Shining in the Right Direction: The Candle of Love

Note: During the month of December, my weekly reflections have been loosely based on the themes of the Advent Wreath: hope, peace, joy and love. Due to both illness and holiday travel, I wasn’t able to post on Thursday this week. However, here is my final Advent reflection. May the new year ahead be filled with love for all!


I’m a middle child, sandwiched right in there between the oldest child and the oldest boy (separated from each by 13 months). Growing up, I was known for my repetitive catchphrase: “That’s not fair!”  Whether whatever was in contention at the time was or wasn’t fair hardly signifies at this point. The fact is, I perceived that I received less (whether it was my fair share of cake, attention, or Christmas presents). As we all know, perception IS reality, especially in the eyes of a child.

As an adult, I haven’t always found it easy to set aside this childish perception of the world as a place where I will not “get” the things that come easily to others. That there’s a cosmic deck somehow stacked against me. But the truth is that, although it is a deeply ingrained worldview, it couldn’t be more wrong.

In a child’s worldview, love is something you get. It comes to you freely and in abundance, and you don’t know any differently, so you assume it is your due. And it is – but we don’t just leave it at that. We look around and we begin to compare. And because love is not easy to grasp in a tangible way, we look for tangible markers to stand in for it, as we attempt to measure how much love we are receiving. For example, when we were kids, my siblings and I often judged who was loved more on the basis of who got the leftover food. After feeding 8 people, there might be something left of dinner, but definitely not enough to split 6 or 8 ways. So who was going to get the extra (pie, cookie, cold roast beef, etc.) became, for us, a measurement of love. If Mom gave me permission to eat it, I was loved. If not, then the lucky recipient was “Mom’s favorite”.

Funny how this early perception of the world carries with us, sometimes long past time we should know better. I know far too many adults, myself included, who continue to carry around an internal ledger in which we track the evidence for whether we are getting our fair share of love. We keep track of gestures, invitations, visits, gifts. I’ve heard grown-ups complain about unfairness in gifts given/received, I’ve seen them make mental hashmarks to count up who gave more, did more, showed more love than whom. All of it – every bit – is wasted energy.

I don’t claim to have the inside scoop on truth – but as Oprah would say, this is one thing I know for sure: love doesn’t work that way. Love is not something we passively receive and store up as treasure. It is not part of a capitalist exchange of goods and services (I did this, now I get your love). Love is NOT finite. If someone gives love to another, it doesn’t mean there is less for me.

In fact, it is quite the opposite. The more love one gives, the more one finds they have to give. Its like that magical Santa-bag of gifts – there’s a never-ending flow as long as we keep reaching back inside for more. Love is a decision, an action, and a commitment of self. Too often, we look at love as if looking through a peephole backwards. Normally, using a peephole allows you to see through a small hole into a much larger viewing space. Turn the peephole backwards, though, and everything looks smaller and more cramped. When we look at love only through the lens of what we are receiving, we make the love in our lives look cramped and small. A right-view of love is from the inside outward. When we look from this perspective, we can see love as expansive and expanding. We have the right view of love when our focus is on the love we are putting out into the world.

One night last week, I was at my parents’ dining room table playing Yahtzee with my nephew, my brother-in-law, and Mom and Dad. I shook the dice and rolled…a miserable conglomeration of dice with no points value in the game. I started to say, “I am so unlucky! I have always had the worst luck my whole life.” But I caught myself, and kept my mouth shut. Because it isn’t true – and I suddenly knew that with overwhelming certainty. Viewed from the right perspective, I have always been incredibly lucky in life! What an amazing shift in perspective that was – especially considering the context! I started laughing, and when my nephew asked why, I just shook my head. How could I explain that sudden clarity? When we spend our time and energy making comparative lists and tallying scores, we will always come up with the wrong total – the math will always be off, no matter how many times we refigure it. Because we are starting with the wrong premise – we are looking for proof that WE MATTER MORE. Instead, we should look for the ways we’ve expressed how much others matter – for proof that WE’VE GIVEN MORE.

There’s an old Christmas carol, from a poem by Christina Rosetti, called “Love Came Down at Christmas”. As we close out this Christmas season and look to the new year, it is definitely a good time to reflect on the Advent promise’ fulfillment – love is promised to us, but it is also expected from us. The last stanza of Rosetti’s poem says it well:

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Becoming One With the Light: The Candle of Joy

Note: I have been writing, in December, on the themes of the Advent wreath. This week’s theme: The Candle of Joy. I out-ran a blizzard last night in order not to miss one day of my holiday time with my family – causing my departure from home early, with many things undone – including my weekly weigh-in and this week’s photo of the Candle of Joy. In a few hours, I will be with my parents and this candle will be burning brightly in my heart. I hope you don’t mind this trade-off!

