Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’
“Well, I’m looking at our Christmas tree, which already looks disheveled, and I’m thinking that’s how I feel.” This text came to me last week from an overworked, overwhelmed mother of 4 young kids whose 15-month-old had HFMD (hand, foot, and mouth disease—ugh!) and whose pastor-husband is extra-busy all month and who has absolutely no family or support system living nearby. It happened to be from my daughter Erika. But, with a few slight changes in detail, I’m thinking it could have come from many of you.
Feeling disheveled? Done in by December? Ricocheting between the joys of the season and a dull aching exhaustion that doesn’t want to admit this but wishes it were already over? You are not alone. I am sure of that. I have heard it from many moms (and dads!). And I see it on weary faces everywhere I go. December is a killer.
And I think it is all the harder for those of us who really love Christmas. I know, because I am one of these. Every year I looked forward with delight to December. The fun. The parties. Choosing just the right gift for each precious one I love. Celebrating Advent. Getting (and sending? Well. Maybe.) cards from long-lost friends. The music. Oh, how I love the music! I even love the baking. Let me correct that: I loved the thought of baking. Until I actually did it. You know, the never-ending cut out Christmas cookies you do with your kids? The kind that spread frosting all over your family and dust the entire kitchen with a fine layer of flour and colored sugar? We did it every year. Some mamas never learn . . .
It all felt great in anticipation. And then I turned the calendar. Yikes! It was already full before I started adding Christmas. That’s when it hit me. There really ought to be a moratorium during December on normal things—you know, everyday life for moms. No annual physicals or dental check-ups or school conferences or PTA meetings or… Come to think of it, why do we have to keep doing laundry and dishes and meals during December? But there is no moratorium. Even though my kids occasionally ate Christmas cookies for dinner, basically normal life just kept on. Even though I wanted to do all those other fun things.
December. Truly my favorite time of the year. And also the most exhausting. And maybe the most dangerous. Dangerous because we can so easily miss the moments in front of us because we are drowning in to-do lists and distracted by disillusionment. We had pictured it so differently. The tree was so magical just a few days—or weeks—ago. And the planning so careful. We wanted to not miss Christmas this year. But sick kids and broken appliances and extra work schedules and complicated family. Those weren’t in our pictures.
And so it is that once again, an Ann Voskamp quote comes to mind:
“In the thin air of Advent, you may not even know how to say it out loud: ‘I thought it would be easier.’ And your God comes near: ‘I will provide the way.’ You may not even know who to tell: ‘I thought it would be different.’ And your God draws close: ‘I will provide grace for the gaps.’ You may not even know how to find words for it: ‘I thought I would be . . . more.’ And your God reaches out: ‘I will provide Me.’ (The Greatest Gift, p. 60)
There it is. The Gift. The Grace. GOD. What we truly celebrate in December. He came. He comes. He provided—and provides—grace for the gaps. We know that in our heads. But here is my December prayer for every one of you: May you know this in your hearts. No matter how disheveled you feel. No matter how disappointed you are. No matter what you didn’t get done on your endless lists. Nothing keeps Him from coming. It’s just that He came so quietly that not many noticed. Except what Brennan Manning has called the “shipwrecked at the stable.” I want to be one of those. You too?
So there it is. “All hearts come home for Christmas.” The sign I have so loved for years. Well, most years.
Last year I almost didn’t put it up. None of our kids or grandkids were “home for Christmas.” Not in our home, that is. They were in their own homes or sharing Christmas with a spouse’s family in their home. All as it should be. A reality of this chapter of life, whether I like it or not. And so I rationalized about my sign last year: in their hearts, I know they come home for Christmas. More importantly, they know where their True Home is.
Funny, isn’t it, how Christmas always bring thoughts of home? For some, it’s a flood of warm memories of childhood Christmases: the music, the warmth, the food . . . maybe even the magic. For others, maybe not such warm thoughts of Christmases past. There’s pain and darkness in the memories. Or maybe there’s just not much there at all. Christmas thoughts conjure up more of what wasn’t rather than what was.
Or Christmas past elicits aching loss. The missing of people once around our tables who aren’t there now. I have on my heart this year many friends whose loss is not a long-ago aching but the searing knife-edge of raw, recent pain. Sons who died tragically and way too young. Beloved spouses who slipped away sooner than anyone expected. In the past few weeks alone, several friends of mine have lost their mothers. A different kind of Christmas. Very different.
Which leads me to memories I have of Christmas 2007, which was a very different Christmas for our family. As my mom struggled valiantly with metastatic breast cancer, we arranged for all our kids and grandkids to gather that year in condos near where Mom was in hospice. We would have Christmas in Florida so she could be with all her family.
