January is a hard month to love, especially in the Northern United States where I live.  Our friends in the Southern Hemisphere may be loving life these days, but January takes a toll here.  Our bloggers, in different locations, are finding unexpected gifts this week, and they share their discoveries with us.

Living up to her title of The Wisdom Years, Mary Elyn Bahlert is finding a gift in a new understanding of list.  As we ponder calendars and planners in this new year, she has a different idea.  “For most of my life, I was good at making lists.  Creative, even…when I had work that allowed me to set my own schedule daily and weekly, I made a list at the beginning of each day, and had the satisfaction of crossing out what I did during each day.”  Now her idea of a list has shifted.  “Now, I know  a “list” of a different sort.  The birch tree I love (and the tree that returns my love), lists elegantly to the right.  I love its list.  I am accustomed to that sway, the elegant list, as if I had caught my friend mid-step as it danced alone, not expecting to be seen.  I have the luxury of those few precious moments that are needed to relish that sway, the list.”

Every long partnership holds mysterious blessings, and Aileen Lawrimore reflects on 30 years with her beloved at Aileen Goes On, including this poignant memory of their early years together. “After about six months of looking and visiting, we joined First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, the first church we belonged to as a married couple. Seven years later, the sanctuary’s 100+ year old windows were blown out by the explosion orchestrated by homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh at the nearby Alfred P. Murrah federal building. That day, 168 people died and 680 more were injured. (Back then, we thought it would be the most tragic event of its kind in our lifetime.)”

Looking for glimmers of light in this winter month, Diana Trautwein reflects on teaching Confirmation after the mudslides in her California community.  Setting aside the binder full of lesson plans, they shared stories with the teenagers.  “We began with stories of devastation, loss, terror and sorrow…the mountain came down.  Boulders larger than small houses, century-old trees, automobiles, even entire homes, were swept downstream toward the ocean, taking twenty human lives away forever and injuring scores of others. Four of those killed were children. One of those rescued from a six-hour burial in thick, viscous mud, was a member of our youth group—the same age as the students around that table. Her father died, her brother is still missing, her mom is in the hospital with multiple injuries, expected to recover…So, this morning, we spent some time sharing stories about the darkness: a 6th grade girl who died, known and loved by several students; a friend of another who rescued a toddler; families evacuated, leaving their homes for what they thought was a 1 or 2 day absence only to discover there is no predictable return date for anyone.”

Inviting the class to share resurrection stories, she heard those, too.  “And those stories tumbled out, too. A home spared when all those around were destroyed, prompting the owners to ask, “What can we do to help the others?” A mother and daughter, weeping over the loss of their family, strongly saying, “We are here for a reason. Let’s look for it.” Rescue workers who worked tirelessly to find and save people who were trapped. A last minute gathering for lament and prayer on our church campus—we had power, but no gas, no water and won’t have either for the foreseeable future. A community-wide prayer vigil at our historic courthouse, attended by hundreds. Yes, yes! There is light, there are signs of resurrection, even in this horrific darkness.”

The unexpected chance to play in the snow delighted Rosa at Las Puertas Abiertas de Par en Par, who writes from Lowndes County, Alabama.  “It’s fifteen degrees outside and with windchill, it feels like -1. About 3 inches of snow fell during the night and even the interstates were shut down in this part of the world.  Earlier this morning, I got to make another snow angel. When you are edging towards 60 and have had hip replacement surgery, you know better than to assume there are endless opportunities to do something that tickles you half to death. You make that snow angel now, the best you can.”  She shares a picture with us, too.

At Ash and Starlight, Arianne Braithwaite Lehn offers us a prayer, including this hope for the surprising gift of empty places:

“I can be so afraid of emptiness.

There are so many ways to stuff out the echoes of hollowness….

fill the house with unneeded stuff, fill the wallet with money,

fill the garages with spares of this and that, fill the belly with more and more food,

fill the mind with whatever distractions can be found, fill the time with busy-ness….

But it won’t pad the emptiness, or fill the void.

Give me the courage, God, to clear this clutter!

To see in this empty space a sacredness, a needed gift, a place you will come and get to work.”

We hope your January – wherever you are – holds its own mystery gifts.   Where are you finding unexpected January blessings this week?  Let us know about your surprise gifts in the comments section below.

Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian Church.  She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City.

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