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

A different approach to Easter

Maybe after all of these years, I’m finally getting the point of Easter.

The holiest of holy days in the Christian tradition, Easter’s resurrection coincides with spring’s rejuvenating renewal. That I always understood, even as a child.

Of course, as a youngster, that spiritual message became overshadowed by other Easter traditions. Hunting for our Easter baskets loaded with chocolaty treats and boiled eggs we had previously colored was a priority.

After all the baskets and colored eggs were found, we enjoyed a breakfast with hot crossed buns. That, too, was always an Easter treat obtained from the neighborhood bakery where our grandmother worked.

Buying an Easter lily for our loving mother was also deemed a must. Of course, we all gussied up in our Sunday best and headed off to church with scores of other baby boomer families.

My wife and I continued some of those traditions as we, too, had children of our own. Helen, our children’s adopted Killbuck, Ohio grandmother, often hosted us after church. I would hide the eggs outside while Helen and Neva prepared their typical delicious meal.

We have continued that tradition with our grandchildren, although that varies according to their busy schedules. We’ll hold our own egg and Easter basket hunt, all the while recording the unfolding events with my camera. Nana usually fixes a scrumptious dinner to complete the secular celebrating.

Church, of course, is still a central element in our Easter celebration. It has to be. Without Easter, there would be no church, as we now know it. Perhaps therein lies my senior moment with this holiday.

As much as I enjoy the candy and the children’s excitement, I can’t shake loose the days that led up to this most consecrated day. In retrospect, they occur in logical succession that actually creates Easter’s real significance.

Triumphant Palm Sunday followed by the solemnity of Maundy Thursday, and the stark realization of Good Friday mirror my own ambivalence of the season. I am too much aware of personal grieving, death of loved ones and friends, injuries and unexpected illnesses of innocent little ones, the bigoted injustices of society toward the least, the last, and the lost.

Altogether, it seems too much to tolerate, too much to absorb, too much to accept amid the social and global daily inequities by those in power who twist the truth to their advantage. Bullies become victims and victims made the bullies, no matter the facts.

I struggle to reconcile a glorious day like Easter with the reality of the daily dynamics of a troubled world, of people in pain and mourning.

It is then that I remember that is the way of the world and the very reason for Easter itself. Christians are to model that self-sacrifice in their daily lives, not take advantage of those who have less or nothing at all.

Easter isn’t only a holiday. For those who believe, renewal is to be a daily way of life. That is a tall measure to live up to, but it is the only measure that matters.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, body, and soul. And love your neighbor as yourself.” That is the greatest commandment to follow, and the hardest.

That precept, that lifestyle can only be achieved if we acknowledge our own imperfections, our Creator, and our responsibility to help others moment by moment, breath by breath.

That Easter hunt doesn’t come in colored eggs or decorated baskets. It must be resurrected daily, individually, unselfishly, and unconditionally. If not, there is no Easter morning.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

I don’t know how she does it

By Bruce Stambaugh

August is rapidly coming to a close. For our family, that means that Neva is in her comfort zone doing what she does best.

Neva loves to help others. It’s in her DNA. In the fall, our daughter’s busy family becomes the center of our attention. In part, that is why we moved to the Shenandoah Valley.

Carrie is the women’s volleyball coach at Eastern Mennonite University. Her personal and professional schedules are head-spinners. Practices and meeting with players consume Carrie’s time. Once the regular season starts soon, it gets to be grueling.

canning
Neva spends much of her time in the kitchen preparing meals, frozen sweet corn, and applesauce for others.
Of course, our daughter has a family to care for as well. That’s difficult to do, even with a helpful and talented husband. That’s where we come in, especially my wife.

Before our move from Ohio’s Amish country to the Commonwealth of Virginia, Harrisonburg became our temporary home in the fall. Neva lived there August into November. I shuttled back and forth during those months as work duties called.

Now that we are retired and live just five miles away, we can quickly assist our daughter and her family. When it comes to Neva, “assist” is an understatement.

My energetic wife puts all she has into helping our daughter’s home run as smoothly as possible. It’s a must do situation with three active grandchildren and both of their parents working full-time.

creativity,
Neva added a repurposed screen door to a flowerbed.
With Neva taking the lead, my wife and I gladly step in to do what we can. Me? I do whatever I’m asked or told to do. If you are a betting person, wager on the latter.

