Monday, November 29, 2010

Make This Christmas a Miracle

Today has been one of those days when I wish I had a video camera permanently strapped on my forehead so I could show my children fifteen years from now just how mischievous they really were.

One snapshot would show a crying Wyatt, pink flower boots stuck firmly in the center of the mud as a bootless-mama tentatively wove a path to him without sinking out of sight herself.

The next snapshot, a mere 30 minutes later, would show my face sag in defeat as I realize that while I folded laundry, the twins pulled all the ready-to-pop blossoms off my blooms-once-a-year Christmas cactus.

The final snapshot from right before bath time would show Amelia happily covered in three entire shelves worth of children's books...courtesy of Wyatt.

My children are enough to make me scream--and it's only Monday!But in the midst of it all, they give me glimpses of maturity, of kindness, of an empathy for others that just amazes me.

Last week, Wyatt wanted to write a letter to his Grandma who recently went through knee surgery. As the babies slept, he told me what to write, and I did. Then, he copied the letters.
If you can't read his writing, the last sentence reads, "Hope your knee is better now." I tried to get him to skip the "now," telling him that although we prayed ever night, it would take her awhile to feel better.

Completely undeterred, he insisted on writing the "now" anyway.

Today, he and I spent our afternoon "special" time looking at the World Vision Gift Catalog. Crouched over the small kitchen table, he spent half an hour flipping back and forth through the small twenty-page booklet. I tried to explain what each item was how it could help others, and how it would be our way to show them at Christmas that God loves them since Christmas is about God sending His best gift of Jesus to us.

I was so amazed to see how serious Wyatt was about this decision. As he looked, he would have me repeat the story of some pictures, especially of the one boy with the distended stomach from parasites.

Finally, I asked what he would like to give. First on his list were two chickens (expected since Oma raises them and he knows how good an egg tastes). But after that, he surprised me, asking for mosquito nets to protect a family from mosquitoes, medicine to help them feel better, and clean water so they wouldn't get sick from drinking bugs.

Late in the evening, I had Wyatt tell his daddy what he was "buying" to give and why. I smiled as he actually remembered (1) exactly what he chose to give and (2) that we were giving to others who were in need to show them God's love.

Seeing this child blossom, watching him learn to show Jesus' love to others...these are the "milestones" that I tuck away in my heart.

And it makes me wonder--although my family's gift won't make but a tiny difference in the world, what if we all spent more on others in need this year than on presents for ourselves?

Then, what an even greater miracle Christmas truly would be.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Preparing Your House for Advent

Every year, it sneaks up on me, this starting to remember the Christ child while the calendar still oozes autumn with its burnt oranges and golden yellows.

Perhaps, like me, you'll be surprised to learn that two days from now, Sunday, November 28 starts Advent, the countdown to Christmas.

And perhaps you'll be even more surprised to learn I'm (gasp) prepared!!!

If your family doesn't celebrate Advent, author Ann Marie Stewart's Preparing My Heart for Advent is an awesome book with short daily readings to guide you through the season. The main point of Advent is to keep your focus on the coming of Christ, to truly remember the reason for the season.

Although everyone celebrates Advent a little differently, it is common to have an Advent wreath where you light a candle each Lord's day until Christmas.

A few weeks ago, somehow, in God's sovereignty, He saw fit to have the mail carrier mis-deliver to our home a neighbor's copy of the children's magazine Highlights. When Wyatt saw it in the "back in the mailbox" pile, he pestered me until I read it from cover to cover before returning it to its rightful owner.

In the midst of non-memorable stories was a cute, easy Christmas project for children to make their own Advent wreath. I thought it was a great idea for those of any age who aren't quite mature enough to be trusted with matches, lighters, or anything else they could possibly use to burn down a house.
After tracing Wyatt's favorite leaf collected on one of our nature walks, he cut our four leaves...I cut out the other 40 something. Definitely not equal division of labor in this household.

I was going to wait to "light" the candles with yellow tissue paper until Advent started, but his almost-four-year-old mentality insisted the project wasn't complete until it looked like the picture. I'm still not sure how it's going to go over on Sunday when they're all "unlit" save one.

Although Wyatt's Advent wreath is a new addition to our dinner table, this is a tradition I've had in my family since childhood. I vividly remember my mother having the pink and purple candles lit on the Sunday dinner table.

Last year, she gave me a precious gift, the Advent wreath she carefully painted many years ago.
One year, I'll light those candles just as she did for her children.

