Advent for the Churchless, Week 1: Hope

As my family moves the first week of December, we have found ourselves churchless for Advent. If you are in the same situation – whether it’s because you’ve been hurt by the church, or because you are in transition, or if you just haven’t found a good fit yet, you’re welcome here. And if you do go to church? Well, you’re welcome too. 

I always feel a little nostalgic when I hear “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

adventcandlesweek1 Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, it doesn’t make me “a little nostalgic.” It makes me want to sob uncontrollably. For as cheerful as the words are, the music sure doesn’t match it. The music calls to mind Hallmark movies with montages of families hanging scarce ornaments on a Charlie Brown tree, far from family and loved ones. The lyrics are hopeful, but the music is not.

Isn’t that how life is sometimes?

The hopeful and the discouraging get all muddled up, until it’s hard to see which is which. We see the smile on our child’s face… when we get the news of our layoff. We hear of a friend’s pregnancy… when another holiday passes with our own empty arms. We get that email from a friend we haven’t heard from in ages… when we still can’t bring ourselves to pick up the phone to call our siblings.

Riots in our country. Unaccompanied minors. ISIS. Unemployment. More bad news.

Where is the hope? What are we even hoping for?

I love the Christmas season, I really do. I went to the mall today and was actually taken aback by the lack of Christmas music. I need my holiday cheer! For every mournful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” there is another “Sleigh Ride” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” – and I love those songs!! I listen to Christmas music 24/7 (seriously, Pandora Chanticleer Christmas station is playing in my house all.night.long), I watch Christmas movies (ALL the Christmas movies!), I light my evergreen candle, and I admire lights when I drive down the road.

But I’ve realized that sometimes we like to rush into Christmas. I’m not talking about the decorations out at stores in October – I’m talking about our rush into feigned happiness. We sing along with Bing Crosby, we hang our wreaths, we go to an Ugly Sweater Party with friends… and we force a smile on our face as we fake our way through yet another season of silver bells.

But when we stop for a minute, there’s more to it, isn’t there? We blind ourselves with Black Friday sales and recipes from Pinterest, but deep down, we just don’t buy into it. We have this culture of pretending during the holidays, this culture of pretending that all is joyous – but really? A lot of times, it’s not.

Which brings me to my favorite part of the Christmas story – the whole story of redemption of humanity – is that this is not the end.

There is hope.

Advent brings the hope that whatever story your life wrote this past year, it’s not over yet.

We rejoice in the hope that Christmas is coming, that Jesus knows our pain, that Jesus suffered in all his humanity, that – though we might not see an earthly end to our pain, this is not the end of our story. Our stories – yours, and mine, and the person sitting next to you, and the person you haven’t talked to in years – our stories are still being written. And the story of humanity, the overarching theme that binds us all together, that is still being written – day by day, year by year, by you and me and the person sitting next to you and the person you haven’t talked to in years. The person you see in the headlines, the nameless and faceless who seem to count only as statistics. This is our story. And this is not the end.  

We have hope. Hope that it might not get better, but it could.

We all could use a healthy dose of hope this season, and that hope is contained in a tiny little baby in a manger. Because the good news about that baby? The good news is that he didn’t stay a baby forever. That baby grew to speak into unjust systems, to turn the status quo on its head, to reinterpret what it meant to live faithfully..  and because of that?

Hope arrives.

Thanksgiving, then and now.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was on TV this morning while I swept the living room in anticipation for our guests. There are few things that take me back to my childhood as much as the smell of turkey and the sound of the parade on TV.

I immediately thought of Grandma McCool. I have never met anyone as blessed with the gift of hospitality as Grandma. She welcomed strangers and family alike into her house, usually with a joke and an offer for snacks. It wasn’t uncommon when I was a kid to have people I had never met at our family Thanksgiving, though they always fell into the comfortable routine that was the McCool Thanksgiving.

Grandma had a way of doing that. Her house was always warm and inviting, regardless of the weather outside. And there were a few things we could plan on every Thanksgiving: Aunt Thelma’s noodles; the men congregating in the living room for football, the women congregating around the dining room table feeding the kids; Aunt Elaine’s cheeseball for afternoon snack; and for more food than we could have ever eaten in one meal.

