Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back and Looking Ahead--A Review and Some New Thoughts

Always good to look back and look ahead.  Here is what I wrote last year looking ahead to 2013…

(10) Keep running in the right place in my life—it should promote physical, mental, and social well being—the gold old health triangle we learned in high school health ed class.  It should also promote spiritual well-being. If it ever interferes with those re-assess. I think I was successful on this one.  Some may argue too much running, but it did everything it was supposed to do, and I have been trying to balance.

(9) While keeping it in the right place in my life, don't forget that there are some real goals. Mile on the track under 5:40.  2-mile on the track under 12:00.  5K—wherever—under 19:30.  Complete Boston—and if the weather permits aim for 3:10.  Half marathon closer to 1:30.  10 miler closer to 1:10.  Achieved some goals here.  Ran Boston but didn’t even break 3:15.  Ran a 19:10 5K.  Did not do so many timed track workouts this year.  Ran a half marathon distance at sub-7:00/mile pace although not in a race.  Continuing to get stronger. 

(8) Continue to be creative.  Maybe art.  Maybe words.  I'd say 10-15 minutes per day.  Could be a little verse.  Could be a little progress in my ongoing attempts to write longer stuff.  Could be a blog entry.  Could even just be some project like the silk tie I did earlier this week.  Just to keep that part of my brain in high gear.  This year lots of words.  Some “art” in the sense of taking pictures and beginning to think about how combining my pictures (or other people’s pictures) and my words might make a more effective message to share.  Below is a combination of words and pictures that I gave Sherry for Christmas.

(7) Think about next career steps.  Who knows what they may be?  The key is that even as a full professor, there are things to think about.  Even if I stay a full professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for the remainder of my career, the job will change.  And there may be opportunities within JHU (or someday in the future outside JHU) that would bring about even more changes and hopefully changes that would challenge me and engage me in new ways.  And while my well-being now is about stability, my well-being once the kids are out of high school and college will depend on what I see as my next steps.  So, I might as well start thinking now.  So last year when I wrote this, I was interviewing for the position I now have, but not telling a whole lot of people.  I got the position.  So, check!

(6) Continue to grow spiritually.  I have stopped writing about every single bib number and race time.  That was fun.  But I have found many new inspirations for my spirituality including the tattoo that is now nearly finished.  That turned out to be an interesting part of my art experience last years as it really has become much like a piece of commissioned artwork that I always have with me and really participated in a two-person (me and the artist) effort to bring about a vision of symbolism that I had.  Finished getting the tattoo.  Wrote three sets of compiled blog entries.  And really have a feel for spirituality meaning recognizing that I am a part of something bigger and that there are lots of connections to make and to share. .  

(5) Continue to play an active role at St. Pius X.  I don't see that changing for any reason--but it is just worth putting out there.  No matter what other pressures may come and go, the stability of my involvement in Sunday school and the worship band--each with its own set of ups and downs--is definitely like a rock for my to stand on in my faith and in my life.  I’ve continued to teach for religious ed, help Mae when needed, and play in an occasional mass on my bass guitar.  Check!

(4) Continue to mentor.  The experience or mentoring has been a gift to me as much as anything from me over the past several years.  I have a new student to mentor in the Penn State Schreyer Honors College and there are other opportunities for mentorship as well.  I’ve continued to be in touch with one of my old mentees, reached out to a few more, and taken on mentoring as an important part of the job. Check!

(3) Help my two oldest on the path to figuring out where they will go to college and high school respectively.  While the process will not be completely finished one year from today, it will be well on its way.  We are on our way.  Check!

(2) Remember that I would not be where I am without the help of others.  This is part of what I reflected in my artistic vision last year and what I hope to continue to reflect this year.  This is part of my spirituality.  It is part of my professional mentoring.  It is part of my family relationships.  It is part of being a good neighbor.  I am ultimately responsible for me.  But I am not responsible for just me.  And in the same way, I know that I have truly benefitted from having so many around me who are not only interested in benefitting themselves but who are interested in lifting up others.  When I am taking credit, I must give credit where credit is due. And when I am deciding how to act, I should remember to act with others in mind.  During this year, I have thanked many and shared my writing with many.  I could probably still do a little better at work.  Check!

(1) Be the best family member I can be.  Husband, father, son, brother, and so many more rolls.  All important.  All provide ways to lift others up.  All provide ways to reflect on what others have done to lift me up.  And all provide ways to show God's greatness in blessing me and my family with abundance. Not sure how I would rate according to my family, but I keep on trying.

For the year ahead, there will be some repeats and some new interpretations:

(10) Run.  Do it a lot.  But keep it in its place.  Use it as a focal point.  Use it for goal setting.  Use it for friendship building.  Use it to seek meaning.

(9) Keep teaching Sunday School.  I really like working with kids, introducing them to things about our faith and introducing them to things about St. Pius.  And teaching is the ultimate learning experience and I love to learn.

(8) Keep writing.  Use it to sort things out and use it to find meaning.  Use it to share.

