The Hundred-and-Third Letter: On Repetition and the Pink Candle (Advent 3)

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Dear Daughters,

You helped me rake the leaves this week.

That we were still in need of raking our leaves this third week of December is surprising. And that you were able to be so helpful for much of the task is also surprising, given how wet and heavy the leaves were and that we had to rake them from the back of the driveway out to the road. But you do love to help, and I am appreciative, even if you did prefer the big, nice rake with the squishy handle that I bought for myself last year.

After a certain amount of time, though, you were happy to go play in the treehouse with our neighbor girl while I furiously raked to try to finish up before your dad got home and (or?) before my shoulders gave out.

Oy. Raking is hard, thankless work.

Pretty much every time I rake, I think about the desert monk Abba Paul from the early centuries of the church. One of the stories passed down in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is that Abba Paul would weave baskets and then, after a day of basket-weaving, he would take the baskets all apart and start over again. (Depending on the story, sometimes he burns them all.)

The baskets weren’t the point for Abba Paul. The task was the point.

The task was valuable in and of itself.

Even though it happened day after day.

Maybe even because it happened day after day.

That’s what I was thinking about while I raked this week.

When our leaves first begin to fall from our old, tall trees, we mulch them into the grass. And then they fall a little bit more and we pile them into our compost bin. And then they fall a little bit more, and we pile them into our raised beds that have been put to sleep for the winter. We rake and we mulch and we pile and we still end up with lots of leaves to deal with. So we rake them out to the road and eventually a big leaf-sucking truck comes by and takes them away.

But sometimes the truck doesn’t come. And sometimes the leaves blow away. And sometimes they blow back down the driveway after we have spent so much energy raking them out to the end of the driveway.

Alas.

It feels like we’re burning up the baskets we just finished weaving.

But here’s the thing, girls: the fact that we have to do it again and again doesn’t make it less valuable of a task.

There are lots of things we do that we know we will have to do over and over again.

Dishes. Laundry. Mowing the grass. Setting the table. Reading Tyrannosaurus Rex versus Edna the First Chicken. Disciplining children. Practicing the piano. Braiding your hair.

Also: praying.

Practicing the liturgical calendar is also an exercise in repetition (and, I’ll be honest, frustration). The pink Advent candle was lit this week, and there’s a lot of stuff going on in the background as to why, but one of the things is that the joyful, pink candle reminds us that we’re halfway through Advent. It’s a reminder that HEY, YOU MADE IT THIS FAR. It’s the promise that we can make it the rest of the way until Christmas. Don’t get discouraged, the pink candle says. It’s coming. It came last year. You made it last year. It will come next year. You’ll make it then, too. But keep on going, friends, because Christmas is coming.

Again.

And again.

And again.

That’s the pink candle.

A sign-marker on the repetitive road that is the cycle of the liturgical year to say—here it comes again, y’all! Be joyful!

And in our case, it means, go ahead and get out the rest of those Christmas ornaments. And it means go ahead and turn on that Christmas playlist, you’ve waited long enough this year.

So there’s meaning to this whole repetitive liturgical calendar.

And there’s meaning to the whole repetitive life we live.

Because so much of life is repetition.

To be honest, I believe that the most important things in life are repetitive. I’m serious. The spiritual practices of prayer and reflection and attention? The care-for-people things? The how-we-love-better things? All repetitive.

And the repetitive things are the things that shape us, our habits, our bodies, and even our souls, girls.

Do you know why my grandma was able to sing the old hymns and pray lovely and heartfelt prayers long after her mind was no longer living in the present?

It’s because she sang the old songs and prayed heartfelt prayers her whole life.

Her whole life.

Girls, that is the life I want for you. A life of the daily repetition of grace. The daily and boring and humdrum and yet absolutely astounding practices that cultivate a life of grace.

Of accepting grace.

Of offering grace.

It’s still Advent, girls. But Christmas is coming.

Love,

Your Momma

 

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The Ninety-Sixth Letter: For the Morning of an Election

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Dear Daughters,

It’s the mid-terms, and I’ll be honest: I don’t really know what the day holds nor how to feel about it.

(Let’s just say I’ve been surprised before on Election Day.)

Last week someone asked me why I liked the month of November so much. I can go ahead and tell you that it has nothing to do with the political season. I’m sure you’re not surprised.

It has everything to do with the liturgical season though.

November kicks off with All Saints Day, reminding us of those who have gone before us, who lived faithful lives. It offers us a reminder that there is a calling in this life to live radically, to love fully, to seek God faithfully. As we remember the legacy of those who’ve gone before us, All Saints Day is also a reminder that others will follow behind us.

And if that doesn’t get you thinking, I don’t know what will.

We get to leave a legacy.

(Which is maybe a good message for Election Day, come to think of it.)

