Christmas Reflection – Friends lost

Merry Christmas! Today in the city of David a savior is born for you who is Messiah and Lord. This ‘for you” is plural, for you reading, for your family, for all people of the earth. It is a birth that changes everyone and everything!

My reflections as I prepared for the coming of Jesus has been looking at “walking in the light.” Jesus birth brings a great light, a life that is the light of the human race, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it! (John 1:3-4) It is a light that shines, not hidden, it is a light reflected in each of us who allow Jesus to dwell in us. This year I am reflecting on two friends, both who have gone home too soon for my and many others liking. Both such bright lights that they will shine here for a long time to come. Their departure challenged my faith. But in the end their influence called me to deeper faith.

The readings for Christmas for most ritual churches provide various choices depending on the hours of the service. For this reflection I have selected the readings from the Lectionary for the Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the Night; Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalms 96:1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14.

The reading from the prophet Isaiah focuses on a time when King Hezekiah had taken rule from his father King Ahaz and unlike his father was a pious man who put his trust in the Lord. Galilee was laid waste by the Assyrian army, and its population was deported. King Hezekiah of Judah would reconquer that region, which would recover its splendor for a period, giving a glimmer of hope. This prophecy looked at that success and hope declaring a time of glory, of light, increased joy, oppression broken, for a child is born, a son given, who leads. He is called, “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Many think this is too much exhortation to apply to Hezekiah and in time the gospel writers see this prophecy applying to Jesus. The short-term conquest of Galilee by Hezekiah is seen as being only an announcement of the definitive salvation brought about by Christ. Therefore this is a reading proclaimed during the celebration of the Nativity as these words fit so completely with the purpose and accomplishments of Jesus. Jesus is a Wonder-Counselor because he has the Wisdom of Solomon, God-Hero as he has the skill and expertise of King David, Father-Forever as he is a leader and liberator like Moses and Prince of Peace having the virtues of the patriarchs who made peace to survive. His dominion is vast and forever! It is a prophecy that shows great faith, in Hezekiah and his conquest and upon Jesus who provides even greater than any king or ruler. The promise of true counsel, a hero, a father and peace can be no more completely provided than in the Son of God, the Lord. All belief in this prophecy requires faith in God and his plan for his people.

The second reading is a letter from Paul to his disciple Titus instructing him primarily to assign leaders to the community, a set of organizing instructions. We see in the reading a promise of the grace of God appearing.  Grace is seen as an unmerited gift, it would be given by kings to subjects on certain occasions. God’s grace is an eternal gift. We can interpret God’s grace appearing as the incarnation of Jesus, a grace that provides eternal life. Paul instructs us to live in Godly ways; live for ourselves – temperately, for others – justly and for God – devoutly. But grace is not contingent on these recommendations. We are awaiting hope, the glory of God, the savior Jesus Christ who gave himself. Paul is speaking of the second coming of Christ, promised by Jesus himself. We recognize Paul’s unshakable faith, guiding others to live Godly lives so that when Jesus returns no one will be caught off guard. Coming together as a community, people must live for God and others first and self secondarily; as Jesus witnessed in his life and Paul says about him in the reading; he “who gave himself for us to deliver us.” Paul wants to impart his hope and faith upon Titus to share with the community. Jesus coming is for others, it is grace appearing. We can put on faith and see the glory of God, in fact we can become the glory of God.

In the gospel Luke shares the story of Jesus birth and the proclaiming and singing of glory by the angels and heavenly hosts. Much of this birth narrative of Jesus is written to demonstrate Jesus is the Messiah as understood by prophecy. A  Messiah born from the line of David, coming from the town of David.

The appearance to the shepherds foreshadows Jesus lifelong message of being a Good Shepherd, living a life for those who are his people, all people. He began life with humble surroundings and people of lowly status are the first to hear about him and greet him, unable even to bring a gift. It is a reminder that Jesus is the gift. The appearance of God incarnate, proclaimed by a heavily host.

