O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How Straggly Are Thy Branches

Do you have a Christmas tree yet? Our family always purchased live Christmas trees when I was growing up, and we would often plant the trees on our property after the New Year. However, we never had any adventures like the tiny owl found hiding in the 75-foot-tall Norway Spruce from Oneonta NY that was set up in New York City’s Rockefeller Center a few weeks ago. The rescued owl, nicknamed “Rockefeller,” was taken to a wildlife center and subsequently released back into the wild.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How steadfast are your branches! (2x)
Your boughs are green in summer’s clime, And through the snows of wintertime.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How steadfast are your branches!

There are a number of different texts for this beautiful carol, “O Christmas Tree”/”O Tannenbaum,” and I know you will be blessed by Andrea Bocelli’s version sung in different languages.

My earliest known Christmas tree artwork was in fourth grade when I created a Christmas card for my parents.

  • Did you know that approximately 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year?
  • There are also close to 350 million real Christmas trees currently growing on Christmas tree farms in the U.S. alone, all planted by farmers.
  • Eighty percent (80%) of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Gary and I made a major decision about Christmas trees two years ago when I was so preoccupied by work and holiday responsibilities that we did not purchase a tree until a few days before Christmas. Off we went to Menards, where only a few straggly trees were left. Not having time to search elsewhere, we ended up with a tree that had been passed over by hundreds of shoppers. After some discussion, we decided that every tree needed a home, no matter how ugly it might be, so we bought it. We loved our pitiful tree, but we also decided that there would be no more live trees in our home after this one.

O Tannenbaum (fir tree) O Tannenbaum, What happiness befalls me (2x)

When oft at joyous Christmas-time, Your form inspires my song and rhyme.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, What happiness befalls me.

Last year, we purchased an artificial tree, which is “perfect.” No live tree to butcher, no blemishes, no needles imbedded in the carpet, and no need to water. While we miss the smell and charm of live trees, we also know that the ornaments on the tree tell the real story of our love for Jesus and the church and our family and friends. Here are a few of our favorites.

The Christmas story was not as romantic as it seems today, for the Christ child appeared in human form in the most lowly of places. Yet Jesus still comes to bring us salvation and hope and reminds us that God’s love extends to the farthest corners of the earth.

The truth is that both Christmas trees, the straggly one and the crafted one, are beautiful in their own right, for God creates and loves us just as we are. Most of all, God wants us to be authentic human beings, with hearts for loving and hands for giving.

To whom will you reach out today with Christ’s love? To whom will you take a pot of soup, make a phone call, or send a Christmas card? How will your voice be heard as we seek justice and mercy for all of God’s children? At a time when many churches across the globe will not be holding in-person Christmas Eve services because of COVID-19, how will you let the light of Christ’s love shine in you and through you to a broken world? Can you hear the angels sing?

Into a straggly world, Christ is coming.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your boughs can teach a lesson (2x)
That constant faith and hope sublime, Lend strength and comfort through all time.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your boughs can teach a lesson.

A Long Loving Look at the Real

The season of Advent began yesterday. The Latin word “Adventus” means “arrival.” It’s a time when we long for Christ’s coming once more into our world and prepare our hearts for his arrival. That preparation includes both personal and corporate spiritual practices as well as action in the form of service to others.

Since mid-March, I have been working out of the episcopal residence because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and all of my meetings are conducted virtually. This has afforded me more time to spend in contemplation than I normally do. The solitude of daily walks teaches me about the importance of this time of slowing down, not being so frantic in my activity, and listening to the nudgings of the Holy Spirit.

Contemplation has become a way of entering into communion with the world by engaging in “a long, loving look at the real.” What is it to which God is calling us as disciples of Jesus Christ in a pandemic world? Is there a place for contemplation as well as action?

Jesuit priest Reverend Walter J. Burghardt was widely known as an advocate for social justice and Christian unity. In the winter of 1989, he wrote an article titled “Contemplation: A Long Loving Look at the Real.” Burghardt borrowed the phrase from a contemporary of his, William McNamara, a Carmelite contemplative.

Burghardt asserts that the practice of contemplation gained a bad reputation when what we seemed to need the most at the time were those committed to making the world a better place. Activists may claim that contemplation is withdrawal from the world and simply navel-gazing, which cannot save the world. On the other hand, contemplatives may claim action to be worthless if it is not grounded in spiritual practices.

