Thursday, December 27, 2012

Redecorating a Naked House

Sparkly foam gingerbread men, boughs of artificial spruce, and velvety poinsettias glisten inside unlabeled boxes, translucent to show what lies captive inside. 

The wrought iron stair railings no longer twinkle with tiny stars, butterflies, and golden clusters.  Even the mantle is bare, save for the layer of dust that somehow sifted through a woven masterpiece of coiled plaid ribbon and holly leaves.

Then there is the pink aluminum Christmas tree, almost undecorated, courtesy of the cat who tipped it over this evening, spilling ornaments across the floor.
And Jesus?  The plastic Christ child who spends the Christmas season with all eyes upon him, with pudgy fingers moving his visitors ever closer to the manger?

He rests within a crepe paper nest deep in a cardboard box.  His parents, the shepherds, and wise men lay beside him, no longer able to see the Christ child through their own darkened veils.

Such putting away feels sad.  Yet, in my heart, I know it is no large matter to put Jesus in a box and behind closed doors.

His absence from the table I see first thing every morning at the bottom of the stairs doesn't mean He will be absent from our daily lives for the next eleven months until His plastic visage makes an appearance again.

We don't have a once-a-year-Jesus here.

Still, the house seems almost sad to see those visible reminders of Christ's coming tucked away in boxes. 

That is why tomorrow, the children and I will blanket the house again, this time in hearts, reminders of the One who taught us how to love, of the One who first loved us.

We can keep Christ the focus of every holiday, every season, and we must.  

He is the author of love at Valentines Day,

of resurrection and new life at Easter,

of true freedom on Independence Day,

of every good and perfect gift at Thanksgiving.  

Thank you Father that the Christmas celebration can resound in our hearts all year long.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Best Christmas Party of the Season

I've been to the Christmas party no one wanted to attend but everyone did anyway.  I'm sure you know the kind.

It's the one where you got a workout just from scouring the stores to find that perfect dress and jewelry.  The one where you paid as much attention to your hair and makeup as you did on the day you said "I do."  Where you painted on a broad smile from the moment you exited the car, laughed politely at jokes that weren't really funny, and focused on making eye contact while shaking the thousandth hand and following sometimes three conversations at once...all while in heels that were killing your feet.

By the end of the night, you collapsed at home, glad that was over for another year.  In fact, you were certain both your face and feet would need the full 364 days to recuperate.

Then, there are the loud family Christmas parties with houses stuffed full of a dozen or more people who share your DNA, who know you better than most, and who feel compelled to tell every embarrassing story about your childhood to those significant others who have been grafted into the family by marriage.

While some people dread these type gatherings, too, in my family, these get-togethers are always joyful, full of laughter, stories of years gone by, no handshakes but lots of hugs and snuggles, smiles that reach our eyes, way too much homemade food, the reading of the Christmas story, a carol or two, and maybe even a round of Bible Trivia

All nineteen of us are usually split apart by many lines on a map, making this time together more precious than gold.  Still, by the night's end, we collapse just the same as before.  Our faces still hurt, too, but this time it's from hours spent grinning with real laughter.

When I think of an adult Christmas party, these two contrasting images come to mind.

But this past Tuesday, I was blessed to experience a rather impromptu Christmas party with a group of refugees who have never before celebrated Christmas.

I hadn't fixed my hair, worried about my clothes, or even put on lipstick.

Still, that tiny, cold room held the most true spirit of Christmas of any party I have ever attended.

Through a pretty dense language barrier, we sought to explain the American traditions of giving gifts to show our love for each other, of eating way too much, and of singing Christmas carols.

Then, the party really got started with us ESL teachers helping pass out large Christmas bags to each refugee.  These presents weren't what you would expect under the tree; yet, they were given out of hearts of love to those less fortunate and were received with more gratitude than I have ever seen.

Some ladies in a Sunday School class at my church had gathered things like fleece blankets, warm weather clothing, toilet paper, rolls of quarters for the laundromat, rice, and other necessities these refugees struggle to provide for themselves.

I added a few bangle bracelets, which I knew my ladies from Burma would love, and sat back to watch the joy fest around me.

Each refugee's eyes light up when it was her turn to receive a bag.  One woman pointed to her chest in surprise--this was all for her?

Another bubbly woman said, "You give, and I have nothing give."

I tried, but there was no way to truly share how wrong she was, how I left there full, taking away more than I had come with.

At the party's close, we paused to pray and sing.

What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

The sound of a half dozen cultures and tongues raising their voices together in praise of the Christ child come for us--surely, the heavens were dancing with joy along with our praise.

