Advent: A Long Journey Toward a Surprising Light


My father’s childhood train trip from California’s wartime blackout to the brilliant lights of Las Vegas provides a different metaphor for our Advent quest.

We call wartime “dark days” and in the 21st century we tend to focus on the emotional and spiritual darkness of a war.

But for my father, just 11 years old in February 1942, World War II’s darkness was literal. Southern California, as a potential coastal target for the Japanese, lived under a nighttime blackout starting almost immediately after Pearl Harbor. The fear and caution intensified in February after a Japanese submarine fired on an oil refinery near Santa Barbara.


Then an unidentified object was sighted hovering over Los Angeles. The photo shows searchlights converging on the mysterious object, which was never identified. (Image: unretouched Los Angeles Times photo, retrieved from the LA Times online archives).

Hundreds of military shells bombarded the floating device. And every home not yet blacked out swathed its windows in thick curtains to prevent any evening illumination from escaping to provide a target for alien weapons. Automobiles – which were considerably fewer than today – moved cautiously if they moved at all, without streetlamps or headlights to guide them. During those literally “dark days,” no outdoor lighting of any kind was allowed.

Dad’s family were divided at the time. Dad and his younger brother, Jim, were living with grandparents on a two-acre Southern California “farmette” while their Mom, Dad, and toddler brother, Jeff, got settled into brand-new “company” housing near the brand-new company town of Henderson, Nevada. Henderson was where a magnesium mine and refinery was located, producing a “miracle metal” essential to bomb casings and aircraft parts as part of the US war effort. Grampa had taken a job there and Grammie carried her littlest to Nevada with her while she set up housekeeping.

But eventually the moment came for Dad and Jim to join the rest of the family. Their grandparents put them on a train for what was expected to be an 8-hour ride to the station in Las Vegas.

The eastward journey toward home and family stalled repeatedly as the train pulled onto sidings to allow westbound troop transports the right of way. Dad, just 11 years old, minded Jim – then 8 – through all of what turned into a 15-hour trip.

What Dad remembered as the train neared Las Vegas was seeing the light – first the distant glow of a city, then the lights that surrounded the train and blazed along the city’s streets. The Strip in 1942 didn’t look much like what we know as Las Vegas today. But unlike California, it had lights at night.

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From California blackout to Las Vegas light! This view was taken from near the train depot where Dad and his little brother arrived in Las Vegas in 1942. (Postcard image appears on the website classiclasvegas.com)

Fremont Street in Las Vegas isn’t exactly my vision of God’s light that awaits me. But like Dad and Uncle Jim on that extended rail trip east, we live as children caring for children on a long wartime journey that is often side-tracked. At the end is a place we will call home, heralded by an unfamiliar light and entered by way of a loving Parent’s warm embrace.

Advent lasts a lifetime. Ride expectantly.

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Mary, Martha, and My Holiday Kitchen


That Mary and Martha story can be SO frustrating. Martha is busy in the kitchen. Mary is hanging out with Jesus. Martha wants her sister’s help. And Jesus says no. According to Jesus, Mary’s got it right.

Since I just finished baking 50 dozen holiday cookies (35 dozen for a charity fundraiser), I’m feeling a little irritable on Martha’s behalf.

I like to bake. Sometimes I say — only half joking — “I bake, therefore I am.”

I bake therefore I am

If I find myself with half a Saturday free, I’m likely to fill the house with the yeast and molasses scent of fresh-baked oatmeal bread. This year, I finally learned to make wonderful shortbread (thanks Ronda Swaney for the recipe!). I used to make wedding cakes as my wedding gift to couples I knew. Since I don’t have grandkids to spoil, I made Easter cupcakes for my brother’s grands one year.

 

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My Easter cupcakes were embellished with coconut nests, jellybean eggs, and marshmallow Peeps.

 

And when the nonprofit where I work needs food prepped for an event … well, I like to play with food. The colors and textures of sliced red peppers, glistening black olives, crunchy wheat crackers, and green-skinned cucumbers are just a different palette than our artists use.

 

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As you can see, I love playing with food … ironing the tablecloth is a different matter!

 

 

“Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things, but only one thing is necessary,” Jesus tells the busy sister.

Most of us hear that as: “Chill! Sit! Stop doing already.”

What are the many things Martha is worrying about? If we drop her into our century, it might be a roast and a chicken on platters, a fresh-baked loaf on a cutting board with some homemade herb butter in a Depression glass dish, a couple of vegetables, a Pinterest-worthy dessert or two on the side table … and that’s one amazing table setting she’s got underway. Someone needs to Instagram it! Where’s Mary? Wouldja take a few pictures, Mary? … Mary?

