This year my spouse and I decided that we would make or create our Christmas gifts for each other. From the word, "Go," each of us knew what the other was going to make or create, but knowing and seeing the actual outcome were two very different things.
If you know my spouse at all, you know that I am coming out ahead in this deal. I agreed to pull staples from their office ceiling in our basement (the previous owners threw A LOT of staples into that room for whatever reason), remove the harsh fluorescent lighting, and introduce some other lighting. My spouse, on the other hand, has made me a stole.
In case you aren't up on your church lingo, a stole is the colorful fabric I wear around my neck on Sunday mornings. The colors usually match the liturgical colors of the season. The stole is to signify that the person has put on the yoke of Christ through the process of ordination. Stoles are usually pretty expensive, so outside of just a couple, most of my stoles are hand-me-downs from beloved clergy I count as mentors and friends who are now retired.
So I asked my spouse to make me a stole that would work for our "white and gold" seasons meant to signify purity, light, glory, and joy. I explained that I wanted it to work for any of these "high, holy seasons" like Christmas and Easter, Epiphany, and All Saints, and that I wanted it to look like a quilt. What I received was beyond my wildest imagination! The stole was--IS--BEAUTIFUL! My spouse had lovingly patched and stitched sections of fabric together to create a tapestry of love and light that I cannot wait to wear for the first time on Christmas Eve. It's something beautiful, that began from the simplest of things: fabric, thread, time, and love.
I don't know what plans (if any) you have for Christmas, but my prayer for each and every one of you is that you will have a patchwork Christmas all your own. The kind of Christmas born of simple things that you piece and patch together in order to create something beautiful. Maybe it's stitching together a holiday meal on a budget with friends. Maybe it's piecing together time with family members you don't regularly see. Maybe it's a patchwork of gifts and crying kids and stops at this house and that house, or maybe it's simply sitting alone in the dark, staring at a lit Christmas tree, and breathing deep of the restful solitude.
I don't know what it is for you, but I know it will be born of simple things; ordinary things that we so often overlook or take for granted. And isn't that how most of the best things come to us anyway? In sticks and string. In smiles and tears. In knowing laughter. In a kiss. In a hug. Isn't that also how God chooses to come to us too? In neighbors and strangers, in trans youth and straight allies...even in a brown, Middle Eastern baby from a "throwaway town"--a refugee, who would one day show us all the Way.
Merry Patchwork Christmas!
This past week seemed to bring a number of disappointments in my world. So much so that I was starting to believe that there was something wrong with me! Why do people keep disappointing me? How come disappointing situations continue to come my way? Am I disappointing others too? I had no answers--only questions.
So I did what a lot of us do when disappointments roll our way: I let them disappoint me. I let them not only impact the moment, but also the hour, and then the day. By the end of the week, disappointment had not only come knocking on my door, but it had set up shop and decorated...all with my permission.
But disappointment also did something else: It stopped me in my tracks. It stopped me from receiving what these heartbreaks and setbacks held for me. Fr. Richard Rohr says that, "Heartbreaks, disappointments and even our own weaknesses can serve as stepping-stones to the second half of life transformation. Failings are the foundation for growth. Those who have fallen, failed or 'gone down' are the only ones who understand 'up."
Which makes me wonder, if heartbreak and disappointment are inevitable--and they are because we are human. And if we have at least some power to choose a response in the face of disappointment and setbacks--and many times, we do. Why not begin to view disappointment and heartbreak not as signals to stop and hunker down in them, but instead as invitations to get curious? What might this disappointment have for me? How might it be asking me to grow? What transformation might result from this failure or this heartbreak?
The holiday season is often filled with disappointments, setbacks, and heartbreaks. The dinner that didn't go just right. The family that will not welcome your spouse to the table. The gift that got lost in the mail. The loved one who is no longer living, leaving an empty chair around the table. Spending yet another holiday alone. Whatever the disappointment, whatever the heartbreak this season, maybe we can practice receiving them as first steps toward transformation--toward healing, wholeness, and life right here on this side of heaven?
Receiving disappointments with you,
This past Friday I went to Des Moines and sat at the car dealership for 5 hours. This was a completely planned visit in order to take care of recall repair on my truck . Evidently, certain years of the Honda Ridgeline have a flaw in their rear end in that the place where the gas tank is held on had been proven to rust out over time, causing gas tanks to just fall off and blow up as people were heading down the road. Since I desired a different outcome, I made the appointment and planned for the marathon visit.
I packed an entire backpack of goodies: My laptop and chargers, headphones, three books (as if I would magically become a speed reader or something), and my Christmas cards. I packed a rolled up towel to put behind me in the small of my back to help with all of the sitting I was about to do, and I also packed a shaker bottle of water. I was set.
And the truth is, I didn't find the waiting hard. I got all of my Christmas cards written. I got introduced to a new show on Netflix. And I figured out how to use my phone as a hotspot for my computer because, well, "free wifi" isn't always what it's cracked up to be. The waiting wasn't difficult because I was prepared to receive what it had to offer.
I know the late, great, lyrical poet, Tom Petty, told us all that "The Waiting is the Hardest Part," but I have to wonder if it's more that it feels like the hardest part because we so often fight against it. We complain about long waits and delayed shipments because we are "Amazon Prime 2-day shipping" people who are sometimes forced to live in an "allow 6-8 weeks for delivery" world. And when that happens--especially when it happens without our consent--we tend to push back...hard. We demand that someone or something move on our timetable. We demand that our cries, our laments, and our desires are heard.
Don't get me wrong--movement, action, and being seen and heard are all important. AND, now is not always the time for them. We may believe that now is the time. We may desperately want for now to be the time. We may even act as if now is still the time even when the universe has shown us that it is decidedly not. But sometimes, standing still and silence are all that fills our now's.
Fr. Richard Rohr says, "At times we have to step into God’s silence and patiently wait. We have to put out the fleece as Gideon did (Judges 6:37-40), and wait for the descent of the divine dew, or some kind of confirmation from God that we are on the right course. That is a good way to keep our own ego drive out of the way." And isn't it really always ego that suggests to us that we deserve to move through the world getting what we want when we want it?
At the end of the end of the day, I think the waiting can be a gift if we let it. Waiting can offer us opportunities to take a break from the break-neck speed at which most of us live our lives in order that we may do nothing or do those things that we so easily rush through or put on the shelf for another day. Waiting can be liberative and life-giving.
In this season of waiting that we call Advent, may we be people for whom the waiting is not the hardest part...it is the part that can free us and give us a much-needed rest.
Waiting with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.