Going home

Very few of us can time our deaths the way our births are timed.

Nine months from conception, there’s a due date. With a natural birth, that’s a pretty good ballpark estimate. For a Cesarean section, the parents get to choose the specific date of birth.

Rarely does that happen on the other side of life.

Every death is sudden, even if it’s expected.

The guarantee

In the span of two days last weekend, five friends or acquaintances breathed their last breath.

They ranged in age from 81 to 43. Four of them had long-term conditions; two were in such severe pain, I’m sure their loved ones saw their passing as relief.

But still.

The fifth friend shocked everybody. He was healthy, to my knowledge – no one saw his death coming. He was 62. (I’m 58; he’s my generation.)

Two of them lived in Northeast Ohio, the other three in mid-Michigan (my old stomping grounds).

Death is guaranteed for each of us.

Later rather than sooner, we hope.

Unexpected deaths are the ones that make the news – traffic fatalities, drug overdoses, crime victims, that sort of thing. Most of us won’t leave Earth like that, thankfully, but there’s no guarantees about that, either.

Another friend’s granddaughter died about two weeks ago. She suffered numerous health issues from the day she was born. She was 21.

No one ever said life was fair.

Homegoing

Sometimes, those who suffer have the best dispositions. They are thankful for the blessings they have, even if good health isn’t one of them. Our 81-year-old friend was like that. He had debilitating headaches his entire adult life, but he looked on the bright side every day.

His strong faith allowed him to do that.

He is in heaven now with his savior, Jesus. He knows that with certainty. So does his wife. They were married 61 years.

We visited her yesterday afternoon to offer our condolences. She said she’s not planning a funeral for him, but a homegoing. We knew what she meant.

Funerals are sad. We mourn the loss of our loved one. Rightfully so. But that’s where the focus remains.

With a homegoing, family members and friends know that death is temporary – just a transition to a better life. Healing is promised in heaven. Physical, emotional and every other kind of healing that each of us needs.

The end of time

We mourn the loss of our loved one here on Earth and we miss him or her terribly, but we know we will see him or her again.

Earth is a temporary home, full of pain and struggle, as well as joy and laughter. We know this. Good vs. evil. Unconditional love vs. selfishness. Right vs. wrong.

These battles are fought in the human heart and mind, aren’t they?

We play them out in society, but the real battles take places inside each of us.

When eternity comes, those struggles will end. For better or worse.

We’ll either stand with God in heaven, or we’ll spend forever without Him. The Bible talks about a lake of fire. I wonder also if hell will be a lonely place. We may not see our friends and family any more. Ever again.

I can’t imagine a worse fate than that.

My choice, your choice

We get to choose where we live forever. We determine our own fate, really.

I can’t choose for you, and you can’t choose for me. This is personal, and it’s individual. I can give you chapter and verse, but you must decide whether to accept the gift of life forever or not.

Life is a gift.

Life on Earth is a gift. Each of us must thank our parents, both mother and father, for giving us life. You and I had nothing to do with it.

Life forever is a similar principle. There won’t be marriage in heaven, but we will have a Father. He’s the one who offers us that gift of life eternal.

Most of my friends who just died will receive a homegoing, a celebration of life on Earth and the promise of a wonderful, perfect forever future in heaven.

We can’t wrap our minds around forever. The end of time. No more alarm clocks or deadlnes.

Nor can we fathom perfection. Beauty for beauty’s sake. No hidden agendas. No secrets. No pain or suffering, of any type. No getting tired at night. Never a cold or fever, much less any other sickness or injury.

Mental illness? No such thing any more.

The big picture

One day, we will see the big picture of life. We don’t now. Each of us sees only our small part in this big universe. There’s so much of life I can’t see or understand. I write to try to make sense of it all, but as the Bible says, now I see in a mirror dimly, but then (in heaven) face to face.

I have strong views on certain subjects, and you may have a differing viewpoint on those same subjects. We both might be right, because we see the issue from different perspectives. Neither of us understands the big picture. We try, but we just cannot.

That’s why we need to talk, to listen, to respect each other, to learn from each other.

One day, all the issues we wrestle with will come together. The God of the universe, the One who created us and everything else in it, will reveal all to us.

For now, God has given us earthly minds to learn and grow. None of us can know everything about life.

We desperately need this perspective today.

We need each other.

We NEED each other.

We can’t make this life work without each other. Even though we try.

Oh, we try.

The more I learn, the more I discover how much I don’t know. Keep teaching me, each one of you. I’ll do the same for you.