Of course, the grandkids and our son-in-law all do their part. We fill in the gaps when work and school schedules preclude household chores being completed.

When it comes to domestic skills, I can’t hold a candle to Neva though. She plans and prepares family meals. I set the table and clean up. Occasionally, Neva prepares food for the entire volleyball team. I’m the gopher. I go for this and go for that.

While Neva is cooking or cleaning or shopping, I might be running the oldest grandchild to the gym for workouts or picking up the middle grandkid from after-school activities or accompanying the youngest to her soccer practice.

See what I mean? All that coming and going keeps us active, energized, and helps us sleep well at night.

In addition to all of this activity, our son has taken a new job in a different state seven hours away from us. With Neva leading the way, we helped him ready for this significant transition in his life, too. We were glad to do what we could.

Why does Neva do all of this? It’s all she knows how to do. It’s how she loves. Her compassion manifests into tasty, nutritious meals, quality time spent sharing her gifts and wisdom with the grandkids, and a sense of security for our son, daughter, and son-in-law.

enjoying an evening
Every now and then, Neva takes a break.
I marvel at Neva’s determination, fortitude, skills, and drive to aid others. It’s definitely that time of year again, and we all reap the benefits of Neva’s generous gift of hospitality.

Our fall schedules are hectic to be sure. Neva and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To paraphrase the late Arthur Ashe, we do what we can with what we have right where we are. At our age, at any age really, that’s all that can be expected. In Neva’s case, she exceeds any and all expectations.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2018

Living beyond our own routines

granddog
Millie claimed my chair.
By Bruce Stambaugh

I sat on our screened-in back porch eating a light lunch with my wife and our granddog, Millie. Neva and I were dog sitting while our daughter and her family were away for the weekend. The dog duty was in the fine print of our moving contract.

As I nibbled at the delicious egg salad Neva had prepared, a mockingbird called from the crest of a roof three houses away. Not to be outdone, a northern cardinal sang its springtime repertoire from a neighbor’s lilac bush.

As I picked at my lunch offerings, I thought about a comment I had heard a couple of hours earlier. “It’s been a long week,” the man said. That caught my attention.

Anticipating a bit of bad news or perhaps a string of events that bore him negative consequences, he instead spoke far beyond himself and his own life experiences. He mentioned those in the world who lacked basic human needs, food, shelter, water, love. Every week is a long week for them.

I marveled at his keen sense of compassion, his devotion to looking and living outside his own situation, his own desires, his own problems no matter how big or small. Instead, his concern was for those in dire straits. His urging was to be observant, considerate, and helpful to those we meet in our daily comings and goings.

That hit home for me. Here we were, only a month in our new home, still trying to establish some semblance of a new routine in our new state.

Not surprisingly, Neva was ahead of me in that regard. She had already begun to volunteer once a week at a local thrift store doing what she loves. Helping others regardless of their station in life or their background or their creed is in her DNA. She had also already helped pack groceries at a local food pantry.

I’ve been slower to engage in such activities. After spending my entire adult life in the public eye one way or another, I wanted my new routine to be more personal, more private. I want my actions to continue to be purposeful, useful, and productive for others in this new life we have chosen for ourselves.

soccer
Granddaughter on the move.
Participating in the lives of our active grandchildren and their parents tops our lists. We’ve already begun to do that, Millie being Exhibit A.

My intentions are to cultivate the activities that I love besides my family of course. I’ll find some birding buddies. I’ll go hiking and biking. I have books to write and photographs to publish. But as the man mentioned, I needed to reach beyond myself, too.

I’ll have plenty of opportunities with three universities nearby, the community’s focus on arts, the multi-cultural demographics, and the rich historical and natural geographical features the Shenandoah Valley offers.

But as I sat on our porch with Neva and Millie, lazily eating, listening, pondering, I considered those in the world who have long weeks every week. I need to incorporate the lame, the lost, the least into my newly unfolding routine as well.

I’m not exactly sure how that will play out. I just want to step outside my comfort zone, my familiarities. It seems the right thing to do, especially given the horrors in today’s complex and interconnected world.

I’ll begin by meeting people right where they are. Spontaneous or planned, it must be done. Perhaps then their week and mine will feel a little shorter than their previous one.

