Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

Links to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages are on the navigation links to the right of the web page.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

O Little Laundrymat of Bethlehem

Last night at Laundry Love, I had it easier than normal, as I got assigned an aisle that had fewer washing machines. Over the course of the two hours, I helped out Gigi, Tanya, Randy, Shamika, and Dray. Gigi had her many bags of laundry as usual. Randy needed an extra machine than usual. Dray again had his stuffed in his suitcase and a gym bag.

Because it was quieter for me, I got more chances to chit chat with our guests, our friends. There was the usual "Oh they have Christmas brownies!" and "It's so cold, but not like Michigan" sort of conversations, as well as helping some of the kids play hide and seek. And then there's the simpler stuff.

Mary handed out Christmas cards. She thought that it'd be nice to give our friends cards so she got her church to donate for both lovely cards as well as a small gift card. It was really a nice way to say that we're all friends and family. We all see each other every month doing laundry, so we are in many ways spending more time physically, presently, and intimately "together" than we can do in social media.

I was there when Mary gave a card to Dray. She smiled and laughed as she did so, wishing him a Merry Christmas, before moving on to other guests. I watched as he turned the envelope over this way, then that way, quietly looking at the pretty envelope before opening it, carefully, making sure not to tear the card inside. Then he broke his silence.

"It's so nice that I get a Christmas card this year."

I looked at his face rather than his hands at that point, and he was clearly touched. "This year?", I thought. "This year?" Images of the cards we've been getting the past couple weeks flashed through my head. And when he pulled the card out he smiled a wide grin that said so much more than I could say here. And he was more than surprised to see the gift card, saying "Oh that's so nice. So nice."

Doing Laundry Love always has lovely moments, and I cherish them. But last night, I felt the tears flow down my face. And when Mary walked towards me again a few minutes later, I shared with her what had happened. And we hugged.

No gift is too small. No present is complete without our presence. Every slip of paper, every smile, every gesture can touch someone in ways we might never expect. Those surprises don't have to be only on Christmas. The gifts of love we share this time of year are just reminders. Love is present and manifest in our lives every day, every moment. We are awash in love. We just forget it most of the time.

May this Advent, this waiting for the gift of limitless love, wash over you, surprise you, touch you. Let your life and actions be tiny little Christmas cards to everyone you meet.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Advent reflection: Enter and Share

I saw a lovely commercial this week that uses Christmas as part of the story. It's a 2016 Polish advertisement for a company that teaches English

"English for Beginners"

It's a wonderful tear-jerker of an ad with more than a few jokes. Even the stronger language moment got a laugh because of the charming main character, Robert.

It got me to appreciate Advent a little bit more, as well. For during this season, we are starting to sit and think about Christmas, about what was happening with Mary and Joseph, their fears and trials, their confidence and trust. And most of all we await the coming a little baby, Jesus, who will change our lives forever.

Are we ready? Have we taken all the steps necessary? Are we ready to take some risks?

This commercial shows someone who prepared, someone who got ready, someone who took a risk regardless of his age.

He wanted to enter another person's world. To be present in that world, foreign as it might be. And he wanted that world drawn closer to himself. So he needed to talk, break bread, offer wine, share stories. Stories of our roots, of where we came from, of our dreams, of our love.

It's a good reminder to me that Christ will be coming soon, to be present with us, incarnate among us, all of us, in our world, living as one of us. So share stories in Christ's name. Share stories of our roots. Share stories of where we come from. Share stories of our dreams, our love, our Christmas together.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A Prayer on Fear and Abundance

Gracious God help me.

I fear scarcity. 

I forget the abundance that surrounds me.

I fear of going without food, hence I eat far too much and end up with body image battle scars. 

I fear of not having enough money, which I've had to deal with for most of my life. 

I feared of not getting enough love, which only shows my blindness to the endless love that surrounds me. 

I fear of getting physically and emotionally hurt because I look different, love differently, empathize differently.

Holy Spirit, help me release these fears. Help me release the anxiety about my life, about what I will eat or what I will drink, about my body, about what I wear. Remind me that life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Point me to the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet You feed them. Remind me that my anxieties will not add my name to the book of life, nor add a single hour to my life. Take my feet to the lilies of the field, to see how they grow, how they neither toil nor spin, and abound in beauty and life. Breathe your strength in me and through me and around me so that I may place those fears into the soil, where they can feed my already abundant life rather than bury it.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sermon: Healing 24x7

The following is an excerpt from a sermon delivered on August 25, 2019. The Gospel reading was Luke 13:10-17.

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

What a coincidence for me to come here to talk once again about Luke 13. You see, the last time I was here, I discussed the earlier parts of Luke 13, a passage about repentance. I talked about how repentance is our chance to put down the stones in our life that burden us, so that we can finally pay attention to all the signs guiding us to see and feel and taste and hear the loving, grace-filled God who created us. The passage focused not so much on punishment but instead the chance we have right now, at every moment, to accept the invitation of living in a love offered without condition.

Today, 5 months later, we continue to read the next passage with verses 10-17. We hear about a woman, bent over for a couple decades. It was as if she were possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus sees her at the synagogue and brings her healing. Unfortunately, this was on the Sabbath, and well you’re not supposed to do work on the Sabbath. It seems that what he did could be considered a problem by religious authorities who saw the healing as work.

I’m sure you’ve heard lots of discussions about this and we can see why Jesus feels it inappropriate to classify healing as work. I doubt any of us here would disagree with him. Those who saw him doing this could have kept quiet but instead complained about his actions.

We’ve all been in situations where we or someone we love has been sick or in the hospital. Imagine if we were told that the hospital was closed one day of the week. How outrageous is that? We wouldn’t stand for it. But that’s what the critics are saying. Jesus does not hold back at all. He starts off by calling them “hypocrites”. He’s not shy and his defense of his healing ministry is hearty, heartfelt, and heartwarming. He’s on the side of those of us who suffer and there’s no question of that in this passage.

It’s interesting that this story comes right after the parable about repenting. That’s because they’re related. In that reading, the trees that don’t produce could have been chopped down. In fact, that’s what was assumed. They’re not worthy to take up expensive water resources, take up space in our gardens, to warrant our attention. They’re lives don’t matter so just cut them down. But the gardener suggests that they be given time to change. And not just given time. They’re given time so that they could also receive the encouragement, nourishment, and feeding that they need so that they’ll flourish and grow, to be what they were intended to be. They were given the chance to be changed, to be healed, to grow. I think it’s no coincidence then that we go directly from the passage of the dormant trees to a story of healing.

