This Christmas Give Hope

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What does it mean to give a meaningful present? One that is a true expression of our love… can we truly take our hearts and wrap them in shiny paper, and give them in a way that affirms the worth of the recipient, the very value in their existence? This is a great challenge.

When I was shopping recently for my kids, seeing so many rows upon rows of plastic nonsense toys in the huge box stores left me feeling empty. All this abundance seemed a bit pointless, when so much of it was soon to be destined for the dump. It’s not that I hate toys. I still have stuffed animals and doll house furniture from when I was a kid, not to mention my stamp collection and books.

I think what bothered me was all these unnecessary things being consumed so voraciously, when so many other children in the world don’t even have a bed, or clean water, or a home to call their own. No one has given them gifts to affirm the very worth of their existence. Perhaps they don’t even have parents to kiss them goodnight and tell them how much they are loved. But instead of simply being grinchy and depressed by this, I wanted to do something, even if it was something tiny.

So I found a way to take some of these little broken pieces of my heart, wrap them with love, and send them overseas. The kids and I did it together, because it is so important that they learn to give, and not just to expect gifts from life. They will be happier this way; moreover, they will be more truly human. What did we do then? I usually hate spending money but this was my absolute favourite shopping of this year! We visited charity websites like Doctors Without Borders and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

We read about the impoverished and displaced people they help, and chose the gifts that spoke most to our hearts, like a sturdy tent to shelter a homeless family, blankets and mats to sleep on, and a water filter to provide clean water and help prevent disease. Another that tugged my heart strings was a Kangaroo Care Wrap that can double the chances of survival for a premie baby, by keeping her skin to skin and close to her mother’s heart. Having lost a full term baby girl five years ago, the idea of being able to help another baby survive was irresistible. For a mere $15, I could reach across the ocean and give a baby a chance at life, and a mother freedom from the tragedy of loss. My kids were really excited, too. They felt true joy at doing something so good for others.

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Another wonderful charity is Chalice, which sponsors poor children, helps their parents learn to plan their finances carefully, and gives them support and tools with which to earn a more stable livelihood. So if you want to empower families in need to become more independent by giving gifts like livestock, seeds, farming tools, a sewing machine or bicycle, etc, this might be a great charity for you.

I hope you’ve found inspiration in the great work that many people are doing around the world. If there’s anyone left on your list this Christmas Eve, consider giving them a gift that truly affirms their humanity and your own. The charities will send a nice e-card describing the important gift that was given in your loved one’s name.

Remember, we are not mere consumers! We are not robots who can run on money and possessions alone. We are all, each and everyone of every race and background, children of God who are strengthened by loving each other more deeply. This is what the Incarnation is about. The God who loves us all so tenderly that he wanted to affirm our intrinsic worth and erase all fear or doubt of our worthiness of being loved from our minds. He wrapped his divine heart in the frail paper of humanity and came to live among us, as a shepherd smelling of his sheep. He brought all the light and glory and splendour and magic of Heaven down to earth, to share it with us through his creation, if we would only reach out our hands to touch his and embrace this precious gift of life.

I hope you can find him this Christmas. In all the organizational Olympics of preparing your home for Christmas, may you see God at each turn…in the smiling face of your children and guests, in the beautiful colours of your Christmas meal, in the sparkling colours of lights on your tree…but also in moments of loneliness, sadness or rejection, and in the poor faces of humanity across the world, who need affirmation that they, too, are truly beautiful and loved.

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God bless you all this Christmas, and as my favourite radio man Archishop Fulton Sheen used to say, “God love you!”

Upstairs, Downstairs

This poem was written for my former downstairs neighbour and dear friend who has now returned home to Egypt with her husband and children. It was an honour and a joy to share our lives with them, and to find a warm connection that overcame any differences.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms everywhere!! Peace be with you. May you always be supported, embraced and encouraged by your fellow moms all over the world! Go team! 🙂

 

Upstairs: a crazy crew of kids

six littles bouncing, dancing, singing, banging.

Downstairs: two small sweeties,

running, shouting, playing, laughing.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the mothers scold, cook, cuddle and caress.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the mothers mother

day and night.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women sing

in Arabic and English,

songs of faith and lullabies

unique yet universal,

of one heart.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women weep,

mourn lost babies–

precious ones snatched away too soon–

in each other’s arms

these mothers find warm comfort.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women pray,

observe Lent and Ramadan,

break their fasts and rejoice together

over homemade sweets.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

the women hope,

cherishing the new lives

nestled in their wombs…

little tiny babies

due at the same time.

May they be best friends!!

 

In the world there is hatred

but not in our house.

Upstairs, downstairs

there is love.

