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Between Hope and Peace, watch out

Instead of an Advent wreath, I have an Advent box this year, courtesy of some very clever folks at my church who assembled the supplies and invited me to come make one. I wasn’t so sure about “branching out” (pardon the pun), but it’s growing on me (again). There’s an order to my candles. No question about which one to start with. In my culture and language we read left to right, so start on the left. Each week, add a light.

My Advent box

My Advent box


Week one, I start with the candle of Hope. I’m not sure everyone calls the week one candle ‘hope’ but I am, because that’s how I’ve known it and because I think we need to start there. with hope. It recalls to me the one candle lit at the memorial service for my brother, John, just a few years ago. It wasn’t lit ‘for’ him, but it stood burning as we memorialized him. It inspired me to think of the Christians renewing their hope in that week all around the world and to celebrate the hope I had for my brother and now had, in Christ, for him.

Something about a candle and a flame focuses me. It draws my attention and it keeps it. So the lighting of a candle seems just the right thing for a devotional time. But, ever prone to distraction, I have been blessed by a second practice that has invaded my devotional time this year: the spotify Christmas devotional playlist – also created by my clever church compatriots. It’s a pre-selected list of songs from a variety of artists in an array of genres singing Christmas. I pretty much limit myself to one a day because, with those headphones on I could be lost to the world. Today’s selection was Amy Grant, singing Breath of Heaven. 

So today, in week two of Advent, I light the candle of ‘peace’ and listen to the breath of heaven. She sings as Mary, favored by God, to carry a child she doesn’t know if she can carry. The words…

I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone
Be with me now
Be with me now

in a world as cold as stone…echoes in my ears. Yes, so much so in Mary’s day and yet in my own. Cold. Dark. In need. And then she sings my prayer…

Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of your plan
Help me be strong
Help me be
Help me

Are you sure God? From the look on my face, are you wondering if you should have chosen better? Someone wiser? But …

Breath of heaven
Hold me together
Be forever near me
Breath of heaven
Breath of heaven
Lighten my darkness
Pour over me your holiness
For you are holy
Breath of heaven

Hold me together. Pour over me your holiness. Oh, that sight and sound might lead me to whatever is holy. Whatever is peace. It sounds so nice, doesn’t it, the quiet of a time with God?

But then, in attempting to treat my Advent box like an Advent wreath, I light first the candle of hope and then lift the flame to the next jar to light the candle of peace. Sweet peace. But the greenery between the two catches a spark and flames up. Frantically, I blow and snuff it out, hoping the smoke now rising is a lovely fragrance to God and does not activate my smoke alarm.

But isn’t there truth even in this? Between the hope and the peace, there is a spark. Tiny though it may be, it has the power to ignite and set afire. A power like no other. Not to be played with or taken lightly but to be honored and respected. I have escaped with a simple singeing. I’d be well-advised to treat it as something to behold and carry carefully.

Imagine how you’d feel if you knew the gift you carried was from God Himself. I would certainly start with hope and head directly for peace… and be a bit more careful.

Do our brains grow toward what we choose?

Our brains our changing. At least mine is. It has to, in order to keep up with the constant influx of information, sensory input, and data. To analyze it properly and make the right decision. I read and process information differently. My brain is adapting, as a  survival strategy.

I’m not sure what that means, exactly. But, it seems, based on information provided by the new technology of brain study that we may actually be laying down new neural pathways, repairing some and pruning away others, all the time. In the “old days” – which by scientific standards was only 15 years ago – we didn’t think so. We thought that the brain’s circuitry, at least after a period of pruning from “excess” neurons that happened early in our lives, was fixed and unchangeable. After this, we had to live with whatever we had left. (Thus, the significant concern for some of us who were “killing off brain cells” with our brain-altering recreation.)

But what if our brain’s structure continues to adapt and grow in response to our thinking? What if we actually grow brain pathways toward what we are thinking about. More pathways to the frequent thoughts. More scattered pathways if we head in lots of directions.

This isn’t so far-fetched.  Exercise and its increases to brain blood flow apparently result in enhancement of executive processing function and stimulate the production of brain growth factors. Do these repair nerves? grow them? re-route them?