My personal favorite part of Thanksgiving was Christmas Craft Time. Grandma’s love of family and food at Thanksgiving was eclipsed only by her love of Christmas, and that began as soon as the last plate was cleared from Thanksgiving lunch. She would plot all summer, surprising us on Thanksgiving Day with what craft she had planned. Often it required Grandpa to do some prep work, cutting candy cane shapes out of wood or cutting material to fit the frames of whatever project that year had in store. Even when we grandkids were older – nearly adults – we would roll our eyes when Grandma would say, “Craft time!!”… yet, we always found ourselves, gathering around the dining room table, smiling together as we glued and cut and painted.

So this morning, when Jon noticed some Thanksgiving craft supplies I had stocked away for this afternoon for the kids, my voice caught when I said, “Yes, I have lots of crafts ready for them.”

I am turning into Grandma McCool… and today, I’m thankful for that.

Thanksgiving at my house will never be what it was at hers, at least not for a few decades. Aside from the strangers welcomed in, her house was always full of family who loved each other deeply; my house is usually filled with friends who are in our Army family. This year, we’re literally mid-move; the moving truck is parked in our driveway and our house is decorated with empty walls and brown boxes. But the smell of turkey permeates the air, and our house soon will be filled with guests.

My hope is that, in twenty years when my kids think of what Thanksgiving was like in their childhood, they will remember more than turkey, more than the Macy parade, even more than crafts – that they will remember the friends who filled our house. My hope is that they’ll inherit their great-grandma’s hospitality, kindness, and warmth.

Grandma McCool passed away in 2010. Even on the holidays when Jonathan, the kids and I stay where the Army has placed us – not home with our family – her absence is still palpable.

I imagine, if Grandma were a guest in my house today, she would be wearing a turtleneck with an embroidered Thanksgiving sweatshirt over it. When I called to her, she would say, “Just a jiffy!”.. then she and I would “worsh” the dishes together. And after the clean-up was done, she would find her great-grandkids, say, “Craft time!” – and watch them with all her love while they glue and cut and paint.

Ransom was just a baby when she died; Lenora never met her. But they’ll know her, they’ll know all about her… because they’ll know that we celebrate Thanksgiving the way we do, because of Grandma McCool.

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

In memory of Oscar Romero (1917–1980)

A Future Not Our Own

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

Oscar A. Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, in El Salvador, was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in a small chapel in a cancer hospital where he lived. He had always been close to his people, preached a prophetic gospel, denouncing the injustice in his country and supporting the development of popular and mass organizations. He became the voice of the Salvadoran people when all other channels of expression had been crushed by the repression.

This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included it in a reflection titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.

White Privilege and Elementary Thanksgiving

Yesterday I was in the car with my kindergartner and my first grader, driving home from school. They were telling me about what they had learned in school about Native Americans, given the quickly-approaching Thanksgiving holiday.

Ransom, my kindergartner, made a passing comment about how there are no Native Americans around today. I said, “Well, that’s not true. There are Native Americans today. Most of the time they wear clothes like the ones we wear. Sometimes on the reservations they do dress in traditional ways.”

This led to a further conversation about reservations, Native Americans, white people, slavery, and the early days of our country. We talked about how we, as a country, have not always treated people nicely and made good decisions. We talked about how white people made Native Americans leave their land and claimed it as their own.

We pulled into the driveway, and as he was getting out of the car, Ransom said, “I sure am glad I’m… (pause)… not one of those guys… I’m glad I’m not a Native American. Or a slave.”

    He’s glad he’s white. Those are the words he was looking for and couldn’t find.

At first, it caught me off guard. This is the LAST thing I want my kids to think – that, somehow, being white is preferred over being a person of color.

And yet, the truth of that statement struck me as profound. He’s glad he’s white, because – at five years old – he recognizes the position of privilege he has and did nothing to earn.

And when we start to recognize the privilege that we have because of the color of our skin, we acknowledge the ramifications of that privilege on others.


We recognize that, when we don’t get pulled over because of the car we drive and the color of our skin, someone else is getting pulled over, because of the car they drive and the color of their skin.

We recognize that, though life isn’t necessarily easy, though there are always obstacles, there are more obstacles in the path of a person of color.

We recognize that we have an inherent trust in police officers and the government based on our experiences, but many people of color do not share those experiences.

We recognize that the system works for us, but the system doesn’t work for everyone.


I’m thankful that my five-year-old is glad he’s white, because that gives me hope that, as he gets older, he’ll continue to recognize his privilege and be an advocate, both by using his voice and – even more so – by listening to those with experiences different from his. Pretending every person has the same access to resources and opportunities accomplishes nothing but intensify the access of the privileged. If we continue to do this, today’s 5-year-olds of color will grow up in a world no more welcoming and equal than the world of their parents and grandparents.