Tuesday, March 4, 2014

40 Days of Easter - Using Lent to Re-Focus the Greatest Season

I grew up in the church early on but our family stopped attending while I was still in elementary school.  Because of this, I have very few memories of Easter as a “spiritual” holiday.  It was a day for Easter dresses and bonnets, crochet handbags and baskets filled with chocolate bunnies and brightly colored jelly beans.  We would decorate eggs and hunt for them in the backyard, and we would eat ham and scalloped potatoes for our mid-day meal. 

Truth is, that is very similar to the way we do Easter now in our home.  Trade in the girly stuff (I had two sisters) for pastel plaid button-ups and cargo shorts worn by by my three boys and the rest is pretty darn close.  The difference is that I am married to a pastor, and we should know better. 

At Christmas, it is easy to associate that day with Jesus – even for those who don’t believe in Him at all.  Despite the over-materialism of Black Friday and the hustle and bustle in the malls, and the Christmas lights and Santa Claus on every corner, despite what some might call the “war on Christmas,” the Christmas season is still fairly rooted in the manger.  We decorate with nativity scenes that portray the story, we see Christmas cards with shining stars leading men on camel-back.  Here in the States, one can still hear the faint sound of songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” while shopping the produce aisle at the local grocery store. 

As a mom of three sons, ages ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade, I find that I sort of have Christmas down.  We have our advent calendars and the “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” book and the songs and the Christmas story to read out of the bible.  I don’t feel as prepared to teach Easter to my kids.  The Christmas season is a month of fun and contemplation but Easter is often relegated to one weekend. 

This year, I hope to bring Easter back.  I plan to do a modified Lent with my kids.  

Lent at it’s worst can be part of a legalistic and works based means of following Christ.  It can be a motivator to diet or to overcome a vice, with no real desire to grow nearer to God or to reflect on His goodness.  It can be an excuse to head to New Orleans for some muffaletta and “all bets are off” partying for Mardi Gras. 

At it’s best, it is can provide a season of anticipation.   It is a time to fast, to pray and to give alms.  It follows the rich tradition of 40.  Forty days of Christ’s temptation and fast in the wilderness to focus his heart on the truth of Scripture and the power of God before his ministry began on earth.  Forty years of wandering by the Israelites as they learned and re-learned the power, the provision and the almighty Kingship of Yahweh.  Forty days on the mountain for Moses, as he sat in the presence of God and received the commands that would set the Jewish people apart as a nation belonging to Him. 

Lent sets aside 40 days in which we can focus on spiritual disciplines that will ultimately prepare our hearts for Easter, the most pivotal moment in human history and the cornerstone of the Christian faith.  Without Easter we are all lost.  If Christ died on the cross and never rose, we are to be “pitied” more than any other as we worship a dead God.  But we don’t. 

Here are some spiritual disciplines our family will exercise , which will hopefully help bring the Easter season into focus in our home and hearts:

1.     Fasting– there are many examples of fasting in scripture.  Fasting sometimes worked for me and sometimes didn’t.  When I was young and in college I fasted more – mostly because I could do it in secret – as a mom of three it is harder to fast.  It also gets my blood sugar low and I can be a cranky mom which isn’t always honoring to God.  Hunger pangs would remind me that I was weak, and I would pray every time I felt hungry.  As a first-world American, hunger pangs would also remind me of the blessing and gift that food is.  It would remind me of my humanness and in contrast, God’s bigness and His might.  

Fasting doesn’t just have to be giving up food.  It can be sacrificing or giving something up that is important to you.  Examples might be: sweets, video games, smoking, television or time surfing the Internet.  I know people who gave up 10 minutes of sleep each day of lent, waking earlier and spending that extra time in prayer and thanks to God.  Last year I asked my boys what they wanted to give up for lent.  The oldest said “homework.”  The middle said “vegetables.”  And my youngest (a sugar addict) said “candy!”  At least one out of three understood the concept of sacrifice that I was getting at!  I laughed, but when we give things up with selfish motives (because we don’t actually like those things or we want to lose weight…) we miss the point.  When we give something up we also experience the abundance that is in our lives and the gifts that God pours out. This season, we will give opportunities to our kids to learn the importance of sacrifice and fasting and to participate in those things. 

