Monthly Archives: March 2013

Easter – at Christmas – or Santa Bunny?

santa-bunny‘Tis the season. I came across this piece in my files in a different version, which I originally contributed, a few years ago, to another venue. A few things have changed since I first wrote the blog entry. My sister has retired from her church job, and each of the important people in my life has grown a bit older. Fortunately they are all still here.

This year, Easter will be a time of new life in a very physical sense for my brother, who is recovering from open-heart surgery and for my brother-in-law who will be receiving a stem cell transplant Easter Monday in his battle against lymphoma. These two things, in particular, make us aware that life on earth is ours for a season and always a gift. It is an opportunity for redemption and new chances, for others of us, who are not dealing with physical illness, as we metaphorically roll away the stone of pride, mistakes and sin in our lives, in exchange for new lives in a less physical sense. Such things make us realize that life eternal can be ours, beyond a mere season, by virtue of our ability to receive. It can be a time of family and love and spiritual awakening…for those of us who choose to make it so.

As Easter looms near, I thought it fitting to edit my writing and post it here. Santa Bunny, here it is…this one’s for you.

 

Christmas… at Easter?

Yesterday, I went shopping for Easter cards to deliver at Easter dinner. It got me in the spirit of things, and brought back memories of wonderful Easter celebrations with my own family, in years past. My extended family – on my husband’s Armenian side – has incredibly large gatherings, with fabulous Armenian food and dozens of relatives and friends. My sister, Nora, is the minister of music and choir director for a church in Pennsylvania and has elaborate services that include brass quintets, bell choirs and lots of terrific music. We’ve traveled eastward to be with everyone on a number of occasions. Over the years, we’ve also spent Easter in Philadelphia, Boston, New Hampshire, Utah, Colorado and other places we’ve lived. It has always been very special. Last year, we hosted about 50 people at our home in Colorado, including many of Jordan’s friends from DU who needed a family away from home for dinner.

While I was shopping, I actually began thinking about a memory entirely unrelated to Easter… well, in my mind it was entirely unrelated to Easter, until yesterday. I thought about the story that I have always read to my children, WITHOUT FAIL, every Christmas since I can remember. It’s O. Henry’s, Gift of the Magi. Now, for those of you who may not be up to speed on this short story, I’ll give you the short Wikipedia synopsis:

The Gift of the Magi is a short story written by O. Henry about a young married couple and how they deal with the challenge of buying secret Christmas gifts for each other with very little money. As a sentimental story with a moral lesson about gift giving, it has been a popular one for adaptation, especially for presentation during the Christmas season.
James [Jim] Dillingham Young and his wife Della are a young couple who are very much in love with each other, but can barely afford their one-room apartment due to their very bad economic situation. For Christmas, Della decides to buy Jim a fob that costs $21.00 for his prized pocket watch given to him by his father’s father. To raise the funds, she has her long, beautiful hair cut off and sold to make a wig. Meanwhile, Jim decides to sell his watch to buy Della a beautiful set of combs made out of tortoise shell and jewels for her lovely, knee-length brown hair. Although each is disappointed to find the gift they chose rendered useless, each is pleased with the gift they received, because it represents their love for one another. The story ends with the narrator comparing the pair’s mutually sacrificial gifts of love with those of the Biblical Magi.”

Traditionally, I have always read the story aloud to kick off our twelve days of Christmas celebration, inevitably rising to the end of the last portion of the book with a crescendo of seemingly uncontrollable sobs and tears. I suspect that’s because the two characters in the story probably remind me of Gary and me, who have struggled through some tough life situations but have managed to keep our faith and love very much alive despite our challenges. Gary puts towels out for my shower every morning. After 25 years together, I still put on lip gloss, and brush my hair right before Gary walks in the door from work or golf. I smile and smack Gary’s tush as he walks by, despite the fact that it occasionally makes our children insanely uncomfortable. We still flirt with each other, hold hands like we’re dating and would sacrifice anything personal for each other… which brings me around to the point of this blog (in case you were all wondering where all of this was headed).

Easter is about sacrifice; it is also about God’s love for us, the things He does for us each day to remind us that we are precious, and the price that Jesus paid for us on the cross. It’s about hope and redemption and joy. But, as Christians, it’s also just as much a message about receiving. It’s about receiving the message of Christ and about receiving the sacrifice that’s been given on our behalf. How important the “receiving” really can be! It is often just as important as the giving side of the equation. When we’re in a relationship with someone who is special to us, what is important to us is how what we give, to the other person, is received by them… and whether it is received with care and love and a sense of value and importance. In the Gift of the Magi, the gift exchange holds only momentary importance, but the preparation and receiving/internalizing is the really important part of the allegory. Think about how different the Biblical Magi story would be if, when the wise men presented their gifts, Mary or Joseph had told the wise men that they were too busy, or selfishly consumed with their own situation… if they had said, “hey – leave those gifts over there and we’ll take care of them later, when it’s convenient for us or when we feel like it.” We all want for our sacrifices and our gifts – and ourselves! – to be received with an attitude of gratitude and with an emphasis on value, worth and loving kindness. We all want to be validated for what we offer to another. It made me focus, in a new way, on how I am receiving Christ’s sacrifices in my own life (how God wanted me to receive them) … and frankly, it made me also focus on ALL of my relationships, and how I need to receive the gifts and the messages from others all around me. I need to receive them with more appreciation and care and focus…just as I want others to receive mine. We have all heard that it is more blessed to give than to receive… but that doesn’t really imply that receiving isn’t important, does it? Maybe Christmas is more about giving, and Easter is more about receiving. I choose to believe that, maybe, each is a little bit of both.