I’m imagining this woman, bent over, like an old tree, in the synagogue. She was probably like many, just coming to hear Jesus teach. She probably stayed in the back, in the shadows, not wanting to be in the way, not wanting people to notice her physical condition. Now the Gospel indicates that an evil spirit plagued her and that’s what caused her condition. She was bent over. Literally, according to the Greek translation, tied up in knots. So I imagine that she would be trying to hide this. Or that people would be avoiding her. Isn’t that what most people do? Wouldn’t most people shift away a step or two if they noticed someone bent over, maybe talking with themselves, maybe not talking at all?
She stood in that synagogue, coming to learn and to pray most likely. There’s just no indication that she asked to be healed. Why is that?

Perhaps she didn’t know much about Jesus yet. Perhaps she didn’t trust him as a healer. Perhaps she thought herself as someone who didn’t matter, and could merely listen and leave unnoticed. Many people who struggle with illness for many years begin to feel hopeless about their lives and conditions. They wait for their turn to be chopped down. She may have felt it pointless to bring up this condition to Jesus.

And yet Jesus saw her. He knew she was there and he knew she needed him. It doesn’t appear in the Gospel reading that they spoke. She never asked him to heal her. Never. He just went up to her. She maybe didn’t even realize what was happening, since she was bent over. She probably was listening to him as she stared her feet when suddenly she hears him say, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.”

It must have filled her with awe her to hear those words. Do you have something that holds you back? Disables you? Cripples you like an evil spirit? So many of us have felt broken at some point in our lives, perhaps as we sit here. I know I have. Imagine the shock of Jesus coming to you and saying that you will no longer be broken. That we are being set free. That the chains that have bound us for so long are finally coming off.

I’ve had moments in my life that felt like this. And it’s an incredible feeling. To think that you’re destined to live with something that breaks you -- whether it breaks you physically, mentally, or spiritually – to think that you’ll suffer with this forever and then, without asking, Jesus just comes and tells you it’s time to stand up straight. That you’re fine. That he comes to you unbidden to be a salve to your wound.

What a powerful point Luke makes in this passage. Luke – the Physician Evangelist - is saying that healing comes even without asking. All we have to do is show up, be present, and be in relationship with Jesus, to be open to hearing Jesus’s teaching. That healing will pull our eyes from the ground and allow us to look at Jesus straight in the eyes and be grateful. Like the woman in the gospel, we can give thanks to God.

This didn’t satisfy those who monitored the Sabbath rules. They were quite upset by what happened. You could say they were for some time tied up in knots over Jesus and his healing ministry. OK, so technically, the Sabbath rules may have been broken, but they are really our rules. They’re of this world. They weren’t centered around God. The Sabbath after all was given to us so that we can be focused on God. Focus on God in our lives, focus on God’s gifts, and focus on ways we can be thank God for the gifts of life. The Sabbath is all about God.

Rules that would deny healing on the Sabbath deny the reason for the Sabbath. The rules are about us but the Sabbath isn’t about us. If God can come down and heal the sick, let us give thanks. We can’t constrain God. God can heal anytime, any day, 24x7. And if God can take a broken woman, break the ties that bind her, and make her stand up straight at any time, then she and all of us can truly celebrate the Sabbath and praise God, praise God, praise God.

There are a few Scripture passages where Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?”. There were different hesitant answers, from “dude you’re Elijah” or “Sorta like John the Baptist?” before Simon Peter says that “You are the son of the living God”. These answers are sort of theological, but I think that the woman in Luke 13, like many Jesus touched, would simply say “You are the One who healed me”.

At the end of the day, aren’t we – to some degree -- all bent over? Aren’t we staring at our feet, wondering if our pains and anxieties will ever be eased? Shouldn’t we stretch out and put ourselves in a place where we can listen to the teachings of Christ and find healing in his presence?

We don't have accept brokenness, in ourselves, in our families, in our communities. Not if we can pay attention and listen. And when we see that we’re in the presence of God, we can straight up and notice that there’s much to be grateful for. We can put down all that burden us and celebrate and praise God on any day, every day, 24x7. And like the Good Healer, we can find our neighbors in the back of the room, and bring comfort and healing to those in our midst who hunger for a life made new.

Youtube recording (sorry about the skewed camera angle!)

Monday, August 19, 2019

Lavender Fields Forever

I've wanted to see the lavender fields of Provence since French I in eighth grade. I recall some of the photos in the text book and the beautiful farms captured my imagination. It wasn't until a backpacking trip in the 1980s during my college years that I got to the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. Unfortunately, the lavender wasn't in bloom. And on a subsequent visit, the timing was off as well. No flowers. Not on those visits.

So when our vacation saw us going through the area of southern France, the stars finally aligned and we made sure to rent a car for a drive from Nice to Avignon. I was eager, oh so eager, to finally see these fields and flowers. Perhaps picnic in the fields.

The Alpine mountains come so close to the fields. We were curving this way and that, around farms, around lakes, around rolling hills. We were enjoying the splendor of creation.

Soon, we got our first hint of lavender. You'd think it was in the vast expansive fields that we saw the plants. But it wasn't the sight of lavender fields that we encountered first

We started to smell lavender.

The scent of lavender started to seep in through the car vents. At first the smells were mild, and soon they got stronger, filling the car. We didn't realize what we were smelling at first, but eventually we finally figured it out. What a charge to realize what was happening!

The views soon arrived and they were remarkable. Our eyes were filled with wondrous visions of purple waves. The sun washed the flowers out in the open, the rays streamed through leafy trees onto the plants in sleepy shade, the stores and farmhouses offered bountiful products all made of lavender. We feasted on the floral wonderland.

And it was more, so much more, than just a visual delight. The scents continued to grow ever stronger. In fact, everywhere we went, in any building, in any church, there was refreshing lavender wafting through the air. Normally I'm ambivalent to lavender perfumes, but this was so fresh, so clean, so alive. I was bathing in the lavender from eyes to nose and I was lost in the beauty.

Soon we arrived at a 12th century Cisterian abbey, the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque. To this day, the monks cultivate fields of lavender surrounding them in their secluded and stunning valley. When we went, they had already harvested the fields closest to the abbey but the fields further out were still in full bloom.

