“Joy to the World”

Frost-021We had such a mixed up day yesterday. My emotional roller-coaster was all over the place.  Had a little family drama, did some schooling and laundry (that is a daily thing), spent some time researching on some future blogging ideas, sent my youngest son off to his brother’s house, and then I got ready to attend a Christmas Concert.  Off we went into a new storm that is supposed to combine with two other storms, to give us 8-12 inches of snow in the next two days.  It started early on Friday, however, and so we were driving in pretty amazing conditions.  Beautiful and yet, cold, too!

Carolers.darkThe music was amazing!  This was at a public high school and the kids sounded like professionals. In addition to that, the songs they chose were actually Christmas songs.  They mentioned Christ, and Jesus, and the Wise Men; there was even a song about the Blessed Virgin Mary!  I wept through a couple of them, I was so happy to hear authentic Christmas music in a public forum.  These days, everyone is so afraid of offending someone, we barely say “Merry Christmas” anymore, preferring the non-offensive, “Happy Holidays.”  There were a couple of songs that just sent goose bumps across my arms.  And it was over far too soon, complete with an ugly sweater contest with the upper-classmen!  We laughed and made our way out into the snowy weather.  It was so beautiful.

snowphot-66We left the concert, rounded up dinner for the menfolk (the concert was a girl’s night out event!!) and headed back to my son’s house.  We had a wonderful chat and my men headed home, while I stayed in “grandma heaven,” as my son said.  I was feeding my newborn granddaughter, when my grandson climbed up next to me.  Ahhhh….I loved that moment.  My daughter-in-law and I then headed back out into the snow to take me home.  She and I giggle a lot together, because we are so much alike.  We drove and saw a poor German Shepherd puppy running around, scared, and we tried to get him someplace warm, but he was just too frightened.  Poor dog.

snowphot-46We got home and she dropped me off. I entered the house, chatting to the guys and noticed my mini-Schnauzer was missing.  We all looked for him and he was nowhere to be found.  And so began the second leg of my evening.  I called my daughter-in-law, still on her way home and she came back.  My husband set out on foot with a flashlight. I had already canvassed the upper blocks on foot when my daughter-in-law showed up.  We then spent about 2 hours looking for my little dog in his blue sweater.  We did not find him.  My daughter-in-law went home (it was after 11pm by this time) and made posters.  She then went back out in the snow to hang posters on light poles and stop signs.  I went to bed and just cried.  I was so afraid for my little dog.  He’s about 14 years old, has not aged well having lost all his front teeth, and he does not have street smarts.  In addition, it was snowing and about 20-degrees outside.  For a SoCal dog in a sweater, the conditions were not good.

I prayed, as did so many wonderful friends, and our dog was returned to us this morning. It seems a family saw him as he approached their front porch and just brought him inside. They got him dry and warm and cuddled up in a doggie bed with a blanket, and he went to sleep.  They were out this morning and saw the poster on a stop sign.  Turns out we all missed each other by moments, out in the snow.  They were looking for people looking for a dog, and we were looking for our dog – but we never saw each other.  This morning I cried and just held my little dog.  He is such a pain, so independent, and stubborn – but I love the little guy!

I was trying to put all this together this morning, as my husband and I are off to Christmas shop.  It was so hard to be “in the mood” when the dog was missing. But now that he’s back, I am a different person.  Abbot Tryphon wrote a blog post today about the place animals have in our hearts and I know my pets fill a space God meant just for them. They give me peace, comfort and love – and all they ask is a warm bed, good food, and my company.  Unconditional love.  It is so rare these days.  But Christ gives us unconditional love – He actually loves us in spite of ourselves.  We often get in our own way. I know my dog gets in his own way quite often and running off in a snow storm is certainly proof of that.


…is the final act of love.”

Writing is such a personal, intimate thing. Authors are usually people who look inward and create fantastic worlds for us, report on the world around us, or help us reach back into the past and see the world as it was.  I have always thought of blogs like having your personal diary open on your desk and other people stopping by and reading it.  Each post added to a blog is like turning the page in that diary.  I write because it’s sort of like something that needs to come out.  Some days I write a lot.  Sometimes I have gone, quite literally, months between posts.  Most often, I write to get something off my chest, or to express something that feels like I have a need to share with others or I will burst!  It’s like my cell phone.  (Bear with me a little here).  My iPhone is so complete, I usually only use my computer for doing this blog or paying bills (I know the arguments against that, but it is just so much simpler!).  All my information about family and friends is in my phone.  I lost my phone for a few hours last weekend in the snow.  A kindly stranger turned it into a customer service desk and I cannot tell you how relieved I was…because I realized it would take me FOREVER to get the information back that I had stored in my phone. It has so many neat apps on it and one of my favorites is Notepad. I use it ALL the time!  Well, if you ask me someone’s phone number, email address, or house address, I’d have to excuse myself while I looked it up on my phone. I don’t have to remember things like this anymore, because my phone does it for me.  And when I write, after it is written, I am usually over the issue and I forget about it.  I am also one of those types who gets angry (hard to believe, I know).  I may yell or speak harshly (ask my boys) but once I do, I move on. I don’t harbor grudges or stay mad at people.  I blow up and then it’s done.  I use my writing as a way, sometimes, to ease the pressure…sort of like the steam escaping a boiling teapot.  Once you release the steam, the pot settles down.  That’s me.

And so I am musing over something that is really bugging me.  I have noticed that I am loosing my ability at times, to think clearly and remember details. It worries me because my mom has dementia and Alzheimer’s. And I realize that I forget things all the time. People say to me, “Oh, you remember when we….?”  And honestly, many times I don’t.  I’m not sure if it is because my brain gets lazy, if I rely on my iPhone too much to remember for me (gasp!?! Reliance on technology!) or I just get distracted.  Am I not giving the moment the attention it deserves and so I cannot recall it later on?

