We’ve been tested, immunized, and boostered.

We miss hugs and hanging out.

We worry about friends on the frontlines; their hopes are worn thin as suture silk.

We’d love to see a holiday comedy in a packed theater while eating an enormous bucket of buttered popcorn and laughing out loud with our neighbors.

We long for the days when we went caroling — “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” floating through the skilled nursing corridors, stirring memories of Christmas-past.

We fear that this will never end, or if it does, there will be a new normal that isn’t nearly as spontaneous, joyful, or carefree as life once was.

We’re tired, Lord.

In this Advent season, grant us the grace to remember that you are Emmanuel, God with us in the midst of all that makes us weary.

Renew us in hope — and patience.

Could you please double up on the patience?

Through Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.

“But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” — Isaiah 40:31

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I Am Going to Start Living Like a Mystic

Poem for a Tuesday — “I Am Going to Start Living Like a Mystic” by Edward Hirsch

Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.

The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,
each a station in a pilgrimage—silent, pondering.

Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies
are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.

I will examine their leaves as pages in a text
and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.

I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel
and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.

I shall begin scouring the sky for signs
as if my whole future were constellated upon it.

I will walk home alone with the deep alone,
a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.

in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, ed. Billy Collins. New York: Random House, 2005, p. 110.

from his website . . . “Edward Hirsch is a celebrated poet and tireless advocate for poetry. He was born in Chicago in 1950—his accent makes it impossible for him to hide his origins—and educated at Grinnell College and the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a Ph.D. in Folklore. His devotion to poetry is lifelong. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, a Pablo Neruda Presidential Medal of Honor, the Prix de Rome, and an Academy of Arts and Letters Award. In 2008, he was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.”

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