While walking around the grounds, we heard the bells ringing out, inviting us all to attend the church at the abbey. Normally, I'd jump at that invitation and enjoy the welcome. But this time I didn't. We stayed outside the church.

We stayed out, because we were already in church, the church of the world, with pews of purple after pews of purple. Purple is traditionally the color of Advent, of waiting, of repentance in the church. I saw the world draped in purple inviting us to change, asking us to welcome the hope of life. I didn't need to leave all that to go inside a church to be in church. I just needed to recognize that the wonder and awe surrounding me were gifts, gifts for me and for all, so that I could say "thank you, thank you, thank you".

Did I hear a sermon out in those fields? Yes. Yes I did. It sounded like "buzzzzzzzzz". You see, bees are needed to help the lavender bloom and let me tell you there were bees. Everywhere you smelled the lavender drifting in the wind, and everywhere you heard the light buzzing of the bees, spreading life around as they bounced from flower to flower. It was life preaching in a non-stop voice. And it was hard to resist saying "Amen".

As our visit came to a close, as the sun started to settle down, I smiled at the uncountable joys I saw, smelled, and heard. The flowers were soft to the touch and for those who wanted to taste, every conceivable food product was on offer with lavender flavors. It was intoxicating and like the wind of the Holy Spirit, it flowed through me with each breath, with each blink, with each smile.

My visit was short, but the lavender fields... the lavender fields are forever.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Separate journeys, Shared Destination

2014 Camino de Frances - on the meseta heading towards Sahagun
At one point a week ago, I had three friends walking the Camino: One was on the Camino Frances, one was on the newish Camino Invierno, and one was on the Camino Norte. The Camino Invierno and Camino Norte overlap a little with Camino Frances in various places. Three different trips by three different friends. Three separate journeys, several shared intersections, with one shared destination.

And I have several more friends or acquaintances going this summer and fall. A group of friends is on pilgrimage to Lourdes, which I last visited as part of my 2016 spring camino and was its starting point. And I myself will be walking on short segments of a couple pilgrimage routes this summer. The need to walk and find wholeness "out there" moves powerfully in the people who I know. If I'm asked for tips, there are the normal ones about learning a few key phrases if in a different country (Where is the bathroom? Left? Right? Numbers.) and places to sleep. But I also have a few that are less specific, more guidelines than specific suggestions.

The four guidelines are below. And, whenever I share them, I realize that they apply not just to the pilgrimage on the Camino but to life in general. To our journey on this planet home.

* Listen to your heart. If it says stop in this village, go on to the next, catch a cab - do it. It's your camino. Embrace it. Don't resent or regret it. Love it.

* Listen to your body. If your feet say they hurt, don't power on blindly. Take the shoes off, put on a new pair of socks that feel fluffy and nice (something I recommend if they are hurting because the new dry socks will limit/avoid blisters), massage them, rest a spell. If you have a headache or are dizzy, rest a spell. If your back hurts, put the pack down, rest, and adjust the backpack settings or move the weight around until you feel comfortable enough to continue. Your body knows you need rest better than your mind knows.

* Listen to the earth. If the stream calls you, pause and sit beside her. Dip your feet into the cold invigorating water. If the sunrise or sunset asks you to stop and see, then stop and be grateful. If the chestnut and apple trees and the wild grape vines are dropping fruit at your feet, accept them and share them with other pilgrims and the horses and those who thirst and those who hunger.

* Listen to what called you there in the first place. You'll see litter. You'll hear complaining. You'll find busy restaurants, noisy albergues/hostals/hotels/homes, confusing road signs, tired voices. And you may be feeling similarly. Accept your reactions and remember that you are on this trip because you felt a tug, a call, a voice that invited you to come. When negative emotions or doubts come to you, remember the invitation and have a conversation with the calling voice.

As summer approaches, may you find rest on your journey. I'll be grateful if our paths cross on the same day; I'll be grateful if our paths cross but we miss each other by minutes or days or weeks. May we head towards where we dream and remember from where we came.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

In the Wounds of Manzanar

I'm feeling something today. I was on a pilgrimage to the Manzanar National Historic Site with folks from church and the diocese to remember all the Japanese American families that were forced to sell their possessions and move into internment camps. Up to 120,000 men, women, and children were imprisoned for up to 4 years for no other reason than they had at least one great great grandparent who was born in Japan.

I walked around feeling such tremendous sadness and outrage. I couldn't imagine what it must have felt like to have dust blowing into the barracks relentlessly. Or having no privacy in the bedrooms or in the bathrooms. These folks weren't soldiers. These folks weren't convicted of any crime. They were just feared not for what they did but for what they looked like.

I kept thinking about what it must have felt like for them all. How do you forgive and reconcile with people who are oppressing you? Where's the grace? Where was God?

So I kept searching. Seeking. I couldn't believe that God could be here.

And then we stumbled upon an artificial pond, made of stones and cement. It had two wings, sort of like angel wings, with a bridge crossing over. On one side was a rudimentary, primitive stone lantern made of rocks from the area. Lovingly, the lantern lined up with the bridge, which lined up with a path that went off towards a mountain. And the lantern was built to look like that mountain.

The soil was hard. Hard as the hearts of the government and soldiers who imprisoned all these innocent people. Flinty as the people who turned their backs to the plight of the "evacuees" who were collected and concentrated in these camps. Dry as the faces that could no longer cry as their families were torn apart.

And in these wounded grounds, the people built gardens, and ponds, and serene spaces filled with sacred quiet. In these painful voids, they found God, unearthed beauty, raised up life-affirming inspiration. And I sensed what it felt like to have the the Holy Spirit comfort and inspire you. And I sensed what it felt like to believe that there was hope.

This wrapped around me as I contemplated the Gospel reading for this Sunday. We read once again the story of Thomas, aka Doubting Thomas, and his transition from doubt to belief.

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
John 20:24-29 

On the long bus ride back, I pondered the scripture from a different perspective. I thought, what if the wound that Thomas explored wasn't just in Christ? What if he was exploring the wounds in himself? In his side, in his hands, in his heart? What if Christ wanted us to touch our own wounds as well as his? That in touching all these wounds, we can believe in God?

And in doing so, in feeling those wounds, in reaching our hands into the places that we protect from painful touch, in caressing these sacred places, we can believe that Christ is present. We can believe in his miracles. We can believe that our inspiration for healing, our Christ, showed us the path into our bodies so that we can find our own healing. Our own miracles. In exploring the wound, we can remember what our bodies are made of, what we are made in the image of, what we need to be made whole.

