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Christmas Merry or Not

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” the song goes. Every artist including Kermit the Frog sings this Christmas standard. The song itself, is reflective, a bit melancholy and challenging. Regardless, the song states, “have yourself a merry little Christmas, now.”

Now those who know me, know I tend to go overboard at Christmas. My house has 23 decorated Christmas trees, yes that number is correct. I don’t count the little miniature trees that are not decorated, although my husband would include them in counting the trees. I have lighted Christmas garland everywhere and outside lights that my twin sister states are “Griswold-like.”

I love Christmas cookie and candy making. I watch a plethora of Christmas movies and have more Christmas CD’s than I want to admit. Yes, I still play CD’s, in fact I have the old time @Firestone and @Goodyear Christmas LP’s which also get played. I don’t begin these activities before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is its own holiday and deserves respect and honor.

The day AFTER Thanksgiving, the decorations begin and the plans are made. This year, for the first time in many years my children are home and the grandboys are here. Such a blessing in so many ways. There has been laughter and a bit of yelling over a game or two, some cooking and baking and eating and watching movies. My heart is happy.

Having said that, there are still those moments, when I acknowledge the ones that are not here. My facebook feed has an option to look back “on this day” and the last few days have been filled with memories, many of which go back long enough to include my mother.

Now my mom loved Christmas, but not in an over the top way. She hated baking, particularly cookies. She preferred recipes that were easy and didn’t take a whole lot of time. She was into convenience. She liked family around, but often preferred to observe rather than to participate. She did LOVE Christmas music though. The house would be filled LOUDLY with old Christmas albums playing non stop during the holidays.

For some reason, the past few days keep reminding me of her. The last Christmas we spent together this pictures was taken.


It’s one of my favorite pictures of my mom and my sister and I. Yesterday I pulled out a cookbook she gave me. This particular cookbook was one of those “church” cookbooks, from her congregation.


Not new, obviously but included the “pumpkin bar” recipe she made every holiday and “puppy chow” which grandboys love. I made the pumpkin bar recipe this evening and of course it reminded me of her.

I am not a person who wallows in sadness or grief. I am finding myself, noting the moments, and being grateful for both the joy and the sadness. I do not want to be one of those persons who gives up holidays because someone has died during that time period. As a pastor with so many funerals after 33 years, I would never ever celebrate a holiday again. I want to grieve and to celebrate.

Life goes on, and that is as it should be. When I prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, that birth took place in the midst of tragedies, in the midst of fear and grief and also in the midst of joy and celebrations. Each loss changes things, but grief ought not to have the final word. Love and laughter are life giving.

I ran across this amazing piece of music. It acknowledges the grief and the uneasiness of those who have lost loved ones. “Different Kind of Christmas” by Mark Schultz will speak to those with most recent losses but also those who are recreating holiday experiences.

In my life, it seems every year is a “different” kind of Christmas. Not necessarily bad, but always different. The world, the community, the family changes and each year for me I am challenged to embrace the beauty of Christmas, God made real in “Emmanuel” God-with-us.

So, on this day before Christmas Eve, I wish you a Merry Christmas. May your holiday be filled with love, with laughter, with friends and family far and near. May you experience Emmanuel, the presence of God with you.





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Gratitude and Grief

Today is All Soul’s Day. It is the end of the three-day period that begins with Halloween. Most non-Roman Catholic churches don’t honor or celebrate All Soul’s Day. This day is the catch-all for “all faithful who have departed.” The Roman Catholic (and Orthodox) traditions have a strict definition of saints, where other churches do not. So saints and souls and sinners don’t have to be divided.

Today allows me some time to ponder grief and gratitude. Since November in my religious tradition begins with remembering those who have died and ends with the cultural holiday of Thanksgiving, grief and gratitude seem tied together. In my understanding as a pastor, I have always put those two together as I work with families to plan memorial and funeral services. Those gatherings lend themselves to both expressions of the human experience.

Personally, the anniversary of my mother’s death falls between those dates as well. Facebook does a tremendous job of reminding me. Not that I would need reminding, particularly. Many small things come along that send my mind racing back to those final days.