Meanwhile, as we do that, I’m ready for my homegoing, when all will be well. I’m not expecting it any time soon – I’m still relatively young and in excellent health, if I can say that. No guarantees, of course, except that I will die one day. But whenever the day comes, I hope you’ll celebrate it with me.

And I’d love to celebrate yours, too.

Just not for awhile.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate this life on Earth together. And remember with gratitude those who are already home.

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The circle of life in one day

A young couple I know announced their first pregnancy.

A (slightly) older couple celebrated their anniversary.

A friend’s son is hoping to get into an addiction detox center.

Another friend’s younger brother died from complications of a stroke.

I received word of all four events on the same day.

The circle of life.

Birth, anniversary, struggle, death.

I received word of those events in that order, ironically.

The first two were announcements of joy.

Birth

New life is a miracle. It happens the same way every time, but it’s still a miracle. One cell becomes two, then four, then … a living, soon-to-be-breathing human being.

I still remember the birth of our first son. I held a camera in my hands to take photos of the new arrival.

I was so in awe of the moment of David’s birth, I froze. The nurse shaped her hands like a camera and pantomimed taking a picture. I snapped out of my reverie and took a few frames.

Our lives changed forever.

New birth does that.

Anniversary

Anniversaries are special, too, as the couple celebrates thriving through the inevitable ups and downs of marriage – hopefully more ups.

Long-lasting marriages tend to stand out in today’s society, don’t they?

Marriage is not easy, and involves plenty of compromises. But if husband and wife are both committed to the relationship, it grows and deepens.

That’s the ideal, anyway.

The second two events were presented as prayer requests.

Struggle

My friend has prayed for years that her son would overcome his addiction. Apparently, the severe side effects have finally forced him to seek help.

Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can get better.

I’ve thought about that every so often over the years. Do I have to hit rock bottom before my life can truly change? Why else would I ask Jesus Christ to change me, if I didn’t realize I needed changing?

I’ve never had a chemical dependency (except for the caffeine in coffee, I admit it) or faced a crisis for which I see no way out.

Or, have I?

When my family moved out of state before my ninth-grade year, I was afraid. Since I knew no one in my new school on the first day of class, I searched for something or someone to lean on – and found nothing. The following summer, I was introduced to Jesus in a very personal way, and that began a lifelong process of getting to know Him as my Lord as well as my Savior.

In a sense, then, I did hit rock bottom. I reached a point where I knew I needed something I didn’t have. This is not envy or jealousy. No material possession was going to answer my deepest need.

My friend’s son is at that point too, whether he realizes it or not. If he eventually comes clean from his addiction, that would be a wonderful answer to prayer. But then what? How would he fill that vacuum in his life? The answer to that would determine whether he relapses or not.

That’s down the road for him. Life is a process, not a one-time-decision-live-happily-ever-after moment.

Our pastor, in his current sermon series, calls this “discipleship.” It’s the lifelong process of growing ever closer to God after making the decision to follow Him.

We find our purpose in life through that process. The end game is very real, but so is the journey.

Where are we going?

Addictions are extremely difficult to break. You and I both have seen this over and over.

Experience is not always the best teacher. Not all experiences are worth having. Why can’t we learn from the mistakes of others?

Death

Eventually, we all die. It’s inevitable. Our bodies will wear out sooner or later, unless something unforeseen takes our lives suddenly.

Strokes happen to many people, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. My father-in-law suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke in his mid-50s that incapacitated him. For a man who owned a business and was a leader in his field, that was a difficult pill for him to swallow. He lived for about 15 years after that.

My friend’s brother survived only a couple of days after his stroke.

Either way, life is not fair, is it?

Every one of us can lament something. Perhaps it’s physical health, a relationship that didn’t work out or is causing us pain, a job loss, family issues … something traumatic and/or something chronic. Each of us can identify something that we’re lamenting.

Choices

How do we handle such struggles? With grace and optimism, or with anger and blame?

Do we seek help when necessary? Or do we fight through it, unwilling to even admit our issues? Frequently this is my problem. I am not good at asking for assistance, even though there are a number of people in my life I could turn to if I truly needed them.

But it’s hard to admit need, isn’t it?

Which brings us back to the baby our friends are expecting next summer.

So pure, so beautiful, so dependent … that’s what babies are.

What kind of a world will he or she be born into? Will that baby know joy, or sorrow?

Probably both. The soon-to-be parents know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, so their child will get off to a great start. He or she will be loved and will learn to love in the deepest sense of that word.

As the child grows, he or she will learn the struggles of life, and hopefully how to overcome them.