In a world that demands quick results and where there is little tolerance for “wasting time with Jesus” without producing anything, how might you and I recover the practice of contemplation today as “a long loving look at the real?” Burghardt invites us to look at those four words.

“Long” means taking the time and attention that you need to devote to a Bible passage, a chapter in a book, a conversation you had earlier in the day, a meeting that you are leading, or the life you are living. In a world where distractions are everywhere, where do you find uninterrupted time and places to focus on your connection with God?

“Loving” is being kind to yourself and others as you contemplate and are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you have come from a church meeting where there was a disagreement, or you have been asked to do something that might prompt others to respond in a negative way. In loving, we suspend judgment to hear the voice of God. Burghardt writes, “Contemplation calls forth love, oneness with the other. For contemplation is not study, not cold examination, not a computer, to contemplate is to be in love.”[i]

“Look” focuses solely on that which we are contemplating and remains open without the compulsion to “do” anything about it. Author Venita Hampton Wright writes, “I look with the expectation of a good outcome. No matter what I’m contemplating – a conversation, a problem I face, a dream I have, a task I’m discerning – I expect that the Holy Spirit is in the middle of it and will show me what I need to see and then equip me to respond in the best way.

“I look with the understanding that the world is flawed and that forgiveness is necessary every day if I am to move forward and grow spiritually. Today I might need to forgive someone else, or I might need to forgive myself. But I begin my contemplation expecting to bump up against something that calls for mercy and grace.”[ii]

And what is “the real”? If we are brutally honest, we know how easy it is to fool ourselves by refusing to admit reality.  

  • Real is refusing to close our eyes to the presence of sin, evil, and pain in our world.
  • Real is acknowledging our own brokenness by clearing away the misconceptions in our lives that prevent us from flourishing and offering healing to others.

  • Real is the gift of the Christ child, the embodiment of God’s unfathomable love for us.
  • Real is COVID-19.
  • Real is God’s gift of each other for support and encouragement in tough times.
  • Real is the conviction that hope does not disappoint.
  • Real is courageously walking into the desert of grief, uncertainty, and doubt, knowing that God goes before us.
  • Real is Mary saying to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”
  • Real is our responsibility to combat racism, advocate for inclusivity in every corner of our world, and resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
  • Real is churches creatively and continuously adapting their worship and ministries to reach new people.
  • Real is believing that because God chose to gift us with God’s only son, each one of us has the potential to thrive and flourish by sharing and living out our faith boldly every moment of every day.

We, too, are God’s chosen ones. How will you be “real” during this Advent season? Where will you cast a long loving look at those who are walking in darkness? How will you embody compassion, hope, and grace in the midst of a pandemic that threatens every day to take away our joy? Will you take unhurried time for contemplation and prayer as our world and its people groan and struggle to heal, grow, and thrive?

During this Advent season, may God’s gift to you and your gift to others be the commitment to contemplation: taking a long, loving look at the real and then changing the world.

What is the relation of contemplation to action? Simply this.

He who attempts to act and do things for others or the world
without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity,
and the capacity to love
will not have anything to give others.

Thomas Merton[iii]


[i] Walter J. Burghardt, Contemplation; A Long Loving Look at the Real, p. 4.

[ii] Vinita Hampton Wright, A Long Loving Look at the Real, https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/a-long-loving-look-at-the-real/.

[iii] Thomas Merton, ed. Lawrence Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: Essential Writings (Paulist Press: 1992), 375.

Giving Thanks with the Eyes of Our Heart

Have you ever read stories that are so amazing and incredible that tears of gratitude, hope, and joy blur your eyes? As Thanksgiving approaches, we are all discouraged by our inability to enjoy the holiday with relatives and friends because of COVID restrictions. At the same time, we are given the opportunity to reflect on the blessings that God has given us: family, health, church, faith, and the opportunity to make a difference in our small corner of the world.

Reading the lectionary scriptures last week in the midst of my own disappointment around not being able to be with our grandchildren, I was inspired by four recent stories that fit the scriptures perfectly. You can access the scriptures here.

Chris Nikic. Getty/Michael Reaves.