This is exciting…and dangerous. It means that our brains are more like the rest of our bodies than we thought. The “use it or lose it” threat we address to our bodies may apply to our minds as well. Which means the things we focus on, that we learn and pattern and practice, are enhanced. The neural highways to (and from) those places are firmed up, bolstered, paved in concrete and there to stay. Pathways to those things we dismiss or fail to attend to would shrivel, get grown over, fall to disrepair and die.

What if our thoughts and actions actually act as our own pruning mechanism? A self-fulfilling brain circuitry. This sounds pretty good if we’re rightly directed. But, if we give into temptation or satisfy our pleasure center at the expense of other things, those pathways will be the ones enhanced. And, the highways to them will become easier to travel. The more connections we make, the more likely we re-visit.

Could addiction happen just this way? Can temptation that leads to sin be this simple? At some point is an “urge” truly irresistible?

No wonder God wants us focusing on Him. Because the world is full of distraction that tempts us away. Marketing and media and online ads flash to get our attention. Do we click – harmlessly, just to see?

During Advent I have downloaded a Christmas devotional playlist on Spotify, the free version because I have not paid extra for the “ads free” version. Today I play “Make Me A Servant”… and in the margin of my computer screen scroll a line of attractive men, the faces are photos like we used to take in the photo booths, one on top of the other, with a different expression on each. Though my ears hear…make me a servant today…my eyes see the message that pops up, “Do you want a boyfriend in Herndon?” All I have to do is click on the age group I prefer. Even in our devotion, Satan lurks.

To protect my brain from engaging the images I close my computer screen and focus on the listening. The Maranatha Singers sing…

Make me a servant, humble and meek

Lord, let me lift up, those who are weak.

And may the pray’r of my heart always be;

Make me a servant, make me a servant,

Make me a servant, today.

This is what I seek, but the world would draw me away.

Is the attraction and the paving and the same with you, Lord? Does the pathway to you grow stronger when I pray? Is making a way in the wilderness of our minds something we are meant to live? The more we seek and the more we search and the more we attend to things as you intend them, can we discover, uncover and lay down our way to You?

Are we otherwise, in fact, shaping our own brains according to our own will, own ways in our own circumstances, based on our own choices?

Let me choose You! And keep choosing you. Until the way to you is the only way I see.

Ironing out the wrinkles

I know it’s old fashioned, but I iron. That’s not nearly as old fashioned as the linen napkins I just finished ironing. The Thanksgiving napkins. We’ll probably use them for Christmas, too. They’re special occasion napkins.

I realized as I was ironing that I love those linen napkins. They’re each monogrammed with a script “R” in one corner because they belonged to my paternal grandmother before they came to be mine. I couldn’t see this until I ironed them.  And as I ironed I wondered about where these linens had been, who had used them before, on what family occasions, whose lips had been wiped on this very fabric? (Okay – the last is going a bit too far.) But there was history here in my hands. At first, stiff and crinkled and then supple and smoothed. It became important then to fold them with the “R” showing.

This became a devotional moment for me. The connection with my ancestors, yes, but also the smoothing. The act of seeing my effort, small though it was, take something uninviting and turn it into something welcomed. And isn’t it like God in these moments to share a little secret with us? Provide a little illumination that adds depth and meaning and value.

Those wrinkles, the product of washing and letting air dry, reminded me so of the messiness of my mind. (Now it occurs to me they are actually a bit like the convoluted gray matter itself – ah, the anatomist in me still lives!)  How chaotic it is on the inside, firing one idea and then another, until they are so entangled that I can’t hope to capture them all. But here I was, taking time to do something that could wait, that could even go without doing, and it became a metaphor for the process that untangles and smooths.

I know from experience that if I wait just a bit and go about my chores and activities which don’t require a lot of figuring out, the firecrackers of thoughts will settle into their places, each connecting with the others into one big thought meant for the moment. Perhaps the whole day.

Key, for me, is clearing away the distracting chaos on the outside – which so temptingly calls to the chaos on the inside, “Come play. Come play. We will have fun.” – to honor the message in the moment. And perhaps to write it or share it. That’s fun.

Then I can go out and play.

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