Cherishing the Wait for the Fulfillment of Hope: What the Chicago Cubs Taught Me About Advent this Year

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There have only been four times in the last twenty-two years when Christmas landed on a Sunday. The reason I take notice of this is because in my twenty-two year career working for the Catholic Church, that is the number of occasions when I had four complete weeks of Advent in which to complete the gargantuan number of tasks required of me during this season. Normally, December, in addition to being the usual kind of chaotic at home, is a whole other kind of crazy at work. There tends to be lots of extra duties, all with shortened deadlines and while it is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, I normally find myself facing it with a dreadful sense of angst. This is a terrible thing to be thinking in my head. Admitting it publicly? Worse yet! The most discouraging aspect is while I truly believe in the meaning of Christmas, allowing it to have power in my life in the midst of the chaos is a mighty battle.

This year was no exception. Cyber Monday quickly brought me to an unusally high level of panic that steadily rose as my email inbox kept filling up with coupon codes and chances to save. As I sorted through them and deleted the ones that weren’t appealing, the inbox continued to replenish itself with more and more promises of savings unlike ever before! The need for order and control in my life reared its ugly head and this deluge of information threw me into a tailspin.

Yet if I am honest, the nosedive began weeks prior to Cyber Monday. If I had to pinpoint its start, it was at the very beginning of November when I set off to shop for an event I was to host later in the month. In my search for some autumn inspired home goods, upon entering most stores, I was immediately assaulted with an onslaught of bright lights and sparkly Christmas goods. Finding the muted tones of browns and oranges, teals and burgundies almost merited the creation of a search party. When finally they were found, these remnants of fall merchandise were picked over and already marked on clearance!

Shortly afterwards, there was the day when my first grouping of preset radio stations in the car were playing commercials, so I switched over to the second set. Lo and behold, one of the preset stations was playing Christmas songs—yes, in the first days of November. And then there was the next day, just after we switched to daylight savings time. I was driving to pick up my husband from the train station. Normally it would be light outside, but now it was dark and immediately I noticed the many houses adorned with Christmas lights. While it does get cold here in December and I quite admire the wise planning of those who use one of the unexpectedly warm days of November to check this job off the list, I felt angry when confronted with all the lights. Must they be lit three weeks before Thanksgiving? It was as if all of the forces of the external world were conspiring to make me feel the dread and pressure and chaos of celebrating Christmas NOW!! I truly resented it because I felt as if I had not even had any time to anticipate its arrival.

When counting my blessings this year at Thanksgiving, I found myself deeply grateful to have been raised a Chicago Cubs fan from the cradle. Memories of my early childhood are sprinkled with a plethora of hot and humid summer days, when we gathered in the “Rec Room” (the coolest spot in the house) to listen to the voice of radio announcer Jack Brickhouse give us the play by-play of the game. Occasionally, Mom would drag us three kids into the city  where we would then catch the “L” train to the north side. Wrigley Field was larger than life. It was magnificent; a place where dreams loomed large.

Recent weeks and days leading up to their big win after 108 years were thick with possibility and power. One cannot explain it adequately with words. Some of the special commercials and video compilations came close, but being immersed in it was nothing short of other-worldly. Even 45 miles west of Wrigley Field, out here in the suburbs, there was a magical feeling among the people, everywhere you went. It delighted the senses. It was as if you could touch and taste, see and hear it. Hope incarnate. Hope, pulsing through the hearts and veins of a people waiting for the fulfillment of a long-held desire. I remember thinking in those days how blessed I was to experience the fruitfulness of what waiting can accomplish in the mind, heart and soul. It strengthened the character of Cubs fans as they persevered in supporting a not-good-enough team for 39,420 days; it bonded generations and families together with a common purpose and longing. The anticipation, the wait; it brought such meaning to every moment we spent drawing closer to the arrival of the day of redemption to the north side.

No matter where life took you in those days, you couldn’t help but overhear many a person’s story of their wait for the fulfillment of this hope.You heard it being discussed among a group of strangers standing in line to check out at the grocery store, at the Starbucks between barista and regular customer; heck, I even had lifelong Sox fans wish my team the best and admit their love affair with baseball was actually born at Wrigley Field. There were stories of the 108 year old woman who wanted to see the Cubs win before she died, of the man who brought a radio and a folding chair to his father’s graveside so that they could listen to the games of the World Series together. This collective wait; it was a vessel through which joy, unity and inspiration was born into an otherwise divisive world.