(7) Find a place for music.  I can’t imagine myself getting back in a worship band any time soon but I have to find a place for some music.  It is another good release.

(6) Bake more.  I know that I bake more than most, but I am stuck in a bit of a rut.  So maybe the key here is to bake a wider variety of things.

(5) Take more pictures.  This is a different take on art than last year.  One that I can manage.  And one that I can turn into “art” but using effects with the pictures and mixing and matching pictures in collages and matching them with my words to ell stories.

(4) While I have access to all types of electronic technologies, but them down more.  There is a time for being connected electronically and a time to just turn it off.

(3) Recognize my limitations more.  This goes along with many of the things I wrote in the Epilogue to the Spirituality of Advent 2013.  When all is said and done, I am just a speck in the bigger world.  My life is just a blink in the history of time.  And I have to realize that I can’t do everything for everyone all the time.

(2) Structure my time better.  Structure will help with focus.  Focus will improve performance in so many areas.

(1) Remember that family comes first.  There will be times that I will be called on to do things for work, especially in my job now, that make it seem like family is not first.  That family has to wait.  But in the bigger picture, family has to come first.  I think that finding a way to make family first “on net” without it having to be first every second of every day is a real challenge.  A challenge for me to do.  And a challenge for my family to accept and work into our family life.  But I keep trying.

Happy 2014!

Monday, December 30, 2013


The place at which we vacation has condos to stay in, a recreation building that is within about a 15 minutes walk (with lots of hills on the mountainside), and a ski area.  With only one car, I get dropped off at the recreation building near 8, do my workout, and then walk back.  Today I was able to do my workout, change into a dry shirt, put on a sweatshirt and a windbreaker, and then carry the wet shirt I'd run in and sweatpants while walking back to the condo in shorts.  Between wearing shorts, my tattoo, and walking along the side of the road where the is a shoulder but no sidewalk, I'm not sure what passing motorists thought of me.  But it is great to vacation somewhere that I can walk along in shorts after a workout while my family skis.  God made the world a very interesting place.  And being on a mountainside like this with the trees and the beautiful fog yesterday makes clear how cool God's handiwork is.

For today, that is all. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Spirituality of Advent--All Entries in a (large) PDF

Very brief entry tonight.  I put together all the entries including the one in which I introduced the idea of the spirituality of Advent, the 25 entries, and teh epilogue.  I edited a bit.  I added some pictures--some I'd taken and others I borrowed from the web with citations.  If you have read everything in my blog in the past month, you might still want to read this to see the whole thing together.  If you haven't read the blog entries in the past month, then it will be interesting to see how I have put together a series of thoughts about the Spirituality of Advent.  It went in directions that I never would have anticiapted.  But that is what keeps life (and writing about it) interesting.

Here is the link.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Epilogue to the Spirituality of Advent: Complementarity

I have been working on putting together the set of 26 blog entries that I wrote regarding the Spirituality of Advent into a connected sequence.  Ther ordering is obvious--the one that set the framework, the 24 written on days of Advent, and the one written on Christmas Day.  What is interesting is the search for themes.  

When I began, I sort of thought it would be a piece of cake to write about themes of hope, preparation, joy, and love for 24 days.  What could be easier?  There are many things each day that make me think about these themes.

What I could not have predicted when I began was playing bass at a funeral, finding a little time to pick up the mandolin again, finding Emmet Otter on a site where I could play the entire special from start to finish online for free, multiple interesting exchanges with a fellow runner/blogger, an especially good race, and a 10 day period during which I would see almost a performance a day on the evenings I was in Baltimore.  

What I could not have predicted is that despite being incredibly happy with where I am in life, satisfied that I am pretty well off, and still recognizing that I could improve myself and how I interact with others, and despite being really high on Maslow's triangle, I am still truly searching.  Not searching for something bigger--I am comfortable with the notion that there is something bigger out there.  But searching for the meaning of whatever it is that is bigger and searching for ways to allow it to guide me to a better life.

So, since I have reflected on the Prayer of St. Francis and I have put it in writing that I want  Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 read at my funeral some day and I have written about contrasts before, I will close this set of writings about the Spirituality of Advent with a set of reflections that I will refer to as complementarities rather than contrasts.  I think that what I will offer is a set of things that go together--each having it's time--rather than things that have to be one or the other.  And since I have also written recently about the Beatitudes, I will make eight complementary "there is a time for" statements.