But God had different plans. On December 19, just six days before Christmas, she slipped away from us. She went Home. In her own way she had prepared us. When we first moved her into her hospice room, she looked around and commented, “This is a very nice B&B, isn’t it? I could go right to Heaven from here.” And she did.
I remembered C. S. Lewis: “God refreshes us along the way with some very pleasant inns. But He does not encourage us to think of them as home.”
So this Christmas all the kids—and all ten (!) grandkids—are coming home to our home at Christmas time. I’m ecstatic. Joy comes easily. But the deeper joy, the kind that lights not only every Christmas but every day of our lives, comes from knowing where True Home is.
Another sign in our house: “Life brings you to unexpected places. Love brings us back home.” That’s it: His love brings us home. His leaving His home to come to ours, nasty and dark and dirty as it can be. His dying on a cruel cross and then rising from that cold tomb to provide the way to our True Home.
That’s a lot to celebrate, whoever—and whatever—is home this Christmas. Dorothy Sayers famously observed that “Christians can laugh better because they know the end of the story. “ Surely we have more reason than ever to celebrate Christmas. Home is always waiting.
The moment is etched in my memory forever. It was the week before Christmas. Our first Christmas in Wisconsin. It was bitterly cold. A piercing wind cut through my layers of thermal clothing. And all the way into my heart.
Everything about me felt cold. We had moved from a place where we had lived many years, surrounded by multiple circles of friends and family, enveloped in warm memories and fireside moments. And this new place felt cold. Very very cold.
I was making my way across a supermarket parking lot, pushing a very heavy basket. Here was the good part: We were preparing for a visit from all of our children that Christmas, so my basket was loaded with the promise of good times, warm moments around the fire. But the moments would be fleeting. The kids would leave, and it would be cold and lonely again. Against my best judgment, self-pity was slouching its way into my soul.
Then I saw her. Creeping along next to me, hunched over her basket filled with only one lonely bag of groceries, was a woman who reminded me of long-ago pictures of my German immigrant grandmother. She wore a babushka over her wrinkled head, her claw-like fingers were crippled with arthritis, and she leaned heavily into her cart for support. She wore an old cloth coat so thin I could almost see through it.
Seeing her, I paused. Was there some way I could help her? Offer to push her basket to her car (Did she really drive? I didn’t see anyone with her, and the old car to which she seemed to be headed was empty.) so her progress across the lot would be less snail-like? But my cart was so loaded, so heavy, that I was afraid it could lunge into another car if I let go of it. I was moving slowly enough with the weight of it.
Then she saw me. Before I could make a move, she slowly, painfully approached me. “Ah, ah…such heavy burdens you have. Your load is heavy. I wish I could help you.”
I was stunned into silence. Before I could move or speak, she was gone. It seemed as if she vaporized. Probably she made her way to her car while I stood there frozen in shock. Probably. I’m just not sure.
I never saw her again. In fact, I never saw anyone who looked like her in the rest of our years in that town. I have no idea who she was.
But I thought of her again this week. I was re-reading parts of a favorite book: Somewhere More Holy, by Tony Woodlief. The author, who has described the shattering tragedy of losing a young daughter, is reflecting on the Incarnation, “the coming of God to live with us as a man, shouldering our burdens, enduring with us our trials.” And he asks the question: “Have you ever tried to carry a heavy burden, felt its weight on your shoulder or against your leg, and then suddenly felt it lighten as a friend arrived to help you with it? This is Christmas to us.” (p. 50)
Indeed. This is Christmas. This, and so much more. A God Who came to “live in the neighborhood” for a time. A God who calls us to bring our heavy burdens to Him. A God who shows up in the most unlikely ways and places.
Be watchful this Christmas.
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
And refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”
These words from the Gospel (Matthew 2:18) have haunted me ever since the first unthinkable reports began coming out of Newtown, CT, last Friday. Weeping. Great mourning. Howling grief. What other response could we possibly have to such unimaginable horror and evil?
The world weeps with Rachel. Our hearts are broken. Our prayers are continual. Our arms are extended. Mothers all over the country—and the world—feel it at a deep, visceral level. I know people who left work on Friday, sick with the news. A friend left our neighborhood Christmas party, bought low by the day’s events. Every mother—and grandmother—I know wanted to rush to school instantly and flee with her child. We see the faces and hear the names—and they are our own children.
Weeping with Rachel. And for all our children who grow up in a world in which such things can happen. In Newtown, Connecticut. Or Syria. Or Congo. As Nicholas Wolterstorff observes in his memorable book Lament for a Son, it’s the only appropriate response to such raw grief and loss: “Come and sit with me on my mourning bench.”