Oh, what a party that must have been up there. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

How Motherhood Changes You

The infamous "they" say having children changes everything. 

When I was pregnant with Wyatt in 2006, I would begrudgingly shake my head in agreement and grit my teeth hard into a forced smile every time some gray-rooted sage gave me such advice.

Of course things were going to change.  I was about to lose my freedom, discretionary income, leisurely weekends, 8-hour of sleep each night, claim to my husband's free time, my heart, and even (at times) my mind. 

All this, I expected, although expectations can never really depict the never-ending 24-7 of reality. What I never expected, though, is how having children would change my perspective on the world around me, would change how I relate to others and their life stories.

With each day that passed after the birth of my son, every child I saw on the news, in the papers, or just around town made me pause and take note.  Increasingly, my mind began to replace the foreign face, darker skin-tone, or different language with my own child's image and tongue. 

Any child could now be my child. Likewise, any mother losing her child could be me, but for the grace of God.

And in that instant, my tiny universe blew wide open.  No longer were those children and their mothers random faces, victims of this or that horrible event. 

Now, they were children of women just like me, mothers who had grown a supernatural love for that child.  In motherhood, we shared a bond that carried my heart across the globe to them, that made me really care about them for the first time in my life.

The Columbine school shooting was in 1999, before I was married or had children.  It was sad, shocking, even frightening to me as a new teacher; yet, somehow, it still felt more than an arm's length away from affecting me personally.

But today? The events in that Connecticut kindergarten classroom left me dripping tears in the flower bed as I pulled the random winter weed from already damp soil.

Only the rational side of my brain kept me from driving fast from the farm and pulling my son out of his own kindergarten class for the rest of the day, just to hold him close for as long as he'd let me.

Perhaps it's that raising children forces you to stop being selfish, to look beyond your own narcissistic tendencies and focus (sometimes almost exclusively) on the needs and feelings of others.  Or maybe it's that motherhood makes you finally know real fear of what you hold dearer than your own life.

Whatever the reason, tonight, I and many other mothers grieve with these who are letting go of their children when they should be holding them close in the season's celebration. 

There is no way I can imagine the magnitude of their heart ache.  Still, my mother's heart aches in prayer for them and alongside them as I weep for the senseless violence of sin...for what innocence is lost and for what emptiness is left behind.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

When You Already Need a Christmas Do-Over

This is not the vision I had for the 2012 Christmas season, not how I planned to worship the coming of our King.

By mid-November, the Operation Christmas Child boxes were packed and shipped.  The week of Thanksgiving, the children and I decorated the house for Christmas with deep crimson poinsettias and tiny white lights, hand crocheted stockings and the pink tinsel tree with its treasure trove of history dragging down the branches.

Everything was on track for a repeat of last year, the first time since my oldest son's birth that I felt peace about how our family celebrated Christ's birth by keeping some traditions while still retaining focus on Jesus' birth.

Then, our family had gathered for Sunday afternoon and evening meals around the purple Advent candles. We had read the Scriptures and daily placed ornaments on The Jesse Tree, which reminded my children of God's journey through history that brought Him to the place when He would send forth His one and only Son.

But here we are, eleven days into December, and the candles remain unlit, the Jesse tree undecorated, the Christmas cards addressed but still sitting on my dining room table, the traditional foods all as yet unbaked.

The calendar's turn came with fireworks, my oldest, husband, and I knocked out by the stomach flu a few hours before the month began.  By the following Tuesday, the living room rug had been converted into a makeshift sick ward full of plastic-encased pillows, mounds of soft, fleece blankets, and hospital bed pans as the twins succumbed to the same illness.

It was three days before my daughter spoke again. Even our year-old "kitten," Hannah, gave up her mouse chasing games to sit and cuddle our tiny girl's head as she huddled under daddy's warm crocheted blanket, her body too exhausted to move.

By Friday, with the tide turning, husband and I went out for an hour's dinner just to find ourselves amidst the chaos of the week.  Huge mistake.  Ever since, I have been the exhausted patient, striving to overcome a debilitating case of food poisoning.  Success this week has been marked in terms of minutes, spoonfuls, and fluid ounces.

Our children are on the mend, as is evidenced by the fact that they have all started fussing and yelling at each other again.  I guess the same must be true of their mother, since this afternoon as I tried valiantly to swallow anti-nausea medicine, I stopped and complained to God.

This wasn't the Christmas season I had wanted to give you, Lord. Eleven days of worship already lost.

In that still, small voice, my Father reminded me that I had been worshiping Him and giving Him gifts throughout all the sickness.

