Christmas in the Emergency Department

Not your usual Christmas feast!

I have to be honest. This pastor’s Christmas joy was a little flat this year. But inspire of how I felt, there was a lot of joy in the middle of the mess.

This Advent opened in a true Spirit of anticipation. I was aware of my own sense of waiting and longing. It collapsed around me when, during the week immediately preceding Christmas, I found out that I was not selected for a new ministry opportunity. It stung like hell. It was (and is) heartbreaking, but it is also for the best. Recovering slowly from my disappointment, I discovered I was not really up for the last minute Christmas shopping and planning.

On top of that, our church is facing a challenging financial twist which not only affects our church as a whole, but eliminates the salary for my (very) part-time job. I am serving, for now, in a volunteer capacity.

The usual hilarious disorganization of a Christmas Eve service was compounded by the Choir Director leading despite a bad case of laryngitis, and choir members inexplicably deciding to make other plans and miss the candlelight Christmas Eve service. By the time the service started, I was finally in sync, enjoying the people in our congregation, and our celebration of Love arriving on the Earth in human form.

Just to keep things interesting… In the early hours of Christmas morning, a GI virus and its complications meant that I spent Christmas Day in the ED with one of our beloved daughters. The rest of the family put the turkey dinner and gift-giving on hold.

As I sat with our daughter, watching over her, I had a new appreciation for the staff who work on holidays. I have worked many of them in years past as a chaplain. It is hard to keep your spirits up when you know you are missing your own family’s celebrations. The ED staff, was, to a person, kind, caring and helpful.

But I also thought about the families who had a disappointing Christmas that day. My hospice families who tried to celebrate in the middle of loss. I remembered the families and spouses of those in the military, and first responders. Their Christmas celebrations were impacted, too, and in far greater ways.

Today our daughter is on the mend. We cooked the turkey and all of the accompaniments. The cranberries and stuffing, potatoes and carrots graced the table too. (We won’t talk about my gravy… it was, as per usual, disappointing.) The cookie dough will get baked… eventually. Flights to holiday celebrations are being re-booked for a healthier day.  And all is well.

In the middle of the mess that is life in the ED, I was reminded that the message of the Christ Child is the center of my Faith. In impossible situations, with unlikely companions, despite all odds, God breaks through with another “I love you” and a “Hallelujah!”

I don’t want to make it an annual event, but I am grateful for God’s speaking through the clanging of culture, sickness and politics to declare: 

“Don’t be afraid!
Look! I bring good news to you
wonderful, joyous news for all people.”

Luke 2:10


Here. Let us “help” you.

It’s that time of year. Time to pack up the stockings and ornaments, the wreaths and lights. Time to put away the holiday linens and platters, and the Christmas coffee mug. To be honest, it’s one of my least favorite chores. (It’s right up there with cleaning out the garage and scrubbing bathrooms…)

The job was almost finished. One or both of our cats decided to “help” take it down in the mean time. I heard a funny crashing sound and the scrabbling of two cats running for cover.


OK, Christmas is over. Epiphany was last week. I promise we are taking the tree down this week. (I’m just waiting for a little muscle to drop by later this week and help haul the tree up into the rafters.)

Cats. Making sure you get your chores done, whether you like to do them or not.

Friday Five: Recovery Edition

Over at RevGalBlogPals this week, I’m hosting the Friday Five! Play along if you’d like!

That was the air rushing out of our collective pool of energy. Whether you led one small service or 5 huge ones, let’s talk about recovery mode. In less than 48 hours, there’s another Sunday service, or a weekday ministry starting up again. So, tell us:

1. What’s your “chill out” foot gear? Slippers or socks? Or Birkenstocks? (Poem not intentional)
I’m a “Wicked Good” slippers kind of gal. Or I’m barefoot. Really not much in-between!

2. A holiday treat or beverage that just makes you say “AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!”
Peppermint hot chocolate. In a nice tall mug. With a lap blanket. And a purring cat.

3. What sight or sound moved you during the season? (This can be good or bad.)
Seeing the response to the labyrinth made of Christmas lights at our “Longest Night” service. First, that my family created it (in less than 2 hours!) Second, how it touched a spiritual chord with the participants. I blogged about it here…)

4. With whom did you enjoy sharing time with over the Christmas season?
My beloved, our daughters and two wonderful “Plus One” boyfriends. Not everyone was here at the same time, but it has made our break an enjoyable one. Full of activity in the kitchen and with much use of bandwidth and the comfy couches.

