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Shopping for the Right Presents

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It’s late in the night and the house is quiet except the muffled tick of the clock, the white noise of the refrigerator, and my fingers sporadically tapping these keys.  It’s dark except for the Christmas tree lights a few feet away, little stars of light shining near my computer and across my patchwork blanket. A glance at the clock tells me that it’s not late at night like I first thought, it’s actually the first hour of Christmas Eve.  By this time tomorrow, the presents will be piled under the tree and the stockings laden with jelly beans and and candy canes and miniatures treasures.

True to our personalities, my husband and I have been finishing up our shopping at the last minute, and we’ll be anxiously awaiting the last Amazon box, due to arrive “by 8pm on the 24th”, according to the tracking data.  We’ve budgeted and agonized over the purchases, adding numbers and checking the kids’ wish lists and doing our best to buy three presents of similar value for each of our four children. Most likely we’ve guessed pretty well thanks to their detailed lists, and after a frenzy of paper ripping, the kids will all be happy with the presents.

For a little while.

Tonight(this morning), as I think over their presents, I’m dissatisfied that I can’t give them what I long to wrap and place in the their hands and in their hearts.  I long to give them each an identity steeped deeply in the Lord. I long to help each of my children believe that they were lovingly and uniquely created by the hand of their Father. I long for them to see that nothing they do in this world, right or wrong, can make them any more (or less) loved or valued by God. I long for them to know that they don’t need to seek out their worth from their peers, or the internet, or even their parents, because their worth is beyond measure and has been since they were a gleam in their Heavenly Father’s eye.

I’d like to give my oldest daughter a true glimpse of the God who died for her, who is with her now, and will be with her forever, when the visible, tangible things of this world have vanished.

I’d like to give my second daughter a mirror that reflects the image God sees when He looks at her, a daughter radiant in strength and joy and beauty, a mirror that absorbs the lies of beauty that this world projects onto every magazine and billboard.

I’d like to give my son a similar mirror that reflects his image unbroken, made perfect in Jesus, a picture of who God has made him to be: a protector, a lover, a maker, a brother, a son.

I’d like to give my youngest daughter the gift of holding on to her beautiful and pure joy in the Lord and His creation, a joy that can’t be stripped away by the darkness of this world, or by the act of growing up.

I don’t have to power to give my children the gifts of faith, love, joy, peace, and hope. I can offer my prayers, I can offer my imperfect self with my imperfect love of Jesus into their daily lives, but I always come up short of how to fill the needs I see in their hearts.

What are Legos or a new scarf compared to the gift that arrived on the very first Christmas? Because of that gift we were all given a new identity.  We became adopted children of God, a brother(or sister) to Jesus,  and heirs to the Kingdom.

Lord, give them gifts that I cannot purchase or manifest by my will or desire. Give them gifts that will not gather dust in the corner of overcrowded closets, gifts that will instill a deep joy even when worldly happiness is in short supply, gifts that will hold them up when the world wants to pull the rug from their faith and hope.

In truth, the gift was given long ago, Lord help them to receive it.

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I’m on a Spy Mission for Advent

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This December I’m on a hunt for truth and beauty. Not the bendable truths and digitalized beauty of the world today, but truth seen through the filter of God’s word and beauty that reveals a hint of God’s everlasting glory.  A friend recently said, “I want to learn to see.  In art and in life, I want to look for God moving through the background.”

I’ve lived on a particular kind of beauty and truth these last many years, often wrapped in a cloak of painful situations.  Certainly God’s love has been revealed throughout that time and in that revelation there has been beauty, but my soul desperately needs to notice some other aspects. These have more to do with sunsets dipped in apricots hues and the pure, ringing laughter of a four-year old, both reflections of God’s truth and beauty.

Not only do I want to seek them out, I want to share them as well; with my children, with you, and many people I know who sit in an all too familiar darkness.  The darkness we see is not darkness to God and He calls us to be be windows of His light, so others can see a glimpse of His glory.

