Think About Such Things

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Philippians 4:8 New International Version (NIV)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.


I am all shouted out. Social media, television news, even sports radio, for Pete’s sake, is filled with angry people ranting about politics, religion, the economy, and even football.  I am not even going to rehash any of the issues, you all know what they are, and I am out of bandwidth for all this vitriol. (Although, for the record, the Saints got robbed, man. I sure would have loved to see them up against my beloved Patriots.)

I feel battered.  Just from casual conversations, I know that I am not alone. It has been like getting caught into a rip current that is sweeping us out over our heads.

A preacher I once heard taught that if it made it into the Bible, then it is something that the Good Lord knew that all future generations would need to read.

Clearly, this is not the first time humans have all gotten under each other’s skins. Back in the day, the folks in Philippi found themselves at the point where they Could Not Even. Paul hit them with a truth bomb. What you think about matters. What you think about changes you. If you want to change for the better, think about better stuff.  

Preach, Brother.

You cannot swim across a rip current, it will just pull you farther out to sea, and exhaust you in the process. You have to swim along it, then angle yourself to ride the tide back into shore.  So, I know that I cannot keep arguing with strangers on FaceBook or screaming at the evening news.  It is exhausting me and turning me into the very thing I am fighting against.

That does not mean I am quitting the good fight. I will not stick my head in the sand and forget about the very real, very important issues of our day. We all still need to advocate for the poor and the oppressed. We still need to fight abuse in our churches, government, and community. We still need to be a voice for the voiceless.

It’s just that I need a lens angle shift. How about you?

The scripture admonishes us to think about the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Make a list. Count your blessings. As the psalmist says, “meditate on them day and night.”

So, in all of the bluster, I need to find the truth in the stories, align myself with the folks in the fights that are noble and admirable, call out the lovely, beautiful things people are doing. Think about such things.


The First Sunday of Advent:Doing it All Wrong


Photo by Kristen Allen

So it begins. My Advent is off to a rather inauspicious start.

Last year, inspired by my studies of Celtic Christianity, and some blossoming friendships with women who are far more crafty than I am, I made an Advent wreath out of evergreen clippings from my garden. It was a small project that I found to be quietly meaningful.

I thought I would do the same thing this year.

It was with a happy heart that I took my clippers and 5-gallon pail out into my yard yesterday. I gathered holly, juniper, yew, boxwood, and winterberry. I spread most of the juniper and yew on my mantle and bookcases, as an evergreen backdrop for my collections of nutcrackers and nativity scenes. I also filled a tin bucket used for collecting maple sap with some holly and the winterberry to bring some holiday cheer into my bedroom.

Now, I was ready to put my Advent wreath together.

I pulled out the nifty swirled glass dish that a former student gifted me. I lined it with juniper, filled the edges with holly and holly berries, and covered the gaps with boxwood. Now for the candles. I head to the closet where I store the candles. I can only find three candle holders, and no taper candles. Sigh.

I grab my coat and head to the dollar store. They have no candle holders suitable for tapers, and while they have dozens of candles, the only tapers they have are brown or sickly yellow. I head next door to the discount store. No luck.

I try another store today, and again I strike out. Plenty of candles. No tapers. Who would have thought that taper candles were out of fashion?!

I was increasingly upset, because it’s the start of Advent, and I dared say to you all that I would write about my experiences through this season, and here I am having not gone to church this morning, and now I cannot even find candles for my Advent wreath, and one day in I am already failing, and…

I fled to our home office and began puttering (and pouting). A while later I was called downstairs. My husband, knowing just what to do for me, had put up the Christmas tree, strung it with lights, and set the angel on top. Around the base of the tree, he wrapped the beautiful, hand-quilted tree skirt his sister made for us when we first got married. He pulled out the boxes of ornaments, grinned at me, and simply said, “Your turn.” I decorated our Christmas tree with the antique glass bulbs that were his grandparents’, and the handcrafted ornaments our children made when they were tinies, and the oddball collection of decorations that we have been accumulating over the past thirty years together. Each one a memory. Each one a blessing. Each one a prayer.

And then I was ready to come back to my Advent wreath.  Bucking traditions and protocols, I used what I had. I put a white pillar candle in the center. It is surrounded by 3 forest green votive candles and one white votive candle that I got during the trip I made to the Yankee Candle Village the morning Mary first came to my home to meet me in person. They smell wonderful, and they remind me of the truly delightful visit we shared. To complete my wreath, I added a truly lovely blown-glass bird. I have a thing about birds. For me, they represent freedom and lightness and now, here in my wreath, the Holy Spirit.