It should be easy to write about joy. At least, that is what one immediately thinks. After all, we know what brings us joy: family, love, laughter, right livelihood.  And we can certainly write about those things. However, joy, the thing itself, is a bit slippery as writing topics go. At least, as this week has progressed I have found it difficult to write anything true or meaningful about joy. Why is that?

First, it seems that everything I’ve tried to say has been impossible to express without sounding hokey (at best) or insincere (at worst). It is much easier to write believable prose about despair or death or darkness, in part because we often feel the impetus to express these difficult extremes carefully, so that others can understand the exact shade or quality of our emotion. When it comes to joy, we assume everyone experiences it similarly. It is like the Tolstoy quote: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Our darkness is unique, our light is universal – or so it can feel when we try to capture it in words.

Second, joy is not the same as mere happiness (not to dis happiness, which is awesome!). Joy is something at once deeper and more profound than happiness, it seems to me. One of my all-time favorite movie scenes captures this beautifully. In “Immortal Beloved“, a deaf Beethoven (played by Gary Oldman) stands on stage during a performance of his “Ode to Joy”. As he watches the orchestra play, hearing the music he wrote only in his imagination, Beethoven thinks back to the night which inspired this particular musical masterpiece. He is a boy who has escaped, for one night, his abusive father. He has run into the woods, and come to a pond. The boy gets into the water and begins to float on his back, staring up at the milkyway, which is reflected in the water around him. The boy, the water, the stars: they merge into one. The boy becomes one more shining point of light within the night sky; one tiny but essential part of the cosmos. And in this moment of union and communion with all of creation – JOY.

That, friends, is what I have been unable to express this week. Joy, as opposed to happiness or love or other good-to-great feelings, is experienced in such moments of one-ness with all of creation. There is much written about making deep joy sustainable through spiritual practice. Who am I to claim whether that is possible or not? I only know that I haven’t achieved that level of dharma or mystic union or Godliness in my own life. I have had moments, crystalline in their beauty and etched eternally on my heart, when joy has surprised and humbled me. The promise of Advent is that such joy is available to us all – as a gift. We have only to open our hearts and allow ourselves to receive it.

Flashback Friday: Hallie Jane

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My funny, smart, and beautiful* niece Hallie Jane.

Once, on a road trip, Hallie was cracking jokes from the back seat that had her mom, Gwen, and me in stitches. I said, “Hallie, you are SO funny!”. Her reply, “I wish the kids at school thought so. They just think I’m weird.” We assured her that it would be just a matter of time before the other kids caught up to her sense of humor, that she was just a little ahead of them. Luckily, that turned out to be true, and high school has been a great time for her, particularly for her involvement in speech and debate. In January, she will be traveling to Europe (primarily Poland) to compete in an international war crimes mock trial event.

Hallie and I have had our own adventures – she’s a great kid to be with when lost in a strange city, or to search the East Mountains for a lost dog with. She can be flighty, a little ditzy, and a lot clumsy:  but don’t let that fool you – and don’t judge her by her spelling or grammar on Facebook – she’s a smart cookie and serious about doing well in school.

In a week, I’ll be enjoying my family in person, and not just through my photos and memories. I cannot wait to see what sets Hallie and I to giggling this year!

*Actually, these descriptors can be used for all my nieces – Myka, Rachel, Hallie, Atalie, Zoe, Nikki, Elsa, Emma and Ada! I am blessed, truly! My only regret is the hit-and-miss nature of my photo collection – I’d love to highlight them all in a flashback friday!

Light in Uncertainty: The Candle of Peace

Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath. The candle for week two of advent is the candle of peace, sometimes called the candle of prophecy or preparation…
“We may have ten possible images of tomorrow and for each one of these there may be ten images of the next day, giving a hundred possible images of the day after tomorrow and a thousand of the day after that, and so on, which means that the uncertainty of the future increases rapidly as we move our imagination into it.” — Kenneth Boulding, “Ecodynamics”

My senior year of high school, I had a terrible dream that a good friend (Steve) became disabled from an injury sustained in a wrestling match. Steve was a state high school champion and being heavily recruited by colleges, so it didn’t seem implausible. I had moved back to Iowa for my senior year and my close friends were an expensive long-distance call away. But when I couldn’t shake the dream, I called my girl Pam. She said, “I’m so glad you called! I had a horrible nightmare last night about Steve!” She related her dream, which was very similar to mine, resulting in the same disabling injury. To say we were both freaked out by having had essentially the same dream would be to put it mildly.