Here’s a beautiful poem crafted with the truth that our Savior left his throne and came down to a smelly, sweaty stable for you and for me.

 

Mary’s Song
by Luci Shaw

Blue Homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen into my arms. (Rest…
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe.  He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.

His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world. Charmed by doves’s voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes,
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now
he is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended,
I must see him torn.

 

(I’m thankful to the friend that brought me to Luci Shaw’s poetry this summer.  This poem came from a book called “Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation”, a great read for this month.)

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Searching for Normal

I drive past the overstuffed parking lots, trees tied to car roofs, and christmas lights blinking in the store windows.

Already? I ask myself, gripping the wheel tighter.

Is it time to shift the house into Christmas decorations? I’m still looking for a normal, kind-of-tidy house.

Is it time to pick an Advent devotional for the evenings? I’m still looking for normal, unhurried evenings.

Is it time to set aside some of our regular homeschool studies and pencil in special “Christmas time” unit studies and read-alouds? I’m still looking for normal school, when the basics all fit comfortably into our day.

Is it really time to make Christmas cookies every week? I’m still trying to get a routine of meals, and a break from extra sweets.

Is it really time to think about presents, service projects, and teacher gifts? I’m still looking a few free moments when I don’t feel tired.

I’m still searching for normal, I think to myself.

But what is normal? Have I ever had it? Does it mean balanced? No, I figured out many years ago that a life of momma-hood and homeschooling doesn’t equal balanced anything.

But I do remember a certain rhythm.

Rhythm, that’s what I’m looking for. A rhythm to our days.

Just as this lifestyle doesn’t invite balance, I know the rhythm of a season is temporary as well.  Children move to new grades, birthdays bring new parenting challenges, new babies call for a break in rhythm and some improvisation.

But we usually find a comfortable rhythm for a period of months, and we haven’t found that for a long time now.  Summer always throws me with its lack of routine, then our new homeschool year arrived with friction, and our first solid week of homeschool (that finished with hope) ended a few days before my Dad died.  Weeks of grieving and planning a memorial, a few choppy weeks of school, and now it’s Christmas? Did we even have Fall?

Usually Christmas arrives as a change of rhythm from our normal routine.

I don’t have a normal to set aside to make room for all that arrives with the month of December.

The seven years of taking care of my Dad certainly felt like a constant break in anything routine, new challenges always presenting themselves.  But looking back, I can see that visiting Dad every week, and meeting with nurses had it’s own rhythm of staccato beats. Maybe some rhythms can’t be recognized in the present moment, but only when the beat is lost.

Should I keep looking for our rhythm, and keep my hope tied to it?

Or is my hope better tied to something that doesn’t ever change?  Something I might remember if I can make the shift to Christmas?

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When the World Broke

As our family drove home last night we passed the engorged parking lot of Target and it was then that my world cracked wide open.

I thought about the men that we’d sat with around the table a few hours earlier.  Having no car themselves, these men had been driven in a stranger’s car to the church.  They’d been offered toothbrushes and soap, a place to put their laundry if they wanted their clothes washed. Passing by the cots that would be their guaranteed bed for one night, they sat down at the tables we’d set up.

We started bringing dishes out.  “That looks good,” one man said. And the empty plates were filled.

Here were the men we’d been preparing for all week.  Making christmas cards, decorations, and gift bags with things as simple as a hat, a stamped letter to get in touch with a family member.  Unlike so much of America’s shoppers, we hadn’t purchased Ipods or Kindles  (how would they connect those) or a large screen TV since, unlike everyone else I knew, they didn’t have a wall to hang it on.

All week we’d had a project.

We read all the right verses about how Jesus said what we do for the least of these we do for him and how he came for the hungry, lost, and oppressed.  (All truth.)

But until we sat down with these men, it had remained a project with a whole lot of unknown.  This was the part we’d been nervous about.

But then we saw what this meal, a meal that we could have any night at our house, meant to them.