It doesn’t look anything like the Advent wreaths I’ve known. It doesn’t even look anything like the Advent wreath I intended to create. I find that it feels like one, though. As I lit the first candle—and the center, “Jesus candle,” because, well, I’ve already thrown tradition out the window, and figured inviting Jesus to my meditations could not be a bad thing—I was filled with a lightness I did not expect after getting everything wrong.

When it came down to it, I ended up where I was supposed to be, quiet and contemplative. My preparations did not look like I expected or wanted them to, but they still made the way—and isn’t that the point of Advent?

My readings for this evening’s meditation:

Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent

A Reflection on Hanukkah




Granite & Blueberry Beads


Photo by Kristen Allen

     Growing up Catholic, I belonged to a parish that did not put a lot of emphasis on the Rosary. I was taught the prayers, of course, and I knew that some of the old women sat in the back of the church with their beads clicking. It was just not a ritual that was impressed upon me. When I left the Catholic church in my early twenties, I became a member of a non-denominational, Evangelical, Pentecostal congregation. Rote prayers and such rituals were actively discouraged, mocked, even.

Then I was taken in by the Church Ladies. This was a group of women that ran the food pantries in my city’s churches. With the exception of the three sisters from Georgia who were leaders in our community’s predominately black Baptist church, and the world-traveling retiree from the Episcopal church, the Church Ladies hailed from the city’s Catholic parishes. I came to know these women through my work in a local social service agency. Over the years, I have joined them (and their congregations) for special prayer services, holiday craft fairs, concerts, weddings, and funerals. Over countless cups of tea and slices of cake, through sharing our stories and rituals, they persisted in cutting through our professional boundaries to develop personal relationships with me.  They have made me a better woman.

The retired Catholic-school PE Teacher that ran one of the larger pantries in the city with the ferocity of a winning coach also organized her parish’s annual retreat. Every fall she invited me to come with her. Every fall I politely declined. Then there was the autumn that every adult member of my mama’s side of the family was hospitalized, one after another. That year, I accepted the invitation. It was in that peaceful chapel in a forest surrounding a tiny bay on Cape Cod, that I joined a group of women for the Sorrowful Mysteries with borrowed rosary beads. I struggled to remember some of the prayers, but was buoyed by the murmurings of the women around me, as the stars rose in the sky through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the altar.


Photo by Kristen Allen

When it was over, the eight or ten of us said our goodnights and split up for our rooms. I didn’t feel like I had experienced anything, well, spiritually impactful, as I often felt when leaving a prayer service from my Pentecostal days or even from my childhood youth group days.  I remember that I was disappointed at that. I sorely wanted the experience to be powerful and transformative.

I did not pick up a rosary again until years later during my second trip to Rwanda, where two of my fellow travelers, devout Catholics, both, convinced our tour leader to make a “slight side trip” (read that as  several hours out of our way through difficult, though stunning,  mountainous terrain) to the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Kibeho.   I have been a long-time skeptic of Marian visitations. Regardless of what I believe (or don’t), this is one of the few places of claimed Marian Visitations in the world that Vatican officials have deemed authentic.

In any event, I was profoundly moved by my day spent there. The stories of the visionaries’ experiences are chilling and compelling. The visitations (between 1981-1983) predicted the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 with horrifying detail. Among the admonitions the “Mother of the Word” was said to give the visionaries was to pray the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows  .  In the primitive gift shop at the Shrine, I purchased a set of these special beads—beautifully  handcrafted out of jacaranda wood–for a nun who is a dear friend. On impulse, I picked up another set for myself, as a remembrance of my day spent in this place.


Photo by Kristen Allen

     It is now five years later. The set of rosary beads I got at that retreat center, and the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows I got in Kibeho sit together, unused, in a drawer in my bedside stand. Recently, though,  ongoing conversations with friends who do practice praying the Rosary regularly, have me in a place where I now find myself  thinking about a variety of meditation practices, about Mary, and about the Rosary.

I’ve caught myself collecting 10 small stones on my regular hikes along the river, tiny beads of granite that I finger in my pocket as I move through the familiar trail, thinking through the problems—the mysteries– of my day. I’ve taken to reciting under my breath decades of Hail Mary’s while rubbing a restless preschooler’s back to sleep during rest time. Then just last week, when my stress level peaked and worry threatened to drown me, I fled to my garden, where I hoped the ordinary, mindless task of pulling weeds and picking produce would calm me. Getting scratched by the prickly cucumbers was a tactile representation of what I was feeling in my mind.  Balancing the sheer volume of ripened tomatoes was too overwhelming for me to manage, and I left a trail of tomatoes from the yard to the kitchen. It wasn’t until I got into the blueberry bushes, with the steady “Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!” of the berries, one at a time hitting my bucket, that I began get any relief. The feel of the little round berries in my fingers, the repetitious sound they made as they collected, was a prayer repeated again and again. And just like that, I found a bit of peace.


Photo by Kristen Allen