Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hearing the Bells

When my children were babies I weighed the pros and cons of various Santa traditions.  My husband & I decided our family's observance of Christmas and Advent had room for both Jesus and Santa. Jesus is supreme day in and day out, for eternity, while the man in the red suit makes for fun memories of anticipation and generosity in the latter part of December. 

Over the years we have had some explaining to do in regards to why Santa only brings three gifts to each child in our home on Christmas morning while some friends, classmates and neighbors get more than three. We've indicated that there is a partnership between Santa & parents, explaining parents play an important role in Santa's choices--price range, number, whether or not a gift is appropriate/allowed, etc. 

Operation Christmas Child shoebox packing and our involvement with a local children's home also required us to address the economics of funding Santa Claus' gift giving. ("Why are WE getting this? Why don't they just ask Santa Claus?") We've explained that some parents are unable to pay for gifts which allows the rest of the community the opportunity to rally around and 'elf,' helping make Christmas happen. 

I have realized how much this summarizes the most beautiful message of Santa Claus: Giving without concern for getting credit. It is the most precious part of the secular Christmas season.

Being my children's trustworthy source of information as they figure out this world is a priority to me. I have sought to honestly answer the questions we are asked while still preserving the mystery and fun of the observance. The wonder of childhood is a gift.

This year, to borrow a term from Polar Express, the sound of the bells has started to fade...but not for my entire trio. While one is all in, one seems quietly suspicious and the third is in full investigative mode. With precocious 10 and a half year olds, the questions have grown more mature, probing and specific. 

Last week my P and I were alone in the car when he started grilling me. He saw some inconsistencies in various explanations and asked me to explain the inner workings of the parent/Santa connection. "I mean, do you Skype with him or text or what?!?"

I reminded him that he could trust me to tell the truth. I told him I would answer all his questions, but wanted him to make sure he was ready for it. I explained that Christmas is different when the wonder is gone and you understand all the inner workings.

Ever thoughtful and circumspect, he exhaled a sigh of an old soul and said, "Mom, based on how you are answering these questions, I think I see where this is headed. But just in case, can I wait two more years and ask you to explain everything when I am twelve?"

I grinned wide and agreed to his request and he hasn't mentioned it since.

It's the most WONDER-ful time of the year!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Claiming Calm in the Christmas Chaos

It's that time of year...when tinsel, lights and lists bring out the best and the worst in each of us.

In a time of year where we proclaim peace, joy and love we so often feel the antithesis of those things. Hectic, rushed, frustrated, overextended. This is not the Christmas that honors Christ.

He is for love unearned but freely given by grace, not family drama and grudges.
He came to free us from our debt not lead us into it.
He is NOT the God of unrest & unmet expectations, but the culmination of all peace and hope.

I am committed to fighting to keep his birthday from becoming characterized by those things.

If we can just find time to sit, breathe and refocus on the manger we know these things are true...but how? I think the first key is intentionality. A few years ago a decided I was not going to let the world steal my Christmas, so I decided as a gift to MYSELF to be finished with shopping by December 1st. An excel spreadsheet and an empty closet in my guest room (now dubbed 'the gift closet' by my family) became my partners in slowly building an arsenal of gifts throughout the year. It has made me more thoughtful about the things I choose because I have all year to gather. It has also made budgeting for Christmas much better. A little here and there spread across many months (and close out sales) adds up. The key to not overbuying is keeping a list so you don't forget what you have.

Realistic expectations are also a must. You cannot do ALL the Christmas things. The hard thing about December is that there are so many wonderful ideas and experiences... Homemade granola, advent calendars, service projects, making popcorn garland and handmade ornaments, nightly devotionals, best neighborhood light display, Christmas musical, ladies' luncheons, cookie swaps, adopting a family, Angel tree, Christmas jars, caroling, elves every night, going to that live nativity, a birthday party for Jesus, hand addressing Christmas cards to 200, the perfect pinterest-inspired teacher gifts, parades, gift exchanges, tree lightings, hosting a party in your home AND a peaceful heart...on top of all your regular responsibilities? This is the beginning of a December nervous breakdown. Some things have got to give.