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Better Late, Than Never

sheep

Emma Argue. I have never met this woman, but today I attended her funeral. Yesterday was to be the day that my brother had open-heart surgery, but his operation was cancelled due to a last minute dental infection. With three now-unscheduled days left in my trip to Philadelphia, I accompanied my musician-sister to a memorial service for which she had been hired to play piano. As an avid “people watcher” person (whose wardrobe just happens to consist of clothing that is ninety-eight percent black), it immediately occurred to me that being a Funeral Crasher (shades of the infamous Wedding Crashers movie should come to mind here, only with a darker twist) might make a perfect avocation for me, as I am a sucker for music, deep and reverent sentimental thoughts, and flowers. Funerals, by definition, eliminate the behind-the-scenes “odds-making” activities that weddings proffer; unlike the prognosis for wedding couples, the outcome for the person at the center of memorials has already been determined. Those in attendance can get right to the business at hand – celebrating the life that has gone before, remembering which aspects of it were illustrative of a well-lived existence and, hopefully, leave with a glass of punch, a cookie, and a grand “take-away” (a.k.a. “the lesson learned”). Today, I discovered that one not even know the decedent in order to feel the impact and beauty (yes, beauty) of the moment… with one caveat noted: no presence of a dead body, please.

Today, there was simply a photo of Emma. Her life of 90+ years had exceeded the Biblical expectation for her of “three score plus ten” (that’s 70 for those of you who cannot do the math). Emma’s life had culminated with the past 25 years in the Masonic home, where this morning’s service for her was being conducted. Emma had been a nurse, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law and a grandmother. Strikingly, I cannot report how much money Emma made, and there were no photos of her worldly possessions. No one at her memorial spoke of her financial assets, the make and model of the car she had driven, or the size of the diamond she had worn on her hand. Here’s what I can summarize for you about her: by everyone’s accounts, she had lived in covenant with the Lord. She had faithfully dedicated herself to her husband of 70 years and to her children and grandchildren. She had won the loving favor of her daughters-in-law (this is no small feat to do) and had been a blessing to countless others over the course of her life, always living life exuberantly, and in a way that was true to herself and her faith. Many people stood up and spoke about Emma. Even her neighbors at the Masonic home shared awesome stories of how Emma would arrive at their card games with extra nickels in her pocket to share with others, who had (in their senior moments) forgotten their betting money. One person captured Emma’s spirit by describing her as a woman who “not only tried, but was successful… at living a life dedicated to faith, family and friends.” Envy, for those who had known her, was suddenly mine.

Of course, there were the requisite Old Testament and New Testament readings and the singing of Emma’s favorite hymns (which, I will add, especially in case she is reading this, my sister banged out perfectly). Several verses of Amazing Grace and It is Well with My Soul later, I could imagine I had known dear, late, Emma for a long time because I had learned so many nice things about her. But, here’s my point: today I concluded that memorial services don’t serve the dead as much as they serve the living. They serve to make us inspect our own lives and to think about how we live them. They incorporate two very special ingredients: wonderful memories of the past… and dreams for how we might better live out our futures. After all, for those of us left behind, the future on earth is still ours, for a time.

The 23rd Psalm – often the Scriptural centerpiece of memorials – is a whole, poignant life lesson, in and of itself. “The Lord is my shepherd…”, as the pastor pointed out today, served to remind us that Emma had been accepted back into the heavenly fold. And, as he read it aloud, I realized that when one can sit in a memorial service in an non-emotionally connected capacity – as a bystander, per se – it becomes possible to examine one’s own “sheepish – ness”, as well as the ways in which we are called to shepherd others. Accordingly, here are a few of today’s fun facts: sheep are both smart and dumb. They are smart to seek the still water, because going to drink in a creek of rushing water would quickly weigh their wool down and drown them. They are dumb because they eat anything green… and would eat it right down to the roots if they were allowed. This is why shepherds keep them moving; left to their own devices, sheep would turn beautiful, rich pastureland into an empty desert. The shepherd leads his sheep with a staff, using the crooked end to literally catch the fallen sheep and to gently prod them into directions where they will be well fed, safe, and best cared for. That shepherd’s staff becomes the extension of the shepherd’s arm and also helps to stomp out things like bugs and dangerous scorpions along the journey. Shepherds literally lay down their bodies, in certain instances, to protect their flocks, often (in olden days) getting attacked, bloodied or even killed, themselves. Hence, we have an expression today – “over my dead body” – to which many people (especially my fellow parents) can relate and have probably said themselves, at one time or another, to their family flock.

Having suffered the loss of numerous loved ones, I had always associated the 23rd Psalm with death and dying. Today it spoke to me in a fresh, new way. How much we are both sheep and shepherd during our lives, as parents, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, grandparents, friends and mentors! As a parent, I have struggled with shepherding my two lambs – keeping them (to the best of my abilities) from wandering into dangerous places, or from being consumed by the wolves of the world. I have dedicated much of my earthly life trying to feed them in righteous and loving ways, and have endured the pain of them becoming lost or tripping on the path. Like a sheep, myself, I have sought my Heavenly Shepherd, seeking the un-earthly Leadership that turns darkness into daybreak and provides protection from the storms of life. I have actively sought the voice of some earthly shepherds too… sometimes heeding the counsel and direction of my husband, parents and lately, my mother-in-law. I am grateful – beyond words – for the abiding love, guidance, forgiveness and protection of special shepherds in my life.

The character of David – the-shepherd – who is central to the 23rd Psalm, further reminds us that he is both shepherd and sheep, righteous person and personal sinner, boy and king. He reminds us that although we always walk in the shadow of death, we should fear no evil if we live life exuberantly in covenant with Goodness, Truth and Light. Restoration is not always easy, but the promises and the amazing grace of the restorative process “shall follow me all the days of my life.” Emma Argue taught me that today. Emma, you are better “late”, than never.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

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