This year, the last Sunday in November is Christ the King Sunday, which somehow feels like a perfect way to end any month that has an election hanging out in the middle.

Christ the King–or Reign of Christ–reminds us that there is only one King, now and forever, and, well, in the face of nationalism and divisive political leaders and the inability to have fruitful, let alone compassionate, dialogue with people who disagree with us, I think it’s a reminder we all need to hear.

Reign of Christ.

Christ the King.

Christ is King.

Girls, I know you know that it’s how the liturgical cycle ends every year, even when there isn’t an election. The Reign of Christ is the culmination of everything that begins every year during the darkness of Advent. Christ the King is always the Sunday before the first week of Advent. And it’s one of my favorite Sundays.

Every year.

It’s also one of the most overlooked Sundays, in my experience. Our Baptist church doesn’t mention it. It definitely doesn’t have the hype of Christmas or Easter, or even Epiphany or Pentecost. Maybe it’s because we’re so tired after the long, oh so long, season of Ordinary Time (the long season between Pentecost and Advent). But then out of nowhere we have All Saints Day–which doesn’t often get mentioned in Protestant churches either because everyone is so focused on our Trunk-or-Treat and Fall Festivals–and then a few weeks later, oops! here’s Christ the King. And since Christ the King often falls after Thanksgiving, everyone’s moved on to Christmas music by then.

Don’t even get me started about Christmas music.

But girls, the message of Christ the King Sunday is exactly the reminder I need to hear, and believe, and live.

Right now. This month.

This day. Election Day.

Yes, I’ll walk down the hill to the electric company where our precinct votes, and I’ll probably take you with me as usual. I’ll vote with the paper ballot, and then I’ll feel anxious off and on all day. I’ll make cookies. I’ll probably try too often to check in on the results of the election.

And then tomorrow, I’ll wake up, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll remember why I wrote this letter.

Because every year:

Christ the King.

That’s the end of the story.

And all God’s people said–

Thank goodness,

Your Momma

The Eighty-Seventh Letter: Lent & Unseasonable Weather

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Dear Daughters,

“It’s not SUPER cool, Mom. It’s AWESOMELY cool.”

That’s what the 5 year old said, watching the storm clouds moving in this morning while we sat outside on the deck in the unseasonably warm weather before the rest of the family was up. We were listening to the birds, admiring the colors strewn across the sky, watching the squirrels dance in the trees.

What is “unseasonable” weather anyway? Well, probably 80 degrees in February with your kids playing in the sandbox in shorts while you sit out at the picnic table trying to finish up a freelance project.

That was us yesterday. Obviously.

But I’m not complaining about it.

What I have been complaining about in my heart is how unseasonal my heart is feeling about Lent.

But then I had an epiphany in my letters to God this week.

I was asking what it’s means to be thoughtful during Lent, to be intentional in this season of life and this season of liturgy, and this is what I started to write:

Lent — it comes from words about lengthening, about Spring, about lengthening days.

Lengthening days mean plants leaning toward the light. The ground and the world waking from slumber. Our hearts awakening from winter.

Is it somber? Sure, we acknowledge our own finitude and our utter dependence on God, that it isn’t all of our striving and achieving that brings the trees to blossom but God’s utter transforming, life-giving, ever-creating, ever-new power.

And God doesn’t just do the minimum. God doesn’t just create a world in which water and sunlight miraculously cause plants tho break out of their seed pods and burst up through the mud of early spring, but a world in which the byproduct of human breath is the exact thing plants “breathe in” and vice versa. And the same word for that breath is the Holy Spirit, not coincidentally.

No, God remains graciously able and willing to transform ash into green palms, while we are only able to live a life of the opposite—green palms turning to ash. We are unable to keep the world spinning. We are unable to burst forth blooms. We are unable to turn death into life.

We are unable.

But we live the season of Lent, and that is not only ash and death and sin and mourning. That is a season of lengthening days and new life and hope and giving up our independence in favor of unseasonably warm weather and rain storms and barefoot-in-the-sandbox.

Lent is not just singing “Were You There?” at the Ash Wednesday service, it is also learning “What Wondrous Love Is This?” as a new bedtime hymn.

Lent is not just a finger sliced open from the serated bread knife yesterday, it is also the tulips bursting through the ground over the weekend.

Lent is not just the broken egg in the carton leaking all over the frig, but the beauty of the thwp-thwp-thwp of the flock of birds circling overhead this morning.

Lent is not just the anxiety and pink eyes and snotty noses and allergy medicines and children’s nightmares and waking to find Billy Graham had passed away, but a child who loves our current readaloud book because, she says, “I can picture everything that is happening!”

Lent is ash, but Lent is palms.

Lent is death, but Lent is life.

It’s a both/and.

Every year.

No matter the weather.

And there’s nothing unseasonable about that.

Love,
Your Momma