Everything in my search for self-actualization and deeper meaning has its time:
There is a time for seeking that something bigger in the universe,
   and a time for appreciating every little detail of life that goes 
   right on a daily basis;
There is a time for being the biggest help I can be to those around
   and a time for realizing that ultimately I play only a small role
   in helping a person or changing a person's life;
There is a time for feeling that things like crossing finish lines
   are big accomplishments,
   and a time for realizing that each moment in life--and even each
   marathon--is but a speck of dust relative to the whole of life;
There is a time for seeking to express myself and all that is unique
   about me,
   and a time for conformity and doing things just because that is
   best and I should trust those around me who have done things
   before and not ask questions.
There is a time for drawing attention;
   and a time for realizing that I am but a speck in humanity and
   that humanity is but a speck in the universe and my role is to be
   the best I can be but that I will not change the world in a
There is a time for running,
   and a time to realize that running is only one part of my life and
   that many other parts deserve and require attention to keep the
   whole of my life functioning well;
There is a time for seeking to make new connections with
   interesting people,
   and a time to carefully nurture the many connections with
   incredible people I have already; 
There is a time for pondering the meaning of life,
   and a time for acting on the meaning I have found.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Exercise in Patience

Today's treadmill workout was an exercise in patience as much as it was an exercise of my muscles or cardio system.  I got on the treadmill for a one hour workout.  I ran at 7.5 or 7.6 miles per hour the whole time.  And I reached 7.5 miles (the intended distance with a constant 8 minute mile) with one second to go.  That was because I wanted to make sure I reached the distance.  Part of the flick up to 7.6 miles per hour every once in a while was to make sure I reached my distance before the time was up (1 hour is the default workout) and part of the flick up to 7.6 miles per hour every once in a while was because every treadmill takes time to get to up to speed.  So I always have to do a little adjusting to make sure I reach my intended distance at the intended time.

In any case, running for that long on a treadmill at essentially the same pace is an exercise in patience.  I am tempted to run faster.  I have to resist the temptation to do so, however.  If I do, I open myself up more to injury.  Not that I have had any serious injury in quite some time, but why risk it.

I usually do math.  How many minutes?  How many seconds?  How many gone?  How many left?  What percentage?  When will I hit the next milestone? I even took to counting steps today and found that in a minute I take about 160 steps so that a one hour workout will be a total of about 9,600 steps.  That is pretty amazing.

At the end of one hour today, here is how I looked.  You can't really tell how sweaty my leg is, but trust me, after an hour in a relatively warm fitness room, there were drops of sweat all over the treadmill.  And then, I bundled up with a dry t-shirt, that good old 1985 Upper Darby Cross Country sweatshirt, and the Heather Hurd 5K headband.  It was a morning of things past and things future as the tattoo is significant of both, the sweatshirt and headband are past, the shirt I wore for the workout was also past (from a former student in Ireland).  But, when I run, I run forward and that is always looking into the future.  I know how many miles I have run this year: 1832 in 256 days of running.  Assuming I run each of the remaining days on vacation that will be 260 days of running for the year (essentially 5 days per week) with each run being on average a bit over 7 miles.  That is a lot of time spent running.  I'll have to see whether I can do the same next year or not.  But I hope to continue to set and meet new goals--fitness and otherwise, so I am certainly doing to try.

There are many goals. I have talked about new year's resolutions on a FB note or my blog each year for the past 3 or 4 and I will reflect again this year in a few days.

But one thing that came to mind yesterday that I found I have been returning to multiple times lately is the prayer of St. Francis.  A friend and fellow runner/blogger put up a post yesterday that said "Better to be the one who smiled than the one who didn't smile back." It made me think of the prayer of St Francis.  It has lines like let me seek to console more than to be consoled.  Let me see to understand more than to be understood.  So, I figured a person could add "Let me see to smile at others more than to be smiled at."  

That is really a good plan for life.  Give.  Give.  Give  And when the time comes for you to need to ask others to give back if you have given consistently, there will almost always be people there.  People who can give back in ways that I may never have imagined.  People who are more than willing to give back because of all that I gave along the way.

There is a refrain--the more you put into life, the more you get out of it.  I certainly felt that this year.  There were numerous friends who had job issues, marriage issues, business issues, or running issues.  I was there for them as I could be.  And when there were times I needed to tap into other people's wisdom and kindness, I was able to do so.

I smiled and got smiled back at.

I understood and was understood.

I consoled and was consoled.

Numerous friends have talked about simply surrounding oneself with good people.  The rest will take care of itself.  While it is not always exactly that simple, it goes a long way.

Coming back to where I started with an exercise in patience--the relationships that one must build to live life surrounded by others who share values and who share goals and who are "good" do not always come in a day or overnight.  Sometimes they require weeks, months, or years of development.  But with investment, patience, and an awareness of how special the outcome can be (of a well built friendship or of well build fitness) the ultimate goal and ultimate answer will be strong and amazing. 

But while

I was running, in addition to showing patience and resisting the urge to go faster, I was ponder  

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Spirituality of Advent, Christmas Day

So, it is 1 AM Christmas morning.  All the presents are under the tree.  99% of the dishes from Christmas Eve dinner have either been washed by hand or are in the dishwasher which is running as I write.  Dinner was a hit with all members of my family and with Kelsey.  We had Kelsey over the for afternoon during which she and Christopher walked the dog before we took the dog to the kennel and they got a great picture, she prepped for the music for mass with Christopher, she played Life with Daniel, and she then played flute at mass before enjoying dinner and gift exchange with us.