Of course anyone looking at the manger would see a mere baby, vulnerable and dependent on his mother and father. Both would do all in their power to bring the child to a full and rewarding life, like any parent. God comes for our salvation, but must be cared for and in certain cases saved by his parents. It speaks to the relationship sought by God from humanity.

God through the prophet Jeremiah promises restoration, an everlasting covenant, taking delight in doing good for us. Jeremiah says, “They shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Jeremiah 32:38) God has promised a new covenant written upon our hearts, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

God comes for our salvation, but must be cared for and in certain cases saved by humans. It speaks to the relationship sought by God from humanity. Click To Tweet

God desires relationship, Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant, dependent on human parents as he begins living the new covenant. His parents have faith in God who will bring them a son and these parents promise God they will care for his vulnerable son, it requires faith in each other. God could have come in many different ways, as simple as appearing on the road and sharing his message. However, God chose to come vulnerable and needy, as if saying I need you and if you let me I will save you.

Jesus chose to come vulnerable and needy, as if saying I need you and if you let me I will save you. Click To Tweet

We are Jesus’ people, God incarnate who wants to be in a relationship, providing glory for all, salvation for all, life for all. We must have faith to enter into this relationship and learn how to live our best life. Jesus’ parents have faith in God. Jesus has faith in people. If we trust and have faith we too can have the grace of God appearing to us, we will see the light of the world.

As I reflect on this relationship God wants with us and the faith we require to be open to this relationship my thoughts turn to friends who walked in the Light of Christ and were called home this past year. Sheily Voltz is a sister in Christ who is deeply rooted in many hearts, including my own. Pat D’Orsi a brother in Christ left us suddenly and when I think of him it is not with tears, but with joy. Both of these friends were the Light of Christ to me and many others whose lives they touched. This Christmas I am thinking of them, their light on my life and how they call me to deeper faith.

Sheily Voltz

I can’t even remember the first time I met Shiely. It seems to me she was always there, doing, helping, caring. But our friendship deepened when we began to work together on a specific project. In hopes of making life at church more alive for people, new programs were being created, all centered on welcoming people, making people feel at home in the church and challenging people to participate rather than simply attend church.

We would begin each service with a welcome video. Something that would help people transition from the life of 24 hours news, hurrying kids in the morning to get to church on time, and driving in what is becoming more and more a Mad Max driving environment. Any celebrant or pastor would be able tell you as they look out at the congregation for the first fifteen minutes of any service they recognize that “deer in the head lights” look on the the faces. It is not easy to go from all the craziness of life to an instant calm, peaceful, open and ready to receive Jesus. So churches think of ways to settle people before everything begins. We decided on a video

Shiely was quick to agree to be the volunteer in front of the camera. We would make short three or four minutes videos that would signal something different. It never really mattered what was said, Shiely’s presence on the screens told everyone take a deep breath, look around, see where you are, and greet someone. It was something new and as we discovered truly helpful as an introduction to the service.

Shiely took it serious, she was always ready to be recorded. She would read a script and always worked to do a great job, she was more professional than any paid staffer. She was fully present, gave all of herself, fully intentional about what she was doing, never casual about the experience at all. For many it might become monotonous, and something to get done with quickly. Shiely treated each recording as if it was the first time. She was always aware that someone might be new, seeing the video for the first time and trying to settle themselves into a new environment. She took great care to look her best, she would work to never repeat a look even changing hair style every so often making sure she always presented a fresh professional image. Her care and love for what we were doing made a great product, truly pleasant and received well.

As time passed Shiely became the face of the church. People would see her at the store or on the road and would recognize her. She even met people through her profession that had seen her welcoming people at church through the video medium. This was great because Shiely lived the image of Jesus as best she could and was a spokesperson for the church in how she lived her life. As a face of the church we couldn’t have done better.

Shiely lived the image of Jesus as best she could and was a spokesperson for the church in how she lived her life. As a face of the church we couldn't have done better Click To Tweet

I was lucky enough to run the camera and edit the video. It was a blessing for me because of Sheily. We recorded a new video every week for almost three years and thanks to Shiely it was never a chore. In fact I always looked forward to meeting her every Thursday for the weekly recording. We talked, recorded, shared about ourselves, we became good friends and came to love each other.

