Alone in Good Company

Simply profound and profoundly simple…

Long ago the Roman stoic philosopher Cato said that “he was never so busy as when he did nothing, and never less solitary than when he was alone.”
Attributed to Cato by Cicero, De Republica 1.7, trans. Francis Barham. My source is: Monastic Practices,Revised Edition, Charles Cummings, OCSO. Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, Liturgical Press, 2015, p. 49.

The Disney Effect

The resonance came as a surprise! Something about China captured my imagination and interest at a deep, visceral level. I’ve had the very good fortune of visiting many more countries than I could ever have imagined as a kid. But China was different, unique, unforeseen despite my eagerness to go.

Lingering impressions continue to resonate during these days since my return. The Great Wall, the terra-cotta warriors of Xian — so much about this ancient culture — predates the birth of Jesus. How could such an impactful immersion in another culture not color the way I experienced Christmas this year.

Certainly an especially impactful ingredient was going with my 14 year-old grandnephew. Except for James, it was a pretty “mature” bunch of 25 in our tour group. Seeing his jaw drop, attempting to keep up with his pace, witnessing his insatiable curiosity, marveling at his perfectly expressed one-word sentences enhanced my experience beyond measure.

What is it about the young and old together? Unbridled energy, their sponge-like capacity to absorb facts catalyze with our more sedate wisdom and broader perspective regarding the singular and the paradoxical. We need both! Each is exponentially enhanced by the other. Call it the “Disney effect” — that which grandparents report when they accompany their grandchildren to Disneyland.

Much of this came rushing back today when reading one of my favorite blogs. Kayla McClurg offers a fresh, relevant and insightful reflection on today’s Gospel from the Common Lectionary. Yes, the finding of Jesus in the Temple brought me back to my China adventure with James.

Perhaps you will recognize a familiar but unforeseen connection in your relationship with the indispensable young people in your life:

The common idea is that children have much to learn from us, and should be always taking our direction and listening to our wisdom, but we adults have much to learn from and about our children as well. What a difference it makes to pause and listen. What might they be trying to communicate through their wayward words and actions. What looks like mischief might be an emerging creativity; what sounds like ‘talking back’ could be the clumsy beginnings of deeply felt expression; what seem to be displays of disobedience might be signs of their listening to inner guidance. Or not. We can never be sure. We can only be companions to the mystery, a steady presence, guiding by walking alongside.

“Why were you searching for me?” Jesus asks his bewildered parents. “Did you not know where I must be?” To really know the children in our lives is to search continually for them, to lose sight and then to rediscover who they are now. It is to want to know them more, to ask them what matters most, to listen at least as much as we talk. To know them is to enter the temple of their lives and care about their worries and wonders. Because children are not only our future . . . children are our right now. We need each other. What they see and say matter. We are called to do God’s business together.


Kayla McClurg’s full reflection from which her quote is taken may be found [here]. I recommend her blog, Inward/Outward.  You may sign-up to receive weekly emails with this link.

Let the Partying Begin!

God, apparently, loves feasting. Nothing secretive or peaceful about it. A brash new star, exotic foreigners, ec­static shepherds, choirs of angels—not just a quiet messen­ger, but hosts of them, pouring through the night sky singing “Glory.” God chose to celebrate this feast “just at the worst time of the year,” to be a light in the darkness, to comfort us on our lonely road, to prove over and over again that the things of the world are good, that fun is an ethical concept. Perhaps this is what is meant by “blessed are the poor”—they know how to feast.

I wish I were able to feast with this extravagant host. I am appalled by my pusillanimous responses: by the minginess of my imagination. I tend to criticize the menu (“virgin birth­ so out of date”) and carp at the behavior of less refined guests (“oh, not ‘Hark-the Herald’ again”). I wear jeans not my wed­ding garment, and I want the children to “calm down” and not wake up too early in the morning.