After dinner (quicker on Christmas Eve this year than most in the past) I took Joshua to an Anglican church where he was part of the choir that sang at a 10 PM mass including some carols before and the mass ended at around 11:30.  Since I had to drive home, I have not been able to shut down my mind.

So, since I have an interesting set of take away messages from the Catholic and Anglican services I attended yesterday, I figured I would just write.  Then get more sleep tomorrow.

In any case, the one common theme in both masses (particularly the homilies in each)--connection.

So, first let me talk about what I heard from Father Ray Chase at St Pius X at the 6 PM mass.  Father Ray first commented in his homily on how we still have all the trappings and activities that are associated with Christmas but we don't use the term Christmas so much. It is just "holiday this and that" rather than "Christmas this and that".  This, as he put it, suggests a lack of connection to anything with real meaning behind it, in other words, no connection to the "reason for the season".  

So, he suggested that he called the parable of the string after pulling a string from his wallet.  In his interpretation, Jesus is like a string.  He connects people--or ties them together.  He had more to say than the short synopsis I will give but he basically drew a line from overcoming a lack of connection to understanding to an outpouring of love to the world being a better place.  To me this relates to being a part of something bigger.  That is what leads to connection.  And when that happens, we connect with spirituality.  And when that happens, we can move behind many types of hard feelings as we are all on a path to being joined together.  He even commented that feeling connected and loved was a pretty basic human need and emotion.  Nothing at all religious about that.  A simple statement of a human need to feel fulfillment.  Without it, life is not the same.  With it, we can overcome many things.  

Father Ray also commented on how disconnected some of us are from ourselves.  In other words not feeling good about ourselves.  And he noted that feeling connected to Christ can help us to feel better about ourselves.  Thus, the importance of connection to God and connection to each other through our faith community.

Thinking back over the past month, I thought about connections to family, parish, music, and running.  Family these days starts with Sherry, includes our sons (of course), and includes Kelsey in many ways.  Particularly when we are lucky enough to have her come with us to a church experience.

Then, after the mass at our parish and dinner, I took Joshua to sing at an Anglican church. Just two days ago I was not completely pleased with having to go to Lessons and Carols a second time in a weekend.  But it turned out to be an incredible experience to see it a second time.  So, today, someone had to be responsible for taking Kelsey home and someone had to take Joshua.  While we originally thought of Sherry taking Joshua I ended up doing that.  

I especially enjoyed hearing him sing a solo verse of Once in Royal David's City that he had not sung at the Lessons and Carols celebration.  That was a real treat to hear my son sing that.  

Then, the service itself was very similar (but not identical) to the Catholic mass including a Gloria arranged by David Haas.  

Then, we got to the message after the gospel reading.  The Reverend David Drake made a really interesting point.  He mentioned that for the shepherds in the field who were told by the angels of the birth of a savior that the angels would have been a real surprise but the idea of having an unblemished child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger would actually not have been a foreign concept to them.  That was interesting.  His logic was that these were shepherds who would have been caring for the sheep who would be used as the Passover sacrifice.  These had to be unblemished lambs.  How do shepherds keep lambs unblemished when they are born?  By wrapping them in swaddling cloths and putting them in a manger.  Thus, this was a sign of what type of savior had been sent.

The Reverend was pointing out that God had found a way to communicate with the shepherds in a way that they would understand.   (Being in a business school now I thought of it as a study in marketing...)

The key was connection.

So, there are things about being connected to people and God connecting to people in ways they understand that provide good lessons for me.

In running (where all this blogging began), it means figuring out what matters to my fellow runners, being part of the running community, and then building relationships with my fellow runners from there.  It can be something as little as just deciding on a given Tuesday to run at the speed of others on the track just to help them or just carrying on a conversation for the better part of a 2 hour run.

For family--the most important source of connections--it means knowing what matters to my family and building on things that matter to both me and my family members to help us all move forward.

For teaching religious education, it is engaging in connection with parents of the children in my class  in a way that I have started to this year but never did before.  

But the key throughout is connection.  Connection to others.  Connection to God.  Connection to the other parts of the Holy Trinity.  And a realization that without the connections life is so much less.  And a realization of all that the connections can bring.  Connections to something bigger.  Something perfect.  Something that makes life more fulfilling and opens the doors to a spiritual life that are not open when one does not seek and take part in connections.  

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Spirituality of Advent, Day 3, Week 4

The final day of Advent.  The third day that I comment on the theme of Love.  Christmas Eve and I am up early to run a track workout.

Today, I think I will talk about my children.  

They were part of the focus in the week of hope.  Hope for their future.  Hope for a positive future regardless of whether I am here or something happens to me as something happened to the gentleman whose memorial mass I played at in early December.  

I thought of them in the week of preparation. So much I prepare for.  So much they prepare for.  So much to help them prepare for.

I thought of them in the week of joy.  The do so much to bring me joy (and sometimes to bring me grief).  They are examples for others--usually in a good way.  They show how much Sherry and I have done to influence their lives.