And with that thought, I remembered the pond. That in this wounded place, someone touched the ground and created a place for healing waters to flow. And with the water flowing into the pond, inviting even more life - birds, squirrels, rabbits - to come, rest, and heal.

We don't have to demand to see the wounds. They're all around us. Sometimes the wounds are wildly painful like at Manzanar. Sometimes they are wounds that only we know. May we touch these wounds - invited by Christ to see that they are real, invited to believe in his healing presence - and discover the grace of God in the most unexpected places.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Pilgrim and the Tourist

Two things this month have caused me to write this. The first is the disaster at Notre Dame. I've touched upon that in my prior post "Sacred Spaces".

This Saturday, I'm helping out a diocesan group - "The Gathering: A Space for Asian-American Spirituality" - and All Saints Pasadena's Transformational Journeys as we head out to Manzanar National Historic Site. Manzanar is located in a desolate area of California, in the Owens Valley, about 230 miles from Los Angeles. And, it was one of 10 internment camps in the USA, where upwards of 120,000 people of even 1/16 Japanese blood were sent. The definitions of internment camp and concentration camp were historically identical until the Nazis horrific acts caused concentration camp to be linked with extermination camps.

As I prepare for this pilgrimage, and it's a special one as this will be the 50th anniversary of annual pilgrimages to Manzanar, I was asked to share a reflection with the group. The topic is one that I've pondered often, the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist. We are heading to Manzanar as pilgrims. I've done many pilgrimages. I've been a tourist many times. And they aren't the same thing.
Julz of Australia from my 2017 Camino Portuguese
reflects on our long walk. We broke bread many times
on this pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, with
lots of laughter, tears, and stories. Even our swim
to waterfalls on the walk here felt holy

Oh, I take photos on both. I laugh, share stories, linger, purchase trinkets and memorabilia, meet strangers, take selfies on both types of journeys. I sometimes have to grab a group or bus or listen to guides because I need the experienced person to explain what I'm seeing.

But they are different. And - I am adamant about this - it's not a judgment to be one or the other. A pilgrim is not better than a tourist nor the tourist better than the pilgrim. I distinguish the two because it helps us to know how to approach a destination. Whether we go to a cathedral or to a secular spot, we can approach it with a better understanding of what to find and what to anticipate. On a visit to a new city, I can be a pilgrim at one or two locations and a tourist at all the others.

Here are some ways that the two differ to me.

Pilgrim Tourist
FocusThe destinationYourself at the destination
ExpectationTo be changed by the visitTo see sights and learn from the visit
Common ActivitiesSit and absorb, perhaps skipping some of the popular or common sights to see, not making a long checklistTake the various sub-tours, read all the posters and signs, make sure to hit the checklist of activities and things to see
PreparationRead about the facts and storiesRead about the facts and stories
ChangeYou want to be changed or to know yourself betterChange isn't an issue
Visiting the World Trade CenterYou had a relative or friend who died there on 9/11 and are grappling with issues about lifeYou want to pay your respects
Visiting the VaticanYou're a Roman Catholic. You want to confess, go to mass (often), pray.A huge basilica, a square, history, spectacular art,and Swiss Army guards
Visiting the Golden Temple in IndiaYou're Sikh. You want to pray and help feed the 50,000 people who eat there daily. You want to see the temple and watch the 50,000 people who get fed there daily
Visiting the LouvreGet a pass and go multiple days because art is in your blood and this place is everythingMona Lisa, Winged Victory, Venus de Milo, Law Code of Hammurabi,
Gabrielle d’Estrées and Her Sister
Visiting the Grand CanyonYou care deeply about water and land conservation, Native American culture, natural beauty, creationYou care deeply about natural beauty and hiking
Your local place of worshipYou want to be transformed, pray, give thanks, be willing to be uncomfortable.You want to meet your obligations, hear good music, raise your kids right, be comfortable
When you returnYou know yourself or life betterYou are the same, perhaps better informed
ScheduleSchedule isn't as important as time to process and internalize what is seenSchedule is important to see/do as much as possible
Sacred landThe site is sacred and is respectedThe site is respected
Passing throughThe destination passes through youYou pass through the destination
Not quite what you imagined? Construction?Not a distractionDisappointment

Let's take an example using that well known phrase "It's not the destination; it's the journey". When you're a pilgrim, the destination does matter. You're going to a place that holds deep meaning to you and you want to be transformed by it. The preparation for it is important because you want to be ready for transformation. When you're a tourist, you look forward to the destination because it's something you've wanted to see and learn about; you prepare because you want to make sure you see everything you wanted to see and not find yourself disappointed if you miss something.

Lately, I accept that I enjoy my tourist visits to places AND that much of my life has been a pilgrimage. I may forget that it is, but I remember that it is a pilgrimage much more often than before. I will always be a tourist to new places. But I am rarely surprised when I find myself transformed by certain journeys.

The pilgrim accepts blessings for their journey because there's some fear there. Will your heart be open to transformation? Will you be afraid of what the changes are asking of you? Will you accept the ramifications of change?

With that, allow me to again share "For a Traveler" by Father John O'Donohue.

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.
New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.
When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:
How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.
When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.
A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Sacred spaces

There are moments where many people from very different lives suddenly find themselves in emotional unity, in harmony, with hearts beating together. The distances between them can be short or they can span around the world. This week many experienced one of these moments as we saw a well-known Roman Catholic cathedral, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, burn in flames.

It is entirely predictable that the French Roman Catholics were moved. It's part of the national identity. It's also very understandable that Roman Catholics around the world were touched by the unfolding tragedy. There are the many Francophiles around the world who are deeply saddened. Architect lovers. Historians. Many different peoples who would have been shocked by the fire.

It feels like a wide range of people were emotionally touched by this fire. It makes me appreciate the human need for beautiful places, quiet spots, sacred spaces. To some, such a space might be a cathedral. To others, a small chapel. To many I know, it could be in the wild country, the mountains, their garden. And to some, it could be a yoga mat, or window where the sunlight warms you as you sit quietly.

We all can be inspired by art or by music, by simple walls or by silence. These places and visions, scents and touches have a way of reaching deep into ourselves, giving us grace to think, to connect, to process. They also are highly personal. What works for me may not work for people close to me, even my own spouse. And that's ok. What resonates within us is part of our unique being.

To each of us, these places are special; they are sacred. They are sacred not because of a label or certificate, but because we consecrate them with our love and our intimacy with Creation and our Creator when we are there.