Of course they should wake up early, of course they should be overexcited, of course they should run amok and tear open their presents with greedy zeal. This is the feast day of a God who so delights in matter, in the stuff of the universe, in bodies, that he plunges into it all head first, and becomes a child. This is the feast day of a God who rips the invisible membrane between time and eternity so heaven floods the world, in an extravagant and abundant tide of love, and the world laps back, carried undiluted to the everlasting ban­quet. The feast of a God who comes into the cold, the dark, the silence of our prosperity and says, “Let’s party.”


This is only the conclusion of a marvelous piece that first appeared in Commonweal in 1997 and has been reprinted in the current issue. I encourage you to read the full article [here].


Formula for Happy Holiday Gatherings

Here are just a few observations that may be unduly influenced by the social fatigue so common at this time of year. This is a crazy season for holiday gatherings… and we still have Christmas and New Years ahead of us!

So, how are you doing? What do you think? What’s your experience teach? Here’s what’s rumbling in the back of my head…

I too often anticipate parties or family gatherings wondering, “What’s in it for me?”. Experience has taught me that’s a non-starter! I have a better time if my focus is on others and not on myself. A good indicator for me is how much time I spend at the buffet table. If I’m stuffing myself with snacks, treats, sweets and drink it’s time for me to ask, “What hunger am I really trying to feed here?”. It’s time to engage others more and my mouth less.

We all notice the most popular, charismatic people at a party. Some folks are clearly having more fun than others. What’s the difference? What’s their secret? Well, there are multiple answers — personality, temperament, innate abilities. But here’s a pattern to watch… aren’t the people we admire and appreciate most those who always seem to be looking for opportunities to engage others? Maybe you are more virtuous than me, but the most boring and tedious party-goers are those who appear to be interested in talking only about themselves.

So, what are we to talk about? Yes, people are sincerely interested in catching-up. But there is a way of sharing our personal experiences that is open-ended and loops back to the other person. For example, choose to highlight the part of your story that will be of most interest to the other person, something with which they can identify and perhaps expand upon. Then there is simple and gracious habit of sprinkling your story with plenty of open questions. Too many are inhibited by a fear of not knowing what to talk about. The solution to that phobia is to focus on asking the other person “open” questions and then truly listening.

So what’s your experience tell you? What advice would you offer? My final thought is the simple reminder not to allow Scrooge to steal your Christmas or “that tedious uncle” to spoil your family gathering. Choose to be happy, to enjoy yourself!

What my Mom used to say about life applies especially to Christmas… “It’s pretty much what you make of it!”  And that is from a Mom who had little concern for herself but that others enjoy themselves.

The Subversiveness of Our Wish-List

Despite nostalgic protestations, do we really want to “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Do we realize how subversive that would be to so many of the social customs and family traditions in which we revel at this time of year?  At some deep, desperate level I want to believe we do!

Have we so domesticated the story of Jesus’ birth that we fail to recognize how Christmas really turns our world on its head? Virgin birth? God becoming human? No room in the inn? Birth in a manger. The people in darkness see a great light?

Instead of Christ’s birth truly liberating us, saving us, transforming us; we seem to have turned the original story inside-out and up-side-down. Instead of being the story of our salvation, many if not most of our social customs and religious practices exonerate false gods and verge on a practical atheism.

I have absolutely no valid evidence to make the following claim, but I have a hunch. My gut tells me that the very people who feverishly “worship” at the Twin Cities’ temple of American consumerism — our world famous Mall of America attracts more visitors each year than Disneyland! — are the very people who most vehemently protest to “Keep Christ in Christmas!” Yes, such is the state of our cultural agnosticism, our alienation from the true revelation of the Christmas story.

This is not meant to throw cold water on our family gatherings and holiday revelry. In no way do I want to be Scrooge or an old-curmudgeon! But let us at least acknowledge that we too are a people who walk in darkness. We too reside in a world in desperate need of a savior. Such is the basis for an even more celebratory Christmas, our recognition of the sheer gratuity of this grace-filled season.