I was thinking about this yesterday and realized that when it all starts to feel out of control we DO still have power to make choices that turn things around. God gave us this really great two letter word: No. It can be said with grace. It doesn't make you a Scrooge, it actually can be an indicator of wisdom, bravery and a harbinger of peace and a restorer of joy.

I want my objective to be meaningful marks on my childrens' hearts rather than simply keeping others' traditions. So, I asked my family what they loved most about Christmas. We made a list. Some really great seasonal events and activities didn't make the cut. But you know what did? Advent and time with family. Cutting out some of the fluff left margin for impromptu cuddles on the sofa and a MUCH more peaceful heart.

I am not advocating irresponsibility and a lack of commitment. I am lobbying for thoughtfulness and boundaries.

I looked at items on my personal list and asked: What's the point? Is this worth the cost (to my budget, my schedule, my spirit)? What brings joy? What expresses love in meaningful ways to the people in my life? What honors God? And then I either let some things go or decided we'd do something comparable at another time of year. Why does December get the lock on all these fun service projects anyway? Why not spread some of them out?

And here's the great thing: My list will not look like yours. This year's list doesn't look like other years/seasons of my family's life. I've let go of some things that would make others shriek in gift wrapping. Mine is truly awful. I've basically given up on bows and often write directly on the package in Sharpie in lieu of cute labels.

I know! I tried for a while, but it was frustrating and expensive for no other reason than what other people would think. It is not my thing. And I am Ok with that. Letting go of package presentation freed up more time for things that bring cards!

This year I switched to postcards because they cost less, didn't take as long and the postage was cheaper. I'm using the savings for gas to drive my big Suburban to Atlanta for our Santa visit because he's the one we've seen every year. That may seem silly to you, but it matters to me and my tribe.

I have declined some invitations to larger events in lieu of smaller ones where real, meaningful conversation and connection can happen. I have accepted invitations that were inconvenient because they would speak love to people I care about.

As I age and grow I am learning the importance of making thoughtful decisions rather than simply trying to drink from a peppermint flavored firehose.

The bottomline is that if we are honest, much of the Christmas chaos in our lives is self generated. There are certainly factors we cannot control, but don't let those deceive you into missing the ones you can.

There are still a couple of weeks. Go reclaim your Christmas with the peace, love and joy we profess! It is worth it.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

On Being in the Ensemble

Last Fall my K auditioned & was cast in her first theatrical production. She had an incredible experience as Gretl in the Sound of Music. When my husband & I saw her perform it was clear to us she had found something she loved.

Shortly after the show run was completed, friends told us about an upcoming local production of Beauty & the Beast. They urged K to consider auditioning and told her she would make a terrific Chip. The thought of that role thrilled her and motivated her to go and see the musical in a nearby town. 

The week of the audition, K lost some steam. She had heard how many were auditioning & how much time it would require. The day of the audition arrived and she was still on the fence until two separate encounters with adults involved in the show who urged her to audition. It was just the nudge her confidence needed. 

On the night of the audition we learned that over 100 children from our community had auditioned for about 50 spots. K was called back for the role she wanted. There were 5 children in contention for the part. 

I stayed up until midnight waiting for the list online and then woke her up the next morning with the news. She had indeed been cast, but not as Chip. K had been cast in the ensemble. She had 24 hours to decide if she would accept the part--and the rigorous schedule that she would be committing to--3 nights a week for 3 months and 4-5 nights a week as production time closed in. That's a lot for a precocious, active 10 year old with varied interests!

Although it was not what she had planned and hoped for, K chose to accept the assigned roles with grace. She has worked hard & enthusiastically--and it has been a wonderful learning experience. 

On the surface it seemed like a bummer--sacrificing four months of extracurricular time for a part in the background--but, truly, it was an honor just to be cast. After a few rehearsals, K was selected as the understudy for Chip, which meant additional rehearsals and much more to learn. After all the extra work she will never take the stage as Chip, but we've appreciated the gift of extra coaching and exposure to voice and acting direction. 