They are where we are invited to discover ourselves, see ourselves, be ourselves. They are where our core being floats to the surface, able to breathe in the air of life. We all need these places because our longing, our life energy, depends on a fertile ground to grow. Sacred spaces make space in our hearts and minds to discover the sacred within.

What if those places become destroyed, burned, and hidden? What if we move away? Are these places any less sacred? Are we bereft of the sacred when this happens?

All things return to dust. We certainly do. And special places cannot escape this truth of this world. It doesn't mean that we who remain behind cannot find meaning in the ashes. We can build ourselves a new space. We can give new life to a new place that in return gives life to us. We ourselves make a place sacred by discovering how that spot, that room, that wild open countryside changes us, reshaping us, reminding us of who we are.

Some places, like the Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris, were not on my radar as a sacred place to me. I didn't understand my emotional response. But when I looked inside, I had subconsciously found in those aged stones a foundation for my journeys. I began my backpacking journey through Europe, my first visit, as a college student. I attended daily mass there on various trips, by myself, with my parents, my ex, my husband, my nephews. I started my Taize pilgrimage from that Cathedral. I started my Camino from Lourdes to Santiago de Compostela by first visiting this Cathedral. I listened to the bells all night long -- every night -- on my last visit to the cathedral, as my AirBnB was a block away. I didn't intend to do so, but I had consecrated the cathedral because she invited me to share these special journeys with her.

What places have you 
intentionally or unintentionally 
made sacred with your love and presence?

May we always remember those places which invite us to feel alive, and may we be privileged to return to those places as often as we need.  In these sacred spaces, we are blessed by merely being present and we become one with the blessing that unites us all.

Monday, April 15, 2019

You will not always have me

Gratitude can be expressed in many ways. Most people write a card or buy a gift or dinner to the person they want to thank. Some offer to lend a hand, to raise a wall, to show their appreciation for whatever was given to them.

And some things leave you wondering how best to say thank you. Perhaps you might not even know that the feeling you have is gratitude, much less how to best express it. I often find myself forgetting all the things I have that can make me feel grateful, as long as I notice them. But when I do notice them, I am more than honored to share my feelings of gratitude and love for the kindness given.

Let me describe a little story that happened last week. I was at a work conference in Phoenix and a business colleague who I have known for at least a couple decades was attending. He brought his 90 year old mother along, picking her up at the airport after her flight from her home in Florida. She's a charming, delightful person and I immediately enjoyed her presence. At one of the receptions, he asked me to tell his mother about my volunteer efforts at Laundry Love. I described how I volunteer at a couple of Laundry Love offerings: one in Hollywood, one in Eagle Rock. I shared that we offer 2 hours where folks who are struggling to make ends meet can wash their clothes, receive detergent, dry their items, and even toss in a dryer sheet, with the funds coming from donations and from local religious organizations. Folks can walk away with some dignity wearing clean clothes; some families don't have to choose between laundry and food; some folks can walk into a job or job interview wearing clean apparel.

She thanked me for telling her about this volunteer work and was glad to hear that it was becoming popular across the country. And the next night at the conference, she brought me to tears. She had walked over to my dinner table and grasped my hand, gently but firmly placing money in it. "Thank you for what you do. I do hope that Laundry Love can use this."

I thanked her and could not get the story out of my mind. It was such a caring gesture at a business setting. It's not something you see often at a technology conference unfortunately. It was an intoxicating, infectious moment. Her gratitude filled me with my own gratitude. Gratitude creates gratitude, like love creates love. If you've read Diana Butler Bass's latest book "Gratitude", you'll find numerous examples like this moment, and I cherish these moments that connect me with things I've read, with my left brain life, with hand-grasping-hand gestures of love.

It made me think of one of the Lenten gospel readings of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus welcoming Jesus into their homes. Mary lavished oil on Jesus's feet, drying it with her hair. Others balked at the extravagant gesture but Jesus said let her be. You will not always have me.

We should not be afraid to love those who bring love into our lives, into our homes, into our hearts. We should lavish them with the gratitude that fills you, because love and gratitude are not zero sum games. They grow and proliferate when we share them abundantly. There's no need to hold back. Be generous in your love and gratitude for love is generous with you. Nothing in this world is permanent, and everything moves on. So show it now. Share it now. Be thankful now.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sermon: Changing Directions

On March 24, 2019 I offered my first homily, at Westminster Gardens Retirement community’s Vespers service in Duarte, California. Below, you can find the scripture reading, the text of the homily, and an amateur video recording of the service.

I am awed by the way the Holy Spirit put words in my heart to share. The congregation was delightful and once the service began, I felt so... at peace. It felt like I had been doing this my whole life. I'll be forever grateful for Virginia and Edie's invitation to preach there.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” 

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”

Luke‬ ‭13:1-9‬ ‭NIV

Good evening. My name is Melvin Soriano. Thank you so much the invitation to join you tonight. I’m a member of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena and I bring communion to some of the residents here where we meet at Edie Hovey's home for fellowship every month. I’m grateful that I can share my heart and my thoughts with you, especially during this season of Lent as we journey towards Easter.

Lent is modeled on the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert. It’s a time when we can look at ourselves, our spirituality, and the temptations in our lives that can lead us astray. For many people, it is a time to give up something, like chocolate or candy. I tend to give up things that act like chocolate or candy in my life, things that might feel good superficially but aren’t really nutritious. Sometimes instead of being sweet, the candy in our lives can be like stones; they’re don’t really bring you joy. You carry around what you think is sweet but you are actually carrying a stone: a stone in our shoe, in our pocket, in our hearts.

Like all stones, they weigh us down, they give us blisters. Lent gives us a chance to pause, stop, look inside our shoes, inside our pockets, inside our hearts and see if we’re carrying any of these stones with us. And we’re invited to downsize our lives, to put those stones down.

Let me share a story with you. I have walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain several times. That's a 1000 year old pilgrimage where people walk hundreds of miles from their homes to Santiago de Compostela Spain. Even St Francis of Assisi did it 800 years ago. You carry a backpack and follow arrows on the road, on the sides of buildings, and on signs to guide you through villages, forests, farms, and cities.