The climax of the wait was experienced in, what I will argue as, THE MOST incredible World Series known to baseball fans. The ups and downs of each game in the series were almost unbearable. And the rain delay in Game 7? It had us all hanging on the edge of our seats. I don’t even think that the greatest script writer of all time could have written a better ending to this story. The recording of the eruption of joy heard outside Wrigley Field (an entire 350 miles away from the actual scene of the victory) at the very moment when we clinched the title of World Champions will never cease to awaken me to the unimaginable miracle that occurred that day.

The day of the Chicago Cubs victory parade found my husband, my big brother and I gathering at the home of our almost-80 year old parents to watch the coverage on TV. The crowds were rumored to be large and predictions of traffic nightmares were ominous. We chose to bunker down in their house to rejoice in the gift of redemption given to our team. Amidst the delicious smells and tastes of famous Portillo’s sandwiches, hot dogs and fries, each of us with a cool, refreshing Budweiser in our grip, we witnessed as 5 million people showed up to celebrate, supposedly making it the 7th largest gathering in human history. The sound of the crowd in Grant Park collectively singing, “Go, Cubs, Go!” was something to behold. What once had been a prayer of yearning, became the melody of our team’s salvation.

In the days and weeks that followed, I found myself wanting to break open the power of what we had just experienced. There was a deep thirst within to unpack a lesson that might have bigger implications for my life. Since Advent was beginning, my thoughts drifted to the people who lived long before me, to those whose anticipation for something so much greater than a Cubs World Series Championship must have seemed endless, to those who spent a couple thousand years holding out hope for a Savior. I could scarcely imagine what the dawn of the Day of Redemption must have felt like for those who, for generations upon generations upon generations, had waited in joyful hope for Emmanuel, God with us. The fulfillment of such a wait must have been astonishingly epic.

As these thoughts continued to percolate, it became clear to me —there is something truly powerful about the wait which serves to expand us. It readies us to appreciate, in a potentially profound way, the fulfillment for which we long. In the midst of this clarity, I committed to cherish this year’s wait for Christmas. In one of those rare years when I was going to have four full weeks of Advent, I decided to slowly savor each of the 28 days and allow them to expand me. Thankfully, the rituals of my faith tradition encourage me to be entirely counter cultural at this time of year. They teach me to sit in the darkness and stillness and to wait. Despite the pressures I originally felt weighing upon me when I opened my inbox or turned on the radio or drove by houses adorned with lights inside and out, I consciously let them go and instead chose to refrain from the rush to get the lights setup outside my house or to listen to Christmas tunes or to cut down the Christmas tree just yet.While the fact remained there were still going to be extra tasks at home and at work, there were also going to be some extra days in which to finish them and the deadlines weren’t as overwhelming as usual. There stood 28 sunrises and sunsets between me and the moment when the fulfillment of hope would arrive.

Entering into church on the First Sunday of Advent, I experienced the plainness of the environment to be a striking contrast to everywhere else I found myself at this time of year. It was stripped bare of its usual beauty, leading my focus to the simple, unadorned green wreath at the front, illuminated only with the light of one single candle. This simplicity was absolutely captivating to my soul. The cacophony of loud, joyful Christmas jingles heard in the marketplace was replaced with quiet, reflective songs all expressing the common theme of longing for light, for redemption and meaning. The process and the power of anticipation replaced the immediacy of the need to be celebrate Christmas right now.

This became the chosen experience I allowed to set the tone for the rest of my time of anticipation. Each of these new days of Advent I have entered with full intention and permission to immerse myself in the quiet, in the stillness, in the darkness that preceded the Winter Solstice. Slowly and steadily the anticipation has grown. Slowly and steadily the luminosity of my Advent wreath has brightened each week with the lighting of another candle. Slowly and steadily the tasks of readying have been accomplished. Slowly and steadily, the sense of hope has increased within and my soul has been expanded. Here on the cusp of the Christmas Vigil, I can touch and taste, see and hear it. Hope incarnate. Hope, pulsing through my heart and my veins as I wait for the fulfillment of a long-held desire: to receive anew the gift of Love Incarnate. Found in the unlikely guise of a babe in the manger, this Love, if received into the open spaces of my soul, has the power to change me. It has the potential to make the unlikely guise of my life a place where He may be found; a vessel through which joy, unity and inspiration may be born into my otherwise divisive world.