Abba AseniosIn our world of chaos and noise, I often think that adding to this noisy chaos by blogging is not helping the situation.  Computer usage really draws us away from others.  Computers can, however, bring disparate people together – those who are geographically separated can connect and it eases that separation somewhat. I do try, however, to keep more silence than aimless chatter.  I try to steer away from adding to gossip or just the noise around us.  So does my memory loss have more to do with going through them and throwing out the ones that truly don’t matter? Is it important I remember the color dress I wore 10 years ago, or if it was raining or sunny at some event I attended?  Perhaps not.  Someone with Alzheimer’s will know those details, though.  A person with dementia can’t recall yesterday, let alone years ago.  A dementia patient has short term memory and that is about it.  Alzheimer patients cannot recall what a fork is for, or remember to eat, but they know incredible details about years past.  So I am leaning towards a sort of mental evolution, if you will allow that terminology. A pattern of memory losses and gains, I guess!

I am learning that God is never through with me.  He allows me to trip up and make mistakes over and over again, until His lesson gets ingrained in me.  All of us come from somewhere.  We all have pasts that perhaps are not worthy of remembering.  I have let go of many things from my teen years and young adulthood that do not speak well of me. I have been taught, and I have learned, over the years to adjust my vision to things that are not so much “of the world” and tend to the more philosophical and theological.


I was recently helping my daughter-in-law to make a memory book for my mom.  I have been told these sorts of things help them to cling to their own history, and to see their lives in snapshots helps to keep them grounded.  As I was going through the 84 years of my mom’s life, I was drawn back to memories I thought I had lost.  I realized I had put them “on a shelf” and let them rest there.  But when I wanted to, I could recall all sorts of details (my poor daughter-in-law had to sit and listen to them with me for over 6 hours earlier this week!  God bless her!).  And I so enjoyed remembering my life as a young child and the things my brother and I did.  I could pull them off that shelf and remember, fully, all the wonderful times of my childhood.  The Lord is good; He has allowed me to live in His light, in His love, and has guarded me from the evil one.  He has healed many of my memories and has allowed many others to just fade away, all while helping me retain what is good and positive about my life.

St Tikhon 3This is the season where we prepare to welcome the Son of God as a Child.  We should get our “houses” in order in more ways than one.  Confession is good for us and helps us become clearer-headed and hearted, as we wind our way to Christmas.  If you do not believe in confession to a priest or cleric, it is certainly priceless to sit and contemplate before God all your sins and seek His forgiveness.  I personally feel incredible after a good and holy confession. And I believe it is more important to prepare our hearts than our homes.  Decorating for Christmas is so fun and I love it, as you would know if you have read my posts before. I love pretty much everything about Christmas.  But I also know that my spiritual preparation is more important than baking cookies and buying gifts.  Christ smiles at us when we are clear and free in our hearts and spirits after confession.

There is a wonderful Catholic theologian and author, Peter Kreeft, who I quote quite often.  In one of his many books, he spoke about Confession and told this wonderful story (which I will totally paraphrase):  When we face the judgement seat of Christ, we can picture ourselves standing there, before the Throne, with nothing but a couple of suitcases.  Christ will ask us what we have brought with us.  Our response will be, “Lord, I brought my sins with me.”  And He will tell us that when He forgave us our sins, it was as if they never happened.  He will go back into the timeline of our lives and pull those sinful acts or omissions out of our timeline and it will be as if they never existed.  We are the ones who need to forgive ourselves and to let our sinful pasts be just that; our past.  And this is what I think is happening to me and some of my memories – they are memories that are best forgotten because I was (and still am) a fearful sinner and I lug these sins, over which I have sought forgiveness time and again, with me wherever I go.  I need to let them go.  As I am maturing in my faith, and I find holes in my memory, I am learning to be okay with that.  I trust God and I know He is guiding me in the way I need to go.  He is allowing me to forget certain aspects of my past, in order for me to have a better future.

And so I post now and then.  I blog. I add to the cacophony of sounds around me by tapping away on my laptop.  And I allow issues to come and go and I try not to cling to those things I need to let go. I get out of God’s way and allow His healing to reach deep into my heart and rip out the things I need to let go of.  And I am finding my way to that peace that knows no understanding, that peace of God.  (Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7)

My prayer is for forgiveness from past sinful acts or omissions. If I have offended you in any way, please forgive me.  I extend my hand to you as a friend and a fellow journeyman on the road to Divine Eternity with God.  I pray for company on this journey and as I ponder the things in my life, I extend an offer to join me by reading this blog.  Let us not judge one another, but love each other as God intended us to love one another: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35).

ON Forgiveness

Paradise Tree to Christmas Tree…

Christmas desk tree pillowI was recently told by a friend that she had “passed through” her “red stage” a few years back and has moved on to a different palette.  She is preparing to decorate a new house and I was commenting on how much I loved the deep red paint on an accent wall in her kitchen.  She said she had a whole can of it the last owners left in the garage and she was putting my name on it.  We laughed as I explained that I have loved the same colors for most of my married life.

It got me to thinking about what things I prefer around me, what I like to see, and what gives me peace or keeps me calm.  And I thought about color.  I know there is a whole psychology to color analysis, but I am so not going there!  When we were married, our colors for our home were gray and yellow.  I have no idea where I got that combo from, but I received towels and bedding in those tones.  My husband hated them!  The funny thing is that our wedding was in ivory, black, and red.  We were married in December and I chose complementary winter colors.  But for my home, I chose yellow and gray.  Well, it didn’t last long.  As soon as the towels wore out, I switched – to barn red, old gold, navy blue, and hunter green.  All my homes and rooms have been done in those color combos of some sort.

We moved to a dairy house when our middle son was almost a year old and our oldest was in kindergarten.  The house’s floor plan remains my husband’s favorite and he told me if we ever build our own home, that is the plan, with very few changes.  I liked it, too, and have fond memories of that house.  A friend helped us paint our kitchen this lovely yellow (not the same tone as my previous towels – more along a butter color; golden tones) to match cabinets from the 40s and we trimmed it all in wonderful wallpaper with greens and reds and blues in it.  Unfortunately, the house was carpeted with blue carpeting that we could not afford to replace, so we had throw rugs down that were red and green and blue.  And I decorated around it. I was told once that if there is a feature you can’t get fixed, decorate around it.  Very few people remember we had blue carpeting!!