For now, though, I'm content to stuff yellow tissue paper into the top of a toilet paper roll as I remind my children of Jesus' birth, of the true meaning of Christmas.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Thanksgiving Eve Funeral

Digging a shallow grave by flashlight wasn't not exactly how I intended to spend the evening before Thanksgiving. Choosing what portion of my yard to use as a pet cemetery wasn't on my "to do" list today, either.

Yet, death doesn't seem to understand it's supposed to work around holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and the like. In fact, it seems as if these events always manages to fall on those over-stuffed days on the calendar, the ones where I've already written in bold blue marker strokes and highlighted the words.

The first kitty Doug and I adopted soon after we married was a calico-Siamese mix whom we named Mia. Today, we had her put to sleep after finding she had an inoperable tumor consuming her stomach, liver, and endocrine system.

Mia was no mere cat.

She was my child when I could not children. She spent the summer in an apartment with me in Montreal while Doug left to attend school each day. She woke me in the mornings and napped with me in the afternoons. Every night, she would come to the tub and drink the water I would let trickle down the sides. And every time I sat at this computer to type a blog entry, she would sit at my feet until I picked her up for lap-time.

Most visitors to our home never saw her portly form because of her overly-shy personality. But anyone on the phone with me could easily hear her motor that sounded like a large diesel engine.

Tonight, Douglas brought her back from the vet so we could bury her.

With his car lights shining on the newly-loosened dirt piled up beside the hole, we all circled 'round. Emerson didn't care about anything but the dirt. Wyatt, on the other hand, was curious. He understood completely that this was Mia's body but that she was no longer here.

Amelia did not. As I lay the blanket-wrapped body in the hole, Doug and the boys began shoveling dirt back in. One pretty abysmally-exposed shot was all I got off as Amelia started to bawl uncontrollably and scream, "Mia!!!!" I had to scoop her up and hold her as she cried those gut-wrenching sobs like I wanted to cry.

As a kitty girl like her mama, all she understood was that we were burying her Mia in the ground. Since all cats go to heaven, I told her that Mia was up in heaven with Jesus, just like her balloon that just last week escaped out the front door of the house and sailed heavenward over the trees. I'm not sure she believed me.

As I write this, I'm lonely. My legs are warm from another kitty's love, but they're not vibrating from Mia's loud purr. And I know when I sign off here and head up for a bath, she won't be waiting for me there either.

Tomorrow, I will celebrate in thankfulness with my family. But tonight, I mourn. And I remember.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why Shoes Are Important to God

It seems totally irrational to think that the biggest topic of conversation in my household over the past few weeks has been (drum roll) In fact, I think the dialogue about shoes has sucked up more air time than potty training and the new porno airport pat downs combined. And I know it's been associated with a lot more well as some heart-thumping excitement.

Two Fridays ago, I finally broke down and started trying on shoes in my closet. A couple weeks before, I had discovered I couldn't wear my tennis shoes--my feet had either grown or my arch had fallen within the four-month window since I last wore them.

After sending my tennis shoes to a new home, I waited. I intentionally put off the inevitable not because I thought I could avoid this day. As someone with a narrow heel and a hatred of the modern pinched-toe, insanely-high heeled trend in shoes, I simply was afraid of what the damage might be.

As it turns out, I had reason to fear. It was worse than I expected. Twelve pairs of dress flats and heels. Twelve (sigh).

Sure, I inherited several of them from my mother and the rest I purchased on what used to be fabulous Dillards clearance sales...but that's not the point. Until trends change, they're virtually impossible to replace, a fact I know all too well after two weeks of shoe shopping.

When I had counted up the casualties and noted the huge gap where my church shoes used to be, I had a big boo hoo meltdown. The following morning was no better--my husband made a stray remark about a new can of soup I'd bought for him, and I crumpled to the floor, sobs shaking my shoulders as (once again), my children watched in wonder that mommy could cry just like they could.

Before this past week, I can't remember the last time I shopped for shoes for me. And to say that I've had seriously limited success so far is putting it in the best light possible.

But today, God showed me there was hope.

I went to Wal-mart for Thanksgiving day gumbo-fixings and (maybe) some size 11 sandals for Wyatt since in Louisiana, we can wear sandals with socks all winter...a great invention for dirt pile play.

I wasn't too hopeful, but was making a required pass by the shoe department when on an end cap, I saw a whole rack of sandals. And at the top, the sign said "$1." My jaw dropped as I instantly realized God had heard me this morning. And He had provided.

My mom was with me and quickly realized that these would be fantastic to send to the Mexico orphanage her church supports, so we quickly filled her buggy with the remaining 28 pairs of little kid sandals.