5. Was there someone missing from your festivities? How are you doing with that?
Work schedules and family prevented our traveling south this year. And finances prevented plane flights in our shorter window. I missed seeing my family (sibs and Mom).

BONUS: A photo of a bodaciously wonderful present, delicious food, or lovely place that was a part of your holiday.
How about these cookies? (And everyone needs more cowbell!)


The Longest Night: Intentional Movement towards The Light of the World

The cloud cover is denser. The trees are grey. The garden is silent and sleeping. I’m not a fan of winter.

The shorter days get to me. When I’m visiting my hospice patients and it’s getting dark before 5 p.m., I find myself drooping. I get home to a list of chores: dinner, dishes, laundry, and some days even finishing my charting. I’m not happy. I am one who flourishes in the light.

For the last couple of years I’ve tried to keep a sense of where I am emotionally as the days get shorter and shorter. I find that I am short-tempered, and as much as I am an extrovert, I don’t want to deal with people. So as we moved from the Fall Equinox towards the Winter Solstice this year, I made some intentional shifts in my thinking and my practice.

1. I use my “Light Clock” in the mornings as I’m getting ready for work. I need sunlight, even at 6 a.m. There’s one downstairs in the main living area… and one in our bedroom. It helps!

2. I counteract my growing grumpiness by engaging in “A Month of Thanksgivings” in November. Now I get that some people HATE it when people take a whole month on Facebook with posts on what they are thankful for. I get it. I spent last November (2013) hoping for a job — that I didn’t get and it depressed me. But I tried to be intentional in my thankfulness, because I do have much to be thankful for in my life. This year was easier than last year, but I still had to work at it.

3. I am pro-active in helping to plan and lead a “Longest Night” service at our church. The time of Winter Solstice is difficult for many people. Sitting at the bedside of a patient last week, as I sang an Advent hymn to him (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”), he opened his eyes and said, “I am ready. God can come now.” His family would have preferred he make it to Christmas. His heart and his cancer didn’t oblige. I know they will walk through these last days before Christmas and beyond with heavy hearts. And I know there are many who are struggling to be joyful in a time when everything is wrong.

The Longest Night or “Blue Christmas” services you hear about vary from church to church, as we each find our way through the scriptures and the words of Hope that come with Advent, and the longing and waiting for Christmas. Our church tends to be on the contemplative side, with space for writing, thinking, creating and worshipping.

The service is also one of intentionality: we do not want to stay in the Dark. With quiet, with prayer, and with others, we take one step and another towards the promised Hope found in Christ. We don’t tell each other to “cheer up”… we walk together in our shared struggles and dashed dreams.

This year, with the help of my family, we created a 3-circuit labyrinth in the church’s Chapel. (I’ll share more about how they did it in another post.) The room was dark, lit only by the lights at our feet and some Christmas lights and candles on the perimeter of the room. There was soft music playing and the room had a other-worldly feeling about it, one where the distance between heaven and earth was a very “thin place.”

I had spent over an hour the night before trying to figure out how to do this by myself and ended up being frustrated. A little simple math and geometry, and they  had the whole labyrinth done in less than 2 hours!

Longest Night labyrinth at Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Dec 21, 2014
Longest Night labyrinth at Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Dec 21, 2014

As I pondered this, I thought about what God had shown me in this liminal space:

– Even though I am frustrated and sad, I need others. I need to know there is another day coming, where the Light will return. I take this as validation that my November postings of Thankfulness are a good spiritual discipline, not only for myself, but for others.

– There’s options I have not always considered…. and there’s strength in numbers. I especially need others to help me get past my frustrations and see that there other ways to do things.

– Rarely does one make the journey from darkness to Light alone. It is almost always overcome-able if you have friends for the journey.

– The practice of gratefulness, for me, is essential. That means doing a little year-end Facebook meme (and knowing that while the year wasn’t perfect, it was full of God’s goodness. I just have to look for it.) That also means I don’t get sidetracked or feel guilty if I engage being thankful. (You’d be surprised — or maybe not — at how people can get snarky about “brag-booking” when in truth I am trying to stay positive.)

– I found ways to enjoy Christmas music all-month long. I am an educated Church musician, and I’ll break all those “Advent rules” and sing Silent Night in Advent. I’ll sing it to my patients who may or may not make it to Christmas. And I’ll sing with heart full of gratitude for the coming Light. Jesus.