I had come to know and trust a priest at my new high school, Father Lyle. As soon as possible, I shared the tale of the dream with him. His brief response to my dream was not what I had anticipated. “What will you do when it comes true?” he asked.

In a previous post, here, I shared another dream I had – this one the week prior to my grandpa Joe’s suicide.  In that dream, I met my grandfather in his new guise as a fire-eating bird (which is striking given the method of his suicide).

At the time I dreamed them, both dreams had the feel or appearance of prophesy – a foretelling of something to come. The first was clear and frightening – and never came to pass. The second was difficult to comprehend, shrouded in metaphor and layers of hard-to-grasp meaning. However, it was magical and comforting, even before the event it foreshadowed took place. In the hours immediately following my grandfather’s death, it offered warmth and comfort when both were unexpected.

And that, it seems, is the problem with prophecy: we never know until much later whether the vision, dream, stump-speech or sermon is actually prophetic or merely one of many possible futures woven whole-cloth from our imaginations. We would love to be certain, though, wouldn’t we? We want to know what the future holds as if, somehow, this will offer us a measure of control over our unpredictable, unruly lives. How can we be at peace when we have absolutely no idea what the future holds? 

I have found that the degree to which I am able to be at peace within myself – and to radiate that peacefulness outward into the world – depends on my ability to do the following:

1. Let go of my need to control how the future unfolds. It will unfold no matter what I do; no ouija board, storefront psychic or prophetic dream interpretation can accurately prepare me in advance. Now, letting go of control does not mean sitting on my hands (so I don’t chew my fingernails to the nub) and cowering in fear. Christian theologian, Henri Nouwen, coined the term “active waiting”, which he discusses in terms of the Christian scriptures. I love this concept, because it takes the act of waiting – which most of us hate, think of as a waste of time, or lack patience for – and shifts it from a passive to a proactive state. Active waiting presupposes that we are already on our way, not sitting bored at the departure gate.

2. Think of my life as having a purpose, and that my purpose is unfolding this very moment.  One of my favorite things about working with a life coach this past year has been that she challenges me to keep making this personal mission or purpose more clear in my thoughts, my words, and my choices. In this way, I am preparing for the future that will come. I may not control the future, but there are concrete things that I can do right now that will help to shape my role, and these things need to connect back to my purpose and values. Concrete examples abound – for one, my purpose has been unfolding to include addressing hunger in the world (both physical and spiritual hunger). Maybe someday this will mean a career change to work on the issue full time. But for today, it means being aware of and grateful for the food abundance available to me, having a healthy relationship with food in my own life, and seeking ways to contribute to both education and relief efforts locally (such as raising money for Kids Against Hunger or the film series I sponsored last year on campus).

3. Remember that relationship is the antidote to fear of the future. There are many times when I feel alone and lonely. These are the moments when I am most vulnerable to fear and begin trying to grasp at control of the future. We are meant to be in relationship:

  • with ourselves – spend time in reflection, examine our choices, learn about our own values and purposes; 
  • with others – family and friends, colleagues, even strangers; interacting in a genuine and loving manner with others mitigates the fear and the loneliness, and helps us create a community. I have found that the wider I cast this net, the less I am afraid of a hard landing when I step forward and take a risk because there are people willing to cushion me;
  • with God – I am convinced that we humans are spiritual beings; that whatever belief system we profess, being in relationship with the divine, with the sacred, is vital to our healthy functioning in the world.

So, as I reflect on the candle of peace this second week of Advent, I am working to be at peace within myself at this moment, and with the unfolding future that I cannot control. I pray that as I find some measure of peace within myself, I can share it with those around me – radiating peace into the world in much the same way a candle radiates light and warmth.

Peace be with you, my friends!

Flashback Friday: Who are these little people?

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This photo is a perfect picture of four little personalities! It was taken at my sister Gwen’s wedding in Santa Cruz, California in the early 1990s (sorry, Gwen, I don’t remember the year!). From left to right, the kids are: Ben Finnegan, Nate Stanley, Myka Hanson and Tim Finnegan. Ben and Tim are my nephews, and Myka is my niece. (Nate is the son of dear friends who lived in community with my brother’s family, so was an honorary nephew back then, though its been more than a decade since I last saw him.)

Ben, looking sure of himself and copping an attitude; Nate hanging back a little; Myka smiling sweet as can be; and Timmy looking every inch the scrawny kid with the colt legs – a distance runner in the making.