Chris Nikic is a 21-year-old young man with Downs Syndrome who always felt excluded because he was different – until he found his place in sports. When Chris began to ride a bike at age 15 after six months of learning, there was no stopping him. A year ago, Chris decided to train for an ironman triathlon, one of the most challenging and grueling-long distance events in all of sports.

An Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile open water swim, 112 miles of biking, and a 26.2-mile run (marathon distance), all of which needs to be completed in 17 hours. On November 7, in Panama City Beach, Florida, Chris (with a guide) swam, cycled, and ran his way into the history books, finishing with a time of 16 hours, 46 minutes, and 9 seconds. “I learned that there are no limits,” Chris said. “Do not put a lid on me.”

“Enter the gates of the Lord with thanksgiving; go into these courts with praise; give thanks to God and call upon the name of the Lord. For the Lord is good, whose steadfast love is everlasting; and whose faithfulness endures from age to age.” (Psalm 100:4-5)

Michael Knapinski was hiking on Mt. Ranier in the state of Washington several weeks ago when he became lost in an overnight whiteout with freezing conditions. He was finally discovered the next afternoon and was airlifted by helicopter to a Seattle hospital. Unconscious and suffering from hypothermia, Knapinski’s heart stopped a few minutes later, and he died.

A nurse immediately started CPR, and for 45 minutes Knapinski was also was hooked up to a heart-lung bypass machine. Within two days, Knapinski was able to sit up in his hospital bed, and when the ventilator was removed, his first words were to express gratitude for being alive.

Dr. Sam Arbabi, the medical director of the surgical intensive care unit at Harborview, said, “He was as dead as somebody gets before they are truly dead… For this person to come back and his mental status to be great, it is as miraculous as it gets in medicine.”

“I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:16)

Maya Moore and Jonathan Irons. Instagram.

Maya Moore has been named by Sports Illustrated as the greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball. She was drafted out of the University of Connecticut in 2011 and played for the Minnesota Lynx of the Women’s National Basketball Association. In 2019, however, Moore took a break from her WNBA career to focus on restorative justice.

Moore and her family first met Jonathan Irons in 2007 through a prison ministry, right before she started college. The two became friends, and they kept in touch, with Moore visiting Irons in prison in Missouri as she was able. Eventually, they fell in love, and Moore began working to overturn Irons’ conviction for burglary and assault, which he claimed was a false charge.

Describing it as a call from God, Moore paused her basketball career by deciding not to become part of the 2020 Olympic team in order to work for his release, which took place on July 1, twenty years after Irons was wrongly convicted. The eyes of Moore’s heart saw the truth about Jonathan Irons, and on September 16, she announced their marriage.

 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” Matthew 25:37-40


On November 12, at 6:05 a.m., Emily Harrington became the first woman to free-climb the Golden Gate route of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in under 24 hours. The 3,000-foot-high granite face has 41 pitches or sections and attracts thousands of climbers every year.

The way a free-climb ascent works is that the climber goes up one pitch then stops. A belayer, which is a person attached to the other end of the rope, will then follow. If the climber happens to fall, she returns to the bottom of the pitch and begins again. Harrington said that while climbing, she repeated this mantra, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” It takes most people four to six days to make it to the top.

Harrington wrote on Instagram, “I never believed I could actually free climb El Cap in a day when I first set the goal for myself. It didn’t seem like a realistic objective for me. I didn’t have the skills, fitness, or risk profile to move quickly over a large piece of stone. But I chose it for exactly that reason. Impossible dreams challenge us to rise above who we are now to see if we can become better versions of ourselves.”

“I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)

  • How might our world change if we looked at all people with the eyes of our heart?
  • How might we be able to change the trajectory of COVID-19 if we considered all of our decisions in light of God’s unfathomable love for all people, especially those who are most vulnerable?
  • As we celebrate Thanksgiving during this pandemic, many of us are without the normal presence of family and friends. How is God calling us to embrace and practice the spiritual disciplines of isolation, social distancing, and avoiding putting ourselves and others at risk?
  • As we sing in the Christmas carol, In the Bleak Midwinter, “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd. I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him – give my heart.”

May you have a meaningful Thanksgiving holiday, and may the energy conferred by God’s powerful strength empower each one of us to give thanks with the eyes of our heart, to rise above who we are now, and to see what is the hope of God’s call for just such a time as this.