Isn't God just so amazing?

I never asked Him to provide Wyatt a pair of shoes. And there in the glow of fluorescent retail lighting, I realized that I've never asked His help, not once, with finding me some shoes.

Why not? Did I think the God who knows every hair on my head wouldn't care about something, anything that concerned me?

My God is the God of shoes. Of rotten pine trees. Of my husband's eyesight. Of the orphan.

And that is comforting beyond belief.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Making Peace with Santa Claus

Christmas was my all-time favorite holiday as a child and young adult. Sadly, that all changed the moment I had children. After four years spent wrestling with the concept of Christmas in our commercialized society, only now am I beginning to make peace with how my family will celebrate the holiday.

My husband and I grew up in two very different worlds. Mine was filled with Santa Claus, Christmas Eve gift-giving parties with family, and a huge Christmas Day dinner. My husband's was a Santa-Claus-free world with little emphasis on gifts and little celebration of the day itself.

As you can imagine, with Wyatt's birth came a load of emotionally-charged decisions where Christmas was concerned. And then came the guilt. Each time I said the word "Santa," it stuck hard in my throat because I knew many Christians refused to allow Santa a part in Christ's birthday. I respected their decisions and wondered if I were doing right by my son.

Only in the last month have I finally made peace with Santa Claus and his role in my family's Christmas.

I'm teaching my children that Santa is the man who fills their stockings (and only their stockings) with gifts in celebration of Jesus' birthday because Jesus was God's best gift to us. Wyatt, especially, is intrigued by the idea of gifts. And yet, at 4-years-old, it seems like he's learning what I've been trying to teach--that Christmas is about giving. Last week, we practiced his writing skills by writing a letter to Santa. Wyatt told me what he wanted, I would write it on a dry erase board, and then he'd copy the letters on his rather large post card. What caught me totally off guard was how his list progressed.

First, he wanted a teddy bear for Amelia and Emerson, then a fishing rod for me and his daddy. Once his family was taken care of, he asked for our three cats: a tree scratcher for Jonah, a rug for Mia and Tabby, and a toy mouse for Kira. Only then did he ask for himself--a bouncy ball, soft sheets (a complaint about current bed sheets), books, and a mama duck.The twins aren't up to speed on Santa yet. They're too busy playing with the nativity scene placed on a table low enough for small hands to rearrange dozens of times a day. Baby Jesus is most always out of his stable...and is always encircled by shepherds and wise men who have come to worship Him. Amazing how even a two-year-old knows that everyone, even the donkey, must look to Jesus.While I know this is a decision each family must prayerfully make, I finally feel at peace. I finally feel free to celebrate. Since I'm about to enter the end-of-the-semester-crazy-paper-grading time of year, this past week, my children and I pulled out boxes of Christmas decorations, some that I haven't used since the second year of my marriage.It's been exciting to see Christmas through their eyes--to be able to tell the Christmas story almost daily. To explain how the twinkling white lights remind us of the star that led the wise men to Jesus. To show them the red and green plaid ribbon and sparkling white butterflies from mommy and daddy's wedding right before Christmas almost ten years ago. To show them the sequined nativity on the Christmas tree skirt that Grandmama and mommy made together oh so many years ago.In a few weeks, I'm looking forward to sitting down with them and a catalog we receive that provides goats, deep wells, mosquito netting and other life-sustaining, life-protecting items while sharing the gospel of Jesus. Instead of gifts to each other, Wyatt, Amelia, and Emerson will start another family tradition--giving the gift of life to another child in another part of the world.

This is the first Christmas in such a very long time that actually feels like a celebration of freedom, of life, of joy...of Jesus.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

When Thank You Isn't Enough

If you've followed this blog for long, you know the story of our three precious miracles.

There's no way to put into words the years we spent longing for children. The years of battling infertility. The suffering through two miscarriages.

I'd like to say I handled that period of my life with more grace than I did. The tears, the anger, the hormonal mood swings caused by medications--I'll always be indebted to my husband for the grace he extended to me when I had none to give in return.

Through everything we endured, we both always knew we would have children. Though at times our faith faltered, we always believed we would one day hold in our arms one we could call "ours."

It was just a matter of when. And just a matter of whether God wanted them to be biological or grafted into our family as we were into His.

Long before Wyatt's birth, one late-night run to Target saw me cooing over little girl dresses, especially those sporting an image from my childhood--Strawberry Shortcake. I could imagine nothing more perfect than my daughter wearing such an outfit.

With Doug's encouragement, we brought home that dress and tucked it away in the back of a closet, unsure of whether we would ever use it.