When I saw this man setting up his flag for Memorial Day, I stopped and asked to take his photo. He gladly obliged.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

A different kind of March Madness

By Bruce Stambaugh

For the first time in our 45 years of marriage, our anniversary falls on Easter. I couldn’t be happier.

bride and groom
Wedding day.
To be honest, I have no idea why we set our wedding date for the end of March. We had to be crazy to marry at the height of high school and college basketball tournaments. I guess it was a different kind of March Madness.

Both our fathers were big sports fans. They watched baseball, football and basketball games on TV and listened to them on the radio, too, sometimes simultaneously. We wouldn’t have been surprised if Neva’s dad had walked her down the aisle with a transistor radio held to his ear. He didn’t of course.

There was another thing about our wedding date. Neva and I were both teachers. What kind of a honeymoon could we take in the middle of a school year? The answer was a very short one.

The years have flown by. Like all couples, we’ve had our ups and downs. Through thick or thin, one little gesture has helped keep us together. We hold hands a lot.

Our handholding started on our real honeymoon the summer after we were married. We ran a church camp located at 10,200 ft. on the eastern slope of Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Barr Camp, Pikes Peak
When we were young.
We cooked on a wood stove or over an open fire, drank water from an ice-cold mountain stream, and greeted mountain hikers who needed a rest stop. We met a lot of nice people that summer, plus a hungry black bear that came calling early one evening.

A lot of water has run down life’s stream since then. We are fortunate to have family, friends, neighbors and church members who lifted us up when we needed it the most. We have tried to return the favors whenever possible.

Serving and being served in and by the community has strengthened if not defined our marriage and our shared purpose. But it’s the everyday interactions with one another, with strangers and friends that have helped see us through.

No matter the situation, Neva and I automatically reach for each other’s hand. That purposefully keeps us together.

I have read Neva’s heart and mind simply by touch. Cold and firm or warm and gentle, good times or bad, we still cling to one another. It’s a constant reminder that neither of us is ever alone in any situation. I thrive in that reassurance.

I remember the joy of playing horse as our two youngsters rode on my back around the house until I collapsed. They long ago became responsible, productive adults with careers and lives of their own. Our three growing grandchildren are wonderful blessings to us now, too.

happy couple
The happy couple today.
We recently visited the pastor who married us. We thanked him for all that he did to prepare us for our wedding day and life beyond. Hand in hand, he set this young, naïve couple on a long, meandering, incredible journey together.

I’m hoping the Easter weather will be beautiful, as lovely as my bride. It’s been a while since I’ve called her that. It will be great to share this holy day with folks who have lifted us up all these years.

I’m overjoyed that Easter and our anniversary coincide this year. It’s the perfect day of hope and joy for us to celebrate our reckless, uncalculated love together.

In the evening, we’ll sit and watch basketball games on TV. I’m pretty confident we’ll be holding hands.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

August’s end means new beginnings

walk to school, Amish boys
Back to school. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

A Belted Kingfisher flew furiously over the fresh mown hay towards a neighbor’s pond. Breakfast was likely on its mind.

My farmer neighbor hitched his workhorses and teddered the hay to help it dry. The Barn Swallows, Tree Swallows, and Cliff Swallows circled the productive locomotion and devoured every insect the man, the machine and his faithful team dispersed.

A refreshing north wind eased the day’s early humidity. No need for a calendar. All signs pointed to August’s end.

A few trees had already begun to transition from their chlorophyll green to their disguised shades. Even before the berries on the dogwoods blushed bright red, the trees’ leaves curled and revealed hints of crimson and lavender.

blooming hydrangea
The hydrangea. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
My energetic wife had already deadheaded the once lovely hosta blooms that adorned the leafy plants in her luscious flower gardens. The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, hummingbird moths, and various butterflies, bees, and other pollinating insects had completed their instinctive work.

The hydrangea bush bloomed full and pure against the garden shed. It demanded daily watering in August’s heat and dryness.

Juvenile birds, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Song Sparrows and Blue Jays among them, found the feeders and the birdbaths on their own. Another aviary generation will forge into fall and winter without knowing what lies ahead as if any of us do.

American Goldfinch on sunflower
Eating fresh. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
The acrobatics of the American Goldfinches provided free entertainment as they worked over the volunteer sunflowers that sprouted from bird feeder droppings. Fresh food is not just a human preference.

The big yellow school buses began carting anxious and enthusiastic children alike to and from school. I waved to the drivers as they passed me on my walk.