We saw the toiletries and the laundry bags and watched them stand in a circle and listen to a list of rules for their one night at the church.  Were they just glad to have a bed, or was their self-respect brought even lower by the dependency on a bunch of strangers just to eat and sleep comfortably?

Now we had faces.  Now we saw hunger. Now we saw them at the mercy of a bunch of strangers.

Suddenly each object we placed in their gift bags was no longer theoretical-we saw one gentleman put his new hat on before he headed out for a smoke.

We were past “family christmas project” and stressed out mom who had worked hard to get things done that day, to privilege.

What a privilege.

And the glowing sign of Target flashed in my head again and we continued to drive through the crack between two worlds.  There was the world getting all of their last minute shopping done and there were these men who were back at the church getting ready for their one night before they were driven somewhere else the next morning.

In the back the kids were asking, “Can we do this again, can we please do this again?”

But the elation of pulling off the whole evening had dissipated and I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that these men weren’t a project.  Tomorrow their day was going to be just as challenging as this one.  We served them one meal out of how many that they need to eat in a year?  And it made me sad that it was privilege.  It made me sad that one meal or one bit of kindness should be a big deal for them at all.

We live in a small home, our kids share rooms, we don’t own big gadgets, and yet we are so rich.  I think if we have enough food to complain about what we’re eating for breakfast, or be annoyed by the pile of stuff blocking the door, or the ability to depend only on our own selves for what we need, then we’re stinking rich, actually.

But this isn’t a post about guilt.  I’m not asking the question, “how can we all feel bad enough about our stuff?”.

It’s a post about how we weren’t designed for this world.  This isn’t our home.  This is a place of pain, hunger, longing and brokenness.  We were made for a perfect world, but sin changed all of that.  The world actually broke a long time ago but we’re pretty good at being blind.

We’re all just pitching our tents here in this world, but this world is like the cots those men slept in last night. Temporary.  The more time I spend here, the more I realize it doesn’t have anything I’m really looking for.  The more time I spend in the nursing home with my Dad and the others who live there, the more I long to pitch my tent in heaven.

Until then, yes, we’ll try really hard with the help of the Holy Spirit to discern between the lies of this world (success, money, keeping up with the Jones’, it’s all about you, everyone man for himself), and we’ll try really hard to fill the brokenness with food, kindness and love.  But we already know it’s only a patch, because this broken world will always be broken.

Thank goodness God in the flesh came to save us all.  I can’t wait til we all go home.

 

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A Really Good Friend, Maybe

I was a good friend in school.  I could be so funny, I have the notes from seventh grade to prove it.  I could be helpful, compassionate, ready with an extra hand or a car ride.

Okay, sometimes I could be a good friend.

And sometimes I could be manipulative.  Kind, because I needed help fixing my car, funny because my teacher might let me out of an assignment, thoughtful because the person might open a door for me. The friends that felt like I had more of an agenda than a relationship didn’t stay my friends for the long run and who could blame them.

Now let me introduce you to my dear friend, Pride.  She’s not anything like I used to be.  She is so kind, always saying really encouraging things to me.  The other day she was at the house and she said:

“You’re such a great mom, listen to how your daughter prayed just now! That’s because of you.”

I blushed and gave myself a checkmark on the mom scorecard.

One time, after a difficult day of taking care of some issues with my Dad, she said:

“You’re really wise you know, how mature in your faith, I really admire you.”

I felt the tiredness ease back and I lifted my head a little higher.

And just yesterday she sat beside me while I worked on some art.

“You’ve got talent you know, you should find a way to show off,” she coughed quickly,  “I mean, use your gifts.”

I just love spending time with her, with all her affectionate words she’s got to be a really good friend, right?

I mean she wouldn’t have an agenda, any reason to lift me a little higher in my own esteem, all the while setting the stage for my fall.  I feel ashamed even suggesting that of her.

It’s just that lately her friendship’s become a bit of a burden.  (Okay, a lot of a burden, just between you and me.)  I’ve been trying to figure out how to focus on Christ during this month of celebration and I’ve talked to her a few times about how overwhelmed I’ve been feeling.  But she seems to think I should shove that feeling aside.