Mary chose the better part, Jesus said. In the 21st century, we tend to hear that as an order to sit. Stop cooking. Stop serving. Stop doing. Be like Mary. Focus on the relationship with the guests. It’s not all about making a dinner that your friends will admire when you post the picture. It’s about the people you’re feeding.

And to feed people, someone does have to make food. So what was Martha’s mistake?

Someone told me once that when Jesus told Martha only one thing was needed, he could have been saying that the guests didn’t need a feast of many dishes. A casserole would have been fine. Just one dish. Much less hassle. And much more time to spend with the company.

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That doesn’t mean that it’s bad to cook, even passionately. That doesn’t mean that sitting is always better than preparing a meal. It just means that Martha got out of balance. She got focused on showing off her mad kitchen skills instead of on making her guests welcome and enjoying them.

I totally get Martha. I’m way more comfortable doing stuff than just hanging. Take today. I spent five hours in the kitchen baking 15 dozen cookies for a fundraiser (and starting a crockpot cacciatore) before I hauled a carful to the landfill and drove the cookies to the event. I got to the event, I did a lot of arranging and rearranging of cookie trays, photographing a holiday parade, and chatting about business with a studio owner and the president of the downtown association. Plus I made a quick run into Reny’s (“A Maine Adventure”) to pick up gifts for the holiday party in two weeks.

I had fun.

I’m the kind of person your grandmother was talking about when she said, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” If I’m not busy doing something useful, my brain starts sliding down an icy slope and an emotional crisis will hit like an avalanche before I know it.

Sometimes I’m busy doing something for a local charity. That’s what my mom did a lot. She took the 5 am shift five days a week at a local thrift shop, hauling in (or hauling to a dumpster) whatever had been dropped outside the doors overnight. She knit endless hats and mittens for Christmas charities and homeless children.

Sometimes I’m busy with a hobby I enjoy. That’s what my dad did a lot. He built things out of wood: toys and furniture and clocks. He could spend a full day standing in the same spot outdoors waiting for the right clouds to blow into the landscape he was photographing.

Sometimes I’m busy making something I need. My brothers are way better at this than I am. I make things like cat beds and table runners. They make cherry tables and truck beds.

My family likes to do stuff. One brother told his in-laws this Thanksgiving that they’d join the dinner if they were allowed to “work it off.” So while his wife weeded through a 100-foot greenhouse with her mother, he helped his father-in-law with some heavy chores. When one sister wanted the other to visit, she said she needed help with a project.

I suppose that many people would describe my family as a bunch of workaholics who don’t know how to enjoy ourselves. We describe ourselves as New Englanders — thrifty and hardworking. We have more fun raising your barn than raising a glass.

So are we Martha? The problem with Martha isn’t just that she works but that she works when she doesn’t need to. She creates work for her sake, not for the sake of those who receive it.

And Mary … are her hands truly idle? Or are they working hard at learning, when that’s the most valuable task at hand.

The story of Mary and Martha reminds us that at every moment, God has good work for each of us to do. We’re not called to do too much of a good thing, like Martha, trying to drag others into our frenzy of excessive activity. We’re not always called to sit and listen (although when Jesus is speaking, it’s certainly wise to listen!).

The story of Mary and Martha tells me not to stop doing, but to do only what matters.

I bake, therefore I am. And as long as God allows, I will keep baking.

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Merry Christmas!

 

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Happy Christmas? Merry Christmas? Which is right?


In England today, you say “Happy Christmas!” In the United States, you say, “Merry Christmas!” Why the difference?

Believe it or not, the “Merry Christmas!” greeting we use in the US originated in England, more than four hundred years ago. It is first recorded in 1565 in the Hereford Municipal Manuscript, The author offered good wishes that God would send a “mery Christmas” to the readers.

English author Charles Dickens popularized the greeting in his 1843 story, “A Christmas Carol,” the focus of this year’s movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas.

Man who invented Christmas

Christopher Plummer, as the fictional character Ebenezer Scrooge, inspires Charles Dickens, played by Dan Stevens, in this year’s “The Man who Invented Christmas”.

 

The very first Christmas card printed for sale, also in 1843, used the words “Merry Christmas” as part of its greeting as well.

However, Queen Elizabeth II broke with her own nation’s tradition. She began wishing her subjects a “happy Christmas” in her annual holiday broadcasts more than 60 years ago.