People often ask me if I miss those days; if I don’t have some innate longing to return to my first career. The short answer is, “No, I don’t.”

I loved the children, whether teaching or being their principal. I greatly enjoyed the interactions of parents and staff members, even when we disagreed. I have no resentments or regrets. Neither do I have any wish to reenlist.

oat shocks
Straw soldiers. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
My life has moved on. I am the same person, just at a different place in my turn at life’s cycle. I have fond, fond memories of my teaching days and principal days. But now I have neither the desire nor energy to compete in today’s educational whirlwind too often driven by politics instead of common sense.

I would rather sit on my back porch, as I am now, taking in the world as each moment flashes by. I don’t want to miss anything. I want to rise each day to enjoy the sunrise and bid farewell to the evening light that dims all too soon.

fluffing hay, teddering hay
Teddering the hay. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Each day is an opportunity to live, to be alive, to help others, to listen, to look, to breath, to pray silently, to work diligently for peace in a troubled world. That is my challenge now.

August has come and gone, always too fast, always too hot and dry. August melds into September.

We can only embrace it, for there are marvelous days ahead. I’ll watch for them whether from my back porch or wherever I might be, knowing that too many in the world will not have the pastoral view or luxuriousness of trusting neighbors that like mine.

It’s my duty to share goodness and joy with others as my life, too, passes from August into September. Isn’t that the real responsibility of all of us at any age?

August, sunset, Holmes Co. OH
August sunset. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Lean into the wind in 2014

Damage left by an EF2 tornado that hit Wooster, Ohio on Sept. 16, 2010.
Damage left by an EF2 tornado that hit Wooster, Ohio on Sept. 16, 2010.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I never believed much in New Year’s resolutions. I prefer to view the big picture. Besides, by now, I may have already broken half my resolves.

This year, rather than aim to lose five pounds in a month, I want to lean into the wind. That should be easy for me. I’m known to be a little windy from time to time.

You can blame my young pastor for this idea. He’s young because he’s half my age. Pastor Patrick recently preached a sermon about making yourself available and vulnerable to lean into life’s daily situations, good and bad, the way you would brace yourself against a good gale.

bluebirdbybrucestambaughI liked that image a lot. I’ll share a few ways I plan to apply the concept. I want to challenge myself to embrace all that swirls around me, positive or negative, this year. We learn from either perspective.

Despite my loss of dexterity, I will lean into the wind and hold a child’s hand, steadying her wobbling stroll across a room. Though my hearing is diminished, I will listen attentively to what others have to say, even though I may vehemently disagree with their opinion or decision.

Though my eyesight is aided with bifocal glasses, I will look for the simplest pleasure nature has to offer. A breathtaking sunrise, a singular drop of water hanging perilously at the end a leaf, a brilliant wood warbler migrating north will all be part of my leaning into the wind.

doubletrunkbybrucestambaughEven though my cranky knees limit my mobility, I will do my absolute best to bend low to pick up trash thoughtlessly discarded by others. If someone else is leaning into the wind nearby, maybe they’ll help me back to my feet.

Leaning is an active verb, not passive. Life is a series of winds of various velocities that shift daily. We can only feel the wind. We measure it by the effects on everything the wind touches, whether it does so fiercely or persistently.

Regardless of the velocity, life’s winds affect us all. Leaning in enables us to practice gratitude and joy, the byproducts of vulnerability.

Life offers no guarantees. It is full of pitfalls and mistakes as well as abundant joy and beauty. I want to discard the rose-colored glasses, and recognize the good from the bad. I want to accept them for what they are, and lean into 2014 accordingly.

The blizzard winds of January will eventually subside. Before we know it, invigorating breezes of May, with their warm, sweet fragrances and life-giving rains, will arrive as a blessed balance for us all.

A friend of mine shared a picture of an old apple tree, trunk bent from age and time, some limbs broken and sagging. The caption beneath the old tree defined what I mean by leaning into the wind.

It read, “A little bent by time, shaped by the wind and the seasons, a few branches broken. Today I feel like that old apple tree. But I’m still reaching for the sky, and doing my best to take in what the world gives me and turn it into something good and useful.”

By leaning into the wind, I can anticipate enduring, absorbing and embracing all of the various breezes that life blows my way in 2014.

Who knows? I might even lose five pounds in a month.

brownongoldbybrucestambaugh

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014