There will be anniversaries, and eventually death.

The circle of life continues.

Is your circle bright, or is it gray like the rain – or worse, black?

The night is blackest as it nears dawn. Sunrise is coming.

Eventually, the rain will stop, the clouds will disappear and the sun will shine brightly.

In these days of partial sun and plenty of clouds and rain, I’m preparing for full sunshine. Are you?

Holidays abundant in December

Happy holidays!

December holds many more holidays than Christmas. Some also are celebrated by Christians, but many are celebrated by followers of other faiths, or are secular.

Here’s a summary of popular December holidays, celebrated in the United States and/or around the world:

Advent

Advent is the period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas. Advent means ‘coming’ in Latin. This is the coming of Jesus into the world. Christians use the four Sundays and weeks of Advent to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas.

No one is really sure when Advent was first celebrated, but it dates to at least 567 A.D. when monks were ordered to fast during December leading up to Christmas.

In many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, Advent lasts for 40 days and starts on Nov. 15, and is also called the Nativity Fast.

http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/advent.shtml

Bodhi Day

On Dec. 8 Buddhists celebrated Bodhi Day, the day when Siddhartha Gautama, on seeing the morning star at dawn, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree and became the Buddha, the “Awakened One.”

Buddha’s enlightenment has for 2,500 years been the central article of faith for Buddhists, as well as being the unifying principle of all Buddhist teaching. For Buddhists everywhere Bodhi Day is an opportunity to acknowledge their dedication to the principles of wisdom, compassion and kindness — the distinguishing features of the Buddhist worldview.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lewis-richmond/celebrating-bodhi-day-for-the-21st-century_b_2254289.html

Boxing Day

Boxing Day occurs every year on Dec. 26. It’s a national holiday in the United Kingdom and Ireland. If the day after Christmas falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the following Monday is designated as the official public holiday.

Dec. 26 is also the feast day of Saint Stephen, the patron saint of horses, which is why Boxing Day has come to be associated with horse racing and fox hunting.

According to some, Boxing Day can be traced to the Victorian era when churches often displayed a box into which their parishioners put donations.

Also in Britain, on the day after Christmas Day, servants of the wealthy were given time off to visit their families because their services were required for the Christmas Day celebrations of their employers. They were therefore allowed the following day for their own observance of the holiday and each servant would be handed a box to take home, containing gifts, bonuses and sometimes leftover food.

It was also customary for tradespeople to collect “Christmas boxes” of presents or money on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/christmas/0/boxing-day-2016-what-is-it-and-why-do-we-celebrate-it/

Christmas

A Christian holiday on Dec. 25 honoring the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas evolved over two millennia into a worldwide religious and secular celebration, incorporating many pre-Christian pagan traditions into the festivities along the way. Today, Christmas is a time for family and friends to get together and exchange gifts.

http://www.history.com/topics/christmas

Eid Milad UnNabi

Sunni Muslims observe the Prophet Muhammed’s birthday on the 12th day of the Islamic month of Rabi’ al-awwal, while Shi’a Muslims mark it on the 17th of this month. Muhammed is believed to be the last prophet.

Mawlid, or Milad, is celebrated with large street parades in some countries. Homes and mosques are also decorated. Some people donate food and other goods for charity on or around this day. Others listen to their children read out poems about events that occurred in the Prophet Muhammed’s life. Mawlid is celebrated in this way in many communities across the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

However, many Muslims do not participate in celebrations on this day. Instead, they may mark the occasion by spending more time to read the Koran. Muhammed is said to have been born on a Monday and some scholars see fasting during the hours of daylight on Mondays as another way to celebrate his birth.

https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/muslim/prophet-birthday

Feast of the Holy Family

The Feast of the Holy Family celebrates the human family unit, as well as the ultimate family unit: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The feast, not a solemnity, is usually celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas. If Christmas is a Sunday (as it is this year), then the feast is celebrated on Dec. 30.

The main purpose of the Feast is to present the Holy Family as the model for all Christian families, and for domestic life in general.

http://www.churchyear.net/holyfamily.html

Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe

The Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe is becoming an increasingly popular Catholic feast in some American communities on Dec. 12. It is dedicated to Jesus’ mother Mary.

The day is particularly special for Americans of Mexican heritage, as it honors the belief that Mary, who is Mexico’s patron saint, appeared to a man in Mexico City twice in 1531.

https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/lady-guadalupe-day

Hanukkah

Chanukah is the Jewish eight-day wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and fried foods.