From that point forward, I have always decorated with those same colors.  We visited my in-laws for a week one time (well, we visited far more than one time, but this one particular visit I remember well) and when we got home I felt my eyeballs relax; the muscles in my shoulders went down and I realized I’d been clenching them (maybe it was my husband’s driving or the fact that we had a 19-hour drive home with two little boys in the car!!).  It is weird because I noticed how pale things seemed at their house.  There was lots of snow all around, so that made things appear pale.  But their home was decorated in pale blues and pale greens.  I realized that I decorate using a very strong palette.  I had never thought about it before, but I realized that I used those colors over and over again for the past 30 years.  Why?

In this house, we have pale tan walls or white walls.  All the floors are hardwood in a dark oak tone, except for the kitchen, which is a dark brown linoleum pattern that makes you think it’s stone (I’m glad it’s not or it would be cold in the winter time!).  We have a brown couch and I have my red and green blanket over the back of it.  I have my color palette around me and I am comfortable.  And then we brought out all the Christmas decorations.  That was enlightening.  It’s all reds, greens, and deep blues and golds.  Hmmmm….is it related to my choice of palette?

I know that Christmas is my favorite time of the year.  I love, as I have posted, pretty much everything about Christmas.  The sights, sounds, and smells are incredible to me. I realized in October that I longed for the last leaves to fall, so snow would come and we could be that much closer to Christmas.

Holly BerriesI learned about the Paradise Tree long ago, and the story is that in the 1300s the Church used to tell the story of Adam and Eve, usually on December 24th; “Adam and Eve Day.”  The majority of people were illiterate in those days, so they would use props to tell the story and one prop was an evergreen tree.  There were no apple trees blooming in December, so they would bring in their stored apples and hang them on the trees, or they created red orbs to represent apples.  In the 14th century, individual Germans began to bring evergreen trees indoors, decorating them with apples, in reminiscence of this Paradise Tree.  As the years went by, they added round wafers, depicting the communion wafers, or Eucharist, received during Divine Liturgy or Mass.  The explanation was that Adam and Eve’s sin of eating the apple was replaced with the salvific nature of God in the Eucharist.  So there were red and white orbs on the green trees.  You can see where this is going. Other traditions using these colors were from much earlier.  The Romans used to bring evergreen boughs into their homes over the long winters, and would gift one another with them to help ameliorate those long winters.  Another tradition was to bring mistletoe and holly into homes over the long winters, reminding people that spring would come and things would bloom (as the holly berries reminded them of fruit and flowers).  Gradually these traditions came to be associated with Christmas.  White is the color of snow and of purity.  Churches are usually decorated in white during Advent and Christmas.  Gold is the color of royalty and in most eastern and Orthodox Churches, the altars are decorated in gold.  Blue is the color of the Blessed Mother, or Theotokos.  In ancient times, dyeing cloth blue was more costly than gold and was reserved for royalty to wear.  To show the importance of Mary, She is always depicted wearing blue cloth.

Mary and Christ ChildThere are lots of other theories about green being the color of hope, red being the color of sacrifice (and blood), and blue representing the sky and heaven, while white represents snow and purity and God.  Whichever theory or historical evidence you prefer, it seems that the colors of Christmas are with us to stay, and have been for more than 700 years.  It is so ingrained that one elementary school in Texas actually told their students that no red and green can be used during Christmas to decorate their classrooms, and they cannot wear red and green in combination, so as to not offend those who do not celebrate Christmas.  I guess that means no “ugly sweaters,” no Christmas play and no Christmas music for those kids. Bah! Hum-bug!

Christmas CrackersAnd so I find myself wondering why these tones resonate so much with me and I realize that it is all wrapped up in what brings me joy, and peace, and hope. I feel that so much during the Christmas season.  We wish people a Merry Christmas and we also wish them a Happy New Year!  Why do we do that?  Because we are being renewed.  We are given this time of the Holy Birth to experience our own rebirth.  We have the rest of our lives ahead of us…the Birth of Christ opens us to the numberless possibilities of our future.  We look forward to that “New Year” when we can apply the hope, and joy, we feel this season to the rest of our lives.  Being reborn each year means we get a fresh start.  We can choose to deny the season’s gifts of love, and joy, and hope, and the possibilities that lay before us – we can bah-hum-bug our way through life.  Or we can embrace these gifts and we can choose to be reborn, renewed, and we can go forth with the Spirit of Christmas in our hearts (and maybe in our home decor) all the year long.

Christmas living room

Blowing off a little steam….

12247844751816776100wsnaccad_feather-pen.svg.medAs a self-proclaimed blogger, I blog for a variety of reasons.  One reason is that I write far better than I speak. I feel that I can more fully express myself using the written word than in conversation.  I also love to use a slightly different vocabulary when I write, versus my spoken words. I am often called a “Grammar-Nazi” because poor grammar and punctuation make me crazy.  I can no longer enjoy a newspaper because their copy-editors obviously do not consult with their type-setters before allowing final print.  I read lots of blogs and I have such a variety of interests, I find that blogging is by far a more pleasurable experience, along with reading a good novel.

Another reason to blog is to share little tid-bits with others that I have garnered along the way.  There is an expression that really describes me, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”  That saying describes my intellectual pursuits to a “t”!   I have little bits of information and knowledge about a variety of issues and I love sharing them with people. It is not intellectual snobbery in any way, because I am so fully aware of my lack of education and formation in so many areas.  When you cannot help your kids with their schoolwork, you realize that the world is passing you by.  I read a wonderful blog post today about the horrors of technology and the havoc it is having on organized religion.  And I couldn’t help but add my two-cents’ worth about the lack of quiet, silence, and the stillness one can enjoy in the company of good friends, without electronic interference.  Such a tragedy.  And still it is a tool, as witnessed by the fact that I am blogging!! Ha-Ha!