Tonight as we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, what once was our prayer of yearning will become the melody of our salvation. And if we could listen to a recording of the eruption of joy heard in the heavens at the very moment of His birth, I am certain it would never cease to awaken us to the unimaginable miracle which continues this day. Merry Christmas!

O hush the noise and cease the strife
And hear the angels sing

Glory to God in the highest
Glory to God evermore
Good news, great joy for all
Melody breaks through the silence
Christ, the Savior is born!
Jesus, the love song of God!
Jesus, the love song of God!

You’re the love song
You’re the love song
You so loved the world
You’re the love song”

Midnight Clear (Love Song) by Chris Tomlin

 

Sweetness of Body & Soul Found in the Embrace of My Enemy

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Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul

When after years of struggle I finally made the decision to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, climb off my proverbial horse and embrace the leper in my life, my interior shackles began to loosen. That which predominantly tormented me spiritually and emotionally was my need to control life and the people in it. This need for control controlled me. It made me a slave to its every impulse. And as my husband, the psychotherapist taught me, one definition of crazy is trying the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. I had to try something different if I was going to get healthier. Running was the last thing I ever wanted to try, but try it I did.

Giving alms and a kiss to this leper meant giving it the precious gift of my time and conjuring up some sort of affection for it. At first, the kiss I gave it was like the ones I was made to give as a child, on the cheeks of aunts and uncles and grandmas upon arriving or leaving a family gathering—obligatory, lacking in sincerity, sometimes followed by wiping the lips clean of the germs left by the one embraced. But like the good girl I was taught to be, I did it nonetheless.

»The Early Days

It was winter. Never would I have entertained the idea of running outside. Lucky for me, there was a new indoor track nearby. About four times a week, usually early in the morning (when no one else was there to whom I could negatively compare myself), I made my way there and I began to walk the straight parts and run the curves. I won’t lie, at first it seemed so boring and repetitive and a waste of my time, but I brought along music which became my saving grace. Music had the ability to transport me away from the monotony. It served to drown out the sound of my heavy breathing, so that I wouldn’t become discouraged when I heard how out of shape I was. It became my partner in this new relationship. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept up the routine past a couple of days.

I was nearly 40 lbs. overweight. Changing this reality was my main motivation for beginning. Slowly, but surely, I began to see that embracing my enemy was something I should have considered a long time ago. Nevertheless, what mattered now was to remain faithful to this new relationship in a consistent way. As I did, measurable transformation began to take place. Physically, I was becoming stronger and leaner. My endurance grew. Clothing became too big and new clothes had to be purchased. The number on the scale decreased steadily. As my confidence increased, so did my affection for running. It was giving to me things I couldn’t experience without it in my life.

When winter turned to spring, I moved outside to a track at a nearby college. By now I could run an entire lap, walk a lap, run a lap. And the fresh air was a change I welcomed. For years I had avoided the great outdoors. I hated the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow. I despised how uncomfortable it all made me feel and the mess it created. Feeling cold or hot or sweaty or wet was not in my comfort zone. However, since spring in Chicago is practically over before it begins, it wasn’t long before we were slammed with a hot and humid day. I was at a crossroads. Was I willing to leave my comfort zone in order to continue the journey I had begun, even when conditions were not within my control? Even when it would leave me feeling hot and sweaty and messy? Yet that which had once seemed so bitter to me, running, had slowly turned into sweetness of body. I looked better, felt better, slept better and somehow, the anxiety disorder that had plagued me since childhood, it no longer controlled my every move. The decision was made. I kept on running, even in the heat.

»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future

Beyond the investment of time, I now found myself investing in a pair of authentic running shoes, a couple pair of running shorts and tanks. Before long I could run an entire half mile, then 3/4 of a mile. Finishing with sweat pouring down my forehead, my hair drenched; it felt strangely empowering. Who was this person I was becoming? Though I didn’t entirely recognize her, I really liked being with her.

One day in a bold move, she took me back to visit my old elementary school. At the very same playground where I had finished dead last in the annual mile year after year, she led me in a one mile run. This time I ran the entire mile, finishing in a decent time, with my head held high. Tears of healing and joy streamed down my face as I imagined speaking to the broken, demoralized little girl of my past. “You are stronger than you know”, I told her. “One day, things will be better. Don’t give up hope.” For good measure, I did a victory lap before I left the playground that day; the theme song from Chariots of Fire playing as the soundtrack in my mind. I felt unstoppable.