 

The Key to this Generation’s Biggest Problem

 Today I’m happy to share with you a guest post by Alexandria Robinson, who tells the story of her struggle with an eating disorder, and how faith helped pull her out of it by helping her to realize her true value and worth. In our age of many struggles with mental illness, the message that we are infinitely precious and loved, even in our brokenness, can’t be spoken enough. Enjoy!

There’s a conversation that we need to have. We’re starting to have it, but there is still so much more we need to do surrounding this issue. It’s something that directly impacts 1 in 5 people, so all of our families. Unfortunately, we need to have this conversation with younger and younger children. Although mental health is a decreasingly taboo topic of conversation, there is still a stigma surrounding it. At church, I am part of a new mental-health and emotional-wellness ministry. At our last meeting, I was heartbroken when a sweet mama shared her struggles with her teenage sons. One of them was on the right track, going to a counselor for his severe depression. When he told his girlfriend about it, she told her friends, and a slew of hateful text messages arose. What’s a mom supposed to do?

I’ve had several conversations with mental health professionals who say the church is perfectly positioned to help those in mental distress. I know for me, my faith was the game-changer in my mental health struggles. Like a lot of young women, I have struggled with body image since my pre-teen years. I remember talking to my friends about all of our tips and tricks on how to avoid food in front of our parents or throw it up later. Although I knew the long term damage I was doing to my body, I had no desire to stop or ask for help. It wasn’t until I came to know Jesus that things changed. I now know that my body is a gift from my creator, and he thinks I’m so beautiful that I am ‘to die for’, at any weight. Having respect for my body helps me to honor my king.

After my brother was diagnosed with depression, I became obsessed with finding out everything I could about mental health. I was one of the people in his primary support network and, more importantly, his big sister. I love my brother dearly–he’s my best friend–so when I found out he was self-harming and having thoughts of suicide, it brought me to my knees. He is agnostic, but because he is an intellectual, we are able to have great conversations about the questions that really matter–things like the meaning of life and suffering. The great existential questions that those with a mental illness often ask are answered by religion. Unfortunately, we often write off church as something we only have to do on Christmas and Easter. But I would challenge anyone who is experiencing a mental health difficulty, either directly or indirectly, to start making it a habit to get into the Scriptures.

“‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  Isaiah 54:10

I like to think of the Bible as our roadmap on life’s journey, and that without it, we are just wandering around aimlessly. Coming to know the one who made you can help you answer the all-important question of: “Why?” When you have your “why,” it makes all things easier. I know my “why”…or at least part of it. I write online Catholic bible studies on my blog. As a convert, I spent a lot of time online searching for answers. I came across a lot of amazing resources, but there was no Catholic voice readily available. That’s what I’m working to create.

Although I am involved in my bible studies, YouTube channel, and church ministries, I realized there was still something missing. People need help just opening the Scriptures. That’s why I wrote a book, A Catholic Millennial’s Guide to the Bible. In it, I answer some of the most common objections to Bible reading. Have you ever asked, or heard your child ask, questions like: I don’t know where to start; do Catholics even read the Bible; how can you read such an old book? I certainly have, and I answer all of those questions in the book. A Catholic Millennial’s Guide to the Bible is a short, easy read, written by and for Catholic millennials.

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. ”  1 John 4:9-11

We need the Lord, now more than ever. Spending time in the Bible can help us on our tough days. In my lowest moments, I remember my body is a gift to be respected, not garbage to be abused. This realization comes only from being rooted in the Word of God.

Alexandria Robinson is the author of the new book, A Catholic Millennial’s Guide to the Bible. In it she explains how to the Word of God is relevant to our lives in the modern day, the Church’s relationship with Scripture throughout history, and how the Bible came to be. It is written by and for young Catholic laity to encourage them on their long journey home to our Heavenly Father. It will make a great Lenten read or Easter gift. For more on Alexandria, check out her blog at www.TheGenesisFeminist.com.

 

Humble Audacity

A single flame in the darkness,

a single note in the silence,

a single child in a stable–

only God would have

the humble audacity to appear this way

when He wanted to reach everyone in the world.

He could have come with crashes of lighting

flashing across the entire sky.

He could have come with legions of angels,

fast and furious,

but He came instead in the quiet–

His little cries

barely heard above the donkey’s breath.

He came with a love as warm as hot chocolate

that spreads slowly through your whole body

and makes everything right.

He came small enough to fit himself

–the creator of the universe–

into each human heart,

affirming that each person

is a universe unto themselves–

infinitely precious and loved.

Tiny note, little light, set the world aflame with joy!

Crushed

Father, will you forgive me

for being crushed under this weight?

No, My daughter,

there is nothing to forgive.