Queen Elizabeth II First RAdio Address 1952

Queen Elizabeth II made her first Christmas radio broadcast in 1952.

 

People speculate that the Queen substituted the word “happy” because for many centuries the word “merry” had referred to people who were “happy” as a result of drinking too much alcohol. The Queen is reported to have moral scruples about overindulgence of any kind. Therefore, she does not encourage her subjects to make “merry” at Christmas or any other time.

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The Grammar Queen salutes all who are subject to words and their proper meanings.

Meanwhile, here in the US, we’ve completely forgotten that “merry” used to mean “intoxicated.” So, in the words of the song, “have yourself a merry little Christmas” – even if there’s no rum in the eggnog.

This post was first written on request of ESL teacher Cecelia Barker of Raleigh, NC, for use in her “Oral Production” class. The Grammar Queen was unfamiliar with “Oral Production” as an instructional topic and had to request an explanation.

The Grammar Queen learned that classes in “Oral Production” aid second language speakers in voicing a new language with the same nuanced sloppiness as natives — to elide words, for example, instead of pronouncing each separately and distinctly. Because the Grammar Queen speaks as a native, although writing as a professional, she withholds judgment about this casual verbal habit, to which she herself is not subject — the Queen is never subject — but is culturally habituated.

Posted in Carlene Byron, Christmas | Tagged , , , ,

Give What You Don’t Have This Thanksgiving


Does an empty table mean an empty life during the holidays?

empty-table-940x540Do you ever feel trapped by someone’s assertion that you “can’t give what you don’t have”? Sometimes it feels like a phrase designed to keep you from activities you enjoy. By this rule, you can’t give peace when you’re going through difficult personal times, so you shouldn’t expect to pray for others. You can’t give guidance when you’re personally confused, so you shouldn’t ask to teach.

I find the teeth of this trap bite especially hard as we enter the holiday season. I am, again, alone this Thanksgiving. A month before the holiday, I had received no invitations. Two weeks before the holiday, I discovered that my friends all have holiday plans — none is free to join me at my own Thanksgiving table. For 17 years, Thanksgiving was shared with my husband’s family, or with the disabled adults we cared for. Now he has divorced me, I live 900 miles away, and I can’t name anyone who wants to spend Thanksgiving day with me.

You can’t give comfort you don’t have, right?

And if I “can’t give what I don’t have,” then the fact that I am alone means that I must remain alone. You can’t give the comfort of being in company when you don’t have it, right?

Wait a minute. Is that really true?

We tell children who feel lonely that the way to have a friend is to be a friend. To be in company is simply to be with others. Is there any way I can be with others this Thanksgiving?

Last year, my church served a Thanksgiving meal for those who were away from home, so I helped serve that meal. This year, no such activity. So I emailed the pastor of another local church that is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner. They’ve got all the hands they need to serve. What they need is someone to drive Thanksgiving meals out to shut-ins.

Visit those imprisoned by ill health

In a state with good public transportation, older adults might be more able to get to the dinner at church. In a more densely populated state, someone might live nearby to give them rides. In a different time, they would be living with relatives and simply share the meal the family prepares.

Here in 21st century Maine, if you are even temporarily unable to drive, the four walls of the too-big house you live in all alone can start to feel like a prison. Last winter, when I had a broken foot, I spent almost all of the hours of every day and night in my own house by my own self. I was offered (and took) rides to a weeknight small group, but didn’t get calls offering to bring me to Sunday services. The only people who called asking if I needed practical help were one colleague and one nearby sibling. (My brother and his wife loaned me the little red scooter I relied on during that 6 weeks … my colleague drove me to the supermarket and then taught me it was okay to use the motorized “MartCart” to get around the store!)

All that to say: I know what it feels like to be left to fend for myself at a time when I need and want the company of others.

So this Thanksgiving, I’ll be carrying dinner to some rural elderly who live about a half hour from their church. They live in prisons built by age, infirmity, and the structures of our culture. Like the apostle Paul, who was imprisoned for failing to fall in line with dominant Jewish and Roman religious traditions, their imprisonment is not due to any failing. They are “imprisoned” simply because they don’t fit into the culture they — and we all — live in.

God tells us to visit those in prison. And that’s what I’m doing this Thanksgiving.

How can I give what I don’t have?

How can I bring company when I don’t have company? How can I break their isolation when I live in my own solitude?

That’s where the rule clearly breaks down. Maybe I can’t give you confidence that you will never be left alone when my own life proves that people are often left alone. But I can give you whatever company I am able to offer. And in giving, I will receive your company.