Yesterday in worship, the gospel reading came from the beatitudes with this verse included:


In the first moments of grief, it usually doesn’t feel like a blessing. It can, particularly if death took a long time and the loved one transitioned inch by inch. Sooner or later, grief comes hard and fast and with a deep ache. Then comes the moment and moments when it doesn’t hurt so much. The sadness is not a constant shadow that stalks day in and day out. THEN, then the blessings come and the gratitude.

At that time and season, the memories comes with smiles and laughter and not so many tears. Grief transitions to gratitude as we become able to say thank you again and again to the gifts our loved ones have left behind: stories and sayings, laughter and love, values and faith. Our grief and our gratitude becomes a witness, a tribute to our memories. On this All Soul’s day I continue to be thankful for the many saints and souls that have gone before me. Their memories, their laughter, their love and their unique and unrepeatable spirits continue to be part of my spirit.

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Week Two: Advent Continues

There is a long tradition at West Heights of celebrating Advent with what we call “Stan Kenton Christmas Brass.” This year, was the fortieth anniversary. The first year it was done, it was pretty “edgy” for the 1970’s. The idea of doing big band/jazz charts as part of worship was pretty unheard, at least in Wichita, Kansas.

Stan Kenton was a well known innovator, educator and jazz composer. Church “legend” has it that some of the charts that are still used were given to Newton Graber for that first Kenton Christmas forty years ago. Whether or not that is true, what is known, is that after Newt died Henry “Hank” Elder took over directing and keeping track of the charts and replacing musicians as needed. After Hank died, the charts were gifted to West Heights by his family and Lisa Hittle began directing.

The sound of these particular arrangements are nothing short of amazing, in my opinion. The opening notes of the Christmas Medley is stunning. No recording can do it justice, but I share with you the original Kenton recording as an example. It’s long, but so worth it.

Around here, there are people that wait all year long for this group of musicians to assemble. They drive from all over south central Kansas to play these charts and for the few that are still playing, they say “West Heights feels like home when we come to play.”
Some folk of course could care less, but I have joined the fan club, Advent begins with the opening notes of the Kenton Christmas brass.

This year, one of the trumpeters, who used to make that instrument scream, was not playing. It is probably his last Kenton Christmas, and for the first time he listened as the others played their hearts out. Bryce Luty is a man who kept this group together.
He’s the one that kept things going when there was uncertainty and many of us love him. It was a gift and a joy for Bryce to be there and listen and smile and encourage the 40th anniversary with his very being.

If you want to hear the whole service, Ian Beyer made a good audio which I will share here:
Kenton Christmas Brass 2014
It is also posted on the West Heights facebook page and my own facebook page.

Everyone has different traditions that evoke the season of Advent and Christmas for them. Mine often have to do with music and ritual. Maybe that’s why I am a preacher. I need lights, an advent wreath, way too many Christmas trees and a little Stan Kenton Christmas. Those horns will blow away any holiday blues I have any day of the week.

As I live into the second week of Advent, I am graced to serve.

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Reflecting and Pondering

I just finished watching a music video. It was a link shared on Facebook and was an unexpected gift of grace today. I have been away from the “office” this week, pondering, praying, reading and preparing a Lenten sermon series on forgiveness, called “The Forgiveness Factor.” Even as an extrovert, I need quiet reflective time, something that has been lacking in my life recently. Life is sometimes like that.

I have watched numerous videos on forgiveness, read seven or eight books, pondered scripture and prayed almost “without ceasing.” I have also, exercised, watched some Wichita State basketball, and cooked several nights as those are others ways I center and reflect.

Back to today’s video. This is a brand new song written by Carrie Newcomer. If are not familiar with her music, she writes amazing story/songs in a folk style. She hails from Indiana and this song she wrote for Parker J. Palmer’s 75th birthday. Two people I appreciate enormously are combined in this music video. Parker Palmer’s writings have changed my life in many ways. His book, The Active Life, came at a time I needed to understand my own spirituality. His explanation of the temptations of Jesus are still my favorite. So, I share this video, because while it may be about Parker Palmer, the last verse speaks true to my life this week and almost always.

“So here’s to living what we learn with years and here’s to love so tender and all it took to bring us here. And here’s to dancing in the kitchen here’s to hearing into speech, here’s to every single day so fine so full and oh so brief….”

Thank you Carrie Newcomer, today I am looking with my shy soul and experiencing life and love. I truly am graced to serve.

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