Another reason to blog, for me, is to allow me to blow off steam about certain issues that really fry me.  And people are free to read along with my rants, or they can opt to not read them.  It is one of the benefits of a blog versus a conversation.  You can choose to click off this post and ignore it, something we can’t do when enduring pithy or boring conversations!

Today, my rant is regarding the care our veterans receive from our government, and the audacity of this Administration and our Federal Government to think they can treat the entire country with centralized healthcare, when a veteran cannot even get an appointment with a primary care VA doctor.  Sometimes they wait, quite literally, years, for their first appointment.  YEARS.  We have Vietnam veterans who are finally getting healthcare. Hello?!?!  Is anyone listening??? Vietnam veterans!!!  Today was so infuriating, that I decided to do a little fact-checking myself.  When you Google veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, you get articles galore.  And I am talking “mainstream” media like CBS, NBC, ABC as well as FOX, and many, many other news outlets (both considered “left” or “right” in their reporting).  As I got more and more into it, I was amazed at all the articles and interviews, facts and figures that are out there.  Why we don’t hear about this more often is just beyond proper grammar!! (In other words, it made me want to use “bad” words!!). So let me hit you with some history and some facts that I was able to gather so very quickly and simply:

World Trade Center AttackedSince 9/11 happened, we have deployed 2,000,000+ soldiers (that’s million!!).  52.2% currently in uniform have served since 9/11.  Just .75% of the US Population is in uniform (paltry number in comparisons to other countries) which is less than 1% of the population – ONE PERCENT. Those 2+ million soldiers are keeping us safe in our beds at night and allowing us to have life as “normal,” which is something most vets never have!! 22,658,000 living veterans were in the USA as of 9/11/11.  1,981,000 living World War II veterans!  Of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, 12.1% are unemployed.  That’s higher than the national average.  Young male vets (aged 25-34) have an unemployment rate of 21.9% (21.9%!!!!).  Since we officially went to war in 2003, 2.5 MILLION soldiers have been deployed. Of that number, 37,000 have deployed more than 5 times; 400,000 have deployed 3+ times.  That, to me, is wrong on so many, many fronts.  There are 1.6 MILLION veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and of that number 670,000 are classified as disabled.  100,000 still have their initial disability claims PENDING.  In regards to payments for veteran’s benefits, here are some figures that should stagger the mind:

The peak pay period (of Vet benefits) for WWI veterans was 1969 (yes, 1969!)!!!!

The peak pay period (of vet benefits) for WWII veterans was the 1980s!!! Yes, 1980s!!!!

dvasealAccording to recent VA statistics, there are currently 860,000 veterans going through disabled “processing.”  There are 270,000 PTSD veterans with benefits PENDING.  There have been 150,000 vets paid for PTSD suffering.  The costs of these payments, combined with all veteran disability payments so far, is well over the $1 TRILLION mark!  45% of Iraq and Afghanistan vets have applied for disability benefits, which is roughly double that of the First Gulf War.  The differences are in the ailments themselves.  In prior wars, up until the First Gulf War, we did not know much about PTSD or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).  The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have, on average, 8 ailments to claim.  Vietnam veterans averaged 4, while WWII and Korean vets averaged just 2 ailments per claim.  More than 1600 vets (as of May 2013) had lost limbs, 177,000 have significant hearing loss, and 200 require face transplants.  And there is no estimate of those who suffer in silence, having seen horrific things and who do not seek assistance.

1 in 7 veterans were rated as 70% disabled in 2000; today it is more than 1 in 4.

Processing of disability claims average 200 days.  As of May 20, 2013 the VA had 838,821 claims waiting to be processed. 2/3 of them, or 559,186 were pending at 125+ days, with the average completion at 345 days. If you appeal a prior ruling, the process is even longer.  Nearly 200,000 vets have DIED while waiting for benefits to be processed.  “Some have waited 10+ YEARS for a VA decision,” says Paul Sullivan, the Public Affairs Director of Bergman and Moore, a law firm specializing in obtaining benefits for vets.  It is so bad, the VA has asked to partner with the DAV and American Legion to help vets file claims!

The research on these facts took me all of about 10 minutes.  The information here should cause us all to pause and truly think about what we are doing.  We have voted to have a national healthcare system to treat all Americans.  How can we expect treatment at the hands of a government that cannot even care for its injured veterans?  Someone I am close to walked in to the VA again today, seeking assistance.  He noticed that he was one of 2 or 3 under the age of 50 in the building.  The worker he spoke to was fervent in his desire to assist him, but told him there is not much he can do, other than request someone to call within the next 8-10 days, with a request to start the appointment process. He separated from the military 3 years ago and still has not been able to get an appointment with a primary care physician, to get referrals to all the specialists he is supposed to be seeing.  He was told to keep applying but to see his personal physician to receive treatment (at his own cost) until his case is processed.  He told him “maybe in the next 10 years” he’d get help.

To me, as he told me this, I was embarrassed at how my country was treating this disabled veteran; I was also so angry, I got a stomach ache.  And when I saw all the articles written and papers researched on this very subject, just in my 10-minutes of research online, I became incensed and livid.  How can we do this?  Do you thank a veteran who lets you know he/she served (sometimes they wear hats, have tattoos, or have stickers on their cars)?  I always thank a serviceman/woman for their service. How lame is that???? In light of what I now know, I am embarrassed that I do thank them; it seems so little compared to what they have done for me and what they still go through.  What kind of thank-you from our country takes YEARS to process??? I had no idea taking care of them AFTER they served was so abysmal.  We are failing our veterans.

I used to work for a county government a few years ago.  In the course of my job, I came into constant contact with the heads of varying county agencies.  One agency head whom I really took a liking to was the head of Veterans’ Affairs.  I loved his fervor and his dedication to our veterans.  He is a veteran, himself, and he knows the ins and outs of service and how treacherous returning to civilian life can be, especially for our veterans.  He told me quite a number a years ago, that we, as a country, were not ready for our veterans.  We did not have the processes in place; the buildings and facilities, and specialists in place; nor did we have financing.  He related how difficult it was to get funding for veterans. He foresaw the overwhelming task it would be to take care of all of our injured and disabled vets, as well as those who did not claim an injury, but just needed help getting back on their feet after serving in the military and serving during conflict.