“Weep with those who weep,” the Scriptures tell us (Romans 12:15 NKJV). And that’s just what our Lord did. He wept with friends at the death of their brother (See John 11). He wept over the city of Jerusalem and the devastation that was to come (Luke 19:41-44).
But here’s the really amazing thing: He chose to come into a weeping world. A world in which violence under Roman rule was the norm. A world in which a wicked king could order the death of all babies two years old and under in a quiet, unsuspecting village. A world in which God Himself could be nailed to a cross.
Emmanuel. God with us. “The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:23) He came into a wicked, broken, weeping world—and He wept with us. He chose to do that. He still does.
But He did much more. He gave His very life that sin and death might be defeated. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. That He came. That He lived. That He died. That He rose again, defeating sin and death and opening the gates to eternal life. That He Who became God with us, who brought God to us, will one day bring us to God. To eternity in a place where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Revelation 21:4)
Now that’s something to celebrate—even in a weeping Christmas.
It occurred to me recently that the answer to almost every question in my life right now is: “I don’t know.” With Woody’s recent retirement, we have made plans to move “back home” to New England. We are in the process of purchasing a condo under construction in the Boston area.
But from there on it’s all questions. When will we move? I don’t know. It depends on selling our current home. When will the house sell? I don’t know. What will it be like to move “back home”? Is it even possible to do that? Or was novelist Thomas Wolfe right when he famously proclaimed “You Can’t Go Home Again”? I don’t know. What about that biopsy you’ve been putting off? When will you get that done? I don’t know. It depends on getting a major insurance mess straightened out. How long will that take? I don’t know. And what about the results…? Well, you’re getting the picture.
I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one living in I-don’t-know-ville. Tons of people I know and love are living there, too. Will the never-ending international adoption saga never end? When will we meet these children? WILL we ever meet these children? When will my prodigal come home? WILL he/she come home? Will this court case ever get resolved and justice—and mercy—prevail? Will the doctors ever figure out what’s wrong? Will the money last till the end of the month? To name just a few questions in my prayers for those I love.
It seems to be an Advent season of I-don’t–know. Which brings to mind the fact that there were a lot of I-don’t-know people at that first Christmas. Joseph and Mary must have had plenty of unanswered questions on that road to Bethlehem. And when they had to flee to Egypt. And a thousand other times in the parenting of Jesus. What was God up to in allowing life for His son to look like this? And the shepherds and the wisemen: What does this amazing birth mean? And Simeon and Anna in the years they waited to meet Him: “How long, O Lord, how long?”
But they did know one thing, and it’s the central truth of Christmas: God is now with us! “And they will call Him Immanuel—which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like living in I-don’t-know-ville. It makes me nervous. I am, after all, half-German, firstborn, and off the charts on the Myers Briggs J-scale. I like answers better than questions. But maybe there’s something to be learned here from those first Christmas people. And more importantly, from the God who invaded their world.
Amidst all the unanswered questions of our lives, there is one Big Answer. What we don’t know, He does. What we can’t control, He can. Wherever our future takes us, He is there already. It’s something BIG to celebrate in Advent. A cause for great joy—yes, Joy! Even in this Advent season of I-don’t-know.
I felt it coming on early this morning: I was shifting into “Martha mode.” So far I’ve been very reflective about Advent this year, wanting to be like two Marys in the Bible—the one who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened, and the one who was His mother, with much to treasure and ponder in her heart.
But this morning was different. I awoke with shopping lists and baby equipment on the mind, and visions of menu planning and baking, Pack’n Plays and car seats, dancing in my head. I felt like Martha, “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (Luke 10:40).
We are extra-excited about Christmas this year. In just one week they begin to arrive for overlapping visits: all 6 of our adult kids (each of our 3 and spouses) and all 6 of our grandkids. We are very geographically scattered, from Wisconsin to Florida to New Hampshire and on to Ireland, so it’s a rare event that we will all be together for four whole days—for the first time in a year and a half.
We can’t wait! But there’s a lot to do. And this morning, the length of my lists hit me full force. Then I remembered wise words from the poet Mary Oliver (written in a different context) that a friend had sent me recently as a reminder of how to celebrate Advent: “Walk slowly. Bow often.” Is there any better time than Advent to be reminded of this?
“Walk slowly. Bow often.” I forwarded these words to our kids, with a brief note acknowledging how impossible that must seem amidst their busy lives with babies and toddlers and preschoolers.