2.     Prayer– Prayer might be a no-brainer, but it is so hard for some of us to talk with God and listen for His voice on a regular basis!    I believe God is honored and blessed when we come before him and expect him to listen.  In John 10:27, scripture tells us that his sheep (that’s us!) hear his voice.  It may come in a burning bush (like Moses) or a whisper in the wind (like Elijah) or in a sign (like Gideon).  It could be a still small voice in your spirit or through godly counsel of a friend.  It could be through nature.  God does speak to us and when we pray, we often become more receptive to His voice and more aware of it when it comes.  I find that when I spend time in prayer and then look out at the stars, I will recognize his majesty and perhaps his voice saying (as in the Rich Mullens song paraphrased) “one star has been lit for you.”  If I am not praying and my focus is on human things, human endeavors, lifting myself up by my bootstraps and running the treadmill that can be life, I might miss those moments. 
      The bible also tells us that God hears us.  (1 John 5:14) We can go to him with confidence and trust that He loves us and is interested in us.  He might not answer every prayer with a resounding yes (although our football team DID win the superbowl this year….) but he hears us.  God is not a genie in a bottle that will grant our every wish, but he does hear us.  And I believe as we trust him and share with him and even (gasp!) wrestle with him when we disagree with the way things unfold in life, we can grow nearer to Him and begin to resemble the kind of people he calls us to be. 
      Here is what I want to teach my kids:  Prayer is talking with and hearing from God.  During Lent, taking time to pray will bring the God of the Universe into better focus.  It can remind us of His glory, His might, His goodness and mercy.  It can remind us that we are small in His shadow, and yet still He loves us.  It can bring Him nearer to us and make him more personal – then when we look at the life of Christ and His mission on earth, and his ultimate sacrifice played out in the Easter story, it has more gravity and more dimension.  Our kids are growing up in an age where every movie comes out in a 3D version.  Every instagram photo and video upload using a GoPro shows them the big world is REAL and allows them to experience it beyond simple words on a page.  Prayer brings God to life.   And a living, active, engaging, personal and real God is crucial to helping set the stage for your kids of the greatest story ever told.

3.     Alms giving – Our culture has no problem associating gift giving and helping the poor with Christmas.  In order to prevent spoiled children, we often have them clean out their toy bin in preparation for “Santa’s” arrival (if you let “Santa” in your home!).  We donate those toys to the toy drive.  The schools collect canned goods and the local soup kitchen serves ham and turkey dinners.  As Christian parents, we tell our kids that we give gifts at Christmas time because God first gave the gift of his son, baby Jesus, to us.  We celebrate that gift by in turn, giving to others.  In order to balance out the materialism of Black Friday through the week-after Christmas clearance sales, we make sure we are donating our time and belongings to those who are less fortunate.  This helps our kids, and us, keep some perspective and gratitude. 

When I was online researching Lent (I did not grow up Catholic so was starting from scratch in the research department) and found “alms-giving” to be a common element of the 40-day spiritual preparation for Easter, I sort of had a “duh” moment.   I mean, isn’t Easter part 2 of the best gift ever?  Baby Jesus is actually a terrible gift all on his own.  It would be like giving my kid a remote-control helicopter but not giving him the remote.  For the gift of “God becomes flesh” to be the best gift ever, first we have to wait 30 plus years for him to finish living out his life here on earth and then die and raise to life again.  Until the Easter story happens we are all just caught in a cycle of sin and death and Christianity isn’t even a legitimate faith.  The deity of Christ is central to our faith and His death and resurrection gives credibility to His claims of it.  The greatest gift ever is that Christ came (Christmas)….to die (Good Friday) and conquer sin and death (Easter) that we now might also have fullness of life here on Earth and later in heaven.  We all really needed that of God, and He gave it.   Wouldn’t Easter season be the perfect time to give gifts to others, and especially to the neediest of us all? 

Putting emphasis on giving to others during the lent season sheds a greater light on the gift that is Easter.  It helps us tell the story to our kids in the same way that it helps us tell the Christmas story to them.  It makes the story complete.  If my son opened up the remote-control helicopter and asked what was so cool about it, I would have to also give him the remote.  On it’s own it is okay but with the remote, it can fly!  In the next 40 days our family will look for ways to help others.  Again, the purpose of lent isn’t to add more “spiritual stuff” to our already full plate.  It is to bring clarity and sharper focus to the Easter story. 