They’re all grown up now. I remember thinking, when they were young, that I needed to cherish that time because they would grow up and lose that specialness that nieces and nephews have in the eyes of their aunts. What was I thinking?! I needed to cherish the time, as adults do with children, because childhood is fleeting. Not because anything would be lost – in either their specialness or my love for them – as they became adults. In fact, they may be some of the best adults I know. Definitely some of the people I most enjoy being with.

Which brings me to the reason I picked this picture for today’s flashback. In a little more than two weeks, every member of my family will be in the same place at the same time – something that has never happened before (considering that I’ve yet to meet little Adeline Bell, Ben’s daughter)! I cannot believe this amazing Christmas gift – and I plan to be as present in every moment of our time together as possible! (And don’t worry – Rachel, Hallie, Atalie, Zoe, Emma and Ada – you’ll likely show up here soon, too!)

Igniting the Candle of Hope

Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath

It was approximately 3:15 a.m. when I awoke. The darkness was palpable. It felt alive to me, in spite of the comforting glow of my clock radio and the audible deep breathing of my sister in the other twin bed. I could feel the darkness pressing into me, a sense of evil intent in its probing fingers, like it was searching for a way to enter me and take me over. I felt desolately alone, as if my nearest friend was separated from me by a vast desert, rather than the two feet between our beds. And I felt fear – panicked terror really – the kind of fear that paralyzes your vocal chords and makes movement or escape impossible. The feeling of overpowering malignance directed toward me continued to grow, pressing down on me, reaching a crescendo that finally triggered my natural fight or flight instinct – I sat up in bed and hurled a brief sentence at the darkness.

Suddenly, there was a dawning of light in my solar-plexus. Light and warmth began radiating through my body. I could feel it filling me up until my body could no longer contain it. Energy sizzled along the surface of my skin, little hairs on my arms standing straight up from the static of it. The warmth, the energy, felt like love. I interpreted the energy as light, though I didn’t actually see light. The darkness, especially the feeling of evil intent, receded immediately.

I was certain that God had come to my aid in a moment of real crisis. I lay awake, bathed in warmth and love, wondering how such an experience could happen. Abject, shivering fear changed to this cocoon of love and aliveness in the matter of a split second.

The next day, I needed to talk to someone about this experience. I was only in high school, not really able to make sense of any of it on my own (I say, as if I could do so today!). So I called a (slightly) older friend I trusted implicitly. He came over and I poured out the whole story to him.

“Do you remember what you said when you sat up?” he asked. I said, “That’s the strange thing, it was gibberish – the only word I recognized was ‘Yahweh’. ” Then I told him what I thought I had said. My friend’s response was very matter-of-fact considering the next thing he told me. He said he had just taken a biblical Hebrew class at the major university where he was a student. He told me, “What you said is Hebrew and means, ‘God of our fathers, be with me.'”


The experience I just recounted occurred in 1977 or 78, approximately 35 years ago. Over that three and a half decades, I’ve shared it with only a handful of people. For one, I’ve learned that most of us aren’t able – or even comfortable trying – to make sense of deeply spiritual or mystical experiences. For two, I’m not interested in developing a list of perfectly reasonable or scientific reasons I could have/might have/ perhaps did speak in a language I don’t know – and that seems to be where the few conversations I’ve had inevitably went. For three, I can remember the way I felt, but I can’t recapture the wonder of it. In fact, as with most numinous experiences, the more one discusses it, the less wondrous it seems.

After so many years of holding the experience close, why in the world am I now choosing to share it on a blog available for anyone to read?!

The weeks of late fall and early winter, as the days grow shorter and the nights longer, are a physical expression of an emotional reality: there are times when that which is light in our lives seems overtaken by darkness. We experience sadness, despair, fear.

What a strange and powerful force hope can be in a world where darkness invades our days. I was a silly, boy-crazy teenager that night when the darkness overcame me and I called for help, yet help came. Hope is like that: like the sudden flash of fire when a match is struck on a cold, black night. Like the warmth of arms encircling you when you thought you were completely alone. Hope dispells our inner darkenss. It doesn’t eradicate it, but hope pushes our heaviness back so that breath and joy are both available once again.

Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.  ~George Iles

This week, on advent wreaths the world over, people are lighting the candle of hope. In my  heart, I am choosing to recall the times that my cries have been answered, and believing with the hope of faith that they will be again. In my home and my interactions with others, I’m asking:

How might this world light up if hope were allowed to blossom in every heart? And how can I, today, add to the measure of hope in the lives and the world I am part of?