TOMB-photo3The photo is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and its perpetual guard.  We pay tribute to our dead, to those who have served our country and given their life’s blood keeping us a free nation.  I usually weep, just watching the Guard walk back and forth in all sorts of weather and conditions, honoring our fallen soldiers.  Our living veterans need our care and admiration as well.  I was honored this past Veteran’s Day to go to the local National Cemetery.  I cried as I saw how much their service takes from our veterans, and how it still takes from them.  Not being able to see a doctor, after 3 years of being separated, two tours in a war zone, and having been declared disabled, is a crime.  That’s more than 1,000 days after service without treatment.  And that is just one example out of 838,821 claims waiting to be processed.  Our system is broken; it is a travesty against the freedom these soldiers fought to protect.  We should be ashamed of ourselves as a nation.  How is it we can send money overseas, we can supply countries with money to go to war, and we spend money to care for victims of disasters all over the world, and we cannot take care of those we owe so much to, keeping us free, and politically healthy, as a nation? I hope you become just as angry and help change this.  It is a travesty our Founding Fathers would be ashamed of.


“..is the great I AM?”

baby-feet8I typed a link to a you-tube video above because it is my favorite Christmas song, ever.  And I think Kathy Mattea, the singer, did it the best I’ve heard.  Not sure why her version touches me the most, but it does!  The song?  “Mary, did you know?”  The song speaks to the wonder most of us feel, gazing upon our babies.  Only in this case it is particularly poignant, because Mary is the Theotokos, or Mother of God.  Her Son is God, the Christ Child come to save us all.  I’ve spoken before about our period of preparation prior to Christmas, and that it is almost as important as Christmas, itself.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.” Luke 1; 26-38 (RSV)  It is agreed in Christian theology that this occurred.  So why would a song writer pen the lyrics to this song, asking if Mary knew all these things about her Son?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would some day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you’ve kissed your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God?

Oh Mary did you know?

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM?

All the questions the writer poses to Mary are all the same questions we should pose to ourselves, as we prepare to receive Him at Christmas; this little baby prepared to save each and every one of us.  Did you know?  Perhaps Mary did not know the details that would surround Her Son during His lifetime.  But she knew, oh yes, she knew He was the Son of God and also “the great I AM!”  In Old Testament terms, the “great I AM” is how people would refer to God, because no one felt that saying His name was appropriate. Yahweh is another term used for “God.”  When we really think about the fact that God manifested Himself as an infant, coming to walk among us as a man, devoid of the pomp and circumstance common to rulers in that age, it is pretty incredible – meaning almost “not-credible.”  Why would God do that? I mean, some of the most amazing things of the Old Testament are when God would do something out-of-the-ordinary, signifying His Presence.  I love the imagery of Moses’ face as played by Charleton Heston, after seeing God in the Burning Bush.  He was astonished; his face was sunburned and his hair bleached completely white.  Or Elijah ascending on his fiery chariot up into the sky?  Moses parted the Red Sea!  But this Baby comes in a cave (in most versions of the story) among the cattle, on a cold night under a cloudless sky.  The Christmas Star appears (only in the Gospel of Matthew) and the Shepherds come to adore the Child (Luke 2:8-18).  It is all so quiet, so serene, so peaceful.  No crowds, no parades, no splendor; a simple birth (“…and she brought forth her firstborn Son…” Luke 2:7).

So did Mary realize the immensity of this event? I think both she and Joseph were fully aware of their participation in the salvation history of God.  We don’t really hear much about Joseph in the gospels from here on out.  Christ was a carpenter, as was Joseph, during His life before His preaching began.  So we know that Joseph influenced Him as a child and young man.  The early years of Christ are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it was because they were mundane and normal until His ministry began.  So Mary, at His birth, was perhaps not aware of the fullness of His yet-to-be-lived life of ministry and His Ultimate Sacrifice on the Cross.  But she was very aware of HIM!

We celebrated the birthday of our youngest son last night. I cannot fully express what an incredible evening it was.  So much was against it happening, at all, and yet it was a great night.  The weather wreaked havoc on our plans with icy rain, slick roads, closed schools, highways, and transportation.  But it happened, and it happened through the efforts of my husband daring to get our Costco pizzas and our older son and his wife’s determination that his brother’s birthday would be a great one.  They blazed a trail through the ice and snow, bringing friends over and an amazing cake!  They played a pretty amazing prank on me, too!  I loved that!  (Shhhh….they think I freaked out but it was so fun!!).  My son and his friends had a ball together, and I was able to stand back, and watch my children interact and just smile; my heart aglow with it all.

Baby handThe pregnancy I had with my older son was so frightening.  I was in and out of the hospital so many times, that when I showed up at the labor room, everyone knew me by name.  I was there so often, I had my favorite labor-monitoring chair!  He was born 5-weeks prematurely and we rejoiced that he was here, and healthy, and alive.  I was so afraid of NICU’s and the whole preemie process, that when he was born, God lightened our fears!  He was 8 lbs and 20.5 inches long.  All the NICU equipment they had on standby was too small for him.  The oxygen mask, the isolette, all the little t-shirts, booties, blankets and hats – too small.  He was the biggest baby born that day, and the only boy in the newborn section!  Our youngest son had a pretty rough time of it, too.  He was just 18-inches long and only 6 pounds.  I wasn’t used to such little babies! (My middle son’s pregnancy and birth were so normal, I felt neglected by my OB/GYN! He was 8 lbs. 9 oz!).  And as I sat on the couch last night, watching my oldest and youngest sons interacting over a new air-soft gun (given by the eldest to the youngest) my heart just swelled with love.  I was holding my grand daughter, seated next to my daughter-in-law, and chatting with both her and my husband, while our almost-2-year-old grandson ran around the room.  It was pretty much perfect. (Just missing our middle son and his family – whose birthday it also was!!).

handsDid I imagine or envision this event at the births of my sons? When I was holding my oldest boy in my arms, did I imagine him as a husband and father?  Did I see him as a big brother? A soldier?  When my middle son was born with those gorgeous strawberry blonde curls, did I imagine him holding his strawberry blonde baby girl? His marriage? His college graduation?  When my youngest son was placed in my arms, did I see him as that adorable toddler he grew to be? As a teenager? A pilot?  No to any of that.  All I saw, when I held my children, were these precious babies, themselves – little baby boys, alive, wiggly, and beautiful in my arms.