By the time our 40 days are up, my prayer is that our family knows God more, feels grateful for Christ’s act on the cross (and maybe even feel the sacrifice more acutely), and then on Easter morning, we can celebrate with more enthusiasm and a greater understanding of why and what and WHO we celebrate. 

Happy Lent, everyone!

**I am in the process of writing an actual devotional for families on the Lent/Easter Season.  Please be kind, and do not borrow from this post for any officially published works!  I kindly thank you!  

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Lessons I Never Learn

I wrote out my New Years Resolutions on January 5th.  Thankfully, "Stop Procrastinating" was not one of them.

I started off my list by basically cutting and pasting from the following year.  Drink more water, wash my face every day, eat healthier, sleep more, read some books, read my Bible consistently. Every one of those resolutions was a resolution for 2013 and would have made for a healthier year had I actually adhered to them.  And yet, 2013 ended up looking a little more like this: watch more netflix, use facebook more, eat Trader Joe's dips and crackers consistently, stay up too late, drink more (like, way more) coffee, wash face sporadically.  I did read some books though - I am very consistent there.  I don't know why it is so difficult for me, and for many of us, to do things that are good for us.  We all know exercise is good and that we feel good when we have discipline and our hard work pays off in toned arms and smaller muffin tops over our jeans.  We know that healthy eating and proper hydration makes us less tired and our skin look better and our lives probably longer.  And yet I fail to do these things again and again.  Why?

I think New Year's Resolutions must be going out of style.  Or at least it is not popular to admit to having them.  Ryan asked the church congregation yesterday who had made resolutions for 2014 and about 5% of the people raised their hands.  I am curious why that is?  Have we lost faith in ourselves that we can follow through?  Are we too busy to set new goals?  Do we all have "bucket lists" now that are good for an entire lifespan, making yearly goals unnecessary?

For me, part of the problem is that I am a staunch rule follower.  The only rules I ever feel I can break without getting into trouble are my own rules.  Which might be why, yesterday after penning the words "Eat Healthier" in my journal, I ate a bowl of nachos for the first time in many years and ate 4 chocolate chip cookies.

As a resolution - maker I am really terrible.  Despite this, I have had some great years.  2013 was a great year.  Ups and downs of course, but with fun, active, smart and compassionate boys and a loving husband who I am blessed to share my life with.  We had some great adventures and I trust we have more to come.  The New Year is a time to make those breakable resolutions but also a time to reflect and set goals of character and of how to we want to live as individuals and as a family.  Healthy eating, yes.  But I pray that in 2014 I also get a healthy dose of humility and reminders of how I can grow in grace towards others.

I hope that we don't set resolutions or that we break them because they aren't things that really matter.  I hope they are lessons we don't really need to learn.  And I hope that the things that do matter, are the things that stick this year - the goals and the plans that God has for my life.  I trust that He is better at following through than I am anyways.  Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Lazy Elf: Finally Jumping on the Elf on the Shelf Bandwagon

I didn't really know that the Elf on the Shelf was a thing that lots of people did until this year.  I had seen the books at the store and an occasional post on Facebook by my friends who I deem "super-parents" (in a very positive way!).  I had seen a few fun ideas on Pinterest of the Elf fishing in the toilet or making snow angels in a pile of powdered sugar.  But I honestly had no idea that the Elf was so mainstream.  Until this year.  The year my youngest started Kindergarten.

This has been my "Elf" journey to date: A few days after Thanksgiving break, Ben came home and said "A lot of my friends have real elves in their houses.  They do funny things.  If you touch them they lose their magic.  But you can talk to them.  They make sure you are good for Santa."  Huh.  Cool, I said.  And figured that was the end of it.

Then day after day, Ben came home talking about the "elf" and what it was up to at his friend's houses and that he was sure he was around our home too.  Yesterday, while brushing his teeth, Ben said "this toothpaste tastes funny.  My friend told his elf to come to our house.  I bet he did and the elf messed with my toothpaste."  And that is when I caved.

All debates about "lying" to our kids vs. encouraging healthy imaginations and belief in "magic" aside, I do think the Elf on the Shelf is a cute idea.  I never outright told my kids that Santa was not real, but I never really worked hard to dupe them either.  I asked my older boys this morning (when little guy was out of the room) when they stopped believing in Santa.  They both basically said it just crept up on them and they never had a moment when they were traumatized or felt like they had been lied to.  Phew.  Of course, the older two never believed in the Elf on the Shelf.  (a quick note...I tried to tell Ben that the Elf is a toy and that other families pretend to have an elf and it is fun but just using imaginations...he looked at me like I was nuts. "Mom, they are real elves." And I refuse to be the Mom on Miracle on 34th street who forces her child to not believe).