And I think of them in the week of love.  Love for three sons that Sherry and I brought into the world together.  Love for seeing the awesome things they do most of the time.  Love for teaching them responsibility and accountability.  Love for having them around.  Love for doing things with them.

A great example was, is, and will be the preparation for Christmas Eve.  Yesterday evening, I took my son Joshua with me to the stores at Mt Washington at Whole Foods. We first went to the wine store there.  After looking for just a moment myself, I spoke to one of the two gentlemen working there.  I told me I needed a white to cook with Chilean Sea Bass and then to drink afterwards.  I also told him that Sherry prefers sweet.  He gave me a gewurztraminer that I very much look forward to trying tonight.  It will be great to have it with the fish (bought at Whole Foods), some lemon juice, and dill.  Joshua learns about cooking with wine--that is sharing--that is love.

Then we stopped at Starbucks and used up a gift card I had gotten from a Sunday School student.  He got a salted caramel latte.  Sharing the experience of Starbucks.  That is love.

Then we shopped at Whole Foods.  Joshua had taken care of calling them in advance to make certain they had the sea bass still in stock for the day.  They did.  We had a very nice shopping trip together.  Sharing.  Talking.  Teaching.  Learning.  Love.

Finally, we met another mother and daughter from the school Joshua goes to on the way out of the store.  We didn't get too close as they were both admittedly not feeling well.  But we had a great conversation about many of the things that this mother and daughter and our family do for Christmas.  Sharing.  Love.  

Then, we came home.  Joshua helped some with dishes by his choice after I scolded his younger brother for having failed to complete tasks while we were out.  That is love.

Then, I kept Sherry company while she made the dough for the poppy seed and nuts rolls we will have with dinner tonight.  That is love.

While keeping her company, I read my 17 year old's college essays (three more).  That is love.

Then, I warmed some German spiced wine for Sherry and I.  That is love.

This morning I woke up and am planning to run a track workout.  Love of the sport.  Caring for my friends.

The rest of the day afterwards will be a day of cleaning and preparation of our dinner that will include split pea soup with sauerkraut (how many words have the letter sequence "rkr"),  semolina bread, cranberrry sauce, and sea bass, then both cheese and prune pierogies, and finally the rolls.  All with our entire family and Kelsey--who has become like a member of our family after 2 1/2 years with Christopher.  That is love.

That will be after Christopher, Kelsey, and I play keyboard, flute, and bass at our church's Christmas Eve mass.

Love is so many ways.  I remember learning of four types of love in a lesson in school.  Between my wife, my kids, and the friends we support that is three.  And the fourth is agape or spiritual love whih is what my reflections during Advent have been about.  All crammed into 24 hours.  The last 24 hour before the celebration of how God's love for humanity was born on earth. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Spirituality of Advent, Day 2, Week 4

So yet another perspective on spirituality and love at the time of Advent. Today, the reading in church was what the priest described as the annunciation for Joseph. There is the standard “annunciation” to Mary that we celebrate in the Catholic church. What the priest pointed out was that today’s reading, where the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph to tell him not to divorce Mary and to marry her and accept the child to whom Mary will give birth. This was the first mass at which I recall a priest pointing out that before the dream, Joseph would have gone from a guy who was excited to be getting married to suddenly thinking that his wife-to-be had cheated on him. On top of that, the normal penalty for adultery was to be stoned. That put the “Joseph was a just man” in a completely new light. Just divorcing her (his plan before the angel appeared to him) would have been a gift. Love. Part of something bigger even before the angel appeared to him.

I heard the story three times this weekend. First, at the Lessons & Carols celebration on Saturday evening. Then at mass this morning with the wonderful interpretation of Fr. Ray Chase. Finally, again at the Lessons and Carols this afternoon. And, much to my surprise, I did a much better job paying attention during the afternoon/evening Lessons and Carols celebration.

I mentioned yesterday that God sending the Son is a manifestation of Love for humanity and shows “something bigger.” The story of the “annunciation” to Joseph put him in something bigger. Taking in Lessons and Carols is something bigger. Hearing my son read the first lesson about God finding Adam and Eve naked in the garden the first time they recognized that they were naked before God is a part of something bigger. Hearing him read it with a sense of surety, purpose, enunciation, and decisiveness was a wonderful gift. I almost chose not to go see Lessons and Carols a second time, but it was wonderful seeing it a second time and seeing him read in a way that rivaled the purpose and the clarity of many of the adult readers.

Fr. Ray in his homily talked about how the annunciation to Joseph was representative of an annunciation to each of us. That really hit home. A reminder of God showing his love not just for Mary through the annunciation to her, not just to Joseph through what was essentially an annunciation to him, but to each of us. God’s love for each of us. God’s desire to save people from their sins. To save Joseph. To save each of us. Emmanuel means God is with us. God is with each one of us. More love. More “bigger picture”.