It was the beginning of June; my 40th Birthday was fast approaching. I set my sights on kicking off this new decade of my life by running my first race. There was one being held on my birthday on the lakefront in Chicago. It was a 5K race; 3.1 miles. For the next six weeks, I followed a training plan and ran more than ever. I ran off of the track and ventured into my neighborhood. Living within just 1/2 mile from a beautiful river, I decided to explore the trails alongside it and a whole new world was opened up to me.

»Undergoing Deeper Transformation 

Crossing the finish line at that first race on July 26, 2009 was, in retrospect, a definitive starting line for a deep spiritual transformation that continues to this day. Crystallized within me at that moment was the resolution to enter into a lifelong embrace with my former enemy. This embrace had already brought such sweetness to my body and mind in such a short time; just now was I beginning to savor the delights it brought to my soul.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that the healing of my soul was somehow tied to my resolve to do as much of my running as possible in the great outdoors. Predominantly, my miles have been traversed outside, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the calm, in the extreme heat, in the extreme cold, in perfect conditions, in imperfect conditions and everything in between. Cooperating with nature several times a week, especially here in the Midwest, has demanded of me to become very flexible. Each day of each season presents to me a wild variety of requirements for the way I need to dress, the way I need to plan for my hydration, the route I need to take and the attitude I need to develop in order to accomplish my goal. Day-by-day, if I want to run, I am required to adapt and flex.

On days like today, adapting and flexing looks like checking the weather to assess the day’s forecast for precipitation and temperature in order to determine when is the optimum time for running before the sun sets at 4:24 p.m. It means dressing in three layers on the top, donning a hat, two pair of gloves and running shoes with spikes in them to prevent me from slipping on ice. Since my favorite route is temporarily impassable due to snow and ice, I will run the streets in my town and set my mind to be inspired by nature and the occasional sighting of dogs, squirrels and bunnies. With all of the outdoor water fountains shut off during winter, I will plan to stop by the local 7-11 for some hydration.

In the summer, adapting and flexing looks like planning on leaving super early, before the heat and humidity render me incapacitated. It means dressing as lightly as possible, with a headband in my hair to catch the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Since my favorite path provides shade, I will run along the river, through the woods and anticipate being inspired by nature and the occasional sightings of foxes, deer, beavers, turtles and the predictable encounters with Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks (and their abundance of poop) along the waterfront. With all of the outdoor water fountains working, I will rely on them for hydration. However, if I am going to be running for awhile, I will to drive to spots along the path ahead of time and drop some Gatorade.

Slowly, but surely, I am being transformed through the ongoing embrace of running. The lessons to adapt and flex with every single changing condition, first learned in the physical and emotional realm, now have taken root in my spiritual life. With each stride I take, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I am awakened to the presence of the Creator, both outside of me and within. I am being taught to accept the things I cannot change, being strengthened with courage to change the things I can and being graced with the wisdom to know the difference.

»By No Power of My Own

Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson wrote this about St. Francis and the affect that his embrace of the lepers brought to him:

What before was truly ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but viscerally and physically.  The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins that had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

More than seven years have passed since I crossed that finish line for the first time. In the process of training and completing seven half marathons, I have logged thousands of miles. Sometimes when I glance at my Nike App after finishing a run and view the total distances I have traversed, I am shocked that it is me who has accomplished this. Truth be told, even after all this time, I still don’t love the act of running itself. Yet what before was truly ugly and repulsive now causes me delight and joy. I sense by the grace of God and no power of my own, I am being remade into a different woman and a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing is mine.

This post was inspired by a podcast entitled, “Running as Spiritual Practice”, from “On Being with Krista Tippett”. If you would like to hear others’ stories of how running served to transform their lives, click here.

Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled my Soul

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It was at a very young age when I first began to hate physical activity. If I had to pinpoint the year, it was probably in first grade, circa 1975, when I was introduced to the President’s Physical Fitness test in gym class. It was a yearly assessment that consisted of crunches, pull-ups,the V-Sit Reach, a couple of sprints and the event that most tortured my soul, year after year, the dreaded mile run. This annual test was created in the late 1950’s by a guy who was concerned that children were losing muscle tone because of “the affluent lifestyle of 20th century America”. During President Kennedy’s term in the White House, the President’s Council on Youth Fitness created a Physical Fitness Curriculum for schools. Kennedy himself wrote two articles for Sports Illustrated in support of the program. One was entitled, “The Soft American”.