We don't have the 30 dollars to spend on the little elf doll, and I bet there are other families out there who don't either (or who prefer to spend it another way).  So the older boys and I put our heads together and came up with some ways to do a little "Elf Magic" without a lot of money or fuss.  I made a little list of our ideas - all of which are pretty easy and don't require an actual doll.  Plus a couple bonus ideas for those who have the doll and don't feel up to being creative every single day.  I mean, "Elf" success in the home is directly related to the creativity and energy of the parent, as well as the imagination and willingness of the child to have fun and go with the flow when needed.  I really love seeing the fun things some parents come up with - but this list is for the rest of us.

Lazy and "NO ELF" ideas.
1. Our elf first officially made his debut today, 6 days before Christmas.  (Anyone can be creative for 6 days, right?)
2.  Our elf will return to the North Pole on the night before Christmas Eve.  He will leave a note for Ben to find the morning of the 24th saying "Heading back...great job being good! I had fun spreading Christmas cheer at your house but now it is up to you!  And remember the true source of Christmas joy is Jesus - the baby born for all of us, who we celebrate this season."
3. Our elf has help from the 11 and 13 year olds in my home.  This makes things MUCH easier for Mom and Dad.
4. He will be toilet papering the tree, drawing a red nose on the kid in the middle of the night, and wrapping the toilet in wrapping paper - but will never be seen.  
5. His "grand finale" will be on December 23rd but we have yet to determine what that will be.  The 13 year old wants to wrap our entire house in tinsel...
6. If you have an elf but need a few days off, leave a note like this: "Dear (kid), there's been an emergency at the North Pole - be back in a few days!  (from your Elf).
7. Another good one: after some high-wire shenanigan like toilet papering the tree or hanging paper snowflakes from the chandelier, set your elf on the shelf with a cast on his/her leg and a note "Doc says I need to stay put for a bit...will be up and around again in a day/week/month! (depending on how ambitious you are/aren't feeling).
8.  Two very baaaad ideas that my older boys think are good ideas: Draw a chalk outline of an elf on the ground with some caution tape.  Or, have someone say, "I think I just flushed an elf down the toilet..."
9. If you want an elf but can't afford one, use a different elf - one you make or get at the dollar tree and tell your kids "if all the elves looked alike, what fun would that be?" Or borrow an elf while he is on vacation or sick leave from another kid's house.  Or be creative and do the "Bear on the Stairs" or the "Doll in the Hall" (although those sound a little creepy to me..).
10.  Don't overthink if you don't want to.  Go crazy overboard if you want to.  A friend wrote on my FB post where I was debating "To Elf or Not to Elf" that 'the world gets harsh soon enough, let him enjoy the wonder!'

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Light at the End of the Tunnel Came Early

Thirteen and a half years ago, on March 4, 2000, I began to look for the light at the end of the tunnel.  That was the day that my oldest son was born.

I did not have dreams of motherhood as a young girl.  I really never thought I would be a mom, until I met and fell in love with my future husband.  Ryan loves kids and when I married him, I figured kids might be a part of a package deal.  They were.  God has a sense of humor or he likes to teach us lessons, or both.  I found out our oldest was on the way just shy of our second anniversary, and about 3 years earlier than I had planned for.  To top it off he was a premie by 5 weeks - I was robbed of 5 entire weeks of non-motherhood!

I did mothering by the book.  Really, by the book.  "What to expect when you are expecting" got replaced on the shelf by "what to expect in the first year..." I read it faithfully, but my heart was rarely in the game.  I felt like this little guy had stolen me from myself and replaced me with a milk factory and a nanny-housekeeper.  I loved him and cared for him, but deep down and sometimes very openly would talk about the "light at the end of the tunnel."  The day I would send him off to school or that he would fly from the nest and let me be..

When boy 2 arrived on the scene two and a half years later, I still had not quite gotten the "mommy" thing down.  Boy 2 had cholic.  He was intense and sensitive and cried a LOT.  If I was merely bored at this point of playing on the playground and pushing cars around with my two year old, the boredom was now quickly replaced by despair and borderline insanity.  But this too shall pass, I thought.  I received two pieces of advice on a regular basis - one - that this crazy baby-toddler-diaper-food on the ceiling stage would go quickly and before I know it life will be easier!  The light at the end of the tunnel...  The other advice I received was that it would go quickly, therefore I should slow down and enjoy my kids while they are little and not wish their littleness away...I didn't really believe or take either completely to heart.