The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication,” and is thus named because it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple. Also spelled Hanukkah (or variations of that spelling), the Hebrew word is actually pronounced with a guttural “kh” sound, kha-nu-kah, not tcha-new-kah.

In the second century BC, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of mitzvah observance and belief in God. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on Earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God.

When they sought to light the Temple’s Menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum), they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, they lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah.

Hanukkah is celebrated Dec. 24 to Jan. 1 this year.

http://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/102911/jewish/What-Is-Hanukkah.htm

Holy Innocents Day

Feast of the Holy Innocents, also called Childermas, or Innocents’ Day, is celebrated in Christian churches in the West on Dec. 28 and in Eastern churches on Dec. 29 to commemorate the massacre of children by King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:16-18).

These children were regarded by the early church as the first martyrs, but it is uncertain when the day was first kept as a saint’s day. At first it may have been celebrated with Epiphany, but by the 5th century it was kept as a separate festival. In Rome it was a day of fasting and mourning.

The day is still observed as a feast day and, in Roman Catholic countries, as a day of merrymaking for children.

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Feast-of-the-Holy-Innocents

Immaculate Conception

Many Christians around the world, particularly those of the Catholic faith, mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in their diaries and calendars. Church services (or Masses) to honor this observance are held on or around Dec. 8.

Theological controversy surrounded the Feast of the Immaculate Conception for centuries. However, popular celebration of this holiday dates to at least the eighth century. The argument related to the meaning of the word “immaculate,” which in this context refers to the belief that Jesus’ mother Mary was conceived without original sin.

Many theologians throughout Christian history, including St. Thomas Aquinas, questioned the Immaculate Conception. It remained open for debate for many years until Pope Pius IX proclaimed it to be an essential dogma in the Catholic Church on Dec. 8, 1854. Since then, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the belief that Mary was born without sin and that God chose her to be Jesus’ mother. Many Anglicans in the world also hold this belief.

https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/common/immaculate-conception

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday honoring African culture and traditions. It falls between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 each year. Maulana Karenga, an African-American leader, proposed this observance and it was first celebrated between December 1966 and January 1967.

It is celebrated by people from a range of African countries and their descendants. Kwanzaa consists of a week of celebrations, which ends with a feast and the exchange of gifts. During the celebrations, candles are lit and libations are poured. A libation is the name given to a ritual pouring of a drink as an offering to a god. During Kwanzaa, a wooden unity cup is used to pour the libations.

A Kwanzaa ceremony often also includes performance of music and drumming, a reflection on the Pan-African colors of red, green and black, and a discussion of some aspect of African history. Women often wear brightly colored traditional clothing. Some cultural organizations hold special exhibitions of African influenced art or performances during the period of the celebrations.

https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/kwanzaa

Las Posadas

The Las Posadas (Spanish: “The Inns”) religious festival is celebrated in Mexico between Dec. 16 and 24. Las Posadas commemorates the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a safe refuge where Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus. When they were unable to find lodging in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary were forced to seek shelter in a stable, where the Christ child was born.

Las Posadas is celebrated in cities and towns across Mexico. Each evening during the festival, a small child dressed as an angel leads a procession through the streets of town. The procession is primarily made up of children dressed in silver and gold robes carrying lit candles and images of Mary and Joseph riding a donkey. Adults, including musicians, follow the procession, which visits selected homes and asks for lodging for Joseph and Mary. Traditionally, the procession is always refused lodging, though the hosts often provide refreshments. At each stop, passages of scripture are read and Christmas carols are sung.

Mass is held each day after the procession and, at the conclusion of the service, children break open piñatas filled with candy, toys and, occasionally, money. The piñatas are usually crafted in the form of a star, which was said to have guided the three wise men of biblical tradition to the newborn Jesus.

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Las-Posadas

Pancha Ganapati

Pancha Ganapati is a modern Hindu festival that lasts for five days, from Dec. 21 to Dec. 25. It honors Ganesha, one of the most worshiped Hindu deities. Ganesha is venerated as the patron of arts and culture.

The festival of Pancha Ganapati was created in 1985 by Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (born Robert Hansen), an American-born convert to Hinduism. The celebration was conceived as a Hindu alternative to December holidays (Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, etc.).

Pancha Ganapati is a family holiday. During each of five days of the festival, all family members focus on sadhana, a special spiritual practice. Pancha Ganapati symbolizes mending of all past mistakes and new beginnings. It is customary to create a shrine with a large statue or picture of Lord Ganesha in the main room and decorate it with leaves, flowers and hanging ornaments.