Nothing could have been easier than meeting Shiely each week. She would share her life, her husband Mike and sons Hudson and Austin were always on her mind. I would love hearing about what was happening in their lives, what the dinner plan might be, I even got to hear about the dogs. Sheily always made me feel like I was a part of her life. She would wonder about me and what was going on in my life. She became a big part of what meeting Jesus meant to me, she was Jesus for me.

Occasionally the leadership of the church would surprise us showing up on a Thursday to be the faces on the video, taking over the weekly message. They came without warning. I know I never reacted well to these surprises, I particularly was uncomfortable because it seemed to disrespect Shiely’s time. If they were going to be in front of the camera then she wasn’t needed and could have been free to do something else.

As I was getting frustrated and trying unsuccessfully to remain cool, I could see Sheily was the picture of calm, she was loving and caring for the leaders and just wanted to be sure everything worked. Her calmness calmed me. It wasn’t anything she said, it was just her presence. She cared for everyone, and made others important. She taught me through her living example.

After we began working together on this video project, I noticed Shiely in so many other roles around the church, she volunteered to help everywhere and was such an example that her two sons volunteered everywhere as well. She would bring ideas that would help us become more welcoming; like creating sandwich boards as signs we loved new guests. She suggested a magnet program about the church. We could give people magnets for their cars that would share we were open and interested in new members. She was fully committed to help the church grow and welcome new people. She lived her commitment, giving time, praying and could always be seen listening to people with her full attention.

Shiely got ill and it was a gut punch for the entire church. She was a presence and as she was less present it was obvious and she was greatly missed. People all felt like they knew her and wanted to help, she was deeply loved. I was shocked to hear the news. I didn’t want to think that it would lead to losing her. I had faith and I was convinced with prayer she would be healed. I was positive, prayer will heal her. I told people it was going to be alright and that God was going to provide a miracle. I prayed as hard as any time in my life. I was convinced my faith was as big as a mustard seed and God would heal her.

In less than a years’ time Shiely a saint on earth, became a Saint in heaven. I remember my last time with her, it included a five minute hug, one in which I can still feel her arms around me. She made a lasting impression and I think of her every day. But I didn’t understand. I had faith bigger than a mustard seed. Why did she have to go?

Pat D’Orsi

Pat was another friend who was always helping around the church. He would do anything to teach children. He would lead small groups, he would proclaim the Word of God, share the Body of Christ, anything that could be done to bring the presence of Jesus to someone, Pat was willing to do. He was the busiest man and always had time to help, even saying yes to help Missions outreach at the church. There was nothing he couldn’t do, he was talented, intelligent, caring and fun.

Pat led the Confirmation program for many years. He tried to get middle school’ers and first year high school students to engage about God. Students who were mostly there because they were told they had to go by their parents. Pat brought enthusiasm, funny and joy to his role. He would get others to help, friends and others who wouldn’t imagine themselves in front of teenagers but were glad to help because they did it with Pat.

Pat’s programs were informative and fun for sure. He was respected and liked by the teens. Although none would ever admit they liked coming they did like being with Pat. He made their time together “bearable.” He cared, he believed in what he taught and he knew if these teens would just hear a little of the message they too could have a happy joy filled life. Pat got to those students, he was a force that would never run out of hope and energy.

Pat also helped with the young children’s small groups. He would do whatever it took to witness to the gospel message for young kids. He dressed many times as a prophet or Jesus himself, just to make the Word of God real for young people. He was loud, funny, caring and loving in a manner that is not comparable to anyone else. Young kids felt like they knew him so well they would say he was just like Jesus (or rather Jesus must have been like Pat.)

Pat was just as welcoming and loving to adults. Everyone thought he was their best friend, even people that only met him at church on Sunday. He would make time to have coffee with people, sitting with people and listening, he would even buy the coffee. He listened, and heard people, he knew who everyone was and that everyone was important to God and to him.