Boy 3 (Benny) changed all that for me.  It is sad to admit but I think I wasn't 100% mom to all three of our boys until the day Ben was born.  Ian was nearly five and Isaac was 7.  I held Ben in my arms (he was also premature and lived in NICU for 21 days) and realized that the other two were no longer babies.  It donned on me finally, that time keeps moving forward and the boys will never grow younger.  I enjoyed every stage that Ben went through.  When he was one, Ian started kindergarten, and that began five years of me and Ben at home while the other two were in school.  I became very involved in the boy's school that year and took personal interest in each of them.  I began praying daily that I would see the passions and talents of each boy and help to cultivate those in them.  Even though sometimes exhausted and bored, and occasionally wondering about that elusive "light," I also stopped seeing motherhood as a "time-out" from my real life that would somehow resume once the kids were out of the house.  I embraced it as the life that God has given me and the charge I have to nurture and love these boys.

I write today, because tomorrow Benny starts full day kindergarten.  This is the day, the one I have been waiting for - 13 1/2 years of waiting!  It is supposed to be my light at the end of the tunnel.  The pay-off for all that hard mommy work.  I joked today that I was heading straight to the store tomorrow to buy bon-bons (if that is outdated then Ben and Jerry's!) and then taking a nap.  Okay, I really might do that.  But one thing has hit me hard this week.  My kids were all born early.  And I think my light at the end of the tunnel also came early for me.  I think it came 6 years ago, when Benny came into this world. I began to really see my boys.  Loud and whiny, rock throwing and dog hugging, wrestling and wall climbing, homework frustration and Christmas morning anticipation, legos on the stairs, and the toilet seat up, the army guy frozen in a cup of water in the freezer..teen angst, slammed doors, RV trips and fishing for hours, kissing boo boos and pulling my hair out in frustration...always something funny to post on facebook...This is the good life - even the annoying and tiring parts of it.

 I wish we could all figure that out the day our first child comes home.  Some do, but I know I did not.  This post isn't about how I am JUST now getting it, because despite my posts about wanting to sell our children, they are in jest (mostly) and I have spent the last 6 years enjoying them.  Tomorrow isn't the light, but it also isn't the end.  This train just keeps moving and I will hopefully appreciate all the scenery along the way!  (Benny good luck tomorrow - I love you sweetie. )

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Hedonism for the Introvert

I am an extreme introvert, which could also just be my physiological and psychological excuse for being an anti-social recluse-monestary-living wannabe who is afraid of public failure and would prefer to keep her nose in a book at all times.  But I really think it is just that God created me to be an introvert.  As an introvert, every time I interact with people, it has to make sense.  It has to have a purpose or else it is sucking me dry of all my energy for no good reason.  As an introverted pastor's wife, I won't lie...it can be a challenge.  I often make a bee-line for the ladies room as soon as service is over.  One, because coffee before church equals the need to make a beeline for the ladies room.  Two, because I can hide for a few minutes and pull myself together before going out to "mingle" with people.

I will write more about this later, as I happen to be reading an excellent book titled "Introverts in the Church" lent to me by a fellow introvert.

Today I want to write a bit about the last two days and my Introverted Recovery and Detox.  You see, I also have low blood sugar.  If any of you have low blood sugar issues you know that when your blood sugar dips, you get jittery, anxious, spacey and may possibly lose some coherency and some social skills to boot.  An introvert on people-overload looks a lot like someone with low blood sugar.  And there are times when it gets extreme.  Ryan was out of the country for two weeks and when he returned and went back to work, our kids went on Spring Break.  I was on stimulus Overdose.  Sometimes I calmly ask for an hour or two "time-out" in my room or to go on a walk...other times I demand that they all leave town.  Thankfully God gave me three boys so I can suggest "wouldn't a boy's weekend be fun?"  But usually I have lost all social skills when it gets really bad and I can't utter a complete sentence therefore it comes out more like..."go.now.must. sleep..."