Children with low muscle tone, soft Americans; the words paint a descriptive picture. I could have been the poster child for the “why” such a program was needed in the schools of America. Apparently when I was being knit in the womb and the Creator was dealing out the metabolism genes, I was dealt a bad hand (at least according to the standards of the culture into which I was born). Pictures of me at the beach in my early years reveal a round and happy girl. Best of all, she is blissfully unaware her chubbiness, considered cute and sweet at 2 years of age, will one day soon become the source of lifelong struggle.

At five it became glaringly apparent that I was considered a not-so-good kind of different in comparison to others. In the kindergarten classroom, I didn’t measure up favorably in regards to the physical attributes girls are taught to highly esteem. But it was the day each year I was forced to run that mandatory mile when I felt at my most vulnerable. There was no way to hide my inability to keep up with the others. Finishing dead last, even after trying my hardest, was utterly demoralizing. Running became the embodiment of everything I despised about the unmanageable parts of my life. I felt as if I was a helpless victim of its mockery.

Born forth from these early experiences of failure, shame & embarrassment was the dominating need to control my environment and the people in it. In her article, “8 Signs You’re a Control Freak”, Dr. Shelley Prevost identifies some of the exact beliefs and behaviors I developed to function in life. Over time they grew in power and succeeded in achieving total control over me.

  1. You believe that if someone would change one or two things about themselves, you’d be happier. So you try to “help them” change this behavior by pointing it out, usually over and over. Check! [√]
  2. You micromanage others to make them fit your (often unrealistic) expectations. You don’t believe in imperfection and you don’t think anyone else should either. Check! [√]
  3. You judge others’ behavior as right or wrong and passive-aggressively withhold attention until they fall in line with your expectations. Sitting in silent judgment is a master form of control.Check! [√]
  4. You change who you are or what you believe so that someone will accept you. Instead of just being yourself, you attempt to incept others by managing their impression of you. Check! [√]

To think I somehow navigated through life in this condition, my soul confined by these heavy shackles, all the while managing to graduate from college, meet and marry my husband and become a mother; it still shocks and surprises me. But truth be told, it came at a high price. My husband felt judged and shamed; my anxiety was completely out-of-control and avoiding it dictated my every move; I was exhausted at working tirelessly to please everyone in the hopes I might be accepted and loved. The toxic repercussions of living as a control freak had infiltrated my mental, emotional and spiritual life. And the culmination—I could no longer hide that I was also in the worst physical shape of my life. The report following the mandatory physical in the pursuit of life insurance was filled with ugly words such as “obese”, “high cholesterol”, “elevated blood sugar”. It confirmed my worst fears and made me again feel like a helpless victim of life’s circumstances.

In the midst of this mess, my old enemy had the gall to show up into my life without an invitation. I hadn’t encountered it since the last Physical Fitness Test was done Senior year of high school. Out of nowhere, my husband began running, day and night, for miles on end. He had decided to train for his very first marathon after a long hiatus from running and became unstoppable. In the process, without even making major alterations to his eating patterns, he dropped 60 lbs. and the transformation wasn’t only physical. There was a confidence that returned to him and an overall sense of well-being pervaded his days.

Two years and two marathons later, living with this invader in my home as a regular part of his daily routine served to slightly weaken my defensive stance towards it. I too was looking for a way to achieve health and transformation, but nothing I tried seemed to be working. It was the one last thing I had not embraced. Coincidentally while in the midst of an interior wrestling match, I was reminded of the story of St. Francis and the leper. Francis abhorred lepers, but one day while riding on his horse, he met a leper on the path. Rather than turn away as he was naturally inclined to do and had always done, he conquered his aversion, stopped, climbed off his horse and embraced the leper, giving him alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

Desperate to be freed from the shackles of perfectionism and control, longing for sweetness of soul and body, I conquered my aversion. Rather than turn away, as I was naturally inclined to do and had always done, I climbed off my horse and I embraced that which I most abhorred—running. I gave it alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

Continued…