“You know those people at the nursing home are really impressed when you bring them gifts each year.  Remember how the one lady said she couldn’t believe all that you do and that you have the time to think of her as well.”

“I don’t know if I can this year though,” I answered back, hoping for some understanding.

“But you look like, I mean, you are such a great mom when you go in there with your troop of kids and hand out handmade gifts, of course you have to do it.

“I know, but we’re so busy and I’m having trouble settling down with Matt in the evenings and I still have to think about family gifts and I have to make sure every day that we do school is filled with amazing advent activities.”

“Oh, of course you have to do the family gifts.  And they should all be handmade, you can’t pass up an opportunity to impress someone.  And you definitely have to have the perfect plan for school activities, I mean you need some things to post on your blog right?”

At that point, her friend, Works, joined us for a Peppermint Mocha.

“Oh, are you guys talking about Christmas?  Have you gotten all of your service projects lined up, you know you’re kids will be selfish for the rest of their lives if you don’t get better organized.  My family is going to do the Angel Tree, and serve dinner at the shelter, and we’re going to go ring the bell for the Salvation Army, even our two year old is getting involved….

I drifted out of the conversation as they continued to list off their service projects.  Are they really going to do all of that stuff?  How do they handle it all?

I really like these guys, I tell myself, I can learn something from them.

And they seem to really like me, I respond back to myself, a little less certain.

“What in the world does any of this have to do with preparing your heart for Jesus,” an entirely different voice joins in my own private dialogue.

I have to do all of these things or Christmas won’t be special, or spiritual, and people will think less of me,” I venture to this new voice.

“You seem to have forgotten something on your list,” the voice calmly answers back.

What?  Let me look: service projects, handmade gifts, the Christmas choir at church, meaningful family advent… is there really more I have to do?” I ask wearily, but with my pen ready to make the list complete.

You forgot love.”

L-O-, ” I stop writing.

You can do all of these without love.  And you can walk through the next month without experiencing any of Christ’s love for you.”

“You mean,” I paused, trying to sort it out,”I shouldn’t do any of the things on my list?”

“No, you should let love shape how those things look.  Maybe your gifts for family have more to do with thoughtfulness than how impressive your hand-made gift looks.  Maybe the Christmas choir is a gift to your children out of love because they’re excited about it, maybe you’re loving the nursing home workers by choosing to bring them a card and a small gift.  Maybe you don’t do these things because they make you feel really good about yourself and a little extra spiritual this month, but you do them because you know a love that so great you can’t keep it to yourself.”

I think back to Pride’s words and try to reconcile them to the words of this new friend.  Pride and Works made me feel the potential to be lifted high, but they also made me feel incredibly heavy, so heavy I didn’t know how I was going to get up the rickety pedestal they put in front of me.  But with this friend I felt no desire to climb, instead I wanted to lift others up with this love he was talking about.  And something akin to peace was settling around me.

“Hey, what’s your name, ” I call out.

“Spirit,” he said.

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and knowledge, and I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over may body to hardship that I my boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

I Corinthians 13: 2, 3

 

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One Moment In Between the Have-To’s and the Gotta’s

Many of our preparations for Christmas this year were waylaid until the final moments. Some things got put off for unavoidable reasons, some because of my own inner struggle about how Christmas should look for our family this year, and some purely because my husband and I are procrastinators(that’s with a capitol P).

Christmas Eve arrived and this mental list presented itself when I awoke:

  • Finish painting ornaments(they had to be dry and sealed and wrapped by 2pm).
  • Make Christmas Dinner ahead of time(ahem, that’s make crepes, the insides, the sauce, etc).
  • Finish(begin) handmade presents for the children.
  • Wrap all of the presents.
  • Help the boy make presents for his sisters.
  • Spend time writing letters to Jesus as a family.
  • Get to Grandma’s on time.
  • Open a Christmas Eve present.
  • I should add in -feed all of the children and take care of their needs, and clean the house!

