Finding purpose during Advent

Advent is at hand. It is the season of anticipation as we draw an end to another tumultuous year on planet Earth.

I find that both ironic and a touch melancholy. As we approach the winter solstice, a celebratory light should brighten the darkness. Yet, for too many, the light is dim or nonexistent. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Our western world is aglow and abuzz with glitzy television commercials, flashing, and sometimes gaudy light displays in keeping the season. But of what honor is gaudiness when so many among us are sad, tired, distraught, hungry, homeless, and helpless?

Enter Advent. It is the antithesis of the holiday commercialization that pounds our senses in nearly every aspect that the marketing Mad Men conspire to throw at us. We lust for gold, frankincense, and myrrh 21st-century style.

Perhaps we need an epiphany before Epiphany to set the holidays aright. We seem to have turned the once admired axiom, “It’s better to give than to receive” on its head. We need to right the ship before we sink.

Though an exclusive Christian tradition, Advent is an inclusive, active, intentional, iconic time for all. Advent is as much an action as it is a prelude to Christmas. In truth, Advent’s meaning far preceded any contemporary applications.

More than a preparation for “God is with us,” some biblical scholars believe that Advent was 40 days of fasting leading up to Epiphany. That shines a new perspective on an ancient holy day.

I apologize for the sermonette. I hope that with these few words, others will also catch Advent’s meaning of watchfulness, alertness, love, peace, and service.

There is no room in the inn during Advent for greed, power, position, wealth, riches, avarice, and hate. Contemplation, meditation, prayer, thoughtfulness, charity, humility, and assistance to those in desperate need purposely fulfill the Advent message and meaning.

So what’s my point? Back in our former home, Holmes Co., Ohio, Share-A-Christmas was always an excellent first start on the eve of this holiday season. The annual community goodwill effort of providing for the needy set the stage for even more opportunity to personally be kind and generous.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the wealthiest country in the world can do a world of good more for those among us who are truly low in spirit. Slow down. Take time to notice who they are and where they are. Opportunities abound all around.

Once aware, be bold, and take the next step. Do so in some personal way that satisfies an immediate need for others. It’s really not that difficult.

When it comes to charity and generosity, spontaneity seasons the gifts. Practicality wraps them, makes them intimate.

Here are a few starter suggestions: Visit the sick. Send a note or card to those in nursing homes. Honor the widows and widowers with nothing more than your listening ears. Meet people where they are.

Though too humble to say so, my good wife set a perfect example for us last Christmastime. As we drove our vehicle toward a red light in downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia, on a cold and blustery night, we noticed a homeless woman holding a cardboard sign on the corner sidewalk.

I offered a bottle of water that I usually carry for such an occasion. When Neva saw that the young woman had no gloves, she instantly reacted. Without hesitation, my wife peeled off her own gloves, and I handed them to the woman.

Advent presented itself, and Neva responded. How can we likewise let our light shine in today’s darkness?


© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Happy Thanksgiving!

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What could be more appropriate than a photo of a roast turkey ready to be carved on Thanksgiving Day?

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

“Happy Thanksgiving” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Gratitude for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time set aside to recognize, remember, and celebrate our blessings. It is an official civil holiday with spiritual implications.

Many Americans will gather with family and friends around a table laden with roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, grandma’s stuffing, cranberry sauce, and homemade pumpkin pies. Think Norman Rockwell’s famous “Freedom from Want” painting. Only replace those famous, happy faces with those who will grace your own banquet.

Gathering for this glorious day is a blessing unto itself. We shouldn’t take that privilege for granted. Many don’t have that esteemed opportunity for a variety of reasons. Still, they celebrate, each in their own ways and traditions.

Some will fill their plates with the traditional carved turkey and all the trimmings, or perhaps a succulent ham. Others will choose a different course. Chinese carryout, homemade lasagna, or pork and sauerkraut are all viable options. It’s not the menu, but the meaning, the moment, and the memories we make that matters.

Thanksgiving meal with friends.