So I sent them away for two days.  And this is what I did:  Yesterday I ate Ben and Jerry's chocolate brownie ice cream while looking at a facebook post about how nobody ever regrets eating healthy.  This was at breakfast.  I chain-watched movies on netflix until I found a new TV series to chain-watch on netflix.  I wore my pajamas all day.  I ate carrots out of a bag and crackers with my favorite dip for lunch and dinner.  I didn't do dishes or laundry or vacuum or run errands or talk on the phone or even email.  I did whatever I wanted.  Whatever felt good at the time.  As an introvert I felt better and better as yesterday went by and had no human interaction.  From time to time the thought hit me that Ryan is preaching on Hedonism this Sunday - the pursuit of pleasure over all else.  I sort of laughed about the irony while eating my chips and salsa and drinking coffee at 10 pm last night.  By 2 am I finally willed my slightly addictive-personality self to turn off the computer and admit that I cannot watch 100 episodes of this show in one night...I woke up to a silent house.  And it was really nice.

As an introvert I need those times of recovery and the permission to do nothing.  By this morning, while I was tired from staying up all night, I was also refreshed.  I walked around the house, opening windows.  I turned on itunes to my favorite worship music and started making french macarons (which if you know anything about french macarons you know this is NOT hedonism but more a form of masochism...trust me they are harder than they look).

My rested ears, which had not listened to kids or teachers or neighbors or anyone else for 24 hours was struck by the phrase "avalanche of grace..." in the song that was playing.  I sat down heavily and for the next hour listened to God's voice speaking to me and filling the hollowness of my soul.  Sound cheesy?  I doubt any honest person would say they don't know what I mean.  A day of living completely for myself left me feeling empty.

I still feel I need that alone time.  And truth be told, my hand is held up to God sometimes too..."wait...please...let me sit in silence" I say to Him.  I felt His grace this  morning - as if he was just sitting in the corner watching me do my thing.  And then when all the noise was cleared out, when I was no longer the overwhelmed introvert with no capacity to let anything else in, then He joined me.

It felt good yesterday to empty myself out.  And then it also felt good to know I am not the center of all things and my life and pleasures is not all there is.  I don't think my relationship with God is as rich when I don't pull back at times.  A little **hedonism can go a long way.

(ps I am using the term very lightly here...not a theology or psych paper or an endorsement...) :)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Traveller's Tree: the yearly tradition of hanging our ornaments

When I was a kid, I collected teddy bears.  Once family got wind of it, I was the lucky recipient of stuffed teddy bears, teddy bear blankets, teddy bear figurines, teddy bear mugs.  When I left for college I had a lot of bears to pack up.  I think I gave most of them away, save for a few select bears that are stored away for my grandkids.

In High School, I collected Goofy (from Disney) items.  Goofy baseball hat, Goofy t-shirt, Goofy slippers, Goofy telephone.  I still have the slippers.

Collections can be fun, they can give a person a sort of "mission" in which they are always on the hunt for something to add.  They can also be expensive, take up too much room, and give too many well-meaning relatives a reason to add less-desirable items to your shelves.

As a family who like to travel, we notice a lot of traveller collector items.  Early in our marriage, Ryan and I needed to make the important decision..."what do we collect on our travels?"  In every airport and gift shop in the world, there are plenty of options - sweatshirts, hats, silver spoons, snow globes, and little figures.  There is local handiwork, wines, jewelry, patches, pins, foodstuffs.  And of course, the shot glass.  What to do?  After retiring my bear and Goofy collections for good, I really wasn't ready for anything big or clutter-adding.  So we came up with the idea of collecting Christmas tree ornaments.

This has become one of my most favorite traditions of the season.  Ornaments are small, get packed up for eleven months a year, and serve a very practical purpose for the month of December.  Everyone needs something to hang on their tree, and these ornaments provide a large amount of nostalgia to go with their practicality.

Every year, as we decorate our tree, Ryan, the boys and I talk about the stories that go along with each ornament we hang.

We have an ornament from San Francisco Ry and I got on our first anniversary trip.  We have Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons, one from a lodge we stayed at in Washington State.  Leavenworth, the Grand Canyon, Washington DC, Durango, and the Redwood Forest.  We have a glass bell from Petra, Jordan and a beautiful camel ornament from Cairo.  Florida was ba-humbug the year we were there, so we have a giant sand-dollar we found on the beach, tied up with ribbon and hung on the tree each year.