It is no sin to stagger

under such a heavy burden.

Did I rebuke my Son when He fell three times?

No, there was nothing to rebuke.

But I could hear the entire creation rejoicing with Me–

mountains echoing with thunder

and seas roaring with triumph–

every time He got up again

to give Himself completely

in the full freedom of love.

Therefore be still, my daughter.

Calm your wildly beating heart–

I never asked you to do this alone.

You’re being held up by angels,

but you must close your eyes to see them.

When things are heavy,

rest in their embrace.

Prairie Fire Under Snows

There is a flame the cold can’t quench

and so we joy-filled fill

this giant wooden teepee with song

We reach for the hand of one

whose wounded one reaches for ours

Sheltered in this house of God

by a cone of boards bound with nails

like a teepee sewn together

—holes through pierced skin—

protecting us from the winter storms

Like the people of Jerusalem we process with palms

but instead of hot sand the snow swirls around us

a soft spring snow

full of hope of future harvest

as the fire-golden wheat fields lie hidden

under the cold kiss of a blanket of snow

the way you lie hidden

the fire of your divinity

submerged in the wheat coloured wafer

we receive

We remember

We hope

We live in the shelter of his love

the humble king of glory

On fighting discouragement

The other day I was reading a little book of Lenten meditations by Pope emeritus Benedict about the true meaning of fasting. He describes how Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fighting the temptations he was offered…to the world’s power, to enslavement to the physical world (bread), and to spiritual pride. It made me think…what temptations do I need to fight to be more free? And I don’t just mean the temptations to scarf boxes of chocolates…but deeper things.

Are we tempted by discouragement? By anger? By sulking and blame? These are the kinds of demons we can fight off during Lent, so as to become more happy and free. So how about instead of giving up something we like, or maybe as well as that, taking up arms to fight harder against what we don’t like…what drags us down and brings misery and isolation.

It is amazing how these demons of discouragement prey on our weakness. We recently watched the excellent movie “A Man For All Seasons” as a family. What struck me most this time, because I have seen it before, was what great destruction came through a weak man. Richie Rich, poor and soft man, is corrupted by bribery and the lure of wealth and power. He becomes a powerful man externally, but inside is still incredibly weak and can no longer follow his conscience when tempted, and ends up perjuring himself. St. Thomas Moore is killed because of Rich’s lies in court. It is very sad to see how Rich destroys himself and others…perhaps after certain point he no longer believed it would be possible to reform. It is so important to be both humble enough to receive mercy and forgiveness and strong enough to persevere in the truth when times are tough.

So why do we fail, make mistakes, commit sins? Many times out of weakness. Why do we yell when tired? Weakness. Why do we slam drawers when too hungry? Weakness. Why do we fall into discouragement when the house is exploding with mess and the floor seems a distant memory? Weakness. But if there is one thing we must always hang onto despite our weakness, it is hope, and the knowledge that we are loved. Discouragement comes when we look only at ourselves and all our failures, all at once. Then the amount we need to change and then improve becomes utterly overwhelming.

Can you imagine a baby looking ahead and envisioning all the things they would have to do and learn as one giant, looming to do list? Learn to walk, run, jump, speak thousands of words, dress themselves, read, write, learn sports, to cook, get a job, change careers, etc. It’s exhausting to think about all at once. But why aren’t babies stressed like the rest of us? Because they live in the moment and in trust: “Mommy and Daddy are here and they will teach me.”

What we adults have to do is spend less time looking at ourselves and more time looking at God, who is perfect love, who is infinite mercy, who is glorious king and wise and loving Father. It is he who will give us the strength and grace to improve. It is he who will teach us. Of course it won’t be all at once, but a little bit at a time, each day hanging on to hope despite our failures. Babies are so delighted with life…it would serve us well as adults to spend more time marvelling at the beauty of life as well, practising gratitude and making a point of savouring the good little memories each day provides.

Ultimately, Lent is about learning to love better, and we have opportunities to do so every moment of each day. St Josemaria said to be a true friend is to honour the image of God in others…”as you do to the least one of my brothers so you do unto me.” No matter how long our to-do list, we can always afford time for a smile. May God give us all the strength to love well, and the hope to grow each day, seeing self-knowledge as an opportunity to improve, rather than a cause for discouragement.

Lent: on taking it one step at a time

Lent is here. It’s a time when many people choose to spend more time in reflection and prayer. It’s a time to come to grow on the inside. Like a bulb planted underground in the winter struggling through the cold dirt, we can struggle through the reality of our mistakes and imperfections, without losing hope. We can persevere like that little green shoot peeking out through the snow into the frosty air to find the sun. But all this requires patience, something our immediate-gratification-loving world is sorely lacking.