Mary participated in the salvific history of mankind in a special and unique way.  But she also participated in the act of creation, with the Creator Himself, God.  Each of us who bears a child participates in that same creative process with Our Creator.  What a gift, this gift of life is.  And each year, at Christmas, I feel myself participate, once again, with the Theotokos, as she holds her Baby Boy.

Mary, did you know?

King Size Bed

“..the child grew and became strong.”

290px-Saint_Joseph_with_the_Infant_Jesus_by_Guido_Reni,_c_1635I am preparing for the birthdays of two of my sons tomorrow.  One will be 24 and is married with a baby daughter; the other is turning 15.  I am fresh out of babies!!  It seems only yesterday that my 15-year-old was born.  It was a surprise because we had no idea we were having a baby!  We had gone Christmas tree shopping the weekend before.  As my two older boys (13 and 9 at the time) were decorating the tree, the younger one (the story is still in dispute between these two!! Ha-Ha) stepped on a broken glass ornament behind the tree.  As the older one lifted him over a small dividing wall, blood was dripping down.  We realized right then that it was going to be a doctor’s visit and stitches pretty quickly.  So our day and evening was a chaotic one! Our younger son came home on crutches and would be missing out on the local soccer tournament the following day. His dad was coaching his team and both my husband and older son were signed to referee the tournament.  We got home around dinner time and dealt with a 9-year-old who had stitches in his foot and a 13-year-old denying any complicity!  Later that evening, we had a phone call from the cousin of a good friend.  She recalled a conversation we had at a family bar-be-que FIVE years prior, and she asked us if we still wanted a baby to adopt.  I never hesitated.  I immediately said, “Yes.”  And then I said, “Hang on; let me be sure my husband is okay with this!!”  He was very okay with it and the next morning, our son was born.  I took my 9-year-old on crutches with me to WalMart (my older son and husband went on to the soccer tournament).  I grabbed a baby blanket and a car seat and headed to the hospital.  When the nurses greeted us, they were awesome.  They had me back up my car to the entrance and loaded us up with all sorts of baby things – bottles, diapers, blankets, t-shirts, socks.  It was so unexpected but wonderful.  We loaded him up and off we went, to introduce him to his father and older brother at a soccer tournament!  What a tournament that turned out to be! He was the hit of the day!  Newly born, wrapped in blankets against a chilly December day, and sleeping sweetly in his car seat.  From the moment I first held my son at just a couple of hours old, I loved him.  It is amazing to me how much God allows us to love.  We are the ones with the hang-ups; God wants us to love all people.  And I could not love this young man any  more, had he been brought forth from my own loins.  He is my son. Period.

It is interesting to me that people feel free to comment and criticize adoptive parents, families, and the process, especially if there are differences in race in the adoption process.  It is like complete strangers stroking the belly of pregnant mothers.  People seem to think it’s okay to comment on the make-up of our diverse family. My response to people initially was, “Where were you; where was your community, when no one wanted this child?”  My husband and I never hesitated in welcoming this child into our home, hearts, and family.  My other sons love him like they love each other; there is no difference.  There are differences due to age, but the two older ones have that, too!  He has blessed us more than he will ever realize.  I know God needed me to love this young man and to have him hold a part of my heart forever.

St JosephAt this time of year, I am drawn to the story of St. Joseph.  An angel appears to Mary and she accepts that God’s will be done and that she will bear the Son of God.  Now, imagine:  Mary is already betrothed to Joseph and she finds out she is pregnant, but not by Joseph, as she is still a virgin.  First of all, I don’t think we in the West truly have a grasp on what betrothal means.  In the East, the betrothal is declared after the couple have met with their priest, their parents (if it is appropriate) have agreed with the impending marriage, and the couple agrees to the wedding (usually about a year away).  The couple has a formal ceremony, wherein they make their vows and exchange rings.  They continue to meet regularly with their priest and plan their wedding with their families.  At the end of the betrothal period, the couple finalizes their agreement and is married by the priest. In the East, the priest marries the couple.  It is not like the West where the priest is just a witness.  The sacrament is conferred by the priest.  And the wedding closes a year or more of preparation.  It is a process and the church community, the priest, and the families are all a part of it.

So let’s place St. Joseph in this.  He hears rumors; Mary has up and left to visit her cousin. He has no idea what’s happening.  The little community is abuzz with gossip.  The Romans are talking “census” and the political climate is stressful, to say the least.  Mary makes her way back to town from visiting Elizabeth, where she felt her Child communicate with His cousin, John the Baptist.  Their relationship would grow over their lifetimes into something amazing.  As Mary is traveling back to Joseph, an angel appears to Joseph and tells him everything is okay; Mary is to bear the Son of God, and he needs to take her as his wife.  Mary comes home, Joseph accepts her and they marry.  I can only imagine all the gossiping about that!  (People gossiped badly back then; just as badly as they do today.  And what is sort of sad is that it probably wouldn’t cause too much chatter in our current moral climate!)  Right when they are wed, the Romans tell everyone about the census requirements and Joseph has to take his very pregnant wife with him, so he can be counted at the town of his birth (can you imagine the world having to be part of a census like that now?  Where would you have to show up??). And Joseph never hesitates. He does what is right in regards to the law – the law of the land and the Laws of God.  He takes Mary, fully confident she is bearing the Son of God, and off they go on the back of a donkey.

