Struggler

Happy New Year’s! Well, we made it. 2020 is on it’s way into memory and we are all opening our arms wide to welcome 2021. It’s the same kind of feeling each year, but this year, for obvious reasons, those feelings of shaking the dust of the previous year from our feet are stronger than usual. I wrote earlier this fall about being careful not to totally write off 2020, or as Ben’s grandpa would say, put it in the book of the dead. And while yes, I too am excited to embark on a new year, I keep being reminded that shaking my fist at 2020 isn’t the right choice.

There is a music artist that I like who is a Franciscan monk named Brother Isaiah. He has mostly acoustic stuff and is often fairly repetitive which makes the lyrics easy to learn and excellent to pray with. His latest album, Poco a Poco, has been cued up in my phone often lately, especially one song in particular.

This song is so good, because it is so much of 2020. 2020 has been a struggle! It has been hard, horrific, frustrating, heart wrenching, and isolating. As the song says, it has often felt like we are reeds broken in the wind, how many more hits can we take? Without my faith, I’m not sure how I could answer this question.

This is one of the beautiful mysteries of our faith. Suffering always bears fruit – “every good thing is born of a struggle.” The song acknowledges that suffering happens, and that it’s hard to struggle through. But we all know that the best things in life are the ones that we have to work for, work through and continue to grapple with. None of us is a finished masterpiece, we are works in progress. The song pulls this image to the fore:

Something being born in you so beautiful and so true

Like a statue of David chiseled-away and never fading

We are being honed, refined. Brother Isaiah calls life a crucible, a place of extreme heat which can transform metal. This reminds me of the refiners fire the prophet Zechariah talks about when speaking of the coming of the Lord. Zechariah 13:9 says: “I will bring the one third through the fire; I will refine them as one refines silver, and I will test them as one tests gold. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them; I will say, “They are my people,” and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God.'”

2020 has definitely been a refining year. And things aren’t going to magically change now that the clocks and calendars have turned over to January 1, 2021. The same struggles are being carried forward, but not without hope. Listen to how the singer chooses to respond to the new knowledge about struggle:

Yes I’m a struggler, but I’m not gonna give up no

You give me heart when I want to give up

He affirms that yes, he is a struggler. But he’s a struggler that’s going to keep on going because what’s being created is worth the effort. My friends, let’s walk forward into 2021 seeing where we are struggling, and instead of trying to run away from it, let’s embrace it. Let’s discover what beauty is waiting to be found within the crucible of our struggle. God does not abandon us in our struggle, but walks right alongside us. Whatever your struggle, wherever you are, my new year’s wish for you is that 2021 will bring forth fruit in your life that strengthens you to continue becoming the person He desires you to be.

Happy New Year!

Bringing Our Best

As we continue to move closer to Christmas, I find that more and more of our focus turns toward Mary. This makes sense in many ways, she is the Theotokos, the God-bearer. Her “yes” to God’s plan is one of the main reasons we are all here, all waiting the blessed day of our Savior’s birth. However, I happen to be in a unique season of life that has me thinking a lot about St. Joseph and the sacrifices he had to make in this adventure.

We are a military family and as it happens, the military has planned for us to transition to a new state in the early weeks of January. Our holiday season has already looked a lot different (even outside of the coronavirus limitations and sacrifices). We don’t have a Christmas tree this year, we have really only put up Advent decorations and minimal Christmas ones. We have had to ask our family to refrain from sending their gifts until after we move so that we don’t end up losing critical LEGO pieces or doll accessories between Christmas Day and a few days later when the serious pack out begins.

I am both a preparer and a celebrator. I like to make plans, get gifts early, make lots of cookies, decorate and leave everything up for the fullness of the Christmas season. This whole notion of emptying the freezer so it can thaw instead of filling it up is very backwards in my frame of mind for this time of year. Though we know little of St. Joseph’s personality from the few passages he is in in the Bible, I believe he and I have some things in common, our affinity for preparation for one.

When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he immediately set out with plans — plans which would have protected Mary to the best of his ability. When the angel appeared to him, his plans clearly changed. But I believe his instinct to protect Mary, and by extension her baby, would have carried on and he would have immediately began planning for this new child. Imagine the cradle a carpenter would make for his son or daughter. Imagine the little stool or bench by the door sized for his toddler. Imagine the toys, trinkets or other baubles he would have made in the evenings by firelight as he awaited the birth of his child.