I got to thinking about patience this evening when I was trying to teach my daughter to draw a cube. She was trying again and again to make it look right, but it kept looking lopsided, like a tent.

“It’s all about getting the lines parallel,” I said. “You can’t draw it too fast, you have to go one line at a time focussing only on making it parallel to the one across from it. Then it looks straight.”

So she kept trying and filled pages with these 3-D boxes.

“Why can’t I get it right?” she asked. “I’ve done so many and they’re still not perfect!”

“It’s not about getting it perfect; it’s about practicing–building your drawing muscles so you can get better and better. And that’s why we do it with a pencil, so we can erase our mistakes, and readjust things to make it better.”

Isn’t it the same with our spiritual lives? We get easily frustrated with the time it takes to get things looking straight. We don’t want to be lopsided boxes, we just want to be that perfect cube right now! But that’s not how it works. We need to have the patience to make little strokes with our pencils, realizing we can erase our mistakes and readjust things every day. We can say sorry and begin again with new hope, that’s what Lent is all about.

Our lives are not written in stone, or even permanent ink, so we only need to humbly keep trying, while paying attention to the little things. Ultimately our lives are a picture made up of many tiny images. Every little line adds to this picture. So the only way to improve ourselves is by paying attention to the little things, readjusting day by day to try to make the picture that we want. Shaping our lives a little bit at a time, and trying to do so with patience, humour and love.

Of course, it helps if we know ahead of time what we want that picture to look like. This is where life goals come in, and knowing what kind of person we want to be helps us to take steps to get there. So having an ideal image to strive for—that perfect box, that amazing hero, that inspiring saint—can help us to break down that image into concrete pieces, and discover little positive habits that we can acquire to become not them, but the best version of ourselves.

Selfishness, Responsibilty and a Blue Couch 


Selfishness is so easy. It’s so easy to focus on yourself and blame all your troubles on others. Doing so allows us to stay in a state of inaction: there is “nothing” we can do about our problems because they are “not our fault.” Someone else is to blame. But this attitude dooms us to shadow-boxing all our lives–flailing out our arms uselessly to hit the imaginary causers of our own difficulties. 

If we are honest with ourselves, we discover that the source of our brokenness is within. Even if we were isolated from all others in a tiny hermitage, we would still struggle. This is a sobering thought. It means we have to rise from our stupor and take responsibility for our lives. Only we can change them for the better. 

But while we can take positive steps towards small changes for the better, healing our brokenness is not something we can do alone. We can’t make ourselves never grumpy, annoyed, snappy, imprudent, lazy or selfish etc by our willpower alone. We are like broken light bulbs whose wires are not connected, so the electricity can’t flow through them. We need to reconnect those wires by joining our hands in prayer, so the grace of God can flow through us and help us to shine. 

In the bustle of daily life, it can be easy to forget this. We get wrapped up in our troubles and forget to ask for help. We forget to pray for our needs, and for the grace to bear hardships cheerfully. But God is just waiting to show us signs of His affection, if we open our hearts to receive it. Sometimes His generosity is very concrete. Recently my Dad and I went on a wild goose chase search for a second-hand dresser for my eldest daughter. We drove all over, even out of town, and checked three stores with no luck.  We saw a couch I liked which could replace our old beat-up red one, but I couldn’t get a-hold of my husband at work to ask his opinion. It was a hot, tiring day and nothing seemed to be quite working. 

But the next day, the reason for our fruitless search was made clear: there was something  better waiting for us. A block from our house, my Dad spotted an estate sale with gorgeous furniture. There was a beautiful maple dressed in perfect condition for $45. And even more lovely, an antique Coombs couch and matching armchair, with wooden finish and lovely blue upholstery for $250 together. I don’t know what their original price would have been, but the reupholstering alone would have cost $2000 in the ’80’s! Talk about score. Furthermore, they were willing to deliver the furniture to our house, which was another godsend, because some things are just too darn big for my double stroller (we don’t have a car). 


So this is just a little reminder, to myself as much as to anyone else, to take time to join my hands in prayer, reconnect with God and let His love flow through me. If we could all shine our little lights, instead of staying in the darkness of anger and blame, how gorgeous the world would be. Like a glowing Christmas tree, every little light sharing its warmth with the others. In a time of uncertainty and violence, I think the peacefulness of this image is one worth focusing on, hoping and praying for. God bless you all. 

Learning to Pray

This lovely little picture is by my 6 1/2 year old daughter, who is much better at drawing than me! She is very excited about her First Communion coming up this June, and likes to express it through art. She told me, “This is a priest teaching a little girl the same prayer he learned when he was a little boy.”

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Here is one more drawing:

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Happy Spring!