Each day of the festival is associated with a different color and meaning behind it:

  • Dec. 21: golden yellow, love and harmony among family members.
  • Dec. 22: royal blue, love and harmony among neighbors.
  • Dec. 23: ruby red, love and harmony among business associates.
  • Dec. 24: emerald green, joy and harmony that come from the arts (music, dance, drama, art).
  • Dec. 25: brilliant orange, love and harmony within all three worlds (trailokya).

https://anydayguide.com/calendar/3071

Saint Lucia’s Day

St. Lucia’s Day is a festival of lights celebrated in Sweden, Norway and the Swedish-speaking areas of Finland on Dec. 13 in honor of St. Lucia. One of the earliest Christian martyrs, St. Lucia was killed by the Romans in 304 AD because of her religious beliefs.

In Scandinavian countries, each town elects its own St. Lucia. The festival begins with a procession led by the St. Lucia designee, who is followed by young girls dressed in white and wearing lighted wreaths on their heads and boys dressed in a white pajama-like costume singing traditional songs. The festival marks the beginning of the Christmas season in Scandinavia, and it is meant to bring hope and light during the darkest time of the year.

Schools generally close around noon on the day of the festival so that families can prepare for the holiday. Families observe St. Lucia’s Day in their homes by having one of their daughters (traditionally the eldest) dress in white and serve coffee and baked goods, such as saffron bread (lussekatter) and ginger biscuits, to the other members of the family. These traditional foods are also given to visitors during the day.

Saint Nicholas Day

In many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. His feast day, St. Nicholas Day, is Dec. 6. In some places he arrives in the middle of November and moves about the countryside, visiting schools and homes to find out if children have been good. In other places he comes in the night and finds carrots and hay for his horse or donkey along with children’s wish lists. Small treats are left in shoes or stockings so the children will know he has come.

Where St. Nicholas is prominent, his day, not Christmas, is the primary gift-giving day. Parties may be held on the eve, Dec. 5, and shoes or stockings left for St. Nicholas to fill during the night. Children will find small gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies. St. Nicholas gifts are meant to be shared, not hoarded for oneself.

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/around-the-world/

Watchnight

A watchnight service is a late-night Christian church service. In different Christian denominations, such as Apostolic Pentecostals and Methodists, the watchnight service is held late on New Year’s Eve, and ends after midnight. This provides the opportunity for Christians to review the year that has passed and make confession, and then prepare for the year ahead by praying and resolving. The service often includes singing, praying, exhorting and preaching.

Following the lead of a small Christian denomination called the Moravians in what is now the Czech Republic that began having “watch” services in 1733, the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, originated watchnight services in 1740, sometimes calling them Covenant Renewal Services. The services provided Methodist Christians with a godly alternative to times of drunken revelry, such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Today, a Methodist watchnight service includes singing, spontaneous prayers and testimonials, as well as scripture readings.

Watchnight service has added significance and history in the African-American community in the United States, since many slaves were said to have gathered in churches on New Year’s Eve, in 1862, to await news and confirmation of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863.

In Anglican or Roman Catholic churches, this ceremony is often replicated in the form of a Midnight Mass or Eucharist.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchnight_service

Yalda

Iranians around the world celebrate Yalda, which is one of the most ancient Persian festivals. The festival dates to the time when a majority of Persians were followers of Zoroastrianism before the advent of Islam.

On Yalda festival, Iranians celebrate the arrival of winter, the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness.

Considered the longest night of the year, Yalda eve is the night when ancient Iranians celebrated the birth of Mithra, the goddess of light.

Yalda, which means birth, is a Syriac word imported into the Persian language. It is also referred to as Shab-e Chelleh, a celebration of the winter solstice on Dec. 21 — the last night of fall and the longest night of the year.

http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Celebrating_Yalda_2.htm

Yule

The holiday marks the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (Dec. 21) and celebrates the rebirth of the sun and beginning of winter. It is one of the oldest winter celebrations known.

The winter solstice is the longest night and shortest day of the year. In ancient Rome, the weeklong feast of Saturnalia honored the sun god Saturn. Celts believed the sun stood still for 12 days, making it necessary to light a log fire to conquer the darkness. During the Iron Age, the Celts and other ancient Europeans welcomed the winter solstice by feasting, merrymaking and sacrificing animals. Today, modern pagans celebrate the holiday by lighting candles, throwing bonfires, hosting feasts and decorating their homes.

http://www.ibtimes.com/winter-solstice-2014-3-things-know-about-pagan-yule-celebrations-1763756