As a small group leader every member of his group felt special. Their presence at the small group gathering was important and if they weren’t there they were missed. Any small group could end up with one person who talks too much, needs too much, and can at times do something to be disruptive to the entire group. I remember one such person in the group Pat led. When she would come to me and ask for things I have to admit I was not very open, in fact I was quite short and dismissive with her. For Pat she was the most important person and he treated her like a queen. He would teach about Jesus by his example as much as any other means.

Even when the job was to work on a committee and come up with a strategy for the mission work, Pat was committed, a leader and brought a focused energy to the project. He could do so much and be so helpful in so many ways. For me, like the kids he was an example of a living Jesus, certainly he was Jesus’ brother.

The first news of Pat being ill was followed very quickly by news of his passing, it all happened within a month. There wasn’t even time to process that he could be ill and that it was really bad. I prayed hard for Pat’s healing but it was all over so quickly it was shocking. Another saint on earth had become a Saint in Heaven.

Faith

Both Sheily and Pat were people you wanted to be around. In their presence you felt more alive, more positive, more joyful. They didn’t even have to say or do anything, you just had to be with them. Many people would agree with this truth. From the young to the eldest Shiely and Pat had an affect. They were doing God’s work in the church, leading people to Jesus who gave people a better life. So their passing begs the question; why?

My faith was so strong, my prayer consistent, through their illnesses I was begging God every day, promising my faith was strong enough. I do believe in God, I would ask, please let there be a miracle. There wasn’t. Why God?

Shiely and Pat were both great people, the kind of people we need more of in the world. They have families that still depend on them. They had many people in their lives who were enriched by them. I said to myself a number of times, it didn’t seem right.

I realized my faith was shaken. I study the word of God. I know what God has said and I follow what God instructs. I believe what is written. But God didn’t seem to care or respond at all. As if what I believed didn’t matter, or faith isn’t as important as I understood. Maybe God wasn’t listening to me?

But in time I realized my response is wrong. God has a plan. We all loved Shiely and Pat so much, but God loves everyone more than anyone loves anyone. Perhaps God missed them, more than we miss them now and God wanted them home. No doubt they accomplished their mission for God. So he wanted to see them face to face. I am not trying to say there is anything selfish on God’s part, God’s plan also is what is best for all of us. As strong as Shiely and Pat have been, their families are as strong. Shiely’s boys are a big presence and leaders at the church. Pat’s family displayed amazing courage and poise at his sending off. Their families will live their legacy and represent their lives beautifully, I am sure of it. God may understand Shiely and Pat leaving now is the best for all of us, even if I don’t believe it or understand it. God sees the big picture and knows his plans are best.

We all loved Shiely and Pat so much, but God loves everyone more than anyone loves anyone. Perhaps God missed them, more than we miss them now and God wanted them home Click To Tweet

What I realized is people with strong faith, as I believe I have, need to be even stronger in times of great loss as we experienced with Shiely and Pat’s departure. It is strong faith that others, those with little or no faith need to see, so they can survive and even be encouraged. If faithful people lose their faith when times are tough or difficult than what does faith mean? Anyone can have strong faith when all is going well, going the right way.

It is when there is great suffering, great loss, great tragedy that people of faith need to show their faith is unshakable. Faith demonstrated in difficult times is faith that influences. I know both Sheily and Pat would want us to continue, to be strong, to show strong faith. They had strong faith in their life. They have imbued their loved ones with strong faith, courage, beauty and a foundation that will keep them strong. They passed strong faith on to their friends. I need to trust God and be strong in faith, undoubtable, it is what faith requires.

I may have been shaken for a while but it helped me understand strong faith is important. The call of God is not a call of individuals but a call into community, we strengthen one another. Having faith, even as small as a mustard seed helps others remain strong. We depend on one another. It was a difficult lesson but one I am sure to remember.

I suppose when I get to the point where I can actually be joyful for loved ones going home to God, then I will be at a point where my faith is truly strong.

Good bye friends. You are dearly missed. With faith I will see you again where you walk in the light.

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