God says: Give and you will receive

This is how God says it: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” (Luke 6:38). 

According to God, we give from God’s abundance, not our own. He tells followers who, to the best of our knowledge have never been raised from the dead or freed from leprosy, that they are to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” (Matt. 10:8)

And God points it out again when two disciples tell a beggar that they can’t provide him money but can give what they have: the power of God as they invoke it to free him to walk (Acts 3).

I don’t need to have anything in myself or of my own before I can give to you. I don’t need to have the social life I want, to have the peace I desire, to be clear about what is coming next. All I need is to know that God is with you and me together.

Such as I have, I will bring to these shut-ins on Thanksgiving.

And that is more than enough for a plentiful feast.

NOTE: After I committed to carrying Thanksgiving dinner to shut-ins this year, a relative who lives more than 2 hours away invited me to join their family celebration. I am grateful for the invitation, but unable to participate. And for the sake of these shut-in elders, that may have been God’s plan.

NOTE 2: I just received a second invitation, this time via Facebook to “anyone who will be eating alone.” The invitation comes from a colleague who experiences many health difficulties that often limit her activities. “We have plenty of room at our table,” she wrote. And in their hearts, I might add.

Posted in Carlene Byron, character, charity, christian living, community | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

What the Blue Angels taught me about Christian living


God teaches in mysterious ways. Sometimes, the lesson comes in a still small voice. Today, it came in the roar of six fighter jets flying over my home town during the Great Maine Air Show.

 

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Ed Whisenant’s video of a Blue Angels performance in Los Angeles is the source of this still. See the full video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WmR2_tnpR8

The US Navy’s Blue Angels, a precision flight team, performed here this weekend and between the air show and the rehearsals beforehand, they taught me some important lessons.

 

1. There’s no sleeping when the Angels are flying

The practices for this show started on a day I was home from work with the flu. I live close enough to the flight path that the roar of the six F/A-18 Hornets jolted me out of bed.

No way anyone can sleep through the overflight of a half-dozen Hornets. And I thought about Elijah on the mountain, waiting for God (1 Kings 19). We all know about the great wind and earthquake and fire that did not contain God. God came, in many of our traditional translations, in a “still, small voice.”

A Bible translator I once met said that the traditional translation might not quite accurately represent the verse (although it makes sense in context). This translator argued that God doesn’t come in a voice that is still and small. Instead, God comes to Elijah in a voice that makes things still and small. A voice like a flight of fighter jets.

If the translator is right, don’t have to worry about sleeping through God’s call. I might have trouble staying on my feet when God speaks. But I won’t miss it.

2. The Angels aren’t where the noise is

The Blue Angels fly so fast their sound trails them by a lot. If you’re watching from a distance, as I was during the show today, the only way to catch them emerging from behind buildings or trees is to look about 60 degrees ahead of where you hear their engines.

And even then, you might need to look back and forth across 180 degrees if nearby buildings are catching an echo, creating the impression of jets where there’s really just a resonant surface. Where the sound is coming from might not be where the Angels are at all.

Like lots of life, the noise isn’t where the real action is. You have to learn where to look. And be careful of mistaking a resounding gong for the real thing.

3. Look for the Angels, not their trails

Most of the time, I find jets in the sky by tracking the “con” trails of condensed vapor they leave behind. That won’t work with the Blue Angels. The Angels leave trails only when they want to — great cinematic puffs of vapor that shout “We’re here!” The rest of the time, they fly clean. You can’t find the Angels by looking for their trail. Look for the Blue Angels themselves instead.

Lesson 4 came courtesy of Pathway Vineyard Pastor Kyle Gabri this morning.

4. The more you practice, the tighter the formation

Blue Angel formations look tight from the ground. They actually are much tighter.

A F18 is not quite 45 feet wide. In formation during performances, the Blue Angels maneuver as close as 6 inches apart while flying at remarkable speeds.

How do they dare?

They begin, Kyle said, by practicing the formations much further apart. Same moves, just more distance. Then, as they become more skilled with the maneuvers, they begin running them closer together. Eventually, they fly with wings all but touching.

Kind of like us in our Christian lives. We don’t dare maneuver in close proximity with others until we’re pretty well practiced in the moves.

And one more thing I learned after church today: there actually have been “paint scrapers” — the aerial equivalent of a fender bender — among the practicing Angels. These incidents don’t knock the fighter jets out of the sky. They just remind the pilots to get back on course. Like immediately.

God came to me today in the roar of six fighter jets with 4 lessons about Christian living. How is God speaking to you right now about your Christian life?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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