I was reminded that this Christmas season is about sacrifice, about God giving His everything for us--starting in that manger and ending at the cross.

While washing multiple load of puked-on laundry, rinsing and re-rinsing bedpans, praying without ceasing, forcing myself to attend my son's first Christmas performance, and rocking fevered babes may not seem to embody the Christmas season, I  couldn't be more wrong.

These actions are all about sacrificing myself--my time, my body, my everything--all for another person.  They have been about demonstrating Jesus' love and mercy in action to each other.

I have demonstrated the Christmas spirit with my gift of true, selfless love to my children.  In turn, my husband has demonstrated such unfathomable love to me.  And even my children have demonstrated more compassion towards each other and to me than they usually do.

The extra trip to Wal-mart for more mashed potatoes and ginger ale, a soft rub of a concerned little cheek against my shoulder, a shy confession of prayers said for me and a sister--this is a Christmas gift our family has given each other.

Without giving it any thought, each of us has been caught doing not random acts of kindness for each other but consistent acts of kindness.
Maybe by week's end, I will be well enough to eat again, maybe start a little baking or just walk the mall and soak up the sounds and smells of the season with my mother.

But if not one cranberry loaf rises in the oven, if the advent candles remain dark, if the Jesse tree's branches are still short, if I end up spending this whole Christmas season showing others love in these less than the traditional ways, that's ok.  As Jennifer @ Getting Down with Jesus said just last week, the greatest gift we can give our God is all our heart.

Sometimes, there is no better way to give God our all than to willingly tip our heart's vessel so that our love and devotion to Him spill over onto others as an anointing of sacrificial blessing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What to Do with Hate in Your Inbox

I hurriedly click the check marks down the left hand side of the screen without stopping to read anything beyond the subject line.  The Inbox is always overflowing with promises of retail happiness and fulfillment, but during the last two months of the year, every company start spewing out emails too fast to delete.

It's usually best to delete without even opening.

In the midst of my rhythmic clicking, I pause at a subject line from a retailer's site--a response to one of my posted book reviews.

A simple flick of my index finger, and my stomach drops.

"You sound like someone who thinks our national flag should be solid white. Funny how cowards always try to pass themselves off as tolerant."

Coward? Me?

Whoever said only sticks and stones can hurt was a liar.  Hate in word, not only deed, can pierce, can hurt deep even across the miles and from the anonymous.

The hatred from his words escapes the mega pixels and fills the room like a poisonous fog.  Seemingly demure black Times New Roman can't mask a total derision of me as an individual.

Is that what I am? A coward? Because I believe Christ called me to witness to everyone in the world, even those of the Muslim faith? Because I don't believe all Muslims should be feared as terrorists?

I stretch my arms high and lean back deep into my office chair, listen to the creak of metal groaning.  Hands run hard through wild curly hair as I sigh and think again how it would be so easy to just stop writing.

As always happens, I second guess myself, my writing, my words, my calling to different ministries.

Maybe he's right.  Maybe I am a coward.  Here I sit, three times a week, hiding behind this back lit screen, professing a written confident faith in a triune God who saves while fumbling over my every word when called upon to share that same gospel face to face with a live human being.

Is that a coward?

The cursor flashes much too long with my pause, pulsing in time with my heart that finally speaks a simple no.

A coward would not begin the conversation about God in the first place.  A coward would turn off the computer screen and never publish her writings again.  A coward would let that fear of others, not God's word, rule her actions and words. 

Yes, I feel overwhelming insecurities and insufficiency for the task each day.  But over this past year, I've moved so far out of my comfort zone, I have to squint to see it behind me.

One night a week, I have a chance to be a coward.  Mixed in with the excitement at obeying God's call on my life is a heavy dose of fear as I drive into the city to teach a group of refugees.  This semester's new group has been great in number, all male, and almost all Muslim.  I know how the Muslim religion views women.

After the first night of classes, I was more than a little intimidated, actually felt the sting of one man's exasperation with my inability to understand him.This wasn't my group of beloved refugees from Myanmar.  This was different.

I wanted to be a coward, told God I couldn't do this--not with this many men who I knew hated my faith.

But in His power, I returned.  Another male church leader sat in as a helper that night.  And in that instant, the class dynamic changed.  Slowly, God opened my heart to this group of refugees just as He had done with the former group.  He transformed the heart of cowardice and fear into one concerned about not only their spiritual needs but their physical ones as well.

I worried less about what they thought of me and found myself  focused on finding them all warm coats for the winter ahead.

No, these aren't the actions of a coward.  They are of a woman who fears God more than man, who is living out the Word of God despite her fear.

I slide the mouse up to the left and click delete.