752px-Gerard_van_Honthorst_001Joseph took Mary on faith, fully believing Her Son would save us all.  He loved Christ as his son, knowing all along that He was the Son of God.  Joseph should be the patron of adoption!  He accepted Mary on faith, loved her with all his heart, and took Jesus as his son. He interceded for Jesus when His life was in danger, rescuing both Mary and Christ when an angel again appeared to him and warned him in a dream to get away.  What was coming was the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.  It is the feast we celebrate on December 29th, which is our wedding anniversary.  It is another feast day that points me to adoption, and it is an ancient story about the sanctity of human life, as Herod had all male children from birth through two years of age killed, just in case one of them grew up to challenge his throne!

flight into egypt xx~001I love this painting.  The sole source of Light is the Christ Child, asleep in His Mother’s arms, atop the Sphinx.  St. Joseph is pictured asleep, next to their tethered beast, with a small fire next to him.  Quiet, peaceful, and safe.  Joseph raised Jesus as a carpenter, teaching him his trade.  He was already an old man when Christ was born, but he raised Him as best he could, giving of himself for his family.

I love that my husband and I could open our home to another son.  I thank God for this gift of life that has blessed us so immensely.  God knows how easy it is for us to love; to love each and every one of our fellow men.  He gave a wonderful example in St. Joseph and his love for Christ and the Theotokos, Mother of God.  And each year I am reminded of the blessing of life in our home.  The years are passing so much more quickly than they ever have.  I mourn the days of little feet running all over the house and fingerprints on windows and tripping over toys.  But God has gifted me with grandchildren and so the cycle of life continues!!  I give thanks for my sons, their wives, and my grandchildren.  And this last son still at home lifts my heart with his humor and his silliness.  His not-so-tidy bedroom is something I will miss in many ways, when it is his time to journey on in life.  And tomorrow it’s birthday cake, friends, and pizza! And I am sure lots of laughing and joking and high school teenagers being just that.  Time is racing past and I am trying to enjoy these fleeting moments.  St. Joseph reminds me to be faithful, unquestioning, and to just love.

250px-La_TourLuke 2:39-40
“When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

“…being God from all eternity.”

Snow cabinThis is the season I love the best.  I love winter and I love Christmas.  We were married on December 29th because I wanted to have our wedding and subsequent anniversaries around this time of year. I had always dreamed of a winter wedding, complete with white fur muffs, a horse-drawn sleigh, and wearing red in my wedding outfit.  I loved having a candle-lit, winter wedding.  I love the cold weather, the snow, the lights on people’s houses, the tree with all the ornaments that tell of our lifetimes in them, the smell of Christmas baking, the Christmas music my husband plays continually from Thanksgiving Day onward, seeing friends we haven’t seen in a long time, enjoying the joy of gifts given and received.  I especially love Christmas Eve Vespers and staying out late and seeing all the lights, drinking hot cocoa and splurging on Christmas cookies.  I love making Gingerbread Houses, a fairly new tradition my daughter-in-law brought to our family.  I love baking during Christmas.  I was never much of a holiday cook but since I married into this family, I learned so many delicious holiday treats.  I love preparing the stockings even for our grown and married children.  This year we get to add three stockings of our grandchildren.  I love the prep and the running around and the chaos of it all.  There are days I just sigh in contentment.  All of it, Christmas; I just love it.

Snow fence lightsIt was brought to my attention that I started sharing Christmas-themed posts and photos before Halloween.  I am not sure about the October date, but I do know I started before Thanksgiving.  It is my first season living in the Arctic Circle and I can tell you that weather definitely had an affect on me.  Up here, people try to hang the lights on their houses and fences, front yards, and outside trees prior to the first snow. It makes sense.  We were a little late, and with the help of our older son, hung our lights after the first serious snowfall (we got 6″ overnight) and it turned out to be a fun experience! The older sibling dumped loads of snow off the eaves onto his younger brother, as he carried the string of lights for his big-brother up on the ladder.  The oldest brought his dad a cigar and the two of them smoked cigars in the snow (it started to snow while they were half-way through) and they had a lot of fun.  We have since received a couple of feet of snow, and our Christmas lights glow through the snow accumulating on the roof.  It is pretty.  Because the house lights were up, we brought in all our decorations the following Monday and put up our tree and completely decorated our house.  My husband came home and just smiled.  Another tradition this far north is to keep house lights up until Spring and the days lengthen a little bit.  The basic decor is taken down, but the lights remain to keep our spirits up in these long days of dark.  And maybe I started a little early, but all this snow and minus temps just got me excited for the season, seeking some joy and happiness through decorating for it; I also was beginning to prepare for Christmas in my heart.  A friend also reminded me that I used to decorate my homes all in red and green, it was wasted in Southern California, and perhaps I was always meant to dwell in the Arctic!  She may be right, because I don’t like hot weather, the beach or sand, and I love wearing coats, sweaters, boots, and living in all this snow!

sit with you lordThe season of winter and Christmas is also a very interior or prayerful time for me.  We are indoors a lot, it is dark a lot of the time, and it brings with it a sensual experience of warm fires, gentle lights, and the quiet of the winter terrain, all buried in deep snows.  I have found myself contemplating the whys and wherefores of Christmas and the traditions that go with it.  And I have also been chatting with various people about Santa Claus, and other winter traditions.  For me, I find that matters of faith, tenets of faith, all germinate in reality.  The story of the Wise Men; the birth of Christ; the slaughtering of the Holy Innocents; the Crucifixion and Resurrection…these all had their start in truth and historical occurrences.  There are those who poo-poo the whole December 25th date and the fact that the “Church” stole the date from the pagans of the early centuries; the fact that pagans had trees indoors for far different purposes; the “wise men” were not all that wise, nor were there just three of them…on and on it goes.  I know that; I was blessed with studying Biblical Archeology as my minor in college.  I know what we have physical evidence for, and what is real and what is hysterical – or historical – and what is not.  And I acknowledge those who love just Santa Claus (made jolly and friendly by the early Coca Cola ads in the 20s), the Tooth Fairy (recently made famous again by “the Rock” in a movie), and the Easter Bunny (whose fame was resurrected in the movie, “HOP,” and which I just watched today with my grandson), and they do not want to know where those traditions come from. I will agree to just enjoy those “Hollywood” versions of the truth, but all the while knowing there is so much more to it.