It was a day filled with have-to’s and gotta’s, when my heart longed for peace and chance to quietly think about the gift I was receiving from the Lord the next day.

By 9:30pm, we still had kids up, still checking off the mental list.  Letters to Jesus had already been pushed to the next day and opening our Christmas Eve gift, a family tradition, had slid right over to the “gotta” list so that we could get the kids to bed and get on with the projects.

This tradition came right out of my own childhood and the kids have looked forward to opening new slippers and pajamas each year.  This time they didn’t need either of those and we had warned them earlier in the week that the gifts were going to be a bit different.  “You’re going to get a gift that you can give away.”  Puzzlement, a little grumpiness.

Finally we gathered around the tree that night and their little brother handed out thin tissue wrapped packages I’d hidden in the tree.  They opened them and this is what they saw.

eve“What is it?”

“Ten dollars for what?”

“Ten dollars for you to choose something from this catalog to help people struggling in Asia, ” Mr. Darcy replied.

We opened the Gospel for Asia catalog and looked at the choices.

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“We can send Bibles.”

“Is anyone getting a mosquito net?”

“What’s malaria Daddy?”

“We could get a camel!” That comment was from Mr. Darcy, who is a little camel happy.

“I told him he can’t keep for himself,” I warned the kids.

Everyone took about 15 minutes to decide and they smiled the entire time.

And for the forty dollars we didn’t spend getting a second set of pajamas, we purchased:

3 Bibles
16 New Testaments
1 Blanket
1 Mosquito Net
1 child sent to VBS
800 Gospel Tracks

The children were floored that we could do all of that with the money usually spent of Christmas Eve gifts.  Over and over again, “I can’t believe it, ”  and then they would read the list out loud again.

“That’s 822 people who are going to get something because we did this.”

“That’s right and we can pray for each of the people who are going to receive something.”

It was a “have to” task on my list that turned into my favorite moment of our Christmas.

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The Kind of Gift that Gives Twice

Hand made presents were hands down the treat at our house.  The day before christmas each of the girls seperately mentioned how they felt about making and giving their presents.

Jellybean said, “I love to see people smile when they open presents I’ve made, it’s better than getting presents.”

Mookie said, “I’m more excited about giving presents than what I’m getting.”

I can’t take any credit for these sweet sentiments.  Too busy this month to make presents for each of them, I stayed up half the night on Christmas Eve making each of them gifts because I knew how hard they had worked on mine. THEIR hearts inspired mine.

Mookie made me a beautiful set of handmade christmas cards and Jellybean wrote me a book of poems.  You can bet I was glad that I’d stayed up until almost 4 that morning putting together their gifts, it was worth it to see the smile on their faces.

As a Christmas Day gift, I now present to you two selections from my new poetry book.

I can’t take any credit for how awesome her poems are either, even though I’m the teacher.  Her rhythm and imagination are all her own, they always has been.

Moms, OR Mine
by Jellybean, age 8

Moms are prity neat
but mine’s really hard to beat.
She baked six batches of cookies
in less than a month.
Moms(or atleast mine)
think we’re as noisy as a rock n roll band!
Their REALLY cool!
(If she ever goes away,
She will come back real soon.)

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Animal Speech,
from an animal’s point of view
by Jelllybean, Age 8

People are big
I think they wear wigs.
They are very scary
(O and my name’s Larry)
They shoot the big things
and when they hit you your dead
and the bullits are made
of stuff called lead.
So run or else your done,
really RUN!
Boom!

May you have a joyful celebration, and be filled with hope this day.

us

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Shadow Puppet Theater Set+Playmobiles+3 children

As I take another day to recover from the busy weeks of Christmas before I find words again…let me present:

Our house tonight.

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Merry Christmas

Can you guess what Mr. Darcy got for Christmas?

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Ready

Although I’ve shared few words here over the past busy week, my heart and mind have been working overtime.

It’s 1am, time to tuck in before 6 feet and 3 anxious bodies come running.

Quiet and peace have arrived, the waiting is almost over.

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