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?