A few weeks ago, the weather turned cold in Louisiana, and I began hanging in the closet little girl 2T clothes I had bought for the winter. In the mix was that dress bought long ago by a mama and a daddy with hopes and dreams for a family.
Thank you just isn't sufficient for expressing my gratitude. Yet, with all my heart, mind, and soul, thank you Father for hearing, for answering. And thank you that even when our faith wavered, yours did not.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Generations of Courage

Courage is not the absence of fear. It's the ability to complete one's mission in the face of fear.This is not the definition I find in Webster's. But it's the definition I have always been taught.

My father and his father before him. My mother's father. My brother. They know what courage means.

World War II. Vietnam. Iraq.

When the time came, they served their country as their country asked them to. Knowing the risks. Seeing the horrific results of those risks. Days. Months. Years. They dutifully served so that I might live free.

I grew up knowing my daddy was a soldier in a time when men were drafted, forced into service, and then treated poorly when they returned home. Because of that, daddy didn't speak much about his stint in the military. Every once in awhile, though, I guess he would need to remember, so he would bring out stacks of black and white photos of Vietnam and rattle off story after story.

On the rare occasion, he would fire up the slide projector, and I would watch frame after frame appear on the living room's white wall as he narrated. I saw napalm-cleared land, forests of trees, airplanes, and a photo of a cocky young man holding a huge machine gun. It was a glimpse into another world miles away, at another fatigue-clad man with a dark brown moustache who didn't look like the daddy I knew.

As I looked at the photos, I knew my daddy was courageous. His job was to fly in the planes and take aerial photographs so American forces would know where the enemy was located. As you can imagine, a plane makes a pretty good target.

Yet, God kept him safe and returned him home to meet my mother. And to become my father.

Today, the Audubon Nature Institute offered free passes to all veterans and their guests. So, what better way to spend Veterans Day than with the veteran I love best.

The aquarium, the insectarium, and the zoo--my parents, my children, and I toured them all.

At the end of our day, my parents rested with the twins and a cup of Haagen Dazs while I took Wyatt to visit the new dinosaur exhibit at the zoo. As we walked through the door, life sized animatronic dinosaurs lept off the pages of the books we've been reading this past year, literally roaring to life...

Wyatt was instantly terrified and turned around to head back through the door that had (uh oh) closed behind him. I hurriedly touched one to show him it was ok.

"No, mommy! It's going to eat you!!!!"

Eventually, I convinced him they were plastic, not real. Yet, the fear still remained. It was obvious he expected them to come to life (for real) at any second and devour us both for their next meal. He didn't even want to snuggle close enough to any of them so that I could fit him + the dinosaur in the camera's frame.

But, he really, really, really wanted to "pet" one of his favorites--a triceratops. So, I stood back and watched as he sidled closer, closer, stretching out that hand as far as it would go, touching, then yanking it back and celebrating his bravery.
In the face of fear--courage. Just like his grand daddy.

(Top Photo: Grand daddy and Wyatt eating beignets.)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Skipping Christmas

It's that time of year again when people start to go a little crazy...ok, a lot crazy. The insane traffic, over-stuffed store aisles, and disco-flashing strings of lights used to start after Thanksgiving. Now? Several of our stores have been sporting fully decorated Christmas trees for over a month.

But if you can imagine fast forwarding..."skipping" all that Thanksgiving and Christmas entails, it will be January 1 next, the time of new beginnings. In the past, I have found it helpful to use a 365 day devotional book, something short, simple, and with dates to keep me on track.

Nothing could be more welcome than Robert Morgan's new devotional book, On This Day in Christian History: 365 Amazing and Inspiring Stories about Saints, Martyrs, and Heroes.

As Morgan says in his Preface, "Contemporary Christianity is interested in recent trends, current challenges, and modern methods. So am I. But nothing braces me to face these days like visiting the cloud of witnesses that comprise church history."

In Morgan's view, "with no heritage from the past, there is no legacy for the future"--quite a compelling argument for learning a bit more about our predecessors in the faith.

To that end, Morgan provides 365 page-long stories about many greater-known and lesser-known Christians from the infamous preacher Charles Spurgeon to America's first foreign missionary Adoniram Judson. The really neat thing is that each story is "told on the date it occurred" in history. As one would expect, accompanying each short reading is a Scripture for meditation.

When I first received the book, I anticipated reading morbid tale after tale of horrific acts of martyrdom. While the book rightly includes many such stories, I found it to have a good mixture of martyr stories vs. tales of the average Christian who sells out his/her life for Christ.