Now, imagine the pain he must have felt when they received word about the census and he calculated the timing. All of these things he had lovingly and carefully prepared had to be left behind. Imagine how his pain increased when the angel again appeared and told him not to return home to the home he had built, but to flee to Egypt. Sacrifice topped on top of sacrifice. But just because what he had built with his hands had to be left, didn’t mean that Joseph didn’t bring his best along for the journey. Joseph brought his love, his protection, his faithfulness, and his steadfastness.

This year has been fundamentally different. It was not what we planned. Sacrifice on top of sacrifice has brought us to this Advent season. However, we have been gifted an opportunity to choose to approach the coming days with the same spirit of St. Joseph. Christmas Day might not look like what we had planned, but that doesn’t mean we are bringing less than our best. Regardless of how many people are around our table, the child Jesus is with us. No matter how we find ourselves, in our pjs all day or Sunday best, Mary invites us to come and worship her newborn babe. And, regardless of our location, St. Joseph is among us, reminding us that it matters not what we brought or bought. The spirit of Christmas lies in the manger, awaiting not our gifts but our love, our faithfulness, and our devotion.

This post was published first at CatholicMom.com

Merry Mighty Christmas

I recently received an email from a dear church friend who, like many friends, I have only had the briefest of exchanges with these past months. We were catching up with each other – I with our plans for the upcoming move, she sharing her remembrances of working with Air Force families as they transitioned and encouragement for Ben and I as we walk through this transitory period with each other and with the kids. We are exchanging good mailing addresses and confirming our phone numbers won’t be changing. She concluded her latest email as follows:

Merry – Mighty Christmas! The Savior Comes!

I LOVE this! Christmas holds this incredible tension that I don’t think we fully appreciate. God, our Creator, is becoming created. The sky filled with angel choirs – not one angel or two, but hundreds – all singing thunderous praise to God for this mighty miracle.

In any other story, you would expect the angels to part and the god figure to come marching down between the rank and file, perhaps on some kind of noble steed with robes flowing behind and rays of light shooting from his hair. A mighty entrance for the mighty god.

But no, no friends! And this is the (well one of the) wondrous things about our God. While the angels announce His coming, He enters our world in the arms of a simple mother, whose only cradle is small manger for animals. This weak, innocent and helpless baby is the Savior of the world. The whole world was forever changed and continues to be changed by this moment.

Photo credit: Ben Taliaferro 2020

Christmas is merry, it is a time of joyful giving and receiving, a time of spreading love and cheer. It is a season of hope, of what is to come. But Christmas is also mighty, and can inspire us to do mighty things. This Christmas, more unique than most for today’s generations, is an opportunity for such a mighty Christmas.

I’ll just give one example, because I think it is one of the most beautiful and personal for myself and my family. My dad’s mother, fondly called Grandma J, presently lives in an independent living community that is attached to an assisted living and nursing home. As you can imagine, her community has undergone some of the strictest lockdown measures and there was a period of months that she was unable to see any of her family. As the summer moved into fall, the facility began allowing for visitors, under very strict rules and always outdoors. Winter has put a damper on this visiting situation and they have struggled to find a safe way for families to visit their loved ones.

Grandma J

The staff have been so good and have managed to find an indoor space with enough distance and safety measures so that families (a maximum of 2 people at a time) can come visit for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. However, it’s only one space and the time slots are 45 minutes. Naturally, the spots are filling up quickly.

My grandmother had 2 choices. She could have, and rightfully so, frantically called each of her 5 local children to grab whatever they could so she could see someone on this holiday. It would have brought her cheer and joy to have even a little bit of family come to celebrate her.

She, however, made the mighty decision. When the visiting option was announced, she did call everyone. She called them to say to NOT take those precious few visiting spots on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. She said that there are so many residents whose families in a more normal year would only come on Christmas. If this was their one chance to see their children or grandchildren, they should have every opportunity. She has been so blessed by children who do come to visit regularly, she can sacrifice visits on these special days so someone else can enjoy them.

This is love. This is love for others, even others you may not know. Grandma J is 90+ years old. Even if Covid wasn’t a thing, this could very well be her last Christmas. She knows it, we know it. And still, she chose the hard but mighty Christmas. What an incredible inspiration she is, for me and for our whole family. I hope for you as well.

I’d like to wish each of you, dear readers, a Merry and a Mighty Christmas.