And one other thing that I thought about today was during the song “In the Bleak Midwinter”. This song always connects with me as when my kids were much younger, I sang in the community choir for the Festival of Light at the school. I wrote about the Festival of Light previously as I shared my version of the interpretation of the Advent Wreath this year. This year there was no community choir. That is unfortunate, but it is just a sign of the times and how busy people are. Regardless, I don’t think I have heard “In the Bleak Midwinter” at a Waldorf Festival of Light in a while. Although I believe they sing it most, if not all, years at the Lessons and Carols for boychoir.

Today, thinking about the “bigger picture” and the annunciation, and love, I thought about the last line.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
How do I read this? I read this with the following meaning.

I am not “poor” in a purely financial sense. In a purely financial sense I am lucky enough to be at a high level of income and have a lot saved for retirement even at age 43. But we have a small house. And I have so little to give when it comes to time. So, I don’t feel like I have a lot to give. And I recognize that in the sense of the Beatitudes, I am poor in spirit.

With the statement, “If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb,” I think of the things I can do being a function of the things I do well. What do I do well? I share my story. That seems to touch some people. I run. And I offer my running to God. I bake and cook and I offer those to God. I try to be there for friends and family. And I offer that to God. I offer what I have.

The line about “If I were a wise man, I would do my part” is just a reiteration of giving what you have.

And the final phrase, “Yet what I can I give him him?/I will give my heart.”  
This sums up the theme of love at the close of Advent. I give God all my love. I give others my love. I give it because it is what I have to give. Love can mean many different things in different contexts. But the key is that if I have nothing else to offer, I can offer caring, listening, adapting, adjusting, perceiving, and being there. 

That is a cool lesson to take from a combination of mass and two performances of Lessons and Carols. I give what I can when I can to whom I can. And it all comes down to love to be shown in many different ways. And the message comes from all that God has done and all that God shares with each of us about his plans for each of us and the relationship of his son with each of us.

(Final note—I’m agnostic as to whether God is male or female, but it is just simpler to use “his” to refer to something belonging to God than to try to split the difference here.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Spirituality of Advent, Day 1, Week 4

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent in the Christian churches.  We light the last candle.  All of the light that the world needs to see the way.  All of the light that the world needs to experience hope, preparation, joy, and love.  All of the light to bring joy to a season in which we have just passed the day with the least natural light during the year.

Today is also a very warm day.  Numerous apps suggested that the temperature was either 70 or 71 degrees Fahrenheit when I awakened this morning.  That is crazy.  That has little to do with the spirituality theme, but is just an interesting fact.    

Last night, I put the goal of 6-7 miles out there.  In the end, I slept a little longer (to try to be at full attention during the day today), I did a little work (my boss had made a request that I wanted to answer), and I had issues with my contact lens.  By the time all that was said and done, I had only 20 minutes to spare before needing to shower and get ready to take my 14 year old to a skating lesson.  So, I just went out and enjoyed 2.2 miles.  Enough to get my legs moving and to work out some of the stiffness form yesterday's run.

Why stiff yesterday?  I found myself working to keep up with my fellow trainer for the first time in a while yesterday.  And, the second half of the run was mostly up.  My training partner, as seems to almost always be the case, despite comments about the hills, just goes up them just the same.  I have long since overcome the feeling of being completely unable to keep up (as I did in the first summer we were in the same training group and I watched as she and a few others just took the hills at Loch Raven reservoir), but the effort yesterday was noticeable.  Probably because of the things I mentioned yesterday including a couple of weeks since I ran over 6 miles and because I had a crazy week.

So that does all this say about the fourth theme of the Advent wreath--love?  

A number of things.  Let's begin with the love of running.  Some might say that only keeping time for 2.2 miles suggests that I don't care so much about it.  Others might say that making sure that I got in the 2.2 rather than just blowing off today suggests a true love for the sport.  It is all a matter of persepctive.  And my perspective is always to look for the positive.  My positive for today and running was--it's better than doing nothing and I wouldn't have missed what is likely to be the last opportunity to run at a temperature like this for a while.

What else do I think about for love and advent?  Many of the songs at this time of year are clearly songs of joy.  Bright.  Happy.  Big sound.  It is easy and obvious to feel love when there is joy and happiness in the air and in the sounds of the music.  

But there are other songs that are songs of sorrow or at least songs that have a sad sound to them.  The mandolin and banjo are instruments that have a generally bright sound but that can be used to play minor chords in songs that are slow and that bring lots of emotion.  I think that the combination of things that are sorrowful but bring happiness is a manifestation of love.  I first thought of this when trying to pick out songs from Emmet Otter and thinking about minor chords on a bright instrument.  And thinking about traditional songs that give me happiness despite their sorrowful sound.   

If I think of love as caring.  If I think of love as "investing" myself in something.  If I think of love as "putting some skin in the game."  If I think of love as being willing to make changes and adaptations and adjustments for someone or something.  Then those are all things that can sometimes bring sorrow but after which I am ultimately happy or feel serene.  And that is a manifestation of love.

In Christian tradition, God sending a Son to later die for forgiveness of the sins of humans--love.