If you're looking for a devotional for 2011 and want to be encouraged by the stories of those who have gone before you, this book is for you. But beware: instead of merely getting a daily dose of history, these true stories may just move your heart to be more radical in your commitment and dedication to Christ.

**I receive no payment for my review. Thomas Nelson merely provides me with a complementary copy of the book.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Ten Thousand Years and Counting

A thin box formed of simple plexiglas is all that separates my fingers from ten-thousand year old mastodon teeth. I turn my head upside down, bend knees, squint my eyes--all the while looking like a circus contortionist as I try to see each side of the teeth.

Granddaddy holds up Wyatt. Thin fingers instantly poke at the glass, getting him as close as possible to objects just out of reach. Like me, they, too, want to feel the smoothness of enamel turned crystal and stone, to explore the mountains and valleys that once ground herbs and grasses to small bits.

After reading Mammoths on the Move (on woolly mammoths and saber tooth tigers) for two weeks, today, my parents helped me take the children to visit a small art exhibit at our State's flagship university.

On the way home, I realized we didn't give the modern art a second glance. What captivated all of us were the objects that gave a glimpse into another time, another world, one filled with fierce-looking allosaurus dinosaurs, saber tooth tigers with enormous fangs, and long-tusked mastodons. Another filled with Civil War memorabilia and a hand-stitched dress with an intricately-puffed hemline that demonstrated skills exceeding those of many fashion artisans today.
This fascination with things old, with priceless antiquities tucked carefully behind glass--I can't remember a time when these objects didn't hold my attention. And now, they draw near my curious children.

On a trip to London early in our marriage, I dragged my husband through every floor and room of the city's famous museums, my eyes glittering like a school girl as they lit on object after object previously only encountered on the glossy-colored pages of books.

I would fly across the oceans, drive through miles of construction traffic--all to see these pieces that have withstood the test of time.

Then it hit me--I own something more precious, something older than mastodons, dresses, or even time itself--the Word of God.

There is no woman watching from the corner to ensure I keep oily fingers off its leaf-thin pages. There is no sheet of plexiglas keeping me at arm's reach from what will fill a thirsty soul.

Thank you God for this living, breathing, eternal "artifact" that beckons me to touch, examine, and explore. Make it my heart's desire to learn as much about it and, through it, as much about you as you will reveal to me. Make that desire exceed even that of learning about other parts of your creation in time's past and present.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Musings of an "At Will" Employee

As a part-time college instructor, I am an "at will" employee. My contract isn't created and signed until after first week of each college semester when the powers that be are sure enough students have remained enrolled in the class so it will make money. I can be terminated, non-renewed, or just plain forgotten for any reason or no reason at all.

In the strictest sense, I have no job security. And yet, this type of "career" has been a blessing since 2006 when I obeyed God's voice telling me to stay home once I had children. Since that time, I have never lacked "enough" classes to teach. In fact, there have been many semesters when I've had to turn down classes because I know I can only grade so many papers each night after my brood goes to bed.

Come this past August, though, I hit my first bump in the road. I was scheduled to teach my normal load of six classes. Yet, a few days before the term started, I learned two of my classes had failed to "make," casualties of our continued slumping economy.

With only four classes to teach, I felt like a failure, not bringing in my fair share to the household's pot. I wondered how my husband and I would deal with my pay-cut on top of his already decreased salary because of his own employer's economy-driven business woes.

I cried. I asked God to just "fix it," to make openings where there were none. During the first week of school, I tried everything in my power to drum up extra classes at other institutions, but as expected, it was too late for this fall.

God was giving me rest, like it or not.

He was reminding me that yes, I am an "at will" employee--but at His will.

Two months later, I've relished in evenings crocheting in front of a good movie, in solid hours where my attention was more focused on my Bible studies, and in a little more time spent with my husband. It's been wonderful.

In the midst of my rest, God sent a small editing job. A lot of work for not much money--I decided to just say no. But, while typing a rejection email, I clicked cancel, sensing that I needed to do the work. Halfway through the project, the hair on my arms raised in eerie awareness that in the dissertation was an answer as to why a full-time online teaching position fell through for me a couple years ago. It was an answer I had never asked for; yet, God provided it anyway.

Now it seems God has opened yet another door, establishing a casual acquaintance years ago as the head of the English Department at another college. It seems my Spring semester will be much busier than this Fall, a busy-ness that, ironically, I'm not looking forward to even though I went kicking and screaming into a semester with less work.

Blessings in a Pay Cut. Just one of those contradictions found in God's economy.