Each faltering impulse, every nostalgic appeal, to “Keep Christ in Christmas” is truly an expression of a deeper personal and collective need — our persistent yearning for a savior, one other than ourselves to keep us from drowning in frenetic consumption and feverish idolatry, to bring us back to the truth of who we are as human beings.

Onto such as these — us — a child is given, a son is born, who is Christ the Lord.

Please Take Care of the Children

Three simple thoughts from sitting on a plane in China…

When giving the safety instructions — first in Chinese, then in English — the flight attendants on Air China routinely include the phase, “Please take care of the children.” How different that sounds than the American directive, “Put your own mask on first, then assist others.” Hmmm! What would it be like if we more regularly and routinely heard ourselves saying, “Please take care of the children.”?

How gently and generously we must enter another culture and contextualize our own! On a flight from Beijing to Shanghai I overheard a man in the row behind explaining an intervention he made at a business reception the evening before. His hosts were about to open a bottle of champagne with a cork screw. Even with the best of intentions, we often don’t understand what we are doing. Gracious humility goes a long way.

On the same flight from Beijing to Shanghai we did not even begin the boarding process until the scheduled time of departure. Once everyone was seated and buckled-up we then sat on the runway for an additional hour and fifteen minutes. Why? The extreme pollution blanketing the city decreased visibility to a few hundred yards. This was more than an annoying inconvenience. It was a stark reminder that we are literally choking ourselves with inaction on climate change.

Yes, what would it be like if we more regularly and routinely heard ourselves saying, “Please take care of the children.”?

Off ’til December 15

Thanks to many of you who are faithful readers.  You should know that I will be occupied with other things for the next two weeks — I’m off to China with my 14 y/o grandnephew and namesake.  Leaving the home front under the able and watchful care of my husband and Jeb the Dog!  This site will likely go silent until at least until December 15.  Again, thank for you interest in Kneading Bread.

Of Value, Worth and Wealth

We have people in our family who aren’t actually related. However, no holiday gathering would be complete without them. Ben and Pam are like that. Ben went to high school with John who, with his wife Stacy, hosted the family for Thanksgiving this year.

John and Stacy aren’t technically related to us either. John’s the nephew of my husband’s brother-in-law. Sound complicated? Well, it is! Then, again. it’s all pretty typical. Take a look around your holiday gatherings — bet your characters and relationships are as equally complex as ours. Any family worthy of the name is like that!

We love Ben and Pam’s energy, adventurous spirit, and clarity about their priorities. One of their goals is to retire in about twenty years. They would be 55. Because my husband and I have both retired within the last couple years they indulge our willingness to talk about our experience.

Same was true last Thursday at John and Stacy’s. “What’s it like? Any surprises? What should we do to get ready? How much money do you really need?” Questions abound! My answers, in order of the questioning: “Better. Many. Save. Less than you think.”

Do you catch the apparent contradiction? It’s between the third and fourth questions — Save more! You need less! My limited 2-year experience of retirement places me smack, dab in the middle of that paradox. Yes save, save, save! But the best way I can explain it is, “If enough is your standard, you’ll never have enough.”

Ben and Pam will be okay. They understand the need to speak with more than a good financial planner. Of course, we are delighted they regularly seek our avuncular advice! We want them to understand, yes, you need a modicum of security and the capacity to pursue your dreams. But, retirement is about so much more than money!

Like the crazy-quilt composition of healthy families, retirement is a complex mixture of pursuing your deepest values and living in a manner you find worthwhile. Ultimately, it’s not about monetary wealth. Financial planners are important, I’d say indispensable. Yet, nothing and no one other than ourselves can bring a deep sense of worth and value to our lives in retirement.

In the end, retirement is not about how we spend our money. It’s about how and with whom — even for whom — we spend our time. And with each passing year, time is our most precious resource.