Making sure that I do not put myself first--that is love.

Do I ever put myself first?  Yes.

Do I do things that sometimes fail to put those closest to me first?  Unfortunately, yes.

But do I try to invest in being a part of something bigger and making that a guiding theme in my life?  Well, yes.  

And as I approach the end of this writing season, I am finding that the biggest thing that I have gotten out of this series of blog entries is a sense of recognizing the "bigger" in ways that are more explicit and more clear than I have ever done before.  Ways that connect me to the bigger.  Ways that make me think about the bigger.

I've had to state what the meaning of the Advent wreat is.  Not just in a blog but in front of people at my kids' school.

I have led children in song.

I have run a race I never ran before.

I have returned to music--but making careful notes not to get too involved right now as there are so many other things to do.

I have recognized the many communities I am a part of.

And I return, as always, to the one thing that is bigger than me but closest to me--the importance of family.  

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Spirituality of Advent, Day 7, Week 3

Today was my first 14 mile run since mid-September.  And in the course of this amazingly warm day (a high in the upper 60's or even 70 in Baltimore on the winter solstice), I was in touch with so many things that bring joy and that help me to see what I am just a part of that is so much bigger than me.

We can begin with before my run.  I didn't leave until about 6:30 and interacted with both one child and Sherry before the run.  Family is a big part of who I am.  I am not always perfect at being a good family member.  Not the perfect Dad or son or husband or brother by any means.  But I try to always remember the importance of family and I try to make sure that my family members know I care.  I don't always have the opportunity to interact with family before I run in the morning, so it was a great way to start the day.

And if we go back one step further, I walked the dog before I ran.  In fact, I took our dog China for all three walks today.  That is a reflection of a close relationship that I would never ever want to lose.  But it is one that takes time--just like any other relationship.  And being a part of God's kingdom in which we were called on to be stewards for the earth.  This is something much bigger than me--clearly.  

Then, I met a friend to run 14 miles.  We met at the Maryland Zoo.  She had missed a turn to get to the zoo parking lot, so she called and thanks to cell phones in general, my familiarity with the city, and smart phones, I got her safely to meet up with me to run.  I have been running with this friend when we are both healthy for 3 years.  We have been there to support each other through running and personal ups and downs.  Friendship is something bigger than me.  It has to be.  It requires at least two people--except for when I had an imaginary friend named "Adam 12 Roger" as a kid.  (I failed to realize that the on the TV show, the copy was saying "Roger" as in turning the conversation over, not as part of a name...)  

The run, being my first 14 mile run since mid-September, being my first run of more than 10K in two weeks, being my first run after three days off, and being my at a sub-8 pace overall, was challenging.  And I should have had water with me given how warm it was.  I'll make sure next time.  My friend offered gatorade, but I stuck it out.

We ran from the zoo to the other side of Druid Hill Park.  As we passed the lake, we could see the sun rising over the lake.  This is always a beautiful sight.  Then we went past the Stieff Silver building.  We turned south on Sisson and ran past the city's recycling center.  Then, we passed the Mill Valley General Store at which I get bulk flours, dried fruits, and today (long after the run) nutmeg.  I pointed it out to my running partner.  Maybe she'll check it out sometime.  

We proceeded across 28th street past streets like Hampden, Huntington, and Remington on our way to Charles.  On the way to Charles, it is a pretty gritty section of town.   

Then, we took the long trot down Charles.  First, working our way through the numbered streets.  Some residential.  Many businesses and offices with few open at that early hour.  Then, across North avenue and approaching Penn Station.  As we passed the infamous Man-Woman Statue, my friend commented that her kids call it the Mama statue because that is just what one of them called it when he was two.  Continuing along Charles past Peabody (where I'd seen two concerts last weekend and where I have become a little part of the community that my son is integrally involved in), and to the area south of Mt Vernon with many restaurants like David and Dad's (good for breakfast).  

Finally, I was going to turn on Fayette but instead went down to Baltimore Street and we ran from Charles to President on Baltimore.  That took us past "The Block" in Baltimore which is not a place I typically run.  But it was harmless at 7:30 in the morning.

Along the way to this point (and then later as well), I saw at least a dozen Back on My Feet runners.  Another community that I am a part of.  

We went down President to Lombard and took Lombard (occasionally gritty) all the way over to Patterson Park Avenue.  There, we turned south.  As I ran along, I could see some sights at the port and the beautiful Ukrainian church on Eastern Avenue.  Things that give a real sense of what Baltimore has to offer.  And really making it clear how much of the city this 14 mile run took in.

Then, we turned north on Linwood and passed the ice rink in Patterson Park.  Many people don't even know there is an ice rink there.  The ice hockey community is another one I am a part of.

Then, we turned back West on Baltimore Street and ran over to Central then up to Fayette, and across to Fallsway.  I suppose you could say we began the climb when we hit the southeast corner of Patterson Park and headed back toward the start.  But at Fallsway the climb really began. While running along Baltimore Street, someone looked out of a car window and yelled my name.  That person, I did not recognize but it was another sign of just how much I am a part of the Baltimore community.