I choose, however, to understand, celebrate, and share the historical roots of the things we believe in.  Our parish here is St. Nicholas of Myra.  It is the only Byzantine parish in the area and the diocese exempts our parish from the pre-Christmas Fast on the Feast of St. Nicholas, which we celebrate this Friday, December 6th.  I have invited my son and daughter-in-law to attend, so my grandson can be exposed to this story surrounding Christmas.  It’s wonderful to share these traditions with our families.  St. Nicholas has been real for my husband and myself at least all of our marriage. There were many Christmases where we were in such dire straits that we should not have been able to provide gifts for our sons; St. Nicholas always interceded for us and Christmas was always a joy for our children.  In Russia, St. Nicholas is the patron of the family and we took him as our family patron many years ago.  St. Nicholas exemplifies giving and his determination to help families in trouble is one of the many reasons he is a Saint of the Church.  (http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/fatherchristmas.shtml). Regardless of which story you have heard, or have not heard, Bishop Nicholas of Myra (now Turkey) was a Saint who later became a legend, and whose legend we keep each Christmastime.  I love St. Nicholas and I love keeping his memory alive.  This year, our youngest son remarked that he knows there is no Santa Claus and that we are the giver of the gifts.  But he also said he likes believing in things at Christmas, so he’s choosing to still cling to Santa, and enjoys the stories of St. Nicholas.  All of those heroes in our children’s lives are actually Saints, making their way into modern culture. A little twisted and turned to meet modern culture where it is, but they are present nonetheless.

Nativity_htmIn many Christian cultures, we celebrate Christmas until the 6th of January, or in the west, Epiphany (in the east, it is the Baptism of the Lord, or the Theophany).  In the west the different feasts were all celebrated together, and is where the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas come from.  In the East, as these feasts began to separate themselves, the Byzantine and Orthodox chose to celebrate the Theophany, or Baptism of the Lord, on the same date the west celebrates Epiphany.  Interestingly enough, the term “Epiphany” is defined as a revelation.  We can all have epiphanies when we learn something new or gain an awareness of something we never knew before.  The Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of Christ to the world, and started with the 1st of the 12 Days of Christmas when Mary accepted the Word of God and proclaimed her great fiat of, “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38).  The Epiphany continues through the Birth of Christ, the visitation of the Magi, and the Baptism of the Lord.  Most people in western countries use the day to celebrate the Gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child and often have parties called, “Little Christmas,” where they give one another gifts (some families have adopted this date as their major Christmas celebration, keeping December 25th more as a reflective day and a day to celebrate the Birth of Christ). In the East, we celebrate the Theophany, or the Baptism of the Lord.  Theophany means: “the manifestation of God to man; the sensible sign by which the presence of God is revealed.” It is when Christ was Baptized and His Kingship made known to man through His Father’s recognition in his declaration of “This is my beloved son” and of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Both of the terms, Epiphany and Theophany, are words explaining the revelation of God to His People; to each of us.

Baptism-of-Christ-theophany-icon-444-200x300“At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father’s voice bore witness to You by calling You His beloved son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, who have appeared to us and enlightened the world, glory to You!” (Kontakion of the Theophany).

So much surrounds us during this Christmas season.  I don’t understand why we need to limit ourselves to specific times; artificial dates.  Some people will only decorate for Christmas between the day after Thanksgiving, and then take everything down by December 26th.  In the seasonal feasting and fasting cycle of the Church, the preparation for the Feast is almost as important as the Feast itself. We in the East began our preparation for Christmas on the 15th of November, with the Feast of St. Philip.  It is often called, “Philip’s Fast,” or the “Apostle’s Fast,” but is commonly called the “Pre-Christmas Fast.”  In the Melkite tradition, this is when we begin singing the Kontakian of the Preparation:

“Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth to the Eternal Word of God in an ineffable manner. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear this news, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds Him who shall appear as a newborn Babe, being God from all eternity.”

We’ve been preparing for the Birth of Christ since November 15th, and have been since the Council of Constantinople in 1166 AD.  Prior to that, the worldwide Church celebrated different dates, requiring daily attendance at Church for services and prayers, with moderate fasting.  After 1166, the tradition we now keep was begun in earnest.  So for at least the last 900 years in Christianity, the Preparation for Christmas began on the 15th of November.  This year, I opted to keep the tradition of the Preparation alive by decorating my home, to coincide with our fasting and liturgical year.

snowy tree.lights

The other interesting side-note to this is that our Liturgical traditions allow us to keep our Christmas decor up from November 15th through January 6th.  It is a good thing we use a fake tree! Up here it seems we tend to celebrate Halloween and run straight into Christmas, with a brief respite at a little family dinner – Thanksgiving – in between. Thanksgiving, to me, is like the practice run for cooking Christmas dinner!  It’s also a great day for Football on TV!  And this year, our Parish celebrated Divine Liturgy with a potluck afterward; it was nice to celebrate as a parish family.  Recently, my feelings were pretty stepped on and I was criticized for this early Christmas thing, and after thinking about it, and now posting about it, I feel sort of justified in keeping the traditions of my faith, even if public pressure is to downplay it.  I will celebrate through fasting and preparation, decoration and cooking, gift giving and singing of Christmas songs, putting my tree up and hanging lights, from November through January, at the least.  And in our tradition, you don’t party until AFTER the Feast…so true Christmas parties are from December 25th through Theophany on January 6th. It works perfectly for someone who decorates year round in red and green colors, collects antique Santas from around the world, loves the snow, and lives where people keep their Christmas lights up until Spring.  Maybe I was meant to live in the Arctic all along!

back lit blue trees.snow