My heart swells when I recall all those long-ago Thanksgivings with our mother’s mother. Grandma’s three daughters, their spouses, and 17 grandchildren elbowed around a food-filled table to scrumptiously dine and enthusiastically express our appreciation for life itself.

At that point in our lives, none of the three families could claim to be wealthy. But clamoring around that long table with people we loved, and with those mouth-watering aromas wafting in the air, we were rich indeed.

With children in diapers to pimple-faced teens, it was a calamitous scene to be sure. The biggest fuss, if I recall correctly, was over who got to break the wishbone. We probably were all too young to comprehend the real reason and blessings being bestowed on us in those treasured moments.

As youngsters will do, we were too anxious to taste the turkey, enjoy the stuffing, and devour the pies. After that, it was a game of touch football, or we played hide and seek. Grass stains on blue jeans put a temporary damper on the festivities.

What sticks in my mind after all those years gone by is the joy of just being together. We were truly blessed but too young and excitable to know it. Now, I am sincerely grateful for those gatherings and those heart-warming memories.

We were only a decade or two removed from World War II. The Cold War was just heating up. We practiced air raid drills at school as often as fire drills. Thanksgiving Day was precious, and we gathered and played in honor of the day and despite the day’s disturbing news.

Though today’s headlines are just as conflicted and disconcerting, we seem to be living in a different world. Families are often too geographically scattered to celebrate together. They rely on technology to connect them, even if it is only for a few minutes of video conversation.

Others celebrate Thanksgiving in multiple gatherings, visiting one side of the family, and then going to the other. If that happens on the same day, please don’t bring out the scales.

I don’t mean to overstate the obvious. Given the frenzy of commercial clamor this time of year, let’s make sure gratitude is the centerpiece of each and every thanksgiving table regardless of what food is served.

It’s been my experience that when gratefulness prevails, more blessings will flow all around. If we all express our profound gratitude, Thanksgiving will be pretty tasty, no matter what’s on the menu.

Food, family, friends, gratitude. That’s a recipe that will guarantee a memorable Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving sunrise.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Red and Red

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I have lived long enough to know that photography is as much about timing as it is photographic skills. Had I not looked out the window at precisely the right time, I never would have seen this male northern cardinal feeding alongside this lone red maple leaf. The yellow of the scattered corn that attracted the bird served as a lovely, contrasting background for the shot.

“Red and Red” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

When the lost is found


During my morning devotions, I try to include a brief time of meditation. A recent theme focused on observing rather than reacting with anger, fear, or judgment to human interactions.

Little did I know then that before the day would end, I would personally apply that lesson.

The day was foggy in the Shenandoah Valley. Random openings in the haze allowed the morning sunshine to poke through. The Blue Ridge Mountains, however, were socked in. I wanted to go there for one last chance to capture the beauty of a Shenandoah fall.

With the hope that the sun would eventually burn off the overcast, I headed to Shenandoah National Park. By the time I arrived shortly after noontime, that is precisely what happened.

Driving along the park’s extolled Skyline Drive is a joy at any time of the year. It is an absolute privilege to experience the fantastic colors of the fall foliage.

 


The park burst with scarlet, red, yellow, orange, amber, russet, brown, and crimson. Each hue complemented the others. I drove in the fresh, moist mountain air with the moon roof open and the windows partially down, taking in the autumn’s sights, sounds, and pungent fragrances.

I made several stops to photograph the scenery and finally recognized my fatigue at Big Meadows, where I stopped for lunch. The combination of my emotional exhilaration and the numerous times of exiting and reentering my vehicle had tired me. It was a reminder that my leg still had healing to do.

I retraced my route. Fog still rolled up out of the hollows and dissipated before my eyes. I continued to pull into nearly every overlook to capture the gorgeous splendor.

At my last stop, I reached for my camera, but it wasn’t there. I quickly searched in the vehicle, but the camera was gone. I must have left it on a stone wall at the last overlook where I had paused for an afternoon snack.

 

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In the five-mile backtrack, my thoughts ticked off the options. It could still be there. Someone may have turned the camera in, or it was gone.