Beauty & the Beast opened this weekend and I smiled as my little ensemble member beamed in each of her roles---villager, tea cup, broom and narrator. She wanted one big name part and instead she was given the chance to shine in several 'smaller' roles.

She was able to let go of the role she would have 'chosen' and embrace the ones she was assigned. And I have spent some time reflecting on how even in middle age I struggle with being in the ensemble sometimes. I want to matter. I want to do something big & meaningful for the the world and God says, "how about you play these countless 'small' roles with great enthusiasm instead?" 

Be a member of your community that thinks beyond your own bubble and your own needs. 
Be a Mama that teaches your children to see & love others.
Be a wife that esteems her spouse and supports him as a partner. 
Be a church member that serves where needed. 
Be a neighbor that's not too busy to slow the car, roll down the window and chat. 
Be a follower of the Lord that lets His light shine in the little things of your daily life.

 There is so much to be learned in the ensemble--so many chances to grow and shine.

I am grateful for this first lesson in 'not getting what she wanted' because she's learned a lot about the beauty of being in the ensemble and so have I!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why Advent Matters

I was in touch with an old friend this week & discovered she is dealing with a new, scary medical diagnosis. She's my age and a Mama of three. A reminder of my mortality.

There was conversation with a Mama in the trenches with me about the Ferguson related protests, their implications for America and, specifically, my thoughts hovered on the impact on her son because of the color of his skin. A reminder that fear and injustice are deeply felt in this world.

I enjoyed dinner with friends who have been fostering a precious boy for 6 months--they brought him home from the hospital and now they are dealing with a looming court decision likely returning him to his biological parents. It is a win for his birth family and yet they feel such loss. A reminder of the heartbreak in this world even when we are seeking to be obedient to God's call on our lives...

A headline prompted the question from my children: "What is rape, Mom?" My answer led to a more difficult discussion: "WHY would someone do something like that? I don't understand." I gulped at the loss of innocence and fumbled through an age appropriate conversation about evil. 

Meanwhile, our nation celebrated gratitude by being gluttons, then got into our cars (or on our laptops) and greedily rushed out to battle others for the right to consume more in celebration of Christmas. 

This world started to feel pretty dark. I was grateful for the return of the twinkling lights of the Christmas season.

So, we got our Christmas trees and brought down boxes of decor. We put on Santa hats, giggled and attempted to push away so much of the hurt and darkness of the world.

It is so much fun, but it is not enough.

Tonight over my hot tea I am struck with this truth: We can wrap this world up in tinsel and bows, add a jolly soundtrack and urge each other to "be merry" but it does not change the brokenness and difficulty of the present world.

Blocking out the reality off life for a month is like going and getting blitzed at a bar after a bad day. The next morning you wake up...the issues are still there and you have a nasty headache. 

I don't want a short -term solution. I want long term hope.

This cry of our hearts is advent.

We wait and want for more. 
We hope for healing. 
We long for restoration of all the brokenness. 
We look forward to the fulfillment of God's promise of peace.

This feeling of want can't be filled with a brimming shopping cart on Black Friday.
Santa can't bring healing in his napsack. I watch it year after year at the local children's home as we try to compensate for all the hurt these kids have endured with 'stuff.' It is a wonderful distraction but not a cure.

Yesterday afternoon as I 'made room' for the two trees in our house and prepared places to display my favorite decorations I thanked God for the Advent season where we prepare not just our homes, but our hearts.

This morning in Sunday School I read from Ann Voskamp's amazing new book to the 5th & 6th grade girls in my class. After church I had the kiddos start coloring the printable ornaments for our own nightly reading we plan to start tomorrow...because before we can fully appreciate the gift of His birth, it is good to be reminded of our need for it.

Like children who fill out their Christmas wish pages and lingering over the catalogs (or Amazon reviews)...I want to long for the gift of Jesus.

I want to read the specs, hear the stories of how others have experienced Him, clear out space for His arrival. I want to wait in wonder. I want to revel in receiving.