One of the customs of the pilgrimage is to carry a small stone with you across all those miles. When you’re trying to keep the weight of your backpack down, even a small pebble starts to feel like a boulder. I wrote my sorrows, regrets, broken relationships, and tearful memories on that stone and carried it hundreds of miles. Finally, at the foot of a large cross along the trail, I lay that stone down and asked that all the regrets and sorrows that I carried with me with every step be put down as well. In truth, we don’t do this just once because our lives go on, and we eventually find new stones in our shoes. So, we have to regularly look into our shoes and pockets to empty them out. We can do this every day, or every Sunday. We can also do a major spring cleaning during Lent.

Today’s scripture is all about putting down the stones in our lives. We are told to repent or we will all perish. Most people don’t like to talk about repentance. Most often, I see the word repent when I go to a sporting event or to the Rose parade and I see people holding up home-made signs that demand that we repent or burn. It's a shame that many react negatively to these signs, because the idea behind repentance isn't about shaming or accusing.

Jesus is pointing out at the very beginning of this reading that bad things can happen to anyone at any time. Accidents happen; death happens. But he’s not saying that it happens to people because we sin. He says twice, “I tell you No.” Bad things happen all the time, but Jesus zeros in on whether we repent. You can get sick, break a hip, have towers fall on top of you. Jesus says no, victims are not worse sinners.

Now we sometimes judge. When we see bad things happen to someone, we’re pretty quick to judge that maybe they did something bad. Maybe someone got into an accident because they like to go out late at night. Or maybe someone got sick because they smoked and drank for years. And you know who we judge the harshest sometimes? Ourselves. Our bodies. Our looks. Our families. Our lives. But Jesus here says “No.” We should not judge anyone, much less for things that can’t be controlled. In this passage he’s saying that what matters is that we repent.

I think that too many people fear the word repent. It’s been turned in its meaning to control our behavior, to make us feel shame, to make us do what other humans – not God, not Jesus – what other people want us to do.

The original scripture doesn’t use our modern word repent. Instead, the original Greek uses the word metanoia. Metanoia means something more like change of mind, re-orientation, reformation. It’s not at all filled with judgment but a simple reality check. You just need to change directions. It's like the mobile phone apps that give directions. It’s not judging you because you’re lost. It’s just saying, “You’ve wandered off course.” When Jesus talks about us repenting, he's not trying to make a threat. He’s making an observation.

Jesus is just pointing out, in a spirit of compassion and love, that we may be lost, whether we recognize it or not. I’m sure you’ve sat in a car wondering where am I? You could be lost but you’re not sure. In our pride, we often just keep going on, unwilling to pull over. God forbid we stop and ask for directions.

We’re told by Jesus that the consequence of not changing directions is perishing. We tend to think of perishing as a synonym for death. But the original Greek scripture has another definition, which English also has. Perishing can also mean lost, as in a hundred lives were lost. This definition is about being missing, missing from us, missing from God. It's actually the same word that's used when Jesus talks about the lost sheep. He is the shepherd to the lost. This scripture reading is saying that we don't have to be like lost sheep. We can recognize that we’re lost, and let the shepherd guide us home.

Let me share another story from the Camino. I met another pilgrim, a woman in a small village. We began to walk together and learn about each other. Susan was from Georgia, in her 40s, had lost her job, and decided to walk this pilgrimage to find meaning in her life. We were having a great walk together when silence fell upon us. We realized that we hadn't seen a sign in quite a while. We were in a field somewhere in Spain, lost. We began to search. We had to backtrack. About 45 minutes later, we got to a fork in the road and realized we followed the main path but that the arrows pointed in a different direction, towards a smaller, less obvious trail. We were able to right ourselves and continue walking with the other pilgrims.

Susan and I got along so well. We were happily chatting away and didn't feel lost at all. But we had lost sight of the signs that were guiding us. We got so caught up in making a new friend on the pilgrimage that we had followed a popular, well-used path, but that path that wasn't meant for us. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to change paths; it certainly wasn’t the last. I’m trying to change paths every day when I can remember.

The scripture reading ends with a short parable that Jesus told to give us hope. We have a tree that seemed destined to be taken down. The owner wants to remove it but instead, the tree is given a second chance to bear fruit.

It's a parable of compassion, of mercy. It says that even though things can go wrong that doesn't condemn us to being chopped down. There's still time. We don’t have an unlimited time, because accidents can happen. We all can die at any moment. But there is time to nurture, to fertilize. There’s time to feed the tree with live-giving water.

We can change directions in our lives. And moreover, we can change the direction of life for someone else too. That tree could not change its directions on its own. But the Good Gardener could. The gardener could work with the tree and help the tree become fruitful. We too can help hopeless, fruitless situations all around us, helping others by feeding, nurturing, and watering those that hunger for the chance to be fruitful.

We don't have to be lost. Not if we can pay attention to what we're doing, where we're heading, what signs we're missing. We can look at our steps and see if there's another way forward. We can put down the stones that burden us and turn our attention to what really matters. And like the Good Gardener, we can feed the trees in our lives – including our own - that hunger to be fruitful.

Recording of the service

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Healing Ashes

For many years, I viewed Lent as that season where I gave up something and eventually got to Easter. It was simplistic and easy enough for the child that I was. When I left the church, I gave up any practice. When I returned, I came back with somewhat the same ideas. It caught me off guard when I realized I was adjusting my notion of Lent and what it meant to me. 

Like the camino, Lent is an opportunity to journey on, to explore and find my way to new life, to reconciliation, to wholeness. It's not enough to give up something in a penitential way, but also to take something on, also in a penitential way. Like much of life, to change and move forward, you sometimes have to let go and sometimes have to take on.

It's remarkable how a simple Lenten practice can become a part of your life. Ten years ago, Stephen and I started a simple Lenten discipline of helping at Union Station Homeless Services and, after Lent ended, we found that the journey was destined to continue. It's something that's ingrained in our lives.

There's also the letting go. I shared a story last night with some folks at our bi-monthly Lay Counseling Ministry meeting. I had some beads around my neck and we were talking about Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. Perhaps 15 years ago, when I was finding myself changing how I viewed Lent, I was doing a work job back east at a historically Methodist college and needed to find a lunch-hour Ash Wednesday service. I found one at the college chapel. Picture it with me.

You enter into the quiet space. As you enter, you find a large stone gourd, many slips of paper, and pencils. A small sign instructs you what to do. "Write the sins, sorrows, and regrets that you carry with you today and every day on a piece of paper and leave it here in the gourd." So I did. I took a couple pieces of paper and wrote some things down and left it. I then sat and waited for the service to begin. As the service began, the gourd processed in and was set on a stand in front of us all.