Friday Five: Advent Confidential

This week’s Friday Five is offered by MaryBeth:

Good morning, all! In the United States we are waking up from our annual turkey feast, a day and meal surrounded by traditions of all sorts.

One of my favorite Thanksgiving morning traditions is listening to a National Public Radio program called “Turkey Confidential,” in which Lynne Rossetto Kasper and a selection of celebrity cooks take calls from people with problems like, “I put too much cayenne in the cranberry sauce!” and get advice like, “Add a little fat, like cream, to cut that heat.” It’s folksy and amusing, and celebrity chefs join in as well. And I do it every year, so: it’s a tradition.

Waiting for us, just around the corner, is Advent, which almost all of us observe in some way…whether by that name or no, we are all preparing for the coming of the Christ.

Today’s Friday Five, following that line, is Advent Confidential. What are your favorite traditions, observances, hymns, or memories of Advent? Is there something you remember from childhood that you’d like to do again? A funny story you can share about the time the Advent wreath got a little over-lit? We are here and listening!

1. Lessons and Carols

Several of the churches we attended had “Lessons and Carols” as part of the Advent tradition. Some of the music was not do-able by the average congregant, so as a lucky chorister, I got to sing them all. For instance this English carol dated around 1420: “There is no rose of swich virtu/such is the rose that bar Jesu…”  (with a more contemporary setting by Benjamin Britten here.)

Interspersed with the music were readings from the Bible. Occasionally, I still listen to the BBC broadcast of Lessons and Carols as I go about my tasks on Christmas Eve.

Stockings hung by the chimney, an Advent wreath on the table

2. Stockings

Stockings are the fun way that we give each other little things — many times they are not big enough to warrant a real package. But they range from the sublime (soft fuzzy socks) to the ridiculous (googly eyes on pencils.) And of course, there’s chocolate and gift cards. We all participate in doing this, and some of my favorite gifts over the years are hand-crafted gifts from our daughters.

3. Memories

We didn’t usually go to church on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve, always. On those rare years when Christmas fell on a Sunday, we did put on our pretties and out to church. Christmas Eve services over the years included pageants where I was one of the actors, singing in the choir, or ringing handbells. Only when I had a baby in my arms was Christmas Eve something that I observed! Depending on where I am serving (hospital, church or other setting), I still participate in Christmas Eve festivities.

4. Advent Wreath

We started this tradition with our children, and it is one that we still enjoy. (In fact, this weekend, as we decorate for Christmas, one of the items that I must find is the Advent wreath!) We place the wreath in the center of our dining room table. We will light the first candle a little early as our college student and out-of-the-nest daughter will be heading out on Sunday morning. Our song of choice is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Lighting and snuffing the candles is a part of our children’s memories of Christmas.

Decorating cookies one year
Decorating cookies one year

5. Baking

I know. Well, DUH. We bake Christmas cookies (sugar cookies that we decorate), and many, MANY kinds of cookies including the chocolate “kiss” ones, schaum tortes (meringues), fudge, and tea cakes. There’s cookie exchanges, cookie gifts, and so on. I have a supply of cookie cutters and decors that gets busted out this time of year. It’s a lot of fun.

BONUS: The Christmas I’d like to forget. But never will!

A few days before Christmas, the first year in our present home, our older daughter got the flu and missed the last few days of school before winter break. My parents were arriving to have Christmas with us, and we were worried we would “share” this virus. Well, share we did. My husband got sick, then our toddler, and finally me. I was supposed to help lead worship on Christmas Eve when instead I was… very, very ill. A call to our pastor  in between trips to the bathroom (“No, I’m really sorry, I can’t be more than five feet away— GOODBYE!”) got me out of my responsibilities.

Christmas morning, we were all feeling pretty puny and not exactly excited about celebrating Christmas, with the exception of my parents (who felt great and, praise be, never DID get the bug!) On one memorable occasion, after the baby had barfed all over my bathrobe, the couch and even managed to hit my coffee cup, I looked up at my mom and said, “Well, NOW what?” With her usual calm manner, borne out of raising seven children, she said, “Well, when she stops dripping, take her to the bathroom and clean yourselves up.”  

“When she stops dripping…” Words of wisdom I have never forgotten!

It was a classic, “can-things-get-any-worse” moment of parenting. We affectionately refer to that year as “The Puking Christmas.” It almost ranks up there with the Christmas we gave each other a water main (to our house.)