Because my heart in this season needs the gifts of His peace, presence, healing, salvation and love more than anything else. 

Come, Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The One that Turned Back

Because my children are out of school all week, they have had the pleasure (ha ha) of joining me during my daily errands, chores and activities. Though all the extra help has made my daily rhythm feel a little different, it has been surprisingly pleasant to see just how much they are now capable of doing--grocery carts, lists, shopping, waiting (basically) patiently.

 I'm not sure if I have mentioned it, but I am really enjoying ten and a half.

One of the items on my agenda this week was an annual check up with the doctor that delivered my trio. He works an hour and a half away in Atlanta, so although I have faithfully shown him pictures of my growing brood over the years, it was still a special moment when he introduced himself to K, P & R in the waiting room yesterday. They were a far cry from the 2 and 3 lb preemies he met a decade ago. When they each shook his hand and said "thank you" to Dr. Donnelly, it took my breath away. (I can't believe I didn't take their picture!)

I felt that my gratitude, although expressed to him countless times before, had a deeper meaning Tuesday. In a moment it was clear we had come full circle.

When I went into labor at 23 weeks, who would have believed these three thriving, precocious people would be standing before us a decade later?

It is our human nature to feel deeply in the moment, but time and the pace of life can cause us to move right along. We are wired to be looking out for the next big thing, but the perspective that comes from pausing to remember can be sobering.

As I was driving home from that appointment, I thought about the account in Luke 17 of the ten lepers Jesus healed. 
"And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?"

He healed ten people...radically, positively altered the courses of their lives...and only one returned to say thanks. It is easy to read this story in retrospect and judge the nine, but it took me a mere minute to think of possible excuses because I can identify with each one in my own life:
Perhaps they weren't ungrateful, just busy. They were out telling others about how good God had been that there wasn't time to come back.
Maybe they were entitled, felt as if they earned it or deserved it. They had served their time in misery, this was their time to rebuild their lives.
They might have even shouted a "Thank you, Jesus" as they returned to their agendas. They were grateful in their hearts, wasn't that enough?
Perhaps they assumed the altruism of Jesus didn't desire any thanksgiving in return.

And yet, Jesus allows us to see His question: "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?" That part is in the Bible for a purpose.

I have been pondering this account all day as I polish, cook, clean and prepare for the Thanksgiving feast in my home tomorrow:

Lord, make me like the one who saw, turned back, praised and gave thanks..not just on social media, but in the quiet moments of humility, meant just for you to hear.

And, Lord, help me not just list the trite circumstantial, family, prosperity, peace. I am exceedingly grateful that my lines have fallen in pleasant places...but grant me the ability to 'see' and turn back in the less traditional places, because, we don't come to the Thanksgiving banquet tables from flawless backgrounds and perfect circumstances. Many of us come with worries, regrets, frustration, fear, heartbreak, complicated lives. Yet, in Hebrews 5: 8 we are encouraged to "...give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

 Those 3 little letters A-L-L change my list. They lead my heart to prayers that sound a bit more raw:
Thank you for the doors you have closed to protect me from myself and my own fleshly will.
Thank you for the times you have told me NO to heal me of my greed and cause me to lean on your wisdom.
Thank you for the stumbles, bruises and scars you have allowed to heal me of my prideful self reliance so I can more fully trust you.
Thank you for less than perfect children who reveal a lot of 'less than perfect' in my own heart.
Thank you for the challenging journey of making two lives one in marriage to give me a picture of your great love for your own bride, the Church.
And mostly, thank you for calling me your child--for loving me despite my junk--and for giving me countless opportunities to experience your grace, love and peace.

 Because God is faithful in ALL things, I can be grateful in ALL circumstances.

May Thanksgiving not be a day, but a heart attitude that honors Him in seeing, turning back, praising and saying thanks.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Absent to be Present

My nightly routine for many years was to write once the children were tucked into their beds. In those days bedtime was like a marathon finish line I couldn't wait to cross.

These days my 'big kids' stay up a little later and I lay with them to talk, laugh and just enjoy the silence. I really like these people and the quiet, one-on-one time the nights allow. It often ends this way.
How is this man-child one of my boys?

