Rather than the traditional turkey and dressing, we left the country during Thanksgiving Break for eight days of history, adventure and family time in Italy. It was amazing. We made fantastic memories and returned the Sunday night after Thanksgiving with full bellies and overflowing hearts. We were exhausted but grateful--and ready to wrap up November and start looking towards Christmas.
When I woke up (at 4 am with jetlag) Monday morning, I was shocked back into 'real life' by feeling very, very behind. Every social media post was someone's beautifully decorated Christmas tree, their trip to see Santa, wrapped gifts...and seven different e-mails about various secret Santa, dirty Santa and unwrapped toys I needed to send within the week. As I picked up my mail there were holiday cards! I felt my joy being sucked away before the season had a proper start.
It seemed I had been in some sort of time warp. We had left a week prior to Thanksgiving and came home to full-on cultural Christmas. But, the calendar still said November. I had pumpkins placed around my home. My Christmas decorations are all right where I left them packed on December 31, 2015. I haven't even selected a photo for cards.
Maybe it is because I usually get gradually sucked into the vortex like everyone else (and am more prepared) that I haven't experienced this before, but my eyes and heart almost stung as I observed the grateful spirited people I left now frenzied. Every friend I encountered mentioned feeling overwhelmed, stressed and behind...and it wasn't even December! I felt grumpy and frustrated--like my own holiday had been hijacked before it started. Then I got a spirit check.
Monday, as I tried to make lists and plans to catch up on life PLUS Christmas a received a handful of different requests from people in my life for real help--- help finding placement for a young mother fleeing an abusive situation, friends experiencing grief who wanted to talk, work that needed to be done for our local children's home, celebrating the artisanship of a friend being used to raise money for an important ministry, an overwhelmed parent who needed time and space to talk through issues and a spouse who needed me to take his car to Atlanta for an electrical issue to be addressed.
All of these things were important--and time-consuming. I looked at my calendar and realized the requests would push my Christmas To Do list out even further--and I felt sick. Then I heard the whisper in my heart "When you can't see my people because of the frenzy of your list, you have missed the whole point."
None of the things on my list had anything to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas. They were not bad. They were fun, sweet, well-intentioned and festive--but they were distractions from the heart of the season. I made a vow to myself--not to scrap 'traditional' Christmas--but to put Advent before commercial Christmas.
I decided at each invitation or crossroad I would ask myself if this was drawing me closer to the true spirit of the season or farther away. I committed to not let the world's expectations of what our Christmas should look like to distract me from what I know and believe about the birth of Christ.
Advent is about His coming and entering into a messy, frenzied world that had lost sight of God. Considering how I had been feeling, this seems to be exactly the year for me to reclaim that spirit of the season. So, I made a plan for how we could tackle the tree acquisition, the shopping, the decorating, the celebrating--and maybe cards. Then I set my face on showing up for the true needs of the people in my life--following Jesus example of entering into the real life messiness of a frenzied humanity as my own celebration of Advent.
"Your ability to love is directly tied to your willingness to be inconvenienced." -Ann Voskamp
Ironically, this renewed commitment meant I spent yesterday, the first day of Advent, driving 3.5 hours round trip to have my husband's car repaired. While I waited, I went to a large nearby shopping mall to try and find gifts for a few people on my list. Being a small town girl for the last 14 years, the Mall is not a place I often find myself. As I walked through chain stores, admiring the glittery wares and trying to find meaningful gifts, it certainly felt like an ironic start to my refocused celebration of the season.
We serve a God who promises that when we seek Him we will find Him--and that's exactly what happened in the hallowed walls of Pottery Barn. I only had a couple of things and there were two people in front of me, but the wait for check out was almost 15 minutes due to computer issues, a complicated return and a customer who required an inordinate amount of service. I shifted back and forth several times, but somehow managed to keep my growing impatience under control. When it was finally my turn at the register, the young man helping me didn't even look up. He was clearly stressed only one hour into the store opening. He was determined to check me out as quickly as possible as an apology for my long wait time.
As he sighed while trying to find the barcode to scan I said hopefully "It's the most wonderful time of the year."
The clerk stopped what he was doing and looked directly into my eyes, exhaled and said, "It is, isn't it?"
I told him that I was repeating that as a claim...that I had committed to not allowing pressures and expectations rob my joy and his eyes sparkled. "Yes, I agree."
Then he laughed and said, "I just told my co-workers in our morning meeting to remember we are selling home accessories, we are not curing cancer here. It is all about perspective."
"It's the most wonderful time of the year," I repeated.
His eyes twinkled as he said, "Thank you. You just changed the course of my whole day."
And that conversation solidified the course of my Advent. People before lists. Period.
I pray God will keep me in this posture, the one His Son assumed, humble service in a frenzied world. I am human and know I will stumble through it, but I am going to try.
Let's take our eyes of the list and focus them on the eyes of those around us. What do the hearts that cross our path really need from us--another $10 candle, or to be seen, acknowledged and cared about? I want to remember what it means to BE a true gift.