According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we're about to enter the period of the church year called Advent.
Advent is the period of time which covers the four Sundays before Christmas. It's a time of preparation for the coming Savior, sometimes marked by prayer and fasting. In my church it is also a period of study and is one of the periods of activities specifically for families. It's a way of helping children understand that there is a spiritual aspect to the Christmas holiday as well as a chance to pile up a bunch of loot.
We were talking about the paradox of the Christmas season in Sunday school class. Some of my friends in our singles Sunday school class are parents, trying to co-parent with former spouses. They confessed that they often feel a competition with their children's other parents and family members, trying to come up with the most presents. They're often over-stressed by multiple commitments in a short period of time as well as the need to perform perfectly and stage a Martha Stewart-type presentation.
What's missing? Could it be that the Savior came as an infant so we'd be forced to listen carefully? Are we missing the quiet and time to listen to the Quiet Voice?
I have to confess that my Christmas holidays have never been a pleasant experience. In my childhood, Christmas was sometimes shared with cousins and grandparents in Missouri. I loved my time spent with cousins, but the gatherings always added another layer of criticism and punishments from my grandmother.
I was raised in an athiest household, so my only exposure to the spiritual aspects of Christmas came from my Aunt Dot and the time spent at the Christian Church of Camden Point, Mo. I remember being stunned to attend a Christmas eve gathering at the church. Santa was there and had presents for all the children. I figured since I didn't go to church I would just sit quietly until it was time to go home. But Santa called my name that night! He had a present for me!
This was the second time I had gotten a present at a gathering away from my house. When I was 6, there was a family Christmas party at Conoco in Ponca City, where my Dad worked. It was a pretty heartbreaking affair, I think especially for my mother. The children all received a mesh stocking filled with hard candy and an orange. Then there were boy gifts and girl gifts. My "gift" from the company was a three-inch-tall hard plastic doll that was broken to pieces when I unwrapped it. I was disappointed, but my poor Mom nearly started crying. My big gift that year was a pair of shoes -- she had stood me on the dining table on top of a piece of paper and had traced my feet so "Santa" would know for sure what size shoes to bring me.
So it's foreign to me to think about the abuse of children through overindulgence at Christmas. And indeed, that's what I consider over-gifting -- abuse. Excess creates greed and a sense of entitlement. It's also overwhelming for children to have so many things that they can't focus on or appreciate any one item.
Maybe it's because of my earlier experiences -- being thrilled by a simple gift in that tiny Christian church one Christmas -- but for me the gift of the holiday is found in quiet, listening to that tiny, quiet voice of the One who came to be the ultimate gift for us all.
Taking that time for quiet reflection can also open the door to Epiphany, the time that comes right after Christmas. Epiphany is, simply, that "Aha!" moment when you finally "get it." It's the lightbulb moment when one sees with greater clarity the lesson in a moment or an experience.
Though we're not to Epiphany, the season, I've been witness this week to people who are living what I call epiphanal lives. There has been something in their life such as an illness or a spiritual awareness that has caused them to turn their lives in new directions.
One is a woman in western Oklahoma who owned and ran a restaurant with her husband. A year ago, she started studying artwork and learning to paint with oils. About the same time, they moved into their dream home -- an extraordinary home sited over a creek with red rock bluffs. The roots of 100-year-old burr oaks on the facing bank are as entwined as the couple's love.
Just as the couple was moving into their new home, her mother died. And within four months, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and had a heart attack. A defibrilator was inserted in her chest to shock her heart back to life if it stops.
She told me her prognosis is not very good as she gave me a tour of her home. She showed me the great room which was actually built out over the creek, cantilevered above the bluff with glass walls on both sides. Then we moved to her art studio, just off the gourmet kitchen.
But the part of her home she was most excited to show me was her shower, in the master bath.
"Go on through the curtains," she urged me. I started to poke my head through the shower curtain just to take a peek when she planted a hand on my back and shoved me on through.
I found myself standing in a space roughly the size of a car wash, with three separate shower heads (one was a rain shower, another a waterfall, the third a massaging spray) and steam. I'd estimate the shower room was about 10 x 10 feet. We sat on the built-in bench which easily could seat four people.
I giggled at the absurdity of it all as she started up the steam and told me how she could add different aromatherapy oils to a little inlet. She talked about the parties they've held in the house and how, at times, she and her girlfriends would sneak off for a little steam and a few glasses of wine.
"We've had up to 12 people in here at a time," she said.
About that time we heard the male voices of those we had left in the great room, looking for us. There was her husband, the architect, an attorney and the photographer who was working with me. We hollered for them to join us, and pretty soon we were all chatting -- until we all stopped in the same instant, realizing we were in the shower, for gosh sake.
So then we moved to the patio and the outdoor fireplace, which she called the most sensuous part of the house. "You can feel the companionism of the fire," she said. I loved the way she expressed it.
Though she acknowledges her physical being may not last forever, she said she intends to make her remaining time one wild ride. She has devoted herself to her art and has every intention of being the best artist she can be.
I'd say she is well on her way. She had a show opening in 50 Penn Place the day we visited her home. Not bad for a novice who had never painted a year ago.
The next epiphanal life I encountered was the next night at a benefit concert in Kingfisher at the middle school. Two bands (made up mostly of the same people) were performing. The first set was the bluegrass band (The Bonham Revue). Incredible music played for a small crowd in the auditorium of the middle school. After an intermission with some reconfiguring, they reappeared as City Moon, a country-western band. One of our guys from the singles group is in the bands, so a group of 10 of us made a road trip to listen. Despite small numbers, they raised a honkin' big amount of cash to benefit a woman with sky-normous medical bills.
Aside from whooping and hollerin' to the music, we talked with some of the other guys in the band. They were telling us about some of the off-stage stunts they pull on each other during performances trying to crack each other up. They've got things right: Music and performing have to be fun or there's no point in doing it.
On the trip home, my friend (who's engaged to our band pal) was telling me about the banjo player who was pulling the most stunts that night. I asked about his day job. Turns out he started out as a stock broker and now is some sort of administrator/bean counter at a hospital in an eastern Oklahoma town.
He, too, has experienced the epiphany and found music as his creative outlet. Actually, all the guys in the band have. They all have day jobs running the gamut. But they've been pulled together by a small voice, with a definite musical flare. And they prove my theory that music is often a prayer that reaches the parts of the heart that words cannot touch.
The last epiphanal life came to me as a story being told by a girlfriend on our drive to the benefit concert. A friend of hers needed to pick up a gift while they were out shopping and wanted to go to a particular candy store well known for its chocolate.
The proprietor seemed especially content with life, meeting all her customers with a cheerful conversation and extraordinary service.
"I used to be a baker," she said, out of the blue. "But one day I woke up and decided I liked chocolate better."
She said she makes less money and works much harder now, but she's much happier. Chocolate will do that for you.
So will listening to the Quiet Voice.
Can you hear it?