So this little blog is a bit neglected, but the hearts of those closest to me are not.

I have been absent here to be fully present in my home, and it is well with my soul.

Because I don't want my children to have beautifully bound volumes of the lessons I learned in parenting that required me to miss the days when they just wanted to be together.

I don't want them to one day speak of how I took the role of motherhood seriously... reading, writing, pondering, praying. I want them to know it was THEM I valued.

As a mama of 10 (and a half!) year olds, this often means watching shows I don't particularly care about in order to hold hands with one I do, playing all sorts of games, hearing a lot of long stories or corny jokes I don't always find funny and evenings of just laying close because I know these days are fleeting.

I do a lot of 'coaching' and correcting during the day...carping about wet towels, unbrushed hair, table manners, eye contact with adults, misplaced belongings, homework. I am not particularly smoothe at this motherhood gig, but after 8pm it is all about the snuggles and heart reconnection. The shine of the day has worn off. They are still and lovey. They invite me to connect. I'm in!

I have to remind myself that this time is not unproductive. I am making relationship investments in their hearts and mine. It is about presence not perfection.

So please pardon my absence. This is the season I am in-- and it is good.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Who's On Your Boat?

I have been offline for a bit due to an amazing opportunity Ryland & I had to serve as hosts for a marriage sailing adventure in the British Virgin Islands. A year and a half ago when we took our first journey with Winshape Marriage we had no idea it would lead to this. I am grateful! 

Prior to last week, I had never been on a catamaran--and yet, ten of us lived onboard one for seven nights. As hosts, our role involved serving guests via meal preparation and dishwashing duty in the tight quarters of a "two booty kitchen." (Quite an adventure some days on rough seas and with a limited water supply)
 You certainly won't find me complaining about the chance to 'serve' with this view!

Our days were filled with adventure and our evenings included small group discussion from The Art of Marriage.  We were urged to completely unplug and spend the time we would normally be tethered to devices and distracted by the pull of daily life to invest in each other.  We snorkeled, sea kayaked, swam, hiked, lounged, laughed and took life at a slow pace. 

It was the most refreshing week of my life. 

(This pic just makes me giggle. Rebecca, on the end, sacrificed her hubby/our boat captain to photographer duties.)

And the time with this fella was life giving.
The study materials were full of reminders of foundational truth. My favorite was actually a quote from a woman whose marriage was in a desperate place. She gave up, turning to an affair and moving out before she felt a conviction that said, "Do you not think the God who raised Lazarus from the dead is capable of resurrecting your marriage?" Wow. I just know there are people who need to be reminded of that. This life can be hard, but we serve a BIG God. 

 Though we were there to serve, kitchen duty helped Ryland & me smoothe out some of our marriage's rough edges in working together as a team instead of our typical mode of 'divide and conquer.' Nothing like sequestration in the middle of an ocean with lots of witnesses in close quarters to make you work it out. :)

We truly had a great cloud of witnesses on our boat...dear friends from college and people we really do life with here in our town. Over 50 years of marriage and lots of shared history between us...a beautiful depiction of community and intertwined lives. As we lived 8 days in the close quarters of a 52 foot boat, I basked in the gratefulness of WHO God has put in our figurative life boat.

I realized that I've been intentional about who I parent with, work out with, study Scripture with, etc. Yet, who we 'do' marriage with seems to all too often happen by default. It really matters who we choose to give a voice into this most intimate part our lives. Will they be those who edify or those who invite us to pull away?   
I choose these people (and others like them).
Brave people who walk authentically,
Laugh a lot, 
Cheer each other on, 
Challenge us to live out the fullness of God's plan,
Pitch in without being asked,
Keep short accounts & 
Love well. 

The journey really is marked by the people with whom you travel. I am so grateful for the people on our boat...and especially this one.

And guess what? The kids were fine. They grew in our absence. They welcomed us home with open arms. And they are already benefitting from rested parents whose love tanks returned full and ready to overflow into their hearts.