For most of my life, I have been my own worst critic. I berate myself when I err or let my emotions control my mood because of a negative situation. Not this time.

Remembering the morning’s meditation, I mentally weighed the consequences of my lapse of concentration by leaving the camera. I also accepted the situation without self-judgment.

Where I lost my camera.

I had captured dozens of photos of the incredible scenery. Now, they could be lost. I still had the day’s experience, however. That would be serenity enough, camera or no camera.

When I arrived at the overlook, the camera was nowhere to be found. I used my best option. I returned to the Big Meadows visitors’ center and reported my camera missing.

I headed south again, making a couple of more stops before I arrived at the Swift Run entrance station, where I access the park. I asked the ranger if anyone had turned in a camera. To my amazement, she said a young woman had given her a camera only 30 minutes ago. It was mine!

Of course, I was ecstatic to have the camera back, but not as delighted as I was with my self-control. No anger, no negative thoughts, no self-blame had arisen.

It had been a fulfilling day. A morning lesson, time in nature, a senior moment, a trustworthy person, and a personal watershed breakthrough brought deep contentment. I could not have been happier.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Recess at Mountain View School

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This Old Order Mennonite private school is aptly named. I happened to catch the students out at recess on a recent morning.

“Recess at Mountain View School” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

November: The contemplative month

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The fall election is over. Daylight Savings Time has come and gone, and so have most of this fall’s colorful leaves. It must be November.

We can thank the pelting rains and wicked winds of a raucous cold front for dislodging most of the leaves. We can thank Congress for the time change.

I never adjust well to this convoluted toying of time. I wake up early and am ready for bed before dark that Sunday afternoon.

When we lived in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country, I always chuckled at the various reactions to this contrived notion of messing with clocks to supposedly save energy. The Amish had that down to a science.

Some Amish complied with the change to stay connected with the rest of society. Others compromised and moved the time back a half an hour. Some never changed time in the first place.

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I miss that kind of contrariness. I haven’t checked with local buggy-driving Old Order Mennonite farmers here in Virginia to know if they mess with time in the same manner.

With the time changed and the leaves disappearing, our attention turns to Thanksgiving preparations. At least it should if we aren’t too distracted by all the Christmas gift-giving commercials already on television.

It can be for that very reason alone that I become contemplative in November. I think it’s the colder weather though. I do appreciate the cleaner, clearer air. Thanks to a couple of killing frosts, I can breathe again.

Then, too, the early darkness readies me for bed way before bedtime. These are the days of the earliest sunsets of the year until we get to the winter solstice.

I do appreciate the clear evening skies, too. I love to watch the moon creep across the darkened sky surrounded by sparkling jewels and winking planets.

The month of November ushers in the dormant season. By month’s end, the deciduous trees will be bare. We’ll see things in the landscape we had totally forgotten about, like houses we didn’t remember were there.

cropped-dsc_0555.jpgThe longer evenings give me time to reflect on the activities of the day. I do miss my fireplace, though. There is truly nothing like warming your backside sitting on the hearth in front of a roaring, crackling fire.

I used those evenings to think and reflect on our past, present, and future. With that, we recognize November’s other holiday, Veterans Day.

November is like recess at school. It’s the needed break between all of the action of October and December.

Soon Black Friday advertisements will blitz our mailboxes, newspapers, TV commercials, and annoying social media ads. Thanksgiving will be no more than a prelude to that glorious commercial day. Too bad there’s not an app to eliminate that.

As you might have surmised by now, I’m well into my contemplative shtick. I have a brain. I try to use it every now and then. November’s dark days seem like a good time to do that.

Come to think of it, whatever happened to Indian summer? With nine of the last 10 years the warmest on record globally, maybe the weather gods decided we don’t need it anymore. It’s just a thought.

Everything seems to slow down in November. From my point of view, that’s one of the eleventh month’s purposes. Let’s all take a little time to sit back, relax, talk with your spouse, listen to your children, play with your grandchildren, and be kind to one another.

Christmas is only a few weeks away.

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© Bruce Stambaugh 2019