It was a traditional Lenten service for the most part. But when we came to the litany, it changed. As we recited the litany of prayers for ourselves and for the world, the celebrant lit a match. And the match went into the gourd. Soon all those sins, sorrows, and regrets were aflame, as we continued with our prayers. After the flames died down, the celebrant began to grind away at the smoldering remains until they were pulverized.

We had our ashes. 

Ashes made of the burnt and ground up memories of our sins. Of our sorrows. Of our regrets. We then all moved forward to the front of the church, bowed our heads down, and the ashes were placed on our heads. The traditional phrase was said: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

That ritual has stuck with me ever since. In it, we are reminded that we are impermanent and will one day return to dust. And strikingly, in a wondrous healing way, our sorrows also were called out as impermanent. Our sins are impermanent. Our regrets are impermanent. All will go away some day.

The remnants of my sins, sorrows, and regrets were placed on my forehead to remind me that they, like me, were not fixed forever. And I found healing in that act. I found forgiveness. Forgiveness by God. Forgiveness for others. Forgiveness for myself.

I think of this ritual whenever I feel the need to fend off the burden of sin, sorrow, and regret. I light a candle and imagine myself burning these thoughts away. And every year, on Ash Wednesday, I let the ashes of those feelings bless me.

May your Ash Wednesday be graced with healing ashes.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Unpack Your Socks

I've blogged numerous times in the past about packing for the Camino. Last week I read a blog post "Unpacking from the Journey"  and it made me think... So here's a reflection on the notion of unpacking.

Most people who have ever backpacked or gone on camino spend lots of time wondering what to bring. I'd say most Camino pilgrims who have read up on the pilgrimage have spent HOURS thinking, shopping, weighing, evaluating. Not a single item goes in that backpack or daypack without careful attention to its weight and utility.

I'm down to the following for me:

  • One pair of walking shorts/pants combo.
  • One pair of shorts in case you have to wash your shorts. 
  • Two quick dry shirts.
  • One lightweight jacket
  • One poncho
  • Two underwear
  • A buff (scarf/bandana combo)
  • A light charger for your phone that also acts as an extension cord so that you can share the limited outlets with others.
  • A wide brim hat.
  • Prescriptions
  • Vaseline & Compeed/Mokeskin/blister patches
  • Water camel
  • Day pack
  • Walking stick
  • Lightweight/cheap flipflops/sandals
  • Toiletries
  • Either a sleeping bag (for rustic trails) or sleeping bag liner for Camino Frances
  • A lightweight back brace because I have back issues
  • And most important: 4 pairs of incredible socks

With the backpack, it shouldn't exceed 10% of your body weight for a long journey. Every little bit counts.

I am careful in how I pack. I place daily things at the top or sides and less frequently used items deeper inside. There's lots of attention to packing every day before I head out. I adjust the pack midway to make sure the weight is evenly distributed so I don't hurt myself.

Most people overpack. They bring too much. My first camino was wildly overpacked. I wasn't even close to only 10% of my body weight. And my second camino, the 600 miler, I allowed myself to overpack but had just enough sense to remember lessons from the first one; I brought things I wouldn't mind leaving behind. Because that's what I did on that first camino. I left 1/2 of my stuff behind.

We carry too much.

Like the stone that sits in our pocket to be left behind at the Cruz de Fero, our fears and anxieties hold us down, causing pain in hidden ways - perhaps not at first, but eventually. We trudge on thinking we can't do with less because if there's an emergency we will be without. But as we do so, we creep ever so slowly towards our own internal emergencies.

And that's when we realize you have to leave things behind.

We dump things. It's somewhat comical, somewhat sad, and always with calm knowing when I watch someone at the albergues deciding what to dump from their backpack. They yearn for the quick fixes that will help them feel better.

It's so much like life itself that I sometimes wonder if it needs saying. But we forget. And on our next trip, we need reminders. And on every subsequent trip, like the journeys around the sun we make every year, we learn a little more about what to take. For example, I've learned that socks matter more than anything else in the backpack. Seriously. Socks can make or break a long walking trip. I remember as a child that I was disappointed when I got socks for Christmas or birthday gifts. But now? I ask for them. And I am careful that I never leave behind something as special as socks.

The real lesson in packing is not what you take, but what you leave behind.

Leave behind those stones, those comfortable trinkets of our hearts that we think we need but just get in our way. Bring only that which makes every single footstep lighter, every single moment brighter, every single experience remarkable. All else leave behind.

And if you take them, leave them on the side of the road, like the grave markers you see all along the camino, marking and remembering that which you choose to leave behind. Laundry detergent? Good bye. Extra clothes? Adios. Heart ache? Adieu. Tears? Let them evaporate into air we share between us.

We talk about what we bring and not what we leave behind. We also forget to talk about what we do at the end of the journey. We unpack.

Some people turn that bag upside down and dump it out on floor. Most people take things out carefully, putting things down briefly, and hurry to get the clothing into a proper washing machine. If we bought some souvenirs, we set them aside to enjoy. We share the gifts as soon as we can.

Other things take longer. Sometimes I wonder where my water pack or poncho is and I realize it's still in the camino backpack. We simply don't spend anywhere near as much time unpacking as we did packing.

In fact, this ritual of unpacking happens as often as we pack. For every time we pack that backpack - every single morning - we unpack parts of it - every evening. You have to reach in and see what's in there and decide if you need it right then or there or it can be set aside for now.

It took me a while to realize it, but that ritual of unpacking is meditative and spiritual. You simply have to pause. If you unpack hastily, it makes re-packing that much more difficult. If you unpack without thinking, you might misplace or forget where you put something. If you unpack without reflection, you could just be unpacking something that you didn't need.

And such is life. We forget to pay attention to unpacking the events that make up life itself. We do it hastily, or thoughtlessly, or without reflection and we wonder why we spend so much time thinking and packing again the next day.

But if we pause, reflect, and think, what wonders we discover. I get delighted, just thrilled every day on camino, when I take out a pair of dry clean socks. I wash the laundry including the socks, and as I dry, I joyfully take out and put on the soothing clean ones. They might not bring you as much as joy as to me, but for my feet, they're better than even a foot bathe.

Wouldn't it be great if we could do that with our lives? Do you know which things in your life, something as trivial as socks, make you happy? Comfort you? Soothe you? Heal you?