When Ryan travels alone he brings home ornaments so we can somehow relive his memories with him.  Places like Sweden, Norway, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Venezuela, and Bosnia.  In Greece, the first time there we couldn't find an ornament so we bought a little clay pot to hang.  Our second time, we were there in November and found a hand-painted ornament to add to our collection.  Of course we have our olive wood ornaments bought in Bethlehem (we love cliches in our family).

No town or trip is too small or too big for us.  We pick up ornaments on road trips as well as missions trips, anniversary trips, and bigger family vacations (like Maui).  We are a blessed family to be sure.  Ryan and I made the decision early on to value travel and experience over stuff, and we have been lucky enough to have those experiences on a fairly modest income (by US standards, large by the rest of the world).

Christmas is such a fun time to celebrate memories and traditions.  Some of our ornaments are not from our travels, but are still meaningful - the photo ornaments of the kids with Santa over the years, the ornament Ryan gave me on one of our first ever "dates" back in college.  The first year of marriage ornaments and the "baby's first Christmas" ornaments.  No one can ever accuse me of NOT being sentimental.  Every December we get to remember the experiences and the places we have been blessed to see and to experience.  In a little collection of memories, snapshots of times and places, all hung on our tree.  I look forward to future travels and opportunities to add to our collection (Lord willing!).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

In a dark field I wait

Living in the land of Jesus's birth, life, death and resurrection can spoil a person.  It can ruin one's perspective and make living out the Christian life anywhere else seem a bit mundane at times.  It can also change a person, and create memories and experiences that will stay with them forever.

On Christmas Eve 2007, our family of five spent time across the Separation Wall, on the West Bank of Israel, singing songs about Jesus and praying for peace with other believers.  We did not go to where the party was, in Bethlehem, where the light first dawned and Jesus was first placed in an animal's trough.  We were in Beit Sahour, or "Shepherd's Field," where it was believed the nomadic sheepherders tended their sheep.

From where we stood, singing in Hebrew, in Arabic and in English, we could see the lights of Bethlehem, but we stood nearly completely in the dark, excepting one fire, in the middle of our little circle.

There are people who happily embrace God's grace and forgiveness.  Who are easily able to shed the "sinner" and walk as a "saint" made possible of course only by God.  I don't mean self-righteous people, I just mean those lucky people who see God's outstretched hand and gift and say "hey, cool..thanks!"    I, on the other hand, have a hard time with the free gift of God's love and grace.  I see myself as fallen, and imperfect, and it pains me.  I know I can never earn God's favor, and there are days when I struggle to accept it.  I know I cannot walk into heaven on my own two feet, but only on the back of the one who bore my sin on a cross.  But that humbles me to my knees and if God were to come today I wonder if I wouldn't hide from Him.  This is my confession.

In the days that God became man and dwelt among His people, shepherds were a despised profession.  In the caste system of the day, they were considered right "up" there with tax collectors and dung sweepers.  They were called "untrustworthy" and unclean.  The bottom of the heap.  They were not allowed into the temple to pray.  Today I thought of Shepherd's Field, and thought "this is where I belong."  This is where we all deserve to be - outside of Bethlehem, looking in.

On Friday, 20 small children, most of them 6 years old, were brutally killed.  In Sudan, and in Syria, in many regions in our world, parents watch their children suffer and die.  Children watch as their parents are murdered.  There is war, famine, child soldiers, genocide, school shootings, domestic violence.  It is heartbreaking, sickening, horrifying.  This world has a lot of darkness and pain, none of it is easy to accept or to explain.  What amazes me is that the bible says that Jesus came not despite the darkness here, but because of it.  He sees those of us, like me, who some days want to sit in the dark where we feel we belong, and God says "no."

He sent a host of angels to reveal to the outcasts of society, those shepherds in the darkness, that God was here.  That He was born to us, to save us from ourselves.  He said "come to Bethlehem and see for yourselves!"  He invited them to join in the party and to rejoice and find hope. I wouldn't have traded that time in Beit Sahour for anything, and modern-day Bethlehem on December 24 resembles Mardi Gras more than the simple, first celebration of a baby's birth.  However, this season I want to accept the fact that though we don't deserve it, though we humans are all unclean, we are all outcasts, God has announced His presence to us.  He invites us into the story, to come to Him.  Although I put my trust in God 20 years ago, I still have days when I wake up and have to say, "I will go and see.  I will accept that You love more than I can fathom. "  How long will we wait in the field before we go down to Bethlehem?