We went along Fallsway, across Mt Royal, and up St Paul.  On St. Paul we passed North Ave and the Lovely Lane church where I briefly took African drumming lessons years ago (another interesting community to have been a part of), and Terra Cafe at 25th and St Paul (where Christopher plays occasionally). Then, we proceeded up to 29th, across past the Wyman Park Dell, around the edge of the JHU campus, and back to where we started.

When we ended at the zoo there were many families getting ready to enter the zoo--another cool thing for families to do to understand how they are part of the bigger world and to enjoy together.

Later in the day I took my eight year old to the Mill Valley General Store.  We bought atrisan and semolina flour, two types of dried fruit, and some egg nog and chocolate milk.  That was a fun trip. I love spending time shopping with Daniel and he was extremely helpful getting the bulk goods.  I talked with the owner about the flours and mentioned that I'd recommended the store.  She appreciated the recommendation and had some insights about the flour.  

Then, I started the pizza that my family would eventually enjoy for dinner.  Went to the other grocery store but by myself.  Took a slight nap.  Made and served dinner.  

Then, I took my 14 year old to pick up one of his fellow boychoir members and the boy's older sister.  We had a good conversation on the way to boychoir.  This is another community I have become part of.

Then, I came home to pick up the rest of my family to proceed to see the Lessons and Carols concert. Nine biblical lessons, carols after each.  Plus one at the start and finish for good measure.  I was particularly moved by Marco Merrick's deliberate reading of the story of the wise men.  Being a part of the MSB community and those who love to listen to the boys and those who spend time thinking about the meanings of their concerts is pretty cool.

So, I guess I could say that in so many ways--running, family, friendship, Back on My Feet, ice hockey, MSB, shoppers at Mill Valley, etc.--today was about recognizing community.  There is joy in community.  And the opportunities to be part of a community are all around me.  Moving ahead, I may need to prioritize participation in some communities over others.  But the joy is there to engage in if I want to make the time.  

Tomorrow, I engage another community--church.  

It is all good.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Spirituality of Advent, Day 6, Week 3

I had my third day in a row without running.  I can't say when the last time was that I had two weeks in a row like that, but there are things that just have to take priority right now.  But I will run the next four and then take Christmas Day off so all will be well.  And I hope to get nearly 40 in those 4 days.

In any case, I haven't had a whole lot of time to think about running and spirituality as a result.

So, where does that leave my thinking?  Well, it leaves (or sends) hy thinking in a couple of directions.

First, I do know that tomorrow morning will be a chance to catch up with the person I train with for the first time in two weeks and she has had some stresses.  It is always nice to run with a friend and get stressful stuff off your mind.  Running is much cheaper than therapy and fits into the larger picture of an integrated healthful life.

Second, I wanted to make a long overdue comment about the Peabody Youth Wind Orchestra playing selections from Les Mis.  I still get chills up my spine when I hear I Dreamed a Dream and On My Own.  No exception last weekend.  Learning the music.  Appreciating the story.  Feeling what the music can mean all tap into something that goes beyond simple logic.

Third, I made it to see my third grader play the xylophone today in his class's performance of the nativity play in Spanish. It was so cool and he was so excited.  He is finally realizing that his actions fit into something bigger and lay the groundwork for bigger things in his own life.

Fourth, Sherry and I enjoyed an evening downtown with two of our three boys at a German Christmas Village.  While it was not very German it was a lot of fun.  And despite the fact that we had an invitation to a party this evening, the time spent as family was more important.  I had spent so little time with my family earlier this week with the crazy travel schedule I had.  

So, today is just a recounting of a lot of little things.  But each little thing is important in leading to a balanced spiritual life.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Spirituality of Advent, Day 5, Week 3

Just last night I commented on what it takes to teach kids that they are part of something bigger in my frustration about my kids not doing the dishes.

Tonight, I will comment on a positive aspect of spirituality and joy that I have seen in my eight year old.  Tomorrow is the holiday assembly at his school.  We rarely get told much about what he will be doing at a school assembly.  Usually he doesn't care.  

But yesterday he told me proudly about the part he would be playing on the xylophone while his class sings a song in Spanish.  It is wonderful to see him find joy in something at school.  Something where he has a role to play.  I wonder as he still focuses on his part being the "hardest" but at least he realizes that he is a part.  It is not just about him.  And the entire class's performance will just not be the same if he doesn't do his part.  He even went running up to his room after his shower this evening taking something with notes on it and practicing the song.

Very cute.  And very reassuring that Sherry and I have done something right to teach even our eight year old that he has a part to play an he should make the best contribution he can by playing his role well.  And from my view of spirituality, a great insight for him that there is a "bigger" than himself.  

I can't wait to see him tomorrow.  And to get back to a little mandolin playing myself.  It is an instrument of joy with its very bright sound.  Whether I will ever be able to play that well enough to be a part of something other than my own amusement with that instrument remains to be seen.