Do you ritualize that joy? Do you take your joy for granted? I hope you don't take your socks for granted. Don't wear, wash, hang out to dry your socks without recognizing how they felt on your long walk.

I put on my socks with joy every day. I wash them at the end of the day's journey, ridding them of the soil but knowing that the toil and dirt wears at them just a little bit every day. But I have them for now. I let them dry and then pack them. And the cycle repeats.

So I must ask... what are the socks in your backpack, the things that could bring you joy daily? What are the socks that you pack lovingly and unpack with anticipation? Or do you forget about the joy that socks bring you, putting them on without remembering what they mean to you?

May you unpack your socks that are there waiting for you in your backpack, there because they were packed just for you, and may you wear those socks with comfort and joy.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Joy Finding

Our crazy little creche on our fireplace is an oddball mixture of the mass-produced and predictable along side the delightful finds from somewhere on our travels. At the core are a manger, Joseph, and Mary that are made in plaster. The plaster baby Jesus showed up on Christmas morning, having spent the past few weeks in hiding behind the manger. The Magi are off to the side of the mantle, slowly but surely making their way to a January 6 Epiphany appearance, on the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

Meanwhile, a zoo of sorts sits around the scene. There's the glass camel Christmas ornament that we found in Luxor, Egypt. There's a clay Pucara bull from Cuzco, Peru that we found after our hike to Machu Picchu. The little Dala horse that I got during a winter visit to Stockholm, Sweden watches over the baby. An African giraffe and zebra from Ten Thousand Villages are perched beside the creche. A disproportionately large terracotta horse from Xian, China towers over the plaster sheep. And scattered around this scene are angels from so many places and St Nick, historically and literally from Turkey.

So many shopping finds. It occurred to me that though we purchased the animals or were given all these angels, they represented joyful moments that delighted us or the person who gave them to us. The discovery of these individual creatures brought pleasure. And I totally enjoy bringing this weird assortment of characters together as our nativity scene every year.

I was pondering about why I liked doing this. I giggle every time I see that fireplace this time of year. One aspect is that it's bringing unexpected things together to tell a story. But I think what makes it particularly enjoyable is that these finds are positioned by us to tell a story about the greatest find: the finding of the baby Jesus. They are in a story about finding something joyful in unexpected places. They are literal store finds in a representation of the great finding.

And when the Magi appear at this nativity scene, the finds get wackier. Because multiple nativity sets have come and gone over the years, we have a baseball team of plaster Magi. Added to the caravan is a wooden Don Quixote from Avila, Spain (as in St Teresa of Avila). And the nested dolls from Russia, deliberately unnested as the women search for Jesus. And so on and so on.

All that searching, seeking, yearning. All that finding. All around the discovery of a newborn baby. Joy sometimes comes both in the finding and in the struggle to find.

This past Christmas day, we spent the morning with Stephen's family. Then, mid-day, we headed an hour away towards San Diego where my parents were visiting my sister in Murietta for the week. It was a big family coming together from miles around to spend the afternoon and evening together. My sister's twin boys came from Northern California to surprise their grandparents and sister. She hosted a feast for us all, and my parents got to watch their large family playing games, breaking bread (or pancit), and telling stories.

When Stephen and I got home late that night, we opened our own gifts to each other and went to bed. We never heard the phone ring. When I awoke the next morning, I listened to a voice mail message and read countless texts from my nephews and sister that my mom had fallen in the middle of the night and they had to take her to the emergency room. They found my mom in the bathroom, blood everywhere as she gashed her head on the corner of the wall. As dawn approached, after a CT scan showed she was fine, they were able to return home, a little scared, a little relieved, a whole lotta tired.

I cannot imagine my niece finding my mom like that, as unlike me, she's never worked in a hospital. I heard the fear in her voice when we spoke. My mom, though, says that she wasn't scared. She wondered if this was the end, but she wasn't frightened. She couldn't stay awake so perhaps she was unable to process what was happening from an emotional level. She was relieved they heard her fall, had found her, had lovingly cared for her. My Dad was thankful that the family was around to help.

I suspect that it's not normal to compare the finding of a newborn baby, the incarnation of love and life, to finding a mom bleeding on the floor, but I felt the connection nonetheless. There's a lot to think about when so much happens in such a short time.

My mom is in her 80s now and needs to remember to use her cane, especially when she's tired, in an unfamiliar setting, when she's alone. We wonder sometimes how long we'll have her and pray that it'll be for many more years, but we know we can't control it. My family found her, lying in blood, in a humble room like a bathroom, with fear, with love. They wondered if this was the end. She's fine now and we pray we can enjoy our time together as best we can.

Jesus was found with Mary. It was probably messy, bloody, scary. Mary was tired and in an unfamiliar setting. She knew that the baby was to be called Jesus ("God Saves" in Hebrew) and perhaps wondered how long she would have him, knowing she didn't control it. In a humble place, she gave birth to love. She and Joseph probably wondered what this beginning would bring. Jesus the baby was safe in their arms and they probably enjoyed their time together as best they could.

Joy comes unexpectedly. Sometimes there's anticipation, sometimes there's sheer surprise. Sometimes we have to go out of our way to arrange the figures in our life to bring joy to us. Sometimes we walk miles, sometimes we walk down the hall. Sometimes we just sit in the emergency room or in a manger, waiting for word, waiting for Good News.

We cannot make joy appear. We can only position ourselves, orienting our hearts and minds in a way that gives us the opportunity to see it, feel it, grasp it in our hands. Whether we grasp the hand of a baby, or grasp the hand of an older parent, we cannot make ourselves joyful at what we have. We can only be open to it. Be ready for it.

Many times, we walk away in horror, sadness, brokeness, when what we hoped for and what we yearned for does not happen. Our need for joy, for unending love, of inter-relatedness, can suffocate under the realities of our mortal lives. We don't always get what we want. We can't force a fairy-tale ending to every story.

Yet we can still hope, because the promise of Christmas was fulfilled. In the worst circumstances, there's always a chance for hope. And even if things turn out badly, we dive deeper into what things matter most, because at one time we had found love, we saw it, we touched it.

So when the unthinkable happens, when the fears and the exhaustion and the tears build up inside you threatening to bring you down, remember that you can still be surprised. You can still discover Good News in the most unlikely of places. You can orient yourself to the star of the east buried in your heart, perhaps while the tears are falling from your face, and offer a precious place, a humble place, for joy to be born. And maybe, just maybe, joy can find you.