My daughter-in-law Abby wrote back with a very interesting perspective (which I share with her permission):
“We were convinced that we couldn’t walk slower than we did with Soren (now 5 and a very fast runner!)…but Nils (22 months) has him beat! The sun rises and falls before Nils can get himself from the car to the back door. He greets every puddle, squirrel, and leaf with a glorious pause and ‘hi!’ It’s a long obedience…Now I’ll just have to think about bowing often as I stand holding the door open wishing I had a cattle prod. Thanks, Mom!”
“Walk slowly. Bow often.” If you can do it while waiting for a wonder-filled but dawdling toddler, maybe you can do it while waiting in line at Walmart, or while on hold trying to place an order. Or maybe even in a few moments of quiet before tackling the day’s List.
So I sat quietly for a few moments this morning pondering our nativity set and thinking of Mary—and me, and you. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given…” I prayed that I would not miss the wonder and mystery of it all even amidst the flurry of joyful family reunions. I pray the same prayer for you—whether you walk the floor with a crying baby, or wait on slow-moving toddlers, or get ready for a houseful, or even prepare for a quieter Christmas this year. May you find—or make—in this season a few “Mary moments” to welcome Him into your heart and life above all others.
“O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!” Merry Christmas (and a “Mary” Christmas) to you all!
Just after posting my last blog entry, I received a note from the leader of a Mom to Mom in Pennsylvania which has had me smiling ever since I read it. It is full of great examples of the “calling back” I wrote about last time. What encouragement and service and joy Mom to Mom can bring both within and beyond our churches! With joy—and with the writer’s permission—I share with you some wonderful things Mom to Mom groups in one church are doing. And they’re sure having fun doing them!
This year we encouraged all our Mom to Mom groups to do some sort of service project to make sure we remember that Christmas is not about us! We had a great response—and the groups did a lot of neat things.
- My Mom to Mom group rang the bell for the Salvation Army at one of our local malls last Friday night. As part of our church’s emphasis—Christmas, it’s not about us—we are supplying volunteers to ring the bell at several locations throughout the holiday season—one hour shifts. It is such a great experience! Anyway, my group wanted to do it, so the moms brought husbands and kids and we all met in the freezing 20 degree Pennsylvania wind. We even had a therapy dog with antlers who belongs to my assistant leader—quite an attention getter I might add. We wore Santa hats and had bells galore. We sang every Christmas carol several times during the hour we were there, using our trusty song sheets. . . . We said Merry Christmas a million times and some of the kids with their Santa hats on opened the doors for the shoppers as they went into the mall. Two little angelic girls stood by the kettle and when folks would put money they would say so sweetly with those big innocent eyes—Thank you, Merry Christmas. For an hour I threw out my pride and wore the Santa hat and Salvation Army apron and led the group in song after song—by the end we could not feel our feet or hands we were so cold, despite the hot chocolate one of my moms brought for us all. At times there were so many of us that folks had trouble getting to the kettle to put the money in—I kept having to do crowd control and say, ‘Make a path! Make a path!’ The mall security guard drove past every 10-12 minutes—I think they were worried! LOL!
- One of our moms has an 18 month old son who was diagnosed with a brain tumor back in September, the day we kicked off Mom to Mom. Her table group and the whole Mom to Mom AM (90 moms) are doing various things for the family, including buying presents, food, giving gas cards for their trips to the medical center, etc. One week we put out a basket and said just put anything in you can so we can give them a gift card for groceries for Thanksgiving. We got $500—we were overwhelmed. So neat to see everyone respond.
- One group did another cool thing: the husband of one of our moms has been out of work—had a construction business but had to close it. He just got a job—they had to sell their house and everything. Our group of 10 put together a gift basket for her—and chipped in money for a Walmart gift card for food and Christmas gifts. We collected $300 within our group for the gift card—I could not believe it—that is from 10 women. And the gift basket was a work of art—filled with all sorts of special things just for her since moms usually go without when things get tight. She cried when she got it—
- Also, our church is collecting reading glasses to take to Cuba in April when our pastor goes on a mission trip there. The older people in Cuba cannot read the Bible because they cannot see it. It is not a matter of money—there are no reading glasses in Cuba. Several of the PM Mom to Mom groups brought in reading glasses as their service project. Another group went to the county nursing home and sang to the residents—the kids went and it was so sweet.
What wonderful ways for Mom to Mom groups to say “Merry Christmas” to moms right in their group as well as to folks way beyond the church doors. I’ll bet you’re smiling, too. And maybe getting some great ideas for your Mom to Mom group next Christmas—-or in the many months in between. We’d love to hear from you, too, if you have ideas to share.
Merry Christmas one and all!